Although this blog is not the Denialism Blog, there is no doubt that one of the overarching themes of Respectful Insolence has been, since its very beginning, combatting science denial. Go back to the very beginning and read a couple of my earliest posts, dating way back to 2004. In one of them I discussed cancer cure testimonials and why they are almost never evidence of efficacy of a given alt-med therapy, a post that, in my ever-insolent opinion, holds up with anything I write today. In another one, I wondered how intelligent people could use alt-med, and in another one I discussed “intelligent design” creationism. In yet another post, I laid out the major topics of this blog for the year 2005, a list that is not too far from what I still write about today. In fact, that list reads like a menu of the various flavors of science denial. Oddly enough, vaccine denialism wasn’t even mentioned in that list, an omission I found quite odd going back to reread my old stuff. In fact, although I had discussed vaccines before on Usenet, it did not become a major topic on this blog for a few months. Indeed, my takedown of anti-vaccine environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in June 2005 was arguably my first big splash in th blogosphere, a turning point for this blog, after which my traffic strated to climb.
Way back in 2004 and 2005, the term “denialism,” although it might have been coined, was a term I had never heard of. Certainly, it was not a widely used term at the time. However, as more and more scientists and commenters appreciated the commonalities that unite various strains of anti-science movements, such as the anti-vaccine movement, creationism, alternative medicine, and animal rights extremists, it became clear that a blanket term was appropriate. Certainly, in my time blogging, the more I observed it didn’t take long for me to appreciate these commonalities as well Some of them include a hostility towards experts, the arrogance of ignorance, and a tendency to conspiracy theories as a means of explaining why science won’t accept pseudoscientific views, but that is not all. Certainly ideology and religion are major influences, particularly when it comes to creationism and the widespread disbelief in the scientific consensus in anthropogenic global climate change. Recently, Michael Specter wrote a book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. (As much as I like the subject matter, God, how I hate long, tedious subtitles.) In February, he gave a TED talk and wrote an accompanying editorial. Naturally, at the five year plus mark that I’ve been applying not-so-respectful insolence to anti-science, not surprisingly I can’t resist commenting–but only after a long-winded introduction. After all, I’ve got to be me.
In the editorial, Specter summarizes the problem very well:
American denialism threatens many areas of scientific progress, including the widespread fear of vaccines and the useless trust placed in the vast majority of dietary supplements quickly come to mind.
It doesn’t seem to matter how often vaccines are proved safe or supplements are shown to offer nothing of value. When people don’t like facts, they ignore them.
That this is true is undeniable. Anyone who peruses, even just occasionaly, the echo chamber that is the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism or peruse the comments after any particularly contentious issue to see antivaccinationists like J. B. Handley or the morphing troll Sue or promoters of quackery like homeopath Dana Ullman can’t help but come to the conclusion that, no matter how much evidence, reason, and science show that a favored idea isn’t true, people will cling to it. Indeed, they’ll cling to it even tighter the more it is shown to be false.
One thing I share in common with Specter is the shock he relates at some of these pseudoscientific movements. He relates early in his talk how several years ago he did a story on vaccines and found himself to be shocked that there was opposition to what he describes as the “most effective public health measure in human history.” Well do I remember, way back around 2001 or so, the first time I encounterd the anti-vaccine movement on the Internet, and I felt exactly the same shock that anyone would refuse vaccines or claim all the harm from them that the anti-vaccine movement did. So shocked was I that I started investigating. As I examined the science, it didn’t take at all long for me to figure out that the claims of the anti-vaccine movement that vaccines cause autism, that shaken baby syndrome is a “misdiagnosis” for vaccine injury, or that vaccines cause various forms of autoimmune conditions like asthma and other chronic health problems are completely unsupported by scientific evidence. Don’t get me wrong. I did learn that there is such a thing as vaccine injury. However, I also learned that such injury is rare and that, whatever the anti-vaccine movement claims, there is no credible scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism.
I also learned, as did Specter, that most of the people who are anti-science regarding specific issues, such as vaccines, genetically modified food (GMO), or alt-med are actually not stupid. Many of them are highly educated. He points out that, for a variety of reasons, people have lost confidence in institutions and in science itself, mentioning disasters such as Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Vioxx. It was at this point that one key aspect of people with anti-science beliefs was made plain. Specter quite correctly exhorted his audience to be skeptical, to question things. However, he also said that when the evidence is presented and compelling, you also have to do one thing more: Accept it.
As Yoda might say to ant-science pseudoskeptics, “That is where you fail.”
If there’s one thing that distinguishes healthy skepticism from denialism, it’s a refusal to actually accept scientifically valid evidence against your position and consider changing your mind. Again, because I’m the most familiar with it and because its adherents show up to demonstrate this principle on this blog on a regular basis, I’ll use the anti-vaccine movement as an example. No matter how much evidence is shown to them, no matter how many scientific studies fail to find a link between vaccines and autism, no matter how often I and others pick apart the conclusion-negating flaws of the “studies” presented by the anti-vaccine movement to support their position, they never, ever budge. Indeed, their usual response is to attack the messenger, as I have been attacked on many occasions, rather than to try to refute the evidence. The same thing, although usually with a lesser degree of vitriol, can be said of other anti-science movements. For those of you who know my real name, if you Google it you will turn up all sorts of anti-vaccine loons, supporters of quackery, and, if you dig deeper, Holocaust deniers attacking me.
