Respectful Insolence

The worst pseudoscience of the decade?

It’s the end, the end of the ’70s
It’s the end, the end of the century.

Joey Ramone, 1979

As amazing as it is to me, the first decade of the 21st century is fast approaching its end. It seems like only yesterday that my wife and I were waiting for the dawn of the new millennium with the fear that civilization would go kablooey because of the Y2K bug. (Remember that?) Obviously, civilization didn’t end. Given the rise of pseudoscience over the last several years, it only seems that way sometimes. However, even though it’s an entirely arbitrary construct and a human imposition of our own wishes onto amorphous time that resists division into such need constructs as decades, the end of a decade always brings up the issue of “best of” and “worst of” the decade. The ever inimitable Dr. Charles thus has a survey in which he wonders what the medical advance of the decade is. It’s worth it to head on over there to vote on ten contenders. Personally, I’d vote for the successful conclusion of the human genome project myself.

This blog being what it is, though, Dr. Charles’ project got me to thinking. What’s the worst quackery of the last decade? If you’ve been reading this blog, I think you know what my answer to this question would be. Clearly, it’s the rise of the anti-vaccine movement. Indeed, I’m totally down with Clive Thompson of the Washington Post when he declared vaccine scares to be among the worst ideas of the decade. Indeed, he appears to be channeling Orac when he writes:

The movement blaming vaccines for causing autism emerged in the early 2000s, and it was one of the most catastrophically horrible ideas of the decade. Not just because it’s misguided: Sure, study after study has found no solid link between autism and many alleged vaccine-based culprits, ranging from adjuvants to thimoserol, a mercury-based preservative. The bigger problem is how uniquely powerful the anti-vaccine contingent has become – and how it has begun to deform both public policy and everyday behavior.

And:

The subtler but more insidious effect of the vaccine-autism movement is philosophical. The anti-vaccine folks have whipped up anti-science sentiment by painting scientists as corrupt elitists on the take from Big Pharma, cackling sadistically as they force us to get shots. This paranoia flows equally from woo-woo Hollywood liberals and the anti-government right; few other subjects can unite Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

I’ve said it time and time again. Anti-vaccine quackery is the pseudoscience that unites all parts of the political spectrum. There’s something there for crunchy liberals who are suspicious of big business and anything other than “natural cures,” as well as for right wing nutjobs like Glenn Beck, who intensely distrust government, and New World Order conspiracy theorists. Truly, anti-vaccine quackery is the woo that keeps giving. True, the modern anti-vaccine movement got its real start in the U.K. in 1998, when Andrew Wakefield’s bad science sparked the MMR scare, leading a generation of parents to believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The scare didn’t truly take root here in the states until 2004 or so, when David Kirby’s book convinced parents that the mercury in thimerosal used as a preservative and then, in 2005, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., served up a heapin’ helpin’ of quote mining and conspiracy mongering to scare parents even more.

So, given that the anti-vaccine scare is clearly the winner, hands down, for the worst quackery of the last decade, I open my comments to you, my readers, to propose other areas of quackery that were the worst of the last 10 years. Heck, if you disagree with me and think that my choice of the anti-vaccine movement for this dubious honor is not justified, make your case! Either way, let’s make a list.

Comments

  1. #1 Richard
    December 21, 2009

    The anti-vaccination movement is the loud, cackling, conspicuous devil. But the quiet, sneaky devil that nobody sees is the behind-the-scenes effort to infiltrate the medical and general civic establishment with quackery, such as the Harkin and Hatch amendments to the health care bill.

  2. #2 Todd W.
    December 21, 2009

    @Richard

    Don’t forget, Sen. Kerry was also on that Harkin amendment.

  3. #3 woofighter
    December 21, 2009

    How about Mercola and the rise of the 21st century snake oil saleman?

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    December 21, 2009

    Oh damn. Finn beat be to the pedantry.

    In terms of effect on public health, I would have thought that the AIDS denialism in South Africa was worse, and Matthias Rath and the other homeopaths might be thrown into the mix.

  5. #5 Kristy
    December 21, 2009

    How about acupuncture?

  6. #6 lee
    December 21, 2009

    Actually, the anti-vac “movement” began in the US at the June 1999 DAN! Conference in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I witnessed it as I was, at that time, in attendance as a “research assistant” to Dr. Sidney Baker, co-author of the DAN! Protocol, and heard Wakefield’s presentation and was amazed at how fast (like within minutes of the end of his presentation) an organizing petition was drawn up, circulated, and signed among the 1200+ parent group there.

    I don’t know whether Dr. Baker ever bought in to the vaccine as a cause of autism as we parted ways soon afterward. (He was more interested in secretin at the time.)

