via NeuroLogica Blog
In just about every disaster or event in which there are many deaths, such as a plane crash, there is likely to be, by random chance alone, individuals who survived due to an unlikely sequence of events. Passengers missing their flight by a few minutes can look back at all the small delays that added up to them seeing the doors close as they a jog up to their gate. If that plane were then to crash, killing everyone on board, those small delays might seem like destiny. The passenger who canceled their flight because of flying anxiety might feel as if they had a premonition.
This is nothing but the lottery fallacy – judging the odds of an event occurring after the fact. What are the odds of one specific person winning the lottery? Hundreds of millions to one against. What are the odds of someone winning the lottery? Very good.
Likewise, what are the chances that someone will miss or choose not to take any particular flight? Very high – therefore this is likely to be true about any flight that happens to crash. If you are that one person, however, it may be difficult to shake the sense that your improbable survival was more than just a lucky coincidence.
A similar story has emerged from the Sandy Hook tragedy. A mother of a kindergartener there, Karen Dryer claims that her 5 year old son was saved by his psychic powers. She reports that her son, after a few months at the school, started to cry and be unhappy at school. He was home schooled for a short time, during which the shooting occurred. Now, at the new elementary school that recently opened, he seems to be happy.
In retrospect it may seem like a compelling story – if one does not think about it too deeply. As Ben Radford points out in the article linked to above, the story as told is likely the product of confirmation bias. The mother is now remembering details that enhance the theme of the story (her son’s alleged psychic powers) and forgetting details that might be inconsistent.
Marketing sometimes involves the science of making you believe something that is not true, with the specific goal of selling you something (a product, service, or even ideology). The organic lobby, for example, has done a great job of creating a health halo and environmentally friendly halo for organic produce, while simultaneously demonizing their competition (recently focusing on GMOs).
These claims are all demonstrably wrong, however. Organic food is no more healthful or nutritious than conventional food. Further, GMO technology is safe and there are no health concerns with the GMO products currently on the market.
There is an even more stark difference, however, between beliefs about the effects of organic farming on the environment and reality. In fact organic farming is worse for the environment than conventional farming in terms of the impact vs the amount of food produced.
First, organic farming may use pesticides. They just have to be “natural” pesticides, which means the ones they use are not chosen based upon their properties. Ideally choice of pesticide and the strategy in using them would be evidence-based and optimized for best effect, minimal impact on health and the environment, cost effectiveness, and convenience. Organic farming, however, does not make evidence-based outcome choices. Their primary criterion is that the pesticides must be “natural”, even if they are worse in every material aspect. This represents ideology trumping evidence. It is based on the “appeal to nature” fallacy, an unwarranted assumption that something “natural” will be magically better than anything manufactured.
In fact my main complaint against the organic label is that it represents an ideological false dichotomy. Each farming practice should be judged on its own merits, rather than having a bunch of practices ideologically lumped under one brand. I don’t care if a practice is considered organic or not, all that matters is the outcome.
Interest in the notion that the earth is flat has been increasing in recent years. I have to say, as much of a jaded skeptic as I am, this level of self-deception is still amazing to me. It truly demonstrates that there is no practical limit to the power of motivated reasoning or the absurdity of conclusions which it can defend.
Serious flat earth proponents actually do believe that the earth is not a globe, but a flat disk. When you think about this for even a moment, many problems arise, but they have an answer to all of it. Not a good answer, but enough of one to allow motivated reasoning to take over.
Perhaps the most obvious problem with belief in a flat earth is that we have been to space. You can actually see the earth as a spinning globe. There is no other viable interpretation of this direct and dramatic observational evidence. You might as well tell me that a basketball is not round.
This is what the flat earth wiki has to say about this challenge to their position:
The most commonly accepted explanation of this is that the space agencies of the world are involved in a conspiracy faking space travel and exploration. This likely began during the Cold War’s ‘Space Race’, in which the USSR and USA were obsessed with beating each other into space to the point that each faked their accomplishments in an attempt to keep pace with the other’s supposed achievements. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the conspiracy is most likely motivated by greed rather than political gains, and using only some of their funding to continue to fake space travel saves a lot of money to embezzle for themselves.
In light of the above, please note that we are not suggesting that space agencies are aware that the earth is flat and actively covering the fact up. They depict the earth as being round simply because that is what they expect it to be.
The conspiracy theory, of course, is the last refuge of the hopelessly deluded. Any inconvenient evidence can be swept aside by making up a conspiracy theory ad hoc. What is the evidence for this alleged conspiracy? Zero. As they admit, this conspiracy would have to involve many nations in the world, not just the US and USSR/Russia. China, India, the UK, the European Union all have space agencies.
Why would the space agencies of all of these countries be engaged in the exact same conspiracy?
