10 Questions to Distinguish Real From Fake Science

14 11 2012

[Note: This is a version of a post that first appeared here and here. Its message is worth repeating.]

Pseudoscience  is the shaky foundation of practices–often medically related–that lack a basis in evidence. It’s “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 fad diet plans, 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.

Pseudosciences are usually pretty easily identified by their emphasis on confirmation over refutation, on physically impossible claims, and on terms charged with emotion or false “sciencey-ness,” which is kind of like “truthiness” minus Stephen Colbert. Sometimes, what peddlers of pseudoscience say may have a kernel of real truth that makes it seem plausible. But even that kernel is typically at most a half truth, and often, it’s that other half they’re leaving out that makes what they’re selling pointless and ineffectual. But some are just nonsense out of the gate. I’d love to have some magic cream that would melt away fat or make wrinkles disappear, but how likely is it that such a thing would be available only via late-night commercials?

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 benjamins for anything, whether it’s anti-aging cream, a diet fad program, books purporting to tell you secrets your doctor won’t, or jewelry 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 sciencey or newsy 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 skeptical. 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 with you that you didn’t even realize existed…and then offering to sell you something to fix it? I’m reminded of the douche solution commercials of my youth in which a young woman confides in her mother that sometimes, she “just doesn’t feel fresh.” Suddenly, millions of women watching that commercial were mentally analyzing their level of freshness “down there” and pondering whether or not to purchase Summer’s Eve.
  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 sciencey-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 jargony 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 aerospace engineering this year! If it could do it for me, The Science Consumer blog can do it for you, too! THANKS, SCIENCE CONSUMER BLOG! –xoxo, Julie C., North Carolina.”
  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 nonliving institution making robotic collective decisions. They’re all individuals, and in general, they do want you to know.
  7. Does the claim involve multiple unassociated 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 sciencey-ness espoused by people without benefit of expert review of any kind?
  10. Is 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. I have a PhD in biology. If 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. And I’m just one person with one expert voice in the things I do know well. I recommend listening to more than one expert voice.

There is nothing wrong with healthy skepticism, 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.

By Emily Willingham





Flu Education Resources

17 10 2012

The American Lung Association’s Faces of Influenza campaign has a fabulous toolkit available this year that is free-of-charge, along with PSAs that are also free-of-charge.

They have brochures, posters, and flyers ready to print, and they have an influenza backgrounder, templates of articles and letters to the editor, press releases, print ads, and other materials ready to use.

You may download all of these materials, or you may ask that hard copies be sent to you.

There are two campaign spokespeople this year, both of whom are warm and caring individuals—one is Sarah Chalke from the television show Scrubs, and the other is Maria Canals Barrera, from the television show Wizards of Waverly Place.

If you have any questions about the materials, contact Mary Havell at the American Lung Association.

Families Fighting Flu also has materials that may be downloaded and used in flu-fighting efforts. They have posters, postcards, and brochures that may either be downloaded at no cost, or they have hard copies that may be ordered.

The Immunization Action Coalition has handouts about vaccine-preventable diseases and vaccines that may be downloaded from their website free-of-charge.

The Vaccine Education Center at CHOP also has many handouts that are downloadable free-of-charge from their website.

There are lots of other organizations that have free educational material about influenza, including PKIDs.

What materials do you have that you can share with others this flu season? Tell us about them in comments, and leave URLs if you can.

By Trish Parnell
Image courtesy of USACE Europe District





Vaccine Education Center

28 04 2011

Dr. Paul Offit, Director, VEC

The science of vaccines can be . . . daunting. The lists of ingredients and potential side effects make us want to second guess ourselves and our children’s providers. We need to be sure we’re making safe choices.

And the complicated schedules! They’re enough to make sane people pound their heads.

The folks at the Vaccine Education Center (VEC) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have a gift for presenting the complexities of vaccines and attending issues in a way that’s easy to understand yet comprehensive in scope.

The VEC website has a special section for parents and adults of all ages.  While there, you can sign up for the Parents PACK newsletter to get monthly immunization updates.  In the March issue, there’s a timely post on measles and the dangers of rubella parties.

You’ll also find age-specific information on vaccines and the diseases they prevent. There are FAQs, but if you can’t find your question, you can send it in via a form provided on the site.

The VEC has created a library of educational materials on specific vaccines and commonly asked questions. These resources range from information sheets to more consumer-friendly bookmarks and brochures.

They also maintain essential tools, including vaccine schedules, facts about vaccine preventable diseases, and the latest in vaccine science.

To keep information fresh, the VEC pens a monthly “Ask the VEC” on a myriad of topics.

Starting in 2011, the VEC will present three or four webinars a year addressing evolving issues, recent ACIP meetings, new science and media reports.

There are layers and layers of information available on the website, for those of us who feel more is better.  And what parent doesn’t?

The VEC staff constantly works at sifting vaccine fact from fiction and explaining the difference in ways we can all understand.  If you have questions, they’re worth checking out.





Freaky Friday #5

9 04 2010

We cannot guarantee the following bits of weird news are true, but we almost did our best to find out!  Enjoy.

