Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Category Archives: Bad Science Journalism

Danny Saucedo Spews Pseudoscientific Nonsense About Cannabis

Danny spews nonsense

Science is hard. It takes can often years, tens of thousands of working hours and millions of dollars to research an issue thoroughly. Sometimes, the results are multifaceted, contradictory or difficult to interpret, and research goes on. Thus, it is no wonder that misinformation is incredibly potent. It plays on hopes and fears and offers easy and emotionally comforting answers to complex issues.

One such issue is the health and harms of cannabis, which outside the scientific community involves a struggle between two opposing ideological groups. On one side are the drug war zealots who refuses to listen to any constructive suggestions on how prevent people from abusing drugs, have very little interest in helping those who need it and better combat the networks that supply them. On the other side are the cannabis apologists who claim cannabis is more or less harmless, works as a fantastic miracle cure for almost anything and promote various batshit conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies. Both of these groups are profoundly mistaken and are really just two different manifestations of the same underlying problem: refusing to take evidence seriously, especially when it contradicts their beliefs.

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Do Not Order Cannabis Oil Online To Treat Child Epilepsy

Cannabis plant

Cannabis oil is an umbrella term for oily extracts from the plant Cannabis sativa with varying concentrations of THC and other cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol. Products containing even low amounts of THC is often classed as an illegal substance in many countries where cannabis is illegal.

For cannabis apologists, it is a miracle cure for a large number of diseases, ranging from cancer and HIV to autism and epilepsy. For critics of alternative medicine and opponents of drug fetischizing, it is just another drug product that criminals attempt to con people into using by making unsupported claims about products that haven ever been sufficiently tested for safety and efficacy.

Throughout the Internet and in newspapers like Metro, one can find many testimonials from alleged parents that swear that it works. But this is not scientific evidence. There are people who force bleach on their autistic children or treat children who have meningitis with maple syrup and swear that their products work when they demonstrably do not. It is easy to be convinced by testimonials, but it is just a form of emotional manipulation, often with financial motives, to trick people into buying their products. Let us look at two such testimonials that recently appeared in an issue of Metro newspaper.

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Katerina Janouch: Natural Birth Quacktivist and Hooligan Supporter

Katerina Janouch Twitter Page

Katerina Janouch is a journalist, sexologist and author. However, she is also a homebirth quacktivist. She fear mongers about hospitals and demonizes (elective) C-sections, believes that homebirth is just as safe or safer as hospital births, refuses to engaged with peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that homebirth has a 3x increase in neonatal mortality and other risks, thinks that providing false information and tricking women into homebirth is an act of feminism and that birth should be joyful. She has even cheered on when about a hundred masked hooligan supporters went around the Swedish capital and used violence against innocent onlookers before retreating by claiming that she tweeted in affect without knowing anything about it. This is a point-by-point refutation of all of her pseudoscientific claims and ends with touching on the partial lack of accountability of journalists.

Katerina Janouch on Opinion Live: fear-mongering about hospitals and C-sections

A recent episode of the Swedish televised debating show Opinion Live (31 March), a video blogger by the name of Vanja Wikström talked about how hard it was to get a planned C-section for her first birth and why this mattered to her. Wikström has a strong fear of the birth process, thinks the Swedish maternity care is underfunded and is concerned about the delivery complications that can arise from a vaginal birth. She talked to a midwife about her fears and the possibility of getting a planned C-section, but the midwife made her feel judged, shamed and guilted. Not only that, Wikström felt that the midwife started a “campaign of persuasion” and that the midwife “fought with tooth and claw” to get her to a vaginal delivery. She felt that the midwife did not even take her fears seriously and the encounter made her decide not to have a baby for several years. When she did got pregnant, she got another midwife who was much better, gave her the pros and cons of both vaginal delivery and C-section and let her chose for herself and she chose a planned C-section (but only got it at week 36).

The opposing party was Katerina Janouch, a mother of five (with two homebirths after three vaginal births at a hospital). She dismissed Wikström by suggesting that Wikström took an irrational decision out of fear and that therefore, women should not get a C-section if they want to. If Wikström had just met the people and midwives that support vaginal deliveries (and are supposedly against elective C-sections), she might have had come to a different conclusion. So right of the bat, Janouch dismisses and shames Wikström just like the previous midwife.

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Lisa Magnusson Spreads Myths about Antibiotics, Acne and Animals

Magnusson and antibiotics

Note: The comment section has additional information highly relevant to the impact of antibiotic use in agriculture (Note added 20160429 00:30 GMT +1).

Today, mainstream media is increasingly distrusted. One aspect of this is their enormously substandard reporting on science and frequent scientific errors in other areas.

Previously, we have examined an article written by journalist and columnist Lisa Magnusson, whereby she claimed that blood donation rules where “pure moralism”. In reality, there is substantial evidence for eligibility criteria, coming both from governmental agencies, independent experts and non-governmental activist groups. Unfortunately, she has repeated this kind of failure to fact-check in yet another article, this time about antibiotics.

