Pseudoscience, Part 1

Johnny Carson famously mocked psychics, playing “Carnac the Magnificent.” He exposed psychic Uri Geller’s claims on his show.

For the past ten years my interest in diminishing the impact of psychics and pseudoscience has grown. I wrote a newsletter about scary psychics earlier this year.  Few groups stand up for reason and truth – there should be more. The good ones, like the one mentioned below, needs and deserves our support.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) recently launched the Office of Consumer Protection from Pseudoscience,and I love that they’re doing that.  Science and Pseudoscience are, of course, directly opposed to each other.  The LA chapter of CFI offers a $250,000 Paranormal Challenge. They promise $250,000 to anyone able to demonstrate a paranormal, supernatural, or occult ability.  They work with the applicant to design a test procedure, the conditions, and when the test will take place.  They even administer the actual test! This would seem to be easy money for anyone with “a gift.”  Most recently an applicant claimed he had telepathy skills and was able to plant the name of a specific playing card into a friend’s mind in a nearby room.  Probably not a surprise, but under controlled conditions, he couldn’t do it. There were 43 applications for the prize in the first quarter of 2022 and the money, so far, appears to be safe. That said, if you do have a friend with psychic capabilities who could use $250,000, the application can be downloaded here.  

Debunking psychics and discrediting this sort of fraud can be entertaining, fun, and satisfying on several levels. However, beyond tricking gullible people out of hard-earned dollars, it can sometimes get very serious – even deadly.  This is especially true when people are persuaded to trust claims of medical remedies that haven’t undergone rigorous scientific testing.

In my work with the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA), we often deal with innovative companies in the medical space. An important investment success hurdle for many of them is FDA approval or being on a path to FDA approval. Companies typically construct tests with ever-increasing levels of rigor, knowing the FDA takes its role in protecting public health seriously.  Getting the science right and proving the case for products isn’t simple and I admire business innovators who take up this challenge.

But there are some companies, thankfully never seen at the ACA, whose objectives are more nefarious.  Let me repeat a story Robyn Blumner, the President and CEO of CFI, related recently. After periodontal surgery, her periodontist sent her home with a StellaLife “intelligent healing” kit, including a product called “BEGA Oral Care Recovery Kit,” with an “antimicrobial” rinse to promote “oral health.” When she got it home she noticed the word “homeopathic” on the front and thought, “I’ve just been handed a box of placebos.”  On closer examination, she noticed that every single claim of efficacy had an asterisk.  After diligent searching, she finally found where the asterisk was defined, and it said, “Claims based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence.  Not FDA evaluated.” For Robyn, not paying attention (and how many of us are super observant after oral surgery?) would have meant hours of pain and discomfort when proven medicines no doubt would have worked far better. I suspect traditional medicine would have included pain-relievers like Tylenol and a scientifically tested antimicrobial oral rinse.

To the credit of her periodontist, once informed of the issue, they cut their ties with StellaLife, although the company continues to pedal its wares to dental offices across the United States. Organizations like the Center for Inquiry counter this horse-pucky, along with all the nut cases recommending cow urine, bleach, and cocaine as COVID-19 cures.  As intelligent and caring human beings, we must work to end anything we see that legitimizes or tolerates health pseudoscience. It’s not a small issue. The vitamin and supplement market, another category recent science has called into question, generated $50B in sales last year (2021).  Fifty billion dollars for products science is telling us are largely unnecessary and useless.  Many readers of this newsletter have no problems calling “Bullshit!” when they see it.  So, be on guard and don’t be afraid to take a stance.

End note:  After writing and reviewing this draft, I feared I might be being too critical of homeopathy.  After all, my mother, a long-time nurse, was someone who avoided homeopathic remedies, but was a big believer in supplements, especially her glucosamine and chondroitin and urged me to try them, which I did, but they did nothing for me.  And Maggie frequently reaches for arnica gel for bruises and Sssstingstop for bug bites and itches.  As a result, I spent several hours researching Homeopathy.  I began with Wikipedia’s extensive section,  and used it as a jumping off point.  I learned a great deal, some of it rather scary.  For instance, Scientific American in 2017 documented hundreds of babies being harmed and some of them dying from homeopathic remedies.  I also found the Journal of Medical Ethic’s well-researched and documented paper titled “Homeopathy is where the harm is: five unethical effects of funding unscientific ‘remedies.’  There are many more sources, but if this interests you, these are a couple of good places to start. Of course, not everything in the universe can be explained and we’re surrounded by mysteries.  But the best way to uncover and understand those mysteries is conscientiously applied scientific effort.