The other thing that Specter gets right is how human beings believe anecdotes far more quickly than we believe science or, as he put it, “We don’t believe a bunch of documents from a government official.” I would have put it, “We don’t believe a bunch of pointy-headed scientists telling us that our personal experience is misleading.” After all, we know what we saw, right? Of course, as I’ve discussed time and time again, correlation does not equal causation. More importantly, coincidence is not uncommon but inevitable when we are examining large numbers of people. People do not understand that, which is why when parents notice the first symptoms of autism not long after a vaccine it does not necessarily mean the vaccine caused it. It might, but the only way to find out is to study large numbers of children, which, as Specter points out, has been done. The results have been about as resoundingly negative as it is possible to have in epidemiological studies.
Specter also has an amusing take on supplements, few of which have any real benefits. As he points out, what many supplements do is nothing more than to give you dark urine. Like Specter, I tend to agree. If you want to spend tons of money for supplements that are unnecessary and for which there is no evidence that they do anything other than give you dark urine, go for it. But don’t pretend that you’re getting a good deal for your money. Perhaps the most cogent observation is how we run from big pharma into the arms of big placebo. Specter didn’t originate that lovely term. I’ve definitely heard it before. However, he did remind me of it again, and I will likely use it.
One thing that’s clealry true about Specter is that he is an evangelist for genetically modified food. Indeed, even though I did in general like his book, the intensity of his chearleading for GMO was so strong that it disturbed me a bit (and, quite frankly, the chapter on Vioxx was a confusing mess). In other words, he didn’t convince me that GMO is a panacea for global hunger. He did, however, make an excellent point that can be applied to another of anti-science movements, which often conflate political and policy issues designed to address the science with the science itself. Anthropogenic global warming is an excellent example of this, but GMO may be the best example, as Specter points out:
When people say they prefer organic food, what they often seem to mean is they don’t want their food tainted with pesticides and their meat shot full of hormones or antibiotics. Many object to the way a few companies — Monsanto is the most famous of them — control so many of the seeds we grow.
Those are all legitimate complaints, but none of them have anything to do with science or the way we move genes around in plants to make them grow taller or withstand drought or too much sun. They are issues of politics and law. When we confuse them with issues of science, we threaten the lives of the world’s poorest people.
We threaten more than that. Perhaps the best quote in Specter’s entire talk was this: “When you start down the road where belief in magic replaces evidence and science, you end up in a place where you don’t want to be.”
Unfortunately, for more and more of the population, it seems, that’s exactly where they’re going. They don’t want to be there, but unfortunately they won’t realize it until there there. They might not even realize it even then.
Unfortunately, society will.
56 replies on “The danger of science denialism”
Um, asthma’s not autoimmune.
I am definitely not an expert, but a simple search for “asthma autoimmune” brought up a study on PubMed. I also found this article (good thing I have good eyesight because I don’t have a subscription), but I am only able to read one page.
So I guess asthma might be autoimmune, but we are not sure yet (at least that is my understanding).
Yes, I was a bit put off by his emphasis on GMOs. While there are people who spout unscientific nonsense about them, much of the controversy has nothing to do with pseudoscientific beliefs or any sort of denialism. It has to do with the economic structure and the sustainability of agriculture, in a nutshell. GMO food crops, for example, are often meant to be used in connection with large amounts of herbicides, and there is plenty of good evidence that contamination of waterways and wetlands with herbicides and their breakdown products is harmful to fish and amphibians. Agricultural methods associated with GMO generally reinforce large scale, capital intensive approaches to agriculture. Pests are now becoming resistant to either the herbicides used in connection with GMO herbicide resistant crops, or the insecticides produced by GMO crops, rendering the whole enterprise potentially unsustainable — yet farmers are addicted, as it were, to these methods. Built-in insecticides in GMO crops essentially make integrated pest management impossible — the pesticide has to be there, all the time — and therefore are inherently unsustainable.
I could go on but the point is, there are legitimate controversies here which you don’t have to be crazy, or a denialist, to engage in.
A few things about GMO’s:
I think he’s right about what people are worried about: hormone soaked meat, seed patents, etc. and this generally is what most people are focusing on. What people are really worried about is not a Science complaint, it’s a corporate complaint.
When profits are put first, in the quick buck society, science becomes a dystopian nightmare tool used by corporations to squeeze out a few more dollars without regard to outcomes.
People blame science, when it’s the motives behind the science that’s a problem.
I personally worry about the plants that are modified to grow faster and be more drought resistant, only because I worry about the quality of crop that creates. Plants are transmitters of nutrients, and modifying plants to grow better/faster without regard to what is in the plant would be dangerous, and combined with the profit motives of corporations, we have a large potential problem.
I am not sure why you are holding Specter up as a paragon of a skeptic and not a denialist. Look at how he accepted the following phraseology that comes straight from food science demialists:
“When people say they prefer organic food, what they often seem to mean is they don’t want their food tainted with pesticides and their meat shot full of hormones or antibiotics”
He simply accepted the woo that natural is better. It does not matter that the science is clear that the growth promoting hormones pose little to no danger. To the cranks, science does not matter.
Wow it must be scary to be so high up on your own high horse that you feel like a expert on this subject. We are not the Anti-Vaccine movement. We are parents whose children were stolen away after we trusted the System. My Son has vaccine induced autism that has been confirmed by Dr’s and many many lab tests. Have some compassion not everyone is full of it.
