Tag Archives: Steven Novella

Organic Farming is Bad for the Environment

By vie NeuroLogica Blog

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.

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Flat Earth Rising

By via NeuroLogica Blog » Flat Earth Rising

A Flat Earth model depicting Antarctica as an ice wall surrounding a disc-shaped Earth.
CREDIT: Creative Commons 1.0 Generic | Trekky0623

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.

Space Exploration

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?

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog

Fake Psychics Scam Billions


steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.

Why don't you remember this headline?

Why don’t you remember this headline?

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.

psychic 856_250pxSuch 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.

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog – – –

psychic-john-edward-2012-events_02

Charlie Sheen’s HIV Quack

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

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.

sheen winningThis 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.

Continue reading @ NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Contaminants Found in 92% of TCM Herbal Products

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

A new study out of Australia looked at 26 different Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) products purchased from stores. Chinese herbs_300pxThey 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. 

A 2013 study published in the BMC found that:

“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.

Continue Reading @ NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Superbrain Yoga is BS

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

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.

superbrain-yoga_0450px

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.

Continue Reading at NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Another Nail in the JFK Conspiracy

jfk
steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

More than 50 years after JFK was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald the majority of Americans believe that the assassination was part of a conspiracy. Recent Gallup polls show that 61% believe others were involved in the assassination, while 30% believe Oswald acted alone (in 2000 the numbers were 81% and 13% respectively).
JFK crosshairThis is despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Oswald acted alone, and there is no solid evidence of any conspiracy. What this reflects, in my opinion, is two things: the psychological allure of conspiracy theories, and the cottage industry of conspiracy theorists.
Whenever I discuss conspiracy theories I have to add this caveat about what I mean. Obviously there are real conspiracies in the world – whenever two or more people work together to commit a crime or do something nefarious, you have a conspiracy. “Conspiracy theories,” however, is short hand for a grand conspiracy, something that involves many people or powerful organizations working over long periods of time through vast networks of control.
Further, like many categories of proponents that skeptics tend to address (pseudoscientists, cranks, true-believers, deniers, etc.), conspiracy theorists are defined mainly by their behavior, the way that they construct their beliefs and arguments.
For example, the power of conspiracy thinking is that it is immune to refutation through evidence. Any lack of evidence was covered up. Any evidence against the conspiracy theory was planted. Anyone who mounts a convincing argument against the conspiracy is part of the conspiracy.
Oswald-Rifle-244x300But the cornerstone of conspiracy thinking is anomaly hunting – their “evidence” for a conspiracy is largely apparent anomalies, things that don’t quite make sense at first blush. It’s actually easy to trump up apparent anomalies, because the world is complex and it’s difficult to explain any complex event down to the tiniest detail.  Further, people are quirky individuals, and have their own complex motivations for doing things.
Why was there a man standing on the side of the road near where JFK was shot with an open umbrella, on a clear day? The behavior seems anomalous. Perhaps he was signalling the shooter. Unless you had some very specific historical information, you would never guess the real explanation.
One apparent anomaly that JFK conspiracy theorists have pointed to for years is the photo of Oswald prior to the shooting holding a Carcano rifle, the very one used in the assassination of JFK.

Continue Reading at NeuroLogica Blog – – –

Also See: Photo Forensics: Is The Lee Harvey Oswald Photo A Fake? (iLLuMiNuTTi.com)

