21 July 2014

LUEE Episode 85: AllTrials and Vanessa's Law

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman and Richelle McCullough discuss Bill C-17 ("Vanessa's Law") and are joined by Ian Bushfield of Sense About Science's AllTrials project to discuss the problem of publication bias.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

For those curious what we were talking about near the end of the episode when we joked about white college students being the "perfect generalizable group", we were referencing the fact that much of the research purporting to show great insight into human psychology is done on young people from western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic societies. Psychologists are increasingly skeptical of the generalizability of these results, as these traits are hardly representative of humanity as a whole. See the links to Salon and Behavioral and Brain Sciences below for more information.

Links: The AllTrials Project | Sense About Science on Twitter | Bad Science Watch on Twitter | "Vanessa's Law" Bill C-17 (Bad Science Watch) | Cochrane Collaboration (Wikipedia) | LUEE Episode 81: Book Reviews (with Greta Christina!) | Discrepancies between Meta-Analyses and Subsequent Large Randomized, Controlled Trials (NEJM) | I Never Meta Analysis I Really Like (Science-Based Medicine) | Cochrane Reviews: The Food Babe of Medicine? (Science-Based Medicine) | Daryl Bem's "Feeling the Future" Controversy (Wikipedia) | Psychology Is WEIRD (Slate) | The weirdest people in the world? (Behavioral and Brain Sciences)

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14 July 2014

The Trouble with Those Scofflaw Cyclists

Coming up next week on Life, the Universe & Everything Else we have a great interview with Ian Bushfield of Sense About Science's AllTrials Campaign. In the meantime, an article came across my feed recently that I've been meaning to link to.

Image from Wikimedia Commons by ProfEDH (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Like many other skeptics, I'm an avid cyclist. (In fact, next month I'll be riding 60k in support of Habitat for Humanity. You can donate to the cause here!) When I hop on my bike, whether I'm heading to work, taking my daughter to day-care, or just out for a nice ride with my family, there are a few things that I typically worry about. In roughly this order, I want to:

  1. be safe
  2. avoid being a jerk
  3. get where I want to go quickly and efficiently
  4. enjoy the ride
  5. not reflect poorly on other cyclists

And it seems to me that #5 is not something I should really have to worry about. I certainly don't worry about making other motorists look bad when I'm driving! But cyclists need to be on their best behaviour: it seems like every time a cyclist makes a mistake (or—let's be honest—just behaves like a jackass), the problem is somehow emblematic of an issue with all cyclists; but when a motorist rolls through a stop-sign or fails to signal a turn, that doesn't reflect poorly on motorists as a whole (despite it being arguably far more dangerous).

And that's assuming that the cyclist's infraction isn't entirely imaginary: I can't count the number of times I've been honked or hollered at for failing to stay in the rightmost lane (because oh, I don't know, I felt like making a left turn, or didn't feel like making the required right). While most cyclists also drive, it is not the case that most motorists also cycle, and in-group bias and stereotyping seem to play a large role the way motorists respond to cyclists.

All of which brings us to the aforementioned article. It's called Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things by Carl Alviani over on Medium. It combines my love of cycling and my frustration with the basic cognitive errors with which we all struggle, and I've been hoping to read something like it for a long time.

So what is it about people riding bikes that provokes so much fear and anger? I've posed this question to several friends and acquaintances over the years, and the answers I get mostly fall into three categories:

  • they're a threat to pedestrian safety
  • they flout the law
  • they interfere with an otherwise smooth-flowing system

There's also the occasional fourth—that they're freeloading on roads that drivers paid for—but this has been debunked so many times that that particular red herring is, thankfully, starting to die off.

Of the other three, the first two fall apart pretty rapidly in the face of statistics. The CDC reports that 59,925 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles between 1999 and 2009, while bikes (which are used for about 1.6% of all trips in the US) killed 63 in that same period, or roughly 0.1% as many.

The few studies that look at specific violations have found that people on bikes do roll through stop signs about 15% more than drivers do (at least in Oregon), but also that drivers roll through them almost 80% of the time, suggesting this is more of a human fault than a cyclist one. Meanwhile, a host of other infractions are almost exclusively the domain of motorists: speeding, dooring, aggressive driving, violating the three-foot passing law, etc.

Read the whole article. It's worth it.

