Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Put down the ducky

Yesterday, we looked at the fact that scientists have actually not admitted that vaccines cause autism.  Today, we consider the fact that your child's rubber duck is not going to kill them, either.

You'd think this would be unnecessary, but in this time of fearmongering and sensationalism, no claim is too outlandish to gain traction as long as it plays on someone's anxiety.  In this case, the whole thing started with a paper in Nature called, "Ugly Ducklings—The Dark Side of Plastic Materials in Contact With Potable Water," by Lisa Neu, Carola Bänziger, Caitlin R. Proctor, Ya Zhang, Wen-Tso Liu, and Frederik Hammes, which found that after several uses, plastic bath toys were covered with bacteria (including fecal coliform bacteria) and various species of fungi.

When I read the paper, my general response was, *yawn*.  Of course bath toys are covered with bacteria.  Everything is.  Add to that the fact that (1) bath water is warm, (2) tubs are generally not spotless to start with, and (3) the bath-taker is immersing his or her naked body into the water with the purpose of washing dirt off, it's no wonder bath water is a soup of various bacteria.

Even fecal coliforms.  Because, I hope, we all periodically wash our butts, too.

But there were people who stumbled on this paper, with its alarming-sounding title (which, as scientific researchers, Neu et al. should have known better than to give it), and immediately interpreted the study as implying that rubber duckies posed a deadly danger to children.  Bacteria!  Oh no!  Must immediately throw away all bath toys!

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Let's just clear up a few things, here.

Even in a healthy human, the number of bacterial cells in or on you exceeds the number of human cells you have.  You read that right; a study way back in 1977 estimated about 39 trillion bacterial cells in or on a typical human, significantly outnumbering the 30 trillion human cells you have (84% of which are red blood cells).  More to the point, the vast majority of these bacteria are either neutral or actively helpful; disturbances in the "intestinal flora" are thought to have roles in such horrible diseases as Crohn's disease, peptic ulcers, CDiff (Clostridium difficile) infection, and ulcerative colitis.  (Which is why there is a promising therapy to treat those using -- I kid you not -- fecal transplants from a healthy individual, to reestablish the right intestinal flora.)

So if your rubber ducky is coated with bacteria, the fact is, so are you.  And most of us are still healthy most of the time.

But that logic evidently wasn't sufficient; there have been various alarming articles on "alternative-medicine" and "natural parenting" sites claiming that not only were bath toys deadly, but there was a systematic coverup of the research, presumably sponsored by Big Ducky.

The whole thing was debunked roundly by Alex Berezow over at the website of the American Council on Science and Health last week.  Berezow went even further with regards to the Neu et al. study; he claimed that they were actively seeking an alarmist reaction for the purposes of publicity:
Amazingly, the authors cite mommy blogs and the sensationalist book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things in their paper.  The book is about the dangerous "chemicals" that are poisoning everybody, a chemophobic tactic that we've debunked over and over again. 
Quite honestly, I don't think I've ever seen anything like this in my professional career. Serious scientists don't cite mommy blogs and sensationalist popular science books in peer-reviewed journal papers. 
The authors had a clear strategy in mind: (1) Do a study on a common household object; (2) Produce boring data that doesn't surprise any microbiologist; (3) Write a provocative, fearmongering headline; (4) Market it to a gullible, clickbait-hungry press (like the New York Times), who would repeat their claims without any criticism or critical thinking; and (5) Watch the media interview requests and grant dollars come rolling in. 
Mission accomplished.  The deceitful manipulation of the press for their own professional benefit would be a thing of fascination if it wasn't so utterly disgusting.
And I have to admit he's got a point.

Of course, the craziest thing about the Natural Organic Health people who started running around in circles flailing their arms and making alarmed little squeaking noises after reading the study is that they apparently never thought of the simplest expedient for dealing with the situation if you're worried: wash the fucking toys.  I mean, seriously.  If you think there are nasty bacteria on the rubber duck, scrub it with a little soap and water after your kid's done in the bath.  Or, if you really want to go crazy, wipe it off with some rubbing alcohol.

Voilà.  If not no bacteria -- there nothing that could do that, short of an autoclave, which would turn your bath toys into a puddle of brightly-colored melted plastic -- at least there'll be fewer.

All of this goes to show that if there's nothing to be scared of, people will find something.  Added to the problem that (if Berezow is right about Neu et al. being guilty of deliberate sensationalization) fearmongering sells.  So if you like playing with a rubber ducky in the tub, have at it.  I hear you have to put it down if you want to play the saxophone, but other than that, it's perfectly safe.

Friday, March 30, 2018

No admission

Let's establish something right from the outset.

Vaccines do NOT cause autism.

Clear enough?  If you are in any doubt, here's a site that provides links to exhaustive studies and meta-analyses that not only show no causative relationship between vaccines and autism, but that there is not even a correlation.

I.e., Andrew Wakefield was lying, and the anti-vaxxers are willfully putting their own children at risk of potentially deadly diseases that are entirely preventable.  As I've said now about 582 times.

The reason this comes up yet again is a webpage that I've now seen posted three times, with the title, "NOW IT'S OFFICIAL: FDA Announced That Vaccines Are Causing Autism!"

The article goes on to say the following:
You may be wondering: Why some of the doctors don’t say anything about the risk of DTaP Vaccine? 
That is a question that many of us, still wondering! Maybe they just is just not convenient for them that we know about the risk of these vaccine. 
To take the vaccine debacle further, most of the mandated vaccines for infants and children, contain many of the above ingredients, which must be stopped from being injected into infants, toddlers, teens and even adults! 
It’s time for Congress to rescind the “Get out of Jail Free” card for vaccine makers and stop the aggressive onslaught of the Autism Spectrum Disorder that is depriving children of a fulfilling life and ruining families emotionally, financially, and physically to the point of parents divorcing because of the stresses of ASD in a family.
The reason that "some of the doctors" (exclusive of frauds like Andrew Wakefield) aren't saying anything about the risk of autism from DTaP and other vaccines is that there is none.  There may well be kids who were diagnosed as autistic following their vaccinations; after all, most vaccines and most autism diagnoses both occur during early childhood.  But to associate the two is the Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc Fallacy -- "after this, therefore because of this."

Let me say it again: multiple studies with huge sample sizes have found that the incidence of autism is no higher in vaccinated children than it is in unvaccinated children.  And vaccinating your children will keep them getting diseases like diphtheria, which back in the days before immunization, killed children by the thousands by making them, literally, slowly suffocate to death.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So needless to say (or it should be), the FDA didn't announce any such thing.  If you bother to read the article, or (better yet) take a look at the FDA post that generated it, what you find is that the information the government published on the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccine listed autism along with a dozen or so "reported adverse effects" -- but then said, and I quote, "Because these events are reported voluntarily from a population of uncertain size, it is not always possible to reliably estimate their frequencies or to establish a causal relationship to components of Tripedia vaccine."

The important part is "reported voluntarily."  In other words, all you'd have to do is have a single parent call the FDA and lodge an official complaint that their child became autistic due to the DTaP vaccine, and it would be justifiably included on this list.  Nowhere does it says that the claim -- any of them on the list, in fact -- had been evaluated by a physician, or even confirmed to be the truth.  This isn't even at the level of anecdote.

This is at the level of "my aunt's best friend's gardener's second cousin's third-grade teacher said it was so."

If you think that I'm just a blogger with an axe to grind on this topic -- not entirely untrue, I must admit -- here's the piece that Snopes did on the subject.

It's unfortunate the FDA did that -- not that I'm in favor of suppressing information, bear you, but the last thing we (or they) really need is the anti-vaxxers to come howling out of the woodwork.  Not that they ever gave up, really, and it's amazing how much their campaign has worked, even among people who are otherwise pretty sensible.  I've seen more than one person claim they'd never get a flu shot because the year before, the vaccine gave them the flu (impossible, as the flu vaccine contains dead virus particles) and that there's no way they'd have their child receive the HPV vaccine because it can potentially cause brain damage (total bullshit, and especially horrifying given that the eradication of HPV would virtually eliminate the risk of six different particularly deadly cancers).

