The H1N1 Scare: A History Lesson

I recall quite clearly a conversation I had with a friend of mine about vaccines. He brought up a classic anti-vaccine canard – the H1N1 Swine Flu scare. Specifically, he asked why major medical centers had so hyped up the disease, and why people had pushed so hard for a vaccine when in fact it wasn’t all that bad. The implication is, of course, that it was a conspiracy to sell a vaccine that wasn’t really needed. After all, why were they so afraid of a strain of the flu which, in the end, only ended up killing a few thousand people (18,500, although the actual number may have been 15 times as much)? Hey, there were only 3,433 deaths confirmed in the USA. That’s not that bad, right?



Interpreting Medical Data: No, Kelly McGonigal, It Didn’t “Work For You”


So… Boy, that name is a double misnomer. Surely it’s an information website! And surely it’s all about preventing disease! I bet I’ll find some great information on vaccines there!

…Oh. Shit. Because of course it isn’t. That would be too much of a positive thing. Instead, PreventDisease is your typical alt-med conspiracy farm. The kind of people who will, with a straight face, say “EVERYTHING IS A LIE!!!” (I’m not even kidding!) and then go on to recommend homeopathic treatment for cancer. Well, I can say with confidence that they’re at least partially right – everything on their website is a lie. Okay, maybe not everything, but it’s fair to group it in with Mercola, NaturalNews, and their ilk – if a medical treatment is proven to work, they’re bound to reject it, and if it’s proven not to work and falls under the purview of woo, they’re going to accept it. That incredibly bogus list I linked above (the one linked over “shit”)? Just the tip of the iceberg.

That execrable list is not my target today (if you want to see it taken down, mosey on down to Science-Based Medicine). No, I picked up on something which piqued my interest on their main page. A video on their youtube channel, “PreventDiseaseTV“, by someone who appears to be a real scientist (from Stanford, no less). Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. By all means, her credentials seem to stand up on their own. Unfortunately, her video… Well, it doesn’t.

The first part really isn’t that bad – it talks about not relying on single studies, but rather on an understanding of the whole field of study. I found it hilarious that PreventDisease kept this part in the video, for the simple reason that this is something they never fucking do. Like, take the discussion of the homeopathy cancer paper above – analysis of the whole field of study says, in no uncertain terms, “homeopathy works no better than placebo for all examined treatments, and this is because it’s literally JUST WATER”. Or what about vaccines? The first question in their “stumpers” involves evidence that vaccines are effective. It took Steve Novella’s 12-year-old all of 22 seconds to find a study showing exactly that. Well, 400 studies to be more accurate. PreventDisease, just like various other sites in the same vein, never examines the whole field of research. If it did, it wouldn’t post tripe like what it does. It wouldn’t claim that sunscreen is highly toxic, or that vaccines don’t prevent disease. Or, for that matter, that Naturopathy holds answers to modern medical problems (or, let’s be perfectly honest here, ancient ones).

Wanna know the fun thing about medicine that doesn’t work? Me too.

But her comments on how to interpret studies is just… really, really bad. Look, when a study finds no statistically significant evidence that something works, it usually means that that something doesn’t work. If there is a tiny minority that shows a positive result, the question is, “why?”. If you give 50,000 people your medicine and 10 get better, is the most rational response “it worked for them” regardless of other factors? What if you give 50,000 people your medicine and 50,000 a placebo, and 12 given your medicine get healthy and 10 given placebo get healthy? Is it likely that it worked for those 12 people? Or maybe just 2 of them?

Look, while this is a complex subject, the basic picture is not hard to understand, and the basic picture alone is enough to point out just how wrong McGonigal is. For example, in a study on homeopathy, you might have a handful of people who do appear to get better after taking homeopathy. It’s not significantly different from placebo, though – these people didn’t “benefit significantly” from the treatment; it’s almost certainly regression to the mean, the placebo effect, or any number of other confounding effects that real medical scientists know how to look out for.