23 June 2014

LUEE Episode 83: Live from the Calgary Secular Church

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Greg Christensen visits the Calgary Secular Church and interviews CSC minister Korey Peters.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Calgary Secular Church Website | Meetup Group

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17 June 2014

Homeopathy Works

Cross-posted from the Winnipeg Skeptics blog.

Did that title get your attention?

Oh, don't worry. It's total nonsense. But I figured that it might be worth distilling some thirty comments down to a couple of words.

Pictured: not medicine.

A few years ago, Scott Carnegie had the audacity to state (factually, I might add) that KIDS 0-9 Cough & Cold remedy is not medicine. It's homeopathic, and it doesn't work. But we've been hearing about the wonders of this remedy (and homeopathy in general) in the comments section of this article ever since. These comments aren't likely to convince anyone of anything (unless it's that we should follow Popular Science's lead and simply shut down the comments section altogether), but they do sometimes present us with a teachable moment.

A recent example:
Just wondering if you have seen the new scientific studies indicating that this diluted water holds a memory, thus explaining how homeopathic medicine works? If not, then you should. You cant pick and choose which studies to preach if you are really a man of science. Science must always keep an open mind.

I am a huge skeptic of alternative medicines, due to health conditions and chronic pain. I did try this out of desperation and it seemed to work.
So I conducted a study of my own. My son was sick with a cold and on alternating days I added the 0-9 kids in his juice and the opposite days, I just gave him juice. The result? All 3 nights with kids 0-9, he slept through the night. The other 3 nights in the experiment, he woke up crying about his throat and the sniffles. No other condition/element was changed in his bedtime routine. This was my CONTROLLED study.

You do not have to believe in something for it to be real. Some remedies work for some people, other not so much. Every individual is different, remember that before you one-sidedly decide to preach to parents something doesn’t work.
While I certainly appreciate this commenter's attitude, she must see that the trial that she conducted is hardly sufficient to conclude that KIDS 0–9 is effective. Her "trial" was not double-blind, it was conducted on a single subject in an uncontrolled environment on a condition that is known to be self-limiting, and it is (of course) subject to all manner of bias on the part of the experimenter. I'm frankly astonished that anyone would conclude that the results (such as they are: I'm not too clear what her primary and/or secondary outcome measures were supposed to be) were due to the efficacy of homeopathy, rather than bias or random chance.

If this commenter is truly open-minded on the issue (which I hope), I'm curious as to why she would choose to ignore pretty much every systematic review and meta-analysis on the subject, and instead opted to conduct her own trial with n=1. For example, a recent meta-analysis conducted by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council that examined the efficacy of homeopathic preparations for 68 different conditions concluded:
The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.
That's no evidence for efficacy for any of the conditions studied—but her "trial" trumps that evidence, of course.

As to the question of water memory: this is total nonsense. Water memory was an ad hoc justification invented by Benveniste in an effort to deflect the reasonable criticism that homeopathic remedies are typically so dilute that they do not contain a single atom of the original "remedy". Attempts to independently replicate his research fail again and again (for example), and a team of chemists from the University of Toronto demonstrated in 2005 that water loses whatever "memory" it might have after a mere 50 femtoseconds. Additionally, Benveniste failed to provide any compelling mechanism by which a homeopathic remedy (if it did happen to somehow "remember" what its active ingredient was supposed to be, but conveniently forgot everything else it had come into contact with before and since) could heal the body using this "memory". It is also unclear how this "water memory" could be transferred to the sugar tablets sold at your local Whole Foods—or perhaps this commenter is suggesting that we should take "sugar memory" seriously, too?

She says, "You cant [sic] pick and choose which studies to preach if you are really a man of science. Science must always keep an open mind." I couldn't agree more, and I think that this is the true teachable moment. It's easy, on the Internet, to find other people who agree with you on any particular subject. If there are twenty studies on a subject with p-values of 0.05, chances are that people on either side of the issue can point to a study that confirms their preconceptions. Evidence that you're right is, after all, just a Google search away.

What's hard is to take science seriously and to attempt to achieve a reasonable understanding of the body of evidence on a topic. It's a lot of work, and it is contrary to the way we typically think on a daily basis. And so I challenge everyone (this commenter is far from alone!) to demonstrate that you are open to following the evidence wherever it leads, rather simply seeking out those few, poorly conducted trials that seem to support your preconceptions.

Those interested the history and practice of homeopathy can take a look at the presentation I gave for World Homeopathy Awareness Week a few years ago. It may prove instructive.