What tests confirmed that your son’s autism was specifically caused by a vaccine or combination of vaccines? Which vaccine or combination of vaccines were found to be responsible? What is the mechanism by which the vaccine or vaccines caused your son’s autism?
Kelly, all due respect…your son was not “stolen” – he’s still right there, needing your unconditional love and acceptance. Please give it to him, instead of seeing him as some lesser replacement for the son that was “stolen.”
Kelly, I am going to second Todd’s comment here. Can you please explain exactly what lab tests were run, and how they “confirmed” that your son has vaccine-induced autism?
Are you talking about something like metals testing in hair or something like that? Or what?
I am trying to make the connection of how a lab test could show autism was caused by vaccines.
You might find this article on “cultural cognition of risk” ( http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1549444 ) relevant:
-*”generally speaking, persons who subscribe to individualistic values tend to dismiss claims of environmental risks, because acceptance of such claims implies the need to regulate markets, commerce, and other outlets for individual strivings. Persons with more egalitarian and communitarian values, in contrast, resent commerce and industry as forms of noxious self-seeking productive of unjust disparity, and thus readily accept that such activities are dangerous and worthy of regulation. Finally, like those who subscribe to an individualistic ethos, persons who subscribe to hierarchical values resist claims of environmental risk, which they perceive as subversive indictments of social and governmental elites.”
More on the anti-science movement here: http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2010/04/delusional-disorder-part-iii.html
Odds on the return of Kelly to address the questions? Anyone?
Mike @5: There are at least two steps here. The first is the difference between “I want organic food” and “I want food without pesticides and meat that doesn’t contain antibiotics.” The entire point of pesticides is that they can be harmful to at least some animal life. There are sound reasons not to want antibiotics in animal feed: antibiotic resistance is a real problem. Pesticides can be a tradeoff: you don’t want to lose your crops, before or after harvest, but you also don’t want to poison your children.
The second point is what, if anything, this has to do with genetically modified plants. A person can be fine with GMO cotton but worried about modified food crops for various reasons. Some of this is guilt by association–if you can’t trust a hamburger, do you trust the GMO tomatoes served with it? (That’s emotion more than logic, but it is a way people think.)
It’s entirely reasonable to point out “what people are really worried about is contaminated food, and organic is a proxy for ‘safe'” without taking a position on the value of GMO soybeans.
Kelly, that diagnosis wouldn’t happen to be from a DAN! doctor, would it? Here’s a little tidbit for you, those doctors always find evidence of vaccine injury. The labs they use are of questionable value, and they will practically always find “heavy metals” that result in the doctor needing to use some form of biomed to “cure” it.
It’s not unlike those door to door water purifier salesmen that offer a “free” water test. Your water will always show impurities that they can conveniently sell you something to “fix”. Or those websites that offer a “free” PC virus scan, that will always always find something their product can protect you from. They are playing on your fears to sell you a “service”, their “tests” are designed to do this.
Concerning those who do not trust “documents from a government agency”,”pointy headed scientists”,the CDC,the AMA,SBM,peer reviewed journals,doctors in general,and(GASP!)psychologists:well,exactly *who* do they trust? Deepak and his chakras(available on Kindle!),Null and Adams “educating” you about their unattainable,”healthy” lifestyle,then selling myriad products to “fill the gap”,Mercola ratcheting up your fear of cancer then providing “prevention”,actresses with a second career- and a book deal,Kevin Trudeau-offering a “new system”,those who sell vitamins to the HIV+,or false hope to parents of children on the ASD spectrum,(some)people with blogs.My question to them: “If you don’t trust the CDC or doctors, because they have “something to gain”,why would you listen to a saleman?”
It’s easy to blame “Science” and run away from it, stuffing your head in the sand and yelling “Lalalalalala!” so as to not hear anything that might taint your fantasy.
The hard part is accepting that there may be things you don’t understand, and acting to change that.
Ignorance is curable by knowledge.
Comparison in a vacuum – GM crops which are designed to be used with herbicides (large amounts seems a tad unnecessary here, any farmer using herbicides will want to use the absolute minimum amount that is effective) should be compared with the herbicide useage prior to the GM crop. When this is done it becomes apparent that the environmental impact of the crop decreases significantly in terms of applied herbicide (although I believe there is a case that more herbicide is used in terms of active ingredient applied, in the same way that if I use ibuprofen to deaden a headache I use more active ingredient than if I use say, percoset – in terms of impact though I’m guessing the percoset (or insert narcotic of your choice) has a bigger impact (ie when I plough through a crowd of school children on the way to work). There is also plenty of evidence that recently herbicide runoff and breakdown products has reduced directly as a result of massive adoption of GM crops, and that roundup and its breakdown products are significantly less toxic than systems previously used.
I’m not sure how accurate this is – the entire framework of international industrial agriculture and scales of economy etc I think is the culprit here, most utilizers of GM technology are small scale farmers in developing nations, I’m not convinced that there is evidence they are being forced into a large scale, capital intensive approach – they choose to invest a little extra capital up front (if I remember correctly the comparison between a small scale Indian cotton farmer using GM and not using GM showed an approximate 3-4% increase in upfront cost due to seed – with a 30-100% increase in end of season profit) for a large end of season payoff.
On some of the acreage under RR crops there are instances of herbicide tolerance occuring – this is why there is a current drive to add more herbicide tolerance traits (multiple modes of action should delay/prevent tolerance evolution) and to get farmers to not solely rely on roundup, unfortunately meaning the use of more herbicides (although still less than would be used without the RR system), for exactly the same reason.
