Archives For pseudoscience

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In recent weeks, Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance has been soundly criticized on the basis of his misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the statistical methods used to study human genetic variation (see Jeremy Yoder’s critique here, Chris Smith’s here, Joseph Graves’ here, and mine here ), his misunderstanding of evolution (see Michael Eisen’s critique here, and Eric Michael Johnson’s here ), and his misunderstanding of human biological variation (see Greg Laden’s critique here,  Agustin Fuentes’ critique here, and Jon Marks’ here ). These criticisms–all from biologists and biological anthropologists– can be boiled down into a single statement: Mr. Wade’s book is scientifically unsound.

His responses thus far (to those of us who published in the Huffington Post) have failed to engage any of the substantive issues that have been raised. Instead, he dismissed our standing for discussing this issue, calling me a “postdoctoral student” (A science journalist should be aware that postdocs aren’t students), and dismissing Dr. Fuentes’ and Dr. Marks’ research background and credentials (as if biological anthropologists were not scientists). I have not seen any response yet to the numerous other critiques from biologists that have appeared elsewhere (many listed in the previous paragraph), which raise many of the same concerns.

Mr. Wade may feel that he can ignore the substantive critiques of his book by scientists. But can he do the same for fellow science journalists? David Dobbs’ review of Mr. Wade’s book appeared in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday (the online version can be read here). It is not favorable.  Mr. Dobbs calls the book “deeply flawed, deceptive, and dangerous.”

In discussing the study (critiqued by most of us above) that Mr. Wade claims supports the genetic basis for three (or is it five?) “continental races”, Mr. Dobbs notes that the paper itself

“directly contradicts Wade’s argument. Yet he baldly claims the study as support.  And he does this sort of thing repeatedly: He constantly gathers up long shots, speculations and spurious claims, then declares they add up to substantiate his case. The result is a deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book.”

Mr. Dobbs elaborates on this in the companion piece on his blog:

“Wade demonstrates how a lucid, well-written, selective presentation of evidence — eloquent, elegant cherry-picking — can convince smart people of pernicious ideas that seem scientific, but which science does not support. Much of the sleight of hand in this book will not be evident to people who don’t know the field. In some cases one has to read a specific paper cited by Wade to recognize that he thoroughly misrepresents its findings.”

I encourage you to go read both of Mr. Dobbs’ critiques. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Wade responds.

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Update: Here are a few other critiques worth mentioning:

A Troublesome Ghost by Dr. John Edward Terrell

In addition to the post I cited above, Dr. Chris Smith also takes on Wade’s mischaracterization of
the genetic basis for violent behavior in different populations.

He also discusses in detail Wade’s repeated assertion that human evolution has been “recent, copious and regional”.

And if you’d like to listen to an interesting discussion on race, genetics, ancestry testing, and human biology, here’s an appearance by Agustin Fuentes on the Center for Environmental Health podcast.

About these ads

I was shopping for food for my two cats and ran across a brand of kibble being marketed in an interesting way:

 

Meow

 

What’s wrong with this picture?

7752980066_a73cbbb6aa_k

Things have been pretty quiet around here while I finish up a couple of manuscripts for publication. However, I did want to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude to the people who have translated my article (“Dear parents, you are being lied to”) into many different languages (including German, Spanish, Italian, Slovakian, Portuguese, and Croatian) over the last few months. I’m overwhelmed by the response it has gotten, and grateful to have heard from so many of you that you found it useful.

I have no idea at this point how many people have read it, but I am trying to keep a running list of the different places it’s been published.  If anyone finds more examples, I’d appreciate it if you’d post them in the comments so I can add them to the list below!

http://www.stern.de/gesundheit/impfmythen-liebe-eltern-sie-werden-angelogen-2115041.html

http://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/debatt/Kjare-foreldre-Dere-blir-loyet-til-7589252.html

http://www.dfens-cz.com/view.php?cisloclanku=2014061901

http://www.pianetamamma.it/il-bambino/malattie/vaccini-perche-farli.html

http://www.butac.it/vi-stanno-mentendo/

http://www.detinjarije.com/dragi-roditelji-vama-se-govore-lazi/

Nicholas Wade has a problem. Although his new book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”, appears to be selling well, he’s not encountering the praise that he expected from biologists for “courageously” freeing them from the “intimidating social scientists” on the subject of race).

