Monday, July 10, 2006

The Seven Most Common Thinking Errors of Highly Amusing Quacks and Pseudoscientists (Part 3):

Thinking Error 4 – Conspiracy Theories:

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “Conspiracy is the last refuge of a quack.”

Assertions of conspiracy receive a great deal of play in the claims of quacks and pseudoscientists. These range from the ridiculous to the…well, even more ridiculous. No matter what their details may be (e.g. whether the enemy is “the government”, Big Oil, Big Pharma, the AMA or all four), all conspiracy claims serve the same function:

They divert attention from the failures of the person making the claim.

And, no matter what the details of the particular failure may be, at the root is the same issue:

The failure to provide data to support their claim(s).

So, whether it’s the automobile engine that runs on water (suppressed and sabotaged by Big Oil) or the “fact” that chelating out mercury cures autism (suppressed by “the government”, Big Pharma and the AMA), the reason that these conspiracy “theories” are proffered is always the same:

They can’t prove their claim(s).

After all, if someone had a working model of an automobile engine that could run on water, or the clinical data showing that chelation could cure autism, there wouldn’t be any reason to complain about interference from “the government” or Big Oil or etc.

So, what is it that the conspiracy claims do? They allow the quack or pseudoscientist to make their unsupported claim(s) and blame someone else for their lack of support. This is really no different than claiming that “the dog ate my homework”, except that there is no “dog” (and, of course, there was never any “homework”).

This brings us to the other problem with the conspiracy excuse: plausibility.

Ask yourself, which is more likely; that a single person (or small group of people) might lie (or be self-deceived) or that an entire bureaucracy or corporation, filled with people who might have something to gain by revealing a guilty secret, might conspire to suppress information?

Before you answer that, consider this – the difficulty of keeping a secret rises with the number of people who know the secret. This can be mathematically represented thus:

D = n^(n-1)

Where D is the difficulty of keeping something secret and n is the number of people who know the secret.

Even without the math, anyone who can read the newspaper knows the ability of “the government” or other large organizations to keep embarrassing information secret. What makes you think that the “secrets” about water-fueled automobile engines and chelation curing autism would be any different?

In short, claiming conspiracy is a near-certain indicator of quackery and/or pseudoscience. It is the adult (or, more properly, “pseudoadult”) version of “the dog ate my homework”. In addition, it is not even plausible, given the inability of “the government: and other large organizations to keep secrets.


Thinking Error 5 – Personal Infallibility:

One thinking error that comes up extremely often is the error of personal infallibility. This one seems to be shared not only by the quacks and pseudoscientists but also by their victims.

Personal infallibility does not necessarily mean that the person thinks that they are never wrong (although some do), but refers to a more subtle belief that their observations are an infallible source of “fact”. I find this a particularly amusing belief, especially in the context of modern technology’s ability to deceive the senses, displayed every day in movie theatres across the world. Yet, despite this near-daily demonstration that “seeing is NOT believing”, quacks, pseudoscientists and their faithful followers and apologists persist in deferring to their own experiences as if they were infallible.

The root of this problem is the human ability to find patterns. We are genetically adapted to find patterns in the world around us; we are so good at this that we are continually finding patterns when none exist. We “connect the dots” in optical illusions and we see causation in coincidence.

One of the most important steps on the path to what we now call “science” was the philosophy of the Empiricists. They held that the only way to learn about the universe was to observe it. This contrasted starkly with other “natural philosophers” of the time, who felt that they could sit in their drawing rooms and libraries, drinking brandy and philosophizing about how the universe worked. Like many of the quacks and pseudoscientists of our day, they felt that actually getting in the lab or in the field and seeing if their hypotheses worked was irrelevant. After all, some of the finest minds in the world (theirs and their associates) had agreed that the sun and planets circled the earth, so what was the point in getting cold and tired peering through some blasted telescope?

Although the Empiricists eventually won the day (although their opponents continue to populate the chiropractic and naturopathic colleges), there was a small flaw in the philosophy of Empiricism that needed correcting. You see, while large-scale physics and chemistry are fairly deterministic, there is a great deal of variation and even randomness in biology (and in physics and chemistry on the smaller scales). As a result, it is often difficult to tell if a change seen in a biological system is due to an experimental intervention or simply due to random variation.

