Monday, 30 November 2009

Crank magnetism

Predictable as the sun rising we have a new non-controversy (a.k.a. manufactroversy) involving hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit. Denialists invoke carefully selected portions as evidence of a global conspiracy, among scientists, to pull the wool over our eyes regarding Global Warming.
                  (h/t Paryngula)
Aside from the hypocrisy of ignoring identical actions taken by reality refuting groups ("Criticism on the anti-warming side appears to be reserved only for environmentalists and mainstream researchers as their own side gets a free pass every time."),  it is evident this dumping of raw material to the general public is misrepresenting what science is about. In the words of Thoughts from Kansas:
In all honesty, there isn't that much more to be said about the substance of the emails. On their face and in their proper context, they demonstrate that there's no active conspiracy to promote global warming as a plot by Jews liberals to control the world economy. They demonstrate that these scientists are not a monolithic group, but have internal disagreements which they resolve using data. The evidence that the planet is getting hotter is unchanged, and the evidence that the change is mostly due to human activity is equally unchanged. So what's the big deal?
Notable is the response by denialists in other artificial controversies. They cling to this hype as evidence that their particular, and unrelated, anti-science stance is warranted. Prosaicly termed "crank magnetism," this shared mechanism stands for, as Orac reminds us:
... the tendency of cranks not to mind it when they see crankery in others. More specifically, it describes how cranks of one variety (for instance, HIV/AIDS denialists, will be attracted to another form of crankery (for instance, anti-vaccinationism or the 9/11 Truth movement) because ..... cranks and pseudoscientists see themselves as iconoclasts, brave mavericks opposed to orthodoxy, be it scientific, historical, or other disciplines. 
Aside from the elaborate exploration of this concept, yet again, he also introduces its corollary: the "vindication of all kooks." His explanation for this behaviour follows:
So why do denialists of all stripes cling to the "all kooks vindicated" corollary to the principle of crank magnetism. Let me finish by speculating on a possible reason. Above all else, cranks cling to beliefs that go against established science. They do this because they do not recognize bad science, either because they do not understand the scientific method and/or because ideology in the form of politics or religion interferes with their critical thinking. They thus come to view not just the science that refutes their crankery as the enemy, but rather all science. Thus, any black eye against science, be it in the form of leaked e-mails, problems with ghost writing, big pharma chicanery, or whatever, must be evidence that their distrust of science is justified. It becomes in their mind a vindication of their view that science is hopelessly corrupt or rigged against them and that they therefore must be on to something. Sadly for them, being on to something in science requires more than just misconduct, real, exaggerated, or imagined, in an area of science completely unrelated to theirs. It requires real data and experimental evidence of a quantity and quality sufficient to be in at least the same order of magnitude as the evidence supporting the current paradigm. Creationists are virtually guaranteed never to achieve this level of evidence, and neither are HIV/AIDS denialists or anti-vaccine kooks.
Another informative article on the way cranks operate can be found at Science-Based Medicine. It discusses "mathematical cranks" and something akin to "crank magnetism" is described:
Parallels are obvious between mathematical cranks and proponents of alternative medicine.
The latter are tediously incapable of evading logical fallacies in their quest to invalidate medical science. Needless to say, the scientific method is not the best way possible, but it is the best we got. Confronted with our inclination towards gullibility we should adhere to any technique that minimises its influence. Or, am I underestimating the nature and size of the conspiracy?

Update. The Independent highlights some traits common in AIDS denialists.

Update II. In the anti-vaccination camp they have come down with acute stupid. A serious condition which has no known cure. Resistent to rational thought, and scientific evidence, it is as if those infected are actually suffering from several types of delusional disorder.

Update III. Without knowing it, by calling the irrational responses from the anti-vaccination movement a spreading infection of delusional disorder I was not alone, Danielle Ofri in the New England Journal of Medicine notes a similar epidemic involving growing fears of a H1N1 influenza vaccine. (h/t The Gotham Skeptic) Initially people were eager for the vaccine to arrive. Then, after it finally did, they had become leery:
How to explain this dramatic shift in 6 short months? It certainly isn't related to logic or facts, since few new medical data became available during this period. It seems to reflect a sort of psychological contagion of myth and suspicion.
Just as there are patterns of infection, there seem to be patterns of emotional reaction ("emotional epidemiology") associated with new illnesses. When 2009 H1N1 influenza was first detected, it fit a classic pattern that Priscilla Wald recently outlined in her book Contagious1: It was novel and mysterious; it emerged from a teeming third-world city, and it was now making its insidious — and seemingly unstoppable — way toward the "civilized" world.
She concludes:
It is clear that there is a distinct emotional epidemiology and that it bears only a faint connection to the actual disease epidemiology of the virus.
Great minds think alike, he spoke modestly.

