Science Skepticism

Science vs soundbites and sensationalism #IFT16

Late last year, I had the pleasure of meeting outgoing IFT President, Colin Dennis, at a talk I gave at the 2015 SAAFoST conference in Durban. For those of you who are interested in food science and nutrition, and who don’t know of SAAFoST, I’d like to point you in the direction of their “Food Facts Advisory Service“, where you can find a number of informative pieces on food facts and fears.

In any event, Prof. Dennis suggested that he would be keen on inviting me to speak at a future IFT event. To my great surprise and pleasure, that invitation ended up being to give one of the keynote talks – alongside such luminaries as Dr Ben Goldacre – at the IFT  congress in Chicago, which has just concluded today.

Science Skepticism

We “orgone” to die. No matter what the quacks say.

mq1The message at The Amaz!ng Meeting (or, TAM) earlier this year was “Fight the Fakers”, with the point being that it’s no much use ridiculing the victims of quackery or woo-woo for being taken in by charlatans. Sometimes, we’re desperate for a cure, or for hope, and this leads us to believe things we might not otherwise.

Also, some quacks and fakers genuinely believe that they have magical powers, or that they have cottoned on to some sort of secret. For example, even though I haven’t been shy of expressing my view that Professor Tim Noakes sounds increasingly like a pseudoscientist, I have no doubt that he’s sincere in believing what he tells his disciples, whether or not he ends up being right or wrong.

Of course there are difficult boundary cases, where we really should know better, and can’t escape taking on a healthy portion of the blame either for misleading others, or allowing ourselves to be misled. The distinction I’m making, though, highlights that there is more that is blameworthy about your conduct if you know you’re deceiving people, or if you’re knowingly on the side of deceivers.

An example of the latter – being on the side of the deceivers, and against common-sense, or science – has recently come to my attention via 6000, and involves a TEDx organising committee ignoring the lessons learnt in the Sheldrake affair. In case you’re not familiar with Sheldrake, he’s a fairly controversial scientist who wants you to to believe in “email telepathy” (never mind the humdrum sort of telepathy in dogs and other non-human animals) in addition to various other odd things.

Sheldrake (and Graham Hancock, he who believes the Ark of the Covenant is real, and that aliens built the pyramids) spoke at TEDx events, but  both of their talks were removed from the TEDx archives following widespread protest regarding TEDx being used as a vehicle to promote pseudoscience. These episodes led to a joint TED (the mother-ship) and TEDx policy reminder that pseudoscience was not welcome at these events.

So why, then, is Ivan Jakobović, inventor of the water-powered car and the “orgonic launcher” (which – as you no doubt know already – fires the universal life force “orgon” into the air, to strip pollution from the atmosphere), speaking at TEDxMaksimir today? And furthermore, why is it that Željko Svedic has been banned from today’s TEDx event for pointing out that Jakobović is a crank, and that TEDx events are not supposed to host cranks?

You can read all about it on Svedic’s blog, including what he recalls of the abusive phone call he received from the TEDxMaksimir folk, before they deleted his comments from their Facebook page, refunded his registration fee, and posted the following announcement:

Mr Zeljko just got a phone call he will be refunded entrance fee.. ..We need to protect speaker reputation.. ..Ivan Jakobović will speak about his rich experience as an inventor.. of the inventions Mr Zeljko is criticizing (ozonic exhaust) was already presented by Ivan on our first TEDx event in 2010.. ..that invention was sold and is successfully produced in Canada.. ..Thank you Mr Ivan Jakobović for sharing your rich experience with us and for honoring us again.. Karlo Matić, TEDxMaksimir license holder

There are numerous fantastic talks on both TED and TEDx. But by contrast to when TED began, and you could normally expect a fairly high level of quality (and, sanity) in the presentations, it now seems to be more and more of a lottery. The TED – and especially the TEDx – brand no longer offers any guarantee of the content being worth watching, and judging from this episode, some licence-holders of TEDx events don’t seem at all concerned about upholding the standards they’re supposed to.