Because of the stochastic nature of biology (which, by the way, includes medicine), it is very easy for a researcher to see a change in an organism and erroneously attribute it to some intervention they have made when, in fact, the change was not related at all to that intervention. In addition, since many of the changes seen in biological organisms are hard to measure quantitatively (e.g. pain, depression, language ability), the observer is often called upon to not only observe but to be the “measuring instrument”.

This is the reason that the multiple subject, double blind, placebo-controlled study is considered to be the “gold standard” in research (except by those whose “claims” are disproven by such studies). This is not to say that good data cannot be gotten any other way, but this is the standard to aim for.

So, what’s so great about the multiple-subject, double-blind, placebo-controlled study? Let me explain in parts:

[1] Multiple-subject:

Since biology has a great deal of inherent random variation, a single organism (a single person) is not a good indicator of what the population is like. After all, I am not a good example of what the human population is like since approximately half of the world’s population is of a different sex. Likewise, there are people shorter and taller than me, lighter and darker in skin color, etc.

The way to arrive at what the population looks like is to take a larger sample. You can predict mathematically the likelihood that your sample is an accurate representation of the population based on the sample size (and the population size) – the bigger the sample, the greater the probability that it reflects the reality of the population.

In addition, biological organisms change over time – if they don’t, they’re probably dead. As a result, certain changes will happen regardless of whether an intervention occurs or not. Studying a larger group will “average out” these spontaneous changes, since – by random chance – a roughly equal number will occur before and after the intervention.

[2] Placebo-controlled:

Taken out of order (for reasons that will become apparent), placebo-control is a critical part of biological experimentation, especially when the subjects are humans. A placebo, in general terms, is a treatment that is similar enough to the studied intervention that the subject receiving it (and, ideally, the person giving it) cannot tell it apart from the “real” treatment, but it has no effect. Most classically, it is a sugar pill or saline injection that is the same color and consistency as the treatment under study.

Failure to use placebo control has tripped up any number of medical researchers, including some who are legitimate scientists. Among "real" researchers, this most commonly occurs in behavioral interventions (where interaction with the “therapist” can be as big a factor as the “therapy” is supposed to be) and surgical interventions (where questions of ethics may prevent a “placebo” surgery in human subjects). Unsuspecting quacks often fail to realize that their interaction with the patient may be causing the change they measure, rather than their “therapy”. Charlatans count on it.

In human studies, failure to use a placebo can lead to falsely believing that a therapy has a beneficial effect when, in fact, it is the expectation of benefit that causes the subject to feel better. This has been borne out time and again in pain control research, where supposedly effective therapies have been overturned because subjects receiving a placebo had the same degree of relief. In pain studies, approximately 30% of subjects will report "good" or better pain relief with a placebo.

This is sometimes erroneously referred to as the “placebo effect”, which is an oxymoron. A placebo has – by definition - no effect. It is the psychological effect of the subject believing that they will feel better that causes the effect.


[3] Double-blind:

Double blind means that neither the subject (the organism being studied) nor the observer knows whether any particular subject is receiving a placebo or the studied therapy. A single-blind study would be when the observer knows but the subjects do not.

The advantage of a double-blind study is that not only do the subjects not know who is “supposed” to feel better, but neither do the observers. This is especially important if the measurement of “success” or “failure” of the treatment is not completely objective. When measuring blood pressure or heart rate, it is not so important that the observers not know who received the placebo, since these measures leave little or no room for observer interpretation. However, if the measures are more subjective - such as behaviors, pain, depression, social interaction, etc. - then observer interpretation can be affected by the knowledge of who is “supposed” to get better and who is not.


None of this is hidden knowledge and none of this is particularly new. Yet, every day I read about patients, parents and practitioners who declare, “I see an improvement – are you calling me a liar?” These people are unaware – or are in denial of their awareness – that we humans often see exactly what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. To think that we can be truly objective – especially when it involves ourselves, our loved ones or a hypothesis we are in love with – is to claim an infallibility we are not capable of.

