Category Archive 'Pseudo-Science'

24 Feb 2014

Whole Foods, Junk Science, and the National Pseudo-Intelligentsia

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Michael Schulson notes the inconsistency of the community of fashion’s supposed commitment to Science as demonstrated by the ability of Whole Foods, every fashionista’s preferred market, to vend an endless array of products promising better health on the basis of one form or other of pseudo-science.

Americans get riled up about creationists and climate change deniers, but lap up the quasi-religious snake oil at Whole Foods. It’s all pseudoscience—so why are some kinds of pseudoscience more equal than others?

If you want to write about spiritually-motivated pseudoscience in America, you head to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. It’s like a Law of Journalism. The museum has inspired hundreds of book chapters and articles (some of them, admittedly, mine) since it opened up in 2007. The place is like media magnet. And our nation’s liberal, coastal journalists are so many piles of iron fillings.

But you don’t have to schlep all the way to Kentucky in order to visit America’s greatest shrine to pseudoscience. In fact, that shrine is a 15-minute trip away from most American urbanites.

I’m talking, of course, about Whole Foods Market. From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.

My own local Whole Foods is just a block away from the campus of Duke University. Like almost everything else near downtown Durham, N.C., it’s visited by a predominantly liberal clientele that skews academic, with more science PhDs per capita than a Mensa convention.

Still, there’s a lot in your average Whole Foods that’s resolutely pseudoscientific. The homeopathy section has plenty of Latin words and mathematical terms, but many of its remedies are so diluted that, statistically speaking, they may not contain a single molecule of the substance they purport to deliver. The book section—yep, Whole Foods sells books—boasts many M.D.’s among its authors, along with titles like The Coconut Oil Miracle and Herbal Medicine, Healing, and Cancer, which was written by a theologian and based on what the author calls the Eclectic Triphasic Medical System.

You can buy chocolate with “a meld of rich goji berries and ashwagandha root to strengthen your immune system,” and bottles of ChlorOxygen chlorophyll concentrate, which “builds better blood.” There’s cereal with the kind of ingredients that are “made in a kitchen—not in a lab,” and tea designed to heal the human heart.

Nearby are eight full shelves of probiotics—live bacteria intended to improve general health. I invited a biologist friend who studies human gut bacteria to come take a look with me. She read the healing claims printed on a handful of bottles and frowned. “This is bullshit,” she said, and went off to buy some vegetables. Later, while purchasing a bag of chickpeas, I browsed among the magazine racks. There was Paleo Living, and, not far away, the latest issue of What Doctors Don’t Tell You. Pseudoscience bubbles over into anti-science. A sample headline: “Stay sharp till the end: the secret cause of Alzheimer’s.” A sample opening sentence: “We like to think that medicine works.”

At times, the Whole Foods selection slips from the pseudoscientific into the quasi-religious. It’s not just the Ezekiel 4:9 bread (its recipe drawn from the eponymous Bible verse), or Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, or Vitamineral Earth’s “Sacred Healing Food.” It’s also, at least for Jewish shoppers, the taboos that have grown up around the company’s Organic Integrity effort, all of which sound eerily like kosher law. There’s a sign in the Durham store suggesting that shoppers bag their organic and conventional fruit separately—lest one rub off on the other—and grind their organic coffees at home—because the Whole Foods grinders process conventional coffee, too, and so might transfer some non-organic dust. “This slicer used for cutting both CONVENTIONAL and ORGANIC breads” warns a sign above the Durham location’s bread slicer. Synagogue kitchens are the only other places in which I’ve seen signs implying that level of food-separation purity.

Look, if homeopathic remedies make you feel better, take them. If the Paleo diet helps you eat fewer TV dinners, that’s great—even if the Paleo diet is probably premised more on The Flintstones than it is on any actual evidence about human evolutionary history. If non-organic crumbs bother you, avoid them. And there’s much to praise in Whole Foods’ commitment to sustainability and healthful foods.

Still: a significant portion of what Whole Foods sells is based on simple pseudoscience. And sometimes that can spill over into outright anti-science (think What Doctors Don’t Tell You, or Whole Foods’ overblown GMO campaign, which could merit its own article). If scientific accuracy in the public sphere is your jam, is there really that much of a difference between Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, who seems to have made a career marketing pseudoscience about the origins of the world, and John Mackey, a founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, who seems to have made a career, in part, out of marketing pseudoscience about health?