The message should be loud and clear.  Claiming that the risks of vaccination outweigh the benefits, or that the risk is even significant, is quite simply wrong.  Refusing to vaccinate your own children constitutes child endangerment, not to mention putting at risk children who can't receive vaccines for legitimate medical reasons (e.g. having a damaged immune system).

This debate is over.  It's time for the anti-vaxxers to stop screeching about coverups and shills and conspiracies by Big Pharma, and admit that they were wrong from the outset.

And along the way, admit that this has never been about evidence; it's about irrational fear and a never-say-die adherence to personal bias.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Smile, and the world smiles with you

In the menagerie of weird creatures from urban legends we have such entities as the Men in Black, Slender Man, the Black-Eyed Children, not to mention older creatures of the night such as the Evil Serial Killer With A Hook For A Hand that has been scaring the absolute shit out of kids around campfires for generations.

I just ran into a new member of the zoo yesterday, thanks to crypto-maven Nick Redfern over at Mysterious Universe.  Called "Grinning Man," he's a tall guy in an old-fashioned suit and fedora, with a creepy smile on his face.  His skin is supposedly "plastic-like," so believers think he's only masquerading as a human.  Redfern says he's an operative of the Men in Black; me, I'm thinking more of The Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer:


But Grinning Man isn't followed around by guys with long, flailing arms who rip your ribcage open and steal your heart.  Apparently, Grinning Man just kind of stands there... grinning.  Thus the name. Redfern tells the tale of a California family who saw a UFO while out driving, and the following day had a visitor.  He writes:
It was while one of the teenage children was sat [sic] on the porch and playing music that she caught sight of a man on the other side of the road.  He was dressed completely in black, aside from a white shirt.  He even wore black gloves, on what was a bright, summer day.  The girl was particularly disturbed by the fact that the man sported a weird grin and was staring right at her.  So unsettled was she that she went back into the home and told her father of what had just happened.  He quickly went to the door but – no surprise – the smiling MIB was gone.
John Keel, of "Mothman" fame, describes another encounter, this one near Point Pleasant, West Virginia (home of the original Mothman story):
[A] sewing machine salesman claims to have been stopped on a highway by a strange looking automobile.  A man appeared from a hatch on the side of the vehicle, and a tall, bald man wearing a blue metallic suit approached the man.  He could see the "man" had "slightly elongated" eyes and a demented grin that could be seen glinting in the cars headlights.  The grinning man identified himself as Indrid Cold, and the two had a bizarre telepathic conversation before the entity left, saying they would see each other again.
"Indrid Cold," eh?  A cousin of Mr. Freeze, perhaps?


Now that I think of it, the resemblance is pretty striking.

But unlike Mr. Freeze, "Indrid Cold" was a true alien, Keel said:
The salesman, Woodrow Derenberger, would go on to claim that Indrid Cold would visit him, and would reveal that he was an alien from a planet called Lanulos, situated in another galaxy.  Derenberger claimed to have visited Cold on his homeworld, and met many other beings like Indrid Cold in his travels.  He would write a book about his experiences, but would lose his job, his wife and some say his sanity in the years after, dying in 1990, some saying his obsession with his grinning friend cost him his life.
So that's kind of unfortunate.

Once again, we have the common thread that Grinning Man doesn't seem to do anything.  He doesn't freeze people, he doesn't abduct their children (like Slender Man), he doesn't threaten to kill them if they talk to the authorities (like the Men in Black), etc.  So as extraterrestrial villains go, he's pretty lame, although I have to say in all honesty that if I looked out of my window at night and saw a creepy, pasty-faced guy in a fedora grinning back at me, I'd probably have an aneurysm, so I guess that counts for something, evil-wise.

Anyhow, that's latest member of the Pantheon of Creepiness.  As I've mentioned before, it's kind of amazing that given how long I've been writing Skeptophilia (seven years as of last November), I still run into weird beliefs I'd never heard of before.  I still think for pure terror, you can't beat the Black-eyed Children, which is why I'm writing a trilogy of novels based on the legend (the first, Lines of Sight, is coming out in 2019).

But maybe I'm thinking about this wrong.  Maybe Grinning Man is grinning because he is planning something he hasn't carried out yet.  If so, he'd better get at it, because Derenberger's encounter with "Indrid Cold" happened back in the 1960s.  If he wants people to keep being scared of him, he probably should wipe the silly smile off his face and get on with it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Start your day with kindness

When I was in my twenties, my parents got into watching the television series Cops.

Me, I never could see the draw.  The plot was the same every time:
  • Bad guys do bad stuff.
  • Cops get involved.
  • Bad guys get arrested or shot.  Or both.
  • Repeat x100.
I like my entertainment to have a little more in the way of unexpected twists.  But that's just me, apparently.

Anyhow, there came a point that Cops went into syndication, and on one station, it played every single night.  And my parents had it on.

Every single night.

At this point, I should explain that my parents, especially my mother, had a tremendous suspicion of the unknown.  If there's a word that means the opposite of "adventurous," that was my mom.  As an example, when I made my first trip overseas -- a one-month cross-country hike of England, from Blackpool to Whitby -- her last words to me on the night before I left were, "Don't trust anyone."

I know about correlation not implying causation and all, but I can't help but wonder how much her view of the world as a scary, unsafe place was reinforced by watching a television show that every single night showed the worst of humanity.  I'm guessing the causation probably goes both ways -- she gravitated toward the series because she already had that attitude, and the series acted to reinforce the attitude, and round and round it went.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Whatever the cause, her lack of comprehension of how I could possibly want to travel to Dangerous Foreign Countries Inhabited By Dangerous Foreign People (like the English, for fuck's sake) only got worse as she got older.  When we took our first trip to Ecuador back in 2001, not only going to (gasp!) South America, but (1) doing so three months after 9/11, and (2) bringing along both of our sons, at that point ages 11 and 13, she was aghast, but at least knew by then that it'd be futile to try to talk me out of it.

This all comes up because of a study published a couple of months ago in the Journal of Applied Psychology called, "Rude Color Glasses: The Contaminating Effects of Witnessed Morning Rudeness on Perceptions and Behaviors Throughout the Workday."  While on first glance, the study may not seem to have much to do with an overall perception of the world as dangerous, the two are connected.  The study shows pretty clearly that the behavior we are exposed to (or expose ourselves to) colors how we see everything -- and that the effect can last far beyond the time immediately after the incident in question.  The authors write:
Using an experimental experience sampling design, we investigate how witnessing morning rudeness influences workers’ subsequent perceptions and behaviors throughout the workday.  We posit that a single exposure to rudeness in the morning can contaminate employees’ perceptions of subsequent social interactions leading them to perceive greater workplace rudeness throughout their workday.  We expect that these contaminated perceptions will have important ramifications for employees’ work behaviors.  In a 10-day study of 81 professional and managerial employees, we find that witnessed morning rudeness leads to greater perceptions of workplace rudeness throughout the workday and that those perceptions, in turn, predict lower task performance and goal progress and greater interaction avoidance and psychological withdrawal.
I can vouch for this from my own personal experience.  When I get to school and the first thing I'm faced with is an obnoxious email or a surly student -- both, fortunately, uncommon occurrences -- I'm set up to be grouchy and irritable for the rest of the day.

However.  I've found that the reverse is also true.  When I'm in a sour mood and something unexpectedly good happens, my frame of mind can flip just as quickly.  All of which is yet another indication that we should strive to be as polite and kind as we can; you never know whose life you may be touching.

And I think the same thing applies more globally to the people, media, and general context we're exposed to every day.  If you allow yourself to be constantly bombarded by rudeness, negativity, and bad news, it's kind of inevitable that you'll eventually get swallowed up by it.

