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Monday, February 12, 2018

Scientists fight back against fake news and pseudoscience

You probably know that climate change is real and humans are a major cause of global warming. You probably know that life has evolved and the Biblical story of creation is false. Scientists have been actively promoting these ideas for decades and they've been relatively successful in most countries. What you may not know is that these are just two of the many controversial claims that scientists are fighting. You may even have been tricked into believing some of the other pseudoscientific claims that are out there.

Do you think genetically-modified organisms are dangerous? Do you think vaccines are a threat to your child's well-being? Do you consult a naturopath or a homeopath? How about a chiropracter? Do you take daily vitamin supplements? Do you avoid gluten or lactose? Do you think hamburgers and fries are unhealthy? Poutine? Have you ever had acupuncture? Have you ever been detoxified? Are you afraid of free radicals? Is Round-Up a deadly poison? Do you spend extra money buying "organic" food? Are you afraid of fluoride? Are preservatives always bad? Is Diet Coke gonna kill you? Do skinny people live longer? Are whole wheat bagels better for you than the regular kind? Do you take probiotics? Do you even know what they are? Can you avoid cancer by eating healthy and working out every day?1

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions then chances are you've fallen for some fake science. It's more common than you might think. I have many friends who take vitamin supplements, for example, in spite of the fact there's no scientific evidence that they do any good. They've been sucked in by the fake "health" food industry who are more than willing to take your money. Last year the so-called "health and wellness" industry raked in a trillion dollars [Health and Wellness the Trillion Dollar Industry in 2017].

Fortunately, there are a few scientists out there who are fighting back and, even more importantly, the legitimate press is beginning to pay attention. This is important because those scientists are fighting a trillion dollar industry and they're mostly doing it for free. Today I was pleased to read the following article in Toronto Star: Scientists, researchers fight against online plague of nutrition pseudoscience.
This group is collectively working to debunk the most egregious health myths with evidence-based, factual information.
It always a good thing when proponents of evidence-based facts get as much attention as the proponents of pseudoscience. One of the scientists highlighted in the article is Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta Health Law Institute. He's the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? (Spoiler Alert! - the answer is "yes.")
Finding health information online is easy. Cutting through the clutter and getting facts is very difficult. There’s a cacophony of voices, each saying something different. The confusion worsens when charlatans provide false hope and bad advice.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Scientists and researchers are working to debunk the most egregious health myths and educate readers with evidence-based, factual information. Let’s call them skeptics, myth-busters or debunkers. In any case, this group is collectively using science to fight back against the pseudoscience (such as fad diets and quack cancer cures).
It's fun to debunk the claims of pseudoscience but let's not forget that the important goal is to teach critical thinking in our schools so that our children grow up armed with the tools to avoid falling for false claims in the first place.

1. If I haven't found at least one question that makes you want to post an angry rebuttal then please let me know and I will add some others.


  1. Hope you don't mind my tagging this on Larry -- seems rather appropriate. I wish there was a working group combatting this disgraceful piece of fakery < > -- There have been few of us at any one time, but understandably, everyone's got limits, other commitments etc. On particular colleague has been outstanding (you know who you are), but we could do with some mass action to apply pressure; powers that be have battened down hatches. A perfect day to defend Darwin's reputation against false slurs and defamation. More details < >

  2. Do you really doubt that highly salty junk food like fries and poutine contribute to high blood pressure and therefore heart disease? I'm not saying that I don't enjoy junk food myself, but it is absurd to ignore the problem of excess sodium in the diet.

    1. Don't forget that salt also contains chlorine, which the Germans used as a weapon of mass destruction in WWI. If only they had had fries to throw at the French.
      As Paracelsus used to say "sola dosis facit venenum."

    2. Headdesk, facepalm. Great example of how this pseudo-scientific nonsense comes into the world (some smattering half-knowledge with no fact-checking applied).

      Salt contains chloride, which is the ion (atom with a negative charge), and it is completely non-toxic. The chlorine you mean is a molecule made up of two atoms of the element and it is gaseous. The chlorine in the periodic table of elements is just the symbol Cl with an atomic number and an atomic weight ascribed to it. It does not exist as such.

    3. One of the very real scientific problems with humans is irony deficiency. :-)

    4. Sorry Joachim. I wasn't being very clear. I was trying to make the point that because something contains something that could be harmful, it doesn't mean that it IS harmful, because what might be classed as a poison depends upon how much of the stuff you ingest.
      Say, for instance, the salt in junk food.

      The comment about chlorine was meant to be an observation about anti-vaxxers who scream "OMG! Vaccines contain mercury!!", not being aware of the difference between methyl mercury and ethyl mercury.

      I recently posted elsewhere a quote of Sir Peter Medawar's, to wit "... Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought."
      I would be mortified if I was as educated as all that.