Post Script:  My Minnesota daughter, as opposed to the NYC daughter, read this most recent blog post and wrote me asking if I was familiar with the JAMA Network.  I was not, but have since spent a few hours exploring it over the past two days.  It is a superb site for the latest medical information, covering dermatology, internal medicine, neurology, oncology, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery and more. The sites editors follow and report on recent medical research studies by area.  Each issue (48/year and online) contains a host of articles, each providing short abstracts about a particular medical study, when it was done, number of participants, where, etc. and then the entire text and often a downloadable PDF as well.

The breadth, level of detail, authenticity and timeliness is astonishing.  They’ve got all the most current studies.  Think of it as a searchable, easy-to-access medical journal of peer reviewed studies.  Any fears about its credibility were eliminated when I learned it was published by the American Medical Association and saw that, JAMA stands for Journal of the American Medical Association. Highly recommended.

So SLAP me

Because I subscribe to a variety of websites and have a good-sized group of Facebook friends linked more by shared love of family, motorcycles and cars than political affiliation, I run across my fair share of questionable news reports.  Whether they are conspiracy theories or just scary threats to which one should pay attention, a pattern always seems to be lurking in the mist, something that should alert me to the possibility of “fake news.”  I could just never spot it.

Then this week I read a terrific article by Jeannie Banks Thomas, a folklorist of all things, and a professor at Utah State University.  She nails it perfectly and provides four simple questions to tip you off that you need to get your fact checker fired up.  I just loved it.  Here is a link to her complete article, but I describe the high points below.

She uses the acronym S.L.A.P, as in slap your forehead, something those of us from the Midwest often refer to as the Norwegian salute.  You can do it, right?  You hold an open palm out in front of you, then briskly move it toward your forehead.  When your hand hits your forehead with a slap, you’ve done it correctly.  True natives also mumble “Uff da” under their breath, which adds an air of authenticity.

Professor Thomas’s S.L.A.P. acronym is as follows:

S: Scare or Shock – Does the account attempt to scare or shock?
L: Logistics Test – Does this account rely on or involve complicated, far-fetched logistics?
A: A-List – Does this story involve celebrities or famous people? Does it have Donald Trump, George Soros, Hilary Clinton, Vladimir Putin, or Joe Biden in it?
P: Prejudice Test – Does the account demonize or portray a person or group negatively?

“YES” answers should trigger our BS detectors like a fire alarm. When that happens, do some quick research.  Remember, research is not what someone posts on a message board. Research is vetted information supported with credible evidence.  Professor Thomas reviewed over 50 years of legend, rumor and conspiracy theory and analyzed over 100 legends.  It was during this work that these four patterns emerged. Don’t get me wrong, not everything you see which results in “yeses” to the SLAP questions is guaranteed to be bogus – just know the probability is much higher it will be, and you need to check before forwarding it along like a clueless doofus.

I love this easy tool which can help anyone quickly assess a story’s veracity.  And given the amount of Norwegian blood in my veins, it’s easy for me to remember – I just salute.

But how do we know it is true?

paper in typewriter says Investigation

In response to an email suggestion to watch the documentary “Totally Under Control,” a friend replied saying: “Thanks! Sounds interesting…but I have to ask the question: is it true? How do we know?”

Official Trailer for The Social DilemmaWith all the charges of “fake news” and media distrust, it turns out the methods for determining credibility and levels of truthfulness from various information sources hasn’t changed that much and most people know about it to one degree or another. My recommendation to watch the documentary carried with it the caveat it was controversial.  But I do think it is true, and toward the end, I explain why.

Most can discern when information supplied to us is trustworthy and true. Few people equate their doctor’s prescription for a new medication to an Internet video hawking a miraculous supplement. We know now research studies underwritten by tobacco companies “proving cigarettes were highly valuable digestive aids and safe,” were lies. Educated people naturally consider the sources of the data to judge the degree of trust it should be given.