Another Study that Doesn’t Show How Acupuncture Works

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

The pattern is now quite familiar – a study looking at some physiological outcome while rats or mice are being jabbed with needles is breathlessly presented as, “finally we know how acupuncture works.” As is always the case, a closer look reveals that the study shows nothing of the sort.
electroacupuncture-ratThe current study making the rounds is, “Effects of Acupuncture, RU-486 on the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis in Chronically Stressed Adult Male Rats.” We are told that acupuncture has the same effect as pain medication, but honestly I don’t see that anywhere in the study.
The study presents two experiments with rats in which there is a control group, a stress group, stress plus acupuncture, and stress plus sham acupuncture. The first thing to notice is that the rats were not actually getting acupuncture. They were getting the fiction known as “electroacupuncture.” Electroacupuncture is not a real thing – it’s just electrical stimulation through a needle which is called an acupuncture needle.
The authors claim that their results show that electroacupuncture (EA) at the St36 acupuncture point (which is behind the leg), but not sham EA on the back blunt the stress response as measured by cortisol levels, ACTH, and stress behavior in the rats.
acupuncture 835_225pxJust looking at the data itself, separate from the context of acupuncture, there are a few things to notice. The first is that the study is very small, with (in the first experiment) 7 rats in the control and stress groups, and 14 rats in the EA and sham EA groups. That’s not a lot of data points. There is no mention of blinding anywhere in the study. Unless everyone involved in those aspects of the study measuring outcomes were effectively blinded, I see no reason to take the results seriously.
Further, the results are completely unimpressive. The differences are slight. The researchers also pull a common statistical trick. They say, for example, that the difference between control and EA was statistically significant, while the difference between control and sham EA was not. However, they don’t tell us whether or not the difference between EA and sham EA was significant (and by looking at the data I would guess not).
acupucture_chinese_medicine_300pxIt is therefore not valid to conclude that there is a difference between EA and sham EA. This is a common statistical “mistake” researchers make, probably having something to do with the fact that it makes negative data look positive.
It is possible that this study tells us nothing at all. Given the small number of rats in the study, no documentation about blinding, and the unimpressive results, just a touch of researcher bias (exploiting those researcher degrees of freedom) is all that is necessary to get the graphs to look good enough to publish.
Therefore, regardless of the subject matter, these are preliminary results at best, and unimpressive preliminary results at that.
If we put these results into the context of acupuncture, we then have the equivalent of Bem’s psi research – unimpressive results used to support a massive claim.
Let’s be clear – acupuncture points are a complete fiction.

Continue Reading – – –

Galvanic Skin Response Pseudoscience

steven_novellaby via Science-Based Medicine

Selling snake oil is all about marketing, which means that a good snake oil product needs to have a great angle or a hook. Popular snake oil hooks include being “natural,” the product of ancient wisdom, or “holistic.”
Perhaps my favorite snake oil marketing ploy, however, is claiming the product represents the latest cutting-edge technology. This invariably leads to humorous sciencey technobabble. med_xray_specs_300pxThere are also recurrent themes to this technobabble, which often involve “energy,” vibrations and frequencies, or scientific concepts poorly understood by the public, such as magnetism and (of course) quantum effects. Historically, even radioactivity was marketed as a cure-all.
One category of technical pseudoscientific snake oil measures some physiological property of the body and then claims that this measurement can be used for diagnosis and determining optimal treatment. For example, machines might measure brain waves, heart rate variability, thermal energy or (the subject of today’s article) the galvanic skin response.
These are all noisy systems – they are highly variable and produce a lot of random results that can be used to give the impression that something meaningful is being measured. Systems that rely on these measurements to make highly specific determinations are no different than phrenology or reading tea leaves, but they look scientific.

How_Zyto_works_600px

The galvanic skin response

I was recently asked to look into a product called Zyto technology. This is an electronic device that you place your palm on top of so that it can read your “galvanic skin response” (GSR) to specific stimuli. It then uses your responses to prescribe a specific treatment.

The GSR is actually an older term for what is now called electrodermal activity (EDA), which is simply the electrical conductance of your skin (Harriet Hall has written about such devices before). Skin conductance is primarily affected by sweat, as salty water is an excellent conductor. So essentially the machine is measuring how sweaty your palms are.

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Are We Seeing the End of Homeopathy?

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

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.

homeopathy-in-the-NHS-number-of-prescription-items
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:

Some Background

homeopathy 803_250pxHomeopathy 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.

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Fight Over WiFi In Public Schools

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

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.

wifi ouch_200pxElectromagnetic (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.

Michael McKean as Chuck Thurber - Better Call Saul _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/AMC

Charles “Chuck” McGill (Michael McKean) suffers from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity on the AMC series Better Call Saul. Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/AMC

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).