I'm not trying to turn us into some modern-day version of Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire's Candide -- smiling blandly and chanting, "Everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds."  We shouldn't blind ourselves to the ills of society.  But it's equally important to keep in mind that the vast majority of people are kind, compassionate, and friendly.  You certainly aren't going to do yourself or the world any favors by allowing yourself to be driven to the conclusion that humanity is irredeemably evil.

As author Ken Keyes put it, "A loving person lives in a loving world.  A hostile person lives in a hostile world.  Everyone you meet is your mirror."

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Transwarp nonsense

In today's science news, we have a paper called "Rapid Genetic and Developmental Morphological Changes from Extreme Celerity," from the American Research Journal of Biosciences, by Lewis Zimmerman et al., which describes some unexpected consequences to living beings who are accelerated rapidly.

Turns out that the results are nothing short of terrifying.  Traveling at extreme accelerations and velocities triggers a parallel acceleration in mutations within the test subjects' DNA.  In other words, evolution speeds up, with a resulting change in their physical forms.  If they then reproduce (which they did), their offspring maintain those altered traits, and end up looking nothing like the original organisms did.

I hope by this point you're saying, "Hang on a moment..."  Some of my fellow Trekkies might be adding, "Wasn't that the plot of the Star Trek Voyager episode 'Threshold,' wherein Captain Janeway and Tom Paris are exposed to "transwarp" speeds (higher than Warp 10), and mutate into slimy-looking half-human/half-tadpoles, proceed to have some hot sex that I don't even want to think about, and generate several very skeevy looking babies?  Which they decide to abandon on a jungle planet after an 'antiproton beam' returns their DNA (and their bodies) to human form, instead of doing what an antiproton beam would actually do, namely making them explode in a burst of gamma rays?"

If that's what you said, you're exactly correct, and that resemblance is no coincidence.  Zimmerman wrote up his scholarly paper based on the plot of the Voyager episode, listing himself and six Starfleet officers as the authors, and submitted it to ten journals that had the reputation of being "predatory" -- i.e., pay-to-play.  It was rejected six times, but four journals accepted it, and one -- the aforementioned American Research Journal of Biosciences -- actually published it.

I bring all this up for two reasons.

First, in the current atmosphere of distrust by laypeople of scientists and science in general, we seriously don't need this.  Given that we have a president and a significant slice of his administration who doubt the existence of climate change (although I'm fully aware that there's a money motive for this disbelief, further confounding matters), the last thing we want is some journal whose editorial board -- if it even exists -- accepting bullshit articles that are recycled plots from Star Trek.

Paris and Janeway's bouncing baby tadpoles

Second, this is a bit of a caveat to anyone who is her/himself engaged in academic pursuits to be very, very careful of source reliability.  It used to be, back in the Middle Ages when I was in graduate school, that all you had to do was make sure that the journal you were referencing looked as if it were requiring things like peer review and explicit publication of conflicts of interest.  Later on, as long as the website address said ".edu" or ".org," they probably were okay.

Now?  Just having a fancy name like "American Research Journal of Biosciences" is no guarantee of reliability.  You can't just download a pdf of an academic paper, give a quick look to its source listings and citations, and assume it's reasonably valid.  Because what Zimmerman's little prank shows is that predatory journals don't give a rat's ass what they publish, as long as the authors are willing to pay for the privilege.  And the vast majority of them aren't going to be blitheringly obvious fakes like the "Extreme Celerity" paper was.  Most of them are likely to be papers that were rejected during peer review for things like design flaws, inappropriate controls, or more subtle problems such as "p-hacking" -- things you might not notice at a quick read.

It's sad, but the problem isn't going away.  As soon as there's a lucrative market for something like pay-to-play academic publishing, it's going to continue to churn out trash.  What Zimmerman's paper shows is that you can't simply assume that if something's in a journal, it made it through peer review.  The truth is that there are hundreds of predatory journals out there, and it's incumbent upon anyone using scientific research, or even reading it, to make certain what you're looking at has been through a rigorous vetting process before reaching print.

Kind of a shame, really, and not just from the standpoint of muddying the waters of scientific research.  I've been hoping for faster-than-light travel ever since I was a kid watching Lost in Space.  Hell, I'd take Warp 1, much less Warp 10.  I'm not eager to be turned into a slimy tadpole creature, but if I could visit other star systems, it's a risk I'm willing to take.  And after all, if I do get mutated, I can always rely on a handy beam of antiprotons to bring me back to my original form.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Ain't no sunshine

Because we evidently don't have enough to worry about, now we have news that a rogue dead star has entered our Solar System and is eating the Sun.

I'm not making this up, but the person who made the claim, one Dr. Claudia Albers, almost certainly is.  She once worked for the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa, but resigned last July for unspecified reasons.  I suspect it must have been that her department chair found out she'd gotten her Ph.D. from Big Bob's Discount Diploma Factory, but that's just a guess.

My reason for saying this is that Dr. Albers doesn't sound like a physicist, she sounds like a complete loon.  Here are her own words regarding the imminent catastrophe:
They are old or dead stars - I never said they were planets - they are stars draining the Sun of energy.  It is likely a huge system of old dead suns that have come to the Sun and been affecting it.  They are making plasma connections with the Sun and can make the Sun go dark, the Sun is getting weaker...  
These objects are causing changes in the solar system that cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  Earth appears to have captured one of these objects - there are crustal displacements on Earth... 
It is not a passing system, it is in orbit around the Earth.  It is a huge system of stars attracted to the Sun and that stays close to the Sun once it is in our solar system.  I recently discovered they may have gone from the Sun to planets and that may be why Jupiter went from 16 satellites to 69, it must have captured something... 
It seems that the object is here and it is not alone because there is evidence that there are many of these objects in the inner solar system and they have been coming in towards the Sun for many years.
As you might expect, she accuses NASA of covering the whole thing up.  "If there is nothing to hide," Albers says, "then give us the real time view of the Sun – if there is nothing to hide then open it up, why do you only give us little snippets with a huge delay?"  Because clearly the only possible explanation there could be for why NASA isn't opening up all of its digital images to scrutiny is that a gigantic dead star is feeding on the Sun and they don't want you to know about it.

[image courtesy of NASA/JPL]

 Of course, the above claim brought up questions as to whether this rogue star is the same as "Nibiru," the mysterious "Planet X" that has been a favorite of woo-woos for years.  Said wingnuts have claimed over and over that Nibiru is coming, and that it's going to wreak havoc on the Earth, but then it never shows up.  Just as well.  We're wreaking enough havoc down here on our own, lately.

But Albers says that no, this isn't Nibiru.  "There is no evidence this system is the same system that came through before," she said.

At that point, I gave the computer the head-tilt of puzzlement, similar to what my dog does when I give him an unreasonable and/or unintelligible command, such as to stop eating my shoe and gnaw instead on one of his 1,385 chew toys.  What does she mean, "the same system that came through before?"  I think I'd have been aware if a humongous exoplanet had suddenly swooped down and caused massive planetary-wide destruction.  It's hard to imagine missing that.

Be that as it may, Albers says that this time it's really serious, that the rogue dead star is feeding, vampire-like, on the energy from the Sun, and pretty soon the Sun will run out and go dark, which will kind of suck.  I mean, that's what happened at the end of Star Wars Episode Number Who the Hell Can Keep Track: The Force Awakens, wherein Kylo Ren et al. turned on a machine that sucked all the energy out of a star, but instead of the planet that orbited it turning immediately into a gigantic popsicle, it was still warm enough for Kylo and Rey to leap about and get into a protracted light saber battle.

So heaven knows we don't want that.  The good news is that João A. P. Rodrigues, head of the University of Witwatersrand School of Physics, was pretty unequivocal that Dr. Albers is talking out of her ass.  He didn't put it that way, of course.  "The University supports the freedom of people to hold and discuss contrarian views," Rodrigues said.  "However, insofar as the sciences are concerned the principles of the scientific method must guide the process.  Debate outside this framework constitutes bad science and the University distances itself from such practice."

