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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 61

November 2, 2005

"These cynical slogans, 'sound science' and 'junk science' - reminiscent of Fox News's 'fair and balanced' - have for too long masked the true intentions of a political movement whose basic mode of operation relies on the manipulation and abuse of science." --Chris Mooney

In this issue:

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

There are two new entries: the Arthur Ford hoax and the Sicher-Targ distance healing report. Sicher and Targ claim in their report that they altered the goal of their study-which was to study distant healing and mortality in AIDS patients-because a new cocktail of drugs being given to AIDS patients had significantly affected their longevity. However, when preparing this article I noticed that the reference they cite regarding the effectiveness of the drug therapy was published nine months after their study was supposedly completed. They completed their study (not the analysis of the data, however) in January 1997. The paper they cite was published in September 1997. It seems that Sicher and Targ became aware of the effectiveness of the new drug therapy after their study was completed, not before it had begun. Thus, it would seem that the only reasonable conclusion is that they changed their goal after the study was completed and their claim is not true that they designed the study the way they did because they were aware of the effectiveness of the new drug therapy.

The prayer and psi assumption entries have been revised. The Kevin Trudeau entry has been updated to include new information on consumer complaints about how he's selling names to telemarketers and charging those who call his "toll-free" number.

Becoming a Critical Thinker, 2nd edition, now available

Sorry for the delay, but the second edition of my Becoming a Critical Thinker (Pearson 2005) is now available from Amazon. For some reason, the 2nd edition is about 20% cheaper than the 1st edition. The price is $30.80, subject to change, of course. You may download the first chapter, should you care to sample the text. Apparently, Amazon does not expect a rush on the book; their initial order was for three copies. It shouldn't take more than a few days, however, for Pearson to deliver any number of copies Amazon so desires.

One topic I address in the book is the need for a critical thinker to develop not only a set of skills but an attitude as well. A critical thinker needs to be open-minded and have both a healthy skepticism and intellectual humility. You need to be willing to reexamine any issue if new evidence comes up and to change your mind if warranted. Skepticism shouldn't be used as a tool to justify inaction, however. Demanding more certainty than is possible, encouraging paralysis by analysis, and requiring unrealistic standards for research is not healthy. Nor should skepticism be used to justify a cynical relativism, the view that no view is better than any other view. A critical thinker recognizes that all views are not equal. Some views are more probable than others. In real life, we can't get absolute certainty about the things that matter. We have to act something like handicappers at a horse race. The information we have is always incomplete and any conclusions we draw have to be tentative. But that doesn't mean that we should rate all the horses the same and call off the race. We can reach consensus on many things without requiring the end of all doubts. Refusing to make a decision about an issue or demanding that an issue be studied to death is a ploy of cynics. Critical thinkers have a healthy skepticism, not a morbid fascination with the power that comes from creating dust clouds of confusion when the evidence strongly suggests the probability that one opinion is likely correct.

Can I live up to my own advice? I try. For example, yesterday I played golf with a fellow about my age. I'd never met him before but before long we were having the kind of conversation most golfers have. We discussed his views on vibrational reality and other dimensions we can't see because we aren't attuned to their vibrations. I listened as he enthusiastically informed me that we're living in a time of paradigm change and that our military has the ability to teleport soldiers anywhere on the battlefield. He told me about an experiment done at MIT that involved teleporting mice. He even gave me a web address to look up. He had no idea who I was, so I politely explained to him that I had an interest in such subjects and had, in fact, written on the subject of teleportation. My information, I told my new friend, was that the amount of energy and the computing power required to teleport humans was impossibly huge. "I have papers that explain the mathematics of it," he enthused. I told him I'd like to read them and that I'd check out the website he referred me to. We exchanged cards and I told him that I'd been wrong before and this wouldn't be the first time I'd accepted a plausible sounding explanation for something that turned out to be wrong.

After dinner I checked out the website he recommended. I found an article by Dave Murphy, a retired military man and current Rotary club member who makes his living teaching people how to use personal computers. The first lines of his article state:

The Department of Defense announced Monday that research scientists at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology have successfully tested the first quantum teleportation. Two white mice, weighing between 87 and 90 grams each, received clear bills of health after they were simultaneously converted to photons of light and then transported 13.7 meters through a hydrogen gas tube. They were interstitially reconstituted within 10 seconds and exhibited physical movement 17 seconds later.

Dr. Richard Heisenberg directed the initial experiments and was present for the successful test, conducted in the presence of media and peer review committees. Many of the MIT team members were uncertain if the animals would actually survive the proton-hydrogen transport.