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Lunar Cycle Effects Busted

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

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?Moon_Animated_250px 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.

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Sting Shows Supplement Regulation Worthless

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

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.

snake-oil_275pxThey 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.

warning-homeopathy-not-medicineThe 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.

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How To Create a Fad Diet

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

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. before and after_300pxSo 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  .  .  .

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Glyphosate – The New Bogeyman

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Science-Based Medicine

There is an ideological subculture that is motivated to blame all the perceived ills of the world on environmental factors and corporate/government malfeasance. Often this serves a deeper ideological drive, which can be anti-vaccine, extreme environmentalism, or anti-GMO. Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 6.09.56 PMThe latest environmental bogeyman making the rounds is glyphosate, which is being blamed for (you guessed it) autism.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. It has been widely used for about 40 years, and with the introduction of GM crops that are Roundup resistant, its use has increased significantly in the last 20 years. It has therefore become a popular target for anti-GMO fearmongering.

round upGlyphosate is one of the least toxic herbicides used. It inhibits the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase which interferes with the shikimic pathway in plants, resulting in the accumulation of shikimic acid in plant tissues and ultimately plant death. The enzyme and pathway do not exist in animals, which is why toxicity is so low. Still, chemicals can have multiple effects and so toxicity needs to be directly measured and its epidemiology studied.

A systematic review published on 2000 found:

Experimental evidence has shown that neither glyphosate nor AMPA bioaccumulates in any animal tissue. No significant toxicity occurred in acute, subchronic, and chronic studies.

and

Therefore, it is concluded that the use of Roundup herbicide does not result in adverse effects on development, reproduction, or endocrine systems in humans and other mammals. For purposes of risk assessment, no-observed-adverse-effect levels (NOAELs) were identified for all subchronic, chronic, developmental, and reproduction studies with glyphosate, AMPA, and POEA.

As pesticides go, glyphosate has very low toxicity, and any dose a person is likely to get exposed to is well below the safety limits.

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The Fallibility of Memory

We are a story our brain tells itself. And our brains are habitual liars.

skeptoid eyeby Craig Good via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

memory-fix_250pxTake a moment to think of a cherished childhood memory. Try to recall it in detail. Think of where you were, who you were with, the sights, the smells, the tastes. Recall the sounds, like the wind in the trees, and how you felt. Were you happy? Anxious? Laughing? Crying?

We would all like to think that our memory is like a camera that records a scene, tucks it away in a corner of our brain, and retrieves it for playback when we want to relive that birthday ice cream or feel a long lost summer breeze on our cheeks. In a large sense we are what we remember, so memories are an integral part of who we are.

Unfortunately memory isn’t even remotely like a record/playback device. As neurologist and renowned skeptic Dr. Steven Novella puts it,

When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.

As I like to say, we are a story our brain tells itself, and our brains are motivated, skilled, pathological liars.

Lets take a look at memory, get a rough idea of how it works, and learn when and why we need to be cautious about trusting it. Functionally, the three parts of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval.

memory falseAs Dr. Novella points out, the problems begin with encoding, even before a memory has been stored. Our brain is constantly filtering information, and constructing its own reality. We are surrounded by detail. Take a moment right now to be aware of every distant sound around you, of all the leaves on the trees, fibers in the carpet, your breathing, and the sensations on your skin — all of it. Imagine dealing with all of that all of the time! Our brains evolved to construct a narrative of what’s going on, lending attention to what matters most. That thing over there that might be a predator is a more pressing matter than the sensation of every individual blade of grass you’re standing on. But just as things get lost, distorted, or added when your favorite book becomes a movie, the running story your brain puts together isn’t a faithful rendition. In fact, sometimes the circuitry in your brain that distinguishes what’s currently happening from a memory gets confused. This is the most likely explanation for déja vu. It’s a glitch in your own brain’s matrix.

And the first thing your brain does with most information is forget it.

