Monday, January 7, 2013

0 10 Questions to Distinguish Real from Fake Science

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[Note: This is a version of a post that first appeared here and the author, Emily Willingham, needs to be acknowledged].

I'm running it today because science consumption doesn't happen only through what we read in the news media or discussion on News24.  “Scienceness” is sold to us by way of commercials, store / pharmacy pamphlets, billboards, and our social circles, too.  You page through various magazines, Sunday newspapers, pamphlets in pharmacies and doctor’s rooms you often read about miracle cures, “new” revolutionary treatments, new takes on natural phenomena. 

I am not a scientist – I am a layman trying to make sure that the product that I put my faith in has actually been developed / tested / verified by those (called scientist) who have the necessary skills to perform those actions. 

All of the products promises the world – All verified by very clever people – All very understandable...  But is it?

As a layman I want to make sure I get my money’s worth.  I pay enough tax – so I do not want to line some schmuck’s pockets, we have politicians for that.  How can one safeguard oneself against being taken for a ride – sometimes a very expensive or embarrassing ride?

Well, for this article “Fake Science” will refer to “Pseudoscience” – which in laymen’s terms mean “science” that the layman seem to be able to understand.  But here are some better definitions:

Google[1]: A collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method.

Wikipedia[2][3]: Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status.

Oxford English Dictionary[4]: "A pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have,"

Scientific American[5]:  Read the link for more information, but here is a an interesting extract – “It was Karl Popper who first identified what he called “the demarcation problem” of finding a criterion to distinguish between empirical science, such as the successful 1919 test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and pseudoscience, such as Freud’s theories, whose adherents sought only confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming cases”

I think you will notice the words “belief”, “practice”, “claim” have been thrown around a lot (I am sure your mind is also dwelling on the “Infomercials” and “magazine wonder drugs” – but another important word is: “Scientific Method”.  So let’s define “Scientific Method”:  a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

There are some important words in the definition, but often this bit gets overlooked and I draw the reader’s attention to this (it will become obvious why later):  “and modification of hypotheses”

Please remember:  Criticism and review are the backbone of the scientific method!

Pseudoscience is the shaky foundation of practices – often medically related – that lack a basis in evidence. It is “fake” science dressed up, sometimes quite carefully, to look like the real thing. If you’re alive, you’ve encountered it, whether it was the guy at the mall trying to sell you Power Balance bracelets, the shampoo commercial promising you that “amino acids” will make your hair shiny, or the peddlers of “natural remedies” or that diet plan that will actually work, who in a classic expansion of a basic tenet of advertising, make you think you have a problem so they can sell you something to solve it.

What science consumers need is a cheat sheet for people of sound mind to use when considering a product, book, therapy, or remedy. Below are the top 10 questions you should always ask yourself–and answer - before shelling out the Rands for anything, whether it’s anti-aging cream, a diet program, books purporting to tell you secrets your doctor won’t, or jewellery items containing magnets:

1. What is the source? Is the person or entity making the claims someone with genuine expertise in what they’re claiming? Are they hawking on behalf of someone else? Are they part of a distributed marketing scam? Do they use, for example, a Website or magazine or newspaper ad that’s made to look like science or news when it’s really one giant advertisement meant to make you think it’s journalism?

2. What is the agenda? You must know this to consider any information in context. In a scientific paper, look at the funding sources. If you’re reading a non-scientific anything, remain extremely sceptical. What does the person or entity making the claim get out of it? Does it look like they’re telling you, you have something wrong that you didn’t even realize existed … and then offering to sell you something to fix it?  Any bells ringing?  I am sure there are!

3. What kind of language does it use? Does it use emotion words or a lot of exclamation points or language that sounds highly technical (amino acids! enzymes! nucleic acids!) or jargon-y but that is really meaningless in the therapeutic or scientific sense? If you’re not sure, take a term and google it, or ask a scientist if you can find one. Sometimes, an amino acid is just an amino acid. Be on the lookout for science-ness. As Albert Einstein once pointed out, if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well. If peddlers feel that they have to toss in a bunch of jargon science terms to make you think they’re the real thing, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about, either.

4. Does it involve testimonials? If all the person or entity making the claims has to offer is testimonials without any real evidence of effectiveness or need, be very, very suspicious. Anyone–anyone–can write a testimonial and put it on a Website. Example: ”I felt that I knew nothing about science until The Science Consumer blog came along! Now, my brain is packed with science facts, and I’m earning my PhD in Social Engineering this year! If it could do it for me, The Science Consumer blog can do it for you, too! THANKS, SCIENCE CONSUMER BLOG! –Liefde, Amanda Pretorius, Nelspruit”

5. Are there claims of exclusivity? People have been practicing science and medicine for thousands of years. Millions of people are currently doing it. Typically, new findings arise out of existing knowledge and involve the contributions of many, many people. It’s quite rare–in fact, I can’t think of an example–that a new therapy or intervention is something completely novel without a solid existing scientific background to explain how it works, or that only one person figures it out. It certainly wouldn’t just suddenly appear one night on an infomercial. Also, watch for words like “proprietary” and “secret.” These terms signal that the intervention on offer has likely not been exposed to the light of scientific critique.