In her editorial, Magnusson makes several scientific errors. She claims that antibiotic resistance makes bacteria spread uncontrollably, despite the fact that the largest decline occurred before antibiotics. She blames the antibiotic usage in the animal industry which she claims is given to healthy animals, but this was made illegal in Sweden for almost 30 years ago, and illegal in the entire EU 10 years ago. She also ignores the fact that the most common antibiotics in the Swedish animal industry have very little overlap with the kinds of antibiotics that are used in therapeutic settings, that these resistance genes commonly occur in nature already, and that humans use 4-7x more antibiotics than are used in the meant industry. Magnusson also implies that antibiotics treat inflammation, but this is rarely the case and fails to acknowledge that the celebrity artist herself clearly says that she uses antibiotics for her acne primarily for vanity. Read more of this post

Lisa Magnusson Falsely Claims Blood Donation Rules Are “Pure Moralism”

Lisa Magnusson

Bad science journalism is a considerable threat to the integrity and process of the public understanding of science. Far too often, good science reporting is replaced by sensationalist and agenda-driven misunderstandings.

Lisa Magnusson is a Swedish journalist and columnist and have written many pieces for newspapers such as Metro and DT, the latter of which she is most active today with new material several times a week. Recently, she wrote an ignorant screed on the eligibility criteria and qualified donor system in use in Sweden blood donation system. Apparently, she wrongly thinks that these evidence-based systems are “pure moralism” and that the Sweden National Board of Health and Welfare and The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights are not only wrong, but dangerously so.

She fails to understand that, according to experts from both government agencies and non-governmental activist organizations, the qualified donor system is the major reason why Sweden has substantially fewer donations of infected blood than many other countries. Furthermore, she fails to grasp that no medical test is 100% accurate and even though newer tests have a much smaller window period, combining tests with the qualified donor system is both evidence-based and pragmatic. Magnusson does not even know enough about transmission of infectious diseases to understand why sex is riskier than tattooing for hepatitis and thus justifies different waiting periods. She even conflate sexual orientation and sexual behavior, thereby ignoring that not all gay people have sex and a substantial minority of self-identified heterosexuals engage in same-sex sexual behavior. On top of this, both the headline and her personal Twitter messages are misleading.

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Scientific American Publishes Anti-Psychiatry Nonsense

Anti-psychiatry at Scientific American

Imagine that Scientific American published a blog post promoting the idea that we should abandon a disease-centered perspective on autoimmunity because the simplified notion of “immunological imbalance” surely cannot explain all aspects of autoimmune conditions. Imagine that it argued that heart diseases are not really diseases since cognitive and lifestyle interventions can sometimes decrease symptoms of many heart-related conditions and because social factors like poverty and childhood experience also influence heart disease risk. Imagine that the post claimed that biological explanations of autoimmunity implies a deterministic worldview that stigmatizes patients with autoimmune conditions and that biological factors should therefore not be emphasized in the understanding of these conditions.

Most rational and scientifically-minded people would rightly dismiss such “arguments” as unscientific nonsense that was clearly based on several, profound misunderstanding of the results of basic medical research. A lot of them would also seriously consider unsubscribing from Scientific American content because of the massive credibility loss. Yet when it comes to psychiatry and psychiatric conditions, these ignorant claims are often prominently featured online by popular science magazines without any critical consideration.

Recently, Scientific American Mind published an anti-psychiatry piece written by clinical psychologist Peter Kinderman on their guest blog and it regurgitates a large number of commonly used anti-psychiatry tropes. It misrepresents mainstream psychiatric explanations of psychiatric conditions as “chemical imbalance”, when it is really about a complex interaction between many different biological, psychological and social factors. It dismisses biological explanations of hallucinations and delusions by pointing out that social factors also play a role, when both are clearly important. It misunderstands the nature of biological heritability by conflating it with immutable, when genes are risk factors, not absolute determinants. It erects a false dichotomy between medication and psychotherapy and claim that since psychotherapy can often be effective, biological explanations and medical treatments should be deemphasized. In reality, the best available treatment for a wide range of psychiatric conditions seems to be a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Scientific American tries to avoid responsibility by posting a disclaimer (not once, but twice) that the “views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American”, but the fact remains that Scientific American has an intellectual and moral responsibility not to promote flawed and pseudoscientific content. This incident shows that they failed that responsibility, and in doing so, join the ranks of bad science journalism that increasingly plague popular science spaces on the Internet.

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Metro Promotes Anti-Vaccine Homeopath During Measles Outbreak

Anti-vaccine crankery at Metro Calgary

Before vaccines, measles use to infect an estimated 3-4 million people a year in the United States (CDC, 2012). Measles led to brain inflammation for 1 in 1000 and death in 1 in 500 (CDC, 2012). Medical scientists have developed a safe and effective vaccine for measles that is now part of the standard vaccine schedule in most western countries. However, due to parents failing to vaccinate their children combined with the fact that no vaccine is 100% effective, herd immunity is compromised. This can lead to measles outbreak and the needless suffering of children.

