How to smell BS

Students in the 5 PM BIO230 section had a special treat this week, which was watching me having a rage stroke before their eyes. I think my performance was pretty well received, but it is now a few days later, and my blood pressure still hasn’t gotten back to normal. The other lecture sections and my Facebook friends are probably curious as to what it was that set me off, so I thought that I might take the opportunity to try and present a reasoned, logical argument that hopefully might be instructive. Fair warning though, that the language after the break might be kind of salty in places, so if you are easily offended, you might not want to click “Read the rest of this entry!”

With that irresistible carrot out there, here is what happened: in the course of our conversation about the single most important advance in medicine, the control of deadly infectious disease through the process of vaccination, some students mentioned that they had heard that the seasonal influenza vaccine causes a serious condition called Guillain Barre Syndrome. In Guillain Barre Syndrome, the normally immunologically privileged Central Nervous System becomes targeted by a humoral immune response, in the form of antibodies directed against myelin basic protein, or MBP. MBP is a major component of the sheathes around myelinated axons of the central nervous system, and when these sheathes are attacked in an inappropriate immune response, the ability of those nerves to carry impulses becomes impaired. The only treatments for the condition serve to reduce the severity of the signs of disease; no cure currently exists. Guillain Barre Syndrome is extremely rare, with an incidence of less than 1 in 100,000 people per year, and to date it is unclear what the trigger is to lead to the condition.

So naturally, there are plenty of theories as to what “causes” Guillain Barre Syndrome, and these include a number of potential bacterial and viral infections that might serve as a trigger for immune recognition of MBP. The very best circumstantial evidence is the finding that Guillain Barre Syndrome patients frequently have antibodies against a common gastrointestinal pathogen called Campylobacter jejuni, and that antibodies directed against C. jejuni can cross react with axonal autoantigens. The unfortunate situation is that none of these triggers have been demonstrated as a cause of the condition using Koch’s Postulates, which represents our best method for determining the etiology of a disease. Incidentally, the CDC estimates that there are approximately 2.4 million cases of disease due to Campylobacter every year.

So what about the seasonal influenza vaccine? According to the CDC website, there are 80 to 160 cases of GBS across the country each week, and this rate represents the “background” rate. This rate doesn’t fluctuate outside of that range throughout the year, however seasonal influenza vaccines ARE given at certain times of the year: from mid-October through late-January. If there was a link between the two events, we should see a seasonal shift in GBS incidence that mirrors the vaccination peak, however we do not observe this.

Which brings me around, finally, to my main point. It is my fervent hope that everyone in BIO230 takes away one thing from the course: Don’t believe every damn thing you hear!  To the students I include myself in this warning and admonition. We should listen to things we hear, and hopefully will have acquired through study the ability to smell bullshit when we hear it. I’ve found a couple of things over the past week or two that immediately set off my BS detector. Last week, I alerted us to the use of social media site in an effort to prolong epidemics. I also called out Dr. House for spreading bullshit on network television. The thing is that with the resources available to us today, we don’t have to take these things at face value; we can assess the validity of them with just a little bit of work. With Guillain Barre Syndrome, the anecdotal incidence presented in class didn’t jibe with the reported national incidence. A couple of clicks visiting reputable websites (the Centers for Disease Control, Pubmed, I even will accept Wikipedia in a pinch) can quickly allow us to make an informed opinion. And that’s not just our responsibility as BIO230 students, it is our responsibility as informed citizens.

BONUS: In the comment thread, describe something that you have heard (let’s keep it medically relevant!) that just doesn’t feel like it adds up. We will try to find out whether it smells like BS or not!  Offer good through the first day of class after Thanksgiving.


UPDATE: Comments must be more substantial than “I heard X causes Y”; this is BONUS, and I don’t want to do all the work. Remember, this was a RANT, and I am still ANGRY!


About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on November 17, 2011, in Bonus!, Rant. Bookmark the permalink. 45 Comments.

  1. I have heard that haemophilus influenzae type B (HIB) vaccine can cause Type 1 Diabetes.

  2. I have heard lies about mercury being in vaccines to scare parents away from vaccinating their children.

    • This was mentioned in class by me, when I talked about thimerosol (a mercury containing compound) being used as a preservative in some vaccines. So this is actually true.

  3. I have also heard of strange things being linked to causing cancer such as microwaving plastic, which they say releases cancer causing chemicals, and that using deodorant right after showering increases your risk for breast cancer. However, I found this website that clears up these myths and deems them as false.

