Tag Archives: Skeptophilia

Warning: DNA is everywhere!

dna-double-helix

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

In yesterday’s post, I stated that I hated hoaxes worse than I hate outright scientific ignorance.  In response, a loyal reader sent me an article referencing a survey in which 80% of respondents said they favored mandatory labeling of foods that contain DNA.

DNA StrandsI kept looking, in vain, for a sign that this was a joke.  Sadly, this is real.  It came from a study done last month by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics.  And what it shows, in my opinion, is that there are people out there who vote and make important decisions and (apparently) walk upright without dragging their knuckles on the ground, and yet who do not know that DNA is found in every living organism.

Or maybe, they don’t know that most of what we eat is made of cells.  I dunno.  Whatever.  Because if you aren’t currently on the Salt, Baking Soda, and Scotch Diet, you consume the DNA of plants and/or animals every time you eat.

Lettuce contains lettuce DNA.  Potatoes contain potato DNA.  Beef contains cow DNA.  “Slim Jims” contain — well, they contain the DNA of whatever the hell Slim Jims are made from.  I don’t want to know.  But get the picture?  If you put a label on foods with DNA, the label goes on everything.

Ilya Somin, of the Washington Post, even made a suggestion of what such a food-warning label might look like:

WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.

Despite the scary sound of Somin’s tongue-in-cheek proposed label, there’s nothing dangerous about eating DNA.  Enzymes in our small intestines break down the DNA we consume into individual building blocks (nucleotides), and we then use those building blocks to produce our own DNA every time we make new cells.  Which is all the time.  Eating pig DNA will not, as one of my students asked me a few weeks ago, “make us oink.”

science cancelledBut this highlights something rather terrifying, doesn’t it?  Every other day we’re told things like “30% of Americans Are Against GMOs” and “40% of Americans Disbelieve in Anthropogenic Climate Change” and “32% of Americans Believe the Earth is 6,000 Years Old.”  (If you’re curious, I made those percentages up, because I really don’t want to know what the actual numbers are, I’m depressed enough already.)  What the Oklahoma State University study shows is:  none of that is relevant.  If 80% of Americans don’t know what DNA is, why the fuck should I trust what they say on anything else even remotely scientific?

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Dream weavers

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

Hard-nosed science types like myself are often criticized by the paranormal enthusiasts for setting too high a bar for what we’ll accept as evidence.  The supernatural world, they say, doesn’t come when called, is highly sensitive to the mental states of people who are nearby, and isn’t necessarily going to be detectable to scientific measurement devices.  psychic newspaper-1_250pxAlso, since a lot of the skeptics come into the discussion with a bias toward disbelief, they’ll be likely to discount any hard evidence that does arise as a hoax or misinterpretation of natural phenomena.

Which, as I’ve mentioned before, is mighty convenient.  It seems to boil down to, “It exists, and you have to believe because I know it exists.”  And I’m sorry, this simply isn’t good enough.  If there are real paranormal phenomena out there, they should be accessible to the scientific method.  Such claims should stand or fall on the basis of evidence, just like any other proposed model of how things work.

The problem becomes more difficult with the specific claim of precognition/clairvoyance — the idea that some of us (perhaps all of us) are capable of predicting the future, either through visions or dreams. future-sign-wide5_200px The special difficulty with this realm of the paranormal world is that a dream can’t be proven to be precognitive until after the event it predicts actually happens; before that, it’s just a weird dream, and you would have no particular reason to record it for posterity.  And given the human propensity for hoaxing, not to mention the general plasticity of memory, a claim that a specific dream was precognitive is inadmissible as evidence after the event in question has occurred.  It always reminds me of the quote from the 19th century Danish philosopher and writer, Søren Kierkegaard: “The tragedy of life is that it can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.”

This double-bind has foiled any attempts to study precognition… until now.

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This may sting a little…

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

At what point do homeopaths and other purveyors of woo non-medicine cross the line into committing a prosecutable act of medical fraud?

I ask the question because of a recent exposé by Marketplace, a production of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, called Vaccines: Shot of Confusion.  In this clever sting operation, mothers were fitted with videocameras on visits with their children to homeopaths.  The videocameras recorded, predictably, the moms being given lots of advice about the (mostly fabricated) dangers of vaccination, and how little pills with no active ingredients were a better choice.

Diphtheria_vaccination_poster_300pxOne mother was even told that “measles is virtually harmless for children over the age of one.”  This would have come as a shock to my grandfather’s two sisters, Marie Emelie and Anne, who died of measles in 1902, five days apart, at the ages of 22 and 17, respectively.

Not to mention the one million children who die annually from the disease, and the 15,000 a year who are left permanently blind from its effects.

The homeopaths in the video call today’s children “the sickly generation.”  And admittedly, there are some medical conditions that have increased in incidence in modern times (asthma, allergies, and autism come to mind).  However, it has been thoroughly demonstrated that none of the diseases which have increased are caused by vaccines (nor, by the way, are they treatable using sugar pills).  Further, given that there used to be epidemics of diphtheria, typhoid, measles, mumps, and other infectious diseases that killed thousands of children, you can only claim that this generation is “sickly” if you ignore historical fact.

