Even harmless quackery kills

A recent study with almost 2 million subjects evaluated the effectiveness of Complementary Medicine in fighting cancer. CM is that supposedly harmless stuff like yoga and essential oils and homeopathy taken in addition to standard, tested, genuine medicine — stuff that you’d think wouldn’t hurt (although it wouldn’t actually help, either, except maybe in your emotional well-being), except, ooops, it did.

Findings In this cohort study of 1 901 815 patients, use of complementary medicine varied by several factors and was associated with refusal of conventional cancer treatment, and with a 2-fold greater risk of death compared with patients who had no complementary medicine use.

Meaning Patients who received complementary medicine were more likely to refuse other conventional cancer treatment, and had a higher risk of death than no complementary medicine; however, this survival difference could be mediated by adherence to all recommended conventional cancer therapies.

That last paragraph is important: sure, aromatherapy isn’t going to harm you unless you use it as an excuse to avoid conventional treatments. And, unfortunately, from the statistics it seems that a lot of people were doing that, giving the overall group a 2-fold greater risk of dying. I think it’s important to note that this is a statistical assessment — supplementing your chemo with traditional Chinese medicine won’t kill you directly, it just puts you in a group that contains many members who will defy medical advice, and end up dead earlier.

I tried to poke a few holes in their conclusions, which is fairly easy to do in this kind of study, but the authors kept foiling me. One concern I had was that maybe their results were biased by the fact that people whose conventional treatments were failing were more likely to turn to desperate, unlikely treatments — so the results weren’t so much “CM causes people to neglect good treatments” as “failing treatments cause people to try CM”. They had an answer.

As patients receiving CM were more likely to be female, younger, more affluent, well educated, privately insured, and healthier, we hypothesize that our sample was biased in favor of greater survival for patients who used CM (vs no CM).

I guess it makes sense. If you’re intentionally taking a placebo, you probably think it is actually going to help you, and it’s that delusion that’s going to make you more willing to turn down effective, advantageous therapies, especially if they’re going to cause you more discomfort. One thing about CM is that it’s always mostly pleasant and doesn’t challenge the patient in any way. It may be doing harm by increasing complacency about a deadly disease.


The most evil and powerful atheist in the world

You might be wondering who that would be, but the answer is right in your face. It’s ME. Yes! According to YouTube comments, which are clearly an unimpeachable, credible source, I am responsible for destroying the atheist movement. Me! And you regular readers of Pharyngula get a mention, too. It’s all our fault.

(Warning: YouTube comments below.)

I still get people who are resentful and angry that I published a letter from a woman who was mistreated by Michael Shermer.

I’m impressed that you were able to lay so much bullshit in such a concise manner. What you have is a bunch of second hand material you have contrived to fit a narrative you thought would drum up traffic for you shitty blog. You have not only excluded the possibility that women have agency and are able to make decisions – such as choosing to have another drink, but you also ignore the fact that women actually have sexual urges. Did this woman complain? No. The reality is that she had a few drinks, found Shermer attractive and decided to fuck him. I think it’s quite ironic that a biologist could forget the old adage ‘men display, women choose,’ as it is fucking ubiquitous among primates. But I must be forgetting, you’re a ‘feminist’. According to your bizarre set of beliefs, women don’t have agency, sexual desires, accountability for bad decisions, the ability to defend themselves from criticisms, etc.

Edit: Seriously, PZ, you are just a dishonest sack of shit. Circa 2010 this community was about keeping religious fundamentalism out of the classroom. It was growing momentum and had a real chance at making a difference. But parasitic shit-eating cum-dumpsters like you broke that community by trying to co-opt it for your own political ends. You killed the atheist movement, PZ. A collective was united by the idea that education is sacrosanct, and you along with your 3rd-wave cohorts tore it apart by trying to indoctrinate free thinking individuals into your creepy religion. Hope you’re proud of yourself.

So…I’m the one denying women’s agency, but he gets to assert, against a woman’s own words, that she “decided to fuck him”. He had nothing to do with it, it was entirely the woman’s choice.