    It was an amazing thing to watch — I knew then what I was seeing and was quite astonished at how eager parents were to embrace this as the “cause” of their kids’ autism (and how quickly the autism “feeders” caught on and supported this). No other “cause” has come on scene to replace it and I suspect the anti-vaccers will remain strong until something else does replace it — something that has the same resonance of cause and effect (timing, primarily) that caught these parents. I have no idea what that might be (the real cause, one would hope!)

  7. #7 Kemist
    December 21, 2009

    How about acupuncture?

    meh. Not evil enough. Yet.

    I think anti-vax is the most evil, because it reached so many, both among the relatively educated and the uneducated. And it has actual deaths on its hands, most of which are children.

    We had almost licked polio as we licked smallpox. But it failed, thanks to muslim anti-vax nuts. We’re back to square one in developping countries, with the added bonuses of unvaccinated children in industrialized nations plus more frequent international air travel.

    Just a few years after the passing of the last patient,we’ll maybe have to dust off the thrusty old iron lungs again.

    Sigh.

  8. #8 MaikUniversum
    December 21, 2009

    I’d say that in second place were Homeopathy lunatics and the thirds were IDiots..

  9. #9 DrRachie
    December 21, 2009

    I agree, the anti-vax movement are amongst the most damaging and nutty there is. In Australia, they are not confined to vaccine denial either but throw HIV denial and most western medicine (evil!) into the mix. Who knew that good food, a loving family and fresh air could keep you healthy. But it is their belief in conspiracy theories that really tips them over the edge- we have been doing our darndest to alert the media to this nonsense as a way of exposing them as the nutbags that they are and therefore the last people to take advice from about your children’s health. Mind control chips and chem-trails? They couldn’t even be original in this regard – nicked most of it from David Icke. With respect to worst pseudoscience – ten points would have to go to the HIV deniers as already mentioned. And honorable mention to Rath for suing Medecins San Frontiers, what a low act.

  10. #10 Bentham
    December 21, 2009

    Chiropractic subluxation

    Also serves as a gateway to other woo.

  11. #11 Dan
    December 21, 2009

    What about overzealous disinfecting? Purell, Lysol and so forth. When were soap and water deemed inadequate? Did I miss that memo?

  12. #12 Sid Offit
    December 21, 2009

    Clearly global warmism with it’s combination of corrupt “scientists”, do-gooding celebrities and self-interested politicians.

  13. #13 BAllanJ
    December 21, 2009

    Ummm… isn’t there another year left in the decade? I thought this millennium started at the start of 2001, there not having been a year zero (AD or BC)

  14. #14 blf
    December 21, 2009

    I’d think the “worse” depends on what it is which makes something really bad. For instance, AIDS/HIV denial, such as in South Africa, has presumably cost far more lives than the anti-vaccine twits have (yet). However, the anti-vaccine twits possibly consume more resources (such as time and money that could be better spent) then the HIV/AIDS denialistas?

    Continuing on into the future, the anti-vaccine twits worry me more than the HIV/AIDS denialistas since their potential for serious damage is far greater. But the religious nutters are on the periphery of HIV/AIDS denialism, mostly (I presume) due to the connection with s-e-x (a major preoccupation of religious nutters). And religious nutters have a long established track record of make things really Really Bad…

  15. #15 blf
    December 21, 2009

    Ummm… isn’t there another year left in the decade? I thought this millennium started at the start of 2001, there not having been a year zero (AD or BC).

    A decade is any ten year period. So if 2009 is the end of the ten year period starting in 2000, and in the middle of the ten year perid starting in 2005, and is also the start of a ten year period.

    Less pedantically, the First Centuries CE and BCE had only 99 years. That’ss no odder than years having either 365 or 366 days, months having 28, 29, 30, or 31 days, and so on.

  16. #16 blf
    December 21, 2009

    Ummm… isn’t there another year left in the decade? I thought this millennium started at the start of 2001, there not having been a year zero (AD or BC).

    A decade is any ten year period. So if 2009 is the end of the ten year period starting in 2000, and in the middle of the ten year perid starting in 2005, and is also the start of a ten year period.

    Less pedantically, the First Centuries CE and BCE had only 99 years. That’ss no odder than years having either 365 or 366 days, months having 28, 29, 30, or 31 days, and so on.

  17. #17 blf
    December 21, 2009

    I have no idea why there is a double post. Apologies all the same.

  18. #18 Orac
    December 21, 2009

    Less pedantically…

    Indeed. Regular readers here know how much I detest pedantic comments that contribute nothing at all to the discussion of the main topic of the post and appear more either to be “gotcha” comments or to serve the sole purpose of showing off how knowledgeable the commenter is. I’ve been known to delete such comments with extreme prejudice, because they frequently derail the thread and, hey, because they irritate me without contributing anything of substance to the thread. It’s about the only time I exercise any moderation whatsoever on comments; such comments irritate me just that much. Discussions of whether the 21st century began in 2001 or 2000 constitute just such pedantry, as far as I’m concerned. Indeed, before BAllanJ’s post, I had already deleted a virtually identical pedantic comment.

