Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Tag Archives: placebo

Five Reasons Why “Placebo Medicine” is Bullshit

The alternative medicine movement constantly moves the goalposts and shifts the narrative to avoid admitting that their products are medical failures. First they claim that their fake treatments are effective. When it is pointed out that their products have not been tested for safety and efficacy, they deny that it is even possible to be run clinical trials on alternative medicine because it is so personalized.

When it is pointed out that many real treatments are also personalized and could be tested just fine, they insist that clinical trials will vindicate their quackery. When their products fail the tests, they try to spin the result in such a way as to portray the clinical trials as a success.

When it is ultimately shown that some alternative medicine practice is virtually indistinguishable from placebo, they switch the narrative once again. This time, they insist that even if their fake products and services are indistinguishable from placebo, the placebo effect is supposedly some mysterious new age woo that the mind somehow determines reality and that we therefore must “harness the power of placebo”. Here is why all of this is deeply misleading. Read more of this post

How SVT Debatt Botched the Vaccine Issue

SVT Debatt

SVT Debatt is a Swedish studio debating program on public television that discuss a couple of current topics each week. Issues range from immigration and feminism to soccer violence and diet trends. Unfortunately, science experts are far and few between and extremists are often given considerably more time to spew their nonsense. This is because the format of the show consists of short back-and-forth exchanges between invited guests and other audience members that are often interrupted by the show host (who serve as a moderator), thus promoting quack one-liners while penalizing careful scientific arguments.

This became abundantly clear during the show aired on 9th April that dealt with childhood vaccines. They had invited several anti-vaccine activists that were given ample time to spread their pseudoscientific misinformation, such as promoting measles parties to intentionally give children measles and the absurd claim that vaccines are supposedly just placebo treatments.

This is a point-by-point refutation of the pseudoscientific claims delivered by anti-vaccine parents on the show.

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Jenny Splitter and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Splitter and NCGS

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where the immune system reacts against a modified version of a gluten protein that results in a cross-reaction with the small intestine because of similarities in protein sequence. Individuals with this condition can get chronic inflammation, cancer and malabsorption of important nutrients if they do not eliminate gluten from their diet, so this is a very real condition. However, it has spawned a dietary fad and many people who do not have celiac disease have self-diagnosed themselves with “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) and avoid gluten like the plague in a misguided quest for healthy eating. There is no scientific evidence that NCGS exists, but that has not put a dent in the popularity of gluten-free products.

Grounded Parents is a blog about parenting written by parents who are secular skeptics and it is part of the Skepchick Network. Recently, they published a post written by Jenny Splitter defending decisions to eliminate gluten for those who claim to have NCGS. Now, Splitter did not argue that there is scientific evidence for this condition. Instead, she appealed to placebo medicine, ignored the negative consequences of overfitting noise, deployed a classic anti-skeptical trope based on the perfect solution fallacy and even rationalized negative evidence.

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The Anti-Psychiatry Propaganda of Nathan Shachar

The Anti-psychiatry propaganda by Nathan Shachar

Dagens Nyheter (the largest morning newspaper in Sweden) continues to promote pseudoscience. Last month, the newspaper decided to publish a full-page anti-immigration ad with flawed equivocations, ignorance of confounders and the deceptive framing of published statistics. Out of the ashes into the fire, Dagens Nyheter decided to publish a column filled with anti-psychiatry propaganda by Nathan Shachar. He has previously come under fire for his ignorant ADHD denialism, where he fear mongered about the side-effects of ADHD medications, butchered the complex etiology of ADHD and misrepresented scientific reports on ADHD rating scales.

In his latest pseudoscientific screed, Shachar continues to recycle common anti-psychiatry myths. He claims that the FDA and the Swedish counterpart (Medical Products Agency) is bought by pharmaceutical companies, but the FDA charges pharmaceutical companies to ensure fast and high-quality drug review process. He asserts that modern psychiatry holds that all psychiatric conditions are caused by “chemical imbalance”, when the scientific consensus position is that they result from a complex interaction between biological, psychological and social factors. Shachar makes a false comparison between “pure amphetamine” and ADHD medication, completely without insight that it differs in chemical nature, dosage and release rate. He bases his case against modern psychiatry on the writings of Janne Larsson, a member of the Scientology-based organization Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR). Counter to the myths promoted by Shachar, several large-scale meta-analysis has found that antidepressants are more effective than placebo even when you take publication bias into account. He continues by showing that pharmaceutical companies sometimes behave unethical, but that is an issue of corporate ethics, not the science of psychiatry or the efficacy of psychiatric medication. Finally, he dismisses ADHD as merely a “maturity” issue, despite the well-known biological underpinnings of the condition. Read more of this post

Acupuncture Is Almost Certainly Clinically Irrelevant

Acupuncture is Theatrical Placebo

An excellent paper written by acupuncture skeptics David Colquhoun and Steve Novella was recently published in a journal called Anesthesia and Analgesia. It is part of a written debate hosted by the journal in question between proponents of acupuncture and skeptical scientists who consider it to be clinically irrelevant. The article is aptly titled Acupuncture Is Theatrical Placebo. Anesthesia and Analgesia is an open access journal, so the full paper is available for free on the journal website.

However, readers should not interpret the existence of such a debate as if the science was equivocal or undecided. On the contrary, as Colquhoun and Novella demonstrate in their paper, there have been thousands of studies carried out on acupuncture and no consistent evidence of clinical efficacy for any condition has been found. Do not mistake denialism for debate, as the saying (attributed to Hoofnagle) goes. Just because two differing positions are expressed with equal emphasis does not mean that the truth lies between them. Sometimes, one side is simply wrong and this is the case for acupuncture.

This is a point-by-point summary of main facts and arguments laid out in the Colquhoun and Novella paper Read more of this post

Confronting Jerry Coyne on His Stance on Medical Psychiatry

Another couple of months has passed since Jerry Coyne, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, made his latest claims about psychiatry and psychiatric drugs. I have dissected many of his unreasonable claims about psychiatry on two occasions previously, in Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong about Medical Psychiatry and in the follow-up post Why Jerry Coyne is Still Wrong about Antidepressants. Since I feared that Prof. Coyne had started to slide down that dangerous path into denialism and pseudoskepticism, I decided to send him an email with a few critical questions against his stance to see what he thinks about them. Could it be that he has changed his mind, or has he become frozen in his views?

The email is too long to cite in its entirely (used a lot of references and such, which can be found in the two posts linked above), so I will just summarize my 6 questions. I identified additional problems besides these six, but I feel that these are the main questions I would like to see what Prof. Coyne thinks about at this time.

1. Why does Prof. Coyne describe the mainstream explanatory model for depression as “chemical imbalance”, when most descriptions in elementary level psychology textbooks emphasize a large number of interacting biological, psychological and environmental factors that are each important in their own right?

2. Why does Prof. Coyne think that the fact that the genetics of mental illness is rife with uncertainties undermine the notion that many mental illnesses have genetic predispositions when studies on identical twins and adoption studies show that the heritability is often moderate? Surely, there is a different between knowing that a genetic predisposition exists and knowing the exact mechanism on a molecular level? To take an analogy: even though we may not have all the details of how common descent happened (is this taxon more related to that taxon than this other taxon?), we can be pretty sure of common descent. Read more of this post

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