I have never heard the “old adage” that ‘men display, women choose’ in a biology class. It sounds so sweet, inocuous, and unreal. Men are just passively trying to look good, no pressure, and women are entirely the active agents in all sexual interactions. I’m sure many rapists use this kind of logic to justify their actions. “She made me do it!”

I also kinda suspect that this guy was never much of a fan of education, or that his participation in the movement was entirely about keeping education “sacrosanct”, or he wouldn’t have dived off the deep end at the mention of the word “feminism”.

I don’t want to leave all you readers out of this. You’re also responsible for the destruction of the atheist movement, you know.

+PZ Myers By helping destroy the atheist movement with your retarded beliefs, you have done more to help creationism than the whole CCP combined. You have no place here, PZ. Leave. Go back to your shitty little blog with your shitty little friends an share a pint of piss while you cry into each others arms about patriarchy and rape culture.

I confess that despite all their assertions I don’t feel like I’ve ever been powerful enough to destroy the movement. It’s still an ego boost, though, that the people who hate me so much are such terrible human beings. I’ve got the right enemies.


Friday Cephalopod: A kinder, gentler threat to our undersea friends

Those cunning hu-mans have now developed a new way to nab innocent squid.

It’s nice that it’s less likely to injure the creatures, but should we really be encouraging squidnapping?


Even tiny brains are complicated

This is impressive: scientists have scanned and imaged every neuron and every connection in a fly brain

. The data has been made freely available, and you can download the whole dataset, if you have 12TB of storage available.

Human brains have about a million times more neurons than a fly brain, and note also that this is morphological, rather than biochemical data, which is going to be even more complex. Adjust your expectations for mind uploading accordingly.


It wasn’t Cthulhu after all

There was this mysterious large black sarcophagus found in Egypt, and for a while, there were wild rumors of evil curses and imprisoned demons and HORRIBLE FATES AWAIT ALL WHO OPEN IT. Sadly, the only things in it were three skeletons and lots of reeking sewage that had seeped in.

Addressing media fears that disturbing the tomb could trigger an implacable Pharaoh’s curse, Mr Waziri declared: “We’ve opened it and, thank God, the world has not fallen into darkness.

“I was the first to put my whole head inside the sarcophagus… and here I stand before you … I am fine.”

Dang. I’d almost been hoping for an apocalypse that would put us out of our misery.

Despite that, the site has now been cleared of people amid fears the sarcophagus could release lethal toxic fumes, Egypt’s state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram says.

So, you’re saying, there’s still hope?


How Reddit Rescued a Forum for Harassing Women

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I’ve talked about Reddit on here and on Skepchick before, and to be frank, it’s hardly ever been good news. Most of Reddit’s usefulness centers on it being the best place for researchers to study the proliferation of Nazis on the Internet, which isn’t really something to brag about, you know? There was one sort of positive piece I did last year about a study that showed that censoring hate speech works. To recap, researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology studied the posting habits of Redditors who were previously active on some hate subreddits directed at fat people and black people. When those subreddits were eventually banned by Reddit, the researchers found that almost half of the users disappeared or deleted their accounts, and of the ones who stayed, they reduced their use of hate speech by 80 to 90%. Banning the hate forums actually did help stop the hate speech on Reddit.

I bring all this up because last week, the Redditor who created Kotaku in Action attempted to delete that subreddit. Kotaku in Action, or KiA, was created alongside Gamergate, and became a place for Gamergaters to collect and dox, harass, and discuss women like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu (and yes, in full disclosure, occasionally me — I’m not a video game maker but I am a prominent feminist, and Gamergate was above all other things an outlet for men to harass feminists). KiA has been active for years now, and its creator, david-me, published a post describing how it was, despite all appearances, pretty heavily moderated for awhile.

David-me says that for a long time, he and the other moderators worked hard to delete the worst of the harassment and slurs, but that they had trouble keeping up and even figuring out what was too misogynist or racist for Reddit and what was just misogynist or racist enough to skirt the rules.