Was "Institution" a typo? Converted to photons of light is me; so is hydrogen gas tube. The expression interstitially reconstituted is nonsense. Heisenberg? Hmm, that name sounds familiar. If this test were conducted in the presence of the media, you'd think the rest of the world would know about it. Conducted in front of peer review committees is hilarious. Finally, what "proton-hydrogen" transport?

I googled "Richard Heisenberg" teleportation and got one result: I went back to the article to see if Dave Murphy had posted a way to contact him. I found this at the bottom of the article: updated April 1, 2002.

So, I didn't have to make any paradigm shifts or even change my views on teleportation, but I was ready to stand corrected. I e-mailed my new friend and advised him to reread the article he referred me to with a careful eye and look at the date. No reply yet, but it's only been a few hours since I dropped the news on him. Perhaps his paradigm has been shattered.

Quackery of the minute: oxygenated water

There always seems to be a scam involving water. A very fine website lists dozens of water scams: Gallery of water-related pseudoscience - Junk science in the marketplace. The site lists everything from aetherically charged water to Zunami water and everything in between, including Penta Water. Once current craze is oxygenated water, which might do you some good if you are a fish. Otherwise, you're wasting your money on such junk. I have to admit some of the junk jargon these clowns invent is catchy. One site says it has found a special way to bind oxygen to water molecules, which can help fight "oxidative stress" caused by free radicals. Maybe they haven't heard that water molecules are composed of oxygen. You can't have water without having oxygen molecules bound to hydrogen and other water molecules. If you're suffering from oxidative stress, I recommend you eat an apple. Another useless product that is supposed to help with free radical problems and make oxygen bind better to this or that is Vitamin O. If someone pesters you about oxygenated this or that, refer them to Dr. Harriet Hall's article, which originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Changes in addresses

I had to change the e-mail address for feedback and for subscribing to the newsletter because of huge increases in spam. Feedback is now sdfb AT skepdic dot com and subscribing is now add AT skepdic dot com.

Mea Culpa: secondhand smoke and the politics of science

I owe an apology to readers of this newsletter. In April 2004, I wrote the first of several commentaries on Penn & Teller's claim in a Bullshit! episode that the EPA report was bogus that claims that 3,000 people a year die from lung cancer because of secondhand smoke. My initial research into the subject was inadequate and I agreed with P & T. I was wrong to do so. My position was laid out in Newsletters 41, 42, 44, 49, and 50. For the full retraction, see Newsletter 41, though I've posted corrections in each of those newsletters.

My error was the same one P & T made: trusting the standards of risk assessment as promoted by the tobacco industry (led by Philip Morris) and their Republican generals like Jim Tozzi.* While reading Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science, I came to realize that many responsible epidemiologists, including Jonathan Samer and Thomas A. Burke from Johns Hopkins medical school, do not believe that an increased risk of 100% or more from a pollutant is required before it should be considered relevant or significant for public health. In short, we've been hoodwinked by politicians, mostly Republican, into calling junk science 'sound science' and describing sound science as "uncertain" or "incomplete." Real junk science is called on when convenient to make a case for "controversy" or "uncertainty", as we are all well aware with regard to the promotion of so-called intelligent design.

The P & T episode called "Environmental Hysteria" is based on these same questionable standards pushed by Republican leaders for their corporate donors whose main interest is the deregulation of industries and products rather than public safety or health. This approach fits well with P & T's libertarian philosophy but it is essentially dishonest and does nothing to promote the view of skepticism as healthy critical thinking. Instead, it seems to promote the view of skepticism as a way to throw dust in people's eyes so they can't see what's really going on. Mooney calls this kind of "skepticism" contrarianism. It's a good descriptive term. The function of contrarians is to muddy the waters, cause doubt and confusion, and promote the false notion that "sound science" is science where you can't find a contrary view. The contrarian philosophy is Orwellian doublespeak at its best: Some of the best science available is labeled "junk science" because there are contrary views (both scientific and political).

I'm going to reprint here some comments by Steve Simon that were sent to me after I posted a rant on the Vioxx ban last January. I relied for those comments, as I did for many of my comments on the secondhand smoke issue, on the work of mathematician John Brignell, who writes "In observational studies, [scientists] will not normally accept an RR [risk ratio] of  less than 3 as significant and never an RR of less than 2." I should have known better than to trust Brignell, since one of his main sources is Steven Milloy, whom I have debunked elsewhere. Milloy is a propagandist for businesses and industries that are hurt economically by government regulations on pollution, health hazards, and the like. He has made a career out of labeling good science as "junk science" by his contrarian methods of finding contrary studies or by applying contrary standards to studies already completed by those he opposes. Here are Steve Simon's comments on Brignell's claim about the standard rule for risk ratios (RRs):

This is a widely quoted rule, but it vastly oversimplifies the issue. A small RR is a weaker form of evidence, because it is possible to be swamped by even small biases and flaws in the research study. A large RR is a stronger form of evidence, because only a huge bias or flaw could produce an alternate explanation for these findings.

