As 2013 draws to a close, RealClearScience will be counting down the top 10 science stories of 2013 — the stories that awed you, affected you, and made you rethink what was possible.
But let us not forget the stories that did just the opposite — the stories that irked you, disgusted you, and made you want to cry, “BS!”
Brace yourself. This could get ugly.
10. A scientist claimed vaccines make you gay
In March of this year, Gian Paolo Vanoli, a 70-year-old Italian scientist, ludicrously claimed that vaccines are causing homosexuality. Here’s his “impeccable” reasoning, as told to Vice and translated by the Huffington Post:
The vaccine is introduced into the child, the child then grows and tries to find its own personality, and if this is inhibited by mercury or other substances present in the vaccine which enter the brain, the child becomes gay.
Vanoli’s logic lies in stark opposition to the facts. Vaccines have no bearing on sexual orientation, whatsoever. According to the American Psychological Association, there is no concrete consensus about what determines someone’s orientation. “Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.
While vaccines have never made anybody gay, they have, however, prevented 100 million cases of contagious disease in American children since 1924.
9. A TIME Magazine cover “cured cancer”
Time Magazine‘s cover on April 1st blared the hopeful headline like a lighthouse’s shimmering beacon: “HOW TO CURE CANCER.” And their method was simple: treat the disease like it’s a Hollywood big-budget blockbuster. The cover story itself, written by Bill Saporito, was full of charming anecdotes and blunt statistics, but little science.
“He mentions one study in which researchers doubled the two-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer — to 9 per cent. How did Saporito distill this into the cover language saying that dream teams know how to cure cancer?” Paul Raeburn critiqued.
Over at Slate, Seth Mnookin was even more scathing of the story and headline.
“[It’s] completely, utterly, inarguably false. The roughly 580,000 Americans who will die this year from cancer know the reality all too well.”
8. PETA claimed chicken wings can shrink a baby’s penis
In August, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) issued an ominous warning to all expecting mothers.
“The latest scientific evidence shows that the sons of pregnant women who consume chicken are more likely to have smaller penises because of a chemical found in the birds’ flesh.”
That’s pretty scary stuff, so the editors at Women’s Health Magazine diligently took it upon themselves to dig into PETA’s claim. What they discovered was decidedly not as frightening to poultry consumers.
The “evidence” that PETA cited didn’t even look at chicken consumption, but at compounds called phthalates. Researchers from the prestigious Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found that maternal exposure to these compounds can decrease the amount of testosterone a boy is exposed to in the womb. Low levels of phthalates are used in vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products. By comparison, chicken contains very, very little.
“I think any link between eating buffalo wings — even by pregnant women — and the size of their son’s genitals is very tenuous,” lead researcher Shanna H. Swan told Women’s Health.
7. A chiropractor broke a baby’s neck
Last year, two Australian parents took their four-month-old infant to a chiropractor to treat the baby’s torticollis, a condition characterised by an abnormal head or neck position. Instead of a remedy, the baby received a hangman’s fracture to the upper spine.
The story came to light this fall in the Sydney Morning Herald. Also covered was the follow-up investigation undertaken by the Chiropractic Board of Australia, who, unsurprisingly, found no evidence of wrongdoing and “punished” the chiropractor with additional training in the field of pediatric chiropractic. Showing a distinct lack of caring for the infant, chiropractors of Australia simply obfuscated and denied.
However, what chiropractors can’t in good conscience deny is that pediatric chiropractic is supported by almost no evidence and very likely is totally ineffectual.
6. A scientist used maths to “prove” gay marriage is wrong
This year, Chibuihem Amalaha used magnets to “prove” that gay marriage is wrong. His logic goes a little something like this: north and south poles of magnets are attracted to each other, but the same poles repel. Therefore, this obviously “means that man cannot attract another man because they are the same, and a woman should not attract a woman because they are the same.”
For extra credit, Amalaha applied his “exemplary” maths skills to the issue, and came up with the same conclusion!
“If we use A as a man and use B as a woman we are going to have B + A that is woman and man showing that there is a reaction. A + B reacted, they interchanged and gave us B + A showing that commutativity obeys that a man should not marry a man and a woman should not marry a woman… But in the case of idempotency A + A will give you A showing that it goes unreacted. You started with A and you meet A, the final result is A. Showing that a man meeting a man A + A will produce a man there is no reaction, it goes unreacted and in chemical engineering you have to send the material back to the reactor for the action to be carried out again showing that it goes unreacted. That is how mathematics has shown that gay marriage is wrong because commutativity proves that gay marriage is wrong.”
Amalaha may still be a grad student, but he’s already bullish on his chances of winning a Nobel Prize some day. If his current work is any indication, he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.
