Monday, 11 August 2014

Pseudoscience: When You Really, Really Really Hate Data and Deduction

Last week, Senator Eric Abetz, a senior figure in the Australian government, told a panel show that abortion causes breast cancer:

"I think the studies, and I think they date back from the 1950s, assert that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer."

Abetz' massively awkward attempt to engage with medical science were instantaneously labelled as 'anti-science' on Twitter:

It seems logical to label something so monumentally ignorant as 'anti-science'. It's harmful to citizens who receive conflicted medical advice from their television, but it also creates unnecessary work for doctors and scientists who might better spend their time dealing with actual science, rather than refuting inane theories spouted by the scientifically illiterate.

The thing is, I'm not sure I like the term 'anti-science' (though I have repeated it myself in the past). Too often it's used in the case of a single issue, like medicine, or climate science, as an angry rhetorical reflex - of course you think abortion causes breast cancer, you hate science, don't you?

I seriously doubt most people who reject any of these fields of scientific inquiry are truly anti-science. I suspect Abetz is perfectly comfortable with, say, astrophysics, or x-ray crystallography, or chemistry.

But there's still some element of truth to the phrase. I just think it needs to be tweaked.

One of the best examples of what could be classed as something truly 'anti-scientific' is the enjoyably unhinged website 'Natural News', run by a chap named Mike Adams.

Recently, Natural News decided to adopt the issue of 'wind turbine syndrome', and in true Natural News style, they did it in an auto-parodic hurricane of lunacy:

"The blades are known to make infrasounds (sic), vibrations that we cannot consciously "hear" but still have an effect on the inner ear.....Symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, headache, difficulty concentrating and insomnia"

Natural News is an incredible collection of pseudoscience. Namely, they're strong advocates of homeopathy, and they're rabid opponents of vaccination. The issue of 'wind turbine syndrome' is a natural fit for Natural News, because being a proponent of 'wind turbine syndrome' necessitate a certain hostility towards a core scientific concept - waiting for evidence before forming conclusions.

Natural News in a nutshell

This is something I came across again quite recently, reading a blog post on windturbinesyndrome dot com. To awkwardly give anecdotal evidence more weight than one normally would in the process of scientific inquiry is the defining feature of a truly 'anti-data' approach, and it features strongly in this post authored by a doctor in Vermont named Sandy Reider:

"Before concluding, I would like to emphasize that the bulk of scientific evidence for adverse health effects due to industrial wind installations comes in the form of thousands of case reports like the patient I described. One or two sporadic anecdotal cases can legitimately be viewed with a wait-and-see skepticism, but not thousands where the symptoms are so similar, along with the ease of observing exposure and measuring outcomes, wherever these projects have been built.  
I agree with Epidemiologist Carl Phillips, who opined that “these case reports taken together offer the most compelling scientific evidence of serious harm.  Just because the prevailing models have failed to explain observed adverse health effects does not mean they do not exist”"

This is an interesting concept. It excises a core component of scientific investigation - that we need to deduce causal relationships, through controlled studies, before we make assertions about their existence. It also implies that the only necessary information needed to declare the confirmed existence of 'wind turbine syndrome' is the possibility that it's real.

A cursory trawl through Google shows that 'wind turbine syndrome' isn't the only medically contentious issue that Reider is involved in. He's a listed homeopath, as shown on this website, and he's left a comment on this post about 'tautopathy' (a practice predicated on the idea that side effects to medicine can be treated through the issuing of doses of that same medicine).

Similarly, Reider has written content advocating against vaccination, with the implication being that the process is likely to cause harm or injury. In a piece re-published on a website called 'The Refusers', Reider writes:

"Current immunization policy relies on the oft-repeated assertion that vaccines are safe and effective. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics have acknowledged that serious reactions, including seizures, progressive encephalopathy, and death, can and do occur.
The federal vaccine injury court, which was established at the same time that vaccine manufacturers were exempted from liability, has to date paid $2.6 billion dollars in compensation for vaccine injuries. And there is ample reason to believe that the incidence of vaccine injury is strongly underreported."

The fallacy being used here is elegantly explained by blogger Kathy McGrath:

"Sometimes vaccine critics will use Vaccine Court injuries as evidence of harm. But law courts do not determine causation  -  medical science does.   In Australia, all claims would need to go through a lengthy civil process. I think that the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) in the US appeals to people who misunderstand the process and may think they can take advantage of the system. 
If you take a look at the numbers of vaccine reactions , the rate of compensation of vaccine injuries in the American vaccine court means that 99.99999999% of Americans are vaccinated without issue"

The key part of Reider's writing is this: "there is ample reason to believe that the incidence of vaccine injury is strongly underreported". It's an appeal to the absence of evidence. It's the idea that information, collated and analysed in a controlled fashion so as to remove the influence of subjectivity and bias, is as cold, heartless and toxic as a pill produced by big pharma.

Two sentences penned by Reider in a submission to a US senate committee neatly summarise what seems to be a genuine anti-data attitude:

"I  have to tell you that from my clinical perspective, no amount of hype or spin will convince me that the  adverse  effects of persons living too close to a large wind turbine are simply psychosomatic"........"The adage 'absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence' comes to mind" 

One cannot declare a conclusion whilst simultaneously citing a lack of evidence as reason to believe that conclusion. If there is truly an absence of evidence, as Reider states, then how is he justified in telling patients that their suffering is caused by wind turbines?

This inverse rule is a paradox: No data is needed to reach a strong conclusion about 'wind turbine syndrome', and no data can exist that could ever reverse that strong conclusion:

The denial of deduction and causation is a necessary component in the concrete acceptance of extremely weak hypotheses, such as those underlying homeopathy, anti-vaccination fear-mongering, anti-abortion pseudoscience dating back to the 1950's, or 'wind turbine syndrome'.

Abetz' efforts on The Project saw him appealing for the rejection of prevailing consensus, despite attempts to backpedal. Unfortunately, for Abetz, the reason that medical science works so well is because scientific facts are deduced using careful testing. The scientific method isn't perfect, but it's an extremely useful tool for deducing the shape of reality.

Reider's last paragraph is something I can imagine has been hurtling through Abetz's mind for the past five days. It's the freedom to ignore data, and to let truth be guided by our desires, rather than our science.

"For better or worse, in today’s “information age” we are perhaps too fascinated by computers and mountains of data, but truth is truth, wherever you find it, even in small places"

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