The following is a guest post written by Steven Miles, MD, Professor and Maas Family Endowed Chair in Bioethics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He chose to LOL instead of SIS (scowl in silence).
There were too many episodes of “science shenanigans” that lured unquestioning journalists in 2015. This is a listicle, not a “Top Ten List.” Some of this stuff was adequately covered by journalists. Too much of it wasn’t.
As the saying goes, “you can fool some of the people some of the time.” (By the way, neither Abe Lincoln nor PT Barnum, despite what the web tells you, is credibly sourced to that quote.)
NFL’s science factory—Still crazy after all these years.
By now, everyone knows the story of how a brilliant and brave neuropathologist, Dr. Omalu, brought Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in football players to light. Lives and families were destroyed by a business combine that hid its casualties. A book, “League of Denial,” details how the science factory worked, concocting worthless studies and then sending them to the biased stewardship of a special editor who overrode caustic peer reviews and published the papers in the peer-reviewed medical literature. Normally, when research is found to be corrupt, papers are retracted. But in this case the retraction process was turned on its head. The NFL unsuccessfully tried to force Dr. Omalu to retract his valid paper. Meanwhile the journal and the NFL has protected its false studies. Their rheumatologist with a career of sports medicine misconduct remains on the payroll.
What is so galling about this is that the peer reviewed papers produced by the NFL remain enshrined without retraction in prestigious science journals.
Stem cells—are like the pricey charms in computer games.
Journalists played with ferocious intensity.
Stem cells may well have an important role in medicine but it is a safe bet that testimonials and hucksters on the media-midway will not pave the way.
Coca Cola—Carbonated corn syrup does not make you fat
Coca Cola got caught this year in a multinational effort to convince people that soda pop does not make you fat. Despite previous plants on news media like CNN and USA Today from the not so distant past, in 2015 Coca-Cola’s fake science factory was outed and possibly shut down.
Why does it take Mother Jones to show that major universities and professional associations drinking money-sugared corp-water lie through their decayed teeth?
Lumosity—Brain games will keep you from getting demented.
In 2015, Lumosity stories have become a favorite of the Lifestyle Sections of bottom-feeding newspapers. It is claimed, without research of course, that Lumosity can even help a person stop smoking.
Flash! Slot machines (née: one-armed-bandits) are also designed by neuroscientists to get millions of people to sit in front of screens and put in their credit card. Some neuroscientists are lashing out against the hype.
Look in the dictionary. If it’s not there (e.g., the word is luminosity not Lumosity©), the odds are it is a shill.
Frackers—It is annoying when your tap water bursts into flame.
I understand that you are upset but really, it is a fire hazard, not a health hazard and besides, methane water is an old Indian tradition.
And then there’s the Forbes blog post, “Don’t Be Swayed By Faucets On Fire And Other Anti-Fracking Propaganda.”
There are times when the style manual should permit using a LOL [laughing out loud] emoticon to punctuate a source’s sentence.
Exxon—A blowtorch Christmas is because we had no idea
Exxon was faking the science to conceal climate change. Anti-science is an American blood sport with countless teams and cheerleaders. Pro-oil, anti-gun, anti-vaccine: the list is infinite. Legislators close their eyes to this foolishness according to the intensity of election fundraising.
One has to wonder about professional scientific activists who now claim that they were fooled by Exxon too. Inside Climate News took the lead exposing Exxon.
Nevertheless, there was a tongue in cheek quality to the environmentalists who were shocked and dismayed to learn that data that they had relied on were falsified by Big Oil. Reporters played along. NPR even apologized for not being aggressive enough.
A little morality play. “I caught you.” “I fooled you. Sorry.” “How could you? I believed you.” [Shrug] New York City: 67 degrees on Christmas.
Joe Biden—“I believe we need a moon shot in this country to cure cancer.”
Dear Joe, it is unspeakably sad that you lost your son, Beau, to cancer. Grieve. Let science proceed apace in the tedious, deliberative way that it does. Fund science education and research. It is possible that the next advance against cancer will come from an unexpected corner of science. That is how real science happens. That flight to the moon was simply a technical application of what we already knew.
Genervon – Use a PR and social media stampede to try to win FDA approval; it’s easier than conducting pesky research.
Genervon saturated the wires with news about its drug for ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to create uncritical support for its products.
http://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-01-genervon-asl-drug.html (Note that in this hyperlinked example, copy-editors – are there any? – referred to ALS as ASL, creating a new disease? Or were they hoping to communicate the excitement in even more ways, including ASL or American Sign Language?)
They claimed that minor changes in some blood chemicals in unreported studies were sufficient to show the promise of their product. The story was picked up by countless media outlets in the service of stories for rolling back FDA protections for patients by means of “Right to Try” legislation. (Never mind that there already is a Compassionate Use Exception in federal law.)
Meanwhile, Genervon has been utterly non-compliant about sharing real data with the FDA.
But some lazy journalists, chained to the “human interest story line” were willing accomplices as shills in the service of deregulation.
Medical marijuana—If nothing else works, give pot a shot.
Disclosure: I have no problem with recreational pot although I have not smoked or brownied it since college at St. Olaf when it had the medicinal effect of easing the pain of neo-Calvinism. Twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana. Medicinal marijuana is largely a scientific crock sold by weeping anecdotes.
It’s easy to write about politics and heart wrenching stories. Science is hard and in this case, almost non-existent. A study of 16 people with real asthma showed no benefit; 8 people with simulated asthma benefited. One study found no effect in nausea. A tiny number of patients with pain benefited; mostly they just got stoned. Some journalists stuck to the human interest storyline and as far away from the data as possible. Laws were passed listing acceptable conditions according to the intensity of the tears. Real journalists would have grounded the debate about legalizing marijuana on whether it is just another intoxicant or a legitimate therapy.
Martin Shkreli—A New Year’s thanks to you for showing us that business may skin the sick but may not fleece the rich.
In the past, I prescribed this drug. It is on the World Health Organization’s list of Essential Drugs for many parasites, including malaria. Shkreli’s 5000% price increase from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill provoked outrage but no warrant. Unfortunately, he got charged with gouging some rich people in a financial scam. If convicted and sent to stamp license plates, he could treat his headache with aspirin at $55 per tablet. Take two tablets as needed every four hours.