Cyborg bugs fly among us and may be the precursors to cyborg babies! This is for the Trekkies out there (and at PKIDs). It’s that ever-curious experimental research branch of the Pentagon, DARPA, always getting up to something. Does it knock down the Yikes factor a bit if you know they’re fruit and fig beetles?

Don’t let this guy show you any love. Kissing bugs like to bite around the mouth and can cause infections affecting the heart or intestines. You don’t cha-cha when you have Chagas, baby.

If your favorite food is the color red, chances are it has bugs in it! Any food with ingredients like cochineal dye, carmine, or carminic acid gets its color from the crushed bodies of the cochineal insect. The bug shells are boiled, dried, and then ground into a fine powder. You can get your cochineal fix in things like red juices and sodas, gelatins, sausages, pies, and jams.

People didn’t develop the gene to digest lactose (milk) until 7,500 years ago. Who were the first people to take a swig of that white water? Turns out, it was probably “a farming culture called the Linearbandkeramik.” And if you like the word Linearbandkeramik, find out more here! Finally, you can lead a cow upstairs, but not down. That’s all we have to say on milk and related animals. Where do we come up with this stuff? Why do we do it? Hey, it’s fun. And it’s Friday.





Freaky Friday #4

2 04 2010

We cannot guarantee the following bits of weird news are true, but we almost did our best to find out!  Enjoy.

Photo courtesy of Mastababa

Fear makes the earwax flow, although scientists aren’t sure why. Earwax, yucky and disgusting as it is, stops germs from setting up camp in those lovely, damp, warm holes we call ear canals.

This just in: Neptune eats planet, kidnaps (moonnaps?) moon. That’s all we have to say on that.

Have you seen the latest film version of Alice in Wonderland? Turns out Alice isn’t the only one dropping down a rabbit hole. Sufferers of “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” often see objects and distances as larger or smaller than they normally appear, creating a sort of “funhouse” vision of the world. Lewis Carroll was said to be a sufferer.

The old-timers called them homunculus, or little men. Benign tumors bristling with hair, bits of teeth, skin, sweat glands…sometimes even eyeballs or hands.  No, not undeveloped fetuses, just (gag) debris that may develop into a growth in men or women.

Gross gas facts: (Hey, you knew we had to go there at some point.):

  • A deceased person will still fart shortly after death.
  • They actually make special underwear for people who pass gas a lot. They are called Fartypants. (We think this one is a joke, but check out GasBGon pants)
  • Termites have the smelliest farts. These creatures’ farts are believed to be a major contributor toward global warming.

Why do we do it? It’s Friday! Send in your wacky fact with a link and if we can almost say it’s true, we’ll post it.

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Freaky Friday #3

26 03 2010

Freaky Friday: We can’t guarantee the following bits of weird news are true, but we almost did our best to find out!  Enjoy.

Guinea worms—in through the mouth, and out through the… knee?? In some countries, larvae of guinea worms living in water fleas lives are ingested when people drink the water. The worms grow for about a year, unbeknownst to their human host. Then they begin the painful process of leaving the body through the skin, which can take up to 2 months.  Yes, that’s right, two months with a worm hanging out of some place on your skin. The host seeks out water to soothe the burning sensation, which is when the worm deposits its larvae—and the cycle begins again. Successful eradication efforts are now taking place.

Male walruses have a baculum the size of some baseball bats.  Modesty prevents us from saying more.

Hey, need some progesterone and just don’t have time to see your provider for pills?  Here, have a walnut.

Let’s see, if a hard working adult sweats up to 4 gallons per day, then here at PKIDs, we sweat up to…anybody got a measuring spoon?

How many kids go off to school with peanut butter sandwiches?  A pound of peanut butter can contain up to 150 bug fragments and 5 rodent hairs.  Eeeewwww. Where do we come up with this stuff?  More importantly, why do we do it? Hey, it’s fun.  And it’s Friday!

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Freaky Friday #2

19 03 2010

Freaky Friday: We can’t guarantee the following bits of weird news are true, but we almost did our best to find out!  Enjoy.

It’s getting harder to break the law and get away with it.  We can be identified by fingerprints, ear prints, tongue prints, and now our germs are ratting us out. We each have billions of microbes in us or on us, and those critters leave a “unique bacterial genetic signature” behind as we go about our daily business.

A meal for a person with pica might start off with a pebble salad, laundry starch on the side.  Then a couple of light bulbs, perhaps halogen, and hunter green paint chips sprinkled with needles for extra crunchiness.  For dessert, soft little clouds of plastic wrapped in string.  Hey, it’s an eating disorder.  What did you think?

Botox wipes the frowns lines away.  But does it also paralyze our emotions?  The brain tells the face to frown and waits for the report indicating there was a successful frown.  With Botox, there are no frown lines, the report gets screwed up, and emotions are misunderstood.  Good news is, Botox also prevents excessive sweating!  Boooyaaaaa.

Big rains brought abundance of bugs for thousands of spiders, who decided to make nice and work together to build the biggest freaking 600+ foot web your nightmares have ever conjured.

Where do we come up with this stuff?  More importantly, why do we do it? Hey, it’s fun.  And it’s Friday.

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