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Posts Tagged ‘science’

Vaccines and Autism: Faked

Sorry about the breaks between postings here on Woo Fighters. I will try to increase my postings as I come across interesting things on the internet.

This story came out a few days ago: Medical journal: Study linking autism, vaccines is ‘elaborate fraud’

This the type of thing we here at Woo Fighters love to see. It is truly important scientific findings are accurate and real. Fraudulent data only hurts the scientific community, and as a scientist, I hate to see that this doctor meant to use his fake data for profit. Unfortunately for him, knowledge is, by and large, free. Of course this man denies any wrongdoing or fraud. Perhaps one day he will relent.

The story can also be found here: British Doctor Faked Data Linking Vaccines to Autism, and Aimed to Profit From It

Anderson Cooper: Autism & Vaccines

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Warning Signs That Something is Not Scientific

*Some editing and language added by Barbara A. Drescher

Some people promote theories and treatments that they claim to be scientific, but are not. ResearchBlogging.orgOn this website, we often refer to such dubious claims as “woo” or pseudoscience. These often troublesome theories and treatments are widely advertised on the internet, on TV, and in the psychology or self-help sections of commercial book stores. But because some material in these venues is legitimate, it is important to know how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.

Here we provide a useful toolkit which can be used to identify pseudoscience. The following warning signs are just a rough guide and should be used with some care, because the distinction between science and pseudoscience is rarely clear-cut. Nevertheless, the more warning signs, the more suspicious of a claim you should be.

Warning signs that something is not scientific:

  1. It cannot be tested.

    Pseudoscience is often either impossible to test or excuses are made which keep it from being tested.

    In some cases, when evidence does not support the claim, instead of abandoning their ideas, pseudoscientists add conditions to their theories or explain away the evidence so that it is impossible to test the claim empirically. For example, a psychic who cannot demonstrate mind reading or other psychic feats under carefully controlled conditions in the laboratory might claim that “the skeptical vibes of experimenters” are blocking his or her psychic powers. Such an excuse makes the claim untestable.

    In other cases, pseudoscientific theories cannot be tested right from the start.

  2. The basic theory does not change in response to evidence.

    Genuine science adapts and updates its theories in response to new evidence, especially refuting evidence. In contrast, pseudoscience tends to maintain its initial claims and instead dismisses or ignores counter-evidence.

  3. The claimants avoid peer review or other outside verification.

    Peer review is the checking of scientific-journal articles by other scientists. Although it is by no means perfect, peer review is an effective, if slow, safeguard against human error. Pseudoscientists tend to avoid close scrutiny. In many cases, their descriptions of procedures and mechanisms are vague and the terms they use are undefined (e.g., “energy”). In other cases they may claim that “orthodox science” conspires against them.

  4. They only look for evidence which confirms their hypothesis.

    In science, studies are designed to disprove hypotheses, not to confirm them. This is because confirming evidence cannot tell us if the hypothesis is always true or if we have simply not seen a case in which it is false. For example, we could test the hypothesis that all birds fly by dropping birds from a bridge. We would confirm our hypothesis many times over, but we would not discover that it was wrong unless we happened to drop a chicken, penguin, or ostrich.

    Scientists look for evidence that their theories are false. Pseudoscientists, however, often look only for evidence which supports their beliefs.

  5. The claimant insists that their theory is accurate because it has not been proven wrong.

    Pseudoscientists typically say that it up to critics to disprove their claims, and until they do they should hold firmly to their beliefs. However, the burden of proof is on those making the claim.

  6. The claim defies what established science has told us about the world.

    Pseudoscientists often claim to have discovered a completely new way of looking at the world, one which requires existing scientific knowledge to be tossed out. For example, “psychic surgeons” claim to remove tumors from a patient’s abdomen without cutting the skin. This is considered an extraordinary claim as it defies the laws of nature as we know them. Such claims require extraordinary evidence.

  7. The claimants attempt to persuade using anecdotes.

    Pseudoscientists tend to rely on evidence that is testimonial – engaging and vivid personal stories. These stories are often touching and persuasive. Although such testimonies may be useful starting points in the early stages of scientific study, they rarely provide enough evidence to accept a claim. That’s because they are often difficult to verify, unrepresentative of people’s experiences, and open to alternative explanations that pseudoscientists haven’t considered.

  8. The claimants use confusing and inappropriate scientific-sounding jargon to persuade.

    Pseudoscientists sometimes use jargon which hides the lack of substance in their claims. Scientific or highly technical words are used to impress the reader and make it look like science. Technical or scientific terms are often used out of context. For example, the claim that a product regulates the flow of ions in the body is a misuse of the term “ion”, which refers to states of a molecule, not something that flows in the body.