So, when you hear someone say, “I saw it with my own eyes!”, be sure to ask (at least to yourself), “Yes, but what would someone else’s eyes have seen?”


Coming up: Cherry picking – it’s not just happening in the orchard.


Prometheus.

18 Comments:

Blogger Clark Bartram said...

A perfect example is Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld's eye-witness account of seeing an open heart surgery performed sans anesthesia except for a single acupuncture needle in the patient's ear. He has repeated this tall tale since 1978, most recently in last Sunday's Parade magazine.

http://theclayexperience.blogspot.com/2006/07/no-thanks-i-like-my-anesthesia-western.html

10 July, 2006 18:36  
Anonymous andrea said...

Prometheus, this series just gets better'n'better! Linked to it in today's essay on pareidolia et cetera http://qw88nb88.wordpress.com/

I love the line, "In addition, biological organisms change over time – if they don’t, they’re probably dead." So many curebies want to assign any progress to treatments, rather than acknowledging that children do mature over time, albeit at different rates.

Something I've observed is that people see what they expect to see (s'what makes stage magic work, after all) and hear what they want to hear. It's like half the world goes around wearing FuzzyThinking Goggles!

andrea

10 July, 2006 18:52  
Blogger notmercury said...

Another excellent installment. So glad you are back to blogging for awhile.

11 July, 2006 05:57  
Blogger Joseph said...

A common mistake in autism is to assume that there cannot be a placebo effect in autistic kids. Be that as it may, another purpose of the placebo is to control for evaluator bias. And the fact is that many studies have found strong placebo effects in autism.

11 July, 2006 08:30  
Blogger Prometheus said...

As Joseph points out, the "placebo effect" can occur in people who are not receiving the placebo, which underscores the oxymoronic nature of the term. It also underscores the fact that the reason for using a placebo control (and, preferrably, in a double-blind fashion) is to reduce (not eliminate) the effect of expectation and unconscious bias on the results.

Unfortunately, there are as yet no techniques for eliminating the conscious bias seen in a number of studies, particularly those "studies" performed by mercury-autism partisans in a vain effort to "prove" their assertions that mercury (or vaccines) cause autism.

Expect to see the Geiers and others coming out with a flurry of "studies" in order to overcome the sound drubbing their "science" took in the RhoGam case. However, if the opinion of Judge Beaty is any indication of what they can expect from the bench, the Geiers and their clients are heading into a humiliating ego-paddling, regardless.


Prometheus

11 July, 2006 11:57  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

I love the comparison between the conspiracy theory and "The dog ate my homework!"

If you haven't seen it yet, you might enjoy this.

11 July, 2006 13:25  
Blogger María Luján said...

Hi Prometheus
As you know I consider myself moderate- but this is totally different to consider that I have all the answers. In fact a have more questions unanswered that I can count.

Er...Trying to be objective, I will present how
things can be presented to “both” extreme sides of the line

Thinking Error 1 - Association is Causation

Thinking Error 1 Association is NEVER nor
Causation NOR Relation to ANYTHING related
to ASD: It is totally irrelevant

Thinking Error 2 - "A" Cause is "THE" Cause:

Thinking Error 2 A SUPPOSED cause is neither
THE Cause, nor one of potential CaUSES nor Collaborator- even a bit-, BASED ON CURRENT epidemiology

Thinking Error 3: Post Hoc Correction of Hypotheses:

Thinking Error 2 Post Hoc Neglection of
possibility of Studying the Hypotheses properly
based on a biochemically plausible mechanism of affectation: IT IS A WASTE OF TIME. Period