Read the whole thing.

But there really is no inconsistency. The truth of the matter is that the national elite is credentialed, but ill-educated and typically scientifically illiterate. It is demonstrably perfectly possible to get a graduate degree in a scientific field and to fail to understand that an unfalsifiable theory like Global Warming is not science, precisely because it is unfalsifiable.

Their beliefs about the supposed health benefits of various products are perfectly akin to their choices of belief in all other areas.

10 Jan 2009

Give the Chap Who Ran Away a Medal, Too!

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Don’t slap that PTSD sufferer, General. Give him the Purple Heart!

Michael A. Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at New America Foundation, thinks the Pentagon is just plain mean for refusing to award Post Traumatic Stress Disorder victims the Purple Heart, a military decoration given in the name of the president to members of the Armed Forces killed or wounded in combat.

The original form of the award, invented by George Washington during the Revolutionary War, stated: “Let it be known that he who wears the military order of the purple heart has given of his blood in the defense of his homeland and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen.”

Mr. Cohen rejects the Pentagon’s (and George Washington’s) criteria of shedding blood for one’s country. For him, internal emotional suffering is quite enough.

Simply because their wounds are not evident to the naked eye does not mean they are not real and debilitating. In many respects, those who suffer from PTSD never truly recover and suffer through all sorts of deep psychological trauma. And as for the notion that it’s difficult to diagnose; perhaps the people who made this decision should crack open the latest copy of the DSM.

One would hope that in the 21st century, with all we’ve learned about the debilitating nature of mental illnesses, that these sort of simple-minded and uninformed characterizations of “war injuries” would be restricted to the peanut gallery. But instead they are seemingly driving Pentagon decision-making.

This failure to recognize PTSD has real consequences. Not only will those who are suffering not receive the added — and much-needed — medical benefits that come to Purple Heart recipients, but the stigma around mental illness in the military is only perpetuated by this action. One can only imagine the chilling effect that this decision will have on soldiers already uncomfortable about facing mental illness.

In the characteristic manner of pundits on the left, Mr. Cohen indignantly asserts the unproven and unprovable as a matter of established fact, pointing to the opinion of his ideological confreres, i.e., the liberal compilers of the American Psychiatric Association’s highly controversial and notorious for changing with the winds of fashion Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as inarguably probative.

His unexpressed, even possibly unconscious, goal is really more egalitarianism. From the viewpoint of the left, concepts of individual responsibility and good character must be discredited and rejected. No one is really better than anyone else. Some are simply more privileged than others. It is the inferior, whose failures in war as in peace must be regarded as lying beyond his own control and treated as the basis for a claim against society, who must be championed and decorated.

In her recently published journals, Susan Sontag writes (1957, p.131):

One of the main strands in modern literature (and in modern politics – DZ) is diabolism — that is, self-conscious inversion of moral values. This is not nihilism, the denial of moral values, but their inversion: still rule-bound, only now a “morality of evil” instead of a “morality of good.”

Hat tip to Excitable Andrew.

23 Feb 2007

This Morning’s Rant on Global Warming (From My Class List)

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The liberal view of the universe

Liberals confuse a consensus of journalists, celebrities, and do-gooders, combined with activist science, with something meaningful. If they lived in the 1920s, they’d be championing eugenics. If they lived in the 1880s, they’d be worried about sex as a health threat and the rising tide of inferior races. These kinds of consensi are always wrong.

Sophisters, calculators, and economists have cooked up models and projections based on various kinds of data, but we really know perfectly well that mankind does not understand the typical duration and causes of climate cycles and periods of glaciation, and cannot accurately predict weather more than a week in advance.

The theory of Global Warming is ultimately based on nothing more than the unavailability, post-1980, of a continuing pattern of cooler weather. When it had been getting colder for a few years, the same kinds of authority were projecting a new Ice Age, brought about by mankind’s hubris in creating industrial civilization with attendant contamination of pristine Nature. The vital remedy was more taxes and greater regulatory restriction of American productivity and energy consumption. When temperature trends reversed, curiously enough, the causes and the cure remained exactly the same. The only change is that the media and the left went from agitating over Global Cooling to agitating over Global Warming without missing a beat, and essentially the same agitprop has simply increased in volume and alleged urgency for years.

