Confusing Relative and Absolute Risk

firearmThe age of the internet has created an explosion of information, both good and bad. Popular media accounts of a recent study by the University of Nevada-Reno and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health provide a classic example. The result is a misleading headline that confuses relative and absolute risk. It shows the media bias that exists with gun control.

Reviewing the Study

The researches analyzed mortality data provided by the World Health Organization. Their analysis led them to the conclusion that American mortality caused by firearms is ten times that of other developed countries. But what does that mean? Let’s crunch some numbers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 33,636 deaths from firearms in 2013. That figure translated into 10.6 deaths per 100,000. Put another way, your chances of dying by a firearm are 0.01 percent. The implication from the popular media headlines of 10 times the risk means you’re going from 0.001 to 0.01 percent. Call me a skeptic, but that doesn’t sound like a much greater chance of being gunned down.

And that is a clear example of irresponsible reporting by the media. The 10 times figure sound scary; the 0.01 percent figure does not. To get the page views, the media opted for the more sensational headline. It relies on the fact that the average reader doesn’t have a handle on statistics.

The Agenda

But, wait, there’s more. The study was founded by an award from The Joyce Foundation. The foundation has admirable goals of better education and a clean environment. However, a mission for gun violence prevention should not include blatant misleading information. It rests on an agenda by popular media to sway public opinion through deception.

I find this aspect especially hypocritical. The anti-GMO sector is quick to point out a study funded by Monsanto as evidence of bias. However, making such a claim commits its own logical error via the appeal to motive fallacy.

Granted, there is a fine line between biased and unbiased reporting. In the case of Monsanto, federal law requires manufacturers to conduct studies of their products. They cannot opt out and wait for a third party to do the testing required of them. The fact that they publish studies isn’t an immediate accusation. They have no choice but to publish.

In the case of The Joyce Foundation, the award was a choice based on the foundation’s own publicly-stated mission. And yes, it cannot control how the media will report its findings. However, the misleading nature of the headlines suggests an attempt to deceive. But, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, some reporters have admitted being light in the stats department.

The Final Point

There’s one more point to add about the absolute risk of firearms violence. I quoted a figure of 33,636 deaths. However, that figure includes all firearm mortality, including suicide, hunting accidents, accidents when handling/cleaning, justifiable homicide (self-defense), and any other way a firearm could harm. Your chances of dying from gun violence are in reality much lower than 0.01 percent. Let’s all relax.

By Chris DR/

photo credit: Sig P226 via photopin (license)

Toxins? Stop the Nonsense!

toxinsPseudoscience gives us a perfect example of the bandwagon effect in the wild. The situation becomes crystal clear when you try to detangle the issue of toxins. While I sit on the proverbial fence about creating new words, I stand firmly against making up definitions.

This is the case with toxins. Many attribute a wide host of ills to them Hogwash! First, let’s get the definition right.

Defining Toxins

An article in Gizmodo put it best:

“Here is a scientific definition for a toxin: It’s a poisonous substance produced by living cells, especially one that, when introduced into a new body, spurs the creation of antibodies. That’s a toxin. That’s what it is, where it’s made, and what it does.”

It is not a build-up of waste products that the likes of Food Babe would have you believe. Its definition is pretty straight forward. If your body isn’t excreting waste, you don’t need a diet; you need a doctor.

This concept gets tossed around so much that the uninformed masses believe it. It’s everywhere. I saw an article just like week published in Bon Appetit about your detox diet for the new year. Please.

But the nonsense of toxins persists. And unfortunately, it has crept under the insidious rock of ideology. To attack someone’s notion of toxins and detox is to attack their fundamental belief system. However, it goes deeper than that.

Why We Fall for It

From an evolutionary perspective, we need to understand a basic tenet of how we navigate our world. We fear the false negative. To believe the bush is just a bush is a fatal false negative if it turns out to be a hungry saber-toothed tiger. The same logic is at work here.

To believe that toxins can’t harm us (in the manner that pseudoscience defines it) sets us up for the tiger attack. So, people cling to the belief. Evolution created that beast; the bandwagon effect is an example of it gone bad.

It’s difficult to pull ourselves away from the tenacious hardwiring that we have. Equally troubling is the fact that so many people are willing to accept this crap without investigating its merits. It’s a symptom of information overload, lack of oversight, and hyper-busy schedules. We like our news in sound bites.

