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Archive for Critical Thinking

How to Think

Robert Todd Carroll, the author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, has a new book out: The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary: Biases, Fallacies, and Illusion and what you can do about them. Since some of our commenters and most of the CAM advocates we critique are constantly committing logical fallacies, a survey of logical fallacies is a good idea both for us and for them, and this book fits the bill.

When I received the book in the mail, I set it aside, thinking it would be a somewhat boring listing of things I already knew. When I finally got around to reading it, I was surprised and delighted. It held my interest, reminded me of things I had forgotten, explained other things I had never heard of, and provided entertaining stories to illustrate each point. Best of all, the bulk of his examples are taken from medicine and relate directly to the topics we discuss on SBM.

Carroll is well-qualified to write about logical fallacies: he is a retired professor of philosophy who has long promoted skepticism and taught classes in critical thinking, and he writes in an entertaining, accessible style. He started The Skeptic’s Dictionary website in 1994 with 50 articles and it has now grown to several hundred articles. It attracts more than a million visitors a month, and some of its entries have been translated into more than a dozen languages. It has become a go-to reference for anyone seeking the facts on questionable claims about everything from crop circles to homeopathy. Its articles are thorough and well documented with lots of references and links. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking

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Food for Thought

I am excited to tell you about a wonderful new endeavor that is helping to promote critical thinking about science and medicine. It’s a free online course on “Food for Thought” that offers a scientific framework for understanding food and its impact on health and society from past to present.

The “Food for Thought” course is a product of EdX, which offers online college courses from Harvard, MIT, and other prestigious universities. They provide videos with interactive features and access to online student communities. Students can audit a course and get full access to all the materials including tests, assignments, and discussion forums with no commitment, and can choose what and how much they want to do. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Nutrition

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Tribalism and Medical Ethics

Science is intended to discover the “is”, not the “ought;” facts, not values. Science can’t tell us whether an action is moral; it can only provide evidence to help inform moral decisions. For instance, some people who believe abortion is immoral reject birth control methods that prevent implantation of a fertilized ovum on the grounds that it constitutes abortion; science can determine that a particular birth control method prevents fertilization rather than preventing implantation of a fertilized ovum. A new book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by Joshua Greene, provides some intriguing insights that are pertinent to medical ethics.

He thinks tribalism is the central tragedy of modern life. Evolution equipped us for cooperation within our own tribe but not for cooperation with other tribes. Cooperation with related individuals helps spread our own genes, but we are in competition with other tribes and cooperating with them might help spread their genes to the detriment of our own. It boils down to Us vs. Me and Us vs. Them. He uses the word “tribes” not in the original sense (Hutus vs. Tutsis), but to include Democrats vs. Republicans, Catholics vs. Protestants, CAM vs. science-based medicine, Arabs vs. Israelis, climate change activists vs. climate change deniers, and any other ideological or nationalistic group. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Critical Thinking, Evolution, Medical Ethics

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Acupuncture Whac-a-Mole ™

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana

Most people don’t have that willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they continue to produce bad clinical studies.
- Carlos Santana (Well, not the last 4 words.)

One is a guitar player, one is a philosopher. I get them confused.

I think George was in charge of SCAM research at the NIH. It was Dr. Gorski who first used the term Whac-a-Mole to describe what we do. The same badly-done studies are done over and over and misrepresented over and over, with only very minor variations on a theme. This is especially true of acupuncture, the most extensively studied pseudo-medicine in search of something, anything, for which it might be effective. They are still searching.

I loved going mano-a-mano with my kids when they were younger on the Whac-a-Mole machine in the Seaside arcade followed by root beer and elephant ears. It was the last time I beat either of them at any athletic endeavor. So I enjoy Whac-a-Mole, with mechanical rodents or bad research. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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Science-based medicine throughout time

As 2013 comes to a close, because this probably will be my last post of 2013 (unless, of course, something comes up that I can’t resist blogging about before my next turn a week from now), I had thought of doing one of those cheesy end-of-year lists related to the topic of science-based medicine. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with anything I haven’t already done. I even thought of coming up with a list of New Year’s resolutions for 2014. In fact, I even thought of making the first one—in a self-deprecating manner, of course—to be to stop being so mean, nasty, and dogmatic, the better to satisfy my detractors. But then I remembered that nothing is likely to satisfy my detractors and, besides, my ever-lovin’ cuddliness is what makes me so popular. Besides, I have to be me and gotta be true to myself, and all that rot, so that idea went out the window. Of course, what was worse than my inability to come up with something was that I couldn’t think of a way to make it funny. When you’re trying to be funny following the inimitable Mark Crislip, you’d damned well better be funny. So, until my humorous instincts come back, serious it has to be.

