Respectful Insolence

Happy New Year 2010!

Well, it’s finally happened. 2009 is now in the dustbin of history. It was a thoroughly awful year, which is why hope springs eternal that 2010 will be better. Given that it would be difficult for 2010 to be worse than 2009, it’s a pretty sure bet that it probably will be better, but I never underestimate the power of the universe to mess things up worse than they already are messed up. In other words, whenever I start thinking that things can’t get any worse, I remind myself that they most definitely can. On the other hand, as far as the ol’ blog goes, 2009 was a fantastic year. After around two years of flat traffic, traffic in 2009 is up by around 50% on average, with November being the best month ever in the history of the blog. I have no idea why (I’m not really doing anything much different from what I’ve done for the last five years), but I’ll definitely take it. I was also invited to be part of a panel on the anti-vaccine movement at TAM7 and gave a talk at the Science-Based Medicine Conference the day before TAM started. I got to meet Randi, Phil Plait, and a number of skeptics whom I’ve admired for a while. Heck, I even got to meet Adam Savage!

In any case, regardless of how good or bad the previous year was, the beginning of a new year is always the time for optimism. Even though it’s an arbitrary day that we as a society have chosen to mark the end of the previous year and the beginning of a new one, I still think it serves a useful purpose to contemplate what has gone before and what might come in the next 365 days. Since I’ve already expended my usual copious quantities of verbiage discussing the medical and skeptical issues of the day that dominated 2009, I thought, given that in a couple of hours I’m going to be heading to Cleveland for a couple of days to visit old friends and my old stomping grounds from residency and graduate school, that I’d do something I rarely do and start an open thread. Well, not quite open. I’d like the discussion to stick to one general topic, if possible: What are going to be the dominant forms of psuedoscience and quackery in 2010 and how can we promote science over them? Clearly the anti-vaccine movement isn’t going to go away any time soon. After a horrendous start to 2009, unfortunately it rebounded and came back fairly strong by year’s end. That it will remain a problem in 2010 is a given.

The same is true of the movement to insert provisions into the Obama health care reform bill to mandate that insurers taking part in the insurance exchanges created by the law reimburse for quackery, including Christian Science prayer treatment. Now that the Senate has passed a version of the bill, the negotiations to reconcile the two versions of the bill and produce a final bill to be voted on by the House and Senate will be carried out largely behind closed doors, with the end result a fait accompli if there is no movement to put pressure on members of the conference committee not to let provisions that disappeared return or bad provisions that are already there remain.

Anyway, those are my two biggest concerns in 2010. The latter is a particularly immediate concern, given that Congress will be back in session next week and there is pressure to pass a final bill before the President’s State of the Union Address in late January or early February. What are yours, and why?

Comments

  1. #1 Owen
    January 1, 2010

    Global warming denial. There’s a huge amount of political drive behind it, and it’s one of the easiest pseudoscientific beliefs for an otherwise intelligent person to maintain.

  2. #2 BaldApe
    January 1, 2010

    IMHO, the biggest threat of 2010, and the biggest opportunity, is the interaction between health care reform and “alternative medicine.”

    If politicians allow or even require health insurance plans to cover quackery, the potential for abuse is obvious. But if cost controlling measures, research on effectiveness in particular, are focused on all covered procedures, then all of the pseudoscience masquerading as medical treatment will be exposed for what it is.

    The key will be to preempt silly nonsense in the press. Sappy statements, and questions that give credence to unsupportable garbage must be called out. If every reporter who asks “What about safety concerns?” with regard to vaccines immediately gets hundreds of letters and emails calling him out for ignorance, maybe the tone will change. Just look how much more conservative the press has gotten in fear of being labeled “liberal.”

    Maybe the public can be encouraged to understand the significance of the question “What do you call alternative medicine that works?— Medicine!”

  3. #3 Kathy Orlinsky
    January 1, 2010

    My personal pet peeve is evolution denial. Hey, I’m a biologist by training. However, I realize that believing the earth is 6000 years old does not lead to the same scope of public detriment as not believing in global warming or vaccines.

    On the other hand, eschewing research for hearsay and superstition easily bleeds from one area to another. My hope is that by just showing people the science on a variety of issues, they’ll start to value that way of knowing.

    Wishful thinking? Why not? It is a new year.

  4. #4 Pablo
    January 1, 2010

    I have to admit, I spent most of 2009 watching my newborn grow into a toddler. I didn’t consider it a bad year by any stretch. Probably the best year of my life.

