Marketing sometimes involves the science of making you believe something that is not true, with the specific goal of selling you something (a product, service, or even ideology). The organic lobby, for example, has done a great job of creating a health halo and environmentally friendly halo for organic produce, while simultaneously demonizing their competition (recently focusing on GMOs).
These claims are all demonstrably wrong, however. Organic food is no more healthful or nutritious than conventional food. Further, GMO technology is safe and there are no health concerns with the GMO products currently on the market.
There is an even more stark difference, however, between beliefs about the effects of organic farming on the environment and reality. In fact organic farming is worse for the environment than conventional farming in terms of the impact vs the amount of food produced.
First, organic farming may use pesticides. They just have to be “natural” pesticides, which means the ones they use are not chosen based upon their properties. Ideally choice of pesticide and the strategy in using them would be evidence-based and optimized for best effect, minimal impact on health and the environment, cost effectiveness, and convenience. Organic farming, however, does not make evidence-based outcome choices. Their primary criterion is that the pesticides must be “natural”, even if they are worse in every material aspect. This represents ideology trumping evidence. It is based on the “appeal to nature” fallacy, an unwarranted assumption that something “natural” will be magically better than anything manufactured.
In fact my main complaint against the organic label is that it represents an ideological false dichotomy. Each farming practice should be judged on its own merits, rather than having a bunch of practices ideologically lumped under one brand. I don’t care if a practice is considered organic or not, all that matters is the outcome.
Interest in the notion that the earth is flat has been increasing in recent years. I have to say, as much of a jaded skeptic as I am, this level of self-deception is still amazing to me. It truly demonstrates that there is no practical limit to the power of motivated reasoning or the absurdity of conclusions which it can defend.
Serious flat earth proponents actually do believe that the earth is not a globe, but a flat disk. When you think about this for even a moment, many problems arise, but they have an answer to all of it. Not a good answer, but enough of one to allow motivated reasoning to take over.
Perhaps the most obvious problem with belief in a flat earth is that we have been to space. You can actually see the earth as a spinning globe. There is no other viable interpretation of this direct and dramatic observational evidence. You might as well tell me that a basketball is not round.
This is what the flat earth wiki has to say about this challenge to their position:
The most commonly accepted explanation of this is that the space agencies of the world are involved in a conspiracy faking space travel and exploration. This likely began during the Cold War’s ‘Space Race’, in which the USSR and USA were obsessed with beating each other into space to the point that each faked their accomplishments in an attempt to keep pace with the other’s supposed achievements. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the conspiracy is most likely motivated by greed rather than political gains, and using only some of their funding to continue to fake space travel saves a lot of money to embezzle for themselves.
In light of the above, please note that we are not suggesting that space agencies are aware that the earth is flat and actively covering the fact up. They depict the earth as being round simply because that is what they expect it to be.
The conspiracy theory, of course, is the last refuge of the hopelessly deluded. Any inconvenient evidence can be swept aside by making up a conspiracy theory ad hoc. What is the evidence for this alleged conspiracy? Zero. As they admit, this conspiracy would have to involve many nations in the world, not just the US and USSR/Russia. China, India, the UK, the European Union all have space agencies.
Why would the space agencies of all of these countries be engaged in the exact same conspiracy?
I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.
When most people think of psychics they conjure an image (see what I did there) of someone dressed in robes in a mystically decorated parlor who reads your palm or the tarot cards for $40. They are making a meager living giving people a bit of harmless entertainment. Some may actually think they have powers, some may know it’s all an act, but what’s the harm?
In truth, however, many psychics are predators who scam people out of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. They prey on the vulnerable and the desperate and can ruin lives. This is not a benign industry.
A recent report from Toronto is just one of many – a steady stream with no expectation of ending. They report stories of people who have been victimized by psychics promising to turn around their fortunes, while parasitically bleeding them of as much money as possible.
How the scam works
Encounters usually begin like any street-corner psychic, with a simple reading. Everyone who comes in for a reading is a potential mark. The more desperate the better.
Such psychics (I am just going to use the term “psychic” for convenience, but assume the usual caveats – alleged, fake, etc.) are adept at creating the illusion that they have some magical insight. They are, after all, just mentalists, and usually not very good ones. They don’t really have to be, as their audience wants to believe, often desperately.
Their primary tool is the cold reading. This is the technique of listening to what your mark says, then feeding it back to them as if it came to you magically. You can also make vague statements that are likely to apply to most people, then following up when you get a positive reaction, while glossing over any misses. Simple observation also plays a role. A willing target will do most of the hard work, making all the connections in their own mind. This can seem quite impressive to someone naive to the technique – in fact a skilled mentalist can seem impressive even to someone familiar with it.
This is all part of the grooming, drawing the mark in and gaining their confidence. This is, after all, a confidence game. Once you believe that the psychic has the magical power to fix your life, you are lost.
They then use a variety of tricks to bleed their marks of all their money. They may use some slight of hand, like pretending the water their mark gargled is full of insects, or an egg used in a seeing is full of black ichor. They try to convince their mark that they are cursed, and that the psychic has the power to lift the curse. This frequently involves praying over cash, gift cards, or other untraceable items of value – items the mark never sees again.
In one case a psychic scammed a business man whose girlfriend died unexpectedly out of $700,000.
Charlie Sheen is HIV positive. As was revealed on the Dr. Oz show, when diagnosed his viral load was 4.4 million. After six months of the a standard anti-HIV cocktail his viral loads were undetectable.
This does not mean he is HIV negative or free of this virus. As part of the viral life-cycle it goes into hiding inside of cells. It is undetectable while hiding, and also cannot be eradicated by medications. This is a major challenge to curing HIV, or even pushing the efficacy of our current treatments further. Researchers are looking into ways to force the virus out of hiding so that anti-retroviral medications can go to work.
With current anti-HIV treatment someone who is HIV positive can expect to live an almost normal life expectancy free of any major complications of the disease and will not go on to develop AIDS from the virus. The big challenge now is to get this modern medicine to those who are HIV positive in the third world, or to those who cannot afford it.
Interestingly, Charlie Sheen, who has all of the advantages of wealth in a Western industrialized country, opted for third-world treatment of his HIV. He recently went off of his anti-HIV medications and instead decided to rely on the ministrations of an unknown doctor in Mexico making bold claims.
This prompted an on-air intervention by Dr. Oz and Sheen’s own doctor (which was ethically dubious but good television, I guess), after which Sheen reported he would go back on his medications.
Of course, most HIV patients who are lured to Mexico with the promise of a miracle cure will not benefit from a personal intervention by Dr. Oz. Hopefully they will benefit from watching that episode, but if history is any guide (unfortunately) the exposure is likely to lead more people to the Mexico charlatan than warn them away.
Why People Seek Charlatans
The Sheen episode raises a fascinating and important question – what is the allure of the lone maverick making bold claims? Often the answer provided is desperation, but what makes the Sheen example so interesting is that desperation was not a factor. He was effectively in remission from his HIV with undetectable loads. He still has to take medications for the rest of his life, but that seems a small price to pay for taking a horrible deadly disease and transforming it into a benign chronic condition with a normal life-expectancy and quality of life. The situation did not call for desperation.