  9. The claim has no limits.

    In science, theories are specific and treatments have limits. In contrast, pseudoscientists often claim that their theory or treatment applies to just about everything. For example, sham treatments for ADHD also claim to treat or even cure autism, learning disabilities, and other behavioral disorders even though these disorders are completely different in nature and have different causes.

  10. The claimant rejects counter-evidence from specific testing because it is not “holistic”.

    “Holistic” is often used to mean “treating the whole person.” Buyer-beware if “holistic” is used in such a way as to explain away unfavorable results, or to undermine the value of testing specific parts of the treatment or theory.

Note: These warning signs were adapted from Lilienfeld, Lynn, and Lohr (2003, pp. 5-10).

Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M. (2003). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology: Initial thoughts, reflections and considerations In S.O. Lilienfeld, S.J. Lynn, & J.M. Lohr (Eds.), Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, 1-38

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There Must Be an Idiom

                                 St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

A couple of days ago I read something that I found very disturbing and I was reminded of it today. It illustrates the challenge we have in educating the public about science and, perhaps, why it is so challenging. There must be an idiom which fits. Perhaps you have some suggestions.

So, first I will tell you what I read, then I will tell you why it was more disturbing than what I commonly encounter. If you want to skim, I cannot stop you, but please scroll down to the bottom for the shocker.

The offending paragraph was found in a review of Daniel Loxton’s wonderful children’s book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which appeared in CM Magazine, a publication of the Manitoba Library Association.

Although the text is very good in describing the theory of Evolution, there are points in the book where the author makes comments that could imply that Evolution is more than a theory. For example, “…Charles Darwin revealed the solution to the mystery of evolution” (p. 7). He also makes the comment that Evolution is the most important idea in all of biology (p. 7). Such phrases may lead the reader into thinking that scientists completely understand the theory of Evolution which would be incorrect, else Evolution would be a principle or a law and not a theory. As well, it is a bit bold to claim that evolution is the most important idea in all of biology – biology is a huge field of study with other key discoveries.

This text could be read by a young reader for ‘fun.’…

First, let me address this criticism because it is a common one made by evolution deniers and because it preys on a misunderstanding of science that many laypeople have.

As with most words in the English language, the word “theory” has multiple meanings. In general use among non-scientists, it is often used to express “conjecture”, “speculation”, or some other unproven or untested guess.

None of those definitions are what a scientist means when they use the term “theory”.

Neither a “principle” nor a “law” is a theory which is “completely understood”, either. Laws are simple statements which describe, not explain.

The descriptions given by Dr. Genie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, of the definitions of fact, law, hypothesis, and theory. It occurs about 3:50 into the video.


Theories vary in strength from very weak to very strong. The theory of evolution through natural selection has withstood 150 years of rigorous testing. It is one of the strongest theories in science.

And, yes, it is, by far, the most important idea in biology. It is probably the most important in all of the life sciences including behavioral sciences like psychology. Of course, this is a statement of opinion and I am not a biologist. However, I cannot imagine a biologist of any quality who does hold this opinion. I offer as evidence the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom Theodosius Dobzhansky quoted in his 1973 essay in American Biology Teacher titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution“:

(Evolution) is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow — this is what evolution is.

So, to summarize so far, a theory is an explanation – it is a set of testable and tested statements about relationships among variables which explains a given phenomenon. Ideas are not called “theories” because we do not know if they hold true. The strength of a theory depends on the quantity of observable facts explained, the quality of the explanation, the amount of testing it has withstood, and many other factors.

Evolution is an amazingly strong theory.

The author of the review does not understand the term “theory” as it is used in science, nor does she understand “law” and “principle”. Although these are often misunderstood by laypersons, they are fundamental to science. They are the language of science.

What is so shocking?

The review was written by an Assistant Professor of Science Education.

Katarin MacLeod is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. Her areas of interest include physics educational research (PER), and the incorporation of science, technology, society and environment (STSE) outcomes into science courses at all levels to help students understand the relevancy of science, increase scientific literacy, and to promote citizenship.

That, my friends, is disgraceful.

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Freud and Penfield were wrong about memory and it leads to woo

ResearchBlogging.orgDon’t get me wrong, Sigmund Freud and Wilder Penfield were far more intelligent and successful than I, but in hindsight we now have evidence that disconfirms their models of memory. The costs of having an inaccurate model of how memory works are immense.  There are financial and opportunity costs to psychotherapy participants and on occasion there are career costs to psychotherapists who get it wrong.  There are costs associated with getting the model of memory almost correct.  It really is so important to have a full understanding of how memory works, and this is especially true for up and coming psychotherapists.