It’s about time that TED either enforce those standards more rigorously, or instead shuck off the TEDx brand entirely. The latter seems to make more sense, seeing as there seems to be a TEDx on every street corner these days, never mind in every big city – making it an impossible undertaking to ensure quality is maintained. But until something changes, I’ll keep ignoring TEDx entirely, except for when it’s someone I know on the programme.

Academia and teaching Science

Cansa indulges the quacks (and students indulge the homeopaths)

So, as mentioned in a Daily Maverick column, I was recently asked to grant a student an extension on an assignment deadline. Her request was accompanied by the “medical certificate” below:


Yes, that is from a naturopath, who also advertises skills related to iridology (your eyes, the iris in particular, being a reliable source of information about your health), herbal tinctures, and homeopathy. And in what you’d hope is a joke, but isn’t, the course in question is explicitly about evidence-based decision-making. Worse still – during the week this particular assignment was due, the lecture topic was pseudoscience, with explicit reference to homeopathy.

A reader encouraged me to submit a complaint to the Registrar of the Allied Health Professions Council, which I’ve done as per the text below:

I would like to formally bring a matter to your attention, as Registrar of the Allied Health Professions Council. The attached note, bearing the letterhead of Renata Zijp (Reg A9803; Prac 0805564) was submitted in support of a student’s application to be granted an extension on an assignment in my course at the University of Cape Town.

While I realise that it’s not within your purview to completely eliminate pseudoscientific professions such as homeopathy, I would hope that legislation and common sense both argue against practitioners in these fields issuing certificates such as the one attached.

The certificate makes no mention of the ailment that was diagnosed, nor does it offer any information as to when the student would be fit to return to her studies. In other words, as a piece of testimony as to the medical condition of the student, it is useless for two reasons: the fact that Zijp is a practitioner of professions of dubious value; and even within those professions, has offered testimony that is useless and even misleading.

It is misleading because, in using the imprimatur of science, a less attentive or more gullible member of the academic community might accept such a certificate as a legitimate reason to grant the student an extension. It is not, and presenting certificates such as these is an insult to those who suffer from genuine ailments, and to the professionals who treat them.

Finally, even though the AHPC must of course concern itself with matters directly related to the professions in question, we arguably all have a responsibility to hold other citizens to account for the contributions played in promoting reason and rationality, or the converse of those. Students (ironically, in this case students in a course teaching evidence-based decision-making) should not be given the impression that these sorts of certificates have any merit, and practitioners should be dissuaded – if not barred – from issuing them.

If you encounter any similar instances, you can get in touch with the Registrar of the Allied Health Professions Council, Dr Louis Mullinder, at [email protected] to officially lodge a complaint.

Incidentally, my complaint might bear some fruit, seeing as I’m reliably informed that the practitioner in question “is registered as a naturopath, but not as a homoeopath. It is a breach of the Regulations to the Act to give the impression that she is registered as a homoeopath. I expect that the Registrar will deal with it harshly – quite apart from the highly problematic wording of the actual certificate.”

While on the subject of quackery: CANSA, the country’s main cancer advocacy organisation, is promoting and marketing an untested supplement. Prof. Roy Jobson of Rhodes University pharmacology dept criticised them, and they responded with a lawyer’s letter threatening to sue.

Daily Maverick Science

John Edward is coming to eat your brain

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Somewhere out there, a reader named Sally has just suffered a terrible loss. Or maybe it’s Samantha, or Sarah – anyway, something that has an “s” sound in it. Her husband – actually, perhaps only a family member, or … well, someone close to her has recently passed. His name was John, or maybe Joseph? It’s something starting with “J”, anyhow, although that might be his nickname.

Daily Maverick Religion Science

What would it take to prove you wrong?

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Metaphysical claims involving things like the Law of Attraction, astrology or homeopathy all share at least one feature: It’s very easy to find evidence for them. There exist a broad set of claims for which this holds true, and they are often collected under the summary term of pseudoscience. Pseudoscientific claims make predictions or offer explanations just as scientific claims do. Where they differ is in failing to offer a robust set of underlying laws, or even hypotheses, which can be empirically shown to justify those predictions or explanations.