SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Read posts by author:

Science Journalism

by Steven Novella, Jun 10 2013

I recently got into a small kerfuffle with a journalist, actually a sports writer who decided to dabble in science journalism. The exchange started at science-based medicine when I wrote a piece critical of the claims being made for a new device called the GyroStim, which is being offered as a treatment for brain injury.

In this article I linked to a piece in the popular press about the treatment, in the Denver Post by a sports writer, Adrian Dater. Dater thought I was being unfair in my criticism of his piece, and so wrote a response on his blog.  The exchange and the comments have exposed many of the problems with journalism in general and science journalism in particular, that I would like to explore further here.

First I have to say that there are many excellent journalists and science journalists out there. I am not implying that that there are no good journalists. I do find, however, that the baseline quality of science journalism is lacking and, if anything, getting worse. Part of the problem is the evaporating infrastructure for full-time journalists. Many outlets no longer maintain specialist journalists, and use generalists (including editors) to cover science news stories.

(continue reading…)

comments (12)

Vaccine Denial Pseudoscience

by Steven Novella, Jun 03 2013

I was recently asked about this article, Bedrock of vaccination theory crumbles as science reveals antibodies not necessary to fight viruses, which is a year old, but is making the rounds recently on social media. I was asked if there is any validity to the article. It’s from NaturalNews (not to be confused with NatureNews), which means, in my experience, it is almost certainly complete nonsense.

For the average consumer my advice is to completely ignore NaturalNews and Mike Adams. He is, among other things, an anti-vaccine crank. This article is written by staff writer Ethan Huff.  Let’s take a close look  and see if it lives up to the site’s reputation.

He writes:

While the medical, pharmaceutical, and vaccine industries are busy pushing new vaccines for practically every condition under the sun, a new study published in the journal Immunity completely deconstructs the entire vaccination theory. It turns out that the body’s natural immune systems, comprised of both innate and adaptive components, work together to ward off disease without the need for antibody-producing vaccines.

(continue reading…)

comments (14)

Consensus on Climate Change

by Steven Novella, May 20 2013

A recent review finds that over 97% of scientists believe that human activity is contributing to climate change. That is a very solid consensus of scientific opinion.

This, of course, does not mean that the consensus must be correct, but (along with other data) it makes it unreasonable to claim that there is no consensus, or that there is significant scientific controversy on this topic. In fact, the 97% figure exactly matches prior surveys. Many scientific organizations have also officially endorsed this consensus.

One of the common methods of deniers is to pretend as if there is a raging scientific controversy when in fact there is a solid consensus. Creationists, for example are constantly trying to portray evolution as a “theory in crisis,” when in fact it is doing quite well, thank you.

The study employed an interesting methods. They reviewed 12,000 peer-reviewed published papers on topics relevant to climate change. They then tabulated, for those papers in which the researchers expressed a clear opinion about climate change, whether or not they supported the conclusion of anthropogenic global warming. In over 97% of cases they did.

(continue reading…)

comments (135)

An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part I

by Steven Novella, May 13 2013

On the SGU this week we did an interview with Don McLeroy, the former chairman of the Texas School Board of Education, famous for his (successful) attempts to insert wording into the science textbook standards that would open the door for creationist arguments.

The interview was very enlightening. In my opinion it was an excellent example of the power of motivated reasoning – if we have a conclusion in mind, people are very good at finding a mental path to get there.

We rarely do confrontational interviews on the SGU, but the few we have done I am generally happy with. The risk is that the tone of the interview will go sour. I have only done such interviews when I feel that the person being interviewed will be able to stay calm and professional even as we dismantle their position. Another risk is that the interviewee, who likely is a passionate and eloquent defender of their fringe position, will make it difficult to get a word in edgewise, resulting in a Gish Gallop.

(continue reading…)

comments (18)

The Lunar Effect and Confirmation Bias

by Steven Novella, May 06 2013

I gave a seminar recently to science teachers and the topic of whether or not there is a lunar effect came up. I was not surprised to find that 80% of them believed that emergency rooms and police stations are more busy during a full moon. I was also not surprised, but only because I have been there before, that they were highly resistant to my claim that the scientific evidence shows that there is no such effect.

Several questions emerge from the notion that the phases of the moon affect human behavior: what is the plausibility of such a claim, is there actually such an effect, and if not why do so many people believe that there is?


One of two justifications are commonly given for how the moon might influence human behavior. The moon basically has two physical effects on our environment – gravity and light. Astrological influences are not worth further discussion in this article, and I rarely hear that as a justification from the general public in any case.