A new study out of Australia looked at 26 different Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) products purchased from stores. They performed three types of analysis: heavy metal screening, toxicological analysis, and DNA sequencing. They found that 92% of the products tested had at least one type of contaminant.
This adds to a growing list of studies and revelations about how poorly the supplement industry is regulated, and raises further concerns about the overall quality of herbal and supplement products.
A 2008 study found that about 20% of ayurvedic herbal products contained heavy metal contamination, often at levels high enough to be toxic.
“Although we were able to authenticate almost half (48%) of the products, one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label. Product substitution occurred in 30/44 of the products tested and only 2/12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers.”
A 2014 study published in JAMA found that half of the product recalled by the FDA for being adulterated with banned drugs were dietary supplements, including up to one third of products purchased online. Further, when the FDA followed up they found that 6 months after they had issued a recall for adulterated supplements, two-thirds were still on the market and still contained the banned drugs.
Here is the latest fad to make you smarter with one easy trick – Superbrain Yoga. The technique is simple (and worthless, but we’ll get to that).
All you have to do is touch your left hand to your right earlobe, your right hand to your left earlobe, take a deep breath, and do a squat. Who knew it could be so easy to improve your brain function. There are a few more details, helpfully shared by Parenting Special Needs magazine:
– Connect your tongue to your palate.
– Face East
– The left arm must be inside and the right arm must be outside (over the left arm).
– Inhale while squatting down and exhale while standing up.
– You thumbs should be touching the front part of your earlobes, index fingers behind the earlobes.
– Perform the exercise 14-21 times, once or twice a day.
Facing East is very important, because magic.
When I first heard of Superbrain Yoga I thought it was going to be a neuroscience-based pseudoscience, with some hand-waving explanations about blood flow or something. This one is actually blatantly spiritual magical nonsense.
This practice is based on the principles of subtle energy and ear acupuncture. Basically, SuperBrain Yoga allows energy from your lower chakras–or energy centers–to move up to the forehead and crown chakras. When this happens, this energy is transformed into subtle energy, which is utilized by the brain to enhance its proper functioning.
It’s Eastern mysticism, however, which is a far-off exotic culture, so that makes it OK.
Also See: Photo Forensics: Is The Lee Harvey Oswald Photo A Fake? (iLLuMiNuTTi.com)
The galvanic skin response
I was recently asked to look into a product called Zyto technology. This is an electronic device that you place your palm on top of so that it can read your “galvanic skin response” (GSR) to specific stimuli. It then uses your responses to prescribe a specific treatment.
Several years ago, during a lecture on Science-Based Medicine, I noted that if there were one medical pseudoscience that was vulnerable to extinction it was homeopathy. Homeopathy is perhaps the most obviously absurd medical pseudoscience. It is also widely studied, and has been clearly shown to not work. Further, there is a huge gap in the public understanding of what homeopathy is; it therefore seems plausible that the popularity of homeopathy can take a huge hit just by telling the public what it actually is.
Further, homeopathy is in a precarious regulatory position. Homeopathic products are presented and regulated as drugs, but clearly they are not, and they are also not supplements, herbal drugs, nutrition-based, or natural products. They are simply fraudulent drugs riding a wave of ignorance.
In the last few years homeopathy has had a rough time. While the industry is still growing, there are signs of clear trouble on the horizon. Let’s review:
Homeopathy is a 200 year old pre-scientific system of medicine based upon magical thinking. It is mostly based on two notions, the first of which is that like cures like. In other words, a substance that causes a symptom can cure that symptom in extremely low doses. There is no scientific basis for this, despite the desperate attempts by homeopaths to invoke vaccine-like analogies, or their new favorite, hormesis.
The second notion is that you make a remedy more powerful by diluting it to extreme degrees. People have fun making comparisons, such as the need to drink a solar-system’s worth of water to have a 50% chance of getting a single molecule of active ingredient. No problem, say the homeopaths, homeopathic potions contain the magical “essence” of what was previously diluted in them. It’s turtles all the way down.
A Los Angeles middle school has turned WiFi off in a classroom to accommodate a teacher, Anura Lawson, who believes she has electromagnetic sensitivity. Now Lawson is petitioning to have WiFi turned off in every classroom in California. That’s what you get for catering to pseudoscience – more pseudoscience.
Electromagnetic (EM) sensitivity is a controversial disorder; well, controversial in that the scientific community has investigated it and concluded that it does not exist, but some individuals still believe they have it. Like many spurious disorders, the symptoms are mostly non-specific. Lawson claims she experienced, “dizziness, migraines, and heart palpitations,” while her daughter claims that her “brain was running slower.”
Such non-specific symptoms can be the result of anything stressing out the system: poor sleep, lack of physical activity, an unrecognized chronic illness, anxiety or depression. They may also be purely psychological. There are no specific symptoms or objective signs to indicate that there is any pathology present. Once treatable pathology has been ruled out, it’s best to focus on treating symptoms and improving quality of life.However, there are many fake or dubious diagnoses out there to place a label on patients with such non-specific symptoms. These labels have changed over the generations, but apparently have always existed. Today there are several popular fad diagnoses for non-specific symptoms, including candida hypersensitivity, multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue and EM sensitivity.
Giving someone a dubious diagnosis can be harmful. It may lead to unnecessary treatment, may delay or prevent making a correct diagnosis of an underlying disease, may delay or prevent optimal treatment, is often expensive, perpetuates false ideas about health and disease, and fosters mistrust of medical professionals, often to the point of conspiracy theories.
There have been a number of provocative studies of what is now called idiopathic environmental intolerance with attribution to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF).
When I was an intern doing a rotation in the emergency department, on one particularly busy shift a nurse commented (to no one in particular) that it must be a full moon. I habitually look at the moon and generally know what phase it is in (right now it is a waxing gibbous, almost full), and so I knew at the time that in fact there was a crescent moon in the sky. I informed her of this. She gave a disappointed look and then went on with her work without any apparent further thought on the matter.
The episode struck me at the time. It seemed to me that I just witnessed a clear example of confirmation bias – what if it had been near a full moon? That would have confirmed her prior belief in a lunar effect, while this negative correlation was brushed aside and likely did not have any negative effect on her belief. (Although, my interpretation and memory of this event can itself be an example of confirmation bias regarding confirmation bias.)
Belief in the so-called lunar effect, that the phases of the moon exert an influence on human behavior with the most common element being a full-moon inducing extreme behavior, is very common. In my experience it is one of the most common pseudoscientific beliefs I encounter in the general public. One survey indicates that 43% of adults believe in the lunar effect, especially mental health professionals, including nurses.
When someone expresses such a belief to me I often use it as an opening to discuss skeptical principles. While belief in the lunar effect is widespread, it is usually not part of any emotionally held religious or ideological belief. It is therefore an excellent teaching opportunity. One question I like to ask is, “how do you think that works?” The most common answer I receive is probably the least plausible – that the tidal effects of the moon influence the brain because the brain is sitting in water (spinal fluid).