  19. #19 katydid13
    December 21, 2009

    I think Dan @11 has a good second choice. And I have to say the government has bought into this big time. Most federal buildings in DC have sprouted Purell dispensers everywhere! The ones that make the least sense to me are right outside the bathrooms.

  20. #20 antipodean
    December 21, 2009

    I dunno

    I’m not sure one can come up with a single example. The problem being that all of these are essentially the same problem, as Orac has pointed out, and all of them have been around for a very long time (except HIV denial which is essentially just germ-theory denial).

    Chiro/HIV denial/homeopathy/Anti-vax/mercury/accupuncture/electrosmog/TCM/mothernatureherbalism/naturalisgood/holocaust denial/911truthers etc etc

    It’s caused by the visceral feeling that you are quite free to make up or believe any old shit that you want and that reality and the universe will magically change to fit your idea of what it should be.

    So my nomination is the most open example of this bullshit: “The Secret”. Magical thinking in it’s most open and undiluted form.

  21. #21 Omri
    December 21, 2009

    As bad as the anti-MMR crowd is, I would nominate the anti-Sabin movement, that is the Islamist preachers in Nigeria who halted the polio vaccination efforts there by saying it was a Jewish plot. We were so close to wiping polio out, but then they saved the bug by halting the vaccines, and then the bug spread through the Haj to Indonesia. It will take at least a generation to get back to where we were.

  22. #22 BKsea
    December 21, 2009

    I wanted to vote for the establishment of NCCAM at the NIH. Double checking, I saw that NCCAM was established in October 1998. Can NCCAM be grandfathered in?

  23. #23 Anne
    December 21, 2009

    The ones that make the least sense to me are right outside the bathrooms.

    Given the number of people I’ve observed personally who don’t wash their hands after using the toilet, that may be the smartest place for the dispensers.

  24. #24 Calli Arcale
    December 21, 2009

    It’s amazing how the end of this decade has snuck up on me. I saw a “best pics of the decade” post on The Big Picture last Friday, and was puzzled for quite a long time. “Isn’t it jumping the gun? It’s not the end of the decade yet.”

    Then I realized that in two weeks, it will be 2010, and traditionally, rolling the tens place means its a new decade.

    *gawk*

    Time flies. It really does. Seems like it was just 2000 the other day….

  25. #25 Nostrum
    December 21, 2009

    The anti-vaccine movement wins, hands down, but “the Secret” is certainly a contender.

  26. #26 negentropyeater
    December 21, 2009

    The worst ? The pseudo-scientific movement that has the potential to cause the biggest amount of deaths and misery in this century :
    without a doubt, the denial of ecological limits (denial of Anthropogenic Climate Change combined with whatever supports the cornucopian view that the world can provide a practically limitless abundance of natural resources).

  27. #27 Thomas
    December 21, 2009

    I think the economic theories behind the housing bubble deserve a nomination. “Risk free” papers that carry no risk only as long as prices keep on rising all wrapped in a few equations posing as science.

  28. #28 notedscholar
    December 21, 2009

    Quite right Orac. Despite the fact that there are good scientific grounds to question vaccines (e.g. the connection with AIDS via needles), these people want to go the conspiratorial route.

    It is curious that such scurrilous attacks are leveled against science, when scientists make so many good targets in their lavratories.

    Cheers,
    NS

  29. #29 Dangerous Bacon
    December 21, 2009

    For second place right behind the rejuvenated antivax movement, I’d have to nominate herbalism. It’s served as a focus for the most credulous and damaging elements of pseudoscience (including Big Pharma Doesn’t Want You To Know About This Cure conspiracy-mongering), is touted by various woo practitioners from naturopaths to chiropractors and has helped drain hundreds of millions of dollars from our federal health research budget without a positive result (this does not include legitimate plant-based pharmacologic research not dependent on political pull to get funding).

    The remainder of the list (naturopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic, New Age hyper-woo etc.) serves as a dismal reminder that the same themes and modalities constantly resurface with new and fancier pseudoscientific packaging, remarkably little changed from when they were introduced decades or even centuries ago. The appeal of testimonials, supposed cures from exotic and primitive cultures, resentment of medical/scientific professionals and conspiracy theories continue to produce converts and keep money flowing into the pockets of hucksters.

  30. #30 RJ
    December 21, 2009

    Some of the most specious dribble I’ve read….well, it hasn’t been that long. It is the HuffPo for crying out loud. Still, how did this guy get to where he is without understanding science or logic?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-bob-sears/wake-up-medical-establish_b_397679.html

  31. #31 Michael
    December 21, 2009

    It depends on how you define pseudoscience. Does pseudohistory count as pseudoscience?
    It also depends on how you define worst. For example, Fomenko’s “every historian before 1500 is lying” theory strikes me as one of the stupidest quack theories ever but it harms no one.