The Bane of Anecdotes

Another issue concerns anecdotal “evidence.” What works for Minnie and Mickey (in studies on mice) is not the best choice for dealing with health issues for Grandma and Grandpa. Too many times, people prefer the story to the science—especially if it’s laced with a little confirmation bias. You can’t learn biology in one internet session no matter how many Yahoo answers you read. I beg your pardon, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

But why is this? Why do some people trust Google rather than a doctor or a scientist, for that matter? Why are they so quick to believe a stranger’s story about losing weight with this new wacky diet than the science that paints a different and more realistic picture?

Perhaps it’s because some people are intimidated by science. They are scared of the ivory tower and look toward a voice they can understand. In this age of MOOCs, one would hope that science would prevail as the teacher. The late Richard Feynman put it best when he said,

“Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize.”

(Feynman won the 1965 Nobel prize in physics for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics.) It takes time, understanding, and lots of reading to get complicated subjects like physiology or physics. It’s frustrating for science too. It used to be enough to debate research among their learned colleagues. Now, they have Yahoo as their nemesis.

If you’re interested in facts versus stories, consider this for a New Year’s routine. Next time you see a bit of nonsense like the toxins baloney, follow up with some checking. Go to sites like or Cochrane Review and get the facts. Don’t put your health in the hands of quacks like Dr. Oz and these other laughable sites. )If you don’t believe the risks, check out this site.) Take back science!

By Chris DR/

photo credit: Apple Dearie? via photopin (license)

The Potential Benefits of GMOs

cowI almost felt defeated when I read a post in the blog, Science-Based Medicine, regarding the rise of pseudoscience in the medical field. (If you don’t read this blog, check it out. It is the most intelligent source of industry news and facts that you will find, except this blog. 🙂 )

The author, Clay Jones, laments about the state of pseudoscience in the context of 2016 predictions. He wrote,

“Quackery has become fully entrenched at this point and the outlook is bleak for those of us who strive to do something about it.”

Oh, my. It is equally sad when discussing other sciences, including the science of genetically-modified products or GMOs. Readers of this blog know that the evidence supporting the continued use and development is overwhelming, with the support of authoritative voices like the WHO, JAMA, AAAS, etc. It beats Dr. Oz or the Food Babe any day.

The matter deserves another review. Let’s look at the developments going on now that will make it harder to turn a blind eye to the benefits of GMOs.

Benefiting the Farmer

A study published in the journal, PLoS ONE, offers compelling evidence supporting GMOs. A meta-analysis of 147 original studies revealed that GM technology not only reduced pesticide use, but it also increased yields. These benefits translated to a 68 percent increase in farmer profits.

Now before you get your panties in a twist, let’s consider the facts. First, it isn’t all about corporations profiting. In fact, the opposite is true. According to the US Department of Agriculture,

“… family farms represent 97.6 percent of all U.S. farms and are responsible for 85 percent of U.S. farm production.

So, the ones benefiting from GM technology are the small family farmers who use it. It is also the farmers in developing countries. Excuse this soapbox moment, but isn’t this idea of denying authorization of GMOs a first-world self-indulgence, a luxury, if you will?

Many people bitch about how expensive it is to eat healthy. Here is a way to bring good healthy food to the masses and some of the elitist liberal crowd want to deny them of the simple pleasures of good health and a full belly? Please. Soapbox moment ended.

Healthy Food for the Masses

This is one argument of the opposition I cannot fathom. As a study from Ghent University points out, GM technology offers a tool to provide better nutrition to the people who need it. Again, liberals speak of food security and food waste.

Here is an opportunity to provide people who face the real possibility of nutritional deficiencies and their consequences hope for a better tomorrow. How can anyone deny them good nutrition based on a pseudoscience-backed belief?

What’s the Beef?

Another area of GM technology involves animal feed. Let’s begin with the context. Meat consumption is increasing. And the environmental costs of livestock production will continue to have a greater impact. GMOs offer a solution with animal feed.

The technology that increases yield plays into a more streamlined solution to reduce environmental costs of livestock production. The increased yields also offer a safeguard to protect crop production for human consumption.