In high school my “sport” was debate. I loved debating, was very competitive and on a team that made it to the state level. Between my junior and senior years of high school I spent two weeks at Michigan State University in a debate training institute.  Anyone in debate knew arguments must be supported. The first step in building that support was verifiable facts from trusted sources – encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, etc. And one’s sources meant something – judges did not score facts gleaned from The Reader’s Digest as high as from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.  Lacking factual support for an argument, you went to the next tier of proof, which was opinion.  Sometimes a quote supporting your position from a well-known, highly-educated and credible individual with a trusted position in the topic area could be almost as persuasive as fact. The more and better your sources and quotes supported sound reasoning and logic, the greater your chances of winning.

Dan Gillmor

Another area where I have experience is journalism.  Early in my free-lance writing experience, my work was subjected to fact checkers. Wow, what an experience! These professionals walked me through my piece sentence by sentence, challenging everything I’d written, asking over and over again, how did I know the truth of what was on the page, did I have more than one source, what were the sources, and so on.  Not all writers are trained journalists following ethical standards and not all magazines demand it, though a great many do.  Dan Gillmor wrote for the San Jose Mercury News during the part of my career when I was starting companies in the Bay Area. His articles were universally prized and hard to get. Meeting him once at a coffee shop for an interview, I offered to buy his coffee. He said, “No, it isn’t permitted by the newspaper.” In those days, coffee was only $2.00, but he was still not allowed to accept even that.  The paper understood a gift, any gratuity, or anything like that could subtly seep in, create familiarity and affect a story. Their reporters had to remain totally unbiased. Years later we became friends and he told me one day, “You know I can’t write about your companies anymore, don’t you?” He went on to explain he considered me a friend and the paper would assign someone else to cover if in the future I believed I might have something newsworthy.

Newspapers and magazines have various levels of ethical reporting and journalistic standards. The very best ones not only make those standards and policies available to the public, but make it absolutely clear to all writers and editors, that violating any of the guidelines can lead to termination. As an example, you can find the standards and ethics for the Washington Post here.

The WSJ and The Washington Post news organizations are widely respected, even though their editorial (opinion pages) hold very different opinions from one another. To their credit, both publications understand the difference between opinion and the facts they gather and report in their news pages and draw distinct lines between them.

At one time, both network and local television stations had newsrooms and viewed themselves as professional journalists.  Some still do, but others clearly dedicate the time formerly considered news, to creating stories that attract the most eyeballs and advertising revenue. When these programs began to be disguised as actual journalism, is when television news lost its credibility and became pure entertainment.  Today, cable and network television “news-like” content is being produced by people who fall into one of two camps:

  1. Television reporters, writers and anchors who are actual journalists and operate within a well-defined set of standards and ethics, which they have no problem disclosing or talking about. They have no issue correcting mistakes on the air.  They have frequently graduated from top schools with advanced degrees, are well-read, articulate and cautious. They tend to work hard on stories, ask interview questions which display deep, expert and thoughtful preparation. They provide highly useful and important context and background to help viewers comprehend a particular story.
  2. Reporters more skilled at story-telling than having a real concern for actual facts. Their goal is high ratings for entertainment. They are often egotistical and shamelessly sensationalist.  They have little or no respect for journalistic ethics. They may have a certain view of the world which they frequently share with their audience. They are not above promoting and sometimes even creating unsubstantiated stories with zero fact checking or scenarios they “report,” as if it were “news.” They are rewarded with massive amounts of money because they generate eyeballs/ears which the media entities that employ them turn into dollars.

So, how to you know truth? The easiest and fastest way, look at the source.  In the case of the documentary I recommended, it was produced by Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian. You don’t win Oscars in the documentary category by making stuff up. His team was careful to site their sources. Since this is about Covid-19, they filmed interviews and reproduced other interviews with attribution from the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and CDC director Robert Redfield and others directly involved.  Others they interviewed were the people in charge during the period for which they were reporting. Michael Bowen, who is interviewed extensively for the film, is a republican who voted for Trump and believed in him passionately. Bowen’s life-time of involvement and experience in the medical supply chain business provide highly credible insight into what caused so many deaths in the US.

Beyond this particular film, generally, if you don’t want to be deceived by what appears to be news but really isn’t, follow these guidelines:  First, reduce the amount of time you spend with any television programs in category 2 above. Second, read news as reported by news organizations with a documented set of ethical standards and a track record of supporting reporters who write challenging pieces, even when unpopular. And third, read the opinion pages of not only the publications with which you agree, but also read opinions of those who are on the opposite side of where you typically tend to be.  Reputable fact-based publications are always careful to label opinions as opinions.  They do not peddle opinions as facts.