A good example of a bad argument

Recently, a two new studies of multivitamins and their efficacy for purposes other than vitamin deficiency were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine [1][2]. One study looks at using multivitamins to improve outcomes after myocardial infarction, and finds no evidence of a benefit. The second study looks at measurable outcomes of cognitive function in men who take a multivitamin, and finds no positive benefit to supplementation. These are just two  studies in a growing body of evidence (c.f. [3][4]) that shows that the primary and overwhelming thing that vitamin supplementation is good for is curing a vitamin deficiency. In general, there are many more popular claims about the wonders of vitamin supplementation than there are actual, high-quality scientific studies of those claims. The latest pair of articles were brought to my attention by a friend on Twitter, and what resulted from their post was a classic example of a bad argument.

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The Princesses of Pseudoscience

Author’s Update (12/19/13): I re-wrote the paragraph on GMO foods, their availability, and health benefits based on a reader comment to make the paragraph more accurate to the possible benefits vs. the actual availability of such foods in the market.

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday ran a story this morning about a new breed of children’s books whose central actors are princesses working proactively as the hero [1]. This is a wonderful thing. In contrast to many popular children’s books, especially “classic” fairytales that haven’t been updated for modern societal norms, princesses here are not the victims but the ones who work proactively to solve problems. This is a positive step toward improving pop culture role models for young girls. It is unfortunate that at least one of these books parrots food pseudoscience. This is most troubling because they are supposed to be written to be compliant with the new State-level “Common Core” education standards.

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New study finds that mice agree with humans – rice cakes taste like shit

Author’s Notes: I’ve updated the original post to list the news agencies that reported on this as if their audiences should accept it as fact. I only selected from news agencies with a national reach or an ostensibly scientific mission – those that have the resources to know better and be more critical in reporting “emerging medical research.” I also add a list of news agencies that got it right – they critically and skeptically appraised the claim in the larger context of markers of addition, study design, etc.

I have also edited my comment on blinding to indicate that it’s unclear whether they used it, and the fact that it’s not mentioned is a red flag.

I also added a comment on misuse of reasoning in drawing the conclusion about cocaine addition.

I know that some people object to my title – however, it’s intentionally provocative to indicate that failing to consider rival causes can lead you down a potentially wrong path when drawing conclusions from data. Seriously – what if the rats just found the rice cakes disgusting and derived an inevitable and strong reward from a food source that wasn’t disgusting?

Rats in a study prefer to spend time with Oreos than Rice Cakes. How is this a surprise? And is it reliable to then conclude that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine? Let's have a look.
Rats in a study prefer to spend time with Oreos than Rice Cakes. How is this a surprise? And is it reliable to then conclude that Oreos are as addictive as cocaine? Let’s have a look.

I saw this headline all over the place today – here is one representative example:

Oreos May Be As Addictive As Cocaine; That stuf is addictive [1]

Here is another one:

Addicted to Oreos? You truly might be. [2]

Wow! Is that really what this study found? Nope. The only thing these researchers proved is that given a choice between Oreo cookies and rice cakes, mice choose Oreo cookies. Is that really a surprise? Let’s take a closer look.

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Claim assessment: the Daily Mail’s “Global Cooling” nonsense

The Daily Mail claims that the globe is cooling based on one month of sea ice data. This promotes pseudoscience and weak sense critical thinking, because it flies in the face of any small amount of scientific and critical thinking.
The Daily Mail claims that the globe is cooling based on one month of sea ice data. This promotes pseudoscience and weak sense critical thinking, because it flies in the face of any small amount of scientific and critical thinking.

The Daily Mail claims in their science section that the 60% increase in arctic ice extent comparing August of 2012 to August of 2013 means “global cooling” is happening. But is this bad science reporting? Yes. This claim cherry-picks data, comparing only August of 2012 to August of 2013. The article ignores absolute numbers over relative (percentage based) ones, and ignores uncertainty year-to-year in expected average ice coverage, as well as the long-term trends in ice coverage. This article is riddled with the worst kind of pseudoscience.

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