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False Memory Syndrome Alive and Well

steven_novellaby Steven Novella via Science-Based Medicine

It is disheartening that we have to return to pseudosciences that have been debunked decades ago, because they continue to linger despite being eviscerated by scientific scrutiny. Belief systems and myths have incredible cultural inertia, and they are difficult to eradicate completely. That is why belief in astrology, while in the minority, persists.

Professions, however, should be different. A healing profession should be held to a certain minimum standard of care, and that standard should be based upon something real, which means that scientific evidence needs to be brought to bear. Professionals are not excused for persisting in false beliefs that have long been discredited.

The Courage to Heal, the source of many beliefs about false memory syndrome

The Courage to Heal, the source of many beliefs about false memory syndrome

The 1980s saw the peak of an idea that was never based on science, the notion that people can suppress memories of traumatic events, and those repressed memories can manifest as seemingly unconnected mental health issues, such as anxiety or eating disorders. The idea was popularized mostly by the book The Courage to Heal (the 20th anniversary edition was published in 2008), in which the authors took the position that clients, especially women, who have any problem should be encouraged to recover memories of abuse, and if such memories can be dredged up, they are real.

The notion of repressed memories led in part to the satanic panic of the 1980s, and many of those subjected to recovering techniques not only “remembered” being abused, but being part of satanic ritual abuse.

Recovered memory syndrome was a massive failure on the part of the mental health profession. The ideas, which were extraordinary, were never empirically demonstrated. Further, basic questions were insufficiently asked – is there any empirical evidence to support the amazing events emerging from therapy, for example? Is it possible that the recovered memories are an artifact of therapy and are not real?

Now, with three decades of hindsight, we can say a few things with a high degree of confidence.

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Anomaly Hunting and the Umbrella Man

steven_novellaby via NeuroLogica Blog

This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.

The "umbrella man" seems strangely out of place and uniquely positioned in Dealey Plaza when Kennedy was assassinated.

The “umbrella man” seems strangely out of place on a sunny day in Dealey Plaza on the day Kennedy was assassinated.*

This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.

The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?

Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.

When you delve into the details of any complex historical event, however, anomalies such as this are certain to surface. People are quirky individual beings with rich and complex histories and motivations. People do strange things for strange reasons. There is no way to account for all possible thought processes firing around in the brains of every person involved in an event.

The umbrella man appears before the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978.

In 1978 the umbrella man appeared before the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations.*

Often the actions of others seem unfathomable to us. Our instinct is to try to explain the behavior of others as resulting from mostly internal forces. We tend to underestimate the influence of external factors. This is called the fundamental attribution error.

We also tend to assume that the actions of others are deliberate and planned, rather than random or accidental.

The common assumption underlying all of these various instincts is that there is a specific purpose to events, and especially the actions of others. We further instinctively fear that this purpose is sinister, or may be working against our own interests in some way. In this way, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us.

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*Who Was the Umbrella Man?

By The New York Times via YouTube

Also See: Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives

Has Jack the Ripper Finally Been Solved?

steven_novellaBy via NeuroLogica Blog

Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most iconic serial killer in history. Part of the mystique of this dark figure is the fact that he was never identified, leaving room for endless sleuthing and speculation. Every Ripper fan has their list of favorite suspects, usually filled with famous and powerful people of the time to add even more interest. JACK DESTRIPADOR 2My favorite, of course, is that he was a time-traveling friend of H. G. Wells.

Now a private researcher, Russell Edwards, claims that he has finally solved the case. First I will present his story without comment, and then we can take a skeptical look at it.

Edwards claims he acquired a blood-stained shawl in 2007 that is supposed to be from Catherine Eddowes, one of the five fairly accepted victims of the Ripper. The shawl was apparently recovered from the scene of Eddowes murder, and was covered in her blood. Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson took the shawl home as a gift for his wife. She was, apparently, not impressed and stored the shawl away without cleaning it.

The shawl remained in the possession of his family until they auctioned it off in 2007 and Edwards acquired it.

Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes

Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes

Edwards then solicited the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a Finnish expert in historic DNA. Louhelainen found that the 126 year old shawl contained a great deal of blood, likely all from the victim. However, he also found a semen stain on the shawl. Genomic DNA is unlikely to have survived 126 years sufficiently intact for DNA matching. However, mitochondrial DNA is more hardy and likely did survive.

Sperm, however, contain few mitochondria (almost none). Fortunately, Louhelainen was able to isolate an epithelial cell from the region of the semen stain. Epithelial cells line many tissues, and so it is possible that the cell (which would contain mitochondrial DNA) was from the same source as the semen itself.

Louhelainen was able to extract and amplify the DNA, and then type it, finding that it belonged to  .  .  .

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Also See: How Jack the Ripper Worked (howstuffworks)

Drinkable Sunscreen Snakeoil

steven_novellaBy Steven Novella via Science-Based Medicine

In May, prompted by an uncritical article in the Daily Mail, the internet was buzzing about a company that was offering drinkable sunscreen. This is one of those game-changer health products that immediately garners a great deal of attention.

At first the claim seems extraordinary, but it is not impossible. It is theoretically possible to drink a substance that becomes deposited in the skin and absorbs or reflects UV radiation providing protection. Sunscreen_250pxHowever, upon reading the details it becomes immediately apparent that the product in question is pure snake oil.

The product is Harmonized Water by Osmosis Skin Care. In fact, UV protection is just one claim among many for the harmonized water line of products. The website claims:

  • Remarkable technology that imprints frequencies (as standing waves) onto water molecules.
  • Advances in the ability to “stack” thousands of frequencies onto one molecule.
  • Revolutionary formula allows us to reverse engineer the frequencies of substances found in nature and/or the human body.
  • Newly identified frequencies that have beneficial effects on the body.

The website does include the “quack Miranda warning:”

Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

The product list also includes this further disclaimer: “Recommended for (but not meant to replace effective medications):”

And is then followed by a long list of harmonized water products with the conditions they are “recommended for,” including arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, asthma, depression, and many others.

SnakeOil_200pxDespite the aggressive disclaimers, I do believe that mentioning specific diseases by name violates FDA regulations. I did file a complaint with the FDA but never heard back.

This is a common snake-oil scam – selling “magic” water for one thing or another. The basic idea is that you can give special properties to ordinary water, and that somehow the water will retain these properties. Homeopathy, of course, is the grandfather of all such water woo. Ionized water, imprinted water, and energized water are all variations on this common theme.

The harmonized water is also playing off another common snake oil theme  .  .  .

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BBC Fail on Acupuncture Documentary

steven_novellaby via BBC Fail on Acupuncture Documentary

Alternative Medicine’s best friend, and in my opinion largely responsible for what popularity it has, is a gullible media. I had thought we were turning a corner, and the press were over the gushing maximally clueless approach to CAM, and were starting to at least ask some probing questions (like, you know, does it actually work), but a 2006 BBC documentary inspires a more pessimistic view.

acupucture_chinese_medicine_300pxThe documentary is part of a BBC series hosted by Kathy Sykes: Alternative Medicine, The Evidence. This episode is on acupuncture. The episode is from 2006, but was just posted on YouTube as a “2014 documentary.” Unfortunately, old news frequently has a second life on social media.

First, let me point out that Sykes is a scientist (a fact she quickly points out). She is a physicist, which means that she has the credibility of being able to say she is a scientist but has absolutely no medical training. It’s the worst case scenario – she brings the credibility of being a scientist, and probably thinks that her background prepares her to make her own judgments about the evidence, and yet clearly should have relied more on real experts.
She does interview Edzard Ernst in the documentary, but he mainly just says generic statements about science, rather than a thorough analysis of specific claims. I wonder what gems from him were left on the cutting room floor.

The documentary does get better in the second half, as she starts to mention things like placebo effects, and the problems with the evidence-base for acupuncture. But she follows a disappointing format – setting up a scientific premise, then focusing on the positive evidence. There is a clear narrative throughout, that acupuncture is amazing and surprising.

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