Category: Skepticism

Dr. Oz is a quack. Now Trump’s appointing him to be a health adviser.

By Julia Belluz

If you’ve wondered whatever happened to the snake oil–peddling celebrity physician Dr. Oz, and whether he’s still going strong, look no further than this news nugget today: President Donald Trump just announced he’ll appoint Oz to his Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition.

Along with other sports and health celebrities — including the New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick — Oz is expected to serve on the council, created in 1956 with the aim of promoting “regular physical activity and good nutrition.”

According to Axios, the administration is concerned that “youth sports participation has declined over the last decade, particularly among young girls and children from economically distressed communities.” And of all the health experts to turn to, the president chose Oz.

Trump did this presumably not only because he has a penchant for celebrity and showmanship, both of which Dr. Oz has in droves. He did this because, despite Oz’s years of misuses and abuses of science, his years of misleading the public on health, Oz remains “America’s doctor.”

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As algorithms take over, YouTube’s recommendations highlight a human problem

By Ben Popken

YouTube is a supercomputer working to achieve a specific goal — to get you to spend as much time on YouTube as possible.

But no one told its system exactly how to do that. After YouTube built the system that recommends videos to its users, former employees like Guillaume Chaslot, a software engineer in artificial intelligence who worked on the site’s recommendation engine in 2010-2011, said he watched as it started pushing users toward conspiracy videos. Chaslot said the platform’s complex “machine learning” system, which uses trial and error combined with statistical analysis to figure out how to get people to watch more videos, figured out that the best way to get people to spend more time on YouTube was to show them videos light on facts but rife with wild speculation.

Routine searches on YouTube can generate quality, personalized recommendations that lead to good information, exciting storytelling from independent voices, and authoritative news sources.

But they can also return recommendations for videos that assert, for example, that the Earth is flat, aliens are underneath Antarctica, and mass shooting survivors are crisis actors.

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The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’

By Olga Khazan

In the early ‘90s, a New Zealand man named Neil Fleming decided to sort through something that had puzzled him during his time monitoring classrooms as a school inspector. In the course of watching 9,000 different classes, he noticed that only some teachers were able to reach each and every one of their students. What were they doing differently?

Fleming zeroed in on how it is that people like to be presented information. For example, when asking for directions, do you prefer to be told where to go or to have a map sketched for you?

Today, 16 questions like this comprise the vark questionnaire that Fleming developed to determine someone’s “learning style.” Vark, which stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic,” sorts students into those who learn best visually, through aural or heard information, through reading, or through “kinesthetic” experiences.  (“I learned much later that vark is Dutch for “pig,” Fleming wrote later, “and I could not get a website called vark.com because a pet shop in Pennsylvania used it for selling aardvarks—earth pigs!”)

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Ken Ham Hits Back at Christian Geologist Who Lists 21 Reasons Why Noah’s Flood Never Happened

By Stoyan Zaimov

Young Earth Creationist and Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham has slammed an article by a Christian geologist who has listed 21 reasons why he thinks Noah’s worldwide flood account in the Bible never happened.

Ham said Monday on Facebook that the article, “Twenty-One Reasons Noah’s Worldwide Flood Never Happened,” is “sad,” because it’s not only wrong, but also because the author, Lorence G. Collins, is a professing Christian.

Ham, who’s also the president of the Ark Encounter attraction in Kentucky, takes aim at the claims made in the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry article, published in the March/April issue, which suggests that Creationists are “less imbued with scientific thinking.”

“Many Creationists love science, of course, and are quite knowledgeable,” Ham insisted, before listing the credentials of several scientists working at AiG.

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Study Casts Doubt on Existence of a Potential “Earth 2.0”

By John Wenz

Some astronomers are questioning the existence of what might be the most Earth-like planet yet found outside the solar system, based on a reexamination of archival data.

Kepler 452 b was discovered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and announced in 2015. At the time it seemed like everything astronomers had hoped for in an Earth analogue: slightly larger and more massive than our planet, and in a habitable 385-day orbit around a star remarkably similar to our sun.

But at about 1,000 light-years away, Kepler 452 b is far too faint for easy follow-up studies. Its apparent existence is based solely on data gathered during Kepler’s primary mission, which ran from 2009 to 2013 before being cut short by equipment malfunctions. During this period the spacecraft stared continuously at a single patch of sky, waiting for any of the stars there to almost imperceptibly dim from the shadows of planets passing across their faces. Such “transits” are how Kepler found the vast majority of its planets; but many things besides planets can cause stars to slightly dim, leading to far more false alarms than discoveries of new worlds. For any candidate planet to be confirmed as genuine, it would have to be observed transiting at least three times. Due to its long orbital period, Kepler 452 b barely met that minimal criterion before the telescope’s primary mission ended—but a host of other, more technical tests convinced the Kepler team the planet had a 99 percent chance of being real.

