Musings of an autodidact

Good science. Bad blogging.

CriticalThinking300Bad science journalism is almost as bad as bad science, perhaps worse in some ways, insofar as it may popularize error where there had been none before. Carping about bad science blogging, on the other hand, should probably be beneath me, at least most of the time, because hey, at least there’s folks trying, right? Isn’t this just another case of XKCD’s “someone is wrong on the Internet?

Well, here’s two examples. I’ll let the critical reader decided for themselves whether or not they serve to engender better critical reading more generally speaking.

I recently followed Physics-Astronomy on Facebook, along with a handful of other topically-related pages. I was dismayed at how quickly I had to unfollow several of those pages for the sheer amount of pseudo-scientific malarkey they posted. When I’m feeling mean, I confess, I like to troll pages like Alex Jones. I feel it’s healthier than zapping ants with magnifying glasses, if not by much. Strangely, they’re tolerant of that. One would be amazed at how quickly one can get shunned at a fact-oriented site when their critical capacities are called into question repeatedly and with cause. It’s a strange dynamic.

Well, this morning, Physics-Astronomy posted the following click-bait headline: NASA’s ‘impossible’ EM Drive works: German researcher confirms and it can take us to the moon in just 4 HOURS.

Hogwash. Pure, unmitigated hogwash.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the idea of the EMDrive. Without qualifications to understand or critique the underlying scientific research, that’s all I have…love of the idea, even hope that, if not this, then another breakthrough will live up to the claims. And this one may yet. Maybe. One day. But this was not the article for that. See, the article even links to the research paper that one should then assume, from the existence of the link, makes the case.

On the other hand, there’s this quote from the abstract of the research cited in the article:

“The purpose of the test program was to investigate the EMDrive claims using improved apparatus and methods. To this end it was successful in that we identified experimental areas needing additional attention before any firm conclusions concerning the EMDrive claims could be made. Our test campaigns therefore can not confirm or refute the claims of the EMDrive but intends to independently assess possible side-effects in the measurement methods used so far.”

The article takes a relatively tamer approach than the headline, admitting it’s still speculative, and showing enthusiasm for the different test outcomes to date (none of which I’m qualified to weigh in on). But I am somewhat of a critical reader with a deep aversion to bad journalism generally, especially to bad science journalism, and clickbait from a “science” site just drives me batty. It’s hard to imagine a quote that could run more counter to the hed in this case.

The tragedy is that many readers [citation needed] (feel free to look this up yourself, it’s fun!) share “news” on the basis of having only read the headline. I confess. I’ve done it myself. It’s a good thing I’ve acquired a taste for crow, too, because that’s a practice that ultimately ends in embarrassment. To read the comments section to this article at the Physics-Astronomy website is to observe a cross-section of the Internet community generally speaking. Credulous commenters enthusing misguidedly, making evident that they themselves didn’t bother to click through to the linked research. For that matter, even that hasn’t gone through the rigors of peer review (which has its own problems), but was presented at a conference neither I, nor the typical reader, will vet to ascertain its general legitimacy. I stopped short because at least the abstract itself was as forthcoming about its conclusions as one could generally hope. No extraordinary claims are made there. I require no extraordinary evidence.

And when the commenters aren’t of the credulous variety, they’re of the hostile contrarian variety, my tribe, except I feel their efforts are misplaced. We have Alex Jones for that Shooting Fish in a Barrel venture. Less condescending pedantry is probably called for when dealing with an audience that seems like it earnestly wants to learn and know.

C’est la vie.

But what of this other example?

Well, I also recently followed The Daily Cosmos. The jury’s still out. I haven’t seen enough full-on baloney to unfollow, and they generally post the kinds of pop-sci that make me squee. Yeah, don’t imagine that. Nobody needs to picture a pushing-50 curmudgeon squeeing. Today they shared a post from another pop-sci page I hadn’t seen yet, SciBabe. Now, if she’s a corrective to the Food Babe, I’m all ears. Or eyes. Or whatever part of some future sensorium is appropriate. So I liked that page with earnest hope for high quality, and I started out optimistic because of the seeming quality of this first post to cross my screen:

Don’t make assumptions about what the website is. Click on it.
Citations. Citations everywhere. Bookmark this shit for future arguments to make people with anecdotes really goddamn furious with you.

That’s the sizzle we’re sold. Now I want the steak for sure. The steak? NaturoFAQs, which purports to be a handy-dandy malarkey-melting, baloney-beating trump card to be slapped down quickly and conveniently whenever someone is wrong about reality on the Internet. I’m down with that.