Which is academic-speak for "You're talking out of your ass."

Anyhow, I'm not worried.  I figure we have more pressing matters to worry about right now, such as how to keep Donald Trump from opening the Seventh Seal of the Apocalypse.  Although I have to admit that the Sun has seemed pretty weak and cool lately.  But that may be because I live in the famed "four-season climate" of upstate New York -- "almost winter," "winter," "still winter," and "road construction."

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Black coffee

Thanks to a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, I now have an even lower opinion of humanity than I did before.

It's not the first time this has happened, of course, and won't be the last.  It's kind of an occupational hazard when your daily task is to comb the interwebz for crazy woo-woo ideas.  But this one is kind of in a league of its own.

Or maybe I'm just fed up.

The claim I'm referring to is that now we're being told that if you want to be healthy, you need to drink a charcoal latté.

I'm not making this up.  A recipe I saw -- and there are apparently dozens -- includes coffee, cashew milk (can't use dairy products), date syrup (can't use sugar), and powdered activated charcoal, to make "the chicest drink on the market."  Myself, I have a hard time imagining how this wouldn't taste like licking a barbecue grill that had been drizzled with honey, but chacun à son goût.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Thus far, all we have is a weird new food craze, not inherently weirder than Fireball-flavored bagels and ice cream sundaes topped with chili-coated grasshoppers.  What makes the charcoal latté claim stand out is that the people pushing it are not only claiming it tastes good, but that it will "detox" you.

So we're adding a nice dollop of quack alternative medicine to our morning unusually black coffee.  As I've pointed out maybe 397 times before, if you are healthy, there is absolutely no need to "detox" because your kidneys and liver are "detoxing" you just fine as you sit there.  Plus, the whole thing is based on vague and poorly-understood science anyhow; I have never found a single person recommending "detox" who could name a specific toxin that the procedure eliminates, much less one that wasn't being eliminated naturally via your excretory system.

It gets worse, though, because here we're not talking about adding ground-up organic papaya seeds and Mongolian yak milk to your coffee; we're talking about activated charcoal, a substance with a legitimate medical purpose -- it is used in cases of poisoning to absorb toxic substances from a person's digestive tract.  Or an animal's, which I know because of our border collie Doolin, who ate a dozen exquisite and expensive chocolate truffles after swiping them from the kitchen counter, and had to have activated charcoal forced down her throat, following which she puked up charcoal and partially-digested chocolate all over the back seat of my wife's brand-new Mini Cooper.

It's moments like this that I question why anyone in their right mind would own a dog.

But I digress.

The reason the activated charcoal thing is a terrible idea is that it is absorptive -- not only of toxins you may have inadvertently swallowed, but of biologically-active substances of all sorts.  Such as any medications you may take.  So in an ill-advised attempt to flush unspecified and most likely nonexistent toxins from your body, you stand a good chance of binding and inactivating your medicines.

I.e., substances you're taking because they've been prescribed by someone who actually understands organic chemistry and human physiology.

So my recommendation: have at it with the chili-coated grasshoppers, but avoid the charcoal lattés.  I feel ridiculous even having to say this, but apparently it's become a "thing," and once someone is a "thing," you know that all the trend geeks are just going to have to try it.  Which, I suppose, is just another example of natural selection in action.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Bee all, end all

Why in the hell are people still listening to Gwyneth Paltrow on health-related matters?

It's a rhetorical question, really.  People still reject the commentary of experts and embrace the opinions of the drastically unqualified in a lot of realms other than medicine.  But when it comes to mistakes that can kill you quickly and painfully, taking bad medical advice really can't be beat.  Which is what a 55-year-old woman found out when she underwent a Paltrow-approved procedure called "bee acupuncture," and proceeded to die of anaphylactic shock.

If you're wondering if "bee acupuncture" can possibly be what it sounds like -- yes, it is.  I didn't know about it, either, until a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a link to an article about it a couple of days ago.  The way it works is a "practitioner" holds a live bee in forceps, and puts it on your skin, squeezing the bee until it gets pissed off and stings you.  In a 2016 article in the New York Times, Paltrow said it's a wonderful therapy:
[G]enerally, I'm open to anything.  I've been stung by bees.  It's a thousands of years old treatment called apitherapy.  People use it to get rid of inflammation and scarring.  It's actually pretty incredible if you research it.  But man, it's painful.
Then she tells us about something called a "sound bath," wherein you lie back and expose your body to "different frequencies" to "achieve a meditative state."  "That may even be too hippie for me," Paltrow said.

But back to the bees.  There's no particularly convincing evidence that acupuncture by itself works; there have been studies that show a higher-than-placebo improvement rate in patients subjected to acupuncture, and some pretty convincing evidence that any improvement is due to endogenous opioids produced in response to someone sticking a needle into your skin.  So I'm still doubtful about the whole thing.

Then you bring bees into the picture, and you add the whole extra frisson of the possibility of dying of an allergic reaction.  If you're curious, the woman who died of anaphylaxis after her bee treatment had been stung before -- this was her twenty-fifth bee acupuncture session -- and never had a problem other than localized swelling.  This time, her blood pressure dropped, she went into shock, started gasping for breath -- and because she wasn't receiving this quasi-medical treatment in a hospital or clinic, had to wait for thirty minutes for the ambulance to arrive.  They treated her with an epi-pen, but the damage was too great.  She lingered in the hospital for a few weeks, but never regained consciousness, and ultimately succumbed to multiple organ failure triggered by the reaction to the venom.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So this brings up my initial question, which is why the hell you'd take the medical advice of a woman whose main qualifications for dispensing such dubious wisdom is being rich enough to start her own "natural health and alternative medicine" company.  There seems to be a huge drift in this country toward distrusting experts (i.e. the people who have actually put in the time to understand the subject in question) and trust instead overconfident laypeople whose stock in trade is folksy "that seems like it should work" anecdote and wacko quack remedies.  In fact, the outcome of the presidential election can be looked at as a rejection of expertise -- replacing people who were career politicians who, whatever else you can say about them, know how government works with people whose philosophy can be summed up as "wing it, hope for the best, and when shit blows up, claim that everything is okay and that it's Obama's fault anyhow."

At this point, I'm beginning to shrug my shoulders when I hear about people who injure themselves after falling for Paltrow's nonsense, and instead simply saying, "Natural selection at work."  It sounds harsh, and I'm normally more compassionate than that, but honestly, I don't see much difference between this and the folks who still take up smoking even though the medical establishment showed that smoking causes lung cancer fifty-odd years ago.  If you're dumb enough to do it anyhow, then you deserve what you get.

But it does make me wonder how far Paltrow and others like her are going to have to step over the line before the FDA will say, "I don't care if you say 'This product is not intended to treat, cure, or diagnose any medical condition' on the packaging, you're killing people and you fucking well need to stop."  (Okay, the FDA probably wouldn't phrase it like that, which is why I don't work for the FDA.)

In any case, let me make it clear, for anyone still considering buying products from "Goop:" you're doing so at your own risk.  Gwyneth Paltrow is not a medical professional, nor even a well-informed layperson, she's a nut who jumps on any bandwagon that sounds appealing, and markets highly-priced and dubiously effective health aids that have not been rigorously tested for efficacy or safety.

In other words: caveat emptor.  But in this time, the buyer might have to beware of bodily injury or death.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Shiny happy energy

As part of the ongoing effort by my readers to drive me completely insane, today I have two links that were sent to me with a "You Gotta See This" message.  And far be it from me not to want to share the experience with all of you.

I'll just assume you're showering me with thanks right now, shall I?

