junk science

When I was in 5th grade, my elementary school teacher asked all of us to conduct an experiment at home.

I chose to grow grass in two pots. (There were no bonus points for creativity.) Both pots were watered regularly and kept in the sunlight. The only difference is that one pot had a plastic bag around it -- essentially making a tiny greenhouse. My hypothesis was that the extra warmth would cause the grass in that pot to grow taller.

And it did! If I wanted to be a real scientist, I would have done the experiment 10 more times and performed a two-sample t-test to determine the statistical significance of my results. But that was above my pay grade, at the time.

Though my experiment was simple, it included all the basics of the scientific method: Observation,...

With the holiday season fast approaching, inevitably we will succumb to reckless dietary choices because, what the hey, we have been good the rest of the year, right?  Once the new year hits, we will be made to suffer the guilt and the shame for our collective weaknesses.  The vulnerability that results from self-hate makes us perfect prey for snake oil salesmen.

Thankfully, the American Chemical Society Reactions group teamed up with Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Digital Studios as part of a video series called The Great Courses Plus - to smarten us up so we don't fall for gimmicks. 

They produced a video that explains the science behind our body’s ability to detoxify itself using our...

A Missouri court of appeals recently tossed out a decision to award $72 million (ten million dollars in actual damages and $62 million in punitive damages) to a woman suing Johnson & Johnson alleging that the company’s baby powder caused her ovarian cancer.

Initially a jury in a St. Louis circuit court initially decided in favor of Jacqueline Fox, 62, of Birmingham, Alabama (who had passed away before her case went to trial).  The plaintiff had claimed that years of use of Johnson & Johnson products containing talcum powder had contributed to her development of ovarian cancer.  This week, an appellate Missouri court reversed the decision to award Ms. Fox the $72 million indicating that...

For some reason, humans enjoy making predictions of death and destruction. From politicians to fanatical religious leaders, there is a lot of money to be made telling people that Earth is toast.

Of course, the predictions never come true, but that doesn't prevent doomsayers from making more of them. "One of these days, it will be true," they warn, as they wag their wrinkly finger in our faces.

The most famous finger-wagger was Thomas Malthus, who said that the world population would grow so large that we couldn't feed ourselves anymore. He was wrong, but that didn't stop Paul Ehrlich from resuscitating his argument 170 years later in The Population Bomb. He was wrong, too, but that didn't stop Quartz from reanimating this ideological corpse once again.

The...

Kurt Eichenwald is an interesting guy -- in the same way that a 47-car pileup on the freeway is interesting. He is, according to his Twitter bio, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a New York Times bestselling author. He also has written for Newsweek, where he penned one of the best essays I have ever read about conspiracy theories.

You would think that a man with such enormous influence would wield it with great responsibility. But you would be wrong. Last year, he tweeted -- without any evidence whatsoever -- that he believed Donald Trump...

I cannot say enough how important it is for physicians to have a working knowledge of junk science. While it sometimes can be difficult to not get snarky when patients claim they have nonsense diagnoses, it behooves the clinician to approach this type of situation with extreme diplomacy.  We cannot do this if we are not equipped with the knowledge to combat the plague which is medical quackery. 

The really sexy word around town, as I have noticed, is "wellness." Empires are built on the notion that we are, at baseline, not well.  And unless we buy what they sell, we will not attain both inner and outer beauty. What I did not know is how pervasive these wellness "clinics" are and the plethora of websites touting benefits that have no real foundation in evidence based medicine...

Living in Seattle, food phobias are everywhere. If you're afraid of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, GMOs, hormones in meat, pesticides, gluten, or anything that requires a PhD scientist to produce, then Seattle is your organic Mecca. Despite that Seattle's economy is partially built on the biotech sector (not to mention that the much-loved University of Washington has an enormous biomedical science program -- of which yours truly is a graduate), Seattle is a global headquarters of kooky food fads and alternative medicine.

Why? The entire "natural is better" movement is predicated upon fear. Scaring people is a time-tested tactic employed by politicians. If a politician wants elderly people to vote for him, he will tell them that his opponent will take away their...

When Erin Brockovich, an environmental activist, shook down Pacific Gas & Electric for $333 million for allegedly poisoning a community with hexavalent chromium and causing cancer and all sorts of other health problems, Julia Roberts portrayed the protagonist in a sensationalized blockbuster movie. It is unlikely, however, that Hollywood will be filming a sequel.

Why? Because not only was Ms. Brockovich wrong, but the State of California has now partially repudiated what she fought for.

Erin Brockovich, Junk Scientist

We've known for a long time that Ms. Brockovich used junk science to score a jackpot settlement. She used a common rhetorical trick, known as the Texas...

Somewhere along the way critical reasoning and a healthy dose of skepticism were supplanted by tacit acceptance as fact press releases and publications generated from academic institutions, those “perfectly” credentialed and arbitrarily deemed scientifically “pure.” To do so actually undermines the scientific method and potential advancement, discovery and innovation. It can also place the public in harm’s way.

Yet, with the current competition today, it is no surprise corner-cutting and mastery of how to get published has evolved statistical tricks for those in the know to optimize their chances. The latest example from Harvard will be discussed here. Since publishers are enabling these behaviors, arming the media and public with tools to separate the wheat from the chaff is...

When life hands us lemons, we can make refreshing lemonade. We can squeeze them in tea to soothe colds and congestion. But we can't prevent or cure disease, especially cancer. So let's not boil lemon water and skip the specialist if you've been diagnosed with a serious ailment.