I believe that the first confirmed field resistances to insecticidal proteins were described in India recently (although there is a suggestion in the literature that some resistance was apparent in the US previously) but that these are not considered a problem as thigns stand because a double stack of 2 Cry proteins deals with the resistant insects (and if I recall correctly the resistant insects were partially, not completely resistant, meaning that some, but not all, were still killed by the Bt crop) – this is something which is dealt with in the US with ‘refuge’ (area under cultivation not utilizing insecticidal protein) which has proven highly effective at preventing the evolution of resistance, and going forward with refuge + stacked genes (multiple modes of acton reduce the chance of evolving resistance (if A doesnt kill you but B still does then it doesn’t really matter and survival on A offers no evolutionary benefit))
What does this mean for the sustainability of the whole enterprise? Well, if there was no further research, and nothing further done, then I’d agree that an agricultural approach where only roundup was used as a herbicide (and used ubiquitously) and only a single Cry protein was used as an insecticde (again, ubiquitously) would be unsustainable due to the evolutionary pressures at work. However even if this were the case, both systems would remain awesome in that they both reduce, for their period of utility, the environmental and toxicological impact of herbicides and insecticides used – and at the end of the day you are literally no worse off than when you started (who gives a flying rats behind if there are roundup resistant weeds when you can’t use roundup to control weeds anyway?). And as this clearly isn’t the case – there are a slew of new insecticidal genes comign out, and new herbicide tolerances being developed – and neither system operates under a ubiquitous/sole use model anyway (refuge and multiple modes of action for insect resistance, multiple herbicide use, and upcoming multi tolerances in future in terms of herbicides)
You may not have to be a denialist, or crazy, to engage in the debate, but you do have to be careful in drawing conclusions (I personally think it is batshit insane to claim that herbicide or insecticide use has increased due to GMOs, but only because all the peer-reviewed literature backs my stance) and not trundle off down the same poor lines of reasoning as the bulk of the anti-GM crowd tends to utilize (they’re toxic!! they cause suicide!! terminator seeds!! etc etc)
Ag klepto (shortened it like this so people will confuse you with Monsanto….)
This is a science complaint however in so far as people believe that meat is ‘hormone soaked’ or that seed patents are anything new, or indeed anything to worry about, the whole rBST debate tended to rage around hormones in milk, which absolutely was a science complaint – all the science said ‘erm, no, this makes utterly no difference’ however this did not register whatsoever.
On the quality of foodstuff – this is something which really would cause problems if the quality of foodstuff coming out of the system didn’t matter to those who buy it. Most GMO right now (corn and soy) goes to animal feed. If the quality of animal feed changes significantly farmers producing lower quality feed won’t be able to sell. This is a prime reason why there are an abundance of feed equivalency studies on GM crops – if the GM crop underperforms it is useless as a feedstuff, if it is useless as a feedstuff it is useless to farmers – these things are taken into account, and tested, for every new product to come to market.
Not only is it more emotion than logic, it’s more fantasy than reality, as there aren’t GMO tomatoes in the food chain right now (possibly in the future) – you’d at least be living in the real world if you were concerned about the GM corn or soy fed to the cow that comprises the burger, or the GM corn or beets used to produce the sugar in your coke (or which probably pervades all your food) – you’d still be operating pretty insanely, but at least your insanity would be confined to the real world.
As a final disclaimer for anyone reading this, yes, I’m employed by Monsanto (although not in PR), and in keeping with corporate policy, all the views expressed in the above rant are entirely my own yadda yadda yadda.
Your writers are getting even more absurd. Change smoking for autism! Which series of tests showed that your relative died from cancer brought on by smoking? Which cigarette? Which brand of cigarettes caused this cancer?
Like autism it fell down on simple arithmetic. Richard Doll said why are nine out of ten patients in cardio-thoracic wards former smokers when only three in ten of the population smoke? Why can’t I (despite the ramblings of some writers) find any instances of individuals who are both unvaccinated and autistic. What so many of your writers do is to tell me my methods are uncientific, why don’t they give me some facts about autistic people who were never vaccinated! The commonality of their responses betrays their ignorance of the real problem.
Tony Bateson, Oxford, UK.
why don’t they give me some facts about autistic people who were never vaccinated!
After the fourth, fifth, eleventh, bajillionth time, it just gets old.
More interesting trolls, please.
Ewan, I don’t have time to get into a debate on this subject, and it is off topic anyway, but let me just quickly point out a couple of things. The whole point of “Roundup ready” seeds is to use herbicides instead of tillage. Of course it increases use of herbicides, how could it not? And Roundup is not nearly as benign as it’s made out to be: it consists not only of glyphosate, but also a so-called “inactive” ingredient which they don’t have to prove is safe. But it isn’t inactive, and it isn’t safe. It’s a surfactant that is highly toxic to aquatic organisms. And it is simply a fact that weeds in areas where farmers use lots of Roundup are now becoming resistant to glyphosate. So, game over.
Same problem goes for crops engineered to contain insecticides. A wise farmer uses the least insecticide possible — not that most farmers are wise in that way — but with the insecticide built in, that’s impossible. So you get resistance, inevitably, and faster.
As for the large scale and capital intensity, that’s easy to show as well but again, I don’t have time.
Because you are either a liar or an idiot. Or maybe a lying idiot. Next?
