Episode 114: Ray Comfort’s “Atheist Delusion”

On this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn, Lauren, Gem, and Laura review Ray Comfort’s new “documentary” with special guests Ash Burkowski and David Bonwick, and the panel bids farewell to evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick with a game of Jack or Fiction.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism that is produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics.

Links: Bad Science Watch | NHP Monograph Consultations (Bad Science Watch) | TRC #420: Origin of 420 + Gem Newman of Bad Science Watch + History Of Halloween (The Reality Check) | The Atheist Delusion (YouTube) | Checkmate, Atheists! (YouTube) | Jack Chick (RationalWiki) | Leonard Nimoy Gallery (NSFW)

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Does Dr. Gifford-Jones Understand Science?

Cross-posted from Skeptic North.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, a prolific syndicated pseudonymous newspaper columnist, has written yet another article on the purported dangers of “radiation” from electronic devices. Well known to Canadian skeptics for advocating placebo cures, blaming “dirty electricity” for a host of common ailments, and promoting accusations that Health Canada is “terrorizing” the proprietors of health food stores, his most recent piece cautions readers to limit their cell phone use or risk cancer.

Mobile Phone (Public Domain Image)

The article was published under a host of fear-mongering headlines, including “Are cellphones really dangerous?” and “Could smartphones be slowly killing us?”, bringing Betteridge’s Law of Headlines quickly to mind: if a headline is in the form of a question, the answer is probably “no”. Gifford-Jones makes his opinion known in his typical style: heavy on anecdotes, light on evidence, and simply recycling much of its material directly from past articles he’s written*.

He begins by relating the story of a young woman who had the habit of carrying her mobile phone in her bra. According to Gifford-Jones, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, “what shocked doctors was that the pattern of the cancer lined up precisely with the shape of the cellphone.” Gifford-Jones uses this story as a potent rhetorical device, and while he notes that it doesn’t constitute “proof”, the reader is left with the clear implication that radiation from the mobile phone is responsible for the cancer.

Usually I’d begin with an admonition about the plural of anecdote, but here we’re not even provided with more than one. We should also be wary of confirmation bias: it’s helpful to remember that one in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and given the dearth of functional pockets in women’s clothing, it would be surprising if none of them had the habit of carrying their phone in their bra. Dr. David Gorski (a practicing oncologist who writes for Science-Based Medicine) also notes that in this particular case, it isn’t at all strange that the cancer was just where the woman had a habit of keeping her phone, because she happened to keep her phone right where breast cancers are most common (I recommend reading Dr. Gorski’s discussion of the case over at SBM). Finally, I’d suggest that perhaps people often see what they expect to see.

The article also cites concerns by Devra Davis, whose views have been subjected to criticism on Skeptic North in the past. When Gifford-Jones finally gets around to presenting evidence outside the realm of the anecdotal, it doesn’t stand up well to close scrutiny. He claims:

In May 2010, the World Health Association released a 10-year study into cellphone use and cancer rates. WHO recognized a significant correlation between brain cancer and those who used their cellphone, wireless home phone or Wi-Fi for more than 30 minutes daily.

He seems to be referring to the Interphone study, published on 17 May 2010, but Gifford-Jones’ discussion of the findings is so woefully incomplete that calling it a distortion of the facts would be charitable. First, and most obviously, the study did not recognize “a significant correlation” between cancer and those who use wireless home phones or WiFi, because the scope of the investigation was limited to mobile phones (and did not, so far as I can determine, measure exposure to WiFi or cordless home phones at all).

So what did the Interphone study find? Well, the World Health Organization (when Gifford-Jones references the “World Health Association”, I assume that he is referring to the same body) provides a useful summary of the results in their mobile phone fact sheet:

The international pooled analysis of data gathered from 13 participating countries found no increased risk of glioma or meningioma with mobile phone use of more than 10 years. There are some indications of an increased risk of glioma for those who reported the highest 10% of cumulative hours of cell phone use, although there was no consistent trend of increasing risk with greater duration of use. The researchers concluded that biases and errors limit the strength of these conclusions and prevent a causal interpretation. [Emphasis added.]

So the study that Gifford-Jones cites as evidence that mobile phones cause cancer found no increased risk of brain cancer in those who have used mobile phones for the longest, found no dose-response relationship between exposure and risk of cancer, and concluded that the data do not support a causal relationship between cell phone use and cancer.

If Gifford-Jones were publicly disagreeing with the methodologies or statistical interpretation used by the IARC researchers, I’d have no problem with that—but that’s not what he’s doing. He’s using the authority of the WHO to lend rhetorical weight to his argument while cherry-picking little snippets of their analysis out of its proper context. And, as usual, he fails to provide his readers with the name of the study he’s referencing (despite the fact that the results are available online), making fact-checking that much more difficult.