I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.
When most people think of psychics they conjure an image (see what I did there) of someone dressed in robes in a mystically decorated parlor who reads your palm or the tarot cards for $40. They are making a meager living giving people a bit of harmless entertainment. Some may actually think they have powers, some may know it’s all an act, but what’s the harm?
In truth, however, many psychics are predators who scam people out of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. They prey on the vulnerable and the desperate and can ruin lives. This is not a benign industry.
A recent report from Toronto is just one of many – a steady stream with no expectation of ending. They report stories of people who have been victimized by psychics promising to turn around their fortunes, while parasitically bleeding them of as much money as possible.
How the scam works
Encounters usually begin like any street-corner psychic, with a simple reading. Everyone who comes in for a reading is a potential mark. The more desperate the better.
Such psychics (I am just going to use the term “psychic” for convenience, but assume the usual caveats – alleged, fake, etc.) are adept at creating the illusion that they have some magical insight. They are, after all, just mentalists, and usually not very good ones. They don’t really have to be, as their audience wants to believe, often desperately.
Their primary tool is the cold reading. This is the technique of listening to what your mark says, then feeding it back to them as if it came to you magically. You can also make vague statements that are likely to apply to most people, then following up when you get a positive reaction, while glossing over any misses. Simple observation also plays a role. A willing target will do most of the hard work, making all the connections in their own mind. This can seem quite impressive to someone naive to the technique – in fact a skilled mentalist can seem impressive even to someone familiar with it.
This is all part of the grooming, drawing the mark in and gaining their confidence. This is, after all, a confidence game. Once you believe that the psychic has the magical power to fix your life, you are lost.
They then use a variety of tricks to bleed their marks of all their money. They may use some slight of hand, like pretending the water their mark gargled is full of insects, or an egg used in a seeing is full of black ichor. They try to convince their mark that they are cursed, and that the psychic has the power to lift the curse. This frequently involves praying over cash, gift cards, or other untraceable items of value – items the mark never sees again.
In one case a psychic scammed a business man whose girlfriend died unexpectedly out of $700,000.
Charlie Sheen is HIV positive. As was revealed on the Dr. Oz show, when diagnosed his viral load was 4.4 million. After six months of the a standard anti-HIV cocktail his viral loads were undetectable.
This does not mean he is HIV negative or free of this virus. As part of the viral life-cycle it goes into hiding inside of cells. It is undetectable while hiding, and also cannot be eradicated by medications. This is a major challenge to curing HIV, or even pushing the efficacy of our current treatments further. Researchers are looking into ways to force the virus out of hiding so that anti-retroviral medications can go to work.
With current anti-HIV treatment someone who is HIV positive can expect to live an almost normal life expectancy free of any major complications of the disease and will not go on to develop AIDS from the virus. The big challenge now is to get this modern medicine to those who are HIV positive in the third world, or to those who cannot afford it.
Interestingly, Charlie Sheen, who has all of the advantages of wealth in a Western industrialized country, opted for third-world treatment of his HIV. He recently went off of his anti-HIV medications and instead decided to rely on the ministrations of an unknown doctor in Mexico making bold claims.
This prompted an on-air intervention by Dr. Oz and Sheen’s own doctor (which was ethically dubious but good television, I guess), after which Sheen reported he would go back on his medications.
Of course, most HIV patients who are lured to Mexico with the promise of a miracle cure will not benefit from a personal intervention by Dr. Oz. Hopefully they will benefit from watching that episode, but if history is any guide (unfortunately) the exposure is likely to lead more people to the Mexico charlatan than warn them away.
Why People Seek Charlatans
The Sheen episode raises a fascinating and important question – what is the allure of the lone maverick making bold claims? Often the answer provided is desperation, but what makes the Sheen example so interesting is that desperation was not a factor. He was effectively in remission from his HIV with undetectable loads. He still has to take medications for the rest of his life, but that seems a small price to pay for taking a horrible deadly disease and transforming it into a benign chronic condition with a normal life-expectancy and quality of life. The situation did not call for desperation.
A new study out of Australia looked at 26 different Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) products purchased from stores. They performed three types of analysis: heavy metal screening, toxicological analysis, and DNA sequencing. They found that 92% of the products tested had at least one type of contaminant.
This adds to a growing list of studies and revelations about how poorly the supplement industry is regulated, and raises further concerns about the overall quality of herbal and supplement products.
A 2008 study found that about 20% of ayurvedic herbal products contained heavy metal contamination, often at levels high enough to be toxic.
“Although we were able to authenticate almost half (48%) of the products, one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label. Product substitution occurred in 30/44 of the products tested and only 2/12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers.”