  4. I have heard that males that keep their cell phone in their pocket will cause a decrease in sperm count.

    • I suppose it depends on whether it is the front pocket or the back pocket. The back pocket will offer (depending on the physique) several extra centimeters of shielding.

      Better eat more Maple Donuts today!

  5. I have heard that haemophilus influenzae type B (HIB) vaccine can cause Type 1 Diabetes.
    This website says that this rumor is false.

  6. I have heard that using deodorants cause breast cancer. I found the National Cancer Institute’s website that says this claim is false. There is no evidence that this myth is true and studies have been done that show no direct relationship between antiperspirants and breast cancer.

    • A simple consideration of anatomy would be sufficient to cast doubt a link between deodorant and breast cancer. There are a number of human cancers associated with topically added chemicals, however they result in cancers of the outer layers. A deep tumor such as in breast tissue would be exceedingly difficult to propose a mechanism for its occurrence.

  7. There have been chain emails sent around, supposedly from Johns Hopkins, with various claims about cancer. Some examples are that everyone has cancer cells or that cancer cells feed off of certain foods. However, Johns Hopkins has no involvement in these emails, and has set up a webpage to falsify all the hoaxes.

    • We of course know that we shouldn’t believe every damn thing we see on the Internet, but chain mail hoaxes are the worst. The problem is that crappy things happen to people every day, and a cancer diagnosis is one of the most horrific. I don’t know what I would do. I do know that it is human nature to try and find a cause or a cure, and that’s what leads to the appearance of the cancer emails. It’s our job to try and stamp them out.

  8. I have heard that vaccines have a link to autism [in children]. The vaccines containing thimerosal, which according to “”, contain about 50% mercury, making it twice as likely to have autism as those children that did not receive a vaccine. It seems as though thimerosal, intended to actually do a good thing by preserving the vaccine, is consequently harming those given the vaccine. The article “Vaccines cause autism: Supporting Evidence” on this website does however state that mercury is being removed from childhood vaccines. I know mercury can be toxic, but can we link vaccines to children getting autism-or is that just our “go to” explanation?

    • Fifty percent mercury? I call bullshit on that! According to the much more reputable site at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, they show a maximum of 0.01% mercury, or about 5000-fold less than the number your link would seem to suggest.

      There is definitely mercury present in some vaccines, as I stated in class, however the levels are far lower than some people are trying to suggest, and are for all intents and purposes safe.

      I do think that some of this controversy stems from again our desire to put our finger on some root cause for an unfortunate situation, as I recounted for the cancer comment above.

  9. I’ve heard people say that deodorants/antiperspirants cause cancer (something about the aluminum). This seems bogus to me, I feel like even if there is a link between aluminum absorption and cancer you’d have to eat a whole stick of deodorant a day for that to be the direct cause of cancer.

  10. I just saw that someone else mentioned deodorant and cancer. But here’s another one I’ve heard lately, that higher Vitamin E increases the risk of prostate cancer. It would take a lot more than one study for me to believe that.

  11. Also, here’s a link to the Vitamin E study:

    I would definitely want a large scale repeat performance to believe that Vitamin E causes cancer. I know vitamins aren’t just water that can do no harm, but this is a serious claim. Vitamin E is a necessary nutrient and these claims could stop people from consuming necessary nutrients.

  12. I’ve heard that sleeping with your cellphone next to your head can be a causing factor of brain cancer and/or kill brain cells.

  13. I have heard that if males drink Mountain Dew it lowers their sperm count. Many say that the dye yellow 5 in the drink is what attributes to lowering sperm count. This is a false claim according to this website.

  14. I have heard that many people believe that they can catch an STD from a toilet seat. Here is an article answering the question if one can get herpes from a toilet seat. There is also another article addressing other STD’s and the bathroom.

    • I recall an episode of House that had a plot development based on this premise. In the episode, a married couple blame each other for herpes. House suggested that the STD could have been acquired from a toilet seat One spouse said “No Way” (the innocent one), and the other said “Yeah it could be that” (the dirty, lying cheater.) House then pounced on the guilty party–problem solved!

  15. I have heard that using deodorant can cause Breast Cancer…but this website state sthat this claim in false.

  16. Allison Mazzotta

    I’ve heard that air hand dryers are more sanitary than paper towels in public restrooms but dryers release air that is not sterile, which increases the amount of bacteria on a person’s hands. The air also shoots the air (and germs) more than six feet from the dryer which makes the entire bathroom less clean.