At this point, proponents of a cell phone-cancer link may well point out that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in Group 2B as a “possible carcinogen”. And this is true, as far as it goes; but what this means is that the evidence is equivocal. While this does put radio waves in the same category as DDT, it also puts them in the same category as pickles, coffee, and “being a carpenter”. I’ll also hasten to point out that beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages actually fall under Group 1 (that’s the “definitely known to be carcinogenic” group).

It’s important to remember that substances aren’t categorized based on how carcinogenic the IARC thinks they are; they’re divided up by how positive they are that a substance is at least a little carcinogenic. If they’re quite sure that something is a little bit carcinogenic (like alcohol), it goes into Group 1. If the evidence shows that something is probably carcinogenic, it goes in Group 2A. If the evidence is rather muddled (as is the case with radiofrequency EMF), regardless of how carcinogenic the IARC thinks it might be, it goes in Group 2B. So saying that cell phones are in the same category as DDT (or carpentry) can be misleading. It has nothing to do with how dangerous they think it might be: it has to do with how sure they are that it might be somewhat dangerous (in this case, not sure at all). Several large, randomized, controlled trials have found no link between cell phone use and cancer, while others have found a small correlation. Suffice it to say, I’m far from convinced.

Gifford-Jones is also a proponent of the notion that electromagnetic radiation is responsible for a host of symptoms that are often classified as “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” (EHS). Unfortunately, a careful review of the scientific literature reveals that there is no compelling evidence that the symptoms of EHS are caused by exposure to radiation, and a significant body of evidence disputing the link. Like “wind turbine syndrome”, electromagnetic hypersensitivity seems to be unrelated to its purported cause.

Talking about the dangers of “radiation” requires nuance, a skill that Dr. Gifford-Jones seems loath to display in his writing. Every time you turn on a lightbulb or have your photograph taken with a flash, you are being bathed in radiation—but it’s a harmless form of radiation. Not all radiation is created equal, and talking about the dangers of radiation in such sweeping terms does us all a disservice.

If you’re interested in further discussion of the purported ill effects of WiFi and cell phones, I presented a talk at SkeptiCamp Winnipeg on the subject last year. I also recommend taking a look at the results of Bad Science Watch’s investigation into anti-WiFi activism in Canada.

* The article even includes his usual porcupine lovemaking analogy. I don’t know what it is about this comparison that he loves so much, but I find it strangely amusing that so many of his articles admonish people to “use cellphones like porcupines make love”. At least this time he got the phrasing right. In the past a slightly mangled version has made it past the editors, which on a literal reading is rather unsettling: “Teach your children to use cellphones like porcupines — make love very, very carefully.”

Bad Science Watch Criticises Patient Safety Act for Neglecting Natural Health Product Users

Reprinted from Bad Science Watch.

Bad Science Watch Criticizes Patient Safety Act for Neglecting Natural Health Product Users

Bowing to lobbyists the Harper Government has excluded Natural Health Products from newly tabled “Vanessa’s Law”, sacrificing consumer safety for political expediency

Toronto, ON – December 6, 2013 – Bad Science Watch has criticized the newly tabled Patient Safety Act, known as “Vanessa’s Law”, for explicitly excluding Natural Health Products from the regulations to appease lobbyists.

The consumer protection organization claims that the already insufficient regulation of NHPs will be weakened as a result, neglecting the safety of NHP users and practitioners and compromising informed healthcare choice.

“What is otherwise an excellent proposal is horribly undermined by this glaring omission,” said Jamie Williams, Executive Director of Bad Science Watch. “The exclusion of Natural Health Products from the definition of ‘therapeutic products’ means the government would be able to issue a recall for a bad batch of lip balm, but not for herbal remedies adulterated with pseudoephedrine or tainted with toxic heavy metals.”

Bad Science Watch believes Canadians deserve robust safety and enforcement regulations for all health care products, and will be fighting to have the Act’s definition of “therapeutic products” amended to include NHPs.

Bad Science Watch is an independent consumer protection organization dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians by advocating for good science in public policy. More information can be found at www.badsciencewatch.ca.