The tidal effect answer is incredibly implausible for a number of reasons.
It seems that the regulation of supplements, homeopathy, and “natural” products in Canada is as bad as the US. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, the equivalent of NPR and PBS in the US) recently conducted a demonstration of just how worthless and deceptive the regulations are.
They created a fake treatment called “Nighton” which they claimed treated fever, pain, and inflammation in children and infants. They then applied to the government for a Natural Product License. On the application they checked all the appropriate boxes and submitted as evidence copied pages from a 1902 homeopathic reference book. That was it. Five months later their fictitious product was approved as “safe and effective.”
What this means is that when the Canadian government approves a natural product as safe and effective, it is completely meaningless. It is essentially a license to lie to the public about a health product.
It is reasonable to assume that many if not most of the public, if they see a product on the pharmacy shelf with the label, “licensed as safe and effective for fever, pain, and inflammation,” with an official government issued product number, that some sort of testing and quality assurance was involved.
The situation is identical in the US. Companies can market homeopathy products or supplements without providing any evidence that the product is safe, and can even make health claims (as long as they don’t mention a specific disease by name) again without the need to provide any evidence. In essence, in the US or Canada a company can put anything in a pill or bottle (as long as it doesn’t contain an actual drug), then without any testing market their random assortment of vitamins, herbs, or just water (in the case of homeopathy) with specific health claims. Pharmacies are happy to sell these fake products side-by-side with real medicines.
This is nothing short of a scandal.
Fad diets pop up on a regular basis. I believe that is because they are so easy to manufacture and there is a ready made market for them. Add to that the fact that it is difficult to lose weight. There is also a great deal of misinformation out there about diet and health, so the environment is very friendly to pop pseudoscience.
If you want to create your own fad diet, here is a handy formula. These things pretty much write themselves.
#1 • You need a catchy title, usually taking the form of “The blank Diet.” You can fill in the blank with almost anything. For example, a recent fad diet is called “the bulletproof diet.” This doesn’t say anything about the diet itself, it’s just a catchy phrase, a brand. You can fill in the blank with a title that does reflect the diet itself, but this is optional. Creating a catchy title is actually the most creative work you have to do in making a fad diet.
#2 • Make outrageous claims of success. The bigger the lie, the more people are inclined to think that it’s not a lie because no one would be that audacious. So just come up with a very impressive figure – a pound a day, 10 pounds a week, or whatever. In reality, on a healthy weight-loss diet people will lose about 1.5-2.5 pounds per week maximum, depending on their current weight, fat percentage, and other variables. Also, weight loss itself is not the ultimate goal, just a marker. People really want to reduce fat and build muscle. Following waist size is also a good measure, and perhaps better. Using the scale is helpful to make sure you are staying on track, however. Liberally use the world “miracle,” although admittedly Dr. Oz has tainted this word a bit by overusing it.
#3 • Testimonials. Personal stories, starting with your own, are the bedrock of fad diets. Don’t worry if there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support your claims – fad diets are not about evidence. They are about selling a narrative, one in which people struggled endlessly to lose weight, but then started the X diet and the weight just fell off. Testimonials can be very compelling, even though they are almost worthless as evidence. Actually, that is their advantage for you as a fad diet marketer, because you can find testimonials to support whatever claims you wish to make.
#4 • The Secret. Your fad diet has to have the secret or key to weight loss. Make this as compelling as possible, using . . .
There is an ideological subculture that is motivated to blame all the perceived ills of the world on environmental factors and corporate/government malfeasance. Often this serves a deeper ideological drive, which can be anti-vaccine, extreme environmentalism, or anti-GMO. The latest environmental bogeyman making the rounds is glyphosate, which is being blamed for (you guessed it) autism.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. It has been widely used for about 40 years, and with the introduction of GM crops that are Roundup resistant, its use has increased significantly in the last 20 years. It has therefore become a popular target for anti-GMO fearmongering.
Glyphosate is one of the least toxic herbicides used. It inhibits the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase which interferes with the shikimic pathway in plants, resulting in the accumulation of shikimic acid in plant tissues and ultimately plant death. The enzyme and pathway do not exist in animals, which is why toxicity is so low. Still, chemicals can have multiple effects and so toxicity needs to be directly measured and its epidemiology studied.
Experimental evidence has shown that neither glyphosate nor AMPA bioaccumulates in any animal tissue. No significant toxicity occurred in acute, subchronic, and chronic studies.
Therefore, it is concluded that the use of Roundup herbicide does not result in adverse effects on development, reproduction, or endocrine systems in humans and other mammals. For purposes of risk assessment, no-observed-adverse-effect levels (NOAELs) were identified for all subchronic, chronic, developmental, and reproduction studies with glyphosate, AMPA, and POEA.
As pesticides go, glyphosate has very low toxicity, and any dose a person is likely to get exposed to is well below the safety limits.
We are a story our brain tells itself. And our brains are habitual liars.
Take a moment to think of a cherished childhood memory. Try to recall it in detail. Think of where you were, who you were with, the sights, the smells, the tastes. Recall the sounds, like the wind in the trees, and how you felt. Were you happy? Anxious? Laughing? Crying?
We would all like to think that our memory is like a camera that records a scene, tucks it away in a corner of our brain, and retrieves it for playback when we want to relive that birthday ice cream or feel a long lost summer breeze on our cheeks. In a large sense we are what we remember, so memories are an integral part of who we are.
Unfortunately memory isn’t even remotely like a record/playback device. As neurologist and renowned skeptic Dr. Steven Novella puts it,
When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.
As I like to say, we are a story our brain tells itself, and our brains are motivated, skilled, pathological liars.
Lets take a look at memory, get a rough idea of how it works, and learn when and why we need to be cautious about trusting it. Functionally, the three parts of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval.
As Dr. Novella points out, the problems begin with encoding, even before a memory has been stored. Our brain is constantly filtering information, and constructing its own reality. We are surrounded by detail. Take a moment right now to be aware of every distant sound around you, of all the leaves on the trees, fibers in the carpet, your breathing, and the sensations on your skin — all of it. Imagine dealing with all of that all of the time! Our brains evolved to construct a narrative of what’s going on, lending attention to what matters most. That thing over there that might be a predator is a more pressing matter than the sensation of every individual blade of grass you’re standing on. But just as things get lost, distorted, or added when your favorite book becomes a movie, the running story your brain puts together isn’t a faithful rendition. In fact, sometimes the circuitry in your brain that distinguishes what’s currently happening from a memory gets confused. This is the most likely explanation for déja vu. It’s a glitch in your own brain’s matrix.
And the first thing your brain does with most information is forget it.
It is disheartening that we have to return to pseudosciences that have been debunked decades ago, because they continue to linger despite being eviscerated by scientific scrutiny. Belief systems and myths have incredible cultural inertia, and they are difficult to eradicate completely. That is why belief in astrology, while in the minority, persists.