Update IV. The Island of Doubt notes that the "climategate virus" has infected The Globe and Mail too.

Update V. Some thoughts on the who and why can be found at Deep Climate.

Update VI. When even the Highpriest of Scepticism joins the denialist-movement being anti-science is dangerously contagious, i.e. a new infectious disease rears its ugly head.

Update VII. Added image.

Update VIII. At The Real MFG commenter Lurkella pointed to the origin of the image, which is here. It is made by Joel Pett for USA Today.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

They Live

This weekend I was watching that old classic of the conspiracy theorists They Live. The quality is open to debate, for which I refer you to Roger Ebert or Rotten Tomatoes. Having an overly active imagination I see the film as a metaphore for what should be our main goal in life: get educated and stop being a mouton (act like sheep). As such I am inclined to think those paranoid themes are not entirely incorrect. Or to cite the sage: the fact you are paranoid does not mean they are not after you.

It is reminiscent of Brave New World, which details an equally constructed and manipulated society, where the protagonist John the Savage discovers his world is not as it seems. H.G. Wells warned us about such a world divided in haves and have nots. He also showed they are interdependent.

To me this film captures the basic premise behind denying scientific research in most current debates (Big Pharma, Evolution, Global warming, War on Terror): accept as article of faith what we say when we contradict most, if not all, of the experts involved, and never question what you are being told. The principal argument the anti-science movement has is keeping the facts from us. Or, at least, distorting them under the guise of being "Fair and Balanced." The Film Vituperatum nicely illustrates this point, regarding the hyped threat that supposedly will end the world if we do not spend more on the military, with this picture.

The actual chance of terrorism killing you compared to more commonplace, yet conspicuously ignored, things I outlined before. This War of Terror, instigated by the Politico-Media Complex, obscenely benefits the mythical Military-Industrial Complex, which in turn guarantees us that giving them even more money and privileges (read: abolishing civil liberties) will prevent the end of days.

In short, we can think of those pointing out the many incestuous relationships between the haves as cranks, or we can adopt a slightly sceptical view allowing for the existence of contemporary Cassandras.

Tolkien was right that the "hearts of men are easily mislead." To my surprise, and disappointment, we still fall for the "panem et circenses"-routine.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Brave New World vs. 1984

Numerous dystopian worlds have been imagined, i.e. 1984, Brave New World, The Time Machine, V for Vendetta, Brazil, Gattaca, Den brysomme mannen, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, et cetera. They all show us what society might look like and as such it allows us to explore, as we may analyse a chessgame, the consequences of our choices.

Since 1984 is abundantly invoked to warn us against the evil forces du jour this cartoon is a nice illustration of the different threats Orwell and Huxley warned us about. (h/t Library Grape)

Monday, 23 November 2009

The "vaccines are evil" gambit

As we all know for years people are trying to save our lifes by warning about the global conspiracy of doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, if not a government-run program to decimate and dominate. The medical community misleads us by selling expensive vaccines that cause more harm (i.e. cause autism: disproven) than they do good, they tell the world. Luckily these will-o'-the-wisps care so much about our health that they are willing to sell us cures that actually do work.

The entire history of this war on rational thought is discussed by Orac. He notices how the news media only now appear to be adequately informing us about the dangers of this fearmongering-industry. A must-read.

Update: Orac points out that a change in reporting on medical topics still has a long way to go.

Update II. In another post Orac elaborates on the ways scientific research is misconstrued and misrepresented by those opposing medical science. Pharyngula weighs in too.

Update III. It appears anti-swine flu measures are harmful. Not the way the anti-science clan think, but still.

Update IV. A summary of the most recent Age of Autism crankery can be found at Weird Things.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The 100 best books of the decade

The Times published a sequel to the 100 best films of the decade. They now discuss the 100 best books of the decade, and for those who need more suggestions they also have the 50 best winter reads.

Is science about protecting monetary interests?

An article in The Independent highlights how funding of scientific research seriously obstructs the notion that "a good scientist should follow the evidence wherever it leads."

This confirms my view, which I already discussed, that science is subservient to financial and political interests.

Update: it appears others share my comcern.