(continue reading…)

comments (11)

Is SETI Science?

by Steven Novella, Apr 29 2013

I recently receive the following e-mail question:

Got a question for you: do you consider the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence to be science or pseudoscience? I recently got into an online debate and found myself in the minority because I maintained that the central thesis — that if intelligent life exists somewhere out there in the greater universe, we would be able to recognize it based upon patterns in radio waves — is not falsifiable.

It would seem to me that the only way to truly falsify SETI, we’d need to map quite literally every body in the universe and rule them out one by one and say that they don’t have anything there in terms of extraterrestrial intelligence.  Unlike other complex hypotheses that are limited by available technologies, I’m not convinced that the task of mapping the universe is even possible, even with a sufficiently advanced technology.

I have received some version of this question many times over the years, always by people who are trying to be skeptical and apply what they have learned about the differences between science and pseudoscience.  It therefore seems like an excellent opportunity to explore this important issue.

(continue reading…)

comments (32)

Confusing Standards for Censorship – Chopra Edition

by Steven Novella, Apr 22 2013

TED is a prestigious biannual conference whose brand is, “Ideas Worth Spreading.” (TED originally stood for “Technology, Entertainment, Design,” but its scope has since expanded.) It has spawned TEDx – regional independent TED style conferences that are allowed to use the TED brand as long as they strive for the same level of quality.

Deepak Chopra apparently thinks that TED’s logo should be, “Let’s throw any crap against the wall and let the audience sort it out.” Of course that is what all self-styled gurus and purveyors of pseudoscience want, no real scientific standards so that they can present their crackpot ideas as legitimate.

This conflict of vision recently came to a head when TEDx directors (Lara Stein, TEDx Director and Emily McManus, Editor) wrote an open letter to TEDx organizers giving them guidance on how to avoid accidentally promoting bad science. The letter is an excellent primer on pseudoscience and I recommend reading it in its entirety. The letter was a response to several dubious TEDx talks and the backlash that resulted. Early in the letter they make clear its purpose and their philosophy.

“It is not your audience’s job to figure out if a speaker is offering legitimate science or not. It is your job.”

(continue reading…)

comments (41)


by Steven Novella, Apr 15 2013

Social media has been getting a bad rap recently. Blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media outlets have certainly had a dramatic impact on how people communicate. They are powerful tools and many people have put them to good use.

There are some unintended consequences as well, and as a society we are still learning to adapt to this new factor in our lives. There are issues of privacy, the rules of social behavior, and the ethics of spreading dubious information online.

We discussed two related issues recently on the SGU. The first was about the recent paper, “Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” by Lewandowsky. Essentially Lewandowsky wrote a paper about conspiracy theories around the denial of global warming. Part of the backlash against that paper by self-described global warming skeptics included further conspiracy theories about the paper. Lewandowsky could not resist the irony, hence his subsequent paper.

(continue reading…)

comments (18)

What Was in Patent Medicines

by Steven Novella, Apr 08 2013

What was actually in Thompson’s Cattle Powder, Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, or Hamlin’s Wizard Oil?

Prior to regulation by the FDA, over-the-counter medicine in this country was largely a creation of small businesses. There was a large variety of so-called “patent medicine,” each a proprietary blend of – what?

The term “patent medicine” has nothing to do with being issued a patent. The term refers to a letters patent, which is  essentially permission to use a royal endorsement. Most patent medicines were not actually patented mainly because the promoters did not want to disclose their ingredients.

Instead, such products were branded and their brand heavily marketed.

As a result the ingredients of these patent medicine products were largely unknown. Compounding pharmacists were familiar with the ingredients, however, and often sold cheap knockoffs, making it all the more important for promoters to protect and promote their brand.

(continue reading…)

comments (4)

Brain to Brain Interface

by Steven Novella, Apr 01 2013

We are seeing the beginning of technology to interface computers and brains. I have been writing about brain-machine-interface (BMI) technology, and brain-machine-brain interface technology. Now we have a report of brain to brain communication, which is currently as close as we can come to telepathy.

Actually, the technology is – brain to machine to another machine and then to another brain – technology. Imagine having a computer chip implanted in your brain that can read your brain activity. This information is then transferred to a computer chip implanted in someone else’s brain, who can then access that information.

If this exchange were happening in real time through wireless transfer with sufficient resolution, that would essentially be telepathy.

(continue reading…)

comments (6)
« previous pagenext page »