Know of anyone in the last fifty years who has died of diphtheria?  Nope, me neither.

It seems to me that we have crossed some kind of threshold, here.

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Secrets of the pyramids

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

head_pyramid2_250pxWhat is it with people thinking that pyramids are magical?

I knew a woman a long time ago who was so convinced that there was something special about a square and four equilateral triangles that she built one by hot-gluing together some dowels.  Then she’d store her apples and bananas under it, and told everyone how much longer they stayed unspoiled than if the fruit was just sitting on her counter.

And lo, over at the Self Empowerment and Development Centre, we find out why this is:

Pyramids don’t kill bacteria. However the bacteria feed by absorbing nutrients as entropy breaks the tissues down. In a pyramid there is so little entropy that the bacteria barely survive and don’t multiply prolifically. Food therefore stays fresher longer and has a chance to dehydrate before it goes bad.

So these people not only don’t understand physics, they don’t understand microbiology.  Epic fails in two completely disparate fields.  Quite an accomplishment.

Other claims include the idea that pyramids act as a giant “cosmic battery,” that sleeping underneath a pyramid can cure illness (or at least alleviate insomnia), and that placing a dull razor blade under a pyramid will re-sharpen it.

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source: wikimedia

The whole thing has gotten so much traction that it actually made Mythbusters.  They tested a bunch of these claims, with a certified pyramid made to the exact proportions of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and to no one’s particular surprise, none of the claims turned out to be true.

Which makes you wonder why sites like The Secret Power of the Pyramidal Shape still pop up.  This one was sent to me by three different loyal readers of Skeptophilia, and it’s quite a read.  The thing I found the most amusing about it was that it had in-source citations, so it looks a little like an academic paper, but when you check the “Sources Cited” you find out that three of them come from the aforementioned Self Empowerment and Development Centre; one comes from a man named David Wilcock, who claims to be the reincarnation of Edgar Cayce; and one of them comes from Above Top Secret.

Not exactly a bibliography that would inspire confidence.

The site itself is worth reading, though, because it has some fairly surreal passages.  Take, for example, this:

The best passive torsion generators are formed by cones or pyramidal shapes built according to the “phi” ratio of 1 to 0.618 and it can, therefore, be said the pyramid shape has the power to harness torsional energy because torsion waves are phi-spirals and for this reason a pyramid will hold positive energy and deflects negative energy wavelengths and therefore inhibit natural decay.

Okay!  Right!  What?

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Healing the ocean with syphilis

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Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

I think the homeopaths have reached some kind of Derp-vana this week with the announcement by British practitioner Grace DaSilva-Hill that we need to administer homeopathic preparations…To_understand_ocean_circulation_250px
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to the ocean.

I’m not making this up.  In a story broken by Andy Lewis on Quackometer, we find out that DaSilva-Hill is lamenting the state of the world’s oceans, a sentiment with which I have to agree.  But what she proposes to do about it is to treat it with homeopathic “remedies:”

Thanks in advance to all of you who have already agreed to participate in this initiative of sending a homeopathic remedy to heal the oceans.
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The remedy that has been selected is Leuticum (Syph) in the CM potency.
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Just mix one or two drops in some water and offer it to the ocean wherever you happen to be, on 21 November, with pure love and intention…  If you live close to a river that can be done, too, or even just send the remedy down the toilet wherever you happen to be.

Well, I can’t argue with the value of flushing homeopathic “remedies” down the toilet.  In my opinion, that should be done right at the factory where they’re manufactured.

And what is “Leuticum,” you may be wondering?  According to a homeopathy website, Leuticum is a “nosode” — a “remedy” made from diluted bodily discharges.  And if you’re not sufficiently disgusted yet, the bodily discharge involved in Leuticum is infected material from someone with syphilis.

Oh, but wait!  Leuticum is good stuff!  According to the site . . .

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Dowsing for dead people

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

Suppose you were walking in the woods, and suddenly, you stumbled on a root, and fell flat on your face.  And while you were lying on your belly, trying to regain your breath and your dignity, you noticed that right in front of your eyes was a twenty-dollar bill that someone had dropped.

You might decide that your bad luck in tripping over a tree root had been cancelled out by the good luck of now being twenty dollars richer.  You might, on the other hand, attribute it to complete chance and the chaotic nature of the universe, where sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and the whole thing appears to be a big zero-sum game.

What I can almost guarantee you wouldn’t do is decide that the money had exerted a magical gravitational attraction toward your face, and had caused you to fall.

I bring this up because of a maddening article in the Kent and Sussex Courier that tells of a fortuitous archaeological discovery in the town of Tunbridge Wells.  graveyard dowsing_400pxSome “scientists,” we are told, were poking around Calverley Grounds, a local park, and found a mass burial site (probably a “plague pit” from the bubonic plague epidemic of 1660), and also the site of a skirmish between the Normans and the Saxons.

