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.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Junk science

I get really fed up with people's gullibility sometimes.

I mean, I get it.  No one's an expert at everything, there are gaps in our knowledge, so when we hear a claim about something with which we are less-than-well-informed, we might shrug and go, "Okay, that might be true."

But the thing is, we shouldn't stop there.

There are lots of reasons a plausible-sounding claim might still be false.  It could be that the person making the claim was misinformed him/herself.  It could be (s)he was lying for some reason.  It could be that the person making the claim misinterpreted, or is misrepresenting, the source of the information.  It could be that the source itself is simply wrong.

So you don't just shrug, say, "That makes sense, I suppose," and forthwith stop thinking.  You do a little research -- in these days of the internet, it's hardly time consuming to do so.  You learn something to fill in the gap in your understanding.  You consider the reliability of the source -- either the person you heard it from, or the original source material.

Or all of the above.

It may seem like a lot of work, but it will result in your not being suckered by the latest bizarre claim, fad, or challenge floating around cyberspace.  And there have been some doozies.  Here's a sampler:
  • Some people learned that there was a chemical used as an anti-foaming agent in fast-food deep-fryers, then found out that this same chemical was used as a carrier in a study looking at ways to prevent hair loss.  The result was, I kid you not, people smooshing McDonald's fries on their scalp to reverse pattern baldness.
  • A fad "challenge" a while back put a number of people in the hospital.  The challenge was to swallow a Tide detergent pod.  It turns out this isn't what they meant by "cleanliness is next to godliness."
  • The Good Lord alone knows how this one started, but there's an "alt-med" claim that all illness is caused by your body being too acidic.  The goal, apparently, is to increase your pH, because bigger numbers are better, or something.  Who the fuck knows?  But it resulted in people making drastic adjustments to their diets to try to accomplish what their kidneys were doing anyhow.
  • Scientists found out that amongst the compounds used as a chemical signal between (and within) cells is hydrogen sulfide, which is also present in small amounts in intestinal gas.  This prompted a headline at Fox News Online (speaking of unreliable sources), and I quote, "Study Says Smelling Farts is Good For You," which then got passed all over the place (*rimshot*), often with a triumphant comment by people who fart a lot that they're actually doing a public service by gassing out their homes and offices.  This incident also gives support to the studies that show if you append "Study Shows" in front of any damnfool claim you want, you can get people to believe you.
I'd like to say that things like the aforementioned have cured people of believing idiotic claims out of hand, but that optimistic idea got squelched yesterday when I read that -- and I must state up front, I am not making this up -- guys are dipping their genitals in soy sauce because "studies show" that men have taste receptors in their testicles.

The whole thing started with the only source I know of that is less reliable than Fox News, which is The Daily Mail Fail.  Apparently back in 2017 some researchers found that there are nerve endings in the testicles of mice, of unknown function, that are similar to the bitter chemoreceptors of the tongue.  This was reported by The Daily Mail that mice taste with their balls.  And that prompted bunches of guys to dip their junk in soy sauce to see if they could confirm those results.

(I wondered immediately, why soy sauce in particular?  Why not some other condiment?  But then I realized that there are many worse choices, such as habaƱero pepper sauce, the thought of which is going to have me in a protective crouch for the rest of the day.)

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Creative Tools, Kikkoman soysauce, CC BY 2.0]

Despite dozens of videos making their way around the internet with guys trying the new Testicle Teriyaki recipe and then shouting, "I can taste the soy sauce!", the whole thing is idiotic.  I mean, it pains me even to have to say that in so many words.  Even if the chemoreceptors in the testicles of humans are the same as those of mice, and they could somehow be activated by something in soy sauce, there's a fundamental problem -- stay with me here -- in that guys' balls are inside our scrotums.  So this would only have a prayer of a chance of working if we absorbed chemicals through our scrotums.  The fact that we don't should be obvious to any guy who has washed his junk with soap and water while taking a shower, and -- surprise! -- doesn't end up tasting soap.

For fuck's sake.

So if any guys reading this are tempted to dip their balls in soy sauce, just... don't.  Stop, think, research, consider the source.  And please, don't listen to The Daily Mail.  Like, on anything.  Especially if they're saying you should drop your pants and pour condiments on your naughty bits.


I don't often recommend historical books here at Skeptophilia, not because of a lack of interest but a lack of expertise in identifying what's good research and what's wild speculation.  My background in history simply isn't enough to be a fair judge.  But last week I read a book so brilliantly and comprehensively researched that I feel confident in recommending it -- and it's not only thorough, detailed, and accurate, it's absolutely gripping.

On May 7, 1915, the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk as it neared its destination of Liverpool by a German U-boat, an action that was instrumental in leading to the United States joining the war effort a year later.  The events leading up to that incident -- some due to planning, other to unfortunate chance -- are chronicled in Erik Larson's book Dead Wake, in which we find out about the cast of characters involved, and how they ended up in the midst of a disaster that took 1,198 lives.

Larson's prose is crystal-clear, giving information in such a straightforward way that it doesn't devolve into the "history textbook" feeling that so many true-history books have.  It's fascinating and horrifying -- and absolutely un-put-downable.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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