He also describes how he felt as a person with autism and generalized anxiety disorder, when those conditions were constantly used as the butt of jokes by people on the subreddit he created and moderated. It’s interesting how we often accept the slurs directed at others but suddenly see the problem clearly when their directed at ourselves.

So after many years of attempting to clean up the subreddit but seeing it overwhelmed with upvotes from virulent bigots, David-me decided to shut it down for good. He posted about how Reddit higher-ups knew how bad it was but allowed it to continue because the traffic was so plentiful, and therefore the ad money was too. He pointed out that while KiA was a “cancerous growth,” it was a mere suspicious mole compared to the full-body malignancy that is the_donald, Reddit’s home for Donald Trump’s fanbase, who constantly post bigoted slurs and threats toward women, minorities, and of course now, journalists who they think produce “fake news.”

Though David-me helped create this monster, and allowed it to fester for years, and only seemed to come to this realization in part because he realized he was one of the oppressed people being mocked on the subreddit, I still think he should be commended. Reddit operates on a system that prioritizes fake Internet points, and trying to get other users to like you and reward you with those sweet upvotes. Shutting down a subreddit with nearly 100,000 subscribers takes guts.

And as the research I mentioned suggests, David-me’s actions could have a very real impact on reducing the total amount of hate speech on Reddit.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Reddit higher-ups stepped in and reversed David-me’s actions, reinstating Kotaku in Action and establishing other moderators in his place. That’s right — not only did Reddit allow KiA to fester this long, but they took an administrative action to reverse the founder and primary moderator’s decision to end the subreddit. That’s not just Reddit tolerating the bigotry — that’s them actively approving of it.

It’s gross, and I wish I could say I’m surprised. But time and again Reddit proves that it does not place any emphasis on the health and safety of either its own users or people in the wider world who are targeted and harassed by these users. You would hope that in an era of people starting to fight back against Trump, the GOP, and the abusers who inspired #MeToo, Reddit would maybe take the temperature of the room and join the forces of good.

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Angelina Jolie’s Breast Cancer Doctor is a Victim-Blaming Quack

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Meet Dr. Kristi Funk. She’s pretty, blonde, works out of an office in Beverly Hills called Pink Lotus, and has famous clients — most notably, she’s the person who Angelina Jolie saw when she famously decided to have her double mastectomy in the hopes of preventing contracting breast cancer. In other words, Dr. Funk is Oprah-ready, and so of course she’s getting the fawning interviews we expect these days out of journalists who have absolutely no clue what science-based medicine is.

Last week, Funk was profiled for The Times, a London-based newspaper with a circulation of about half a million people. Helen Rumbelow, a Times features writer, sat down with Funk and preceded to give her a multinational platform to spew more shit than what probably came out of Funk’s last detoxing colonic.

But first I want to talk a little about Jolie, since Funk is so tied to her and I want to be clear about where I stand. I have to state for the record that I did think it was quite brave when Jolie talked publicly about her mastectomy, which she said she got because she tested positive for a gene mutation that drastically increase a person’s chances of getting breast cancer. Since that time, research has been mixed on whether or not double mastectomies actually do that much to reduce the risk of breast cancer, though a paper that just came out last March suggests that it does help women with their mutation in the BRCA-1 gene, though not those with the mutation in BRCA-2. Jolie had BRCA-1, so it looks like the science is with her.

After Jolie’s story went viral, there was an uptick in the number of women who requested genetic testing, but there wasn’t an uptick in mastectomies because the vast majority of those women didn’t have the mutation. Doctors only recommend the test if a person has a strong family history of breast cancer, so in the end it appears that Jolie’s story may not have saved lives so much as it scared a bunch of women needlessly and made them spend a lot of money — at $3,000 a test it added up to an increase in spending on genetics testing of about $13.5 million total.

So kind of a mixed bag, there — I want women to feel more empowered about their health and to also feel okay about not having breasts, but I also want women to understand relative risks and to not panic if they don’t need to. After all, needless panic can result in other medical problems.

