Monthly Archives: January 2013

Recent science “journalism”

JournalistsBad science journalism has been buzzing all around me this week. This is a frequent topic on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and they have a doozy of an example this week. Here’s what actually happened: a Harvard researcher spoke to a German reporter about the exciting theoretical possibilities of genetic manipulation, which could perhaps become possible in the future. He mentioned that cloning could someday be used to bring back extinct species, perhaps even Neanderthals. Translation back and forth between English and German are partly to blame for what happened next, but so is reporters’ failure to give a crap if their science story is accurate. It seems many just want to generate clicks. Even the more reputable organizations seem interested in science coverage primarily so they can spin the content into an irresistible headline that brings in traffic. A headline such as,

Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man – Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby.

Slightly less dramatic, but more frequent is the Killer Disease of the Week. A friend posted a link to this dramatic story, commenting on how scare-tacticky it is: Doctors Warn of New Stomach ‘Superbug’ Hitting U.S. The story is ridiculous on several levels. First, the only person referring to this as a “superbug” is the reporter. That fact is awkwardly disguised by the use of the passive voice in the lead paragraph – “A new strain of norovirus that wreaks havoc on people’s stomachs is so vicious that it’s being called a “superbug” by doctors.” Passive voice allows reporters to weasel out of providing a source. If you see it, your eyebrow should immediately rise. The rest of the story attempts to sensationalize a perfectly run-of-the-mill CDC report about the most recent strain of norovirus, which tends to cycle new types every few years, much like the flu does each year. The story even represents the CDC as saying that 50% MORE people could get sick, when as far as I can tell, the CDC merely noted that the Sydney strain is responsible for 50% of the norovirus cases this season. Anything to get people terrified of the plague so they click all your links, I suppose.

Finally, there’s this idiocy from (not unexpectedly) Yahoo News. Want to have more sex? Men, stop helping with the chores. Did you guess that the headline confuses correlation with causation? Not only does the study sound fairly crappy, with outdated self-reporting as the source of the data, but the reporting overlooks the observational nature of the paper, and of course doesn’t engage in the slightest inquiry into an independent, unstudied variable being responsible for both observed features. (An explanation immediately leapt to my mind. Households that keep to traditional gender roles report more sexual encounters. In addition to assigning yard work to men and laundry to women, traditional gender roles also tend to encourage wives to capitulate to their husband’s wishes.)

It makes me angry and sad. I hate to hear Steven Novella of Skeptics’ Guide talk about giving interviews. He says often reporters have a set angle on the story, and will go so far as to feed him a quote that supports their spin. They aren’t interested in his actual opinion, never mind in investigating and vetting facts themselves. So beware science reporting. These days it’s most likely a come-on for mouse clicks akin to Dog sentenced to death in Tennessee today because he is ‘GAY’ or Stars without makeup: The real face of fame.

(By the way, I can see how many of you click on those links. But I won’t judge you, I promise. I personally think Rihanna is cuter without the lipstick.)

(Oh, and if you hate slideshows, use this to view that makeup link. Love Deslide!)

Girl Scout Cookies!

Hey benighted Christian extremists, I don’t think that image about how “bad” Girl Scout cookies are because they support feminism and reproductive rights is working the way you mean it to!

In any case, here’s my response:


Do you have Forer’s Disease?

via Flickr, by SuperFantasticA hidden disorder may be making you ill. It’s quite common, but many people don’t know they have it and conventional doctors tend to ignore it. Medical tests fail often enough, turning up negative while patients continue to suffer a plethora of symptoms. Few people will have all of these symptoms, and most symptoms will be intermittent, and at least partially resolve when the patient is more active, so there will be great variability between patients. An estimated 80% of people experience Forer’s Disease at some point in their lives, yet it is frequently overlooked and misunderstood by the medical community. Forer’s Disease is becoming a popular topic in the medical community; as a result, it is important to recognize the symptoms of this particular condition. Sufferers typically experience a wide assortment of symptoms, and it’s important to learn how to recognize them.

