It’s that time of the year again when we give the “Pseudoscience (formerly Quack) Douchebag of the Year” award to our favorite anti-science loon. Last year, the lucky winner was Dr. Robert “Bob” Sears, an anti-vaccine pediatrician. Who will it be this year?
Because he holds the title, Dr. Bob is automatically nominated this year. But I’d like to hear from you on who else should be nominated. Leave your nomination in the comments section along with a short description on why this person should be given this prestigious (not) award.
First and foremost, I want to thank everyone for a great 2014 in the world of fighting back against pseudoscience. While the Douchebag of the Year award was created to ridicule the worst of the worst in the anti-science world, I want to take a minute or two to thank everyone who did their part, however small, to fight the quacks, hacks, and scammers. Here are some honorable mentions, in no particular order:
“lilady” – Her commenting work and ability to raise the “bat signal” when something needs countered is priceless. Knowing her background as a public health nurse gives me the security of knowing that when she flags something for us to look at, she does so knowing that it is indeed something that needs to be refuted. She’s our eyes and ears on the web.
Orac – His blog posts dissecting claims by many tricksters out there are worth reading each and every single time. Many of them have served as jump-off points for posts on this blog and others. His followers and commenters are knowledgeable people who have uncovered a wealth of information about quacks who want to remain in the shadows. Orac and “his minions” have brought light to those shadows.
Dorit – Her tireless work addressing anti-vaccine claims has been steady, unwavering. She doesn’t give in to threats of all kinds, and she responds with reason to some very nasty, hateful comments aimed at her. I wish I could keep my cool like that woman does.
Skeptical Raptor – His blog, like Orac’s, is also a wealth of information on psudoscience and how to counter it.
Matt Carey – His blog has been a steady source of information on what autism is and isn’t. As a parent of an autistic child, Matt has worked hard (online and off) to make sure that autistic people of any age get the help they need and the opportunities they deserve. Very few people I know have done as much as he has, and I am proud to call him a friend.
Again, these are just a few of the people who deserve an honorable mention. I wish I could take the time to thank all of you who read and comment on this blog, but the year is ending and our Douche needs to be honored. Continue reading →
I would be lying if I told you that the death of Robin Williams didn’t affect me. It did, and it did so very profoundly. Although I never knew Mr. Williams, I enjoyed his comedy very much. His quick wit and personality were something that I tried to emulate in my own life. I tried to be the funniest guy in the room, many times failing, but many times succeeding and making other people happy. A friend of mine told me that Mr. Williams likely committed suicide when he realised that his sadness inside could infect others, contrary to what he had set himself out to do in life. I agree.
Mr. Williams’ suicide is going to have a lot of consequences. Friends of mine in the mental health field have told me that a lot of people are reaching out to suicide prevention groups to do everything from talking to asking for help. His death has also brought mental health in general, and suicide in particular, to the forefront of our discussions as a nation. (If only we weren’t so preoccupied with things like Ebola in West Africa and wars all over the goddamned place.) If you look at the numbers, there are twice as many suicides as homicides in this country, which should be all the evidence we need to demand a revolution in how we treat people with mental health.
There are many evidence-based treatment for mental health problems, including a variety of medications and therapies. While the fields of psychiatry and psychology are sorely underfunded, plenty of information comes out year after year on what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, the great majority of the population doesn’t read journal articles. Instead, most people rely on what they hear or see on social media and experience in popular culture. As with the “vaccine wars,” it is sometimes dangerous what a celebrity (even a minor one) has to say about suicide and depression.
“The doctors are not gonna tell you both sides of the issue… they’re told by the pharmaceutical industry, which makes billions of dollars, that it’s completely safe.”
“The efficacy of these shots have not been proven,” he later continued. “And the toxicity of these things — we’re having more and more side effects. We’re having more and more autism.”
Excuse me for being a little skeptical of Mr. Schneider’s assertion on what made Mr. Williams commit suicide. I can’t help myself, based on what he has said in the past. If he is making this assertion based only on the listed side effects of any medication used for Parkinson’s, then he is not helping anyone. He would not be helping people with moderate to severe depression or people with Parkinson’s.
The worst thing is that he would not be the only one whose statements can be “dangerous.” Plenty of other people of questionable mental health credentials came out shooting-off their mouths about what made Mr. Williams commit suicide, most if not all of it based on assumptions, most if not all of them wrong.