But still, I never thought that Jolie’s cancer doctor was a quack, until I read her profile in The Times. In a completely gullible, idiotic interview, Helen Rumbelow lets Funk prattle on at length about all kinds of nonsense, including bragging about Jolie’s story increasing the number of women requesting genetic testing for no good reason. She also says that breast cancer occurs due to dairy intake, so you’d better go vegan. She says it’s “crystal clear that the body’s cellular response to animal protein and fat is nothing but dangerous,” which is garbage. No citation given or even requested. This is pure fear-mongering. Yes, eating a tremendous amount red meat and processed meat may increase your risk of certain types of cancers, particularly bowel cancer, but that’s a relative risk. It’s very tiny, and eating the occasional sausage is not going to give you breast cancer. Going vegan will not prevent breast cancer. And I say all this as a person who doesn’t eat red meat or processed meat, for a number of reasons including health.

Funk even tells Rumbelow that if her daughter continues having a glass of milk every day, she will grow taller, sure, but it’ll also be “setting the stage for illness.” There is no credible evidence to support the idea that dairy consumption leads to breast cancer, and in fact there is research to suggest that women who drink milk are actually less likely to develop breast cancer.

It’s such a ridiculous claim that it makes her next statement even more ridiculous: she acknowledges that alcohol increases breast cancer risk, but because it’s “hearth healthy” she still drinks a glass a day. Friends, if you want to debate what has the strongest possibility of being directly linked to breast cancer, the research is clear that it’s alcohol, not dairy. The difference is that Funk likes alcohol and it’s just not as trendy to give that up. Sure, it may have benefits for your heart, but you could easily get those benefits and many, many more by just going for a long walk or skip rope for 10 minutes. In this case, though, Funk has decided it’s okay to “compromise.”

And that’s the thing — it IS okay to compromise. You can’t live your life according to observational studies that show correlations between every little thing and disease risk. You’ll go insane! Running is great for your health and hell on your knees. Diet Coke is great for curbing your appetite and terrible for your teeth. Reading a book on your iPad at night is great for your brain but bad for your sleep cycle. That’s life, and it doesn’t help to mislead the public into thinking that certain foods or behaviors will put them at risk in any meaningful sense when they just don’t. And it’s idiotic to tell people that they can be protected by veggies, green tea, olive oil, ground flaxseed, and aspirin when there’s just no credible evidence to say that (yet the article does, all in one short paragraph).

The danger of all this is presented in the very first paragraph of the article: Rumbelow says that women used to consider breast cancer an act of fate, but the truth is that it’s women themselves who are responsible for giving themselves cancer. It’s fucking disgusting to tell a woman battling breast cancer that she’s to blame for not being vegan enough, or not eating enough flaxseed/olive oil smoothies. The science is complicated, and so are the reasons we get cancer. If you want to blame someone for causing cancer, blame tobacco companies who knew the scientific consensus and covered it up for years. Don’t blame a victim.

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Study: Women Have it Worse on YouTube

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Guys! Guys! Guys! Did you know that women, on YouTube, get harassed? If you didn’t, now you do. And if you don’t believe me, now there are scientists who say it’s true. So I’m sure that now people will stop telling me that I’m imagining things, that women just have a thin skin, that it’s all just constructive criticism, or that men get just as much bullshit as anyone else.

Haha, just kidding, this will literally not change anyone’s mind. But let’s talk about it anyway.

Inoaka Amarasekara is an Australian researcher who started looking into gender disparities among YouTubers back in 2015. Three years later, she’s found evidence that bitches ain’t be lying. She manually sifted through more than 23,000 YouTube comments on popular male and female science channels to sort them into six categories: positive; negative or critical; hostile; sexist or sexual; appearance-based; and neutral or general discussion.

Let’s pause just to appreciate this fact — she didn’t think that an algorithm would be nuanced enough to sort the comments, so she did it all herself. I don’t even read the comments on my own channel, because they’re often so pointless and gross that all it does is make me more interested in campaigning in favor of global warming in the hopes that it will lead to the extinction of the human race.