Because a) your methods are unscientific and b) you have been given concrete examples numerous times. You know, like Kim Stagliano’s youngest daughter.
The problem is: Many people cannot determine whether this is applicable or whether “Who are you gonna believe – me or your lying eyes?”. Evaluation is sometimes tough.
“Which series of tests showed that your relative died from cancer brought on by smoking? Which cigarette? Which brand of cigarettes caused this cancer?”
Benzo[a]pyrene, a chemical found in the in the cigarette, caused lung cancer, via the mechanism of oxidation by the P450 enzyme (specifically, CYP1A1 and CYP3A4) in the lungs.
The reason it takes so long to set in, is because we have two detox methods that must be depleted before the chemical can be activated by P450; then, once it is activated, it must make its way to DNA and bind to it at the right spot to create a harmful mutation that is not repaired by DNA Repair Enzymes. Once the harmful mutation has passed all these obstacles, then the cell can start dividing rapidly until cancer appears.
Does that help?
Cervantes – it takes a quick look at the scientific literature to see that with increased useage of roundup comes decreased environmental impact. There may be more active ingredient being used (something the UCS made a big deal out of, despite not looking at the environmental impact). This is not to imply that there is no impact it using roundup, but that the impact is less than is seen when other systems are used. In terms of safety – roundup has been tested, with surfactant, in safety studies, and is safe for humans. It is true that in some areas roundup resistance in weeds has arisen, however this in no way implies that the game is over – there are strategies for avoiding resistance, and dealing with resistance.
The inevitability and speed of resistance to Bt toxin in plants seems to me rather made up – perhaps resistance is inevitable, over time (whether this is 10 years or 100 is completely unclear) however as described in detail in my previous post there are methods for working around this, and it is in no way unexpected (and that Bt crops have been widely used in the US without widespread resistance – the documented cases of evolution of Bt resistance come from sprayed on Bt).
In neither case is it a huge problem. If you aren’t using roundup then roundup resistant weeds are just weeds, if you aren’t using Bt then Bt resistant insects don’t matter (other than perhaps occasionally to a spectacularly small section of Ag)
I’d be interested to see the proof for scale and capital intensity, and how you disentangle this from the push towards scale and capital intensity from other sources (ie the drive to maximize productivity and the low price paid for commodity crops which practically requires massive scale Ag the only way to extract a dollar – neither of which are issues directly linked to GMOs) or how you explain the vast prepoderance of farmers utilizing GMOs in small scale Ag settings outside of the developed world where large scale capital intensive farming is the norm.
Mr Bateson, you said:
“Your writers are getting even more absurd. Change smoking for autism! Which series of tests showed that your relative died from cancer brought on by smoking? Which cigarette? Which brand of cigarettes caused this cancer?”
You appear to have not read the initial post that the commentators are responding to.
The claim that tests can show autism being caused by vaccines was clearly the original commentators.
If you’re going to criticise people for logical errors, please ensure that you a: state who it is so that no-one can accuse you of being deliberately vague as a cover-my-ass strategy, and b: criticise the person that actually made the logical error so that people cannot accuse you of using it as a means to take a cheap shot at people you disagree with.
Do both these things next time and your posts will be less likely to come across as being the work of a ethically improper person.
In her book Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and the Perils of Piety, Wendy Kaminer points out the strong effect the ‘therapeutic culture’ has had on the way people approach science. She writes:
Good book; recommend it.
If you told me that your son had smoking induced cancer that “has been confirmed by Dr’s and many many lab tests” I could tell you immediately that either you misunderstood your doctor or else your doctor is a quack, because there is no lab test that can determine whether a particular cancer was caused by smoking. On the other hand, a doctor might reasonably tell you that a particular cancer was probably caused by smoking, because (a) smoking has been established in multiple epidemiological studies to increase the risk of lung cancer, and (b) the particular type of cancer associated with smoking is otherwise rare.
In the case of autism, on the other hand, there is (a) no credible evidence that vaccination increases the risk of autism, and (b) there is no evidence that autism is any different in unvaccinated people than in unvaccinated people. Moreover, there is no laboratory test whatsoever that has been shown to diagnose autism, much less autism resulting from any particular cause, with only one exception–Rett syndrome, which is known to have a genetic cause.
So I can with complete certainty inform you you that if a doctor told you that your son’s autism has been confirmed by laboratory tests to be due to autism, then you have been the victim of a quack, who probably told you this in order to take your money.
Sorry, that should have been “…due to vaccination” in the last paragraph.
I think the reliance on personal testimony doesn’t originate in religion. I think it predates it, and allowed religion to flourish. (In other words, I think the causal association is the other way around.) We don’t believe testimonials because of religion; we believe religion (and alt-med, and which car is “better”, and who’s a good politician) because of testimonials.
Testimonials are not uniformly awful. They gave us one of the oldest forms of learning which separated us from the other animals, as creatures which not only learn independently and by observation but also by others relaying abstract concepts to them. We can *tell* people something and have them learn it that way, which is something no other animal can do. It is deep within our nature, and probably the oldest form of education.
It has been said that man is the story-telling ape. Stories (testimonials) are fundamental to us. They are not the product of religion; rather, religion is their product. It is by no means a new phenomenon, but predates recorded history.
Calli Arcale #28 wrote:
I agree. Kaminer’s point, however, was that religion gives extra weight to a certain type of personal testimonial: one that relates of experiences which go beyond the rational world, and taps into a special way of knowing.
