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Why was marijuana outlawed to begin with?

"This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others." — Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (an early predecessor of the DEA). Maggie 55

Adopt a skull to help the Mutter Museum

The Mutter Museum — a freaky fantastic collection of medical curiosities — is trying to restore and preserve a collection of 139 skulls that were once used to debunk the pseudoscience of phrenology. You can help by adopting a skull for $200. Maggie 2

The other problem with fake vaccine scares

It's not just that bad information on the "dangers" of vaccines is working to reduce the number of children getting vaccines — a fact that affects herd immunity. Now, there's evidence that the fake scares (and efforts to debunk them) are getting in the way of scientists publishing real evidence about actual problems with certain vaccines. These aren't the kind of broad "vaccines are poison" claims you're familiar with. Instead, we're talking about legitimate science documenting side effects that are usually very rare, but still have an impact on certain subsets of the population and need to be addressed. Maggie

How to: Tell the difference between real science and pseudoscience

Some pseudoscience is pretty obvious. I think most of us are comfortable saying that the world will probably not end this December, in accordance with any ancient prophecy. But distinguishing fact from fiction isn't always simple. In fact, "fact from fiction" might be too simple a way to even frame the question. In reality, we're sometimes tasked with spotting misapplication of real science. Sometimes, we have to tell the difference between a complicated thing that nobody understands yet very well but which is likely to be true and a complicated thing that nobody understands yet very well but which is not likely to be true.

Basically, it's messy.

Emily Willingham at Forbes has some helpful hints for how to make these distinctions. She offers ten questions that can serve as guidelines for approaching new topics you're skeptical of — questions that, taken all together, can help you see the patterns of pseudoscience and make informed decisions for yourself and your family.

3. What kind of language does it use? Does it use emotion words or a lot of exclamation points or language that sounds highly technical (amino acids! enzymes! nucleic acids!) or jargon-y but that is really meaningless in the therapeutic or scientific sense? If you’re not sure, take a term and google it, or ask a scientist if you can find one. Sometimes, an amino acid is just an amino acid. Be on the lookout for sciencey-ness. As Albert Einstein once pointed out, if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well. If peddlers feel that they have to toss in a bunch of jargony science terms to make you think they’re the real thing, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about, either.

9. Were real scientific processes involved? Evidence-based interventions generally go through many steps of a scientific process before they come into common use. Going through these steps includes performing basic research using tests in cells and in animals, clinical research with patients/volunteers in several heavily regulated phases, peer-review at each step of the way, and a trail of published research papers. Is there evidence that the product or intervention on offer has been tested scientifically, with results published in scientific journals? Or is it just sciencey-ness espoused by people without benefit of expert review of any kind?

Read the rest at Willingham's Forbes blog, The Science Consumer

Image: Day 35 of 365 - A Private Stash, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jesssseeee's photostream

The Nobel Prize in Quackpottery

At The Guardian, blogger GrrlScientist is passing out Nobel Prizes for Quackpottery in the fields of physiology, physics, and chemistry. The prizes are awarded to actual Nobel Laureates who have made deep and long-lasting contributions to undermining their own credibility by latching onto hypotheses they can't back up with evidence and then continuing to promote those hypotheses despite the lack of evidence. It's a nice reminder that scientists are human, and that even very, very smart people are not always rational people. Maggie

Olympic "K-Tape" unproven, scientists say

Alexis Madrigal on the weird tape that Olympic athletes are sticking on themselves:

It's called kinesio (or just 'k') tape. Athletes use the tape as a kind of elastic brace that they say helps relieve pain. The tape and technique were developed by Kenso Kase thirty years ago in Japan. Since then, many companies have developed similar adhesive tapes and they are in something of a marketing war. Unfortunately, the evidence that k tape does much of anything is scant.

Huh, I never would have thought that athletes, trained to succeed at all costs and given a perfunctory education, would be so easily sold on quackery and the promise of biological shortcuts.

That Weird Tape Olympians Have on Their Bodies: Does It Do Anything? [The Atlantic]

Crackpots, geniuses, and how to tell the difference

Over at Download the Universe, Ars Technica science editor John Timmer reviews a science ebook whose science leaves something to be desired.

Read the rest

The last thing I will post about apocalypse in 2012

Seriously. If you haven't figured out by now that the world is not ending and that any Mayan predictions claiming otherwise are largely fabricated pseudoarchaeology, then I'm not sure that I can help you. One last try, though. Please read this excellent FAQ, written by actual archaeologist (and my former professor) John Hoopes. I did an interview with Dr. Hoopes last year about the 2012 as a phenomenon, but the new FAQ covers, in detail, why a 2012 apocalypse is bunk, and what sources you can check out to find further accurate information about the confluence of ancient Mayan mythology and modern Western mythology. And that is all I have to say about this for the rest of the year. Coming in 2013, though: Lots of stories about Mayan archaeology. Just to mess with you. Maggie

Blood types and pseudoscience in Japan

Ever wonder why some anime and video game character profiles tell you about the character's blood type? Check out this fascinating post at the Providentia blog about the use of blood types as horoscopes and personality tests in Japanese culture. The practice has origins in early-20th century racist pseudoscience, and it can still negatively affect people today. For instance, somebody with Type B blood might have a hard time finding a job. (Via Jack El-Hai)