          As a whole, I think most of us are getting the model of memory slightly wrong: One of my favorite radio hosts, Garrison Keillor, a real sweetheart of a man and a great thinker, said this on his May 6th broadcast of The Writer’s Almanac:

“But whether or not [Freud] is taken seriously in psychology and scientific communities in the way he intended, there is no doubt that Freud’s cultural influence is huge… And most people accept the basic idea that our minds are capable of repressing traumatic experiences or feelings

(Listen here: Writer’s Almanac Audio File May 6, on Freud

I heard this on the radio coming back from CSUN after a day of working on an experiment in which we found that 76% of third year psychology undergraduates agreed with the claim “traumatic memories can be immediately repressed and can be retrieved exactly in therapy decades later.”  So in a way Garrison Keillor was right, most of us do believe this, but it is slightly wrong, and in a shockingly important way.

Sigmond Freud

          The evidence from experiments on memory in cognitive and social psychology, and from studying trauma memory in clinical psychology I think crucially modifies Freud’s traumatic-memory model.  The evidence suggests that traumatic memory is often remembered better than ordinary memory.  Even if trauma can be forgotten, the mechanism of repression is not needed to explain that. This is because traumas are not forgotten at any rate quicker than ordinary events.  In fact, trauma seems to be remembered better and longer, and the fading or forgetting of unpleasant events can be explained by normal memory mechanisms.  It seems that unpleasant events are remembered more persistently and accurately if they are experienced as extremely highly stressful at the time of the experience. Now let’s look at just the tip of the iceberg of the evidence about this (for a fuller review see McNally, 2003). 

          Every now and again rare opportunities crop up to ethically study the effects of corroborated potentially traumatic or unpleasant experiences on memory.  In children, one way this was done was surrounding a painful medical procedure (VCUG) that involved insertion of a tube into the urethra to diagnose urinary tract problems.  Contrary to the idea that unpleasant or traumatic events are immediately repressed: the children had better recall of events when they had more than one VCUG treatments (Goodman, 1994; Quas et al. 1999). 

            A similar study, again using verifiable events, found that children recall accurate, detailed memories of emergency room treatment for lacerations and fractures six months later (Peterson & Bell, 1996).  Consistent findings in these types of studies show that older children have better memory than younger children

            In adults, the evidence points to the same thing. Yuille and Cutshall (1986) found that of those people who had witnessed a fatal shooting, the 5 most distressed witnesses were most accurate at recalling the event, compared to the 7 less stressed witnesses.

            In short, stress and terror seems to improve memory, and there seems to be little corroborated evidence that repression is the usual course of events following a trauma.  So Freud was wrong about trauma being immediately repressed.  He was also wrong about infantile amnesia – it has nothing to do with trauma – because everyone experiences infantile amnesia regardless of trauma.

Wilder Penfeld

          Whereas Freud got most things wrong, the great scientist Wilder Penfeld got most things right, but he didn’t get everything right in his career. One long-lasting mistake came about from his study using electrical stimulation to the human brain whilst the patients were conscious.  He stimulated the temporal lobes (an area important in memory, containing the hippocampus and surrounding structures) and reported that his patients experienced vivid flashbacks.  Penfeld guessed wrong: he wrote that the brain stores in memory everything that has been experienced.  Harvard psychologist Richard McNally (2003) explains where Penfeld went wrong:

 “what his patients termed ‘flashbacks’ were actually little more than sensory fragments accompanied by a feeling of familiarity, and even when entire scenes unfolded, some could not have happened the way they were remembered. For example, one woman saw herself, from the perspective of an observer, as a 7-year-old girl walking through grass.”

And not only that, only 12 out of his 520 patients reported both visual and auditory perceptions (Loftus and Loftus, 1980).  To be perfectly clear about this, research since Penfeld’s time has shown that memory is not recorded like a videotape, all experiences are not stored, and those that are stored are not recalled with absolute accuracy.

            The combination of Freud’s and Penfeld’s mistakes led to an explosion of therapies and treatment approaches that just got the model of memory wrong, sometimes with high costs.  Some of these treatments cropped up in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and the basic ideas have continued on into treatments still used in 2010. Scientology, starting in the 1950s, for example, has a model of memory that involves engrams: where “Engrams are a complete recording, down to the last accurate detail.” Primal therapy sprung up in the 1970s, drawing from both Penfeld’s and Freud’s errors to conclude that birth traumas can be re-experienced exactly as had happened originally.  Past life therapy took these ideas to the extreme, as did other regression therapies such as rebirthing and UFO abduction regression therapy.  The ultimate result of Penfeld’s and Freud’s guesses were: false memories.  No one intended for this to happen, and I’m sure Penfeld and Freud would not approve of many of these therapies, even at the time, and certainly not in hindsight.