The data that your own body and brain gives you is nice, but it’s just a sample size of 1. If I have the flu, take Oscillococcinum, and feel better, that does not mean that “oscillococcinum worked for me” – because oscillococcinum doesn’t work better than a placebo, because in order for it to work you’d have to throw out half of physics and chemistry. By trusting your own personal experience over scientific research, you open yourself up to a colossal number of biases that (hopefully) will not be present in the research. It’s just as I said – your personal experience is nice, but N=1. The fact that a health care professional wouldn’t understand this is… disappointing. This is terrible and dangerous medical advice. Treatments either work under certain conditions or they do not. “It worked for me” is not a valid response when the treatment in question has been shown in trials not to work to any significant degree beyond placebo.

Seralini – Scientist or Reanimator?

So for those not in the know, Giles-Eric Seralini is a man who is vying very hard for the title of “Andrew Wakefield of the anti-GMO movement”. His seminal work, a 2012 paper titled “Long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize”, was published in a mid-tier journal and sparked a firestorm of outrage when Seralini previewed it to the popular press under an embargo which ensured that it would receive no criticism. The paper was shit. Total, utter, unmitigated shit. It was a paper that tried to show a substance as being toxic but contained no dose-response – an absolutely fundamental issue in toxicology. It also had tiny sample sizes, used a breed of rat known for having incredibly high cancer rates, contained no statistical analysis, did not present raw data but rather provided us with virtually illegible graphs… I could spend all day talking about how shit this study was. Thankfully, I don’t have to. Oh, and I kinda already did. Criticism of the study is almost impossible to miss online, because it is so fucking bad. In fact, as previously stated:

The study was really, really, really, really bad. It belongs under the general banner of “Scopie’s Law” – that is, if you cite it as a valid source to support your conclusions (unless your conclusions are “look at how dishonest anti-GMO advocates are”), you are no longer worth taking seriously. Throw it on the pile with NaturalNews and Age of Autism.

Anyone who holds up this paper as good research has either failed on a fundamental level to understand the field they’re talking about, or hasn’t read the fucking paper. Fun fact – the only statistically significant result to be found in the data set is that drinking straight RoundUp makes male rats live longer. (more…)

Personal Experience: N = 1

What is it with personal experience? I hear this time and time again from people (usually older than me to a degree where I’m just “some young whippersnapper”) – “Well you have your facts and figures and published peer-reviewed papers and scientific authorities and fundamental understanding of the subject, but you’re still wrong because my personal experience says so!”

“Sure, it may be geometrically impossible, but my cousin swears he made one in wood shop the other day!”

The most common topics, of course, being things to do with medicine that just ain’t so. For example, I had a riveting conversation with an in-law the other day about whether or not the flu vaccine gave one of her friends the flu. (Pro tip: it really didn’t.) When I pointed out that no, the flu vaccine does not give you the flu, she quite literally said “you have your facts and figures, but I know real people who this happened to”. Guys, pro tip. “Something which is scientifically impossible happened to my friend” is not a good argument. (more…)

Duesburg and the Vax-Antivax Study

Meet Peter Duesburg.


He’s kind of an asshole.


…Okay, that’s not fair, let’s start over.

Meet Peter Duesburg.

He doesn’t believe that HIV causes AIDS. He’s a gigantic cunt who is at least partially responsible for the death of over 330,000 people in South Africa.


…Shit, that didn’t come out right. One more try.

Meet Peter Duesburg.

He’s kind of an asshole.


…Hmm. As far as invective goes, that appears to be as low as I’m physically able to go when describing Duesburg. I’d ask my editor to give it a once-over, but honestly, I’m fine with characterizing him as an asshole.


Anyways. Asshole is not convinced that HIV causes AIDS. He wants to perform a double-blind study examining the effects as follows: take 4000 people, randomly separate them into 2 groups, then in accordance with double-blind procedure, infect one group with blood tainted by HIV, and give the other group a placebo blood infusion. Then, he will examine the propensity of those in either group to develop AIDS. He demands this study because no other study can truly establish whether or not HIV causes AIDS, and because he’s still not convinced.