  5. #5 Daniel J. Andrews
    January 1, 2010

    Evolution denial for me too because to deny evolution or an ancient earth you have to reject vast portions of astronomy, chemistry, geology, geography, glaciology, physics, solar models, atomic models, and of course a great deal of the biological sciences (genetics, molecular and cell biology, developmental biology, pathology etc, etc, etc).

    On top of that, you must also assume that scientists the world over in many disciplines are incompetent or deliberately lying so they can hide the truth. No other form of denialism encompasses so many different disciplines, and lumps so many different types of scientists into “liar”, or “incompetent” categories. Evolution denial is the one antiscience to rule them all–Not just one or two areas of antiscience, but many areas.

    While some may not think evolution denial is as dangerous as denial of vaccines, modern medicine and global warming, I think the antiscience in evolution denial is responsible for a great deal of the distrust scientists receive (after all, they’re lying or are wrong about the age of the earth, and are hiding the evidence for special creation 6,000 years ago). This makes it easier for people to dismiss any of the other sciences that contradict their particular belief system.

    That is my perspective as a biologist/ecologist though so I am also highly biased in this regard.

  6. #6 momkat
    January 1, 2010

    Critical thinking skills need to be taught and reinforced in each grade from the time children start school. Study after study shows the importance of teaching them important concepts when they are young and their hardwiring is being set. Perhaps this way they won’t have to unlearn lazy habits when they actually go out into the world as adults. And If they could all learn this way of thinking early, then they would be less likely to fall victim to the deliberate blindness that is denial. The dumbing down of America is a crime and diminishes us all.

  7. #7 Kristen
    January 1, 2010

    I also believe critical thinking is lacking in the school curriculum.

    I try to teach my children to be skeptical of everything and not to accept what others say without proof.

    There is little that angers me more than celebrities touting their crap “science” to others. Celebrities are surrounded by people who will do/say whatever they need to continue getting a paycheck.
    They live in a bubble, but they are given a God-like status in our culture. When people follow them those people are in very real danger.

    If all children were taught critical thinking in school (I fear a good number of parents cannot teach what they don’t know) celebrities would lose their followers. Scientists would have more of a chance to make their science-based messages widely known and accepted.

    Ahh, I can dream

  8. #8 Mac
    January 1, 2010

    I’d say homeopathy getting legitimized, both in the new US Healthcare Bill and in my backyard of Ontario.

    For those who aren’t familiar, there is a bill currently before the Ontario legislature that would give naturopaths prescription rights. The worst thing is that because the bill is also giving limited prescriptive rights to nurses and pharmacists (which I can sort of get behind) the major lobbying groups for these two are supporting the bill.

    I’m worried.

  9. #9 RMM Barrie
    January 1, 2010

    Orac

    What are going to be the dominant forms of psuedoscience and quackery in 2010

    Think there is going to be a decrease with the woomeisters that are traditionally targeted here, but an increase in visibility of those with credentials; that is, something more than movie credits.

    These include “The World’s Most Popular Natural Health Newsletter” Dr. Joseph Mercola one of the readers top picks for game changers at Huffington Post. This is the guy who sends something to the comment section, or a letter to a reputable journal, that happens to get printed, and then claims it on his publications list. So, using the “Mercola Format” I have now published or maybe even co-authored with Orac.

    Deepak Chopra M.D. will keep rising because of no effective opposition from the likes of CNN and Dr. Gupta

    Jeffrey Dach M.D. BioIdentical Hormone Blog is predicted to be a rising star.

    Brian L. Weiss, M.D. because of his message for the times, will also be more visible to those that want to imbibe post new year, in a different sort of way.

  10. #10 ESPness
    January 1, 2010

    09 The worst year of my life. My wife went into hospital for 2 months after major bi-polar episode, My dad is ill with COPD, and now I’m separated because my wife is pursuing a lifestyle change. 2010 can only be better.

    My biggest worry is that Crank Magnetism causes the creation of a sort of urber-denialism where all the whack-a-loons join forces in some kind of Axis of Stupid.

  11. #11 FreeSpeaker
    January 1, 2010

    2009 was just a horrid year…for the anti-vaccinationists.

    That means I had a good year.

    I hope they have a worse year in 2010.