What depresses me is the fact that Americans can emerge from 16+ years of education still capable of falling for this kind of ridiculous nonsense. To believe in Global Warming, I’d say, you have to be basically unconscious of the highly limited state of human knowledge of the earth’s past. We know that there were periods in which the planet’s climate was considerably cooler than at present, and we know that there were periods when it was considerably warmer. We do not have anything like exhaustive knowledge of the climate throughout earth’s geologic history. Nor do we now why periods of different climate occurred.

The rise of modern science of geology goes back roughly two lousy centuries. Continental drift, a fairly basic factor in geologic matters, was not even accepted before the 1960s, within many of our lifetimes. When that bozo on the evening news starts describing today’s temperature as an all-time record, what kind of records do you suppose he’s working with? Exactly how meaningful is anything of the sort? What can 20+ years of slightly warmer weather signify?

I attribute this lunacy to a combination of too much city living and Hollywood. There has been an endless stream of horror movies about Godzilla rising from Tokyo Bay, giant ants, mutated this, or catastrophic that, all attributable to the wickedness of mankind’s pursuit of material gratification. Today’s citified Americans all believe that they are the absolute center of the universe, and that the world and man’s position in it resembles the old New Yorker cartoon of the view from 9th Avenue. If I dropped all the liberals somewhere west of the Missouri and they had to walk out, their view of man’s centrality in the universe would be changed mightily.

19 Oct 2006

Imagining The Earth Without People

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The New Scientist blissfully imagines a world in which humanity has become extinct.

Humans are undoubtedly the most dominant species the Earth has ever known. In just a few thousand years we have swallowed up more than a third of the planet’s land for our cities, farmland and pastures. By some estimates, we now commandeer 40 per cent of all its productivity. And we’re leaving quite a mess behind: ploughed-up prairies, razed forests, drained aquifers, nuclear waste, chemical pollution, invasive species, mass extinctions and now the looming spectre of climate change. If they could, the other species we share Earth with would surely vote us off the planet.

“Now just suppose they got their wish. Imagine that all the people on Earth – all 6.5 billion of us and counting – could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let’s not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses). Left once more to its own devices, Nature would begin to reclaim the planet, as fields and pastures reverted to prairies and forest, the air and water cleansed themselves of pollutants, and roads and cities crumbled back to dust.

“The sad truth is, once the humans get out of the picture, the outlook starts to get a lot better,” says John Orrock, a conservation biologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California…

Pretty quickly – 24, maybe 48 hours – you’d start to see blackouts because of the lack of fuel added to power stations,” says Gordon Masterton, president of the UK’s Institution of Civil Engineers in London. Renewable sources such as wind turbines and solar will keep a few automatic lights burning, but lack of maintenance of the distribution grid will scuttle these in weeks or months. The loss of electricity will also quickly silence water pumps, sewage treatment plants and all the other machinery of modern society.

The same lack of maintenance will spell an early demise for buildings, roads, bridges and other structures. Though modern buildings are typically engineered to last 60 years, bridges 120 years and dams 250, these lifespans assume someone will keep them clean, fix minor leaks and correct problems with foundations. Without people to do these seemingly minor chores, things go downhill quickly…

With no one to make repairs, every storm, flood and frosty night gnaws away at abandoned buildings, and within a few decades roofs will begin to fall in and buildings collapse. This has already begun to happen in Pripyat. Wood-framed houses and other smaller structures, which are built to laxer standards, will be the first to go. Next down may be the glassy, soaring structures that tend to win acclaim these days. “The elegant suspension bridges, the lightweight forms, these are the kinds of structures that would be more vulnerable,” says Masterton. “There’s less reserve of strength built into the design, unlike solid masonry buildings and those using arches and vaults.”

But even though buildings will crumble, their ruins – especially those made of stone or concrete – are likely to last thousands of years. “We still have records of civilisations that are 3000 years old,” notes Masterton. “For many thousands of years there would still be some signs of the civilisations that we created. It’s going to take a long time for a concrete road to disappear. It might be severely crumbling in many places, but it’ll take a long time to become invisible.”..

