Skeptic Fails and Wins this Week

Nathan sent in this great win that he heard about on CBC radio. It’s a software tool developed by Berkeley researchers that allows you to look at both sides of a disputed claim and evaluate the facts. Looks like a valuable tool for skeptics. If more journalists used a tool like this, they would be less likely to end up on my skeptical fail list. Thanks for the link, Nathan.

The Better Business Bureau has a webpage full of videos covering frauds and scams called Fraud Cast. They cover everything from internet scams to large scale ponzi schemes. Keep in mind that the Better Business Bureau is a private corporation, and they may be advertising for their own services. However after watching a few videos, the Fraud Watch site seems like a good resource for learning about different types of scams. They have a library of videos where you can get information on different types of frauds, as well as providing resources for what to do if you’ve been the victim of fraud. It’s good to remember that skepticism can be used to evaluate more than just scientific claims…it applies to business as well.

Brian found this major fail in the Globe and Mail about a naturopath/homeopath who went to Haiti. This poor homeopath was disappointed that people with real problems didn’t seem interested in his “holistic” treatment. But the real disappointment is Jessica Leeder’s journalism…she failed to ask one critical question about this “doctor’s” claims. It seems that every week I see a media fail like this one…instead of a story that tries to get to the truth of these claims, we get stories that are set up like advertisements for homeopathy. A homeopath gets to make a series of unchallenged claims and then link to their website or practice at the bottom, and the journalist fails to ask any important questions. So from here on out, I’m going to start calling these journalists out by name until they start doing their job. Jessica Leeder, you fail!

Boing Boing gets a win for doing my job and reporting on the media’s failure in covering the Bloom box fuel cell. I suspect that Rob Beschizza (Boing Boing’s technology writer) must read some skeptic blogs, because he used the word “woo” in this article! Boing Boing has been producing a lot of skeptical articles lately, and it’s great to see that type of thinking outside of the core set of skeptical blogs.

Katherine found this fail about a man who recovered from throat cancer. Like every cancer recovery story, “doctors were stunned”. It appears his recovery was related to an experimental drug treatment, but the story also credits acupuncture and naturopathy for his recovery. The story doesn’t make it clear if his oncologist suggested the alternative treatments or not. While the story does have a little blurb about why the drug treatment he received is not covered by insurance, it doesn’t give any information on the “alternative” treatments he received, or question if they had anything to do at all with his recovery. I give the Province a big sad trombone for this story.
Rob from Regina sent in this fail. I’m just going to paste exactly what he wrote in his email, because he put it so well. He writes:

I have a suggestion for the fail of the week. CBC with another “Scientists are fill in the blank” story. At the link below they are stymied but the low number of flu cases this year.
Low number of flu cases stymie experts
Now we all know that things are just getting interesting when something odd happens. But by saying they are stymied, it sounds like there is no explanation and the scientists have just given up. It’s a perfect setup in the comments for the conspiracy theorists cries of “I told you it was all hype by Big Pharma”, and the correlation equals causation crowd saying “Duh! It’s because we washed our hands, Man.”
Another chance lost to point out how important it is to investigate and find out why that’s odd. Maybe it was hygiene. Maybe the H1N1 virus has a critical concentration, above which it spreads fiercely, and below which it peters out. Maybe homeopathy works and somebody sneezed in the water supply. I don’t know. Let’s find out. That’s cool. That’s science. That’s the whole freakin’ point. Nope, scientists are stymied and nobody is going to be around to report when they figure it out. And even if they are, it won’t be certain enough to satisfy the Dichotomized Fox News crowd who get real nervous with shades of grey.
Sorry, that turned into a rant. I hope you check out the link. Thanks again for reminding me I’m not alone.

No need to apologize for the rant, Rob. I think all of us pull out our hair when we read headlines about scientists being “baffled” or “dumbfounded” or all of those other adjectives the media loves to use. Scientific knowledge is advanced by things that challenge our current understanding of the world,and scientists make their living on exploring these things. Scientists don’t get “stymied” they get curious.

That’s all the fails and wins I received this week. Keep reading, and keep those links coming to skepticnorthlinks [at] gmail [dot] com.

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  • Melany Hamill

    Melany proudly uses the titles of both geek and nerd. As a science-enthusiast and fan of debate, Melany likes to get her facts straight. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Chemical Engineering. Since then her career path has meandered to its current spot as a project manager at a video game studio. Melany lives near beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. She is not seeking treatment for her caffeine addiction.