Many denialists will eventually drop their pretense of having better scientific evidence, and start to plead that “science can’t know everything.” When an advocate of pseudoscience starts to accuse the opponents of “scientism,” I think they are trading in on the popular idea that subjective perceptions are the route to deeper truths. Religion/Spirituality isn’t the only way this belief manifests itself, of course, but it’s the one with the most immediate social acceptability.
Poor, poor Tony Bateson:
“Which series of tests showed that your relative died from cancer brought on by smoking? Which cigarette? Which brand of cigarettes caused this cancer?
Like autism it fell down on simple arithmetic.”
Here we have Tony accepting the abundant epidemiologic evidence linking smoking to cancer – yet denying the abundant epidemiologic evidence showing the absence of a link between vaccination and autism.
If you believe such evidence in regard to smoking, it makes no sense to reject its applicability to the etiology of autism.
Denialism, pure and simple.
Orac, if you liked Specter’s book, you might like the latest by a very good science writer named Timothy Ferris. From a reader review on Amazon:
Sastra: while that’s true, I am dubious about the claim that this is somehow new — or, indeed, that we are in a new era of irrationalism. Maybe I’m a glass-half-full sort of person, but I see the trend actually moving in the other way. Yeah, there are wobbles up and down, and individuals can go either way, but the trend is against irrationalism. That’s part of the reason the denialists are fighting so hard; they are finally threatened.
Next to Orac’s putdown of dietary supplements, I was amused to see an ad for “Colon Cleanse Pro”. In fact there is growing evidence for the value of supplements.
One thing I always hate is when people disregard the CDC because “they don’t trust the government.” The CDC is not elected officials and politicians, and they don’t govern. It is NOT “the government.”
Those at the CDC are health professionals – doctors, pediatricians, and scientists of all varieties (immunologists, epidemiologists, other (real) experts in infectious disease) who are hired by the government to provide recommendations about providing the best health care possible to americans (as the WHO does for the world). It is not a nameless, monolithic being, and is staffed and served by individual scientists. Actually, the full-time staff itself is not all that extensive, and much if not most of what is done by the CDC is done by experts working in their various fields, and those people are the ones who make most of the decisions and policies of the CDC.
For example, the “CDC vaccination schedule” does not come from the “government” but comes from a panel of experts that the CDC asks to provide their recommendations, utilizing the best of their expertise. You can look up the people on the committee, and when you do, you won’t find that they are government employees. They are assembled from private practice and (more often) from academia and med schools. These are distinguished professors in pediatrics, immunology, and epidemiology. While you won’t find their names among government employee rosters, you will find them in PubMed, as they have extensive publication records in these fields, and are responsible for some of the most significant new discoveries that are being made.
So to me, not only is the CDC not a cause for concern, I can’t imagine who in the bloody world ELSE you would _want_ to be providing healthcare recommendations aside from the best of the best experts that america has to offer? Because that is who the CDC – and ultimately “the government” – relies on.
The problem that I see is that of “false experts,” the idea that anyone can be an expert with a google search and an appearance on a TV talk show, and somehow, that makes your opinion just as legitimate as that of the Distinguished Professor who is the Head of the Department of Pediatrics at the LSU Med School (who was the chair of the CDC committee on vaccination for a while). Real expertise means a lot more than looking things up on the web.
Have you ever HEARD of a peer-reviewed journal? Is that a totally foreign concept to you, or does the credibility of the source of your information not really matter? You’ve cited a “Bureau”, the name of which suggests that it is a subsidiary of an actual accredited office… which it is not.
Hint: when conference proceedings are included as a reference, be skeptical. When the sources they site are their own publications, which are not peer reviewed, be more skeptical.
Nobody’s saying supplements can’t work, they’re just saying the evidence for their efficacy is far more modest than the claims the supplement marketers and enthusiasts make.
Calli Arcale #32 wrote:
I hope you’re right. I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and she makes points similar to Kaminer’s on magical thinking and the anti-science, anti-reason attitude it fosters. The individual with the heart of gold and the can-do spirit is supposed to win out over the negative, objective, pointy-headed scientists and “experts” with all their rational evidence and cold hard facts. The fact that they really don’t eventually tends to swing the cultural pendulum back again.
Also, if they have a link to a homeopathy page that isn’t this, then run away very fast.
The problem that people have with the CDC I think is two-fold. First, while they are not “the government”, they are hired by the government. That’s taint number one. Many of these individuals also either currently or in the past had ties to industry. That’s taint number 2. Finally, they are “experts”, which in the past several years has become a stigma, being “elitist” and other nonsense. That’s taint number 3. It’s easy, therefore, to view the CDC as a faceless, heartless entity in the pocket of lobbyists and industry with no connection to the average Joe.
@ dangerous bacon
Also our friend Tony hasn’t really thought through his comment in one other way (what a surprise). Its hardly surprising that most people with autism have had a vaccination because most people in the UK will have had at least one vaccine in their lives (despite the best efforts of the pro-disease movement).
Finding, say 95% of autistics to have been vaccinated at some point is not a surprising statistic if 95% of the general population has also been vaccinated.
By Tony’s own account, he has found unvaccinated autistic children. Plus he’s been told of other unvaccinated autistic people. But he always finds some excuse. Also, he can’t do math if it would save his life.
@Ian, I concede that, for Orac’s readers, the Dietary Supplement Information Bureau won’t be the most credible source.