I guess the comments aren’t quite as bad to read when they’re not personally directed at you and your weird teeth and bushy eyebrows or whatever, but still, have you looked down there? It’s a horrific pit of despair. I’m just wondering if anyone has checked in on Amarasekara to make sure she’s okay, because sister spent three years reading YouTube comments and no one can come through that unscathed. In one of the greatest understatements of the year, she told the New York Times that after her ordeal, she was “quite disappointed” and that she “could see why people would not want to be on YouTube.” You don’t say!

Anyway, of course what she found was that yes, female science communicators got more shit. They get more than double the amount of critical comments compared to male hosts, and more than three times more comments about their appearance. Not shockingly, women also got twelve times more sexist or sexual feedback than men.

The New York Times points out that the study also found “positives” for women, one of them being that we get more comments. Uh, I’m not sure that’s actually a positive when those comments are way more likely to be talking about our tits, but thanks.

In actual positives, women were more likely to get likes and subscribers per view. Women were also a little more likely to get more positive comments than men, but let me tell you, it takes about 100 positive comments to make up for one comment detailing exactly how a man plans to find you and rape you. Maybe 200.

I know I sound a bit, um, pessimistic about this study’s potential to cause any meaningful change, but I do think it’s important. Unfortunately, women and minorities have lived experiences that we all understand and accept, but privileged people often have a hard time understanding and accepting them when we point them out. Rationally and scientifically documenting them won’t suddenly make everyone figure it out, but it is an important and unfortunately necessary step in telling our stories and finally being understood. And if research like this gets enough press, like the New York Times writing a feature about it, then maybe, just maybe, YouTube will be forced to acknowledge that the current system just isn’t working to make female creators feel safe and comfortable making content for this platform. As I’ve said before, I would never have come back to YouTube were it not for my patrons on Patreon.

Speaking of them, I’d like to take a moment to give them a shoutout. If you want to become a patron, you can skip the YouTube comments and leave comments that I actually read and even occasionally respond to over on

So thanks to all of my current patrons, a few of which are Keith Bostic, Suzanne Jacobs, Ben Matics, Robert Sheehan, Luke Swanson, Bob Gilmore, Tom Jaworowski, Bjarte Foshaug, jtorrey13, Dag-Erling Smorgrav, JonT, Oak Ragette, Auros Harman, Phiroze Dalal, Marcella Gilmore, Laura Wadlin, Siouxsie Wiles, and Secular Woman (that’s an actual organization and you should check them out!). You’re all stars and you absolutely completely negate the nonstop shitshow that is YouTube. Hey YouTube? Fix your shit. Thanks.

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Internet Gaming Disorder and The Psychology of Loot Boxes

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In case you haven’t heard, Internet Gaming Disorder is now a thing. It’s the idea that people can become addicted to online games. It’s not a “true” disorder yet — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, aka the DSM, which psychiatrists use to determine what is and is not currently considered aberrant behavior, has decided to list it as a possible disorder in need of further study.

In order to determine if a person has Internet Gaming Disorder, psychiatrists would look for them to meet five of the following nine conditions within a year. Let’s go through them and see which ones I might have. You know, just for fun.

I’d say I qualify for maybe four and a half of those. So I’m fine. Whew!

Obviously, there’s debate over whether this should actually be considered a problem, with many gamers upset that the experts are pathologizing otherwise normal behavior. And I sympathize with that viewpoint, since as far as I know there’s no Television Disorder, but I know plenty of people who are preoccupied with TV shows, who get itchy if they can’t watch Game of Thrones when it airs, who increase the amount of time they watch, who try to stop binging Netflix shows but can’t, who watch TV instead of engaging in other hobbies, and who use TV as an escape from their problems.

But hey, if enough people’s lives are being negatively affected by this one thing, then yeah, maybe psychiatrists should look into it with a bit more depth. And that’s one of the nice things about defining a problem like this — it tells scientists that this is a serious topic worthy of more research.