For More Information Contact:
Jamie Williams
Executive Director
1-888-742-3299 ext. 102

Episode 65: Homeopathic Nosodes and Nostrums

Episode 65: Homeopathic Nosodes and Nostrums

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem Newman talks about homeopathic medicine in theory and practice, and is joined by Michael Kruse of Bad Science Watch to discuss the Stop Nosodes campaign.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: SkeptiCamp on 14 September 2013 | Bad Science Watch | Bad Science Watch: De-Registration of Homeopathic Nosodes | StopNosodes.org | Samuel Hahnemann | Paracelsus | Efficacy of Homeopathy | UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy | Health Canada: Natural Health Products | Remedy Regulation: Homeopathy in Canada | Slipping through the Cracks: Health Canada, Traumeel, and Homeopathy | Homeopathy Gets a Reality Check in the UK | Trituration Proving of the Light of Saturn | E-mailed Antigens and Iridium’s Iridescence | Nasal spray can cause loss of smell, FDA warns | Aspirin: Mechanism of Action | Hormesis

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Watchdog Fights Homeopathic “Vaccine Alternatives” with New Campaign

Bad Science WatchReprinted from Bad Science Watch.

Toronto, Canada, Friday, 5 April 2013 – Bad Science Watch today launched a new website to support their campaign to stop the sale of nosodes—ineffective homeopathic preparations marketed as “vaccine alternatives” by some homeopaths and naturopaths. The website, www.StopNosodes.org, features information for the public about nosodes and the danger they pose, steps that concerned citizens and health professionals can take to help the campaign, and an open letter to Health Canada.

There is no scientific evidence that nosodes can prevent or treat any disease. Despite this the Natural Health Products Directorate has licensed at least 179 nosode products (82 of which are used as vaccine alternatives), assuring the public that they are safe and effective. As a result Canadians choosing nosodes to prevent dangerous diseases like measles, whooping cough, and polio are acting on false assurances, and are given a dangerous undue sense of security. Additionally, they decrease the herd immunity in their communities, exposing themselves and others to further unnecessary risk. Since they provide no protection or benefit and contribute to falling vaccination rates, Bad Science Watch is calling on Health Canada to cease issuing licenses for nosodes and revoke the licenses for all existing products.

“By licensing nosodes Health Canada undermines its own policies and is working against its own efforts to promote vaccination,” said Michael Kruse, campaign director and co-founder of Bad Science Watch. “We must stop putting Canadian families at unnecessary risk and ban these products.”

Bad Science Watch is an independent non-profit watchdog and advocate for the enforcement and strengthening of consumer protection regulation.

For More Information, please contact:

Michael Kruse
1 (888) 742-3299 ext. 101

Bad Science Watch Completes Investigation of Anti-WiFi Activism

Bad Science WatchBad Science Watch is an independent non-profit activist organization dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians by countering bad science. The group is driven by a vision of a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Canada where critical thinking and sound science are paramount in the making of important societal decisions.

December saw the completion a project investigating anti-WiFi activism in Canada. The project committee (which I chaired) presented its findings to BSW, and the full report is now available on Bad Science Watch’s project page.

I’ll quote here from the conclusion of the paper:

We have been unable to identify any high quality reproducible evidence that any symptom of idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) is caused by exposure to nonionizing electromagnetic radiation. Systematic reviews of both provocation studies and purported treatments for IEI-EMF support the conclusion that EMF is not the cause of the syndrome.

Despite the claims made by the authors of one review paper and the aforementioned anti-WiFi groups, Bad Science Watch was unable to locate any compelling evidence of legitimate scientific debate about WiFi induced illness, or the safety of low-level EMF exposure in general. While fringe groups continue to present flawed arguments and promote poorly designed experiments, the preponderance of research on the matter robustly dispels the connection between WiFi and IEI-EMF. For those tasked with making decisions about the inclusion of WiFi technology in their organization, school, or home, we can find no reason to ignore the advice of health organizations worldwide. The benefits of WiFi are numerous and varied, and there is no compelling evidence that any health effects arise as a result of this technology.

You can read the full report here.

If you’re interested in supporting future projects undertaken by Bad Science Watch, I encourage you to to donate or volunteer.

Science: The Good and the Bad

As you may recall, I occasionally write science articles for The Manitoban, the University of Manitoba’s student newspaper. My most recent contribution, which the editors titled “The good and the bad: A profile of Canadian non-profit Bad Science Watch”, went live while I was on vacation last week. Here’s a taste.

Bad Science Watch is a recently formed Canadian non-profit activist organization dedicated to ensuring that important societal decisions are informed by good science rather than bad. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jamie Williams, Executive Director of Bad Science Watch, who took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to discuss the vision of the organisation and the political/social climate that led to its formation.

“Irresponsible companies and health providers are being allowed to spread misinformation and sell ineffective ‘alternatives’ to vaccines based on bad science. I and the other founding members saw a void in Canadian consumer protection and science advocacy regarding these issues. We saw a need for an independent organization with no industry ties or other conflicts of interest to campaign for all Canadians.”

You can read the full article online, or you can pick up a copy of the newspaper at your nearest University of Manitoba.