Category: Pseudoscience

Why is this paper still cited?

What’s the most cited academic paper on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)? Is it an evidence-based trial demonstrating the efficacy of a particular therapy? Is it a systematic review of a collection of efficacy literature? Is it a paper that explains a single major CAM modality, such as acupuncture or chiropractic, or one that explains them all? Or is it a treatise on how biological mechanisms (such as the placebo effect) can help explain how such therapies appear to work? Actually, it’s none of these. The most cited CAM paper in history doesn’t tell us how CAM works, how effective it is, what its limitations might be, or even what it actually comprises – instead, it tells us how popular CAM is. Yes, that, and how much it costs. In other words, it’s a paper about the marketing and commercial dimensions of the CAM industry in the US. And it appears in one of the most widely read medical journals in the world.

Now you might expect that a heavily cited paper must be a terrific one to consult, given that so many wise academics have found it to be such a useful source. For example, its methodology and conclusions must be pretty robust, and its take-home message impressively reliable, right? Right? Well, no, not really. Despite the fact that its findings are regularly cited, they are so wholly unreliable as to be highly ambiguous, if not downright misleading. The reason it gets cited so much has little to do with academic rigour or scientific validity. It gets cited because it makes the right point from a partisan perspective: namely, that CAM is just so hugely popular that everybody is using it! Continue reading “Why is this paper still cited?”

Publish and be (quite rightly) damned

This week, the popular science magazine Psychology Today found itself at the centre of controversy following their publication of a blog post by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. His post was subsequently removed from the Psychology Today website, but you can consult the it here (or here for a text-based version). Interestingly, the way I located this cached post-deletion copy was via a web search that took me to a particular discussion board described by Wikipedia as “a white nationalist and supremacist neo-Nazi Internet forum” and “the Internet’s first major hate site” (for legal reasons, I won’t name or link the forum here). The fact that contributors at the forum were wholly approving of Kanazawa’s article (“very well written”, “well researched”, and “truthful” was their verdict) probably tells you much of what you need to know about the nature of its content. So does the article’s title: “Why are black women less physically attractive than other women?

Kanazawa described some data he had accumulated from a large-scale longitudinal study of adolescents. Then, following a methodology that I explain a bit more below, he drew the conclusion that black women were statistically “far less attractive than white, Asian, and Native American women”. He went on to slice and dice the figures a bit, but it all came back to the same point: “black women are objectively less physically attractive than other women” (my emphasis). (He is not cautious about elaborating upon the implications either, unhesitatingly raising what he calls “the positive association between intelligence and physical attractiveness.”) To clarify his reasoning, he presented his statistical findings using several graphics such as the following:

Now you just know this must be scientific because: (a) the variable name is nicely jargon-laden (“Mean latent physical attractiveness”); (b) the scores are expressed to a whopping five decimal places; and (c) error bars are shown, which presumably somehow reflect the sophistication of the analysis that was performed. In addition, the fact that there were several such graphics appears to suggest that Kanazawa was looking at a very large dataset. However, contrary to these visual cues, the study described here (such as it is an actual ‘study’) is really quite weak. In fact, very weak. In fact it is so terribly weak as to lie almost beyond the realm of ordinary scientific criticism. And this is precisely the reason that I believe that the post should not have been taken down. Continue reading “Publish and be (quite rightly) damned”

“Racecardgate” on Storify

This is a slightly unusual format for a post on this blog, but I thought it was worth recording for posterity. It concerns the rather bizarre suggestion made yesterday by some UK-based homeopaths about a good way of defending homeopathy against formal complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. Rather than follow the traditional homeopathic route of accusing skeptics of ignorance (i.e., not understanding how homeopathy really ‘works’), arrogance (i.e., not believing the testimonials of homeopathy advocates), or scientism (i.e., not accepting that there are more ways to consider the world other than scientifically), instead the idea would be to accuse them of — drum roll please — racial discrimination! Continue reading ““Racecardgate” on Storify”

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