Storytelling vs. science

Things are not always what they seem.
Things are not always what they seem.

Several organizations exploit vulnerable parents by claiming that they can “cure” their children’s autism through various approaches.

As Left Brain, Right Brain observes, these “autism cure” movements persist because of the power of storytelling:

“Nothing sells unproven “treatments” like testimonials. For autism it has been true since the days of chelation and even before that. Tell people that your “treatment” cures autism and you have testimonials to show it and you can just about guarantee sales.”

As we all know, anecdotes aren’t scientific evidence, but they do appeal to us on an emotional level. Unfortunately, one woman’s recent experience has starkly illustrated just how untrustworthy such stories actually are.

Camile Saulnier (a pseudonym) was recently given a book by Kerri Rivera called “Healing the Symptoms known as Autism”, which prescribed a “Treatment” for curing autism:

“I began looking into the background of CD/MMS and I was extremely concerned to find that MMS (Sodium Chlorite + Citric Acid = Chlorine Dioxide) aka. ‘CD’ was and is being hailed and marketed as a cure for almost every ailment and disease known to mankind, this includes Cancer, Malaria, Aids and Ebola.

I found the man behind MMS to be one Jim Humble, the Arch-Bishop of a rather cult like church named the “Genesis II Church”. Suffice to say I was very worried indeed, I searched further and found that Kerri Rivera the author of the book “Healing the Symptoms known as Autism” is a Bishop within this church.

I voiced my concerns with my friend who was following the Protocol, but she seemed to be un-phased by my doubts. She directed me to the facebook group CDAutism, where she said I will find proof of the recovery stories and thousands of parents giving testimony to the marvelous gains achieved by using the CD Protocol.”

Saulnier was justifiably concerned and spent some time reading the group’s posts, learning that the linchpin of the group’s claims was the collection of testimonials of parents of “recovered” autistic children. Saulnier was skeptical about the reliability of these testimonials, as they were all posted by Kerri Rivera, and so devised a little test to see how Rivera determined what “recovery” was and whether it was the CD treatment that caused “recovery.”

“I had an idea to see for myself, I needed to be sure 100% that everything I was seeing and reading was real before I could even consider using this protocol. I am afraid my worst fears were not only imagined, they are real.

I made a recovery story for my child, based on so many others which I had read, I felt bad doing it as I do not like to pretend but it was for the sole purpose of finding a greater truth.”

Saulnier’s false testimonial was immediately and enthusiastically posted by Kerri Rivera on the group’s website, and the banner proclaiming the number of children “cured” of autism was promptly updated to reflect this false cure. You can read the details of Saulnier’s correspondance with Rivera here.

Now, I’m not at all comfortable with Saulnier’s approach. I don’t believe that it’s ethical to lie. But having said that, it is a fascinating glimpse into the credulity of this segment of the alt-med community. Can you imagine how this would have played out in the science-based medical community? What level of scrutiny would such a story have been subjected to by physicians and medical researchers before they accepted it as true?


Several readers of this blog are persons on the autism spectrum and have contributed their perspectives in discussions on vaccination and autism. I’d particularly love to hear their thoughts on this issue.

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Closing my browser tabs 12/15/14

Here are some serious and not-so-serious things to read about science as you drink your eggnog this week.

Vaccines

“Vaccines work. Here are the facts” is an awesome cartoon by Maki Naro, refuting the antivaccine arguments and giving a great and accessible overview of why vaccination is important. This deserves to go viral, so please share it with your friends! And while you’re on the treadmill or walking your dog this week, take a listen to “The Most Important Playground Conversation”, a discussion hosted by Voices for Vaccines in which VM writer Colin discusses strategies for discussing vaccination science with other parents.

Science publishing

Retraction Watch just received a $400,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop a database of retracted papers. This database would mean that scientists could check that the literature they rely upon in writing grants and papers haven’t been retracted. And they’re hiring an editor and database developer! This is outstanding news for those of us concerned about improving the quality of scientific publications.