    Read more:

  17. I have heard that talking on cell phones can cause cancer. In this link a study shows that cellphone use and cancer has no link between them.
    The National Cancer Institute says that cellphones emit radiofrequency energy, but there has not been a link between brain cancer and cellphone use. They also say that in order to cause cancer, the DNA must be damaged and radiofrequency energy, does not damage the DNA in cells, so it cannot cause cancer.

  18. I’ve heard that aluminum can cause Alzheimer’s disease, which I find incredibly hard to believe. A site I found talks about the many myths they have out there about Alzheimer’s and describes why they aren’t true>

  19. I heard that sleeping 6-7 hours a night was better for you and lowered your risk of cancer compared to those who sleep 8+ hours a night. I found a few sites stating the opposite about cancer, and that the increased melatonin can help reduce breast cancer, but a few newer studies have shown that 9 or more hours increases morbidity rate significantly. Studies are new and few and have many variables such as type of sleep, time in bed trying to sleep vs. REM sleep. Still very mixed opinions on this.

  20. I would like to call BS on the Seasonale Birth Control pill, which is a birth control method that allows only 3 to 4 menstruations a year. There are controversies on whether this method is safe and if it causes harm later on for women that use it. Of course, commercials and many doctors that prescribe it claim it to be safe but Mother Nature disagrees. There are important reasons for a monthly period including the getting rid of unfertilized eggs and the shedding of the lining of the uterus. The occurrence of these monthly changes indicates to women that their reproductive organs are working properly. The Seasonale pill does not seem right considering it is going against Mother Nature’s process of the reproduction system in women. Don’t fix what isn’t broken!

    Sources: s:

    • While I understand your point, I don’t think that arguing that “Mother Nature’s process” is always the way to go. Otherwise, we’d still have a couple of hundred million cases of smallpox annually today. I would imagine you might be correct with your distrust of the Seasonale approach, however hormonal approaches to birth control have been I believe have been hugely empowering for women, and they do offer a reversible approach for birth control. Analogous methods for male contraception (hormonal or immunologic approaches) I think are currently irreversible, and I don’t think that there are any actually in place for humans today. They are active avenues for research though.

  21. I’ve always heard not to swallow your gum or else it’ll stay in your stomach for about 7 years. This website disproves that tale by saying even though the gum cannot be digested, it doesn’t just stay there – it will still go through the digestive system and leave through stool.

    • As someone who has dogs (which are notorious for eating all sorts of things that are NOT dog kibble), I’ve noticed that pretty much anything that is less than the diameter of the small intestine can likely be passed through to the other end with little or no hindrance.

  22. I had always heard when I was younger that handling toads could give you warts on your skin. What I really found through some research is that toads can’t give you warts, but contact with another person who has an infected area can give you this virus. Often, warts take months to appear so most people don’t really even know how they got them.

  23. I always hear from my mom in the winter and other cold seasons to “put a coat on or you’ll get catch a cold!” but from what we learned from class and through this website is that colds are caused by a virus. In order to catch a cold the virus must travel from the sick person to you by either droplet or airborne or contact transmission. Colds are more prevalent during the winter because people spend more time inside closer together. As colds do not cause colds, something that was brought to my attention from this website was the fact that the cold causes vasodilation causes the nose canal to get dry which inhibits its ability to filter airborne pathogens.

    • I’m NOT going to call BS on Lauren’s mom, and will point out that I harangue my own kids when they go outside without a coat to wait for the school bus, and it’s really cold outside. Mostly, I just like to point out that it’s really cold outside, and it’s just kind of dopey to be uncomfortable when you could just put on a coat in the first place.

  24. I heard that leeches are useful in medicine, especially reconstructive surgery. I watched in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that they used leeches to circulate blood flow. One of the actors mentioned that leeches are useful because they act as secreting blood thinners that will pull the blood to help blood flow to the area. Is this true?

    I also found a video that a women who had a mastectomy was recently undergoing a breast reconstruction; however the surgeon noticed that the remaining tissue left in the breast was congested with blood, and decided that he needed to find a way to remove the old blood cells and increase the blood flow to the tissue to undergo the breast reconstruction. The doctor than decided that using medical age old leeches to be placed on the flaps. The leeches act on the breast by sucking out the old blood and increase blood flow to the tissue.

    Attached video about the breast reconstruction:

    Attached article about leeches:

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