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

 

 

What is he arguing? I go over this briefly in my recent piece on the Huffington Post, and in much greater detail here on this blog, but essentially Wade is using patterns of human variation in populations as a justification for claiming that race is a valid, biological taxonomic category. He goes on to speculate (and that’s really the only word for it, since his claims are unsupported by the preponderance of scientific evidence) that these racial differences determine behavioral differences and thereby explain why some civilizations have historically been more successful economically and politically than others. (You can guess which races he’s talking about; his speculation happens to coincide neatly with traditional stereotypes.)

Wade claims that all critics of this viewpoint are motivated by political concerns and ignore data showing that races are genetically distinct enough to be meaningful taxonomic categories of humans. His book relies particularly upon one genomics study to support this point. In his words (emphasis mine):

 

Raff and Marks take issue with one of these surveys, Rosenberg et al. 2002, which used a computer program to analyze the clusters of genetic variation. The program doesn’t know how many clusters there should be; it just groups its data into whatever target number of clusters it is given. When the assigned number of clusters is either greater or less than five, the results made no genetic or geographical sense. But when asked for five clusters, the program showed that everyone was assigned to their continent of origin. Raff and Marks seem to think that the preference for this result was wholly arbitrary and that any other number of clusters could have been favored just as logically. But the grouping of human genetic variation into five continent-based clusters is the most reasonable and is consistent with previous findings. As the senior author told me at the time, the Rosenberg study essentially confirmed the popular notion of race.

 

It’s not a question of logic, but rather what the data show. Rosenberg et al. (2002)’s paper did not analyze or identify just 5 clusters, but rather it considered 1-20 clusters. What Wade is omitting from his paragraph above (and also from his book) is that Rosenberg and colleagues never presented any statistical justification for the choice of 5 clusters over any other number.

Here are the specifics of my criticism, which I posted in response to a commenter on my blog. (If you’re not interested in the statistical refutation of Wade’s argument, feel free to skip this paragraph. I hope Wade takes the time to read it, though). Continue Reading…

“…for he has no right to give names to objects which he cannot define.” –Charles Darwin

Do “races” exist as meaningful biological categories? Physical anthropologists and human biologists have been studying race (i.e., blacks vs. whites, or Europeans vs. Asians) for centuries. For most of that time, they subscribed to the perspective that race was a taxonomic category, and they sought to identify the biological characteristics (such as cranial shape or skin color) that characterized and defined these different groups. This perspective assumed that each individual was a member of a single racial category, that the differences between racial categories were biological, and that these categories were predictive of other traits (such as ancestry, temperament, intelligence, or health).

But it gradually became clear that this understanding was not scientifically sound. Groupings of people by skin color did not produce the same result as groupings of people by skull shape, nor of blood type. Furthermore, as scientists began to study human variation with the tools of genetics (in the process creating my fields, anthropological genetics and human population genetics), it became apparent that human genetic variation does not divide humans into a few discrete groups. There are virtually no sharp boundaries, either with physical features or with patterns of genetic diversity, that show where one population “ends” and the next “begins”. Continue Reading…

Hard at work

Hard at work

 

I am currently working on both a fellowship and a manuscript, so instead of writing a longer piece here, I’m issuing everyone a challenge. I have seen it repeated multiple times throughout the comments here that there seems to be evidence “on both sides” of the vaccines issue, and therefore people should just “go with their gut.” I reject that approach as lazy (at best). Whether or not vaccines are safe and effective is an empirical question, and therefore it should be answerable with data.