Cool stuff.  But I haven’t told you yet how they found it.

By “dowsing.”

Yes, dowsing, that time-honored tradition of holding metal rods or tree branches in your hands, and imagining that aquifers (or mineral deposits or burial sites or damn near anything) could somehow pull on them and alert you to their presence.  How on earth could that work, you might ask?  Well, an article by Stephen Wagner gives us the following definitive answer:

The quick answer is that no one really knows – not even experienced dowsers. Some theorize there is a psychic connection established between the dowser and the sought object. All things, living and inanimate, the theory suggests, possess an energy force. The dowser, by concentrating on the hidden object, is somehow able to tune in to the energy force or “vibration” of the object which, in turn, forces the dowsing rod or stick to move. The dowsing tool may act as a kind of amplifier or antenna for tuning into the energy.

Righty-o.  An “energy force.”  That, strangely, is completely undetectable except to a dude holding a tree branch.

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Orgone to the rescue

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

Are you worried about the New World Order?  Do you fear that the Reptilians are powerful enough to infiltrate the government unchallenged?  Do you look up at passing jets and fret about the toxic stuff in the chemtrails they leave behind?  Are you terrified that we might be attacked by zombies?

Fear not, for we have a great weapon at our disposal.  These assorted bad guys are no match for the…

Orgone Blaster.

Alternating layers of organic and non-organic materials inside the walls supposedly increase the orgone concentration inside the enclosure relative to the surrounding environment.

Alternating layers of organic and non-organic materials inside the walls supposedly increase the orgone concentration inside the enclosure relative to the surrounding environment. (wikipedia)

Yes, “orgone,” the completely nonexistent “universal life force” proposed by Wilhelm Reich all the way back in the 1930s.  Reich and others went through all sorts of gyrations to try to prove it existed, to no avail.  Also to no particular diminishment of their claiming that “orgone” was the magical be-all-and-end-all of the universe, influencing everything from weather patterns to the motion of galaxies to the “psychosexual energy release” experienced during orgasm.

Reich even developed an “orgone accumulator box” that seems to have done nothing but give test subjects a nice place to nap for a few minutes.

You’d think that the fact that no one has ever been able to demonstrate that orgone exists would put a damper on people’s claims involving its mystical properties.

You’d be wrong.

The site I linked above, written by one Sherry Shriner, would be the odds-on favorite in a competition for the Most Quotable Woo-Woo Website.  It tells us that not only does orgone exist, it can be used as a first line of defense against… well, everything.  If the Illuminati do anything, all we have to do is focus our orgone on ’em, and they’ll retreat in disarray like the sorry sonsabitches they are.  But don’t just take it from me, here’s a direct quote from the website:

My Orgone has destroyed the Capricorn Star-Ship, the Shema star-ship, Planet X – Comet Elenin, and thousands of UFOs!
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It Works Folks! It’s the Only thing that works against Alien-Demonic-Zombie-Vampire- beings! The “dead” hate it! The Aliens hate it! Politicians who have been soul-scalped by Reptilians hate it! Obama hates the White House, Michelle sleeps in Hotels around D.C…the White House Senior Staff meets in air-sealed rooms under the Capitol…why?? Because they HATE the Orgoned air in D.C. !!
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Orgone will cleanse your air/water/food, dissolve chemtrails above your home, keep evil beings out of your home and yard, stop night terrors, it has 101 uses.

Yup.  If you ever are threatened by alien demonic zombie vampire beings, you now have your answer.

You can “orgone” water, too, she says, and  .  .  .

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Primed to see ghosts

Gordon Bonnetby Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia

Yesterday we had a report from Española, New Mexico that a surveillance camera at a police station had caught an image of a ghost walking across a locked compound.

“At first I thought it was a fly or moth, then I saw the legs,” Officer Karl Romero said.  “And it was a human.  But not a real human.  No.  A ghost.”

The local television station picked up the story, and reporters showed up on the scene.  “There’s no way in or out of the secured area without an opened gate, or an alarm sounding,” the reporter who covered the story said.  An unnamed officer showed her the area where the “ghost” was seen, and said, “You can see it walks through in the direction of the old transport cages, and you can see there’s no way for it to get out through there, but it walks right through.”
ghost01“Detectives say there is no logical explanation,” the reporter continues.  “It’s not an issue with the lighting, or a technical glitch.  And it turns out, there are a lot of ghost stories around here.”
“A lot of our officers have seen certain things,” one of the policemen said.  “Some of the officers have felt what appears to be someone breathing down their neck as they’re working on reports in the briefing room.”
“Española police tell us that as far as they know, this is not an ancient Indian burial ground, and they say that the police station has been there since 2006, but no inmates have died here,” the reporter tells us.
And to wrap things up, the officers are asked if they believe in ghosts, and if they think this was the real deal… and predictably, they say yes.
Now, I want you all to go to the link I posted above, and watch the video for yourself (or watch it below).  You’ll see why in a moment.
Video here:
Alrighty then.  Let’s stop and think about this a little.

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