Women in Science

Women have played a meaningful, but largely unrecognized, role in the history of amateur radio. The Mary Sue has a great article honoring female ham radio operators, which I particularly enjoyed because I’m one of their number! To my fellow YLs, 33 from KF5ZMF!! To everyone else, check it out and consider studying for your ham license! It’s not incredibly difficult, and it’s tremendous fun.

Science literacy and skepticism

I really like “Ask for Evidence”, a guide to evaluating the legitimacy of scientific and medical claims. It’s a simple, straightforward and clear explanation, and a good potential teaching tool. Explore the site–there are a bunch of posts by specific topic as well! You might, for example, use these approaches when evaluating claims made by the “Food Babe” who recently revealed some serious shortcomings in her understanding of chemistry.

Research

Did you know that the human milk microbiome has been characterized? That the flora present within human milk differs between mothers who gave birth vaginally and by caesarian? This post gives a really great explanation of this fascinating research.

Sweet Science

Tommy Toehold is hands-down my favorite combat sports cartoon journalist. (If you’re an MMA fan, then you’re probably nodding your head right now). I’m mentioning him in this post because he recently did an awesome video about the women’s MMA show that my sister is the matchmaker for, “How Invicta Took Over The World”. I’m a bit biased, but the latest Invicta show in Houston last week was pretty incredible, and he really gives a great introduction to the show. However, I still think that Tommy’s funniest video of all time is this one of Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg commentating on the EA UFC game’s glitches. (Warning: language in these videos is safe for neither work nor children.)

Finally, just a reminder that if you want daily links to science stories I find interesting (some of which I included above), “like” the VM page on Facebook!

Yes, doctors know what they’re talking about: Refuting a common anti-vaccine argument.

"Hieronymus Bosch 053" by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) - www.rijksmuseum.nl : Home : Info : Pic. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Hieronymus Bosch 053” by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hieronymus_Bosch_053.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hieronymus_Bosch_053.jpg

I usually don’t respond to many comments on my blog, preferring instead to encourage conversation between readers. I also don’t typically close comments on any of my pieces, so conversations and reactions continue for a long time. Sometimes that takes the discussion in an interesting direction. I think that a few recent comments on my “Dear parents…” piece are worth highlighting, as they provide an excellent window into an ongoing discussion of a very common anti-vaccine argument. Continue reading

A scientist was asked to review a new paper. You’ll never guess what happened next!

_KCM4407(Apologies for the egregious clickbaity title.)

 

A professor I know was recently sent a manuscript to review from PLOS ONE. Nothing unusual in that…except that it was his own paper. After briefly debating how to respond, he accepted the invitation to review the paper, and submitted the following review:

Continue reading

Another day, another anti-vaccine paper retracted

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 1.31.23 PM

 

I haven’t written here about the CDC “whistleblower” issue, because I was in Shanghai when the story broke with both limited internet access and limited desire to take time away from adventures to write. Orac did an excellent job of staying on top of the story, and I refer the interested reader to his series of posts on the subject, as well as this excellent summary by Todd W. at Harpocrates Speaks, and this one by Retraction Watch.

However, as many people who read Violent Metaphors have a specific interest in vaccine/anti-vaccine issues, I thought it would be worth talking about the most recent development in the story; specifically, the retraction of Brian Hooker’s journal article purporting to show an increased risk of autism among African American boys who receive the MMR vaccine.

Continue reading

The genetic prehistory of the North American Arctic

I’ve been waiting for this paper for months! The Willerslev group has just published the results of their study on ancient DNA from Paleo-Eskimos in the North American Arctic. Unfortunately, this article is behind a paywall at the journal Science, but I’ll give you a brief summary of the results, and talk a bit about why this paper matters and what it means for our understanding of the peopling of the Americas. Continue reading

Genetics professors unite in criticism of Nicholas Wade’s book.