5. Portland rejected water fluoridation
The waning hours of Tuesday, May 21st saw many blue-clad Portlanders gleefully clapping and smiling. Why? Because they had just successfully voted to reject one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century: water fluoridation.
It was the fourth time the Pacific Northwest metropolis had rejected the measure, making it still the sole city among the nation’s 30 most populous to not approve fluoridation.
Critics of the measure smeared it as nothing more than an insidious attempt to place a toxic pollutant in the water supply, arguing that it would lead to lowered IQs, thyroid dysfunction, and mottled teeth, among other frightening outcomes. But they couldn’t have gotten the science more wrong.
Water fluoridation adds no more than 1 part per million to the drinking supply, a minute amount that has produced few if any adverse effects in people or to the environment for over six decades. But still, the addition of this tiny mineral can reduce rates of childhood cavities anywhere from 20 to 50 per cent!
Apparently, Portlanders favour that more natural, toothless smile.
4. Anti-Vaxxer Jenny McCarthy joined The View
In July, ABC announced that Jenny McCarthy, an actress and television personality noted for her anti-vaccination views, would be joining the daytime program The View. So began a righteous uproar from writers and organisations concerned with public health.
For years, McCarthy has trumpeted the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism and has actively campaigned against them.
Writing at The New Yorker, Michael Specter had this to say about McCarthy’s hiring: “Jenny McCarthy, who will join ‘The View’ in September, will be the show’s first co-host whose dangerous views on childhood vaccination may — if only indirectly — have contributed to the sickness and death of people throughout the Western world.”
Since joining The View in October, McCarthy has wisely remained silent on vaccination. Hopefully, this will continue.
3. Bigfoot DNA sequenced
In the past, all Bigfoot believers had were blurry videos and long-distance photos. But that all changed this past February when forensic scientists in Texas claimed that they had sequenced Sasquatch’s DNA!
“The data conclusively proves that the Sasquatch exist as an extant hominin and are a direct maternal descendant of modern humans,” the team wrote in a paper published to a brand new journal they founded themselves.
Careful analysis spearheaded by John Timmer at Ars Technica would later wholly refute their assertion. The samples the team worked on were seriously contaminated. They were not from a mythical ape creature but more likely from various animal sources.
2. The return of Cold Fusion
There are few scientific ventures more exciting than fusion energy. Fusing together two elements releases a large amount of clean energy — energy that could power the Earth for tens of thousands of years and also be used to propel us to nearby stars.
Such a bright outlook breeds hucksters, however — people who seek to lure you in with hope while parting you from your money. Where fusion is concerned, the most commonly known hoax is the E-Cat, a device that supposedly fuses nickel and hydrogen at room temperature. (Fusion is supposed to require massive temperatures and pressures.)
1. Terrible nature “documentaries”
This year, the #1 junk science story of 2013 is a shared honour, and it belongs to Animal Planet and Discovery Channel for producing perhaps the worst — and definitely the most misleading — nature “documentaries” in recent memory.
The fishy fabrications started in May. Animal Planet aired “Mermaids: The New Evidence,” weaving together shaky video evidence and genuine scientific theories to entertain and mislead viewers. The only clue to the documentary’s fictitious nature was provided at the tail end of the program in the form of an ephemeral disclaimer.
Mermaids, of course, don’t exist. No physical evidence has ever been uncovered supporting their existence. Besides, how would they defecate?
Noticing the record ratings that Animal Planet reeled in, Discovery Channel followed up with a fictitious documentary showing that Megalodon, the 60-foot-long extinct mega shark, still exists today. Except they didn’t even provide a disclaimer that it was fake!
Boatloads of complaints flowed in, none perhaps more perfectly stated than that of marine biologist Christie Wilcox, who wrote an open letter to Animal Planet:
The real science of these animals should have been more than enough to inspire Discovery Channel viewers. But it’s as if you don’t care anymore about presenting the truth or reality… And the sad part is, you are so well trusted by your audience that you actually convinced them: according to your poll, upwards of 70% of your viewing public fell for the ruse and now believes that Megalodon isn’t extinct.
Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives was not just a disservice to your genuinely curious audience. It was a lie. You used your reputation to deceive your viewers, and you didn’t even apologise for it.
That’s why a great many people were surprised this spring when an independent test seemed to show that the E-Cat works!
But the cautious excitement was short-lived. Physicists Ethan Siegel and Peter Thieberger thoroughly trounced the paper (which had not been peer-reviewed). Wrote Siegel:
If this were an undergraduate science experiment, I’d give the kids an F, and have them see me. There’s no valid information contained here, just the assumption of success, the reliance on supplied data, and ballpark estimates that appear to be supplied “from the manufacturer.”
This is not a valid way to do science at all. And this is certainly not even close to meeting the criteria required for extraordinary evidence to back up such an extraordinary claim.
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