…Anyone see the problem here? Anyone? Maybe you, Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist?

…Oh no. Sarah agrees with Duesburg and sees absolutely no problems with performing the study. I guess this is what happens when you have no understanding of ethics, medicine, prior probability, and suffer from a Dunning-Krüger complex the size of a small planet, you moron.


Dear Anti-Vaccine Advocates: Fuck You.

Why yes, I am just a little bit mad at antivax loonies today. How could you tell?


This is based on a combination of two things. One is a longtime friend of mine cutting ties due to antivaccine bullshit; the other is a CDC report. Let’s start with the report.

From January 1 to May 23, 2014, 288 measles cases have been reported in the United States to CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). Since measles elimination was documented in the U.S. in 2000, annual reported cases have ranged from a low of 37 in 2004 to a high of 220 in 2011.

  • The majority of the people who got measles are unvaccinated.

  • Measles is still common in many parts of the world including some countries in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Africa, travelers with measles continue to bring the disease into the U.S.

  • Measles can spread when it reaches a community in the U.S. where groups of people are unvaccinated.


Yeah. For those wondering, here’s what that looks like in graph form: (more…)

A Short Follow-up to 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Stupid link of the day:


So apparently Chobani uses GMO foods. How do they do that – are the fruits they put in their yogurt GMO? Are they using genetically modified bacteria to produce their yogurt?


Cows? Their cows are genetically modified? Oh wait, my mistake. Their cows are fed on GMOs. Okay, remember how I spoke about 6 degrees of separation the other day when talking about how Monsanto “owns” the FDA? Well this is just hilarious. Even if you take the assumption that there’s something in GMOs that’s harmful, here’s the chain from GMO to yogurt: Corn -> Cow -> Milk -> Yogurt -> Human Consumption. If this were about safety, I’d say it’s the single most asinine GMO scare I’ve ever seen.  Apparently in this case it’s just about “We refuse to associate with people who use GMOs”. Apparently using GMOs anywhere in the production line is akin to original sin. Which reminds me… When I made that post talking about that image, I posted it to someone’s wall, along with a pertinent line of questioning. The response was… well, it was kind of amazing.


Can We Please Get Over James O’Keefe?

In recent news: in an interview between James O’Keefe and an environmentalist filmmaker, a hidden recording revealed shocking dishonesty, hypocrisy and a continuation of a long-standing trend… Of James O’Keefe being a colossal turd.  So, of course, it ended up on FOX News. Except the story wasn’t O’Keefe’s long-standing history of dishonest editing and fraud, but rather of… Well, click the link.



A Few Proposals for a new name for NCCAM

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is considering a new name. Apparently NCCAM isn’t quite cutting it. They want to change it to the “National Center for Research on Complementary and Integrative Health”. Okay. But why leave it at just that proposal? I’m sure we can come up with better than that. After all, that’s a mouthful, and doesn’t really tell us much about what they do. “Integrative health”? To an outsider, that doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t tell them that this is the place funding studies into homeopathy, reiki, and even prayer in medicine. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some alternative names.



How Monsanto Controls the FDA: 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon

Have you guys ever heard of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”? The idea is simple: aside from a handful of distant, isolated tribes or individuals, virtually every human on the planet, and certainly every human in the western world, is separated by no less than 6 connections. That is, you can always draw a line that looks like this: You -> Person 1 You Know -> Person 2 Person 1 Knows -> Person 3 Person 2 knows -> Person 4 Person 3 knows -> Person 5 Person 4 knows -> Person 6 Person 5 knows -> Person 7, your goal, who knows person 6. Or shorter – in my social computing lecture, I heard that 3 degrees of separation is enough to connect almost every single person in Germany. In Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you limit it to actors, but there are many variants based on things like number of handshakes between you and some long-dead president, or sexual partner links between you and Elvis, or the “Six Degrees of Forever Alone” game, which I happen to be quite good at.


But with that in mind, guess what I have to say about this image:


No points for guessing that it ain’t gonna be flattering.