A 2014 study published in JAMA found that half of the product recalled by the FDA for being adulterated with banned drugs were dietary supplements, including up to one third of products purchased online. Further, when the FDA followed up they found that 6 months after they had issued a recall for adulterated supplements, two-thirds were still on the market and still contained the banned drugs.
Here is the latest fad to make you smarter with one easy trick – Superbrain Yoga. The technique is simple (and worthless, but we’ll get to that).
All you have to do is touch your left hand to your right earlobe, your right hand to your left earlobe, take a deep breath, and do a squat. Who knew it could be so easy to improve your brain function. There are a few more details, helpfully shared by Parenting Special Needs magazine:
– Connect your tongue to your palate.
– Face East
– The left arm must be inside and the right arm must be outside (over the left arm).
– Inhale while squatting down and exhale while standing up.
– You thumbs should be touching the front part of your earlobes, index fingers behind the earlobes.
– Perform the exercise 14-21 times, once or twice a day.
Facing East is very important, because magic.
When I first heard of Superbrain Yoga I thought it was going to be a neuroscience-based pseudoscience, with some hand-waving explanations about blood flow or something. This one is actually blatantly spiritual magical nonsense.
This practice is based on the principles of subtle energy and ear acupuncture. Basically, SuperBrain Yoga allows energy from your lower chakras–or energy centers–to move up to the forehead and crown chakras. When this happens, this energy is transformed into subtle energy, which is utilized by the brain to enhance its proper functioning.
It’s Eastern mysticism, however, which is a far-off exotic culture, so that makes it OK.
Also See: Photo Forensics: Is The Lee Harvey Oswald Photo A Fake? (iLLuMiNuTTi.com)
Several years ago, during a lecture on Science-Based Medicine, I noted that if there were one medical pseudoscience that was vulnerable to extinction it was homeopathy. Homeopathy is perhaps the most obviously absurd medical pseudoscience. It is also widely studied, and has been clearly shown to not work. Further, there is a huge gap in the public understanding of what homeopathy is; it therefore seems plausible that the popularity of homeopathy can take a huge hit just by telling the public what it actually is.
Further, homeopathy is in a precarious regulatory position. Homeopathic products are presented and regulated as drugs, but clearly they are not, and they are also not supplements, herbal drugs, nutrition-based, or natural products. They are simply fraudulent drugs riding a wave of ignorance.
In the last few years homeopathy has had a rough time. While the industry is still growing, there are signs of clear trouble on the horizon. Let’s review:
Homeopathy is a 200 year old pre-scientific system of medicine based upon magical thinking. It is mostly based on two notions, the first of which is that like cures like. In other words, a substance that causes a symptom can cure that symptom in extremely low doses. There is no scientific basis for this, despite the desperate attempts by homeopaths to invoke vaccine-like analogies, or their new favorite, hormesis.
The second notion is that you make a remedy more powerful by diluting it to extreme degrees. People have fun making comparisons, such as the need to drink a solar-system’s worth of water to have a 50% chance of getting a single molecule of active ingredient. No problem, say the homeopaths, homeopathic potions contain the magical “essence” of what was previously diluted in them. It’s turtles all the way down.
A Los Angeles middle school has turned WiFi off in a classroom to accommodate a teacher, Anura Lawson, who believes she has electromagnetic sensitivity. Now Lawson is petitioning to have WiFi turned off in every classroom in California. That’s what you get for catering to pseudoscience – more pseudoscience.
Electromagnetic (EM) sensitivity is a controversial disorder; well, controversial in that the scientific community has investigated it and concluded that it does not exist, but some individuals still believe they have it. Like many spurious disorders, the symptoms are mostly non-specific. Lawson claims she experienced, “dizziness, migraines, and heart palpitations,” while her daughter claims that her “brain was running slower.”
Such non-specific symptoms can be the result of anything stressing out the system: poor sleep, lack of physical activity, an unrecognized chronic illness, anxiety or depression. They may also be purely psychological. There are no specific symptoms or objective signs to indicate that there is any pathology present. Once treatable pathology has been ruled out, it’s best to focus on treating symptoms and improving quality of life.However, there are many fake or dubious diagnoses out there to place a label on patients with such non-specific symptoms. These labels have changed over the generations, but apparently have always existed. Today there are several popular fad diagnoses for non-specific symptoms, including candida hypersensitivity, multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue and EM sensitivity.
Giving someone a dubious diagnosis can be harmful. It may lead to unnecessary treatment, may delay or prevent making a correct diagnosis of an underlying disease, may delay or prevent optimal treatment, is often expensive, perpetuates false ideas about health and disease, and fosters mistrust of medical professionals, often to the point of conspiracy theories.
There have been a number of provocative studies of what is now called idiopathic environmental intolerance with attribution to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF).