Most sufferers of Forer’s Disease experience some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Backache
  • Mood swings
  • Digestive upset, such as nausea, indigestion, and gas pains
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Low energy/malaise
  • Joint pain
  • Decreased libido
  • Constipation
  • Skin irritation
  • Memory problems
  • Cravings, especially for sugar, salt, and fat

Sound familiar?  Of course it does, because the actual condition that leads to these symptoms is “being human.”  Pretty much every person (in an affluent nation at least) will experience many of these symptoms at some point in their lives.  And people are more likely to experience many of them during periods of high stress or, let’s face it, when we’re getting older.

I borrowed the name Forer from the Forer Effect, in which subjects assign a high level of accuracy to a list of vague and generally applicable descriptions, when the list is presented as a personalized profile of the subject.  It is most often used to discuss horoscopes and personality tests (“You are a caring person, but sometimes you fail to live up to your own ethical standards.  You enjoy being with other people, but sometimes feel shy and reticent”), but I think a similar effect occurs when someone suffering from obnoxious symptoms reads a list like the one above, paired with a proffered cure.  The list of symptoms seems to be so accurate, even tailored to the reader.  It’s easy to believe that the web site or book you’re reading is accurately diagnosing what’s wrong with you.

Deliberate quacks and misguided natural health gurus alike have a tendency to cobble together a similar list of “if you’re human you have them” symptoms and assign a disease to them.  If you have many of the above symptoms you qualify for Systemic Yeast, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Gluten Sensitivity (with negative Celiac test), Subluxations, Adrenal Fatigue, Electromagnetic Sensitivity, and Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome, and probably a dozen more fad diagnoses that have come and gone over the years. The problem is that aggregating a bunch of common symptoms and deducing a particular disease isn’t reliable.  As you can see, it casts far too wide a net.

It is true that there are established, scientifically supported disorders that create symptoms on the Forer’s list, and which don’t have a definitive test for diagnosis. But in such cases, emphasis is placed on ruling out other possible causes before diagnosing something like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Depression. On the other hand, quackish sources will actually recommend the opposite:

First, list every single symptom that nags you, whether sporadic or chronic. Don’t make assumptions, like my back problems are from sitting too much. Just list them without trying to explain them away.

(From the Gluten Sensitivity link, above.)

It can be particularly confusing because many of these suspect symptom-list descriptions promote disorders that play on the edges of well-established diseases, such as hypothyroidism or celiac disease.  And it is true that medical science doesn’t always get things right (to say the least!). So what do you do to try to feel better? Personally, I think there are two vital steps to take before you put yourself on a highly restricted diet or other regimen that may cost money or interfere with quality of life.

First, see a medical doctor who is trained in ferreting out actual, verified disorders.  And of course, if a doctor doesn’t take your symptoms seriously when you say they are causing you distress, find someone else.  A bad doctor may say, “Systemic Yeast isn’t real – it’s all in your head!”  A good doctor will say, “Systemic Yeast isn’t a recognized diagnosis, but we do need to get to the bottom of the recurrent vaginal infections, fatigue, and stomach pain that have been bothering you.” It’s also important to remember that more than one thing could be wrong.  Recurrent vaginal yeast infections might turn out to be a misdiagnosed bacterial infection, fatigue may be from low Vitamin D levels, and stomach pain could be from lactose intolerance.  If you assume at the outset that an entire list of disparate symptoms must spring from a single underlying disease, you could be missing some obvious answers.

Second, go ahead and follow the universal recommendations among healthcare professionals of every stripe: eat a plant-heavy diet full of fruits and vegetables and low in processed foods.  Get moderate exercise on a regular basis.  Drink water when you’re thirsty. Practice good sleep habits and give yourself enough rest time. Pretty much everyone agrees that these practices are the foundation of good health, and introduce little to no risk. Adopting these habits is likely to ameliorate most of the symptoms above, and it’s no coincidence that a lot of cures proposed for Forer’s-like diseases happen to introduce some or all of them. Unfortunately they also tend to be so restrictive that they detract from quality of life, and go hand in hand with alt-med supplements or treatments that likely do no good and at least cause the harm of extracting money from you needlessly.