  12. #12 phoenixwoman
    January 1, 2010

    My biggest worry is that because Rahm Emanuel’s managed to convince himself, Obama and the rest of Official Washington that not having a health care bill was what killed the Dems in 1994 (when in fact Rahm’s demoralizing the Democratic base by ramming through NAFTA, which was the final sledgehammer blow to our once-mighty manufacturing industry, might have had a wee bit more of a role), we’re going to get an incredibly bad bill that forces Americans to either buy insurance that costs more and covers less than it does now (and without a public plan to keep the companies from jacking rates into the stratosphere), or face thousands in fines from the IRS. (Oh, and did I mention that both the House and Senate versions have anti-choice amendments tacked onto them, and any efforts to remove the Senate amendment — or change the Senate bill in any other way — will cause healthcare-industry-funded conservative Democrats like Mary Landrieu to vote against the bill anyway? Because, you know, you need sixty votes to pass it, even though you really don’t?)

  13. #13 Kathy Orlinsky
    January 1, 2010

    @Daniel
    “Evolution denial is the one antiscience to rule them all”

    I love that! And I totally agree.

  14. #14 jen
    January 1, 2010

    my biggest concern for you in the U.S. is your utter inability to help yourselves with health care reform. Over 16% of your GDP goes toward health care. No other country even comes close to that and they provide good health coverage to all. Canada spends approx. 10.5%. Too many “hands in the pot” (insurance co.s, legal, HMO’s) do no actual care but bleed off resources. Fundamentally, that is more the problem than quackery.

  15. #15 blf
    January 2, 2010

    Hum… In terms of world-wide effects, I’ll jump for AGW denial at the top of the list, with anti-vaccine stupidity high on a list that also includes tolerating religions, militarys, and economists, plus speech/press suppression (with a nod towards the goofy libel laws in the UK), and the general raping of the environment (e.g., deforestation, species/habit destruction, and so on…). All of these effect medicine and human welfare, and most are fairly direct threats to humanity and civilisation.

    Many have as a root cause a lack of properly applied critical thinking, so such a lack is probably in the list as well, albeit I tend to prefer more concrete items. One part of the solution is to inspire and teach and show critical thinking and its benefits, but my list is more some of the results of lacking or misapplying this fundamental skill.

    For the USA, certain provisions in the heath care bill bother me: It’s not universal, it includes woo and other non-evidence-based stuff (such as the ban on abortions), etc. I hope it includes so-called sunshine and review procedures; i.e., open exposure and monitoring and adjustments? In other words, feedback and review so the system will evolve towards a better system…

    Weirdly, despite living in Europe, I cannot think of a huge concern not already covered by the above global concerns!?

  16. #16 Anthro
    January 3, 2010

    Great comments so far and I agree with all of them, but what about the one huge elephant (or perhaps ticking bomb is better) in the room–overpopulation! This is at the root of much else. Overpopulation results mostly from religion and lack of access to birth control (read, lack of science education and lack of medical care). Without population control in the third world, it won’t matter how well-educated or underpopulating the first world is; resources will be strained to breaking and climate change will go unchecked.

    Disclaimer: I have four children. Sorry. Six grandchildren–hopefully, no more.

  17. #17 blf
    January 4, 2010

    Without population control in the third world…

    Why just the developing world? I realise that much of the developed world has nil–to–negative population growth (which really buggers up a number of social schemes, such as state-provided pensions), but it’s unclear to me why the developing world is singled out?

    There is an argument that some of the developed world is overpopulated, especially(?) if measured in things like ecological footprint. I’m not certain if I agree with the arguments, but I don’t dismiss them out-of-hand either.

  18. #18 Barry
    January 4, 2010

    “possible: What are going to be the dominant forms of psuedoscience and quackery in 2010 and how can we promote science over them?”

    As you’re pointing out in later posts (I’m reading the blog backwards), I’d nominate legal harrassment and fraudulent lawsuits.

    It’s an obvious thing to do when losing on the scientific merits, and it can be tantamount to legal assault on an individual. The credible threat of devastating lawsuits can be used in a terroristic manner to shut up prominent individuals and to suppress debate.

  19. #19 Don Strickland
    January 5, 2010

    Scientists who continue to push the CO2/Global Warming Theory in spite of its obvious flaws (relative “weakness” of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, low percentage of CO2 in atm relative to “real” greenhouse gases, lack of tropospheric heating necessary for climate models to be accurate, ridiculous uncertainty levels for climate model parameters, Vostok Ice Cores, and, oh yeah, the climate data) because of political biases or the need to generate receive government funding. Those of you who continue to push these theories are not scientists. Your slavish devotion to intellectual elitism as a key element to governing the “ignorant” is arrogant and quite harmful to society. Perhaps you should consider a career in alchemy.

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