Professions, however, should be different. A healing profession should be held to a certain minimum standard of care, and that standard should be based upon something real, which means that scientific evidence needs to be brought to bear. Professionals are not excused for persisting in false beliefs that have long been discredited.
The 1980s saw the peak of an idea that was never based on science, the notion that people can suppress memories of traumatic events, and those repressed memories can manifest as seemingly unconnected mental health issues, such as anxiety or eating disorders. The idea was popularized mostly by the book The Courage to Heal (the 20th anniversary edition was published in 2008), in which the authors took the position that clients, especially women, who have any problem should be encouraged to recover memories of abuse, and if such memories can be dredged up, they are real.
The notion of repressed memories led in part to the satanic panic of the 1980s, and many of those subjected to recovering techniques not only “remembered” being abused, but being part of satanic ritual abuse.
Recovered memory syndrome was a massive failure on the part of the mental health profession. The ideas, which were extraordinary, were never empirically demonstrated. Further, basic questions were insufficiently asked – is there any empirical evidence to support the amazing events emerging from therapy, for example? Is it possible that the recovered memories are an artifact of therapy and are not real?
Now, with three decades of hindsight, we can say a few things with a high degree of confidence.
This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.
This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.
The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?
Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.
When you delve into the details of any complex historical event, however, anomalies such as this are certain to surface. People are quirky individual beings with rich and complex histories and motivations. People do strange things for strange reasons. There is no way to account for all possible thought processes firing around in the brains of every person involved in an event.
Often the actions of others seem unfathomable to us. Our instinct is to try to explain the behavior of others as resulting from mostly internal forces. We tend to underestimate the influence of external factors. This is called the fundamental attribution error.
We also tend to assume that the actions of others are deliberate and planned, rather than random or accidental.
The common assumption underlying all of these various instincts is that there is a specific purpose to events, and especially the actions of others. We further instinctively fear that this purpose is sinister, or may be working against our own interests in some way. In this way, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us.
*Who Was the Umbrella Man?
Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most iconic serial killer in history. Part of the mystique of this dark figure is the fact that he was never identified, leaving room for endless sleuthing and speculation. Every Ripper fan has their list of favorite suspects, usually filled with famous and powerful people of the time to add even more interest. My favorite, of course, is that he was a time-traveling friend of H. G. Wells.
Now a private researcher, Russell Edwards, claims that he has finally solved the case. First I will present his story without comment, and then we can take a skeptical look at it.
Edwards claims he acquired a blood-stained shawl in 2007 that is supposed to be from Catherine Eddowes, one of the five fairly accepted victims of the Ripper. The shawl was apparently recovered from the scene of Eddowes murder, and was covered in her blood. Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson took the shawl home as a gift for his wife. She was, apparently, not impressed and stored the shawl away without cleaning it.
The shawl remained in the possession of his family until they auctioned it off in 2007 and Edwards acquired it.
Edwards then solicited the help of Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a Finnish expert in historic DNA. Louhelainen found that the 126 year old shawl contained a great deal of blood, likely all from the victim. However, he also found a semen stain on the shawl. Genomic DNA is unlikely to have survived 126 years sufficiently intact for DNA matching. However, mitochondrial DNA is more hardy and likely did survive.
Sperm, however, contain few mitochondria (almost none). Fortunately, Louhelainen was able to isolate an epithelial cell from the region of the semen stain. Epithelial cells line many tissues, and so it is possible that the cell (which would contain mitochondrial DNA) was from the same source as the semen itself.
Louhelainen was able to extract and amplify the DNA, and then type it, finding that it belonged to . . .
Also See: How Jack the Ripper Worked (howstuffworks)
In May, prompted by an uncritical article in the Daily Mail, the internet was buzzing about a company that was offering drinkable sunscreen. This is one of those game-changer health products that immediately garners a great deal of attention.
At first the claim seems extraordinary, but it is not impossible. It is theoretically possible to drink a substance that becomes deposited in the skin and absorbs or reflects UV radiation providing protection. However, upon reading the details it becomes immediately apparent that the product in question is pure snake oil.
The product is Harmonized Water by Osmosis Skin Care. In fact, UV protection is just one claim among many for the harmonized water line of products. The website claims:
- Remarkable technology that imprints frequencies (as standing waves) onto water molecules.
- Advances in the ability to “stack” thousands of frequencies onto one molecule.
- Revolutionary formula allows us to reverse engineer the frequencies of substances found in nature and/or the human body.
- Newly identified frequencies that have beneficial effects on the body.
The website does include the “quack Miranda warning:”
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
The product list also includes this further disclaimer: “Recommended for (but not meant to replace effective medications):”
And is then followed by a long list of harmonized water products with the conditions they are “recommended for,” including arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, asthma, depression, and many others.
Despite the aggressive disclaimers, I do believe that mentioning specific diseases by name violates FDA regulations. I did file a complaint with the FDA but never heard back.
This is a common snake-oil scam – selling “magic” water for one thing or another. The basic idea is that you can give special properties to ordinary water, and that somehow the water will retain these properties. Homeopathy, of course, is the grandfather of all such water woo. Ionized water, imprinted water, and energized water are all variations on this common theme.
The harmonized water is also playing off another common snake oil theme . . .
When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.
One of the more dramatic aspects of memory distortion is false memories. These can be completely fabricated memories that are indistinguishable from genuine memories. False memories can involve small details, or entire scenarios. One way to fabricate false memories is with suggestion – just suggesting to someone a detail of an experience they had may cause them to incorporate that detail into their memory of the experience.
The apparent reason for this is that our brains appear to favor consistency over accuracy. Memories are updated to bring them into line with our current knowledge. If we are told that the person was wearing a blue jacket, then our memory might change so that it is consistent with what we now believe to be true.
Psychologists have a number of ways of generating false memories in the lab. One method is to show subjects a video of an event. Then allow them to read a written description of the same event, containing or even just suggesting details that differ from the video. A certain percentage of subjects will incorporate the suggested but incorrect details into their memory. When asked they will “remember” those details in the video.
A new study combines false memory research with the effects of sleep deprivation. It is becoming increasingly clear that sleep plays a major role in memory formation and consolidation. Steven J. Frenda of the University of California, Irvine and his colleagues asked a simple question – would sleep deprivation increase the formation of false memories?
They had subjects view photos of a crime, then . . .
Where do I even begin? Mike Adams, the self-proclaimed “healthranger” who runs the crank alt-med site naturalnews, has sunk to a new low, even though he was already scraping bottom.
Adams combines the worst CAM propaganda with a blend of conspiracy theories from across the spectrum, while selling supplements and other nonsense. He portrays himself as someone who is engaged in a righteous battle against the forces of evil – so hardly someone who is engaged in rational discourse.
In a recent rant, however, he has become a parody even of himself. This time he is raving about Monsanto and GMOs, writing:
Monsanto is widely recognize (sic) as the most hated and most evil corporation on the planet. Even so, several internet-based media websites are now marching to Monsanto’s orders, promoting GMOs and pursuing defamatory character assassination tactics against anyone who opposes GMOs, hoping to silence their important voices.