  32. #32 woofighter
    December 21, 2009

    This is why I keep coming back to Mercola. He’s got it all – anti-vax woo, Big Pharma conspiracy theories, mistrust of allopathic medicine, touting and SELLING alternative therapies/supplements (while suggesting you shouldn’t trust your doctor because they are likely getting paid by the pharmaceutical industry). He even won an award from HuffPo: “Ultimate Wellness Game Changer”. All that rolled into one man!

  33. #33 RJ
    December 21, 2009

    @32

    Yes, cancer, autoimmune disease, infectious disease, psychiatric disorders, nutrition, and on and on and on….he’s an expert on EVERYTHING (just ask him). In fact, he’s the only person who would ever go so far to say he has all the answers. It’s amazing he hasn’t won 2 or 3 Nobels already.

  34. #34 han
    December 21, 2009

    The “natural birth” movement distorts the risk of obstetrical intervention and falsely promotes the idea that suffering somehow enhances the bond between mother and child. Women who “give in” to epidurals or c-sections are made to feel like failures.

  35. #35 riotnerd
    December 21, 2009

    Nomination: Cell Phones Cause Brain Cancer Woo

    I’d like to nominate the Cell Phones Cause Brain Cancer movement. True, its pedigree goes back a fair way to the various power lines cause cancer, microwave ovens/food cause cancer, incandescent lights cause cancer and other forms of what is in essence the belief that electricity is dark cancer causing magic. For various reasons the Cellphone cancer link seems particularly stupid though. For example, the concern is only that cellphone use causes brain cancer, for some reason cellphones only link their their toxic radiation through the ear. Cellphone brain cancer kooks almost uniformly believe that the problem can be solved with headsets. For some reason holding a cellphone or keeping it in ones pocket is fine, I guess it only emits the kind of radiation the affects brain cells but is harmless to the rest of the body.

    Orac, lets make this a new hobbyhorse before we all have to deal with warning labels on our phones, like the ones being proposed in Main and San Francisco.

  36. #36 antipodean
    December 21, 2009

    negentropyeater

    The psuedoscience you’re looking for is called economics.

  37. #37 Douglas Watts
    December 21, 2009

    How bout the “no diaper” movement?

  38. #38 david
    December 21, 2009

    I nominate: Psychiatry and psychology as leaders in quackery, have led for decades. Gaining on them is physical therapy. These three quackeries are partly in the hands of medical personnel, led by doctors I would remind you.

    So okay, I’m convinced that that the anti-vaccination movement is quackery, and hearing Imus is part of my persuasion helping me recognize his talk without proof, pure bombast. That anti-vaccination quackery, however, is in the hands of laymen.

    Perhaps the case is that medical personnel (and it seems so to me) set themselves up for the public mood on anti-vaccination by their rushed arrogance. For one example, how many times have we seen the nurse enter the patient’s room and say, “Here’s your medicine.” That’s all. The message is clear : “you are too dumb to know what’s good for you and you probably can’t even pronounce it. We want you in a dependent state. Do what we tell you.” How many doctors routinely lie that they are “in surgery” when they are out of the office? Doctors may talk big about the need for exercise, but how many are trying to get sidewalks put in areas bound by traffic? “Lay people are just too dumb to know where to live.”

    A rushed medical arrogance works fine with people raised to be victims, workers in the slots of “that which must be.” Others are going to balk, and thus some with new age tendencies are thus set up to be anti-vaccinationists.

    My considered opinion is that doctors do the best they can. However, there is a strong tendency for them to overrate themselves. I don’t know why. I suspect it is because of the amount of money we make. In America, one’s worth is closely tied to how much money one makes.

  39. #39 Phoenix Woman
    December 21, 2009

    (Ah, the joys of the killfile. Keeps incoherent blatherers off my computer screen!)

    Global climate change denialism is a biggie, definitely. Bought and paid for by (you guessed it) Exxon-Mobil:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jul/01/exxon-mobil-climate-change-sceptics-funding

    http://phoenixwoman.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/climate-change-deniers-funded-by-exxon-mobil/

    http://motherjones.com/environment/2009/12/dirty-dozen-climate-change-denial-exxon

  40. #40 drcharles
    December 21, 2009

    Great list here, with a few snarky baits laid out… not biting today.

    In addition to the home birth stuff, antivaccination, and global warming denialism, I’d have to add the assault on evolution by the creationist movement, with that museum opening in kentucky the cherry on the pie, and the supreme court case.

    Well done, people. I’m amazed.

    I’d have to add the Republican War on Science, as chronicled by Chris Mooney, too.