When I was an intern doing a rotation in the emergency department, on one particularly busy shift a nurse commented (to no one in particular) that it must be a full moon. I habitually look at the moon and generally know what phase it is in (right now it is a waxing gibbous, almost full), and so I knew at the time that in fact there was a crescent moon in the sky. I informed her of this. She gave a disappointed look and then went on with her work without any apparent further thought on the matter.
The episode struck me at the time. It seemed to me that I just witnessed a clear example of confirmation bias – what if it had been near a full moon? That would have confirmed her prior belief in a lunar effect, while this negative correlation was brushed aside and likely did not have any negative effect on her belief. (Although, my interpretation and memory of this event can itself be an example of confirmation bias regarding confirmation bias.)
Belief in the so-called lunar effect, that the phases of the moon exert an influence on human behavior with the most common element being a full-moon inducing extreme behavior, is very common. In my experience it is one of the most common pseudoscientific beliefs I encounter in the general public. One survey indicates that 43% of adults believe in the lunar effect, especially mental health professionals, including nurses.
When someone expresses such a belief to me I often use it as an opening to discuss skeptical principles. While belief in the lunar effect is widespread, it is usually not part of any emotionally held religious or ideological belief. It is therefore an excellent teaching opportunity. One question I like to ask is, “how do you think that works?” The most common answer I receive is probably the least plausible – that the tidal effects of the moon influence the brain because the brain is sitting in water (spinal fluid).
The tidal effect answer is incredibly implausible for a number of reasons.
It seems that the regulation of supplements, homeopathy, and “natural” products in Canada is as bad as the US. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, the equivalent of NPR and PBS in the US) recently conducted a demonstration of just how worthless and deceptive the regulations are.
They created a fake treatment called “Nighton” which they claimed treated fever, pain, and inflammation in children and infants. They then applied to the government for a Natural Product License. On the application they checked all the appropriate boxes and submitted as evidence copied pages from a 1902 homeopathic reference book. That was it. Five months later their fictitious product was approved as “safe and effective.”
What this means is that when the Canadian government approves a natural product as safe and effective, it is completely meaningless. It is essentially a license to lie to the public about a health product.
It is reasonable to assume that many if not most of the public, if they see a product on the pharmacy shelf with the label, “licensed as safe and effective for fever, pain, and inflammation,” with an official government issued product number, that some sort of testing and quality assurance was involved.
The situation is identical in the US. Companies can market homeopathy products or supplements without providing any evidence that the product is safe, and can even make health claims (as long as they don’t mention a specific disease by name) again without the need to provide any evidence. In essence, in the US or Canada a company can put anything in a pill or bottle (as long as it doesn’t contain an actual drug), then without any testing market their random assortment of vitamins, herbs, or just water (in the case of homeopathy) with specific health claims. Pharmacies are happy to sell these fake products side-by-side with real medicines.
This is nothing short of a scandal.
Fad diets pop up on a regular basis. I believe that is because they are so easy to manufacture and there is a ready made market for them. Add to that the fact that it is difficult to lose weight. There is also a great deal of misinformation out there about diet and health, so the environment is very friendly to pop pseudoscience.
If you want to create your own fad diet, here is a handy formula. These things pretty much write themselves.
#1 • You need a catchy title, usually taking the form of “The blank Diet.” You can fill in the blank with almost anything. For example, a recent fad diet is called “the bulletproof diet.” This doesn’t say anything about the diet itself, it’s just a catchy phrase, a brand. You can fill in the blank with a title that does reflect the diet itself, but this is optional. Creating a catchy title is actually the most creative work you have to do in making a fad diet.
#2 • Make outrageous claims of success. The bigger the lie, the more people are inclined to think that it’s not a lie because no one would be that audacious. So just come up with a very impressive figure – a pound a day, 10 pounds a week, or whatever. In reality, on a healthy weight-loss diet people will lose about 1.5-2.5 pounds per week maximum, depending on their current weight, fat percentage, and other variables. Also, weight loss itself is not the ultimate goal, just a marker. People really want to reduce fat and build muscle. Following waist size is also a good measure, and perhaps better. Using the scale is helpful to make sure you are staying on track, however. Liberally use the world “miracle,” although admittedly Dr. Oz has tainted this word a bit by overusing it.
#3 • Testimonials. Personal stories, starting with your own, are the bedrock of fad diets. Don’t worry if there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support your claims – fad diets are not about evidence. They are about selling a narrative, one in which people struggled endlessly to lose weight, but then started the X diet and the weight just fell off. Testimonials can be very compelling, even though they are almost worthless as evidence. Actually, that is their advantage for you as a fad diet marketer, because you can find testimonials to support whatever claims you wish to make.
#4 • The Secret. Your fad diet has to have the secret or key to weight loss. Make this as compelling as possible, using . . .