He doesn’t stop there, he goes full Godwin – right for the Nazi analogies, which he repeats throughout his article, complete with pictures of the Holocaust. He goes on:
Anyone who resisted the Nazi regime was condemned as “anti-science” in precisely the same way that anyone who now questions the wisdom of unleashing genetically modified seeds into the open environment is also called “anti-science.”
Thus, GMOs aren’t based in science at all. They are the domain of a radical cult where questions are not allowed and critical thinking is condemned and censored.
According to Adams’ logic, anyone accusing anyone else of being anti-science is just like the Nazis, because they did that too. But here is the money quote:
This official ceremony sends a message to the world, and that official message from the nation of Germany to the rest of the world is that “it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.” (UPDATE: Those are the paraphrased words of the German government, not my statement.)
The emphasis is Adams’. As you can also see, Adams added an update trying to distance himself from this statement. He has been feverishly adding such updates to this article, which I will get to. Perhaps some small part of him realized he has stepped over the line.
He also writes:
Today, Monsanto collaborators — publishers, journalists and scientists — have signed on to the Nazi genocide machine of our day: the biotechnology industry and its evil desire to dominate the world’s food supply and blanket the planet with deadly chemicals that have been scientifically shown to cause horrific cancer tumors. They use many of the same tactics as the Nazi regime, too: intimidation, character assassination, threats and fabricated disinformation. Hitler’s Ministry of Propaganda, it turns out, is alive and well today in America. Its headquarters is not in Berlin but St. Louis.
I’m hoping someone will create a website listing all the publishers, scientists and journalists who are now Monsanto propaganda collaborators. I have no doubt such a website would be wildly popular and receive a huge influx of visitors, and it would help preserve the historical record of exactly which people contributed to the mass starvation and death which will inevitably be unleashed by GMO agriculture (which is already causing mass suicides in India and crop failures worldwide).
Let me summarize Adams’ points here: Monsanto is equivalent to modern day Nazis committing their own genocide and bid for domination. Anyone who defends GMOs (or just doesn’t buy into anti-GMO nonsense) is a “Monsanto collaborator” and are just as bad as Nazi collaborators. He says directly, “These attacks all have one thing in common: they are orchestrated by paid biotech muckrakers — people I call ‘Monsanto collaborators.’”
These people should be named, their addresses and photos made public. And by the way, it is your moral right, even responsibility, to kill them.
He then tries to insulate himself from the unavoidable implications of his article by saying he does not condone violence and is not calling for vigilante justice. This is small comfort, however – the kinds of people who would respond to his obvious call to action are likely not to be dissuaded that he says it is not a call to action (wink, wink).
I also have to point out that Adams’ article is incredibly free of any facts or documentation. He states as a matter of fact that people are being paid by Monsanto to . . .
Alternative Medicine’s best friend, and in my opinion largely responsible for what popularity it has, is a gullible media. I had thought we were turning a corner, and the press were over the gushing maximally clueless approach to CAM, and were starting to at least ask some probing questions (like, you know, does it actually work), but a 2006 BBC documentary inspires a more pessimistic view.
The documentary is part of a BBC series hosted by Kathy Sykes: Alternative Medicine, The Evidence. This episode is on acupuncture. The episode is from 2006, but was just posted on YouTube as a “2014 documentary.” Unfortunately, old news frequently has a second life on social media.
First, let me point out that Sykes is a scientist (a fact she quickly points out). She is a physicist, which means that she has the credibility of being able to say she is a scientist but has absolutely no medical training. It’s the worst case scenario – she brings the credibility of being a scientist, and probably thinks that her background prepares her to make her own judgments about the evidence, and yet clearly should have relied more on real experts.
She does interview Edzard Ernst in the documentary, but he mainly just says generic statements about science, rather than a thorough analysis of specific claims. I wonder what gems from him were left on the cutting room floor.
The documentary does get better in the second half, as she starts to mention things like placebo effects, and the problems with the evidence-base for acupuncture. But she follows a disappointing format – setting up a scientific premise, then focusing on the positive evidence. There is a clear narrative throughout, that acupuncture is amazing and surprising.
Scientists often take an epidemiological approach to a phenomenon to discover clues about its cause and nature. This is not limited to medical diseases, the basic concept can apply to any episodic event.
Take UFO sightings – the phenomenon in question is people reporting that they saw something unidentified in the sky. We can generate some basic hypotheses about factors that might influence UFO sightings: the presence of objects to be observed, viewing conditions, number of people available to make observations, and priming (the idea of UFOs in the culture, say following a movie about UFOs or a case reported in the media).
As reported by The Economist, the National UFO Reporting Center has released statistics on UFO sightings by state and by time of day. The Economist has conveniently placed this data in an infographic, depicted right. They helpfully labeled the three periods of the day as working hours, drinking hours, and sleeping hours. As you can see, UFO reports peak during the drinking hours.
I am going to assume the article is tongue-in-cheek, but it is being spread around social media, sometimes in a manner that seems credulous.
I don’t doubt the data itself, but the labeling of the chart amounts to begging the question – calling the evening hours the “drinking hours” makes certain assumptions about cause and effect. A far simpler explanation for the peak of sightings in the evening is that night-time conditions are more conducive to seeing unidentified lights in the sky, and people are still awake.
The article cheekily states that aliens don’t disturb us while we sleep (don’t tell that to people who experience hypnagogia and interpret the experience as an alien abduction), but obviously people are simply not in a position to make observations while they sleep.
Therefore we don’t need to invoke alcohol consumption at all to explain the pattern seen in this data.
There are, however, patterns in the UFO data that . . .
A study has been making the rounds on social media claiming an association between prenatal exposure to pesticides and the risk of autism and developmental delay. This means that I am getting asked by many people what the study actually shows. Spoiler alert – not much. But let’s break it down.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder involving brain development resulting in decreased communications among neurons in the brain and characterized by reduced social ability. Our current scientific understanding is that ASD is largely a genetic disorder. While environmental factors cannot be ruled out, it seems that genes are the primary factor. It’s reasonable to search for environmental risk factors, but so far none have been clearly established.
Those who feel there likely is an environmental factor also tend to believe that there is an autism epidemic – that the incidence of autism is increasing in a way that is not easily explained by genetics, and therefore suggests and environmental factor. While it is uncontroversial that the number of ASD diagnoses has been increasing over the last two decades, this does not necessarily mean that the true incidence of ASD has been increasing.
The evidence actually shows that diagnostic substitution, broadening of the definition of ASD, and increased surveillance account for much of the increased recorded incidence. It’s possible that changes in diagnostic behavior entirely accounts for the apparent increase. It’s also possible that a subset is due to a true increase, but that has not been clearly established.
This still leaves us with the conclusion that an environmental factor is possible in ASD, but not necessary.
What does this current study show? The study in question is a case-control study using data from the CHARGE study and data about pesticide use in California. A case-control study is a retrospective epidemiological study. It looks at two or more populations based upon whether or not they have a condition, in this study there are three groups – ASD, developmental delay (DD) and typical. The groups are then compared based on exposure to a potential risk factor to see if it is correlated with the condition.