Thinking Error 4 Conspiracy Theories

Thinking Error 4 Conspiracy Theories (There is
an international conspiracy of labs/medical
practitioners finding mercury , lead,
Aluminium, As , Cd and others in different
fluids(blood, urine) or in hair/teeth/nails/FS at certain conditions or; also about
immune imbalances, endocrine and adrenal
problems, Gastrointestinal issues in
endoscopies, Measles in gut, Measles in CFS,
Herpes viruses titers, Streptococus titers,
Imbalances in gut flora (yeasts, bacteria,
protozoos, parasites) , vitamin, aminoacids and
mineral defficiencies,protein imbalances,
decreased enzymes disaccharidases,
DPPIV,others- methionine cycle imbalances,
folate imbalances, BH4 imbalances, nitric oxide
imbalances, Krebs cycle imbalances, etc etc etc)
ALL are liars, ALL report erroneously to trick parents, ALL want money (lawyers, parents, labs) and nothing more. If it is related to HM poisoning it is wrong done or wrong reported related to ASD.

Thinking Error 5 Personal Infallibility:

Thinking Error 5 Personal Infallibility.

This is the one I like most. Are you sure that this is prerogative of “the other side of the mirror”?
What about the tree in my eye and the lash in the neighbor´s ? Well, being honest it must be the secoya in one eye and the oak in the neighbor´s but I think it is pertinent (and I am not so sure to assign what to what side, given the present status of the situation).

I must clarify that my personal position leaves me nowhere because I do not agree with neither of them.

For me there are several points related about how serious are certain approaches, whatever the side.

María Luján

11 July, 2006 14:45  
Blogger Do'C said...

Bronze Dog,

Your linked post was every bit as thought provoking as this one by Prometheus. I loved the part about the 40ft. tall gold Buddha.

11 July, 2006 22:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, “Conspiracy is the last refuge of a quack.”


That's not a paraphrase, that's a misquotation!

http://www.bartleby.com/73/1306.html

Mark hadfield

12 July, 2006 19:39  
Blogger Prometheus said...

Maria,

I must admit that your post was a bit hard to follow. Did you suppose that I was saying that "our" side never does any of these things? No, people on both "sides" have committed these thinking errors.

Having said that, it might be useful to point out that while it is the minority of scientists opposed to the hypothesis that mercury causes autism who commit the previously mentioned thinking errors, the majority (if not 100%) of the "scientists" touting the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis are committing these thinking errors.

The fact is, if you have the majority of the data on your side - and all of the better quality data - it doesn't take a lot of work to support your hypothesis. It pretty much supports itself (res ipsa loquitor). It's only when you don't have a leg to stand on that you need to use "fancy footwork" and logical fallacies to support your argument.

I believe I have said this at least six times, but I will say it once again:

If the mercury-causes-autism "side" can come up with data that supports their claims that is of sufficient quality to overcome the current data that refutes their claims, I am 100% ready to switch sides.

I'm (still) waiting.


Prometheus

12 July, 2006 21:18  
Blogger María Luján said...

Hi Prometheus
I apologize if I misunderstood, but you almost always pointed out about the side of scientists in the Hg poisoning camp.
You say
Having said that, it might be useful to point out that while it is the minority of scientists opposed to the hypothesis that mercury causes autism who commit the previously mentioned thinking errors, the majority (if not 100%) of the "scientists" touting the mercury-causes-autism hypothesis are committing these thinking errors.

Well, you know, after reading a bit I can say the same , changing the thinking error you mentioned by the thinking error I mentioned and the scientists considered BUT I will change the quotation in the sense to consider MORE than a CAUSE, a TRIGGER or a cOLLABORATOR, taking into account also the genetic component of autism.
Finally ALL are committing thinking errors for me, of different kinds.
Having said that, it might be useful to point out that while it is the minority of scientists touting the hypothesis that mercury causes autism who commit the previously mentioned thinking errors, the majority (if not 100%) of the "scientists" touting the mercury-NOT causes-autism hypothesis are committing these thinking errors.

You say
The fact is, if you have the majority of the data on your side - and all of the better quality data - it doesn't take a lot of work to support your hypothesis.

Yes, BUT like you, I have a LOT of problem with the autism= Hg poisoning.I consider Hg one more of a LOOOOONG list of environmental contributors, in a more wide and complete picture. THIS is what I have tried to point out.
I think that the truth is extremely complex. What I have tried to present you is my idea of this complexity and the need to stop looking at Hg as the ONE CAUSE and more as One more COntributor and as a TRIGGER because of genetic susceptibility- totally different scenarios.