Because of numerous measles cases in Calgary, Central and Edmonton, the Alberta Health Services (AHS) has officially declared that they are in the midst of several measles outbreaks in these zones (AHS, 2014). As a response, the AHS is now encouraging parents to make sure their children are up-to-date with their measles vaccines. In Calgary, more than 100 parents had lined up Northgate Measles Immunization Clinic before it opened. However, anti-vaccine cranks were not slow to exploit this situation.

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Time to Get Rid of Bad Science Journalism

Nature News

One of the largest obstacles to the public understanding of science is the presence of pseudoscientific crankery that replaces evidence with personal testimony and critical thinking with personal credulity. However, another obstacles has become increasingly apparent during the last few years: the menace of bad science journalism. These practices have even managed to infiltrate high-quality publications such as Nature. Causes may range from cognitive myopia and increasing demands for sensationalism to boost ad revenue but they consequences could be dire. It misleads people, promotes falsehoods about science and damages the credibility of both science and science journalism. In this post, a number of possible causes and potential solutions are discussed.

Recent examples of the problem

There are plenty of examples of bad science journalism out there, even from magazines such as Nature and Scientific American. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • In the news feature section of issue 7483 on the prestigious journal Nature, Jeff Tollefson promote the false notion that global warming has taken a hiatus for the past 16 years, going so far as to call it the “biggest mystery in climate science today”. In reality, the notion of a global warming hiatus is due to cherry-picking 1998 as a starting point (a strong ENSO year). Once you control for that and other factors, there is a trend toward increased temperatures. In reality, the “no warming for 16-years” is a common climate change denialist trope.
  • In the popular science section called Nature News and Comment, Zeeya Merali wrote a piece suggesting that Stephen Hawking is now claiming that black holes do not exist. She even makes it appear as if she is directly quoting Hawking. In reality, that is a quote out of context. The paper in question merely suggest revising the mainstream account of the event horizon into an “apparent horizon” to make the entities more consonant with quantum mechanics. This story was also carried wrongly on a number of news outlets and presumably her article contributed to it.
  • Scientific American Mind editor Ingrid Wickelgren promoted the notion that diet, stressed parents and watching TV causes ADHD (and that supplements successfully treat symptoms) on her magazine-associated blog. Wickelgren would probably try to defend herself by stating that she only wrote down highlights of a talk and may or may not agree fully with it. However, the fact that she gave a platform to these kind of anti-psychiatry, alternative medicine and arguably anti-scientific viewpoints indicate bad science journalism. There is also no attempt to skeptically investigate the claims made in the video to see if they hold up against published research.
  • Forbes contributor and senior epidemiologist Albert Einstein College of Medicine Geoffrey Kabat recently wrote a pseudoscientific and cherry-picked post denying the association between passive smoking and lung cancer. According to WHO, about 600 000 people die each year from passive smoking. Granted, lung cancer is only part of the health dangers of passive smoking, but it cannot be dismissed in the way that Kabat does.

These are just a couple of recent examples of bad science journalism that contributes to the public misunderstanding of science and the spread of pseudoscientific crankery. There are countless more out there.

Contributing causes

This section discusses some of the potential causes of bad science journalism. Most of these ideas are probably not original to me, and they are not completely fleshed out in detail. Some of them are speculative and some might be less important than others. There may also be contributing causes that have been overlooked and factors may differ depending on the individual case of bad science journalism. They are listed in no particular order and they may be interconnected or overlap.

Deadline pressures: having tight deadlines for science journalism may compromise accuracy in several ways. The journalist may not have enough time to (1) find the relevant limitations of the current research project and thus risk giving a misleading picture or (2) contrast it against what is already known to put it into context. Because it is faster to write a he-said-she-said pieces than to investigate it thoroughly, this may contribute to false balance. Read more of this post

Investigative Skepticism Versus the Mass Media

Relationship violence against men

We are constantly being bombarded with messages from newspapers, television, blogs and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter about alleged facts, recently published scientific studies and government reports. With the knowledge that the mass media often get things wrong when it comes to science, how can you separate the signal from the noise?

One popular approach is to check what many different news organizations has to say about the issue. However, this ignores the fact that many websites just rewrite stories they have seen on other websites. Some even go so far as to just copy/paste press releases. In the fast-paced world we live in, getting the “information” out there as fast as possible has apparently come to triumphs scientific and statistical accuracy. This problem is aggravated in cases when the misinterpretation fits snuggly within a particular political or philosophical worldview (e. g. some conservative groups and climate change denialism). Another approach is limiting yourself to only reading news from websites that fit with your own positions. However, this leaves you open to considerable bias. The classic example is anti-immigration race trolls who only read “alternative media”, which tend to twist a lot of the news item they publish to fit with their agenda. A third approach is a combination of the two above: only believe things that news organizations with radically different stances agree on. The downside to this is that it almost never happens with issues that are scientifically uncontroversial, but controversial in the eye of the public (climate change being the obvious example).

This post will outline an explicit investigative method based on scientific skepticism designed to find out the truth behind popular stories on science. To illustrate it, a case study of mass media treatment of two new Swedish studies on relationship violence against men will described Read more of this post

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