The first has the encouraging title Love Has Won, which sounds awfully nice although you'd think if love really had won, I'd have heard something about it.  When I read the news, it seems to be as much of a raging shitstorm as ever.  Be that as it may, the site is pretty optimistic about everything.  It opens with a bang:
With the arrival and crystallization of the God and Goddess energies within Gaia’s new energy grid the depolarization process begins!  The old eon worked on polarization of the masses and of the individual.  The new eon works very differently! 
It may come as no surprise that humanity has become highly polarized these last few years.  This polarization was the manifestation of the last of the old eon energetics.  The process that is now underway neutralizes all polarization completely and leaves the masses and individuals squarely in the same life circumstances but without the polarization or sense of urgency previously experienced.
Okay!  Right!  What?

I guess the problem here is that I'm starting from the admittedly silly assumption that when people use scientific terms, they actually understand what they mean.  Things like "depolarization," "crystallization," "energy," and so on.  I did read the entire piece to try to determine what the author was trying to tell us, and what I got out of it was that if you can depolarize your energetics, you will take part in ascension, an event that will make the Earth's aura really pretty.

Or something like that.

The aurora.  Not aura.  Which are not the same thing.  [Image courtesy of NASA]

So you don't have to read the whole thing, which I wouldn't suggest in any case unless you have a bottle of scotch handy, let me cut to the chase and let you take a look at the last paragraph:
Energetic activity will remain at the level of its origin unless transmuted consciously to other levels.  To creatively manifest something physically, the process must be driven by physical life force energy.  This means either hard physical work or magical tantric practices.  The astral levels have segregated and the beginning of all great cycles activates the lowest level first, that of life force energy and magic.  That is where we now find ourselves, in a completely magical world.  All the upper astral levels are energetically dead in regards to manifesting things physically.  All other energies will remain in their respective levels unless consciously transmuted.
So I guess that clears that up.

Then we have the site Earth Keeper: Energy Activation of the New Planet Earth, a somewhat flashier site that starts out by telling us about an event to be held in the third week of September in Little Rock, Arkansas, that is called, I shit you not, "ArkLantis."  It is, we are told, a "Crystal Vortex Star-Gate Event," which sounds pretty impressive.  I have to share the description of the event with you, because putting it into my own words just wouldn't convey the full effect, particularly since I wouldn't capitalize every other word:
Join the Earth-Keeper Family in the Incredible Transformational Energy of the Sacred Ark Crystal Vortex ...  The Epi-Centre of the Crystalline Shift.  Arkansas is a Geological Wonder, Containing the Largest Singular Strata of Quartz Crystal on the Planet. Beginning in Little Rock, The Amazing Crystal Deposits Extend 177 miles SW from Little Rock to Hot Springs National Park & onward to Talimena Ridge.  Within the Astonishing Crystals are Rare World Renowned Deposits of Magnetite (at Magnet Cove), the Toltec Mounds Pyramids, Renowned Natural Thermal Healing Springs, Aquifers, Mystical Massive Caverns, Sacred Mountains, Crystal Clear Rivers, Holy Lakes, Amethyst, and an Active Diamond Mine ( Crater of Diamonds State Park).  Arkansas was A Crystal Colony of the Benevolent Law of One Atlanteans.  There are Utterly Astonishing, Enormous Crystals Beneath Arkansas the Size of Buildings.  Three Temple Crystals Were Placed in the Underground Caverns Before the Final Sinking of Atlantis.  The Energy Has Awakened & The Crystal Vortex is Now the Most Potent Crystalline Energy Field on Earth ! Come Experience this Amazingly Sacred Vortexial Land of Ancient Atlantis, Spirit, Multidimensionality & Vision.
I have a good many friends in Arkansas -- it's the home of Oghma Creative Media, which publishes my books -- and I bet they'll be as gobsmacked as I was to learn that what is now Arkansas was once part of Atlantis.

Although, isn't the whole point that Atlantis sunk to the bottom of the ocean?  Arkansas, last time I went there, was dry land.  So that's kind of odd.  Maybe they were kept afloat by the Crystalline Shifted Sacred Vortexial Transformational Energy or something.

You can see how that could happen.

Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, and/or Atlantis [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Anyhow, many thanks to my loyal readers, who with the best of intentions keep making me do near-fatal faceplants directly into my keyboard.  Me, I wondering how to recover from the aftereffects of reading Love Has Won and Earth Keeper in preparation for writing this post.  I guess my only reasonable option is to have a second cup of coffee, since it's still a little early for a double scotch.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Odd eulogies for a great mind

The Earth lost one of its most brilliant minds last week -- British physicist Stephen Hawking, who expanded our understanding of everything from black holes to the Big Bang.

Hawking's death also attracted attention for another reason, which is that he was an outspoken atheist.  In an interview in 2014, Hawking said:
Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe.  But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by "we would know the mind of God" is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t.  I’m an atheist.
As far as death and the afterlife, he was equally unequivocal, something made more interesting still because of his fight against the depredations of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  You'd think that if anyone would have engaged in some wishful thinking about the possibility of life after death, it would be a man who was confronted daily with evidence of his own mortality.  But Hawking said, "There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."


And of course, the spokespeople for the God of Love and Mercy didn't even wait until the poor man's body was cool to start crowing about how he was currently roasting in hell.  I must admit that two people who are frequent fliers here at Skeptophilia -- Franklin Graham and Ken Ham -- at least had fairly measured and compassionate responses.  Graham, who is best known for his fiery vitriol and anti LGBTQ stance -- said the following:
I wish I could have asked Mr. Hawking who he thought designed the human brain.  The designers at HP, Apple, Dell, or Lenovo have developed amazing computers, but none come even close to the amazing capabilities of the human mind.  Who do you think designed the human brain?  The Master Designer — God Himself.  I wish Stephen Hawking could have seen the simple truth that God is the Creator of the universe he loved to study and everything in it.
Ham wrote the following:
A reminder death comes to all. Doesn't matter how famous or not in this world, all will die and face the God who created us and stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ, to die and be raised to offer a free gift of salvation to all who receive it.
Which, considering some of their statements on other issues, is actually pretty mild.

But the response from other quarters wasn't even that measured.  The site Catholics Online claimed that Hawking had experience a deathbed conversion, similar to the (also false) claims made about Christopher Hitchens when he died in 2016:
Before he died, Stiph [sic] Hawkins [sic] who did not believe in God requested to visit the Vatican.  “Now l believe” was the only statement he made after the Holy Father blessed him.
Well, that may have happened to "Stiph Hawkins," but it sure as hell didn't happen to Stephen Hawking.

But that was far from the most outlandish claim made upon Professor Hawking's death.  That award has to go to Mike Shoesmith, of the conservative Christian PNN Network, who said that Hawking's amazing beat-the-odds lifespan after his ALS diagnosis was because Satan wanted to keep him alive long enough to fight against the message of Billy Graham:
So, in 1942, that is when Billy Graham’s ministry really takes off, and who do you think was born in 1942?  Stephen Hawking.  Stephen Hawking comes from a long line of atheists — his father and all these people — so I believe the devil said, "OK, this guy was just born and I’m going to use this guy. This guy is already primed to accept my message that there is no God. He is already primed for it, he is going to be awash, immersed in atheism all his years as a child, I’m going to take over this guy’s life." 
I believe Stephen Hawking was kept alive by demonic forces.  I believe that it was the demonic realm that kept this man alive as a virtual vegetable his entire life just so he could spread this message that there is no God.
Then when Billy Graham died a couple of weeks ago, I guess Satan just said, "Okay, I'm done with you," and let Hawking die as well.

Me, I'm kind of appalled that there are people who would try to score points off any person's death, much less an august personage such as Professor Hawking.  The whole thing gives lie to their claim of being on the moral high ground by comparison to us ungodly heathen slobs.  Be that as it may, I'd rather remember Stephen Hawking for his brilliance, his contributions to our understanding of the universe, his modesty, and his sense of humor.  As evidence of the last-mentioned, I direct you to this compilation of Hawking's amazing comedic chops, and encourage you to put aside all the people who are using his life and death for their own purposes and have a good laugh with one of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced.  I suspect that Hawking would really prefer our sending him on his way with a smile rather than a eulogy of pious platitudes in any case.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

An instrument of the divine will

There are people for whom the line between reality and fantasy gets so blurred that at some point, I'm not even convinced they know whether they're telling the truth or not.