But evidence mounts for the value of supplements containing the two most researched nutrients, much of it published in peer-reviewed journals. Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA) have almost gone mainstream. The Pentagon is considering Omega-3 supplements for U.S. soldiers. The Generals don’t have time for outdated, unscientific notions about supplements. They simply want what works.
Ha ha! The latter is sitting nearby for later viewing.
Again, appeals to authority (particularly military intelligence) are a non-starter with this audience. First of all, military generals aren’t trained scientists. Their opinions in this matter have no credibility, just as my opinion as an epidemiologist lends me no weight in discussions of army strategy.
Also, just because a thing has gone mainstream doesn’t mean anything about its efficacy. Homeopathy is/was mainstream in the UK, and it is a prime example of a bogus, non-science treatment. Ginko Biloba and Echinacea also went mainstream, as have any of a million other fad diet supplements. That is not evidence that they work at all, just evidence that people will buy them.
Again, none of this is to say that no supplements will ever work. The standard for their working must be rigorous scientific evidence, the same as it is for anything with a health claim. That’s what the editorial talked about, and is consistent with Orac’s posts including this one.
Jeff, if that’s true, then why are they OKing battlefield acupuncture? Inquiring minds want to know because all acupuncture is is an elaborate placebo.
I always find the GMO argument somewhat paradoxical (for lack of a better term) because really, what has human agriculture done for millenia except genetic modification of our crops? The corn I eat on my table is not the corn that Native Americans ate back in the time of the Puritans. What science has done is condense the time it takes to make one crop be different from what was before, to “improve” it. At least that is my understanding of what is going on. It seems to me on one level or another all food is GMO.
My problems with rBST and some other products is precisely because I have serious problems with Monsanto and their policies. Thus, if I can avoid a Monsanto product, I fully intend to.
Man I hate reading that. Don’t get me wrong, I wholly agree. It just makes me feel like a sell-out working for a supplement manufacturer. I truly feel those who work here are trying to do good. I can’t feel too bad when our #1 product is pre-natals, right? And that we give tons away to third world countries? Though we don’t make any to really ‘treat’ anything. And they are ‘food based’ for better absorbency (I have no clue if that actually does anything). Well I guess I need my justification to get that paycheck…
Supplementing nutrients when food containing those nutrients is otherwise unavailable is worthwhile. We have Vitamin D and some B complex vitamins supplemented in milk, women are recommended to take folic acid supplements to prevent neural tube disorders, protein is added to baby formula when undernourishment is a major problem. All of those are fine.
The supplements that are woo-heavy are the ones that are supposed to cure cancer and prevent heart disease and lower cholesterol and all that good stuff. Some of them might, but the claims far outstrip the evidence. Also, ‘bioavailability’ of foods and nutrient supplements is a real thing.
You should brandish your paycheque with pride.
Distrusting authority is not the problem. It is the inability to be able to determine which authority to listen to, or why.
I do think it is important to be skeptical of authority. One of the major logical fallacies is appeal to authority. Here is one of my favorite quotes –
An authority worth listening to is one able to explain all of the valid research, and why it is valid; One able to point out the shortcomings of any research, as well as the strong points; One able to show which studies are relevant to any part of a discussion; Not one who just dismisses studies that do not say what the supposed expert wants them to say.
The anti-science experts repeatedly fail at that.
An expert who needs to resort to claims of conspiracies, or anecdote, or other logical fallacies, is not worth paying attention to. Such an expert is not an expert at what they are commenting on. Such an expert is merely a fraud.
u mean the same pentagon that tried to make a gay bomb
spend ur check with pride. sounds like the supplmets u are working are going to a good cause and generaly speaking if people aren’t getting enough calories then they aren’t getting enough vitumans
what makes me laugh are the people saying we need some huge amount of C or what ever is the fad supplment the amounts are so high that there is no way i can get them through a nature diet and if these are the amounts that where needed for survial humanity would have died out long ago. it is not like medevil sweeds could go to gorcery store and buy a mango
The issue of the anti-GMOs is so parallel to anti-vaxxers, with the same arguments, that it actually makes swatting the deceptions easier because you know how it’s going to go.
It may sound like cheerleading on Specter’s part to people who haven’t seen the GMO battles the way they’ve been in the trenches for the vaccines. I’m sure Orac is called a vaccine cheerleader.
But the anti-GMO folks aren’t just anti-Monsanto. They really are trying to interfere with the basic underlying science. Look up Marie Mason’s burning of a lab at Michigan State.
There are plenty of modifications that have nothing to do with herbicides. But the haze the anti-science cranks in this arena generate makes it impossible to discuss the science and the non-commercial aspects. It’s very frustrating to those of us who are trying to make people understand this.
Thanks, Mary for the reference about Marie Mason.
I had forgotten about that, if I even heard it at the time. (I was sort of under the radar about 11 years ago when it happened.)
So, they were trying to develop moth-resistant crops for growth in East Africa and she and her husband decided to burn up the papers. She supposedly has an advanced degree in chemistry, but was surprised when the gasoline fumes ignited and caught her hair on fire !!!
I guess she’ll make a great poster child for ALF and ELF.
Thanks all for the replies! I really do like the company I work for and believe we aren’t a “fad” company (not to say we haven’t jumped on fads. But the fact that we do donate TONS (on a 10 to 1 basis) prenatal and children vitamins to third world countries makes me feel like it’s worth wile.