If there is any theme to this blog, it would be:  Not all evidence is equivalent, and it takes training and a willingness to admit to ignorance in order to be able to identify good evidence from bad evidence. So how can the average person begin to sort out which information is good, and which is bad? There are many approaches to this question, which I will be exploring further in the coming weeks. But the first one is to honestly take inventory of one’s own knowledge: do you actually understand this issue? Do you, for example understand how the immune system works? No? Then you’d better read more and learn more on the subject before wading into the debate.

A second important step is assessing other people’s knowledge on the subject. This can can be difficult as it’s awfully easy to sound “smart” on the internet. I want to simplify this step here by asking everyone (anti-vaccine, pro-vaccine, or “undecided”) a single question: What kind of evidence would change your mind on this issue? This question has come up several times in our discussions (most recently, I believe, in the comments of gewisn), and I think the answers are so revealing that I want to devote an entire post to it.

Please be as specific and honest as possible. Please define any jargon. If you are talking about specific studies, please cite them so everyone can read them. This comments section will be more heavily moderated than usual in order to keep the discussion on track. Comments that do not answer the question, or go off on tangents will be deleted (although I won’t ban you from discussions unless you violate my general commenting policy).

As we approach the end of what’s basically been “Vaccines Month” here on Violent Metaphors, I want to take a moment to sincerely thank all parents who have responsibly vaccinated their children. In particular, I want to acknowledge those parents who had concerns about vaccines, but took the time to educate themselves and trusted their brains instead of their fears. Not only are your children safer because of your decision, but you have also helped protect countless children (and adults) who you will never meet.

 

I see your efforts and appreciate them!

I see your efforts and appreciate them!

 

I also want to express my gratitude to everyone who has participated in the comments, and taken a moment to share these posts with others. You may have gotten into uncomfortable discussions because of it, but know that your collective efforts are far more meaningful than any single post we can write here. By taking a public stand against pseudoscience, you have given voice to the thoughts shared by the majority of people, who are far too often intimidated by the clamoring of the fearful minority.

This site has had quite a bit of traffic in the last month, and the ad revenue that such traffic has generated is therefore considerably greater. When that happens, I typically donate a chunk of the proceeds (above what is needed to run the site) to a charitable organization. Usually I give it to an animal rescue organization (a cause dear to my heart), but I thought that since the amount this time was likely to be more substantial, I’d ask you to vote on which charity you would like to support.

Here are the options that I’ve thought of (in no particular order). Please let me know your preference (as well as any concerns you might have about these particular charities) in the comments.

 

The Autism Science Foundation : http://www.autismsciencefoundation.org/

Doctors Without Borders: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/

Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital: http://www.stjude.org/stjude/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=f87d4c2a71fca210VgnVCM1000001e0215acRCRD

 

 

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen again and again in the comments sections of every vaccination article is a fundamental lack of understanding of how the immune system works. Many people talk vaguely of “toxins”, “pathogens” and “immunity”, but it’s clear that they have no idea exactly how this works. So I thought that I’d invite a regular commenter, Dr. Scott Nelson, to write an explanation. I think that Dr. Nelson, who teaches this subject in university courses, has done an excellent job of making a complex topic accessible to people who are not scientists or physicians.  (Note that we have provided hyperlinked definitions of many of these terms from Wikipedia for convenience. Dr. Nelson and I have both reviewed them and agree that they’re accurate. If you would like additional information beyond what is provided here, we recommend consulting any basic major textbook).