That's my impression of Kevin Zadai, who was a guest last week on the television show It's Supernatural!, hosted by Sid Roth.  The show itself is about using accounts of the supernatural to bolster up the claims of evangelical Christianity, and Roth himself is essentially a televangelist.  Most of the stuff on the show is the usual fare -- accounts of being led one way or another by Jesus, with positive results (of course), miraculous recoveries from illness, amazing escapes from being injured during natural disasters, and so on.  But last week, Zadai took a different twist on the whole thing.

He related to Roth how he'd gone in for a dental procedure, and he had a reaction to the anesthetic, and his heart stopped.  While he was dead (for want of a better word), he went to heaven, where he met Jesus:
… [Jesus] told me that I didn’t have enough depth in my prayers, that I didn’t have enough access to the depths of my heart, and He explained it…  In Psalm 16, David wrote that, prophetically, for me, He said. Jesus said that David wrote that Psalm, and He memorized that Psalm, because when He was in the depths of Hell, He said He rehearsed that Psalm over and over again, and He said, “I cleared a way out in that place for you, and for everyone, in Messiah, to pray from those depths.” 
He said, “I prayed Myself out of Hell because I had the Psalm 16, and I prayed that continually, and then the Holy Spirit came and resurrected me.”  And he said, “When you pray, you pray with that kind of a fervency, where you know who you are based on the scripture.”  Because He said, “I had no witness when I was down there.  I had no Holy Spirit help.”  He said, “If the Father had not given the command,” he said, “I would sit down there until He gave the command for Me to be resurrected. That’s how much I trusted Him.”  He said, “That’s where you pray from. You pray from those depths. That trust.”
So far, nothing too unusual.  People who have near-death experiences often meet supernatural personages, although interestingly enough, it's always the ones that come from whatever religion they already believed.  If a devout Christian had a near-death experience and met Ganesha, for example, I might be more willing to sit up and take notice.

But then Zadai took an abrupt left turn.  When Roth asked him for more details about his meeting with Jesus, Zadai happily complied -- and said that Jesus had taught him to play the saxophone.

I am not making this up.


[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The Messiah, Zadai said, had a pretty nice instrument, and was happy to give him a lesson on it:
...This particular one He had was a soprano sax.  It was a beautiful gold saxophone... He was standing there, and He had this saxophone in His hands, and He started to play it over me…  He took it away from His mouth and handed it to me and He said, “You play.”  And I go, “Lord, I can’t play like that!” 
He said, “That’s because you’re doing it wrong.”  He said, “Let me show you.”  He said, “Stand up.”  So I stood up...  And I looked around and He goes, “See all that around you?”  He said, “That’s the Holy Spirit and the presence and glory of My Father.”  He said, “That’s always there.”  He said, “What’s wrong is that you’re not breathing in Heaven first.”  He said, “Breathe that in first, and then blow it through your horn, and it’ll work out just fine.”  So I took a big breath and all this gold air around me went inside of me, and I put that horn that He handed to me in my mouth, and I blew, and it was exactly like Jesus had played.
Well, I play a wind instrument, and I have to admit that standing up while you play and using your breath to support your tone isn't bad advice.  But this image I have of Jesus playing the soprano sax... well, it's just not working for me.  I know he's supposed to be super-powerful and all-knowing and whatnot, but I honestly never considered that his abilities would extend to having good blues chops.

Now, what strikes me about this is not Zadai making a weird claim.  After all, weird claims are a dime a dozen, and are in fact have been the bread and butter of this blog for going on nine years.  I'm not even surprised about Roth's generally positive reaction, because televangelists, like a lot of talk show hosts, thrive on people saying and doing weird shit, because face it, weird shit sells.

What surprises me is the audience's reaction.  No one -- not a single person -- started laughing.  No one got up and walked out.  Instead, they looked at Zadai as if he were the recipient of a holy miracle.  The audience cheered and shouted "Hallelujah" and "Praise Jesus."  Some audience members were in tears.

I mean, I know that the audience was made up of people who were devout Christians; I'm sure they take great pains to screen out professional scoffers such as myself.  But even so, don't they draw the line somewhere?  What would it take to make them frown and say, "Wait a minute..."?  Would they believe it if someone said Jesus had paid off his credit card bills?  That the Lord had given him some golf tips?  That he got a divine suggestion to play one more round on the roulette wheel at the casino?

On the other hand, these are the same people who think that god cares about the outcome of the Superbowl.

Never mind.

I'm not bringing this up to be scornful (honestly, I'm not).  It's more that I'm curious about how someone could believe in a deity that is so bent on micromanaging everything that he takes the opportunity of a near-death experience to teach a guy a few riffs on the soprano sax.  Of course, in Matthew 10:29, Jesus himself says, "Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will."  So as bizarre as it seems to me, at least it's scripturally consistent.

What I get least, however, is how anyone can find this worldview comforting.  Do you really think it's reassuring that Jesus is always watching you?  Twenty-four hours a day?  To me, that's more "creepy stalker" than it is "light unto the world."

So the whole thing leaves me a little baffled, frankly.  Maybe my own scientific view of the universe seems a little impersonal, but at least I don't have to worry about the spirit of Stephen Hawking watching me while I take a shower, or something.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Bigotry self-defense

I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday.

I was scrolling idly through Facebook, as one does, and came upon a post from an acquaintance claiming that anti-gun liberals were putting red light bulbs in their front porch sockets to let everyone know their stance.  The post crowed about how this would alert criminals that the house was undefended, and ended with the line, "Leave it to a dumbass liberal retard."

Besides the issue of characterizing about 50% of your fellow citizens as stupid, there's the issue of the r-word, which really sets me off.  So I responded, "Keep your ugly invective to yourself."

Within moments, I had two responses, one from a total stranger, who wrote, "LMAO looks like you hurt the feelings of a dumbass liberal retard snowflake."  The other was from the original poster, who wrote, "You're saying that's not a stupid thing to do?"

I responded only to the second -- the first wasn't worth my time -- and said, "I question whether anyone would actually do that, or if it's a bullshit claim made purely to ridicule people you disagree with.  But that's not the point.  The point is that anyone who calls someone a 'retard' has automatically lost the right to claim the high ground."

That prompted another puny defensive response.  At that point, I wrote, "Done with you.  G'bye," and unfriended the person.

The weird thing was that this didn't end it.  She immediately sent me a friend request and a private message, saying, "I hope you don't think that's what I actually believe."  I had to read it twice because I couldn't quite fathom someone writing that after what had gone before.  I responded, "So why did you post it, then?"

She said, "Because the gun issue really pisses me off."

I decided to try one more time.  "That's something we could discuss.  But what you posted was a childish insult, not an argument."

Still no luck.  "All I'm saying is that the whole issue makes me mad."

Okay, done for good this time.  Didn't bother responding, and deleted the re-friend request.

There are a few things about this that appall me.

First, I know we all react in anger sometimes when confronted with dissenting opinions on issues we feel strongly about, and sometimes use language we regret.  But the response then is "sorry I offended," or "you're right, that was over the line," or even "my apologies, I'll delete the post."  Here, the attitude was more "death before backing down."  Note that I didn't even challenge her on her stance on gun laws; we never got that far.  All I did was call her on her nasty choice of words, and I couldn't even get her to look at my side of that.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Second, what gets me even more about this is how this kind of language has turned into a dog-whistle for the angry and the biased.  "Liberal retard" (or "libtard"), "Republican retard" (or "republitard" or "repugnican") has become a code word for "people I consider worthless because they disagree with me."  "Snowflake" means "someone I don't need to apologize to despite the fact that I'm being deliberately and egregiously offensive."  And another one, which didn't come up but probably would have had I pushed the conversation -- "politically correct," which means "anyone who makes the unreasonable demand that I treat the people in other demographics with respect."