6. Is there mention of a conspiracy of any kind? Claims such as, “Doctors don’t want you to know” or “the government has been hiding this information for years,” are extremely dubious. Why wouldn’t the millions of doctors in the world want you to know about something that might improve your health? Doctors aren’t a monolithic entity in an enormous white coat making collective decisions about you any more than the government is some detached non-living institution making robotic collective decisions. They’re all individuals, and in general, they do want you to know.

7. Does the claim involve multiple un-associated disorders? Does it involve assertions of widespread damage to many body systems (in the case of things like vaccines) or assertions of widespread therapeutic benefit to many body systems or a spectrum of unrelated disorders? Claims, for example, that a specific intervention will cure cancer, allergies, ADHD, and autism (and I am not making that up) are frankly irrational.

8. Is there a money trail or a passionate belief involved? The least likely candidates to benefit fiscally from conclusions about any health issue or intervention are the researchers in the trenches working on the underpinnings of disease (genes, environmental triggers, etc.), doing the basic science. The likeliest candidates to benefit are those who (1) have something patentable on their hands; (2) market “cures” or “therapies”; (3) write books or give paid talks or “consult”; or (4) work as “consultants” who “cure.” That’s not to say that people who benefit fiscally from research or drug development aren’t trustworthy. Should they do it for free? No. But it’s always, always important to follow the money. Another issue that’s arisen around pseudoscience is whether or not a bias of passionate belief is as powerful as fiscal motivation. If you have a bias detector, turn it on to full power when evaluating any scientific claim. If yours is faulty–which you might not realize because of bias–perhaps you can find someone in real life or online with a hypersensitive bias detector. Journalists, by nature of training and their work, often seem to operate theirs on full power.

9. Were real scientific processes involved? Evidence-based interventions generally go through many steps of a scientific process before they come into common use. Going through these steps includes performing basic research using tests in cells and in animals, clinical research with patients/volunteers in several heavily regulated phases, peer-review at each step of the way, and a trail of published research papers. Is there evidence that the product or intervention on offer has been tested scientifically, with results published in scientific journals? Or is it just science-ness espoused by people without benefit of expert review of any kind?

10.  Are there expertise? Finally, no matter how much you dislike “experts” or disbelieve the “establishment,” the fact remains that people who have an MD or a science PhD or both after their names have gone to school for 24 years or longer, receiving an in-depth, daily, hourly education in the issues they’re discussing. If they’re specialists in their fields, tack on about five more years. If they’re researchers in their fields, tack on more. They’re not universally blind or stupid or venal or uncaring or in it for the money; in fact, many of them are exactly the opposite. If they’re doing research, usually they’re not Rockefellers. Note that having “PhD” or even “MD” after a name or “Dr” before it doesn’t automatically mean that the degree or the honorific relates to expertise in the subject at hand. If have a PhD in biology and I wrote a book about chemical engineering and slapped the term PhD on there, that still doesn’t make me an expert in chemical engineering.  I recommend listening to more than one expert voice.

The above mentioned tips will work very well for most of the days of the week and in most “commercial” settings and endeavours and I hope readers will also get the value from it that I did; however it is not complete – there is a very important 11th Question that will make all 11 questions have a very practical application to a popular religious movement know commonly as young-earth creation-science.

We have some very vocal “promoters” here on News24 of “Creation-Science” that throws a constant barrage of “information” trying to lay waste to the over 480 000 American Scientists [6] alone that support evolution.  It is laughable that the American Discovery Institute [7][8] only have about 700 scientist supporting “Intelligent Design”, as of the 8th of February 2007.  As a parody to this laughable attempt, Project Steve[9] was launched and as of the 6th of April 2012 the 1200th “Steve” was added to the list of supporting scientist of evolution.  Bear in mind reader that in America only 1% of the total population have a “Steve” related name (never mind only the scientists).

I do not know about you but when I lie in a hospital with a heart condition, I am going to go with the 686 doctors standing around me saying I need a heart operation, than the 1 doctor saying I need a Panado for my aching toe.

It just so happens that one of its chief promoters (Ken Ham[10]) is on tour, having recently completed events in Kentucky and California and with another upcoming event in a few days in Oklahoma City.

You may recognize that Ken Ham is proprietor of the infamous Creation Museum[11][12][13] (see link 12 – it is hilarious!) in Kentucky and he is currently attempting to raise $150,000,000.00 or so through charitable giving ($25m) and an investment scheme ($125m) in order to open an amusement park, including a life-size version of Noah’s ark.

I have found that, in order to avoid getting bog down in all the scientific claims coming from the likes of Ken Ham (and our very own Sean_Sheep (who has been silent for a while, as well meaning as he is), that one can recognize that what is being promoted is not science but theology by noting that Ken Ham’s position, and those of others like him, maybe be properly summed up as being:  “We, creation-science promoters, have our interpretation of the Bible regarding the age of stuff, and that trumps any other evidence and its interpretation to the contrary.”

Otherwise, if those 10 questions are applied to what Ken Ham is promoting as science, one will find additional basis for understanding why it is that the promoters like Ken Ham, Sean_Sheep, Tyronne, Charles Dumbwin, … have failed in their scientific pretensions and legal challenges.

There is nothing wrong with healthy scepticism, but there is also nothing wrong in acknowledging that a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing, that there are really people out there whose in-depth educations and experience better qualify them to address certain issues. However, caveat emptor, as always. Given that even MDs and PhDs can be disposed to acquisitiveness just like those snake-oil salesmen, never forget to look for the money.

Always, always follow the money.

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