  41. #41 Joshua Zelinsky
    December 21, 2009

    Don’t forget also that a large part of the right-wing aspect of the anti-vaccine movement has been due to the HPV vaccine and associated sexual hangups among conservative Christians. Since the HPV vaccine came out, right-wing anti-vaccine views have become more common.

  42. #42 DLC
    December 21, 2009

    The fun never ends.
    Crazy non-scientific ideas with no backing in reality, espoused alternately by well-meaning but ill-informed people or outright con-men looking to make a buck.
    Then there’s the outright loons who post here and elsewhere.
    The world of pseudoscience and woo would not be the same without them!

  43. #43 wolfwalker
    December 21, 2009

    Um, Phoenixwoman: a hard-left newspaper, a hard-left magazine, and your own blog constitute reliable sources? I don’t think so. Can you tell me how Anthony Watts’s “surfacestations.org” project was “bought and paid for by Exxon-Mobil”?

    Orac, when you penned this post, were you thinking of science-in-general, or restricting it to medicine? If medicine, I agree that the antivaxers are definitely the worst. If it’s all science … well, I still think antivaxers are the worst because they’ve done the largest amount of direct, measurable harm. Quack treatments for autism, cancer, and assorted other diseases come in second. I put both AGW evangelists and AGW deniers on the list, but both are fairly far down — sixth, seventh, eighth, maybe even below tenth.

  44. #44 Unconvinced
    December 21, 2009

    Overestimation of the value of common variants as significant predictors of disease risk.

  45. #45 Nathan Myers
    December 22, 2009

    In retrospect we will recognize anthropogenic climate-change denialism as easily the most destructive, dwarfing all else combined.

    Anti-vaccination can’t really even be counted, because its rise was so heavily fertilized by the disingenuous behavior of vaccination promoters and defenders.

  46. #46 Chris
    December 22, 2009

    Nathan Myers:

    Anti-vaccination can’t really even be counted, because its rise was so heavily fertilized by the disingenuous behavior of vaccination promoters and defenders.

    Please expound on that observation.

    Do you mean the actions of a certain father and son duo? The ones that created their own IRB for the research that involves chemically castrating children? Wait, those were the Geiers.

    How about the researcher that ignored results and committed fraud, and at a press conference announced results that were not in the paper? Oh, wait that was Wakefield, and the paper has been withdrawn.

    How about the guy cybersquatted on several website names? Oh, wait that JB Handley. One of the sites he cybersquatted on was the original of this blog. He has also sued a vaccine researcher, and threatened a blogger with a lawsuit.

    Do you mean the website that created a page (but later took it down) showing several people at a Thanksgiving table about to eat a baby? Oh, wait that was Age of Autism.

    Sorry, you really are going to have to refresh my memory of what kind of disingenuous behavior you are talking about. Is it the posting of study after study after study that shows that vaccines do not cause autism? Or is that really their annoying habit of using facts and data, that has been reproduced around the globe?

  47. #47 Jay Gordon
    December 22, 2009

    Dr. Julie Gerberding got her payday.

    Discuss amongst yourselves.

    http://tinyurl.com/d5tnr4

    Happy Holidays, Gentlemen and Gentlewomen,

    Jay

  48. #48 Orac
    December 22, 2009

    One notes that Dr. Jay is utterly unable to defend his position with science and therefore is into conspiracies.

    As usual.

    Nothing new to see here, move along.

  49. #49 Militant Agnostic
    December 22, 2009

    @47

    There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge

    -Hunter S. Thompson
    I see Jay Gordon couldn’t stay away.

  50. #50 Chris
    December 22, 2009

    Did Dr. Jay just link to a two year old news article as some kind of “proof” of something? All I can see it proving is that “evil Big Pharma” is willing to admit mistakes and recall meds, even though it means losing money. Since when has “alt-pharma” done something like that?

  51. #51 Richard Eis
    December 22, 2009

    Clearly global warmism with it’s combination of corrupt “scientists”, do-gooding celebrities and self-interested politicians.

    You mean the corrupt scientists who weren’t and the politicians that are self-interested in NOT doing anything about global warming you mean…

    Really, you are one giant joke. Are we all that surprised that an antivax moron is also a GW denier.

    I was going to say the supplement industry but that is older than 10 years now. Also the vaccine stuff has taken in so much other pseudoscience, they are the spider at the center of an ever more stoopid web of lies and distortions. They hae also made new pseudoscience popular. The new dodgy stem cell clinics (china/germany) for instance love the autism lot. Overall, they have corrupted so much, in so many little ways, they must be the plague of the decade.

    A plague of plagues…if you will.

  52. #52 Orac
    December 22, 2009

    Did Dr. Jay just link to a two year old news article as some kind of “proof” of something? All I can see it proving is that “evil Big Pharma” is willing to admit mistakes and recall meds, even though it means losing money. Since when has “alt-pharma” done something like that?