What this whole exchange did is made me mad enough that I've decided I'm done trying to soft-pedal my own insistence that the people I choose to surround myself act with respect.  I have deliberately maintained my contacts with people of varying worldviews -- religious and non-religious, conservative and liberal and every other political gradation -- in an effort to be open-minded and consider other viewpoints rather than locking myself in a world where I can delude myself that everyone thinks like I do.  And, to be fair, the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances treat each other kindly and, when they engage in discussion over controversial issues, do so respectfully.

There's the minority, though, who consider their own beliefs unassailable and anyone who disagrees with them hopeless idiots at best and actively evil at worst, and I've been hesitant to call them out because (1) I dislike conflict, (2) I'm of the opinion that online arguments seldom accomplish anything, and (3) I don't want to be one of those people who isolates himself from anyone who holds different opinions and turns every social contact into an echo chamber.  But the rather banal exchange over Facebook yesterday made me realize that notwithstanding my desire to listen to other viewpoints, I don't have to let myself get bombarded by bigotry, insults, and ugliness every time I turn on my computer.  I wouldn't choose to associate with someone who acts like that in real life; why should I do so on social media?

It's also reminded me that there's a line between listening to dissenting opinions and giving tacit approval to prejudice and vitriol.  And while we should all endeavor to do the former, there's no reason in the world why any of us should accept the latter.

So I think I'm going to be a little quicker with the "unfriend" button from now on.  I probably will still try to challenge people when they make outrageous statements, but if they refuse to back down, there is nothing to be gained by continuing to listen.  At that point, goodbye and have a nice life.

And if that makes me a "politically-correct snowflake," so be it.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Preventing the unknown

Some days it's no great mystery why the general public is dubious about scientists.

I mean, a lot of it is the media, as I've discussed here at Skeptophilia ad nauseam.  But there are times that the scientists themselves put their best foot backward.  As an example, consider the announcement from the World Health Organization this week that their Research & Development Blueprint for priority diseases includes "Disease X."

A disease that is as-yet unidentified.

The blueprint itself says this:
Disease X represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease, and so the R&D Blueprint explicitly seeks to enable cross-cutting R&D preparedness that is also relevant for an unknown “Disease X” as far as possible.
On the one hand, there's a grain of sense there.  Recognizing the fact that there are "emerging diseases" that are apparently new to humanity, and that could cause epidemics is the first step toward readying ourselves for when that happens.  (Recent examples are Ebola and Lassa fever, Marburg virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and chikungunya.)

The Ebola virus [image courtesy of the World Health Organization]

But still.  What the WHO is telling the public is that they're putting time and effort into preventing an epidemic from a disease that:
  • may not exist
  • if it does exist, has unknown symptoms, origins, and mode of transmission
  • may or may not be preventable
  • may or may not be treatable
  • may or may not be highly communicable
  • may or may not be carried by other animals
  • is of unknown duration and severity
Is it just me, or does this seem like an exercise in futility?

Like I said, an awareness of the unpredictability of disease outbreaks is a start, but this seems like trying to nail jello to the wall.  Each time humanity has been faced with a potential pandemic, we've had to study the disease and how it moves from one host to another, scramble to find treatments for the symptoms while we're searching for an actual cure (or better yet, a vaccine to prevent it), and do damage control in stricken areas.  So I can't see where the "Disease X" approach gets us, except to put everyone on red alert for an epidemic that may never happen.

I think my eyerolling when I read about this comes from two sources.  First, I'm all too aware that life is risky, and although it's certainly laudable to try to reduce the risk as much as you can, the bare fact is that you can't remove it entirely.  After all, none of us here are getting out of this place alive.  And second, there is an unavoidable chaotic element to what happens -- we get blindsided again and again by bizarre occurrences, and the professional prognosticators (not to mention professional psychics) get it wrong at least as often as they get it right.

So there probably will eventually be a new emerging epidemic.  On a long enough time scale, there's probably going to be a true pandemic as well.  I hope that with our advances in medical research, we'll be able to respond in time to prevent what happened during the Black Death, or worse, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 to 1919, that killed an estimated 40 million people (over twice the number of deaths as the battlefield casualties of World War I, which was happening at the same time).

In one sense, I take back what I said about not being able to do anything about it ahead of time.  We can give ourselves the best shot at mitigating the effects of an outbreak -- by funding medical research, and encouraging our best and brightest to go into science (i.e., education, a topic I've also rung the changes on more than once).  Other than that, I'm just going to eat right, exercise, and hope for the best.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Fighting the avalanche

Wednesday was the National Walk Out Day for the #NeverAgain movement, and it's estimated that over a million high school students walked out of their classes to protest the government's inaction on gun law reform -- and the fact that many elected officials are in the pockets of the NRA.  While some school districts were supportive of their right to protest, others chose to punish the ones who participated with penalties up to and including suspension or paddling.  (Yes, there are schools that still inflict corporal punishment on students.)

And of course, the backlash from the general public against the students who participated went full-bore almost immediately.  A quick perusal of social media was enough to gauge the vitriol being hurled at them.  One person I saw called them "lazy little snowflakes."  Others said they were only walking out so they could claim justification for skipping class (odd, then, that in our area -- where many schools were closed because of a snowstorm -- students showed up anyhow so they could stand in solidarity with the rest of the protesters).  They were called names (a politician from Maine called #NeverAgain leader Emma González "a skinhead lesbian").  They were accused of being tools of the radical left.  Most frustrating -- at least for me, looking at it from the outside -- is the level of condescension from adults, the implication that there's no way that these young adults could possibly have a relevant opinion, or one that the adults themselves should take seriously.

What this demonstration has proven, however, is that the adults who are misjudging and/or dismissing these teenagers are doing so at their own risk.  There is no sign of this movement going away, or being at all quelled by the snark being hurled their way, or how they are being portrayed in social media and (most of) the conservative press.  A banner was put up on a fence near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday with a particularly trenchant quote from Douglas herself:


The last time I've seen an anti-establishment uprising this powerful was the anti-Vietnam-War protests of the 1960s and early 70s.  The same kind of insults were lobbed at protesters back then; they were ne'er-do-wells, hippies who just wanted to tear down the rule of law, stoners whose opinion didn't count and shouldn't be taken seriously.

Today's establishment should look at the results of that episode as the cautionary tale it is.

It's worth considering looking even further back in history, however, and recognizing that civil disobedience is how this country was founded.  And while we call the people who launched the American Revolution are called "the Founding Fathers," they were by and large young people.  In 1776, James Monroe (and French ally the Marquis de Lafayette) were 18, Aaron Burr 20, Nathan Hale 21, Robert Townsend 22, George Rodgers Clark 23, and James Madison 25.  While some of them were in their thirties and forties -- notably George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams -- the Revolution was not fought, or even led, by staid, dignified elder statesmen.

These kids have stood up to politicians all they way up to the president of the United States; they are not going to be silenced by disdain.  And it bears mention that a significant portion of the teenagers who are participating will be of voting age by the November elections; virtually all of them will be voting by November 2020.  And trust me, they are not going to forget the elected officials who have ridiculed them and dismissed their opinions.

Whether you agree with them or disagree with them, this movement is not going to be stopped.  The wise among us will at least engage in an honest dialogue with them.  The foolish will discount their power and try to stand in their way, or even pretend they don't exist.

If these young adults are snowflakes, prepare for an avalanche.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Closing the books on homeopathy

There comes a point when there is absolutely no reason to continue investigating a claim for which there is no evidence (or significant evidence against).  Pursuing it beyond that point is a waste of money, time, and effort, and can only be explained by people's desperation not to have their pet idea proven wrong.