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Candida and Fake Illnesses

By Steven Novella

Savvy consumers have learned over the years that the primary goal of marketing is to create demand for a product or service. This has risen to the point of inventing problems that do not really exist just to sell a product that addresses the fake problem. Who knew that my social status could be destroyed by spotty glassware?

Better yet, if you can make people worry about a nonexistent problem, something that they were not previously aware of and don’t understand, they might buy your solution just to relieve their worry.

This type of “artificial demand” marketing can be very insidious when it occurs with medical products and services. The pharmaceutical industry has been accused of generating artificial demand for some of their drugs. For example, osteopenia is a relative decrease in bone density, but not enough to qualify for osteoporosis. Osteopenia is not really a disease, or even necessarily a mild version of osteoporosis, although it is a risk factor. Merck, however, was happy to broaden the market for its drug for osteoporosis and argue that patients with osteopenia should be treated also, even though the evidence really did not support this.

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This Weird Google Earth Picture Does Not Show a Crashed UFO

By Rafi Letzter

A popular YouTube channel that peddles conspiracy theories is trying to convince viewers that photos of an avalanche on an island near Antarctica depict an alien spaceship crash site.

In a video posted to the channel SecureTeam10, a narrator claims that an image of South Georgia Island taken from Google Earth shows the remains of an extraterrestrial craft that slammed into the side of a mountain and skidded a long distance across the ice.

The photo does show a lot of disturbed ice on the side of a glacier near Mount Paget, a 9,629-foot-tall (2,935 meters) prominence on the British-controlled island far to the south of Argentina. A long trail extends away from the main disturbed area, leading to a white object that appears embedded in the snow on top of the glacier.

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Fighting back against ‘alternative facts’: Experts share their secrets

By Dan Ferber

Days after President Donald Trump took office, his spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway coined a term that ricocheted around the world. Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, confronted her about an overinflated White House estimate of the crowd size at the president’s inauguration. “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” she shot back. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood. [But] Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts.”

The exchange became fodder for a thousand late-night TV monologues, and it seemed to launch a new era of degraded public discourse, in which falsehoods become “alternative truths,” and unwelcome news for politicians becomes “fake news.” At a lively brainstorming session here yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, approximately five dozen researchers, teachers, journalists, students, and science advocates brainstormed ways to push back.

Session leader Mark Bayer, an Arlington, Virginia-based consultant and former longtime aide to Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), opened up with some cold water for the crowd. “Facts were never enough” to make a convincing case to people, he said, “so let’s just get over that.” Even Aristotle, in his classic Rhetoric, writes about the need to persuade the audience that you’re credible (ethos) and appeal to their emotions (pathos), as well as using logical arguments (logos), Bayer said.

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Oprah Winfrey Helped Create Our American Fantasyland

By Kurt Andersen

Forty-eight hours ago, after watching Oprah Winfrey give a terrific, rousing feminist speech on an awards show, millions of Americans instantly, giddily decided that the ideal 2020 Democratic nominee had appeared. An extremely rich and famous and exciting star and impresario—but one who seems intelligent and wise and kind, the non–Bizarro World version of the sitting president.

Some wet-blanketing followed immediately, among the best from the New York Times Magazine writer Thomas Chatterton Williams in an op-ed headlined “Oprah, Don’t Do It.” “It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act,” he wrote. “Indeed, the magical thinking fueling the idea of Oprah in 2020 is a worrisome sign about the state of the Democratic Party.”

Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.

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Explainer: The Government Bill That Wants to Integrate Homeopathy and Modern Medicine

By The Wire Staff

Five hours into the all-India strike called by the Indian Medical Association (IMA), the Bill they were protesting was sent to a standing committee.

The National Medical Commission Bill, 2017, was introduced in the Lok Sabha by health minister J.P. Nadda on December 29, 2017. It came up for discussion today. But the controversial Bill was swiftly sent off to a standing committee for scrutiny instead.

The Bill attempts to tackle two main things on quality and quantity: Corruption in medical education and shortage of medical professionals.

A product of the NITI Aayog, the Bill was drafted following a scathing standing committee report in 2016 on the corrupt functioning of the Medical Council of India (MCI).

The IMA opposed the Bill, calling it “anti-people and anti-poor”. To protest it, they called a 12-hour all-India strike on Tuesday, which has now been called off.

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