GMOs are another tool we can use to ensure that no one goes hungry. It provides an efficient and cost-effective means to fulfill this goal, with the added benefit of reduced environmental costs. It’s time to kick the pseudoscience bogey man to the curb and embrace science and its benefits.

photo credit: Cow via photopin (license)

false balance fallacy debate

The New Face of the False Balance Fallacy

You’ve likely encountered the false balance fallacy. If you read or watch any kind of news, you’ll know it straightaway.  It often occurs in discussions of hot-button topics like climate change and GMOs. Here’s a classic scenario.

A news show (or story) wants to present both sides of an issue. They pick a vocal proponent of each side of the issue to debate the validity of each one’s argument. Seems legit? Absolutely not. The problem lies with the issue itself.

With a topic like climate change, there is no debate in the scientific community. The debate exists with the general public, many of whom don’t understand the science. Instead, it boils down to a matter of beliefs. The same is true of GMOs. GMOs are safe—and necessary.

By creating a “debate,” the media gives equal weight and voice to each viewpoint. Unfortunately, it elevates the wrong view and legitimizes it. This action creates doubt where none should exist. We end up wasting time arguing about an issue that is settled.

The New Face of Fallacy

Welcome the new spin on the false balance fallacy, renewable energy. Let me say outright that I haven’t any grudge against renewable energy. Based on the evidence I’ve read, I believe that several serious problems exist with implementing large-scale renewable wind or solar power plants.

All lives matter, especially birds and bats. We can’t forsake major pollinators and dispersal agents, to say nothing of biodiversity and ecological impacts.

The new false balance fallacy gives equal weight to renewable energy sources like wind and solar to put them on the same level as fossil fuels. As much as we hear about it, it sounds like the evil corporations of fossil fuels are refusing to let up their stranglehold on the Earth’s future. This scenario could not be further from the truth.

All sources of renewable energy provided 13 percent of our electricity in 2014. Fossil fuels supplied just over two-thirds, with nuclear contributing 19 percent. What about wind and solar, you ask? Wind power came in at 4 percent and solar with less than 1 percent.

Yet, if you listen to the debates about wind and solar, you’d think that they contributed much more. Just like the climate change skeptic, they are given an equal standing on the energy debate forum. It’s another misleading example of the false balance fallacy.

Fallacy Risks

In this case, the fallacy encourages hate against legitimate industry. It clouds our judgment about the serious impacts of wildlife loss on the environment.

It also engages in its own version of astroturfing or fronting. By putting out a message of being safe for the environment, it ignores the devastation needed to bring those power sources to market. All energy is dirty and environmentally destructive. It’s the price we pay to live our lives as we do.

By recognizing the misleading nature of the false balance fallacy, we can view the energy debate with a more informed understanding. The burden of electricity generation may even out. However, for today, the reality is fossil fuels. Chris DR

photo credit: Great Debate, “Wah wah, wah wah, wah, waaah.” via photopin (license)

bobolink grassland bird

Update: Wind Turbines and Birds

There is more disturbing news on the green energy front concerning birds. A study by the US Geological Survey looked at the effects of wind turbines located in North and South Dakota on grassland bird populations. Researchers found that wind turbines displaced seven of nine species. Displacement continued for two to five years after construction.

Native Grassland Birds in Danger

As the study points out, the bird species in question are already in serious decline. Native grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. It makes sense that wildlife populations would also suffer. This case represents a disconnect between green energy and the value placed on these habitats.

The American Wind Energy Association identified states such as North Dakota as having a high potential for wind energy. Its grassland habitat, after all, offer unobstructed vistas, perfect for wind farms. Low populations densities also add to the potential.

However, the fact that some ideal places for wind farms also happen to be in prime grassland bird habitat underscores the need for more study and more informed management decisions. One has to applaud the fact that this study was funded by both the US Geological Survey and NextEra Energy, Inc., the top clean energy of North America.

The Nuances of Environmentalism

One also can’t help but see the irony that the study exposes too. Here we have a situation in which environmentalists of the climate change flavor are pitted against environmentalists of the conservation biology side. And this isn’t going to be the only one that comes along.

The fate of the planet and its many species will inevitably create other conflicts of interest. The difference lies in the fact that the battles will include those on the supposed same side. We tend to think of them occurring between the two political parties rather than within.

In any case, conflicts like this one will challenge us in the years ahead. Resolutions will demand rational thinking that sets aside the politics associated with climate change.

photo credit: Bobolink, male via photopin (license)