First litmus test…what do they say about homeopathy?

No. There is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective for the treatment of any health condition.

So far so good. And the citation-laden argument as to why passes a quick n’ dirty muster.

Same with organics. We’re good.

Then there was one I’m torn about, but only because of personal experience, a self-aware experience that includes knowledge that anecdotes aren’t data (though I like to twist noses by pointing out they are the meat and potatoes of case studies, from which all manner of data may be gleaned, hypothesized about, and tested once there’s a sufficient amount of them). See, I’ve always “believed” that chiropractic is quackery. I’ve even read that chiropractic is quackery, and that soothes my cognitive biases.

Then I had a lower back problem. The physician’s assistant I see here in rural America suggested the chiropractor. I gave him the stinkeye. He assured me that lots of people, himself included, find relief at the hands of a chiropractor, so I should at least consider it. Considering the chiropractor is here and not $60 away in gas money, I took his advice and saw one.

I was not thrilled with first impressions. “Holistic this” and “holistic that” touted as revenue generators ways to healthier living were right there at the reception desk (or checkout counter, depending on one’s cynicism). I got the water table treatment, which would be the worlds best waterbed on a great day. Then I was left in “the room” to await my non-MD, presumably anti-AMA practitioner (on which point I would probably sympathize with them in many respects). There were helpful posters on the wall. Plenty of anatomy. There was the anatomical spine model. And there was the “sales” poster indicating that how much money one wishes to give to the chiropractor is entirely subjective. One can settle for acute care treatment, as it were, and never see one again, and never lose another dime on that account. Or the perfectly healthy but insecure specimen can go in for regular, unnecessary treatments, you know, for “maintenance.” I’m sure my insurance company loves that part.

As you can see, I was skeptical.

Today, many weeks later, my back is mostly better after those first (and last) two visits. Did they help? I don’t know. Each visit left me more, rather than less, sore than when I went in (which, apparently, is to be expected), and that lasted for a couple of days (also to be expected). Now, maybe that aggravation is an improved aggravation over the original aggravation such that recovery is improved from the new/improved aggravation versus the old one. I don’t know, but I suspect it to be true, because I’d suffered that back problem for weeks waiting for time and money to line up for the appointment, and no amount of daily, routine, work-related exercise (bending, stretching, lifting, twisting, reaching, etc.) helped for more than a few minutes. Post-treatment, recovery seemed much quicker!

So do homeopathic treatments for colds. The cold was going to run its course anyway. Conflate that with a magic pill and voila! Magics! Orrrrrr just a cold running its course anyway, with the added benefit of a placebo effect to comfort a person through the doldrums. Maybe that’s what happened.

I don’t know.

So when I read NaturoFAQs “Does it work?” section on chiropractics, I felt confirmed in my anti-chiropractic bias, but something else struck me.

 Mostly, no.

In the case of chronic low back pain, spinal manipulation therapy appears to be as effective as other conventional treatments [9].

For neck pain, there is no difference between spinal manipulation therapy and gentler physical techniques (mobilisation). Whether or not either of these is truly effective remains unclear [10].

Little to no evidence supports the use of spinal manipulation therapy for any other health condition.

Do you see it?

What I lack in scientific knowledge and academic rigor to date, I make up for with an uncanny ability to split hairs. Semantics matters to me. And for a site that purports to debunk hogwash, even moreso. Science and politics are two fields where it really does not pay to make an error in the debunking process because it just feeds the opposition instead of quelling it. Very counterproductive.

Point the first: “appears to be as effective as other conventional treatments.”

Well, that runs counter to “mostly no.” If Treatment A appears to be as effective as Treatment B, why shouldn’t a person opt to use Treatment A? Especially if Treatment A, as in my case, was both less costly and more time friendly?

Point the second: “no difference between spinal manipulation therapy and gentler physical techniques.” Okay. And that other method also doesn’t have much to back it up apparently. “Whether or not either of these is truly effective remains unclear.” So we’re debunking pseudo-science as compared to other poorly substantiated claims? Shouldn’t we be comparing this, as well, to “conventional treatments?”

I wish NaturoFAQs the best, but they’re going to need to bring their A game and they’re not quite there yet. If quibbles can be found so quickly and easily in one spot for the sake of whatever authorial or editorial failings are responsible here, a pall is cast over the rest for fear of playing this trump card only to have another, even trumpier, if petulant, response take it back out of play.

Apart from snopes (the sine qua non of debunking sites), what are your favorites?

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