    5. My bad. You were just too realistically reflecting a common confusion in pupils at schools (me -> school teacher) about elementary substances, ions, the periodic table etc. So I lectured rather than laughed.

  3. "Do you think vaccines are a threat to your child's well-being?"

    The part of Michigan where I live has the usual infestation of people opposed to vaccines for the usual "reasons": they are linked to no end of terrible things, they don't work, etc.

    Worse, however, is our infestation of libertarians, who are vocal in their opposition to vaccinations for an even worse reason: They view children as the property of their parents, and it isn't the place of anyone to tell someone what can and can't be done with their own property. That is a truly evil take.

  4. I have an Irish colleague who has polio as a child. In her late 60s she is now dealing with the secondary effects. Introduce an anti-vaccer to her. The anti-vaccer will be beaten with her crutch.


  5. Five years ago, opposition to fake news, pseudoscience, bad science, or badly expressed science, was enjoined by the immense resources of the US-based NCBI (National Center for Biological Information). It founded "PubMed Commons" that allowed direct commentary on any of the multitude of scientific publications listed in PubMed, each having a unique internet address ("PMID").

    Perhaps pressed by Trumpist budget cuts, the NCBI now declares this all to have been a mere experiment, an experiment that did not meet its expectations and therefore is being closed down.

    Rather than wringing our hands in despair over the antics of Gwyneth, perhaps Sandwalk visitors might also consider registering their opinions on PubMed Commons at the NCBI site where its impending demise is announced.

  6. Creationists see evolutionism as on this list and I see global warming on the list.
    Anyways i agree with the list as wrongb things except.
    I understand acupuncture is used on horses with good important results!?
    Naturpaths to me are people using herbs etc to heal. i see this as possible. I understand aspirin was discovered, however primitively, by Greeks on rocks etc. It worked a little back then. in fact ancient medicines were all natural things and had merit.
    aspirin is, i understand, just a "poison' that paralyzes the system in a minor way.
    I love hamburgers, fries, poutine(French Canadian invention eh)
    I don't know what probiotics is!
    A trillion dollars? Well its taxed so one gets it back!
    I never heard Gwyneth was involved?!

    1. "Creationists see evolutionism as on this list and I see global warming on the list."

      No surprise a science denialist would see those here.

      "Naturpaths to me are people using herbs etc to heal"

      Naturopaths (spelling matters) use all sorts of woo that is without support: they are modern snake oil salespeople. There is a reason they use "ND": they are not doctors.

    2. its not science denialiists! its different conclusions using science, or trying to honestly.
      saying its denial because of disagreement is to be ignorant of the history of science in the last centuries. its a accusation that is a failure and aBsUrD.

      i am not endorsing naturopaths but not rejecting them because doctors originally were these people in thousands of countries.
      many medicines came from nature including chemicals and plants.
      I see no atomic difference but only in knowledge.
      i do think, as a last hope, people should try these naturopaths. i hear people swear by them. in canada at least.
      prayer helps too.

  7. Some of the question have easy answers –on the surface.
    The problem often is, that people mix different aspects of a topic and combine them into a package. Unfortunately (?) the world is complex.
    My take on three:

    “Do you think genetically-modified organisms are dangerous?”

    My answer: No - if properly designed.
    They are most likely one of the solutions to the increasing food demand of an increasing world population.
    But the patentability of those crops (and of course not just GMO-crops) increases the dependence of farmers on those crops, and seems to decreases the variety of sorts one finds on the market. These are of course socioeconomic & culinary problems.

    “Is Round-Up a deadly poison?”

    If you are a weed: Yes.
    My beef with herbicides is their over-use. At present, the use of herbicides (in combination with unrestricted monocultures) massively shifts the ecology of our landscapes and leads to a loss in diversity.

    “Do you spend extra money buying "organic" food?”
    My answer: Often
    I do not believe that ‘organic’ food is healthier than conventional food. However I think it is equally important to take care of the effects of food-production on our environment. Did you ever compare (I live in Europe) a conventionally run farm and a small ecologically managed one? I suspect that we need both types of production and possibly intermediate production forms.

    “Do skinny people live longer?”
    Than who?
    Do obese people live longer than non-obese people? Do obese people have less often diabetes & heart problems than non-obese people?


  8. If poutine isn't unhealthy, God has a lot to answer for.

  9. "its different conclusions using science,"

    Creationism and ID have nothing to do with science, everything to do with multiple assertions modern science is completely wrong.

    "i do think, as a last hope, people should try these naturopaths. i hear people swear by them. in canada at least.
    prayer helps too."

    Except that all data and experience show that nothing naturopaths do help and prayer does nothing. You are essentially saying doing nothing, or less than nothing, to aid people with physical or medical issues is perfectly acceptable.