When I read an anti-science screed, I usually want to fire right back with something like “you’re lying” or “you’re full of it,” but I’ve found this to be non-productive. It’s non-productive because the person writing the screen is 99% of the time sold on the anti-scientific concepts that they are displaying in their writings (or speeches). It’s also non-productive to fight anti-science with science because science really doesn’t need to defend itself. In the end, one way or another, science gets proven right.
There was a time when people thought the Earth was the center of the known universe. Then Galileo proposed that the sun was the center of our solar system, based on scientific observations of the movement of celestial bodies, he was accused of heresy. It would take some time, but his theories were tested and found true. If we were still locked into the way of thinking of that era, we wouldn’t have a space program that yielded us things like satellite communications, GPS, or even dried ice cream. Yes, people died for these scientific beliefs, but the science they adhered to was proven true. Continue reading →
Sorry for the language, but it must be true. It takes big balls to do and say the things that Andrew Wakefield has done and said. First, he writes up a fraudulent study where the evidence is plentiful that he misled everyone around him and then a whole bunch of people into thinking that the MMR vaccine was responsible for cases of autism. Before that, he had filed a patent for a single measles vaccine, so it was probably important for him to discredit the MMR. But, you know, it’s us who defend science that are the Big Pharma shills.
Ah, Texas. I’ve been to Texas. Have you ever been to Texas? Texas is special in so many ways. Talk about a place where people hold on to their guns and bibles. This story comes out of Houston where:
““Spring in Houston starts in January,” said Dr. Frank Orson, with Baylor Medical Center. He said some of his clients are ditching over-the-counter medicines. “We get a lot of our clients who have been through the Claritin and other allopathic approaches and when they are not getting the result there, they come to us,” said Philip Lanham with the Homeopathy Center of Houston.
Lanham says diluting what you’re allergic to and drinking the potion, helps your body build up a resistance. “It helps the body identify it, and how to work with it, or fight it,” he said. Lanham said there are no side effects.”
That last part, the “no side effects” part seems to be the selling point of homeopathy. For $20, they’ll give you a bottle of a solution with extremely diluted amounts of the things that you’re allergic to. In a true medical setting, the allergist would also dilute what you’re allergic to, but he or she wouldn’t dilute it to the point where you need a sphere of water the size of the solar system to find just one molecule of the allergen being diluted. It would be diluted enough to give you a mild reaction. The allergist would then keep you in the office for a little bit to make sure you don’t have a severe reaction. Over time, the allergist increases the dose. This builds up your tolerance. For your body to get through the allergies, you have to have that reaction. You have to have side-effects.
Supporters of homeopathy will probably say that their allergies went away with the “potions,” but I propose a simpler explanation. I propose that their allergies went away with the allergy season going away. After all, most allergies are seasonal… And homeopathy is a sham.
In that news article, one of the commenters mentioned this study. I found a PDF of the study in a homeopathic website, so I had a chance to read it all. You don’t have to read the whole thing to find the significant part of the conclusion. You can read the PubMed entry:
“CONCLUSION: The symptoms of patients undergoing homeopathic treatment were shown to improve substantially and conventional medication dosage could be substantially reduced. While the real-life effect assessed indicates that there is a potential for enhancing therapeutic measures and reducing healthcare cost, it does not allow to draw conclusions as to the efficacy of homeopathic treatment per se.”
Read that last part again, the one I’ve highlighted in bold. And remember what I said about side-effects? This is from the results section of the PubMed entry:
“No side effects were reported during treatment.”
Of course! Why would something so diluted give you side-effects?
You might be thinking right now that I just don’t want to listen to the evidence. Oh, but I am. See, this is what they did (from the methods section of the actual paper):
“During the first exam [E1], the treating physician assessed the minimum duration it would take for the current allergic symptoms to resolve without treatment. Then, before starting treatment, the patient was asked to complete the first questionnaire.
All subjects were asked to be present at the practice for completing the second questionnaire within their period of allergic reaction, no earlier than two weeks and no later than 16 weeks after commencement (the second exam [E2] took place at the end of the follow-up period). Intermediate consultations and individual therapy modifications resulted from the course of treatment. The follow-up/treatment period of 2 to 16 weeks was based on a minimum duration of treatment necessary for allowing assessment and a maximum tolerable duration in case of treatment failure. Participation in the trial terminated after the patients had completed the second questionnaire.”
So they asked patients to complete a questionnaire about their symptoms, take the homeopathy, then report back in 2 to 16 weeks from their initial assessment to see if they had a diminishing in symptoms, if they reduced the dose of their allopathic (real) medicine, and to see if there were any side-effects to the homeopathy. Well, you can go read the paper for yourself. I did. But I was strongly encouraged to quit reading when I read that one of the medications these folks were assessed for discontinuation were antibiotics.
