Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Review: Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk

I was watching "Real Time with Bill Maher" last night (Sept. 24th episode) and realized how his guests and the book I read recently came together in a nice fashion. Bill Maher had two conservatives: Andrew Breitbart and Amy Holmes on the show, going against Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (the wife of Carl Sagan). The issue that created the most heated discussion (not to say yelling) was the climate change and its origins.
Andrew Breitbart gave the usual "not all scientists agree" nonsense with some additional, typical set of lies and Ann Druyan call him on it, saying straight to his face that the Right serves lies and distractions while we are still doing noting to mitigate the real issue.
The discussion brought up a very important problem that we all face almost every day, often without realizing it: how to tell what is "science" from all kinds of claims that people try to sell us?
This question, and a few possible answers are the core of the book "Nonsense of Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk"by Massimo Pigliucci:

It is not an easy book to read, having a fair amount of philosophy in its content, but it also gives a great overview of the current "state of the game", or the anti-intellectual, anti-science attitudes so widely spread in our society. From the general rejection of science, mostly by the religious right, to the attempts of incorporating its own "soft" science into the mainstream by the "liberal" hipsters, we see this process almost every day.
Pigliucci starts off with a simple question: what is science and what is not (or what claims to be science, but in reality is pseudoscience). As we quickly find out, it is not an easy question to answer, since even within science itself there are disciplines that, while generally regarded as scientific, are having a hard time fitting into a number of predefined criteria.
We get a tour of current anti-scientific battlefronts, including various think tanks, which peddle any nonsense for which they get paid, under the covers of "real" scientific research, the current global warming debate (which is not really a debate from the scientific point of view anymore), and the Intelligent Design case from Dover. All of the above serve as great examples of how to define science and how to attempt to distinguish it from any other claims.
The final piece of this book and the one that I enjoyed the most was a discussion on how to tell an expert from a wanna-be. This is so important because, as I pointed out at the beginning, almost every day we encounter people who claim to have answers to all the issues of today's world. We also have to make our own decisions (some personal and some political) in an increasingly complex world, decisions that affect our health, our families and our way of life. It is therefore very important to know how to distinguish the real deal from "bunk".
If not for everything else, this is one reason to read "Nonsense on Stilts".

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Flu Season Is Here

Another flu season is upon us, and for some that means a new seasonal influenza vaccine.
As always, it is important to know the facts, evaluate your own risks and make sure that you make an informed decision. I myself have been exposed to some misinformation already, even thought the amount of noise is nowhere close to the levels from the last year, when we were in the midst of the "swine" flu (H1N1) pandemic.
The most prevalent piece of misunderstanding comes from the fact that this year's seasonal flu vaccine has the H1N1 component already included (see CDC: Vaccine Selection for the 2010–2011 Influenza Season), which was not the case last year (that's because last year's vaccine components were selected long before the H1N1 pandemic appeared). What I keep hearing is that this component is the same "untested" vaccine that we were using last year, which is partially true: it is the same H1N1 strain. However, one can not get any better testing for the vaccine strain than what we got last year, with tens of millions receiving the H1N1 shot, and almost no serious side effects reported by the CDC (discussion here: Vaccine Safety).
What is really worring from my point of view is the fact that the misinformation about flu vaccines, and about vaccines in general, comes not from regular, untrained people like myself. The real problem are professionals on the fringe, who for various ideological reasons still buy into the whole conspiracy theory, and claim "facts" about vaccines that are not true (like mercury in childhood vaccines) to scare people from getting the shots they might need to save their lives.

Some good resources from CDC to help you make up your mind:
Stay informed!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Naturopathy Revisited

Browsing the Internet today, I found a very interesting article from the always reliable alt-med debunker Orac:

[...] it would appear, naturopaths both desperately crave the validation of science, to be taken seriously by science-based physicians, while at the same time they resent science because it doesn't support their woo.

Which stuck a familiar chord from my recent past. So, reading further I see a quote from a naturopath:
We're too reliant on the scientific method, and it stands in our way of forging ahead.
The whole article can be found here: A highly revealing quote from a naturopath

The reason it sounded very familiar was that I had a very similar discussion, not long ago, which I described here: Science and Pseudo-Science
Notice the similarities? In my discussion, I was put against the same issue: when science, clinical studies and statistics just do not support your claims, discard science. My "opponent" presented the same attitude you can see from other naturopaths, and they are willing to defend it by just discarding sound arguments, which is not surprising, since it provides their livelihood. I just wonder, how is it working for their patients? Beyond a simple placebo, of course...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

CNN: The end of the autism/vaccine debate?

CNN has a great article summarizing the recent developments in the autism / vaccine debate:
"This retraction represents the death of a hypothesis," says Offit. "Parents should be reassured that a choice not to get a vaccine will in no sense lessen the risk of autism, and will only increase the risk of disease."
The end of the autism/vaccine debate?

There are a few excellent links with additional information at the bottom of the article.
Let's hope the word if finally out and all the money wasted on this misdirected research can go where it really belongs: finding causes and cures for autism.