Skyline

In a series of recent posts I and several others have strongly criticized Nicholas Wade’s recent book “A Troublesome History”, which purports to show that human races are biologically meaningful categories, characterized by different behavioral tendencies (which have resulted in different degrees of socio-political success). Now 139 professors with expertise in genetics, human biology, biological anthropology, and evolution have added their voices to this discussion, criticizing Wade’s book in a strongly worded letter that appears in the New York Times today. The full text of their letter can be found here. Organized by Grahm Coop, Michael Eisen, Rasmus Nielsen, Molly Przeworski, and Noah Rosenberg, the signatories include many of the leading researchers in human genomics (a full list of signatories and their affiliations can be found here).

Several of the authors are people whose research Mr. Wade cited approvingly in his book as supporting his thesis, such as Dr. Sarah Tishkoff, Dr. David Reich, and Dr. Noah Rosenberg (lead author of the 2002 paper that Mr. Wade uses as the primary evidence for his conception of genetically distinct races).

According to Michael Balter in an article appearing today in Science:

The letter was spearheaded by five population geneticists who had informally discussed the book at conferences, says co-organizer Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley. “There was a feeling that our research had been hijacked by Wade to promote his ideological agenda,” Nielsen says. “The outrage … was palpable.”

The authors don’t mince words:

Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.

We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.

This letter is highly inconvenient for Mr. Wade, making it clear that the senior researchers in the fields from which he’s trying to marshal support categorically reject his storytelling and bad science. Nor can he continue to make the (untrue) argument that critiques of his book are largely politically based, and conducted mainly by social scientists. A strong blow has been dealt to scientific racism today.

 

For further reading, check out the Nature blog on the subject: http://blogs.nature.com/news/2014/08/geneticists-say-popular-book-misrepresents-research-on-human-evolution.html, and Jeremy Yoder’s post: http://nothinginbiology.org/2014/08/08/population-geneticists-to-nicholas-wade-you-know-nothing-of-our-work/

 

UPDATE: Mr. Wade has issued a statement responding to the letter.  He starts out reasserting the position I claimed above that he can’t continue to hold:

“This letter is driven by politics, not science. I am confident that most of the signatories have not read my book and are responding to a slanted summary devised by the organizers.

As no reader of the letter could possibly guess, “A Troublesome Inheritance” argues that opposition to racism should be based on principle, not on the anti-evolutionary myth that there is no biological basis to race.  Unfortunately many social scientists have long denied that there is a biological basis to race. This creed, prominent throughout the academic world, increasingly impedes research. Biologists risk damaging their careers if they write explicitly about race.

 

In yesterday’s post on the subject, Mr. David Dobbs described who several of the authors are:

Those signers include

  • Noah Rosenberg, the lead author of a 2002 paper that Wade leans on especially heavily, ”Genetic Structure of Human Populations,“ as well as at least two other authors of the paper.

  • Yale’s Kenneth Kidd, who is one of the world’s most respected population geneticists, a central figure in establishing the field, and another co-author on the 2002 Rosenberg paper.

  • Stanford’s Jonathan Pritchard, another co-author on that paper and the researcher whose lab designed the ”Structure“ genetic analysis software that created the ”clustering“ data Wade says supports his argument.

  • Sarah Tishkoff, lead author of a 2009 paper on ”The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African-Americans“ that Wade cited extensively as crucial support.

  • Jun Li and Richard Myers, the lead and senior authors of a 2008 paper, ”Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation,” that, as I noted in my review, Wade misrepresented as supporting his argument.

 

These and the other signatories of the letter are the leaders in the field of human population genetics. They do not shy away from research and writing about human genetic variation. Mr. Wade is wrong to imply that they are being intimidated by cultural anthropologists. The fact that they agree on a single statement (on anything) is extraordinary and should be treated seriously.

Further, I suspect that more people on that list have read his book than he believes, simply because I’ve talked to them. In fact, Jerry Coyne, one of the signers of the letter has read it twice. (I encourage you to read his thoughts on the subject at the link above).