But serious doesn’t necessarily mean heavy. The end of a year is a time both to look back on the year before and look forward to the year to come. This year in many ways was a good year for us here at SBM. We launched a Facebook page, reinvigorated our Twitter feed, and have experienced a significant growth in our traffic. Those who know me and/or follow me on various social media know that I’m a big Doctor Who fan, I have been since the 1980s. So the last two big events of the year, the 50th anniversary special in November and the Christmas special on, well, Christmas got me to thinking about time travel, and thinking about time travel revived memories of a topic I covered on my not-so-super-secret other blog four years ago and had been meaning to treat here sometime. It’s a fun topic to finish out the year, not to mention a way for me to blatantly sneak Doctor Who references into an SBM post.

Being a Doctor Who fan and all, not surprisingly, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be able to travel through time and visit times and places in history that I’m most interested in. For instance, being a World War II buff, I’d certainly want to be able to check out what everyday life was like here in the U.S. during World War II. Given my affinity for psychedelic music and that I was only four years old during most of the Summer of Love, I’d think it cool to check out Haight-Ashbury, although I suspect my reaction to the reality of it would be similar to that of George Harrison when he checked it out for the first time. I guess, if pushed, I’d have to admit that if I were old enough to have been a high school or college student in 1967, I probably would have been one of those straight-laced, short-haired types destined either to go to college to become a doctor or engineer, or to go to Vietnam to fight. Despite loving the music, I never had any interest in experimenting with the drugs. Beer, wine, and—occasionally—a martini or two are my drugs of choice and then only for medicinal purposes, as they say. Heck, I never even tried to smoke tobacco. Even as a child I couldn’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke to the point where it was never even really a temptation.

In any case, what provoked my original bit of musing was a post a few years ago by Martin Rundkvist, who wrote about Fear of Time Travel, where he imagines what it would be like for a modern person to be transported back in time:

First, imagine that you’re dropped into a foreign city with only the clothes you wear. No wallet, no hand bag, no money, no cell phone, no identification. Pretty scary, huh? But still, most of us would get out of the situation fairly easily. We would find the embassy of our country of origin, or if it were in another city, contact the local police and ask to use their phone. A few days later we would be home.

That’s not the scary scenario I rehearse. Imagine that you’re dropped into the city you live in with only the clothes you wear. No wallet, no hand bag, no money, no cell phone, no identification. And it’s 500 years ago. (Or for you colonial types, 300 years ago in one of your country’s first cities.)

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Posted in: Cancer, Critical Thinking, Science and the Media, Surgical Procedures

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The Nuances of Informed Consent

Modern medical ethics are built upon the concept of informed consent. This is not, however, as straightforward a concept as it may seem.

Physicians and health care providers have a duty to provide informed consent to their patients or their patients’ guardians, which means that they have to inform them appropriately about the risks and benefits of their recommendations and interventions. This includes informing them about the risks of not treating an illness.

This principle is, in turn, based largely upon the principle of autonomy – people have the right to control their own lives, and one cannot have control without information.

This is all simple enough, but where it becomes tricky is in deciding how much information to give patients, and how to present it. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Survey Says…

Surveys are evidently a popular way to get a paper published. Put “complementary alternative medicine survey” into Pubmed and get 2,353 hits. I would have trouble coming up with a hundred groups about whom I would be interested in their use of SCAMs, but I tend to be a lumper rather than a splitter. But if you want to know about SCAM use in chronic pain patients in one Singapore hospital, the information is available.

I am a survey magnet and a remarkable number of people send me dead tree and electronic surveys which I generally ignore. So people like me, those who ignore surveys (but support public television), are underrepresented in surveys. But evidently there is no group whose attitudes about SCAM are not amenable to analysis including my medical brethren, Infectious Disease doctors.