Update II. Also, medical guidelines can be refuted on non-scientific grounds, merely because they appear uncomfortable to certain individuals that may lose income according to Orac.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Developing cancer treatments

The reason medicine lacks sufficient preventative interventions is mostly because of the scientific and ethical requirements. Hence manufacturers will likely take years, if ever, to get their research investment back. Peddlers of snake-oil are therefore having a field day promising the moon. Orac gives a detailed explanation of the mechanism involved, and current achievements, by the medical community combatting cancer.

Update. In a new post Orac points out the methods of detecting breast-cancer the scientifically-challenged are introducing.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Centre of gravity

For those unfamiliar with physics: you can get a feel of what centre of gravity means by touching your toes while simultaneously pressing your back and heels up against a wall. (h/t Starts With A Bang)

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Matrix

Looking at The Matrix I was jealous at the technology with which the characters could upload new knowledge and skills into their brain. The plausibility of such an interface -"mind uploading"- is discussed on Weird Things. In short, very likely not to happen.

Then again, this article reports on some new advances in the memory department.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


Much of the "debates" questioning science are nothing more than elaborate hoaxes. Luckily, the media dutifully, and uncritically, report on them. Unfortunately we, as species, have a history of believing the improbable, if not impossible, because most of us are easily misled. Or, paraphrasing the words of Lenny Bruce, we want to believe.

And then there is alternative medicine: mandatory removal of rational thinking skills before reading..

Update. Could not resist sharing this picture from Bioephemera:

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


Ever wondered
......what the descendants of the dinosaur Troodon would look like today if the theropod had survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.......

Laelaps forwards us to an interesting reincarnation of this thought experiment (and the above picture):
What are the odds that intelligent, technically advanced aliens would look anything like the ones in films, with an emaciated torso and limbs, spindly fingers and a bulbous, bald head with large, almond-shaped eyes? What are the odds that they would even be humanoid?
Is answered in one of those links.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Politics decides conclusions scientific research

Unsurprised as I am by yet another example of politicians dictating what scientist should conclude, never mind that it contradicts scientific research, it still makes me feel sick.

Update. As I noted earlier we can trust: the news to shape our views by overt erroneous (read politically slanted) statements which are never corrected.

Miracles do happen

Quoth The Guardian:

Search team finds teenager Jupi Nakoolak 'in decent shape' after drifting in -15C temperatures with polar bears.

What is "Fair and Balanced?"

During my life I developed the need to be adequately informed on many subjects. Therefore I read as much as I can on those topics. My main interests are broadly speaking biology, literature, medicine, politics and technology.  On top of that I try and visit blogs I consider highly sceptical towards manufactured controversies. Based on that, and on my personal experience, I cannot help but wonder whether those involved are insufficiently informed or willfully blind.

In later posts I will discuss violating the "we are all entitled to our own opinion but not to our own facts"-doctrine in more detail, as it relates to several so-called controversies. Some examples, as preview, are:

Medicine vs. Quackery:
It is not uncommon for people to adhere to all sorts of alternative medicine. In general I respect people's right to choose any therapy they feel best suits them. Unfortunately they are often "converted" by advocates that claim the most outlandish and inherently unscientific nonsense about -among other things- cancer, homeopathy and vaccinations. Much of that has already, and repeatedly, been disproven, but unfortunately that in itself is used as evidence of the global conspiracy to suppress those inconvenient facts that endanger the medical community's hegemony. Supporters of alternative medicine are so absorded in their beliefs, and so resistent to reality, that they behave like religious zealots. That is: being opposed to evidence based medicine is the new "True Faith."  Confronted with the possibility that spending time with fake "health care providers" may cause a belated diagnosis and therapy, or even result in withholding a required medical intervention, I have mixed feelings towards how to deal with this form of misinformation. Bottom line is: if it endangers the life of individuals it moves from deluded advise into criminal territory.
Evolution vs. Intelligent Design:
For decades evolution has been considered settled science, although it might conflict with religious dogma. The faithful have invented strategies, for ideological reasons alone, to get rid of this theory. Creationism was intended as "balance" but was soon replaced with Intelligent Design. Many supporting the "teach the controversy"-meme do not know (that information has escaped them) that at several levels ID cannot be considered science.
Roughly speaking to be science something has to have:  a) a theory: some sort of explanation for what we see -i.e. germ theory-, b) this theory has to be supported by experiment: through some sort of test we must be able show that our explanation is compatible with what we observe, c) we then subject ourselves to peer review: by writing down a "recipe" others are able to replicate our experiment and comment on it. After our theory cannot be falsified -i.e. shown to be false- d) this theory is accepted as "scientific fact." e) This scientific theory can only be refuted, or augmented, by a new theory that is required to also adhere to these points.
ID fails on all levels. First, it is not an explanation for the world around us. It merely states that science, at present, does not have all the answers. Ergo, a creator (god - who else) exists. Second, there is no known experiment in which this "intelligence" can be shown. Third, no peer review article has ever been published. Failing all this ID proponents argue that we should not judge it by the same standards as other forms of science. In other words: I am lousy at tennis and to compensate I should be allowed to use my hands and feet, and only for me no ball will be called "out." Of course, nobody would call this behaviour "playing tennis." By the same token we should not call actions that need a different book of rules science. By definition under the scientific method everybody, regardless of the topic, has to play by the same rules.
Also, ID proponents excell in debating tricks they use to muddy the water. Despite their vehement, and very vocal, objections a court of law has established that ID is religion posing as science.
Real Life Threatening Events vs. War on Terror Demagoguery:
We were told that the attacks of 9-11 were something new, there was a new kind of war and that if we did not intervene the world would be destroyed. Amazingly, hysteria took hold of our planet resulting in many silly and often counterproductive, if not previously illegal, actions that are known today as the "War on Terror." Strangely enough, were we to look in a more factual manner, leaving hyperbole and fearmongering behind us, we might discover much of the WoT is based upon non-existing, or by governments created, risks.
First, terrorism was not invented on 9-11. Many people had already died before that day because of the R.A.F., the I.R.A., F.A.R.C., E.T.A, to name but a few. Despite that knowledge people told us to forget about historical events and accept this attack as a novel concept: terrorism. Confronted with this we are told that terrorism itself is not new, but that as global organisation, operating like multinationals such as Shell and Microsoft, Al-Qaeda totally changed terrorism. This ignores the fact that Al Qaeda, before and after 9-11, never was a multinational-like organisation. At best it consists of a conglomerate of seperate entities with their own disputes and goals. The notion there exists an international movement with one goal, and one supreme leader (Osama bin Laden), has repeatedly been disproven by investigations: i.e. the attacks in London and Madrid.
Second, even accepting the premise, there is such a worldwide organisation, does not negate the fact that at best terrorism kills a few thousand people annually. If we look into the causes of death within the U.S. to ascertain the actual, as opposed to the perceived, risk for someone in the U.S. to die in 2006, in general terrorism presents a negligable threat. These figures show that a total of 2,426,264 people died in that year. Of these the following are the top killers in absolute numbers: heart disease 631,636, cancer 559,888, cerebrovascular diseases 137,119, accidents 121,599, diabetes 72,449, influenza and pneumonia 56,326, gun violence 30,000. To put this in perspective: terrorism has claimed about 3,000 lives in the U.S., including the christian anti-abortion killers, in the preceding ten years! Globally speaking the prevalence (total number of cases within the world population) of big preventable killers is: cardiovascular (17.5 million in 2005), hunger (9.7 million children < age 5 in 2006), injuries ( 2.6 million in people aged 10—24 in 2004), HIV/AIDS (2 million in 2007), tuberculosis (1.75 million in 2007), malaria (881,000 in 2006) measles (197,000 in 2007),  et cetera. Oddly enough, eventhough we could easily save millions of lifes each year if we tackled these conditions with the same vigour and hysteria, nobody sees the need to scare us by reporting on them, or by demanding new laws, or spending extra money.
Third, for whatever reason, even suggesting terrorism might not be haphazard but may be related to something else is by definition a no-go area. The best example is Israel. Regardless of how many times it is established Israel is violating international law, the mere fact their opponent (du jour) is doing the same absolves Israel from any responsibility to adhere to the law.
Fourth, more and more the use of the term terrorism is an example of doublespeak. it has an ever expanding, and never consistent, definition, that without exception conforms to our self-interests.