(N.B.: I also borrowed all the scare-language in the first paragraph from the various malady web sites I linked to.)

Screen-Free Mondays

by Mike_fleming via flickrI like to think I’m a pretty good parent, but I admit I really fall down on limiting screen time.  I think the cause is twofold.  When I’m desperately trying to pay the bills or handle raw chicken or something, I use the TV or computer to occupy the kids and keep them out of my hair.  On the other hand, when I’m finished with pressing tasks and get some leisure time, I sure as hell ain’t the mom who says, “Hey, let’s go for a bike ride, that’ll be fun!!!”  Nope, I’m right there on the couch or in front of the computer myself.

Being me, I decided to do something radical, rather than attempting to moderate our daily habits.  Yesterday was our first weekly screen-free day.  The children awaited it in terror.  I wasn’t exactly sanguine myself, but I wanted us to spend a whole day doing other stuff, interacting with each other (gasp!), and prove to us all that we could live without the idiot boxes.

I prepared by planning to abandon many chores.  I was ready not to get much done, as I helped the kids find fun stuff to do outside their normal routine.  And part of the point was to spend time together after all, so I gave myself permission to leave the Christmas tree half-denuded, the floors unvacuumed, and to put off bill-paying till today.

The other preparation was a list of screen-free activities.  I wanted to have a set of options at hand for the inevitable, “We’re booooored!” moments.  Since we’re all used to plopping down and being entertained by pixels, I realized I might not be able to come up with good ideas on the spur of the moment.

Here’s what I did with the children yesterday:

  • Played Crazy 8s and War
  • Played Monopoly
  • Read The Hobbit aloud to Chloe
  • Read a bunch of different books to each other
  • Baked brownies
  • Went outside and rode bikes and climbed a tree (I watched)

Here’s what the girls did without me, while I cooked, cleaned, and ran the household:

  • Played with toys
  • Found old flip phones and played pretend with them for an hour or more
  • Practiced riding a bike without training wheels (up and down the hallway inside!)
  • Colored with markers

I confess, to get them to be nice and play with each other while I prepped dinner, I did tell them I needed to get dinner all set before we could bake brownies, and so they needed to stop whining and fighting (an activity not at all confined to unplugged days) and let me work uninterrupted for a while.  Normally I avoid using any kind of food reward for the kids, but since this was an activity as well as a treat, and I was doing something unusually challenging, I relaxed that rule a bit.

All in all, it was successful.  We spent time with each other.  We learned that as alluring as TV and Minecraft and Facebook are, we can survive without using them at all!  This in turn has inspired me to be more vigilant about limiting screen time on a daily basis.  Once we all got through a whole day without this stuff, it makes it easier for me to say, “That’s enough for today, you can find something else to do.”

I plan to keep doing this, and I learned a few things I’ll use in the future.  First, we need a couple board games Claire can play.  I plan on picking up Trouble, and maybe another preschool-friendly game, if I can find one that isn’t too annoying.  Second, planning an outing would be a very good idea.  If I had arranged the schedule differently, we could have hit the park for two hours and really gotten more physical activity and used up more time!  Third, this is a great way to encourage reading.  Chloe’s a good (heck, Gifted) reader, but she resists reading at home.  It took until the evening for her to pick up a book on her own and just read to herself for entertainment.  It’s a good indicator that I need to cut off her other entertainment options at a certain point to make room for reading in her life.

I encourage everyone to give this a try.  It’s really good for bodies, brains, and relationships.  And the cold turkey aspect helps set us all up to be less attached to our devices, which is a vital skill in the modern world!