Disturbingly, Mr. Wade appears to be adopting the methodology of his “HBD” followers in claiming that evolution requires acceptance of his view of race. The data do not support that position, and saying so doesn’t make any of us anti-evolution, no matter how loudly he says it.

He goes on:

These attacks have included repeated assertions that the book is scientifically inaccurate, a charge for which I have seen no basis. In the same vein, this letter issues general charges without supporting evidence.

True, the letter doesn’t go into a detailed scientific refutation of his book. But there’s hardly space in the letter section of the NY Times to document his numerous errors, and many of us have done that already (For example “The troublesome ignorance of Nicholas Wade” by Agustin Fuentes, “How A Troublesome Inheritance gets human genetics wrong” by Jeremy Yoder, “The genes made us do it: The new pseudoscience of race” by Jon Marks, “A guide to the science and pseudoscience of ‘A Troublesome Inheritance’” by Chris Smith, “A Troubling Tome” by Greg Laden, “On the origin of white power” by Eric Michael Johnson, and “The fault in our DNA” by David Dobbs). If you take a look at the various reviews of his book, you’ll see that they tend to cover many of the same points. Mr. Wade has consistently ignored all of them. His only responses to critics (myself, Agustin Fuentes, Jon Marks, and later Pete Shanks), has been to dismiss our credentials without seriously engaging with the substance of our points, calling us “incoherent with rage”. He’s ignored many other detailed critiques. Given all of this, I’m fairly certain that there are no terms in which 139 professors could couch a critique that would satisfy Mr. Wade. Who is actually being political here?

 

You might find this American Anthropological Association-sponsored debate between Agustin Fuentes and Nicholas Wade illuminating:

 

 

ETA (8/10/14): I mistakenly listed only Dr. Coop as the organizer of the letter. I’ve edited to add the names of the other professors who organized and wrote it. My sincere apologies for the oversight.

The “Health Ranger” crosses the line, then backpedals.

Sign

This week Mike Adams, the self-styled “Health Ranger”, who runs the alternative medicine website Natural News, posted one of the most disturbing tirades against scientists that I’ve ever seen. He’s always been a promoter of pseudoscientific arguments against GMOs, but he has gone much, much further in his latest piece “Biotech genocide, Monsanto collaborators and the Nazi legacy of ‘science’ as justification for murder” (WARNING: Graphic and disturbing imagery of Holocaust victims at the link). Continue reading

Sexual harassment and scientific fieldwork

Excavating a cemetery in Barrow, AK. One of the best crews I've ever been on.
Excavating a cemetery in Barrow, AK. One of the best crews I’ve ever been on.

 

My friend and colleague, Julienne Rutherford, and her co-authors Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, and Katie Hinde have just published a groundbreaking study on fieldwork experiences among women in science. Disturbingly (though unsurprisingly for those of us who have done fieldwork), a majority (72.4%) of respondents to their survey “reported that they had directly observed or been told about the occurrence of other field site researchers and/or colleagues making inappropriate or sexual remarks at their most recent or most notable field site.” Further, a majority (64%) reported that they had personally experienced sexual harassment. (It’s important to note that men also responded to this survey to report experiencing and/or witnessing harassment, although at a lower frequency than women.)

This is one of those rare cases where I don’t need to recap the findings of the article, because the authors have published it in an open-access journal (PLOS ONE), and so I encourage you to go read the study itself here, and the Science news report about it by Ann Gibbons here.

Fieldwork is an occasional, but very important part of my job, and from my experiences I can attest that junior people in the field, particularly students, are extremely vulnerable. I applaud these researchers for calling attention to this problem, and I hope that it will be the beginning of a very important conversation about how to make fieldwork safer for everyone.

*** UPDATE: This piece, by Andrew David Thaler, is a must-read. I’d been debating about whether to write about the Richard Feynman controversy going on in the last few days, but instead I’ll just recommend that you check out the links in the first paragraph, particularly to Matthew Francis’ post on the subject.

Yet more responses to scientific racism

impediment

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.