The Science Corner

The science corner: Pseudoscience, public health, and media literacy

With bachelor’s degrees in pharmacy and nursing, as well as a master’s in psychiatric nursing, I have a strong science background and I know how to read and understand a research paper. I also have a finely tuned bullshit-detector.  Debunking pseudoscience makes my mind do a happy dance, and here on The Science Corner, I invite you along for the ride!  I also like to tackle misinformation around public health issues.


Hallmarks of Pseudoscience

How to Spot Pseudoscience talks more about how to fine-tune your BS radar. The main idea, though, is to use critical thinking. Don’t accept things simply because they’re put in front of you.

The Science Corner: Hallmarks of pseudoscience
  • Starting with a belief, and then working back from there
  • Broad statements about what something does, but no scientifically sound mechanism is described
  • Explanations based on quantum physics coming from people with no physics background
  • “Natural” is used as synonymous with “good” across the board
  • Energies and energy flows are described without any actual evidence of their existence
  • While science takes an “until you prove it, it doesn’t exist” approach, pseudoscience takes the approach that “it exists until you can prove it doesn’t”

Debunking Pseudoscience

I have nothing against alternative health practices per se. The problem is when people start claiming that an alternative method works in a certain way, or produces certain results, when there’s no evidence that it does any such thing. If a concept is spiritual or helpful in some unexplained way, great, but try to drag science into that, and it just becomes nonsense.

  • Adrenal Fatigue: adrenal deficiency is a real condition, but there’s no evidence that your adrenal glands get worn out
  • Astrology: Does the positioning of constellations that exist only from the earth’s frame of reference have any bearing on our lives? From a scientific perspective, astrology doesn’t make any sense.
  • Chakras: Chakras were described long ago in a spiritual sense in Hindu and Buddhist texts. However, the New Age movement has gotten a lot more literal with chakras, in ways that aren’t consistent with science.
  • Chiropractic: lying beneath the better-known aspects of management of back pain are some perhaps surprisingly quacky origins
  • Crystals: Crystals are beautiful, and can potentially be great focal points fr mindfulness. But science doesn’t support the healing properties that are claimed.
  • Detoxes/Cleanses: do you actually need them, or can the body do the job just fine on its own?
  • Dopamine Fasting: This is trendy and sounds good, but there’s actually no such thing as literally fasting from dopamine. Your brain requires dopamine, and it makes it on its own without any interference from you.
  • Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT): Tapping may be useful for things like grounding or focus, but EFT includes some strange concepts like energy field polarity reversals and a rather odd way of looking at proof.
  • Essential oils
    • Placebo or something more: yes, they’re lovely, but the medicinal properties claimed aren’t backed up by science
    • Vibrations: the founder of Young Living essential oils makes some claims about essential oils vibrating that are more nonsense than science
  • Homeopathy: why is the Canadian government funding an international aid group using homeopathy, when the principles of homeopathy go against science?
  • “Natural” health products: you hear it all the time, natural, natural, natural… but does it actually mean anything, and is it automatically good for you?
  • Placebo: when used in research trials with conformed consent, placebos can actually lead to positive effects – but only for symptoms that are quite subjective
  • Reiki: are there actually literal energy fields that can be manipulated with the hands?
The Science Corner: Do thoughts vibrate?  What the law of attraction says, and what science says
  • Law of attraction: There’s something to be said for the idea that believing something positive will help you to act in ways that increase the chances that something positive will end up coming your way. Except the law of attraction says don’t act, just vibrate out to the universe.
  • Speaking of which, do thoughts vibrate? The law of attraction relies on pseudoscience to yes, but actual science says nope, not a chance.

Exploring Science


Public Health

There are a lot of people spouting off online about public health matters they have no actual understanding of. Having superficial knowledge from the new or Dr. Google does not make someone an expert. There are people who spend years studying this stuff, and that knowledge counts for something.

Coronavirus COVID-19

COVID-19

Make sure you’re getting you’re coronavirus info from authoritative sources, or media/commentators that are referencing authoriative soruces.

These posts related to COVID-19 have appeared on MH@H, but haven’t been updated with recent information.

cartoon owl - be wise and immunize

Vaccines and immunity

  • Anti-vaxxers aren’t just harming their own kids; they’re also putting some of the most vulnerable people at risk by depriving them of the Herd immunity they rely on.
  • Vaccines and autism: The link that doesn’t exist talks about how, despite the discrediting of the doctor who first proposed this link and abundant research to the contrary, anti-vaxxers and vaccine-hesitant parents alike persist in the belief that vaccines cause autism.

Evaluating Information

There are good sources of information out there, and there is crap.  Media and research literacy and critical thinking come into play in distinguishing the good from the crap, and The Science Corner wants to help with that.

Keep in mind that everything comes to you through some sort of filter, and one thing that influences that is that the things we think are free never actually are. Also, each of us is only aware of a sliver of the existing knowledge in the world, and it’s easy to get tripped up by what we don’t know we don’t know.

Conspiracy theories and deniers

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, written by two university professors, explains how to recognize conspiracy theories and why they’re so popular.

Tips on how to spot fake news

Media literacy

Science and research literacy

Statistics


Other resources

These are some of the great resources I’ve come across that promote critical thinking when evaluating claims.

  • CRAAP test: how to evaluate information relevance based on currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose
  • MediaSmarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy
  • NAMLE: National Association for Media Literacy Education
  • Quackwatch.org: maintained by Stephen Barrett MD, with an extensive range of articles on quacky practices
  • Verification Handbook: this free book designed for journalists is a guide to detecting inauthentic and manipulated content online
diagram of the scientific method as an ongoing process
Whatiguana, Wikimedia Commons