Journalism vs. Propaganda:
Most newsarticles, and programs I watch, appear to be suffering from the same shortcoming. The notion that to be "Fair and Balanced," i.e. truly objective, a journalist must only present both sides, with equal time, to any debate. Or, to use Glenn Greenwald's description, journalists function as stenographers. On the surface this sounds like responsible reporting. Looking into this principle more closely reveals a disturbing way of thinking that equates facts with opinion. Or, to put it differently, communis opinio on "objective reporting" is that confronted with facts and opinion it is not a journalist's job to determine what is what, "we report, you decide."  Also, pertinent information is not infrequently, yet always coincidentally, omitted and therefore absent from the story. Immediately the unsuspecting reader/viewer notices that this attitude deprives us of what should be the principal goal for any journalist: removing distractions, misrepresentations and propaganda in order to accurately report what happens in the world around us. To me it is neither fair, nor balanced, to report fabricated stories, or artificial controversies -i.e. evolution, global warming, vaccination, the shape of the earth, the holocaust, whether HIV causes AIDS, et cetera- as if there is any significant scientific debate between proponents and denialists of a certain subject. This way the newsmedia confuse us and, intentionally or not, legitimise refuting the scientific method, as principal mode of acquiring knowledge, while promoting crankscience.
With this in mind I feel less than optimistic towards our ability as species to rise above ideological constraints and start discussing in a more realistic (read: rational) way: i.e. based upon facts and adhering to the scientific principle.

A summary of the madness can be found on a flowchart from Lounge of the Lab Lemming:

Monday, 9 November 2009

The 100 best films of the decade

The Times helps us by listing their hundred best pictures of the past decade. This follows the previous selection of the fifty most exciting blockbuster films for 2009 and 2010. And, of course, the 50 biggest movies of 2008.

Update. Time Out has 101 Films of the Decade.



Should you subscribe to make-believe entities such as god and the bible, be afraid, very afraid. On 11-11-2009 rapture is upon us, again. That is, the shrewd conman makes the prediction into an if X then Y-formula. Effectively ensuring that should the world not end, something rational people know it will not, he can escape uncomfortable questions.

Friday, 6 November 2009


Just making a small overview of places I went to ski.

Together with a French friend I visited Valfréjus while I was starting my internship. It is a small village with about 60 km of pistes. For the more experienced I think just a weekend is enough to have seen everything. The aprés-ski is not bad if you don't mind spending time in just one or two spots. 

Went to Scotland and apparently they have got small stations for those that abhor long descents.

With nurses and doctors from the Intensive Care Unit I went to Briançon-Serre Chevalier. Clearly, this location is meant for those who detest doing more than ski since, aside from snow, they have little else..

Some friends and I rented an appartment in Val Thorens, which is part of Les Trois Vallées. It is a huge area (in excess of 600 km of pistes) where you can ski for days without going on the same piste twice. If you feel adventurous you can even go into the Italian Alps.

On of the hospitals I worked as resident Internal Medicine has an annual long weekend the first week of january in St. Christoph am Arlsberg, meant as team-building for the group of residents and specialists. Following a day in the snow, luncheon on the piste midday, we returned to the hotel for diner, copious wine and cocktails which were mandatory.

Eventhough my significant other is from Telemark, arguably the birthplace of Skiing, I have yet to try the Norwegian snow. Maybe this Christmas.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The medical community strikes a blow against woo-meisters

The Times reports that:
An Australian infant with a rare and usually fatal disease has been cured with treatment that has previously been used only on mice, in what doctors are claiming is the first medical procedure of its type in the world. 

Monday, 2 November 2009

Cause and effect

My view on the world around me, and as a doctor, is that nothing happens haphazzardly. At present we are confronted with Global Warming, which attracts alot of reality denying comments. A recent study has shown that actions taken by us do have effects on our chances of survival. The Times reports:
The standard explanation for the Nazca’s collapse is that the region was struck by an extreme El Niño event — the intermittent climate oscillation of the southern hemisphere that brings higher temperatures and increased rainfall.
But not so. By removing the Huarango trees surrounding them they made themselves vulnerable to floods:
“This catastrophe was preceded by human-induced changes, particularly chopping down the woodland,” he added. “In time, gradual woodland clearance crossed an ecological threshold, sharply defined in such desert environments, exposing the landscape to the region’s extraordinary desert winds and the effects of the El Niño floods. The climate wasn’t enough to induce collapse on its own. The Nazca partly wrought their own demise.”
This phenomenon is not unique to their civilisation:
Deforestation is also widely acknowledged as a factor in the demise of the Easter Island civilisation, and in the fall of the Anasazi people of the southwestern United States.
Clearly we can see that our influence upon the environment does indeed have an effect on our own survival. Global warming being the most pressing contemporary example. Hence the "medicine is to do as much nothing as possible" version of primum non nocere. To those with a bit of imagination it is evident that Newton may be applicable in the sense that every action will have a reaction. Translated this becomes: everything you do has consequenses. If we take note of this we might not have to clean up the mess we make, i.e. terrorism, adipositas causing diabetes, smoking causing cancer and heart disease, et cetera.