In this study the authors looked at proximity to pesticide use prior to conception and during each trimester of pregnancy. They concluded:
“This study of ASD strengthens the evidence linking neurodevelopmental disorders with gestational pesticide exposures, and particularly, organophosphates and provides novel results of ASD and DD associations with, respectively, pyrethroids and carbamates.”
Orac has already reviewed this study and I agree with his assessment – this conclusion is not justified by the data presented.
First, there is a fatal flaw in the study design . . .
MORE – – –
A new Cornell University study examines the origins of food fears, and possible remedies. It’s a survey of 1,008 mothers asking about foods they avoid and why.
Food fears are a common topic on SBM (Science-Based Medicine), likely for several reasons. Humans have an inherent emotion of disgust, which is likely an adaptation to help avoid contaminated or spoiled food. In our modern society this reflex can be tricky, because we do not always have control over the chain of events that leads to food on our plates. Other people grow the food, transport it, process it, and perhaps even cook it
Modern food technology can also involve many scary sounding substances and unusual processes. As the saying goes, you may not want to know how the sausage is made, as long as the end result is wholesome.
This leads to a second reason for modern food fears – we are living in an age of increasing transparency, partly brought about by the dramatic increase in access to information on the internet. I think ultimately this is a good thing – people are seeing how the sausage is made, which makes it more difficult to hide shady practices. This introduces a new problem, however. If you’re going to inspect the process of making sausage, then you need to know something about sausage-making.
In other words – people are obtaining a great deal of information about food, food ingredients, and manufacturing processes, which is a good thing. However, much of this information is coming from dubious sources – non-professional or academic sources that have not been peer reviewed in any meaningful way and may have ulterior agendas or ideological biases.
Further, it is not easy to understand any complex science, including chemistry and food science, which includes medical studies on ingredient safety. The Food Babe has essentially made a career out of provoking irrational fear of ingredients with unsavory sources and with scary-sounding, long chemical names. Neither of these factors have anything to do with actual food safety, but they make it easy to scare the non-expert.
Specifically this includes so-called “chemophobia” – which is the fear of chemicals. The problem with this “Food Babe”, chemophobic approach is that everything is chemicals. As the banana graphic above demonstrates, the formal chemical names even for everyday food molecules are long and unfamiliar to non-chemists.
The end result is that many people use shortcuts or heuristics to determine what food they trust and what food to avoid. One heuristic is the “natural” false dichotomy – if something seems natural it is healthful, and if it seems synthetic it should be avoided. This heuristic rapidly breaks down on two main counts. The first is that there is no good operational definition of “natural.” All food is altered by humans or processed in some way. Where do you draw the line? The second is that something occurring in nature is no guarantee of safety. Most things in nature will harm or even kill you. Many plants and animals have evolved toxins specifically to harm anything that tries to eat it.
Another food heuristic (one explicitly endorsed by the Food Babe) is the chemophobia heuristic – if it has a long chemical name that is difficult to pronounce, then it’s scary.
The press is abuzz with the claim that a computer has passed the famous Turing Test for the first time. The University of Reading organized a Turing Test competition, held at the Royal Society in London on Saturday June 7th. The have now announced that a chatbot named Eugene Goostman passed the test by convincing 33% of the judges that it was a human.
The Turing Test, devised by Alan Turing, was proposed as one method for determining if artificial intelligence has been achieved. The idea is – if a computer can convince a human through normal conversation that it is also a human, then it will have achieved some measure of artificial intelligence (AI).
The test, while interesting, is really more of a gimmick, however. It cannot discern whether any particular type of AI has been achieved. The current alleged winner is a good example – a chatbot is simply a software program designed to imitate human conversation. There is no actual intelligence behind the algorithm.
Of course we have to ask what we mean by AI. I think most non-experts think of AI as a self-aware computer, like HAL from 2001. However, the term AI is used by programmers to refer to a variety of expert systems, and potentially any software that uses a knowledge base and a sophisticated algorithm in order to interact adaptively with its user.
Such systems make no attempt to produce computer awareness or even anything that can be considered thinking. They may simulate conversation, even very well, but they are not made to think.
In this way Turing’s test has never been considered a true test of AI self-awareness, or true AI. It really is just a test of how well a computer can simulate human conversation.
Want to chat with a computer? Try CleverBot!
Whenever the discussion of a dualist vs materialist model of the mind comes up, one common point made to support the dualist position (that the mind is something other than or more than just the functioning of the brain) is that the brain may not be the origin of the mind, but rather is just the receiver. Often an explicit comparison is made to radios or televisions.
The brain as receiver hypothesis, however, is wholly inadequate to explain the relationship between the brain and the mind, as I will explain below.
As an example of the brain-receiver argument, David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito:
As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices.
He argues that the Bushman might falsely conclude that the wires in the radio produce the voices by some unknown mechanism, because he has no knowledge of electromagnetic radiation and radio technology.
This point also came up several times in the 600+ comments following my post on the Afterlife Debate. Commenter Luoge, for example, wrote:
“But the brain-as-mediator model has bot yet been ruled out. We can tamper with a TV set and modify its behaviour just as a neurosurgeon can do with a brain. We can shut down some, or all, of its functioning, and we can stimulate to show specific responses. And yet no neurologist is known to have thought that the TV studio was inside the TV set.”
There are two reasons to reject the brain-as-mediator model – it does not explain the intimate relationship between brain and mind, and (even if it could) it is entirely unnecessary.
To deal with the latter point first, I have used the example of the light-fairy. When I flip the light switch on my wall, the materialist model holds that I am closing a circuit, allowing electricity to flow through the wires in my wall to a specific appliance (such as a light fixture). That light fixture contains a light bulb which adds resistance to the circuit and uses the electrical energy to heat an element in order to produce light and heat.
One might hypothesize, however, that an invisible light fairy lives in my wall. When I flip the switch the fairy flies to the fixture where it draws energy from the electrical wires, and then creates light and heat that it causes to radiate from the bulb. The light bulb is not producing the light and heat, it is just a conduit for the light fairy’s light and heat.
There is no way you can prove that my light fairy does not exist. It is simply entirely unnecessary, and adds nothing to our understanding of reality. The physics of electrical circuits do a fine job of accounting for the behavior of the light switch and the light. There is no need to invoke light bulb dualism.
The same is true of the brain and the mind, the only difference being that both are a lot more complex.
More importantly, however, we have enough information to rule out the brain-as-receiver model unequivocally.
The examples often given of the radio or TV analogy are very telling. They refer to altering the quality of the reception, the volume, even changing the channel. But those are only the crudest analogies to the relationship between brain and mind.
A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch?
Well, that is what would be necessary in order for the analogy to hold.
The concept is to build roads out of hexagonal plates of transparent hard material (tempered glass) with built in solar panels. You can also incorporate heating elements and LED lights. Buried alongside such roads could be a new energy grid, for transporting all that solar generated electricity.
Here is the vision as presented: With such solar freakin’ roadways we could generate much, if not all, of our needed electricity. We could replace telephone poles and hanging wires with buried lines, and upgrade our energy (and even information) grid while we’re at it.