I’m not joking.
If they reduced their consumption of antibiotics in 2 to 16 weeks, then that was a positive endpoint. Let me just tell you this: Not a lot of people take antibiotics for more than two weeks. Only the serious things like TB and drug-resistant bugs require antibiotics for months.
Another drug they looked at was steroids. Again, you don’t use those for weeks. You’re not typically supposed to. Yet, the authors use it as a positive sign of homeopathic use that people on homeopathy discontinued the use of steroids. Sure, they write in the discussion that the benefits of homeopathy may be from the natural course of the disease, from the use of the prescribed medications, or from the seasonality of the allergies… But they go back to the whole “no side effects” part.
Listen, I wish that all medications used to treat all diseases had zero side-effects. I wish people could get rid of cancer without losing their hair or being susceptible to serious infections. I really do wish for all that. But that’s not the world we live in. Maybe in the future, but not now. Even aspirin has side-effects. Heck, the cranberry juice you might take for your urinary tract infection will have side-effects (especially if you’re diabetic). The absence of side-effects doesn’t make something “good” or “better.” Working and being proven to work under controlled situations is what makes something worth using.
I just woke up in a pool of my own cold sweat after watching this “trailer” of a “movie”:
Where to begin? Where to begin? Autism recovery? I can’t… I can’t… I JUST CAN’T!
I wish that autism were curable, but that’s just not the case if you listen to all the available, reputable, reproducible evidence. Do kids with autism get “better”? Yes. Autism is a developmental delay. Like a train running behind, at one point, the train will catch up to some milestone that will make it be on its way to its destination. Many children with autism will reach those milestones, but not because they’re any less autistic.
Heck, it doesn’t even make sense to say that there is better or worse autism. Yes, there is a spectrum, but it’s not like — given a chance — one would pick one form of autism over another.
If these seven children were given something miraculous to rid them of their autism, why is that miracle not being published in journals? Why are neurologists not hosting press conferences to announce the end of autism?
WHY ARE WE BEING ASKED TO DONATE IF THE WORK/CURE HAS ALREADY BEEN DONE/DISCOVERED?
After the last discussion on homeopathy, someone asked me to give a description of what a 200C homeopathic remedy would have to start out with in order to have at least one molecule at the end of the dilution. So let’s use the example of sugar (glucose) and see how much sugar we would need to get at least one molecule of sugar in a liter (1,000 mL) 200C remedy. We will use math for this, so hold on to your butts.
Remember that Avogadro’s constant states that there are 6.02×10^23 molecules of glucose in 180 grams of the stuff. So, if we add 180 grams of sugar to a liter of water, we will be adding 6.02×10^23 molecules of glucose into that liter. Remember that diluting that initial solution 1C (by one hundred) will leave us with 1.8 grams per liter or 6.02×10^21 molecules of glucose per liter. Finally, remember that we have to do this 200 times (to get to 200C), and that doign this makes us run out of molecules at around the 8th or 9th C dilution. After that, we are diluting water with water.
But what if we want to make sure there is at least one molecule of sugar at the end, at the 200th C dilution?
In that case, we work backwards with the assertion that there is one molecule per liter at 200C. To go to 199C, we would have to concentrate (the opposite of dilute) the solution by a factor of 100, leaving us with 100 molecules in the 199C dilution. Moving up to 198C, we have 10,000 molecules (100 multiplied by 100). Not quite Avogadro’s constant yet. Let’s go to 197C, and see that we have 1,000,000 molecules (10,000 multiplied by 100). Have you noticed the trend?
For every C concentration, we are adding two zeroes to the right of the 1 that we started with at 200C. So, after 200 concentrations, we will have 400 zeroes to the right of the 1. That’s an enormous number of molecules.
How enormous? Taking into consideration that Avogadro’s constant is 6.02 followed by 21 zeroes to make up just one mole, 1×10^400 molecules make up… well… a lot of moles.
Seriously, I don’t have a calculator with me with a display big enough for all those zeroes. I plugged in 1×10^400 into my mac’s calculator and it laughed at me! I tried to divide that number by Avogadro’s constant to get the number of moles, and the damn thing grew legs and walked away, cursing at me.
No, the computer didn’t do that. But if you believe homeopathy then the computer doing that doesn’t seem so far fetched.
If you multiply all those moles times 180 grams, you will have a lot of tons of sugar that you need to somehow cram into one liter of water in order to dilute that liter of water by 100 two-hundred times to get a final 200C homeopathic remedy that has at least one molecule per liter.