            As for me, I will still listen to Garrison Keillor, after all what he said was correct, most of us do believe in Freud’s trauma repression theory, whether we know it or not. In light of the evidence though, I think that theory may be wrong.  If we get it wrong, trauma victims may get worse psychotherapy treatment than they would if we used a more accurate model of memory.


There is a mountain of evidence I couldn’t get to here, so for more on the myths and truths about memory see:

McNally (2005) Debunking Myths About Trauma and Memory


Goodman, G. (1994). Predictors of Accurate and Inaccurate Memories of Traumatic Events Experienced in Childhood Consciousness and Cognition, 3 (3-4), 269-294 DOI: 10.1006/ccog.1994.1016

Loftus EF, & Loftus GR (1980). On the permanence of stored information in the human brain. The American psychologist, 35 (5), 409-20 PMID: 7386971

McNally, N. (2003). Remembering Trauma Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Quas JA, Goodman GS, Bidrose S, Pipe ME, Craw S, & Ablin DS (1999). Emotion and memory: Children’s long-term remembering, forgetting, and suggestibility. Journal of experimental child psychology, 72 (4), 235-70 PMID: 10074380

Yuille JC, & Cutshall JL (1986). A case study of eyewitness memory of a crime. The Journal of applied psychology, 71 (2), 291-301 PMID: 3722079

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Skepticism: Making the Distinction

There appears to be a lingering confusion between philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism. Here, an attempt will be made to elucidate this issue further and draw a clear distinction between the two.

image source:

In general, philosophical skepticism holds that no definitive knowledge can ever be obtained through the senses, mainly due to the senses being flawed and thereby unreliable; the same arguments can be applied to logic and reasoning. Scientific skepticism, on the other hand, posits that though the senses and logic may in fact have their limitations and as such, never truly allow us to hold any definitive knowledge, the senses and logic are the best tools we have for any hopes of obtaining knowledge. Thus, it is apparent that each form of skepticism is distinct and operates under a different set of underlying assumptions.

Certainly, philosophical skepticism supplies adequate reason to question that which we believe to know and can logically justify. One need only turn to findings on the belief bias or narrative fallacy to find evidence for the short comings of human reasoning. However, the arguments of philosophical skepticism only put forth reason to doubt and remain skeptical of the tools (the senses and logic) which we have to make sense of reality. They fail to provide sufficient reason to not make use of these tools. Indeed, scientific skepticism acknowledges that they can often lead us astray, hence the precept behind a core scientific principle of skepticism: open-mindedness. Consequently, scientific skepticism assumes that there exists an approximate one-to-one correspondence between the senses and reality, such that the senses can give us some degree of reliably accurate knowledge about the universe. Philosophical skepticism refuses to make such an assumption and we are left with no trustable conclusions. For this reason, there is a need to recognize the distinction between the two.

Philosophical skepticism provides an invaluable principle to science: that we always have reason to continue to doubt. Because of this principle, science can never prove or disprove any phenomena, but rather provide inductive evidence for or against a given hypotheses along with a measure of certainty. From this we infer knowledge. Scientific skepticism takes a more pragmatic approach than philosophical skepticism by not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good and making use of the best tools we have (our senses) in this search.

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Science? Only when it’s practical, please.

When the idea of “science” is brought up, most people agree that this so-called science is a good thing. In fact, in a somewhat recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 84% of Americans surveyed believed the science in their lives to have a positive influence on society, with only 6% indicating the opposite. 70% said they believed scientists to have a positive influence on society, which is even more than doctors!

While the magical idea of “what science is to me and not to you thank you very much” sounds preferable to your average consumer of science, the reality behind belief in American scientific progress is a bit more bleak. From the same poll, only 17% of those surveyed believed America to among the “best in the world” when it comes to scientific research, with 49% believing America to have the best scientists in the world. It’s a lot easier to deny an intangible idea, isn’t it?

Three separate Gallup Polls taken between 1990 and 2001 measured public beliefs in various paranormal phenomena. Notably, and in spite of the 84% of Americans putting their faith in science, a large portion in all three time periods (50%) said they believed in Extrasensory Perception (ESP) , with only 21% definitively certain about its nonexistence.

How do Americans, who are so sure of science’s contributions to society, have such a poor misunderstanding of such basic concepts? Principal researcher Heather Ridolfo’s recently published paper entitled “Social Influences on Paranormal Belief: Popular Versus Scientific Support” examined differences in perception of ESP based on both public and scientific opinion. What was found is that while people tend to evaluate the validity of claims based on how many other people support said claims (a cognitive bias known as the Bandwagon Effect), the support of the scientific community (or lack thereof) has no impact on evaluating the validity of claims made about ESP.

From this, the researchers concluded that their finding “may reflect decreasing trust in the institution of science”. Whatever the reason, the romantic idea of science and the reality behind science have a long way to go before they meet.

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