    Yes, but he’s also implying that Julie Gerberding has now received her “reward” for not punishing Merck by being appointed to head up its vaccine division. Of course, I’m not real thrilled with this. You couldn’t ask for a better way to drive anti-vaccine loons into a frenzy and give just a hint of credibility. I don’t know what Merck was thinking, either, given that Gerberding didn’t exactly distinguish herself as a great manager during her tenure at the CDC. However, evidence of a “payoff” it is not.

  53. #53 Andreas Johansson
    December 22, 2009

    Cellphone brain cancer kooks almost uniformly believe that the problem can be solved with headsets. For some reason holding a cellphone or keeping it in ones pocket is fine, I guess it only emits the kind of radiation the affects brain cells but is harmless to the rest of the body.

    I dunno – I keep getting told keeping my cellphone in my jeans pocket is going to give me testicular cancer.

  54. #54 Bronwyn
    December 22, 2009

    I don’t think any of the issues listed in the comments here would have gotten as far as they have were it not for blogs and youtube. I think they deserve a best supporting nomination in every category.

  55. #55 Tracy W
    December 22, 2009

    riotnerd – I think energy medicine is an even better one than cellphones-cause-brain-cancer. It amazes me the number of quacks who will talk blithely about healing with new forms of energy, and will apparently find plenty of customers willing to try this new, unproven technology, despite general public knowledge of the dangers of the last form of energy discovered (high-frequency electromagnetic radiation – eg x-rays, gamma-rays).

  56. #56 Dangerous Bacon
    December 22, 2009

    What should also make the list is the increasing incidence of physicians and scientists supporting and enabling pseudoscience and quackery, generally for personal profit and/or ego-preening as “brave mavericks”. This includes not only retail enterprises like Mercola, but scientists out of their depth (i.e. Boyd Haley), “celebrity” physicians (such as Jay Gordon) and influential politicians (e.g. Ron Paul).

  57. #57 Lexin
    December 22, 2009

    I still don’t think you can beat AIDS denialism mixed with high dose vitamins for sheer effrontery or numbers of unnecessary deaths. The antivax loons may overtake this, of course, but up until now Matthias Rath and his colleagues rise to the top of the sludge, like the turds they are.

  58. #58 Bob
    December 22, 2009

    Perhaps condom denialism by the Vatican should end up on the list as well.

  59. #59 J-Dog
    December 22, 2009

    What about DaveScot, (formerly Bill Dembski’s bumboy lacky at Uncommon Descent) and his famous DCA Quackery? You destroyed him pretty thoroughly as I recall. Ah! Good Times!

    It was all downhill for DaveScot since then.

  60. #60 Vicki
    December 22, 2009

    unconvinced @44:

    Misunderstanding risk is a widespread human tendency, and it doesn’t just involve medicine or science. An easy example is how many people think that flying is more dangerous than driving. Part of the problem there is that fatal car crashes are so common that most of them aren’t news. (Woman killing eight by driving the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, yes; someone crashing into a tree and killing himself and injuring a passenger is maybe a paragraph on page 37.) Because they aren’t news, people aren’t reminded of them, so they don’t think of car crashes as a risk.

    Bruce Schneier has written quite a bit about this topic in general.

  61. #61 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  62. #62 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  63. #63 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  64. #64 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  65. #65 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  66. #66 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  67. #67 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  68. #68 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  69. #69 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  70. #70 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  71. #71 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  72. #72 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  73. #73 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  74. #74 Ted Petrocci
    December 22, 2009

    “Convictions are more dangerous foes to truth than lies”…..can’t remember who said it but it seems to fit so many of these issues…

  75. #75 Militant Agnostic
    December 22, 2009

    As a textbook example of pseudoscience, I would nominate anti-vaccinationism.

    For the potential to cause the most harm though, I would nominate AGW denialism.

    The only thing that really worried me was the Athabasca tarsands. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a society in the depths of a fossil fuel binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.

    Apologies to Hunter S. Thompson

  76. #76 Raging Bee
    December 22, 2009

    I second the nomination of AGW-denialism — it’s both amazing and frighteningly pathetic to see so-called freedom-loving patriots desperately trying to keep us dependent on polluting energy sold to us by corrupt royalists funding the same hateful religious factions that gave us 9/11.

    And I’ll also nominate libertarian economics: pseudoscience of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. Notice how they’re scrambling to rewrite our entire country’s history to pretend their ideology wasn’t really the total failure our current recession proves it to be?