All things considered, it will only take a few tens of thousands of years at most before almost every trace of our present dominance has vanished completely. Alien visitors coming to Earth 100,000 years hence will find no obvious signs that an advanced civilisation ever lived here.

Yet if the aliens had good enough scientific tools they could still find a few hints of our presence. For a start, the fossil record would show a mass extinction centred on the present day, including the sudden disappearance of large mammals across North America at the end of the last ice age. A little digging might also turn up intriguing signs of a long-lost intelligent civilisation, such as dense concentrations of skeletons of a large bipedal ape, clearly deliberately buried, some with gold teeth or grave goods such as jewellery.

And if the visitors chanced across one of today’s landfills, they might still find fragments of glass and plastic – and maybe even paper – to bear witness to our presence. “I would virtually guarantee that there would be some,” says William Rathje, an archaeologist at Stanford University in California who has excavated many landfills. “The preservation of things is really pretty amazing. We think of artefacts as being so impermanent, but in certain cases things are going to last a long time.”

Ocean sediment cores will show a brief period during which massive amounts of heavy metals such as mercury were deposited, a relic of our fleeting industrial society. The same sediment band will also show a concentration of radioactive isotopes left by reactor meltdowns after our disappearance. The atmosphere will bear traces of a few gases that don’t occur in nature, especially perfluorocarbons such as CF4, which have a half-life of tens of thousands of years. Finally a brief, century-long pulse of radio waves will forever radiate out across the galaxy and beyond, proof – for anything that cares and is able to listen – that we once had something to say and a way to say it.

But these will be flimsy souvenirs, almost pathetic reminders of a civilisation that once thought itself the pinnacle of achievement. Within a few million years, erosion and possibly another ice age or two will have obliterated most of even these faint traces. If another intelligent species ever evolves on the Earth – and that is by no means certain, given how long life flourished before we came along – it may well have no inkling that we were ever here save for a few peculiar fossils and ossified relics. The humbling – and perversely comforting – reality is that the Earth will forget us remarkably quickly.

Personally, I prefer to imagine a world without idiots like these people.

18 Oct 2006

Morlocks and Eloi

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The BBC reports on the speculations of Oliver Curry, a research associate at the London School of Economics who is pursuing the somewhat-anachronistic career path of applying Dawinism to human moral, social, and political behavior. Hello! it’s been done. Ever hear of Herbert Spencer? Or William Graham Sumner?

He has certainly read H.G. Wells.

Humanity may split into two sub-species in 100,000 years’ time as predicted by HG Wells, an expert has said.

Evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics expects a genetic upper class and a dim-witted underclass to emerge.

The human race would peak in the year 3000, he said – before a decline due to dependence on technology.

People would become choosier about their sexual partners, causing humanity to divide into sub-species, he added.

The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative and a far cry from the “underclass” humans who would have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.

But in the nearer future, humans will evolve in 1,000 years into giants between 6ft and 7ft tall, he predicts, while life-spans will have extended to 120 years, Dr Curry claims.

Physical appearance, driven by indicators of health, youth and fertility, will improve, he says, while men will exhibit symmetrical facial features, look athletic, and have squarer jaws, deeper voices and bigger penises.

Women, on the other hand, will develop lighter, smooth, hairless skin, large clear eyes, pert breasts, glossy hair, and even features, he adds. Racial differences will be ironed out by interbreeding, producing a uniform race of coffee-coloured people.

However, Dr Curry warns, in 10,000 years time humans may have paid a genetic price for relying on technology.

Spoiled by gadgets designed to meet their every need, they could come to resemble domesticated animals.

Social skills, such as communicating and interacting with others, could be lost, along with emotions such as love, sympathy, trust and respect. People would become less able to care for others, or perform in teams.

Physically, they would start to appear more juvenile. Chins would recede, as a result of having to chew less on processed food.

There could also be health problems caused by reliance on medicine, resulting in weak immune systems. Preventing deaths would also help to preserve the genetic defects that cause cancer.

Further into the future, sexual selection – being choosy about one’s partner – was likely to create more and more genetic inequality, said Dr Curry.

The logical outcome would be two sub-species, “gracile” and “robust” humans similar to the Eloi and Morlocks foretold by HG Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine.

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