A good example has already popped up in the form of an editorial in the journal Addiction, where researchers at the University of Adelaide bring up a topic that’s fascinating and definitely worth looking into: lootboxes.

As many of you may already know, I have a Twitch channel where I play video games every weekday — usually Overwatch, a first person shooter that uses a lootbox system. Lootboxes are just what they sound like: little packages of joy that contain items that you can use in the game you’re playing. They’re random, so you never know what you’re going to get in one. Depending on the game, you could get a very common voiceline, say, or an ultra-rare weapon that might help you win the game.

It’s the randomness that is the genius of lootboxes. You can’t just buy the skin you want — you have to buy 20, 50, 100 lootboxes and open them all hoping to get what you want. If you don’t, too bad. Buy more lootboxes.

Some games give you things in lootboxes that can actually help you win the game, which makes buying them a necessity if you want to compete with other players. Overwatch only gives out cosmetic items, and because of that I’ve always supported their system. You don’t need to buy lootboxes to win, and you can earn them by playing the game, so you never need to spend any money at all. But that’s how Blizzard, the company that makes Overwatch, can continue to make enough money so that they can keep giving us new characters, maps, and game modes for free.

That said, the researchers studying the psychology of lootboxes make me wonder if even Overwatch’s system is predatory. They’re starting to change my mind, even though I love lootboxes, in part because I love gambling. The researchers point out that lootboxes, even ones you don’t need to win the game, are a form of gambling that satisfy the same psychological triggers as scratch tickets and slot machines. But unlike scratch tickets and slot machines, lootbox sales are legally allowed to target little kids who play the game. Not only might these little kids get access to a parent’s credit card and cause havoc, but they might be getting introduced to a gambling addiction early on.

I say all this while being, well, a person who got into gambling as a little kid. I used to run a little casino for my friends, complete with a roulette wheel (that I won playing a token-only slot machine at an amusement park) and blackjack. When I got a little older, I taught all my friends in high school how to play poker and we had a Sunday night poker meetup. Now I’m a (fairly) normal person, but I’m definitely prone to addictions. I’ve put in hundreds (or maybe thousands?) of hours into Overwatch, thousands of hours into Civilization, and I literally wrote the script for this video while taking breaks to catch Pokemon. The only reason I don’t have a diagnosable problem is because I’ve made games a part of my livelihood and I have a very understanding boyfriend.

There are other problems with lootboxes that even adults should be aware of. The researchers point out that many of these games collect data on the user and then use that to manipulate loot drop rates in order to maximize the amount of money they think they can make you spend. That’s pretty impressive from a psychological and programming perspective, but from a morality perspective, it’s downright sleazy.

I’m interested in this editorial and in the direction other researchers might be able to take their study of these manipulative systems. Their research could even inform public policy, since some countries are beginning to enact laws about lootboxes, like China where game publishers have to tell you lootbox odds, and Belgium has outlawed lootboxes altogether.

So I guess I’m being more and more convinced that even cosmetic-only lootboxes may be unethical. But hey, I have a slight gaming obsession so I’m going to keep grinding out that Overwatch loot. Also I get to kill people to get it, so it’s basically an addiction that’s tailor-made for me. Yeah, I might have a problem.

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Social Media, Pyramid Schemes, and Essential Oils: Don’t Get Scammed!

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Like all human beings with Internet access, I am of course contractually obligated to be on Facebook. Yes, it’s evil, yes, it’s probably going to hasten the downfall of intellectual society, and yes it’s mostly a place for elderly uncles to post racist minion memes, but here we are. How else will I keep up with what’s going on in the lives of people I went to high school with but never planned to speak to again once I left?

And what are those high school friends up to? Well, the ones who didn’t leave our small town are mostly busy with side hustles. What’s a side hustle, you ask? Jeez, you have a lot of questions today, hypothetical audience member. At first I thought a side hustle was a way to make money during your off hours — for instance, when I was a full-time copywriter I would make extra money by being a freelance writer on the side. Side hustle!