  77. #77 k.d.h.
    December 22, 2009

    53:

    I’d like to introduce you to my brother-in-law, an ardent environmentalist (which I admire, because he pursues conservation every day at his job) who yesterday lectured me on how my husband should watch out for cell-phone induced brain AND testicular cancer. But he’s not as worried about the latter, because he tells me he always keeps at least two layers of fabric between himself and the phone. Then he told me that any study in the world that showed contrary or non-conclusive evidence was funded by the telecommunication industry. I now suspect that he nurtures other crank theories.

    So I’d like to nominate the rise of the over-educated search engine expert, who by virtue of being smart and knowledgeable in one field consider themselves infallible experts in any other. And when given evidence suggesting the opposite, fall back on enormous unlikely conspiracy theories.

  78. #78 Militant Agnostic
    December 22, 2009

    Raging Bee @63 – The two are related. It is astounding how the usually pro-science libertarian skeptics are ready to throw science under the bus when it comes to AGW.

  79. #79 Scott
    December 22, 2009

    Did Dr. Jay just link to a two year old news article as some kind of “proof” of something? All I can see it proving is that “evil Big Pharma” is willing to admit mistakes and recall meds, even though it means losing money. Since when has “alt-pharma” done something like that?

    I think he’s nominating it for “worst pseudoscience of the decade.” He only further proves that he has zero conception of the difference between science and pseudoscience by doing so. But bringing up something that happened two years ago is reasonable in this context.

  80. #80 Denice Walter
    December 22, 2009

    “I’ve got a little list…. they never would be missed.”(G &S) The anti-vaxxers definitely the worst, with AIDS denialism a very close second.Mega-vitamin therapy for serious illness (including SMI).De-toxification quackery.Live Foods/”food as medecine” woo. Energy medicine and other vitalism.Pseudo-psychology ( including the Secret).

  81. #81 Andreas Johansson
    December 22, 2009

    @64: Oh, I get told I’ll get brain cancer too. I brought up the alleged risk for testicular cancer because I wanted to question whether it’s really the case that almost all cranks worry about brain cancer only with respect to cellphones.

  82. #82 Passing for human
    December 22, 2009

    Anti vaccination folks fly in the face of the search for a better and more productive world.

  83. #83 DayOwl
    December 22, 2009

    Twisted epidemiology: Searching for correlations among different groups and conditions to exploit for fun and profit. No corresponding clinical trials needed.

    …Which gives rise to the idea that manipulating risk factors, conditions that correlate to certain diseases but don’t necessarily cause them, can eliminate disease. This is one that’s being pushed on the public with avengance.

  84. #84 Raging Bee
    December 22, 2009

    Agnostic: in the fourth book of the “Hitchhikers’ Guide” trilogy, Ford Prefect meets a hooker with a PhD in economics, whose main moneymaking talent is making rich people feel justified in whatever they’ve done. The rich guy describes whatever atrocity he committed or supported, and the working-girl gives him a dissertation about how, exactly, that particular action was GOOD for the economy and job-creation in the long run. Her street-corner had a considerable line of limos behind the client she was servicing. Sort of like today’s pro-business libertar[d]ian economists, only better looking.

  85. #85 TomB
    December 22, 2009

    I have an example of pseudoscience that is sort of trivial but unmentioned: petfood. I recently got a dog and finding information about what foods are actually good for the animal is pretty difficult (although I haven’t tried looking through veterinary materials). The dialog seems to be dominated by people pushing organic pet food, or “natural” diets like all raw meat. There are all these products with exotic protein sources that seem totally unnecessary. Lots of talk of food allergens, but no real studies to validate anything. Most analyses seem to focus on homeopathic dog care instead of anything scientific. Claims like “these are not the foods dogs have evolved to eat” are common, but evidence is absent. Has anyone else noticed this?

  86. #86 TomB
    December 22, 2009

    Oh, I’d also like to add forensic science. We are seeing more revelations that people have been wrongfully convicted based on “scientific” evidence that was not valid. Fingerprints are one area that has never been validated. Accident reconstruction. For example, see this article: http://www.just-science.org/forensics.html

  87. #87 Johnny
    December 22, 2009

    I’d agree that the anti-vax’ers will likely cause more suffering and death than any other woo I can think of at the moment. But for the worst quackery, and only because the ‘theory’ sort of deals with health can you call this silly thing quackery, and by ‘worst’ I mean ‘more laughs per page than even the Time Cube site’, I’d have to go with that Friday classic, http://www.happehtheory.com.

  88. #88 Ben Rabb
    December 22, 2009

    Great topic.

    I think the worst scientific idea of the decade has to be revealed by Lazarou et al in JAMA 1998;279:1200-1205

    It is a thorough meta-analysis documenting that prescription drugs kill about 106,000 people/year, and that the rate has been steady since 1996.

    Amazing how all these well-intended doctors are killing so many patients. It’d be nice to see some changes in the field, based on this peer-reviewed paper that has been cited 2391 times.

  89. #89 Ben Rabb
    December 22, 2009

    Oops — please replace 1996 with 1966.