Weak evidence, however, is not the same thing as no evidence. Weak evidence that is replicated and backed up by a credible biological mechanism can become sufficiently persuasive.

The original source of the rule you cite is a paper by Austin Bradford Hill published in 1965. It listed nine criteria that you should consider when evaluating a research finding from observational data. It was developed during a time when epidemiologists had just successfully built a case linking smoking and lung cancer on the foundation of numerous research studies, none of which was perfect. The lessons learned in that situation became guidelines for applying epidemiologic principles to other toxic exposures. The first criterion that Hill cited, strength of association, has unfortunately morphed into a dichotomy that all RRs smaller than 2 are bad and all RRs larger than 2 are good, in spite of numerous cautions, both by Hill himself in that article and by many epidemiologists since then.

In the classic textbook, Modern Epidemiology (Second Edition), Rothmann and Greenland point out (page 24) that the relationship of cigarette smoking and cardiovascular disease is a weak association, because it is pretty hard to double the risk of a disease that is already responsible for about 40% of all deaths. Nevertheless, pretty much everyone accepts the link between smoking and cardiovascular disease. If you relied on John Brignell's advice about relative risks less than 2 or 3, then your standard of proof would require that 80% to 120% of all smokers would have to die from cardiovascular disease. Nothing, not even cigarettes can produce 120% mortality, and even 80% mortality from a single cause is probably out of reach.

A good recent commentary on this issue is "The missed lessons of Sir Austin Bradford Hill" by Carl Phillips and Karne Goodman (Epidemiologic Perspectives & Innovations 2004, 1:3) which has full free text available on the web.

That's my major quibble. A minor quibble is that this rule is usually restricted, even by John Brignell, to observational studies. But the study that showed an increase in risk for VIOXX was a randomized study.

This doesn't mean that the rest of your comments are incorrect. It is indeed possible that we are all overreacting to weak data. I don't think the final chapter has been written yet on VIOXX and other drugs in its class.

Thus, I now assert that Penn & Teller are wrong about secondhand smoke. And I reiterate what I wrote in Newsletter 52, that libertarian and skeptic Michael Shermer is wrong and misleading when he claims on page 173 of The Science of Good and Evil: "The fact is, there is no evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer." There not only is evidence, there is good evidence for a causal link between secondhand smoke and not only cancer but cardiovascular diseases as well, unless one defines 'evidence' and 'cause' in terms that would be sure to bring a large smile to the faces of tobacco industry executives, lobbyists, and political cronies in high office. If you doubt me, please read the following:

  1. Steven J. Milloy The "Junkman" Exposed December 2003
  2. The EPA report or summary
  3. Tobacco industry efforts subverting International Agency Research on Cancer's second-hand smoke study
  4. Asthma and Indoor Environments (Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 substances, including over 40 compounds that are known carcinogens.)
  5. Environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality in a prospective study of Californians, 1960-98
  6. Public smoking ban may cut heart attacks
  7. Passive smoking and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: prospective study with cotinine measurement (Exposure to secondhand smoke may increase the risk of coronary heart disease by 50 percent to 60 percent.)
  8. "Involuntary smoking in the restaurant workplace. A review of employee exposure and health effects," by M. Siegel, JAMA Vol. 270 No. 4, July 28, 1993.
  9. "A Tobacco-Specific Lung Carcinogen in the Urine of Men Exposed to Cigarette Smoke," by Stephen S. Hecht, Steven G. Carmella, Sharon E. Murphy, Shobha Akerkar, Klaus D. Brunnemann, and Dietrich Hoffmann, The New England Journal of Medicine Volume 329:1543-1546, November 18, 1993, Number 21.
  10. "Environmental tobacco smoke and cardiovascular disease. A position paper from the Council on Cardiopulmonary and Critical Care, American Heart Association," by AE Taylor, DC Johnson and H Kazemi Circulation, Vol 86, 699-702, 992.
  11. "Passive smoking and heart disease. Mechanisms and risk," by S. A. Glantz and W. W. Parmley, JAMA, Vol. 273 No. 13, April 5, 1995.
  12. Passive Smoking by the Cancer Council of South Australia.
  13. Lung cancer and passive smoking, British Medical Journal

And please read Chris Mooney's book. (For those who are wondering: Yes, Mooney has some criticism for Democrats who abuse science, including some overzealous environmentalists and those who exaggerate the promise of quick cures for everything from Alzheimer's to zombie-ism from stem cell research.)


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