But it turns out that when people on Facebook and Instagram use the term, they mean the opposite of making money. They’re talking about posting images with inspirational text and desperately begging people to join their chosen multi-level marketing scheme.

If you’re on social media and you’re also following friends from high school, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you only follow friends you made in the past five or ten years, you might not know because people with real friends who they chose for reasons other than sharing fifth period algebra generally do not shill these products. If they did, all their real friends would eventually unfriend them and then they’d be left with only people they met in high school. See how it works?

If you’re not aware, multi-level marketing schemes are basically modified pyramid schemes. In a pyramid scheme, you make money by recruiting people beneath you. If I get 7 of you to give me $1, I make $7. Then each of you have to find 7 people to give you $1. If you do that, you have made $6. Sounds good until you realize that there are only so many people on the planet, and you will reach the limit extremely quickly, to the point that anyone who joins after a level or two is going to lose money.

For that reason, we call them a scam and they’re illegal. To get around this, pyramid schemes simply had to add a product. It’s the exact same thing, only now there’s an alternate way that you might be able to make money — not just from recruiting people, but by selling the product. But the money you make from selling the product is so slight, and the products themselves are so expensive and poor quality, that you hardly make any sales and if you do you hardly make any money. Plus the company will make you buy products to show your “customers,” so you will likely lose money. But there’s a chance you can sell enough terrible products to suckers in order to make money, so for that reason it’s not technically illegal. But in reality, people suckered into joining multi-level marketing quickly realize they can’t make money by selling the products, so they fall back on the true point of the business: recruiting more suckers to join under them, making that good ol’ pyramid structure.

Of course, as I pointed out, the pyramid doesn’t make 99% of the people in it any money either, so these people end up losing money, and often deep in credit card debt. To make matters worse, they end up driving away all their friends and family members, since every hangout turns into a chance to recruit new suckers, and every Facebook comment is a sneaky way to convince people to join the sinking ship.

MLMs have been around since Avon in the 1930s, but they’re seeing a renewal thanks to social media’s ability for people to both pester their friends and family constantly, not just when they see them, and also for their ability to reach beyond their circles to pester absolute strangers.

That’s why I’m making this video — to try to warn those of you who don’t know, or have friends and family members who may not know. MLM shillers can be devious, promising wealth that will never actually happen — every time one of these companies posts their income statistics, it usually turns out that 99% of people make absolutely nothing, which means that since they all have to pay (sometimes thousands of dollars) to buy in, they actually lost money on the venture. The other 1% got in before the market was saturated and still make next to nothing. Consider Young Living, an essential oils company, where in 2016, the average member lost $1,175. Additionally, people peddling essential oils will tell you all kinds of lies about their products — they can be extremely dangerous to children and pets and should never be ingested, but their sellers will tell you they can spice up your cooking and cure your kid’s excema.

I don’t want to single out Young Living so I’ll also mention DoTerra, another essential oil scam. In the makeup realm it’s not just Avon and Mary Kay anymore, but companies like Younique putting out garbage products at 10x the price you’ll find at Ulta. Rodan + Fields pushes “skincare” including a lash-boosting serum that is the subject of a class action lawsuit due to its tendency to permanently change the color of your iris and cause other truly fucked up things to happen to your eyes.

There are even clothing companies in on it, like LulaRoe that convinces women to buy boxes and boxes of hideous clothes with no say in what pattern or sizes or styles they get — whatever garbage the company sends, the suckers are expected to sell. And they have to compete with all the other LulaRoe “consultants” out there, many of whom are now going out of business and offering their garbage at half-price in a desperate attempt to recoup some of their losses.

MLMs are a disgusting, predatory scam that particularly prey upon stay-at-home moms and people with disabilities, promising them the opportunity to pay their rent just by posting on Facebook. It’s a lie. Don’t fall for it, and try not to let your friends and family fall for it. Let them know the facts, and reply to posts on social media that are shilling these products. Here are some red flags to look out for on Facebook and Instagram:

Here’s the thing: entrepreneurs with small businesses actually run their businesses, choose their products to sell, make the profit from those sales, market themselves, and pay their employees. Don’t fall for it!