  90. #90 Tracy W
    December 23, 2009

    Raging Bee – remember that cognitive biases run both ways. In other ways, there’s no reason to think that you’re immune. For a start, notice how you define the latest recession as a “complete failure”, to my ears (as a libertarian-leading economist) this sounds like any quack jumping on someone who took scientific cancer treatment and died as proof that all of modern medicine is junk.
    The arguments of economists in favour of deregulation didn’t come out of nowhere, they were responses to the failures both of communism (see East Germany compared with West Germany) and of the 1960s/1970s economic polices that relied on heavy government intervention (see the stagflation of the 1970s).

    To my ears, so many modern critics of libertarian economists seem to be going through contortions as equally as impressive as any libertarian economist, gleefully jumping on recent events to interpret them how they like, while probably not even thinking of all the obvious failures of government regulation in the past. At least this is how it sounds to me, and I’m probably biased.

    This is why medicine relies on double-blind randomised trials, because it is so easy otherwise for people to unconsciously twist the evidence in the way that suits our priors. Unfortunately it is impossible to do double-blind studies of current economic events, or past ones. Remember that when looking at economic history.

  91. #91 Chris
    December 23, 2009

    Ben Rabb, how many people would have died without prescription drugs? If you removed all of the blood pressure meds, insulin, vaccines, antibiotics and other real medications for a year, what do you think you would happen?

  92. #92 T.Bruce McNeely
    December 23, 2009

    Ben Rabb:
    Did you read the followup to this article?
    http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/280/20/1741
    Several commenters raise good arguments that the extrapolations by Lazarou et al are in serious error, and that the actual death rate from prescription drugs is more likely about a tenth of the number they arrive at.
    I would nominate this article as a contender for the worst pseudoscience of the decade, but obviously for a different reason.

  93. #93 Paul
    December 23, 2009

    I would have to go with prayer for the worst quackery of the decade. Unlike most bullshit treatment options prayer actually cost a few lives. The little diabetic girl in Wisconsin is a prime example. Obfuscating the truth is bad, but allowing people to die in agony is worse.

  94. #94 perik
    December 23, 2009

    I would have to go with prayer for the worst quackery of the decade. Unlike most bullshit treatment options prayer actually cost a few lives. The little diabetic girl in Wisconsin is a prime example. Obfuscating the truth is bad, but allowing people to die in agony is worse.

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  96. #96 wb4
    December 25, 2009

    “As amazing as it is to me, the first decade of the 21st century is fast approaching its end.”

    There’s still one more year to go. The first decade of the 21st century is from 1 Jan 2001 through 31 Dec 2010.

  97. #97 Chris
    December 26, 2009

    wb4, read comment #18.

  98. #98 woofighter
    December 26, 2009

    Perik – I would prefer to call that religious extremism or faith healing. The vast majority of the billions of people on this planet who pray would NEVER do so to the exclusions of medical help.

  99. #99 wb4
    December 26, 2009

    Sorry, Chris, I hadn’t seen that. I thought corrections to factual errors would be welcome on a site that promotes skepticism. I was just trying to help.

  100. #100 Orac
    December 26, 2009

    No, you weren’t “just trying to help.” You were, whether you realize it or not, being an insufferably annoying pedant showing off by picking an unimportant nit and thereby contributing absolutely nothing substantive to the main topic of discussion. Comments such as yours almost invariably serve no purpose other than to derail the discussion into irrelevant areas, and the “just trying to help” bit is the excuse of a busybody, while the “I thought you were a skeptic and would appreciate a correction” nonsense is lame in the extreme.

    Now, if you had said something substantive and then at the end of your comment mentioned the alleged error (as a “by the way” sort of thing, for instance), it would not have irritated me because at least the bulk of your comment would have contributed something to the conversation. But you didn’t do that, did you, not even in a previous comment? As I said above, I reserve the right, depending upon my mood, to delete comments that consist of nothing other than pedantic nit-picking that contribute nothing. It’s one of the rare instances when I moderate my comments.

    If you think I’m being too hard on you, well, tough. I’ve put up with pedants like you for five years, and over the last several months or so they finally started annoying me just enough that I don’t put up with them any more. Moreover, as was pointed out earlier in the thread, it’s quite debatable whether your comment was even a “correction to a factual error.”

  101. #101 wb4
    December 26, 2009

    I’m sorry. I didn’t know.

  102. #102 Chris
    December 26, 2009

    And it is annoying to those of us who actually use math on a regular basis. The origin of the number lines most of us use is zero, as in all time counts start at zero. Not many people today use the several century old error that ignored zero (which was a dangerous idea). The age of my children was never “1 year old” on the day they were born, initial conditions are defined at t=0 not “1″, soccer games did not start when the timer said “1″ and on and on.

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