So I was understandably curious when I was sent a link to “Infectious Diseases Physicians’ Attitudes and Practices Related to Complementary and Integrative Medicine: Results of a National Survey“. The abstract makes it sound like my colleagues are a bunch of ignorant rubes who just fell off the turnip truck: (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Critical Thinking, Homeopathy, Science and Medicine

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Human Sex Determination: Psychic Sperm and the Gambler’s Fallacy…..

Carl Sagan supposedly once said that randomness is clumpy. Those three words have become one of my favorite go-to quotes, particularly when teaching residents and medical students who are often overly impressed with improbable runs of similar diagnoses or exam findings. I love this quote because it is so simple and yet reveals so much about our experience with observing the natural world. Sagan’s ability to offer up insightful nuggets of rational thought, even if he didn’t actually produce this gem, was unmatched and his efforts to bring science and reason to the public have been sorely missed. If you haven’t read any of Sagan’s works, I highly recommend The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

If you have a coin, and a few hours to kill, record the results of a long run of flips and you’ll see what Sagan meant about the nature of randomness. You will inevitably observe clusters of heads or tails that might seem improbable, but eventually the outcomes will average out to about half of the flips being heads and half resulting in tails. The more trials that you perform, the closer the outcomes will approach 50% for each possible result, assuming you aren’t gaming the system by using a trick coin.

I don’t think that very many people would argue with the fact that on average a coin flip is random chance, although there are still people out there who think that the Earth is flat and that Justin Bieber is a reptilian humanoid. But because of a deeply rooted cognitive bias, the gambler’s fallacy, we frequently fail at recognizing that randomness is clumpy. We accept the established overall odds, but our acceptance wavers in the face of short runs that go against our expectations. This error in logic can lead to the belief, for instance, that after five heads in a row there is a higher than 50% chance that the next flip with land on tails as if to magically even things out.

In my line of work as a pediatric hospitalist, I frequently experience other healthcare professionals making this mistake in a variety of circumstances. There is a known likelihood of bacteremia when an infant less than 28 days of life is evaluated for fever, for example. Despite this, it is common for physicians and nurses to lament, upon seeing fever as the triage chief complaint, that they are due for this life threatening infection after a number of recent febrile neonates have had negative blood cultures. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Critical Thinking, Obstetrics & gynecology

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Researching SBM Online

The internet is a fabulous resource of information. It is one of those technological innovations for which you soon can no longer imagine how you lived without it. I certainly cannot imagine a project like science-based medicine prior to the web.

The web, however, is also a tremendous source of misinformation, opinion, and ideology. Also the volume of information, good and bad, can be overwhelming. We therefore are frequently asked the meta-question of how we conduct our research into specific topics, or how can the average layperson do their own research online.

Efficiently and effectively researching a complex topic is complex. It is a skill that needs to be developed, and it is especially difficult without having detailed knowledge of the specific topic ahead of time. Therefore there is no simple answer to this question, but I can offer some tips.

There are two main resources I use when searching a topic, Google and PubMed. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. For the average user, Google (or whichever general search engine you prefer) is likely going to be your first stop.

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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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Who you gonna believe, me or you own eyes?

Mrs. Teasdale: Your Excellency, I thought you’d left!

Chicolini: Oh no, I no leave.

Mrs. Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes!

Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

Duck Soup. Funniest movie ever.

If I could choose a super power, it would be neither flight nor invisibility, but the ability, like Triad, to separate into multiple people so I could accomplish more. I find that my multiple personality disorder is not all that efficient at getting things done. The Goth cowgirl? Lazy.

So sometimes I have to cut corners. As this post goes live I am at TAM helping with panel discussions and workshops and the only way I can get a post up is to cannibalize my lecture. Dr. Gorski will not let me post the slides and be done with it; those managing editors can be so unreasonable. Full sentences. Proper spelling. Good grammar. Sheesh. Some people.

The topic of my presentation is the cognitive errors that lead people to believe in nonsense and is, or was, a brief tour of the flawed ways in which we think and how the brain allows everyone to be under the false impression that fictions are real. (more…)

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and Medicine

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