Oops, guess I shouldn’t have assumed you’re a diehard Specter fan. Sorry ’bout that. I agreed with 95% of this.
You sir, may not call yourself anythinggeek with that spelling. The little red line under the word means its spelling is questionable. Have some geek pride, edit your posts.
Dr. K. Siwoti
Ministry of Correctness
@gaiainc & @historygeek
So, Commander Hibbeln noticed something. In particular the relationship to Omega-3’s and PTSD in our troops. I take his research and credentials over your smarmy comments.
Cdr Joseph Hibbeln, MD
Lead Clinical Investigator, Unit on Nutrition in Psychiatry, NIAAA; and a Commander in the United States Public Health Service
Dr Joseph Hibbeln is based at the Unit on Nutrition in Psychiatry at the Laboratory of Membrane Biophysics and Biochemistry, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health (LMBB, NIAAA, NIH), Bethesda, Maryland, USA. He acts as an Independent Lead Clinical Investigator in conducting and designing clinical treatment and mechanistic trials among alcoholics in the Unitâs intramural research program.
Dr Hibbeln has extensive international collaborations for clinical trials of omega-3 fatty acids for the prevention of suicide, postpartum depression, and violence. He is a primary collaborator in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, Bristol, UK, examining the residual effect of nutritional insufficiencies in pregnancy in childhood neurodevelopmental outcomes and relevant gene-nutrient interactions. Dr Hibbeln was one of the very first investigators to draw attention to the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in psychiatric disorders (he organized a key international conference on this theme at NIH in 1998), and he is frequently sought out to communicate scientific findings in this field though major public media.
Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Steer C, P Emmett P, Rogers I, Williams C, Golding J. (2007) Maternal seafood consumption during pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood. The Lancet, 369: 578-585
Garland MR, Hallahan B, McNamara M, Carney PA, Grimes H, Hibbeln JR, Harkin A, Controy RM. (2007) Lipids and essential fatty acids in patients presenting with self-harm. Br J Psychiatry, 190: 112-17.
Freeman MP, Hibbeln JR, Davis, JM, Wisner KL, Richardson AJ, Mischoulon D, Peet M, Keck, Jr. PE, Lake J, Marangell L, Stoll AL. (2006) Omega-3 fatty acids: Evidence basis for treatment and future research. American Psychiatric Association Treatment Recommendations J Clin Psychiatry, 67; 12: 1954-67.
Sublette ME, Hibbeln JR, Galfalvy H, Oquendo M, Mann JJ. (2006) Omega-3 polyunsaturated essential fatty acid status as a predictor of future suicide risk. Am J Psychiatry, 163: 1100-1102.
Hibbeln JR, Nieminen LR, Blasbalg TL Riggs J, Lands WEM. Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids: Estimations considering worldwide diversity. (Invited manuscript), Am J Clin Nutr, 2006, 83: 1483S-1493S
Hibbeln JR, Ferguson TA Blasbalg TL. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies in neurodevelopment, aggression and autonomic dysregulation: Opportunities for Intervention. Intl Review Psychiatry 2006; 18:2:1-12.
Freeman MP, Hibbeln JR, Wisner KL, Brumbach BH, Watchman M, Gelenberg AJ. (2006). Randomized dose-ranging pilot trial of omega-3 fatty acids for postpartum depression. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 113(1) 31-5
Crawford MA, Ghebremeskel K, Hibbeln JR, House S, Hunter D, Morley DC, Nicholson P, Stuart K. The Lancet and the Royal Society are both right and wrong. Lancet. 2005; 366 (9487): 714-5.
Hibbeln JR, Nieminen, LRG, Lands WEM Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five western countries, 1961-2000. Lipids 2004; 23: 1207-1213.
Hibbeln JR, Bisette, G, Umhau JC, George DT. (2004) Omega-3 status and cerebrospinal fluid corticotrophin releasing hormone in perpetrators of domestic violence. Biological Psychiatry 2004; 56:11: 895-897
Harris J, Hibbeln JR, Mackey R, Muldoon M. (2004). Statin treatment alters serum n-3 and n-6 fatty acids in hypercholesterolemic patients. Prost Leuko Ess Fatty Acids, 71: 263-269
Irribarren C, Markovitz JH, Jacobs. D, Schreiner PJ, Daviglus M, Hibbeln JR. Relationship of dietary intake of fish and n-3 fatty acids with hostility among young adults- the CARDIA Study. Eu J Clin Nutr 2004;58:1:24-31
Noaghiul S, Hibbeln JR. A cross-national analysis of the lifetime prevalence rates of bipolar disorders and schizophrenia to seafood consumption. Am J Psychiartry, 2003;160;12; 2222-7
Hibbeln JR. Seafood consumption, the DHA composition of mothersâ milk and prevalence of postpartum depression: a cross-national analysis. J Affect Disorders 2002; 69: 15-29
Just wanted to enlarge upon your assertions by pointing out that denialism is rampant among humans, and its application is certainly not confined to science. One look at the current right and left poles of our American political climate will confirm that. One of my personal favorite forms of denialism is the version which asserts that ‘staying positive’ will help people recover from cancer. The irony of that notion is, in the first place, that the word ‘positive’ as it applies to things like biopsies is not a nice notion at all. Personally, I bitched it up pretty thoroughly when I had cancer, and I’m still here two years later. In any case, denialism has been around for a long time, witness the Inquisition and Ponzi schemes, and will likely be around as long as we don’t successfully mutate into a different species.