Did you catch that?
One molecule per liter. One. You have a 1 in 1,000 chance of catching that molecule if you only take one milliliter of the final solution – the remedy – at a time.
Even if you go from 30C to an original solution, you add 60 zeroes to the right of the 1, which is still a huge number, you will have 1.66×10^36 moles of sugar at your beginning solution. At 180 grams per mole, you’re looking at about 3×10^38 grams of sugar that will need to be put in one liter of water.
You’re going to need a lot of sugar. So…
Now do you see why homeopathy is more about magical thinking than any sort of science or medicine?
If you’ve been paying attention, you may have seen that the countdown clock to “The Poxes” is almost there. It will reach zero time on Sunday, October 23, at one minute past midnight that morning. Why did I pick that date?
I picked that date because it is “10.23” a date in which people in different parts of the world point out the scientific inaccuracies of the homeopathic remedies sold as cures to all sorts of things. Why 10 23? Because Avogadro’s number is a constant which establishes that there can only be 6.022 times 10 raised to the 23rd power (6022 followed by 20 zeroes) atoms or molecules of something in a mole of that something. It’s a pretty big number, but you can see how diluting something by 100 two hundred times can wipe out even that many molecules. An example? Keep reading.
From the periodic table of elements we see that glucose (made up of six carbons, twelve hydrogens, and six oxygens) has a molecular weight of about 180 grams per mole. That is, 6.022×10^23 molecules of glucose weigh 180 grams. So let’s take those 180 grams and put them in a liter of water (1000 milliliters). Now, like any good homeopath, let’s take that initial solution and make a “200C” homeopathic remedy.
The “C” in “200C” stands for a dilution of 1 to 100. So “200C” means that the solution is diluted 1 to 100 two-hundred times. So we start with a 180g per liter solution. Dilute that by 100 the first (of 200) time, and we have a 1.8g per liter solution. Dilute it the second (of 200) time and we have 0.018g per liter. The third time? 0.0018g per liter. But let’s just stop and look at what’s happening at the mole of glucose.
The mole of glucose we started with in one liter was 6.022×10^23 molecules. There were that many molecules of glucose, remember? After the first dilution, there were 6.022×10^21 molecules. Second dilution? 6.022×10^19. After the third, there were 6.022×10^17. Can you see where this is going?
As we continue to dilute our homeopathic remedy, we are adding two zeroes immediately to the right of the decimal point in terms of grams per liter. In terms of moles, we are subtracting two powers of ten from the exponent (ten times ten is one-hundred, get it?). In both cases, if we go through to the 200th dilution of 1 to 100 parts, we’re going to A) have a whole bunch of zeroes to the right of the decimal point (400 zeroes, in fact), and B) run out of exponents of the moles.
It’s B that really brings the message home. Why? Because 0.0…198 zeroes here…018 grams per liter equals less than one molecule per liter left. What’s less than one molecule? No molecules. (You can’t split a glucose molecule and still call it “glucose”.) That’s right. If you dilute a mole of glucose (180 grams) – or anything else in the known universe – to a “200C” solution for homeopathic treatment, you end up with no chance of even one single molecule left in the final dilution.
No chance… Well, okay, there’s a chance, but it’s small. I’m talking really, really small. How small? Let’s say that we have the ability to fill the universe with lottery balls. You can pick one ball. What is the chance that the winning ball will be yours if we have the entire universe to pick from? Yeah, it’s that small.
And what does one goddamn molecule of anything do, anyway?
So how does homeopathy “work”? It doesn’t. But the charlatans that push it will still tell you fantastic stories of how water “remembers” what’s been in it. So, even with no molecules left, the water in the 200C remedy will remember that it once had whatever you dissolved into it. Yes, you guessed it, there is no evidence of this claim. (In fact, if it were true, then water would remember all sorts of nasty things it’s been in contact with… Like feces.)
What if you add more than one mole to the initial solution? Is there an amount of moles you can add to still have at least one molecule left at the end? Yes, there is. But that number is so large (6.022×10^23 multiplied by 180 grams, in our example), that you’re diluting the water in the solution, not the “active ingredient”.
In “The Poxes”, you will meet two very skeptical characters. One is skeptical by nature, because he is always questioning the universe around him, a true scientist. The other is skeptical out of spite. A homeopath did something very, very bad to him earlier in his life. So the second character has an axe to pick with questionable medical practices. You’ll get to meet them on 10-23. I hope you join me.