Anecdotes do not constitute valid scientific conclusions

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it here before, but I am a huge fan of the Bad Astronomer. Dr Phil Plait is a scientist-turned-writer who has one of the most levelheaded minds on this side of the intert00bz. I read his book Death From the Skies! and enjoyed every minute of it (once, of course, I got past the whole “this book is about how the Earth could end” concept. Kind of depressing initially, before it hit me just how cool all the stuff was…and the fact that it would likely never happen in my lifetime or those of my great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren).

Dr Plait makes no secret of the fact that he is a member of the newly-coined “Skeptic” movement, something which has always been around but was only recently formalized in the wake of those who actively campaign against vaccines, global warming, evolution, and other scientific fields of research garnering significant media time.

The latest incident involved something called the Shorty Awards, an internet-based award given out by voting over Twitter for popular individuals across several different fields. A man by the name of Mike Adams, an editor on the website Natural News (a pretty ridiculous website about vaccine alternatives and homeopathy) was nominated and picked up many, many votes in a short period of time. Later, his votes were rescinded when it was revealed that many of his votes were coming from newly-created Twitter accounts whose only post was a vote for him.

Suspicious, right? Apparently not to the vitriolic and frothing Mike Adams. Some of my favorite lines:

Within a few days, thanks to the votes of our very large base of readers, myself and Dr. Mercola were leading the health category, having taken the #1 and #2 positions. This was all done with legitimate votes from real people from all over the world who support our work.

Mr Adams, I don’t know if you’re aware of the nature of Twitter or the Internet at large, but unless you personally spoke to each and every individual who voted for you, I don’t know how you could possibly know this.

I was set to take the top prize, and Dr. Mercola was in a solid second place when some vaccine pushers got word that a couple of “natural medicine whackos” (as they described us) […]


But the opposition didn’t stop there: They unleashed a campaign of slanderous and false accusations against NaturalNews readers, accusing the readers of somehow engaging in fraudulent voting.

Again, unless you personally identified every voter, you’re glossing over the fact that it’s very, very simple for an individual to create as many Twitter accounts as they want. I could spend 5 minutes writing a program which does this automatically. Welcome to the internets, Mr Adams.

Without a shred of supporting evidence (because none exists) […]

Or because you’re really not thinking that hard. Then again, it’s a lot easier to rail against vaccine, recommend purchasing an organic avocado, and sending a patient on their merry way than it is to devote your life to researching the biochemical reactions responsible for various ailments and running countless time-consuming lab tests to discover how to counteract them, isn’t it?

We are legitimate producers of natural health content who are both known all over the world, and we have very large numbers of followers and readers spanning well over a hundred countries.

Known all over the world, sure. Large number of followers, I’ll buy that too. Even all over the world! Cool. But how does any of that equate to legitimate votes? Simple: it doesn’t. You’ve committed the cardinal human sin of data inference: calculating P(B|A) instead of P(A|B). Just because you are known all over the world (nevermind negative perspectives), just because you have lots of followers (nevermind the phenomenon known as the internet troll), and just because you have a presence all over the wrold (um…internet?), does not inherently equate to legitimate votes. Legitimate votes, on the other hand, would be more indicative of a large fanbase. Or a small fanbase with programming talent.

Man, that critical-thinking science stuff keeps getting in the way, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t really surprising to see the vaccine quacks engaging in their false accusations, of course: Lying and cheating is par for the course for the vaccine and pharmaceutical industries. Their supporters apparently reflect that same lack of ethical behavior. They will apparently do anything to win, even if it means engaging in widespread false accusations and trying to get natural health people removed from the contest altogether.

This is, by far, my favorite. Mr Adams, you’ve completely unraveled.

First, judging from the vehemence of your post, I’m extremely skeptical when you say you weren’t surprised. Secondly, this has absolutely nothing to do with the pharmaceutical industry; this has to do with legitimate scientists and researchers. Don’t confuse the two, as they are very different entities (it does strike me as bizarre that the pharmaceutical industry – manufacturing drugs in order to save lives – is a for-profit industry), and yes, Big Pharma has a tendency (as for-profit entities are wont to have) to be less than fully honest, forthcoming, and ethical in its business practices.

Third, nice job lumping everyone in one big bin and condemning them all, though I must say that is very characteristic of the anti-critical-thinking crowd. Again, these are not supporters of the industry so much as the researchers behind the medicine. I am one such supporter, and I can say without reservation that if I heard an anti-vaxxer was currently in the lead for a health-related award, I would mobilize every person I knew to swing the vote the other way.

As for your unfortunate disqualification, there is certainly no solid proof that any wrongdoing occurred. But don’t flatter yourself: neither is there any way to know if any wrongdoing didn’t occur, and based on the evidence we have, it’s not encouraging. If it was my decision, I wouldn’t have removed you from the contest, but rather simply vacated the votes counted from newly-created Twitter accounts.

Regarding your work, Mr Adams: getting things wrong is inherent to the scientific process. Thomas Watson once said: “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” Proving previous theories wrong is how science advances its understanding of the physical world. It’s the best tool we have at grasping the rules of the phenomena we can observe. This “natural” stuff you’re advocating? I’m pretty sure that if there really was a 25-day cure to Type II diabetes, you’d have retired by now.

Don’t confuse a map with lots of blank edges for a world with no land masses; not being aware of something does not constitute nonexistence.


About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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2 Responses to Anecdotes do not constitute valid scientific conclusions

  1. eksith says:

    Someone probably put it best :
    “Homeopathy is basically tap water.” That is, unless someone can find credible proof to the contrary.

    Person A: I have a magic toadstool growing on my compost heap that cures colon cancer.
    Person B: Bloody proove it!
    Person A: You’re working for big pharma!!
    Person B: WTF?!

    And “They will apparently do anything to win”
    Including using anti-quackery WMDs like objective research… the bastards!

    Let’s set aside the conmen for now; we all know why they do this sort of thing.
    Why is it that seemingly educated people find it impossible to accept the first and most basic premise of all knowledge?

    Well, I just have one thing to say to Mr. Adams…

    We can pile these people on with the conspiracy nuts claiming the suppression of the car that runs on water, if not for the actual lives they can harm.

    • magsol says:

      For whatever reason, these folks live and breathe by the mantra of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Whenever science makes a mistake – say, the Himalayas are in danger of collapsing in 2350, not 2035 (misplaced “0”) – it tells them that all of science is wrong, instead of just the one mistake.

      Of course, this is very convenient for them, considering science progresses through mistakes at least as much as it does by way of breakthroughs. In fact, the former often catalyze the latter, since even if science screws up, we’re still learning something!

      But no. The singular anecdote from someone who knows someone whose child became autistic because of vaccinations takes complete precedence over decades upon centuries of biochemical, pathogenic, and medicinal research.

      Galileo about sums it up best:

      “Long experience has taught me this about the status of mankind with regard to matter requiring thought: the less people know and understand about them, the more positively they attempt to argue concerning them, while on the other hand to know and understand a multitude of things renders men cautious in passing judgment upon anything new.”

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