The heating elements could melt ice and snow, removing the need for plowing or salting roads. Potholes or other damage could be easily repaired by simply replacing the hexagonal units, one at a time, as needed.
The LED lights could be programmable, so that all road lines and traffic notices could simply be programmed in, and changed as needed. Parking lots could adjust spaces as needed – making bigger spaces or adding or removing handicapped spaces based on demand. Recreational areas can also be programmed to be different kinds of courts as desired.
Pressure sensitive plates can also be added, allowing for the road to light up, for example, when an animal is walking across the road, providing real-time warning for drivers.
This all certainly sounds great – just like the roadway of the future you always imagined, maybe even better.
OK – now here comes the skepticism. First let me say that I like the concept, and I’m glad some some research funding is being dedicated to this idea. I also have no problem with privately crowdfunding the idea. If people want to invest in this, go right ahead. I wish them well.
But this is also a good time to consider all the possible roadblocks (pun intended) and potential problems with such a technology. I am just going to list my questions:
Public controversy over the safety of fluoridation programs continues, in some towns leading to successful resistance to water fluoridation. As a public health issue, the scientific evidence for risks vs benefits should be at the core of this debate. A new study sheds significant light on this question.
Some anti-fluoridation activists will latch onto any claim they feel supports their opposition (common behavior in any context), and this leads to a great deal of nonsensical conspiracy-mongering. My favorite is the claim that public water fluoridation is all a plot to allow companies to cheaply dump industrial waste into the public water supply.
These sorts of claims distract from the real issues, and in my opinion does a disservice to the anti-fluoridation movement. I don’t mind the existence of opposition movements, even if I disagree with their position. They can serve a useful function in driving public debate and keeping the powers that be honest and transparent.
When they utilize highly emotional but irrational arguments, however, they relegate their own movement to the crank fringe, they marginalize what might be legitimate issues, and they can lead segments of the public into making fear-based and ultimately harmful decisions. They also miss their opportunity to run an effective and ethical opposition which focuses on legitimate scientific issues, and to effectively advocate for the rights of individuals. (Again, I am not saying I agree with any particular such campaign – but at least focus on the real issues.)
Public water fluoridation programs are a proven safe and effective method to improve oral health. It should also be noted that such programs do not always add fluoride to water – they deliberately adjust the level of fluoride in the water supply to optimal levels. Sometimes this involves reducing fluoride levels, but often involves adding fluoride.
The new study involves the safety of such fluoride programs, and specifically addresses the question of whether or not there is an adverse effect on neurological development, as measured by standard IQ testing.
This issue was recently in the news following the infamous “Harvard study” that claimed to show an adverse effect from fluoride on IQ. I discussed the study here – which was really a systematic review and meta-analysis. In short, the researchers looked at studies that compared high vs low exposure to fluoride and measured IQ. They found that the high exposure group had a lower IQ compared to the low exposure group.
There are two main flaws with concluding from this study that fluoridations programs are not safe. The first is . . .
Every skeptic’s new favorite website is Spurious Correlations. The site is brilliant – it mines multiple data sets (such as causes of death, consumption of various products, divorce rates by state, etc.) and then tries to find correlations between different variables. The results are often hilarious.
The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Often it is more effective to demonstrate a principle than simply to explain it. By showing impressive looking graphical correlations between phenomena that are clearly not related (at least proposing a causal connection superficially seems absurd.), it drives home the point that correlation is not enough to conclude causation.
I think most people can intuitively understand that funding on science, space, and technology is unlikely to have a meaningful causal connection to suicide by hanging, strangulation, or suffocation.
Yet – look at those curves. If a similar graph were shown with two variables that might be causally connected, that would seem very compelling.
There are a couple of points about this I want to explore a bit further. First is the important caveat that, while correlation is not necessarily causation, sometimes it is. Two variables that are causally related would correlate. I dislike the oversimplification that is sometimes presented: “correlation is not causation.” But it can be.
The second point is a statistical one. The important deeper lesson here is the power of data mining. Humans are great at sifting through lots of data and finding apparent patterns. In fact we have a huge bias toward false positives in this regard – we find patterns that are not really there but are just statistical flukes or complete illusions.
Correlations, however, seem compelling to us. If we dream about a friend we haven’t seen in 20 years then they call us the next day, that correlation seems uncanny, and we hunt for a cause. We aren’t even aware of the fact that . . .
The Food Babe is at it again – well, she never stopped being at it. She is apparently trying to make a career out of a combination of the naturalistic fallacy and chemical illiteracy.
I wrote previously about her campaign to scaremonger about completely safe ingredients in food. She called azodicarbonamide, an ingredient to make bread fluffier, the yoga mat chemical because it also has a variety of industrial uses, including making yoga mats. Soy also has a variety of uses, including making yoga mats.
She successfully marshaled her scientific illiteracy to pressure Subway into removing the ingredient from their bread.
Her modus operandi is simple – look at ingredient lists for names that sound like chemicals or are difficult to pronounce, bypass any scientific analysis or evidence and go straight to hyperbolic fearmongering. Then just hope that companies cave in order to avoid negative press before anyone can ask too many questions.
Her twitter feed recently contained this gem:
She calls propylene glycol the “anti-freeze ingredient.” That comment officially makes her the Jenny McCarthy of food.
Propylene glycol does indeed lower the freezing point of water, and you can use it as anti-freeze, which says exactly nothing about its safety as a food ingredient. For the record, the chemical in car anti-freeze is ethylene glycol, which is toxic. Propylene glycol is considered non-toxic and is used as an anti-freeze for water pipes and in food production where ingestion is possible.
I just saw the trailer of a new movie, The Principle. The movie is produced by Robert Sungenis, who writes the blog Galileo Was Wrong. Sungenis is what we technically call a kook. He believes the earth is at the center of the universe and that there was no Jewish holocaust, but rather the Jews were conspiring with Satan to take over the world.
Sungenis, however, is apparently a kook with money, so he is making a documentary film preaching his bizarre notions to the world. This much is nothing new. There are plenty of such films out there, like What the Bleep Do We Know and Expelled. They superficially follow the science documentary format, but they have an ideological agenda.
This film, unfortunately, will be narrated by Kate Mulgrew, who played Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. Old Star Trek stars lending their fame to pseudoscience is also, sadly, nothing new.
I was surprised to see Lawrence Krauss and Michio Kaku in the film. I know that Kaku has been flirting with the edges of responsible science promotion, but not Krauss. I suspect that they were duped into being interviewed for the film.* Perhaps they were not aware of the film’s editorial stance. (I will be seeing Krauss this weekend and will ask him.)
Krauss did tweet about the movie: “It is nonsense,” in case there was any doubt there.
It seems that Krauss and Kaku are there to simply say how strange and mysterious the cosmos are, and to discuss the edges of our current knowledge. This is a common ploy – focus on what we do not currently know in order to make it seem like we don’t know anything. The movie trailer opens with Mulgrew saying that everything we think we know about the universe is wrong.
