Bad Science Writing: College Paper Edition

A screen capture of the digital print version of this article on the Paleo Diet. It claims to debunk diets, but is so credulous that I think this word they use does not mean what they think it means.
A screen capture of the digital print version of this article on the Paleo Diet. It claims to debunk diets, but is so credulous that I think this word they use does not mean what they think it means.

Writers are born young. Good writers learn their craft through practice, trial, and error. Failure is the best teacher. Given my view of writing, there is much my own University’s weekly campus paper, the SMU Campus Weekly, can learn from this recent article that claims to assess the “Paleo diet.” [ARTICLE] I got so upset about this article and its complete lack of scientific assessment, I actually wrote a letter to the Editor of the paper. This is not the first credulous diet review article in our campus newspaper, but it is the last straw for me – a professor who teaches a class in the scientific method and how to construct a good assessment of a claim. This article represents the worst kind of science writing. Check out the article. Then read my letter below. I marked typos that I wish I’d caught before sending the letter with “[sic].”

UPDATE: I updated this after receiving a response from the Editor. I summarize her response, print my own email reply to her, and then document an assessment of the claimed “experts” used in the article.

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SciFi: Bad reporting on the “acupuncture and breast cancer patients” study

Having needles shoved in your skin can seem like a major medical intervention, but science says it's a sham. Is a new study about lung cancer pain and acupuncture going to change that picture? In short . . . no. It's terrible science. Photo from Ref. 4.
Acupuncture is shown again to be no better than placebo. An AltMed news site spins it to say any acupuncture, even badly done, will help breast cancer patients. Is this good science?

I keep a special feed on Google News called “Nonsenseville” [1]. It’s an rss stream that results from a search for keywords that typically appear in pseudoscience articles. Normally, I scan the headlines to get a sense of how credulous is the science reporting on a topic. Today, I saw this headline from the Canadian Sun news company in my feed: “Sun News: Acupuncture, even done wrong, can help women taking breast cancer drugs: Study [finds]” [2] (the last word appears to have fallen off their site . . . I assume it was “finds”). This is nonsense of the highest order, and is a dangerous message to women desperate for relief from the awful side-effects of breast cancer treatment. The message is: even an extremely incompetent and dangerous quack can help you. This is grade-A nonsense of the highest order, and deserves to be critically assessed.

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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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