    1. Its old school to say ID/YEC are not sciency as anyone.
      its different conclusions using limited data about invisible things.
      origin subjects are invisible.
      tens or hundreds of millions of north americans accept creationism(s) as science. iTs enough.

      the naturopath being effetive is accounted by lots of people who care a great deal.
      its reasonable many people just need these things to top them off. all things these folks offer are based on the presumptions of how plants/minerals are needed by the body.
      Who says they don't work.?
      Its not a good case to unite opposition to naturopaths and evolutionism.

    2. "Its old school to say ID/YEC are not sciency"
      I don't know about "old school" -- but it is perfectly correct to say beliefs that rely on a magician in the sky to explain reality is not science.

      "Who says they don't work.?"

      Data. Science. Thing you clearly don't (or can't) understand.

    3. I will give examples.
      I know women who have had Iron deficiencies and Doctors gave them iron pills etc to compensate.
      In the old days a naturopath easily , in ntrying to help someone, could give things with iron in it and help that woman.
      The naturopath , accidentally, got it right.
      So why not today? They could get recipes in minerals/foods etc that do people well that the doctors failed to do.
      medicines are really just minerals and biology things anyways.

  10. Robert, if you want to have an adult conversation about science, you should understand what the word science means: "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment". If you can't conduct experiments and observe things in order to test whether an idea is true or false, you're not talking about science using the modern definition, you're using the archaic definition of science as "knowledge of any kind", which was used in the days of alchemy and astrology but is now referred to as "pseudo-science".

    1. There are several definitions of "science." You are using a very restrictive definition—one that I disagree with.

      What Is "Science" According to George Orwell?
      Territorial demarcation and the meaning of science
      Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?
      The science behind Intelligent Design Creationism
      Jonathan McLatchie says that intelligent design is a science

      My view is that science is a way of knowing that relies on evidence. This encompasses all kinds of approaches that are outside of the traditional boundaries of biology, geology, physics, chemistry etc. There are no subjects that are immune to investigation using science (broad definition) and that includes the supernatural world if it exists.

      Most of those investigations do not involve conducting experiments in the way that you seem to envisage.

      Most of the activities of Intelligent Design Creationists count as science, in my opinion. They are invariably examples of BAD science but that's not limited to ID. Lots of traditional scientists also do bad science but nobody questions whether they are doing science.

    2. Josiah
      I also don't agree with definitions given about science.
      I see human beings as just figuring things out. Existing nature or manipulating it (Inventions).
      SO how do we know when someones figured out?
      Thats the best hope for science to exist relative to other investigations.
      Science must be a higher standard of investigation that can demand confidence in its conclusions.
      So testing medicines is such a standard. Planes and space shuttles.
      In origin subjects , and others, we are trying to figure out invisible things. origins are in the past and so invisible. Physics is invisible and thats why it has a priority prestige. (wrongly I say).
      I see biology, visible, as more complicated and so should have the highest prestige in figuring it out/fixing it. ITS VISIBLE and still complicated!!
      Testing invisable origin subjects is impossible. thats why its conclusions are not demanding.
      in fact i say evolutionism is not based on biological evidence, in the main, but on geological evidence and then biological extensions. so evolution is not a theory of science but a untested hypothesis in biology.
      Its not a high standard of investigation because its not investigating on its own subject. its not using biology evidence but geology , others, evidence.
      Hope we reached a adult standard here!!

  11. The funny thing about pseudoscience is that it is relative... Larry and his team call ENCODE pseudoscience and they laugh their head off because they know that they are not only right, they got the funding for ENCODE 2 and possibly ENCODE 3.
    It's not that scientists wanted to expose Darwiosaurs, it's biopharmaceuticals that want to dig to open up new drug selling possibilities...
    In other words, evolution is in a great space... lol

  12. "Do you avoid gluten or lactose?" Actually, I do minimize my exposure to lactose. In college, I lost my ability to drink milk without getting an upset stomach. I don't worry about this much. I'll bake with milk, for example. I'm OK with processed dairy products like cheese or yogurt. But I avoid drinking more than a little bit of milk, cream, etc. Could my idea that I can no longer digest lactose wrong? Could be, but I can live with it.

  13. Prayer works for Christians who actually do as the Bible states -- "Believe that you receive, and you shall have." Of course it has to be God's will and we discern his will by knowing Him and the Bible. "If you abide in Me and my words abide in you, ask what you will and it shall be done." This kind of prayer brings answers even miracles.

    1. Funny how no true christian has prayed for an end of war, world hunger, cancer, malaria, the situation in the middle East, etc. etc.
      I suggest you pray to your God for a really good answer to this argument.