Apparently Sungenis thinks he is smarter than the entire scientific community. Perhaps he thinks that modern science is all a conspiracy.
*Update: This is from Krauss’s blog:
“I have no recollection of being interviewed for such a film, and of course had I known of its premise I would have refused. So, either the producers used clips of me that were in the public domain, or they bought them from other production companies that I may have given some rights to distribute my interviews to, or they may have interviewed me under false pretenses, in which case I probably signed some release. I simply don’t know.”
The Principle trailer via YouTube
Indiegogo is rapidly earning a reputation for not caring whether or not they fund pure pseudoscience. This, in my opinion, is a bad business model, not to mention morally dubious.
I wrote previously about an Indiegogo campaign to fund a free energy device – a “home quantum energy generator.” Indiegogo claims to have a process to weed out fraud from their campaigns, but this one apparently slipped through their process. When I e-mailed Indiegogo to question them about this campaign, I received nothing but a generic response.
Now pandodaily has been covering a new Indiegogo campaign for a “miracle” device – the GoBe by Healbe. The company claims on their Indiegogo page:
GoBe is the only way to automatically measure calorie intake—through your skin. Simply wear it to see calories consumed and burned, activity, hydration, sleep, stress levels, and more, delivered effortlessly to your smartphone.
They have raised almost a million dollars. Pandodaily has done a great job of investigating the company. It looks as if they are a Russian company with a minimal footprint in the US. They have no patents, have not published any data, and have no history of producing real medical devices. No one outside the company has seen or tested a working prototype. Read the article for all the sordid details. I want to delve a bit further into the alleged science behind their claims.
One huge red flag for any scientific claims – especially one involving a working device – is when there is no trail of scientific progress leading up to the alleged device. Scientific advances tend to proceed through necessary steps. You have to establish the basics before you get to the more advanced applications.
For anyone following a particular scientific field you can see the paper-trail of a scientific advance as each incremental step is published and debated by the community. It’s a dynamic process. When a company or researcher claims to have made a breakthrough that is many steps ahead of the public transparent science, this is a red flag. Companies coming out of nowhere with advances that are 10-20 years or more ahead of their time is the stuff of movies, not reality.
Also See (April 9, 2014):
Change blindness is a fascinating phenomenon in which people do not notice even significant changes in an image they are viewing, as long as the change itself occurs out of view. Our visual processing is sensitive to changes that occur in view, but major changes to a scene can occur from one glance to the next without our noticing in many cases.
(See [this] color changing card trick for an example.)
One group of researchers believe they have a working hypothesis as to why our brains might have evolved in this way. Their idea is that the visual system will essentially merge images over a short period of time in order to preserve continuity – a process they call the continuity field. In essence our brains are sacrificing strict accuracy for perceived continuity.
This is in line with other evidence about how our brains work. Continuity seems to be a high priority, and our brains will happily fill in missing details, delete inconsistent details, and even completely fabricate information in order to preserve the illusion of a continuous and consistent narrative of reality.
Visual continuity is important because otherwise the world would appear jittery to us, constantly morphing as shadows play across an object, or our angle of view changes. This could be highly disruptive and distracting.
The researchers also point out that in the real world objects are fairly stable. They don’t pop in and out of existence, or morph into other objects. So not being perceptive to such changes would not be a big sacrifice and would not be likely to affect fitness. If something is actually moving or changing in our visual field we are very sensitive to that, and our attention will be drawn to it.
Neuroscientists, however, can contrive all sorts of impossible scenarios in order to probe our processing of sensory information. We did not evolve with video or photography, but researchers can use this technology to test how our brains process information.
They also give real world examples, such as the movies. There are often continuity errors in movies, missed by the vast majority of movie-goers.
We like to categorize and apply labels. This can be helpful in wrapping your mind around complex reality, as long as you avoid the pitfall of allowing labels to become mental straitjackets.
I often discuss various categories of people who are failing, in one or more important ways, to apply critical thinking. These categories are not meant to be dismissive, but rather to help understand various styles of thinking that lead people astray. For example there are deniers, true-believers, ideologues, and cranks.
Perhaps the most interesting category is the conspiracy theorist. I also find them to be the most consistent in their style of reasoning and argument. I do wonder, however, how much of this consistency is due to and underlying reasoning style and how much is culture. When I get the same fallacious argument over and over again, is that because they are all reading the same source material?
I recently came across a conspiracy website offering advice on how to answer “anti-conspiracy theorists” (their word for skeptics). Anyone who has had a conversation with a conspiracy theorist will recognize the style and tone, and now here it is codified in a primer for budding conspiracy theorists.
The article, however, also reveals the logical errors that underlie the conspiracy belief system. Let’s go through each point.
“You sound like a conspiracy theorist.”RESPONSE: “Conspiracy Theorist? Now tell me the truth, where did you hear that term…on TV? (Laugh.) …So let me get this straight. Are you saying that men in high positions of power are not capable of criminal activity and telling lies to the general public? Are you really that naive?” (Laugh as you say this.)
As you can see this is a literal script. Right up front we see what I have found to be the typical attitude of the conspiracy theorists – anyone who does not buy their fantastical theories is “naive,” – said with dismissive laughter. This response is also a straw man.
Of course people in power are capable of lying and criminal activity. There are even genuine conspiracies. The recent lane-closing scandal in New Jersey was a conspiracy of at least several civil servants who lied and conspired to abuse their power to punish their political enemies (heedless of collateral damage).
When we talk about conspiracy theorists we are talking about grand conspiracies. These are conspiracies that involved large numbers of people, a vast expanse of power and control, unbelievable secrecy, and often sustained for years or decades. Of course there is no sharp demarcation between a small and plausible conspiracy and a grand conspiracy, but the larger the conspiracy would need to be, the more implausible it becomes. The largest grand conspiracies simply collapse under their own weight.
Ah, but the author has heard this response before and has an answer:
“You’re absolutely right. I agree with you 100%. It is impossible to totally cover up a conspiracy so massive. That’s why I know about it! What you must understand is that they don’t have to cover it up totally. Even a bucket that has a few leaks can still do the job of carrying water from here to there! They only need to fool 80% of the public, which isn’t hard to do when you control the major networks and newspapers.”
Of course the conspiracy theorists have to have learned about the conspiracy, but this entirely misses the point. Conspiracy theorists don’t have actual evidence. They don’t have leaked information, documents, photographs, or any hard or direct evidence of their specific conspiracy theory. As you will see from later responses – they simply believe they have perceived a pattern in events.
This cuts to the heart of the logical fallacies at the core of conspiracy thinking. The conspirators in grand conspiracies have as much power, control, and reach as they need to pull off the conspiracy. Any missing evidence was covered up by the conspiracy. Any evidence against the conspiracy or for a more prosaic explanation was planted. Any events that would seem to undermine the conspiracy theory were clearly false flag operations.
Conspiracy theories are therefore immune to evidence. They are closed, self-contained belief systems that resist their own critical analysis. That is why they are a mental trap.
Often conspiracy theorists are generally smart people (even if they lack certain critical thinking skills). Smart people, however, are good at . . .