That point has been reached by homeopathy.  It is useless, unscientific horseshit.  Case closed.

But if by some chance you still were unconvinced, consider the paper that was withdrawn last week from the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  The title of the journal itself makes me wince a little; to paraphrase Tim Minchin, when alternative medicine has the support of evidence, it is thereafter known as "medicine."  But setting that aside for a moment, the paper in question was written by father/son team Aradeep and Ashim Chatterjee, and claimed that the homeopathic remedy "psorinum" was effective in treating cancer.

Without even knowing what "psorinum" is, any claim that a homeopathic "remedy" can cure cancer is about as close to medical fraud as you can skate without committing an actual crime.  If you don't know how "remedies" are created, the quick explanation is that you take a substance of some kind and dilute it past the point where there is any of it left, and then use the resulting water to treat whatever condition has symptoms like the ones created by ingesting the original substance.

For example: the homeopathic sleep-aid "calms forté" is made by diluting caffeine.  I shit you not.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In the case of "psorinum," however, we have an additional level of "what the fuck?" to add; the "remedy" is made by diluting...

... wait for it...

... fluid from the blisters of someone who has scabies.

I feel obliged to say at this point that I am not making this up.  The site Homeopathy Plus, which is the source of the link above, says the following about "psorinum:"
Those who need Psorinum usually lack vitality and are prone to mental disturbances.  They catch infections easily, especially colds, and recover slowly.  Skin complaints are common and if unattended will be dirty and offensive but these days with frequent bathing and access to steroids, are less likely to be so.  The person is also likely to be anxious about health, work, poverty and the future which leads to depression, despair and sometimes, suicidal thoughts.
You read that right.  If you're depressed because you're poor, the treatment is to ingest serially-diluted scabies pus.

Anyhow, the Chatterjees wrote a paper suggesting that "psorinum" could treat cancer, and evidently that was too much even for Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  When it was found that (1) the "ethics board" that cleared the study the paper was based on was identical to the Board of Directors of a clinic the Chatterjees owned, and (2) both the father and the son were practicing medicine without a license, it was too much for the authorities, too, and the pair were arrested.

This, unfortunately, is not a unique occurrence.  Papers supporting homeopathy have, one and all, been shown to be cherry-picked, if not outright fraudulent.  100% of the controlled scientific studies of homeopathic claims have resulted in zero evidence in favor.

So enough people-hours and research grant money has been wasted on this.  Homeopathy was a ridiculous claim from the get-go, but it was only fair to test it.  The research community did so.  It failed.

Case closed.

Now, the next step is to get those useless sugar pills off the shelves at CVS and other pharmacies.  I know the principle of caveat emptor applies, and if you're choosing to waste your money on fake treatments, you deserve what you get.  But the companies that make this stuff are profiting off the general public's gullibility and ignorance, people are taking quack remedies for serious conditions instead of seeking out legitimate medical help, and the Food & Drug Administration needs to put a stop to it.

As far as the Chatterjees go -- to quote a friend of mine, "I hope they bring them some 'psorinum' sugar pills in jail to cure their 'anxiety about the future.'"  To which I can only add: "Would you like some highly-diluted skin lotion for that burn?"

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Guest post: An interview with K. D. McCrite

A few years ago, I met author K. D. McCrite, whose series The Confessions of April Grace is beloved by both kids and adults for its beautifully-drawn characters and whimsical, sometimes screwball comedy storylines, all seen through the eyes of her title character, a girl growing up in rural Arkansas.  It wasn't until I'd known K. D. for some time that I found out that she had an alter ego -- Ava Norwood, the pseudonym under which she writes dark, gritty modern novels that only share with her other books a signature crystal-clear writing style.

K. D. herself is a deeply spiritual woman, despite the fact that her Norwood novels have more than once cast organized religion in a harsh and unfavorable glare.  We've become fast friends even though we don't have the same philosophical outlook -- in fact, our differences have led to some really interesting discussions, and far from distancing us, those conversations have deepened our friendship.

I thought it'd be interesting to hear her views on spirituality, writing, and how she reconciles her beliefs with her unflinching Norwood novels.  So she's my guest interviewee on Skeptophilia today.  I hope her answers get you thinking.  And I also hope you'll check out her novels, to which I've included links at the end of this post.

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GB: How does a spiritual person -- which you clearly are -- deal with the capacity for abuse inherent in organized religion?
KM: That’s not easy to do.  The life of a Christian should be simple: follow the example and teachings of the one who showed us the way.  Jesus was not an abuser, or a loser, or liar, or snob, or swindler.  He moved among all classes of people, showing no favoritism for wealth or status.  When people came to him, he did not turn them away.  He gave generously from what he had, and he served others.  Whether we believe he’s the son of God or we don’t believe in god at all, we probably agree the example of his life is the right way to live, if we want peace and contentment in our lives.  So when people claim to be Christian, but are wrapped up in ego, materialism, power, status, and legalism, I get a little hot under the collar.  No wonder Christianity now carries with it a repugnant image.  I rarely call myself a Christian any more.  I prefer Follower of Christ, and I do my best to live up to his example.
GB:  Tell me about your Ava Norwood novels, and how you reconcile your own beliefs with your writing, especially given the fact that some of the most despicable characters in them are representatives of organized religion, and yet consider themselves holy and sanctified.
KM: My books penned under the name of Ava Norwood feature people who have fallen into some kind of religious existence built on sand.  That is, their lives are set to collapse because what they are doing is foolish and weak.  I’m mixing metaphors here, but a reader should know when he opens an Ava Norwood novel, the characters are going to reap what they sow by the end of the story, good or bad.  It’s my hope that the books are thought-provoking, even enlightening.  If not, I hope I have at least offered a great read.

GB:  So you write in two different styles/personas.  One as Ava Norwood, and the other as K.D. McCrite, who writes family-friendly fiction that sometimes touches on Christian values.  Is there ever an issue with one fan base getting offended by the books in the other genre?
KM:  This is always a concern to me.  The Ava Norwood books have strong language, and graphic scenes of a violent or adult nature.  But let me be clear: the language and the scenes are not gratuitous.  They are true to the life and nature of the characters, and without them, the story would be weaker and have less impact than I intend.  I recognize that some people prefer their reading fare to be squeaky clean, and I understand.  I recommend that, rather than being offended or upset that I have chosen to use profanity, sex, or violence in a realistic way, they leave books by Ava Norwood unopened.  Otherwise, the purpose of the story is diluted or ignored because the offended reader can’t get over the portion that upset them.

Then we have the K.D. McCrite books, written for anyone from eight to 108.  Unfortunately, the audience for them restricts itself because of the lack of violence, sex, and language.  There are readers who seem to believe that there is no story without those elements.  However, I’ve been told by numerous people that “I assumed I wouldn’t like the book, but once I started, I really enjoyed it.”  The fact is, humorous, heart-warming stories can be every bit as gripping as something darker and grittier.  But how will these readers ever know that if they judge the books without reading them?
GB:  How would you answer a fan who did get offended?
KM:  "Offending someone was not my goal while writing this book, and I’m sorry you feel that way."  How else can one respond?  Not everyone is going to like everything.

Here are links to some of K. D.'s books -- I've read many of them, and thoroughly enjoyed them, both the ones she writes under K. D. McCrite and those she writes under Ava Norwood.  Give them a try!

As K. D. McCrite:
In Front of God and Everybody (April Grace #1)
Cliques, Hicks, and Ugly Sticks (April Grace #2)
Chocolate-Covered Baloney (April Grace #3)
Pink Orchids and Cheeseheads (April Grace #4)
Eastgate Keeps On Singing (Eastgate Cozy Mysteries #1)
Coming in the future: The Case Files of April Grace -- a series about a grown-up April Grace, who has become a private investigator...
K. D. has also written extensively for Annie's Mysteries, a fiction book club.

As Ava Norwood:
If I Make My Bed in Hell
Poured Out Like Water