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school of doubt

SIU Zero-time Adjunct Follow-up

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

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And so It Has Come to This

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.



Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research

P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]

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*Out of Office Response* Re: quick question?


Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.

Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?

If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.

If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.

2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:

When and where does our class meet?

What assignments do we have and when are they due?

When are exams and what will be on them?

How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?

3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.

4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.

5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?

Such questions might include but are not limited to:

How much wood a woodchuck can chuck

The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)

Whether or not Bernie would have won

6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!

Please contact your TA for assistance.

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Required Reading, 5 March 2018

Just one today, because it is Important.

Ron Srigley, “Whose University is it Anyway?” LA Review of Books, Feb 22, 2018.

On another note, you may be noticing some visual changes across the Skepchick network. Along with the face lift we hope to soon put out a call for new writers and ramp up the activity a bit again, so watch this space!

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Pros of Participation Grades 3

Continuing my series on the downsides and benefits of grading participation, here is another benefit.

3. It is a motivation for some.

There’s no magic secret to motivating people, and broadly speaking it doesn’t work. One of the common skeptical criticisms of practices like firewalking and other such “motivational” activities is that the motivational effect is very short term. The body likes homeostasis and hearing someone yell “you can do it!” at you doesn’t do much to make long-term changes in the massively complicated set of hormonal interactions that affect our desires and willpower.

One of the things that was emphasized in my educational psychology classes was that teachers can’t motivate students. That is, we can’t make them want to do things. While we can try to set up extrinsic factors to “motivate” students, we have no real effect on their efficacy (eg. offering candy fails if a student doesn’t like candy) or on the much more powerful intrinsic motivators.

There are, of course, things that teachers can do to affect what students do. If this wasn’t the case, school wouldn’t really work at all. Millions of students do homework, take notes, and write tests that they don’t really want to, because they have some kind of motivation to do them that pushes beyond their personal disinterest.

Grades are one such motivating factor. Not all students are motivated by grades, and those who are are not all motivated to the same degree. However, there are such a significant number of students who are that it seems logical to use. Grades can even be an indirect motivator. A child might not care about the letter on the paper, but a parent might. The child may be motivated by a parental attitude, meaning that grades are important even when they are not.

(I’m not going to discuss whether grades are a good reflection of student ability – this post is simply proceeding with the fact that this system exists, not arguing about whether it should.)

If participation is important at all, it stands to reason that it should be graded. Grades reflect student performance and part of their performance is in how they participate, so it is not as if grading participation is assessing something irrelevant (like assessing physical appearance). Because many students are motivated by grades, tying participation in class to students’ grades can be an effective way to get some students to participate more in class.

A key weakness in this argument is that it is assuming that participation is important. In some cases, participation is truly irrelevant (and in such cases I would certainly argue against grading participation). However, in the cases where student participation is vital, including it as part of grades can be a good idea.

Another weakness of this argument is that it depends on students. If they do not care about their grades, this is once again irrelevant. However, there are always some who do care, directly or indirectly, and there can be ways of encouraging students to care (such as point out how a grade can affect their chances of getting something they want, like a job or special program).

One other potential problem with this argument is that one might argue that students who are motivated by grades also tend to participate well in class anyway. As a former extremely shy student who obsessed over grades, I can say that there are a number of classes in which I owe my active participation entirely to the fact that I was graded on it. Though I’m not a majority, students like me do exist and we can be a part of the reason to grade participation.

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bad science

Evidence to House of Commons Sci Tech Select Committee on Research Integrity

Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
bad science

How do the world’s biggest drug companies compare, in their transparency commitments?

Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
bad science

Meaningful Transparency Commitments: the WHO Joint Statement from Trial Funders

By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
bad science

How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
bad science

“Transparency, Beyond Publication Bias”. A video of my super-speedy talk at IJE.

People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]