If you are “doing your own research” on vaccines, I urge you to read all the way through the end, and then watch the video, which shows an animation of the processes that Dr. Nelson describes.  Finally, because I think it’s important to illustrate the vast differences between the scientific explanation of how the immune system works, and the “alternative medical” explanation, I’ve included the homeopathic version at the end of the post. I encourage you to share your thoughts on which you find most compelling, and why. My comments following Dr. Nelson’s are in bold

–Jennifer

A common thread through many anti-vaccine posts is fear about “all the stuff that you are jabbing into a kid”. I would like all the people who think this to perform a simple experiment. Take a piece of meat-any meat-make sure it’s fresh and smells good. Put it on the counter in a nice warm place-about body temperature-cover with a screen if you like. Let it be for three days and then look at it carefully, note all the different shapes and colors. If you know somebody with a microscope, scrape a bit of stuff off and look at it under a microscope. How many different things do you see now? Each spot, each color, each bug you see under a microscope represents something that the immune system is dealing with every second of everyday. After all-wasn’t it exposed to the exact same air that you’re breathing right now? Your body is that piece of meat-your immune system is what keeps it from rotting. Right now, our best estimates are that there are 10 microorganisms for every cell in your body. Your immune system “knows” them all and has responded in various ways, which science is currently exploring. Continue Reading…

Last weekend I attended the Autism Trust’s Give Autism a Chance Summit. Billed as an “informative conference,” it actually felt like a Two Minutes Hate about the evils of science and medicine. Speakers harangued the audience about the evils of vaccination–including a bizarre show trial–and pushed snake oil on desperate parents. Some of the speakers touted services based on absurd, unproven theories; others lied shamelessly to the attendees. Although there were some positive messages on display, the conference focused on sowing fear and using it to move product.

Image altered from its original form. Original image credit as linked; licensed under Creative Commons BA-SY 2.0.

Parents of autistic children are reaching out for help.
What they find are people reaching for their wallet.

Continue Reading…

Article and photo by Colin

 

Lies can make complex problems look simple; anti-vaxers want to keep your eyes on their distortions, rather than looking up to take in the real world.

Lies can make complex problems look simple; anti-vaxers want to keep your eyes on their distortions, rather than looking up to take in the real world.

 

Thanks to Jenny McCarthy and Megan of Living Whole for proving the point: anti-vaxers are lying to parents. Jenny McCarthy is in the news lately with an op-ed that starts with a whopper: “I am not ‘anti-vaccine.’” This is absolutely not true; McCarthy has worked hard for years to scare parents away from vaccinations. The root of her campaign is her insistence that vaccines cause autism, despite the conclusion of the community of experts that there is no evidence of such a link.

It’s absurd for her to claim now that she only wants “safe” vaccinations, since the dangers she complains about are primarily in her head. Vaccines, like any medicine, can’t ever be 100% safe, but they’re “among the most safe and effective public health interventions to prevent serious disease and death.” Science can’t make a vaccine “safer” if the problems she wants fixed don’t exist. It’s as if she was telling parents not to fly until Boeing finds a way to keep gremlins off their planes. They can’t do it because gremlins, like a vaccine-autism connection, don’t exist. Nevertheless McCarthy uses those false fears to drive a wedge between parents and their doctors, depressing vaccination rates while still shamelessly claiming she’s not “anti-vaccine.”

McCarthy has been lying for years about the dangers of vaccines. If the effect of those lies is to stop parents from vaccinating, then yes, she is an anti-vaxer. But she’s not stupid; she knows that people give more credibility to voices that claim to be “in the middle” or “just asking questions.” So she lies. She claims that she’s not an anti-vaxer, even though her goal and effect is to reduce childhood vaccinations, because she’s a more credible and effective anti-vaxer if she can persuade parents she’s just asking questions about the safety of the vaccination schedule. Since those questions have long since been answered, the only reason she’s still asking them is to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about some of the safest medical products available, her pretense at a balanced stance is false and misleading.

It’s common for anti-vaxers to lie to enhance their credibility. It’s one of the only ways the movement can make progress, since the community of experts disagrees with their conclusions so fervently. One way is to claim false equivalence, as McCarthy does. But we recently saw a good example of an even bolder lie, courtesy of Megan at Living Whole.

Continue Reading…