It pretty much supports itself (res ipsa loquitor). It's only when you don't have a leg to stand on that you need to use "fancy footwork" and logical fallacies to support your argument.

I understand your point and I agree in general about what many times is not serious from the Hg poisoning =autism. In general, when arguments are lacking, fallacies are growing.
Well, I do my best to avoid logical fallacies and to backup as much as possible with published science my ideas, but surely sometimes I commit them. Sorry. Also, as I always tell I consider myself a student, and I am very interested on the pros and contras. In this sense, I am open minded to criticisms. My point is that the analysis is being done in the black-white mode- ALWAYS focused on mercury and this is very narrowly focused in my opinion, given the present status of the knowledge about genetics in ASD.

If the mercury-causes-autism "side" can come up with data that supports their claims that is of sufficient quality to overcome the current data that refutes their claims, I am 100% ready to switch sides.

Not my point. For me it is not Mercury-causes-autism; for me is mercury-causes-secondary medical conditions due to autistic genetics point of view. Change mercury by heavy metals, antibiotics, allergens and I am presenting my view on the general issue.

Thank you for your answer.
Ma Luján

13 July, 2006 01:01  
Blogger M said...

After all, I am not a good example of what the human population is like since approximately half of the world’s population is of a different sex.

A fact lost on quite a few people who make up RCTs, who assume that a 'good sample' is made up entirely of men :)

13 July, 2006 08:30  
Blogger Prometheus said...

M:

While it's true that some RCT studies have been "single sex" (usually in heart disease, where men have traditionally had an "edge" over women), the majority of RCT's are gender neutral.

This has become a bit of an "urban myth" over the last decade or so, becoming a generally accepted "truism" because it has been repeated so often.

Except for those disorders where there is a signficant gender difference in incidence or prognosis, RCT's are usually gender neutral. Granted, some of the cardiac disease studies (including a lot of the lipid-control studies) were male-only, especially early on. However, there is ample data suggesting that men have a different incidence of cardiac disease and that their prognosis is also different.

Having been involved in a large number of clinical trials, I can attest that the IRB's require a reason if you plan to exclude one sex or the other. If you have a good reason - including an attempt to replicate an earlier study that was single-sex - then the IRB will approve it. However, this in no way means that clinical studies are made single-sex without a valid, scientifically supported reason.


Prometheus

13 July, 2006 20:52  
Blogger Theo said...

Here's my insult to conspiracy theorists:

Look, all your points are utter crap and I won't even pretend to humour you. From my own experience, those who believe in conspiracies are either completely delusional and out of their minds, or so moronic they put the ‘M’ in stupid (or both); with the one notable exception being renowned intellect Charlie Sheen. You're not Charlie Sheen, so which category do you belong to?

This would obviously need to be modified when talking to Charlie Sheen. I know it's not (technically) a good point, it's just personal abuse. But trying to reason with conspiracy theorists is a complete waste of time. The links are to (slightly) more developed critiques of 9/11 conspiracies.

14 July, 2006 22:27  
Blogger Bronze Dog said...

Since Fore Sam's giving me the "You're one of THEM, aren't you?!" look, I might as well invite you over to my blog to poke fun at his evasive mind games. Suspect he'll move into personal infallibility as well, once he gets to talking about his magic anecdote that trumps all others.

25 July, 2006 06:18  
Anonymous Just saying... said...

I agree with Dad of Cameron. Your intro misuses the term paraphrase - you're only paraphrasing a quote if the basic meaning remains intact. You're not specifically misquoting, but calling it paraphrasing when you're really riffing on the structure and implication of a classic pithy quote is a little misleading, especially if the reader was unfamiliar (unlikely as this may seem) with the original quote.

17 August, 2006 16:17  
Anonymous Mr.Rehab said...

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22 August, 2006 11:37  
Blogger Tutorialblog said...

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29 November, 2006 08:11  

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