From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 14 No. 9
"There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever."--Vani Hari , aka The Food Babe
SD revision: Phil Parker Lightning ProcessTM.
The Babes of Science and the Babe of Pseudoscience
Skeptics and science lovers should check out these Babes: Biology Babe (anonymous, Facebook page says she is a PhD graduate student studying cancer immunology and has a B.S. in chemistry and biochemistry), SciBabe (Yvette d’Entremont, who holds a B.A. in theatre, a B.S. in chemistry, and an M.Sc. in forensic science with a concentration in biological criminalistics), and The Science Babe (Dr. Debbie Berebichez, who has a PhD in physics from Stanford University).
I couldn't find a Logic Babe or a Critical Thinking Babe, but I did find a grad student who, though not a Babe, likes the way SciBabe--who used to call herself the Science Babe--took down the Food Babe. (I also found a Philosophy Babe, but she might better be called a Philosophy Baby, a youngster asking philosophical questions of the twittersphere. She seems to have gotten bored quickly; she only asked questions for three days back in May of 2012 before abandoning her post.)
The "Babe" thing seems to have started with Vani Hari (B.A. in computer science), who uses her pretty face and the appeal to fear and hope to front a blog called The Food Babe. David Gorksi calls Hari the Jenny McCarthy of food. He doesn't mean that as a compliment, but as an insult implying she's scientifically illiterate and has no credentials for making authoritative claims in food science. (The Wikipedia article on Hari documents her lack of education and knowledge about food and nutrition, as well as her history of promoting pseudoscience and stupendously stupid opinions like the one quoted at the top of this newsletter.) I've looked at Hari's blog, not for long and not with much interest, and I couldn't tell whether she is a sincere ignoramus or a cynical opportunist exploiting those who believe all chemicals are bad for you, anything natural is good, and that corporations are run by evil people who are intentionally poisoning us and who are protected by evil government people. One thing is certain, like Dr. Oz, Hari passes off a lot of garbage to her fans along with the healthy desserts. Specifically, Hari says the flu vaccine is a "bunch of toxic chemicals and additives that lead to several types of Cancers and Alzheimer [sic] disease." According to Hari, "the flu shot has been used as a genocide tool." She think it's wrong that commercial airliners don't have 100% oxygen pumped into the passenger cabin. Beer, she says, is full of toxic GMOs. Microwaves cause bad crystals to form. The list isn't endless, but you get the point. Hari is one Babe to stay away from if it's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth you're after.
Still, she and her husband--who is apparently a coconspirator in this little enterprise--are marketing sharpshooters. The title of her book is icing on the marketing cake: The Food Babe Way: Break Free from the Hidden Toxins in Your Food and Lose Weight, Look Years Younger, and Get Healthy in Just 21 Days! The only thing missing from a marketing perspective is a reference to quantum healing. Hari's been featured in major newspapers, magazines, on radio stations, and TV shows across the globe. She's evoked responses from major businesses like Chick-fil-A, Kraft Foods, Subway, Anheuser-Busch, and MillerCoors. She claims she gets over 3 million unique visitors per month to her blog site, about 10 times the traffic of The Skeptic's Dictionary. On the other hand, she seems to have at least ten times as many detractors and critics on the WWW as I do and I'm sure she suffers abuse from the omnipresent merry band of trolling misogynists who hate to see any woman succeed at anything.
I'm sure she's crying all the way to the bank.
(update: A reader suggests the MathBabe, Cathy O’Neil (Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard), who says she is Exploring and venting about quantitative issues.
postscript: Dr. Joe Schwarcz, McGill University, has this to say about Hari:
If someone had a problem with a leaky roof, or an issue with plumbing, and asked for advice from Vani Hari, aka the Food Babe, people would think they are nuts. But when it comes to the chemistry of food additives, which is an even more complex issue, people see no problem about a scientifically illiterate person pontificating and giving advice. She thinks that any additive made from petroleum is a poison...this of course is ridiculous...the starting material in a synthesis is not a determinant of toxicity...but thinking that it is, is a determinant of scientific illiteracy.
Changing Hearts and Minds
We know preaching doesn't work, unless you're preaching to the choir. Ridicule doesn't work, unless your goal is to vent. Careful argument doesn't work with most people most of the time. Arousing fear and hope works pretty well with some things, as long as the people you're scaring or filling with hope are already scared and looking for a quick fix from someone who will reinforce their beliefs and desires. But how do you change a cultural tradition and belief in something like female genital mutilation? The first thing you do is drop the inflammatory rhetoric. In this case, social scientists refer to the practice as female genital cutting or FGC. Gerry Mackie, an associate professor of political science at UC San Diego, advises that one start with trying to understand what motivates the people who hold the belief or engage in the practice you want to change. Why is FGC popular in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East? The aim of FGC is to ensure marriageability and parents are motivated by love for their daughters, according to Mackie. They will stop FGC on their daughters, he says, because they love them. Essential to the change is to get public pledges from intermarrying groups to cease the practice. In 1998, Mackie began putting his theory into practice. Working with the nonprofit Tostan, they got more than 7,000 communities across eight African countries to publicly declare that they would no longer practice FGC. "Treat people as rational, good people, who want what's best for their girls," he says.
Would the same approach be effective with parents who don't want their children vaccinated? Shouldn't we assume that such parents take the position they do because they love their children and don't want to see them harmed? Our job, then, is to demonstrate that not having their children vaccinated is putting them in harm's way and that having their children vaccinated will protect them from harm. In other words, having children vaccinated is something any loving parent should do.
You might think a starting point would be to note that the diseases vaccines protect our children from have much worse effects than any potential side effect from those vaccines. But that claim will probably be met with skepticism. What about the potential for getting autism or some other neurological disorder from a vaccine or series of vaccines? This is a real fear that many parents have. How do you persuade them that vaccines are safe, that they do not cause autism or other neurological disorders? You might think that the only thing you can appeal to is the evidence, which is overwhelming that there is no connection between autism and vaccines. That evidence will likely be met with anecdotes and beliefs like the one expressed by Donald Trump on twitter: "Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!"
One success story at changing the mind of a parent against vaccination is told by SciBabe (formerly Science Babe), who posted the following on her Facebook page:
Apparently, it is possible to change a parent's mind about vaccines using humor and evidence, without making people feel stupid or defensive. No method of persuasion is foolproof, but it should be obvious that beginning the conversation by accusing the ones you want to change of being stupid, ignorant, criminal, or evil isn't going to get you very far.
So, who wants to try to persuade Republicans that anthropogenic global warming is not a hoax or that Planned Parenthood doesn't kill fetuses to sell their body parts? Anybody game to try to change the minds of those who claim that GMOs are unsafe or that Big Pharma is conspiring to keep us sick? Who wants to try to persuade Dr. Ben Carson that the creation story in Genesis is way more farfetched than the science story of evolution? Do you think you could change Hillary Clinton's mind about the Benghazi investigation being "the longest-running congressional investigation ever"? You might start by pointing out just one investigation that went on for over seventeen months. (There are actually four, but one will do to falsify the claim.)
Hopes&Fears (H&F), an online publication exploring life and culture, recently featured interviews with two well-known skeptics--Susan Gerbic (Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia) and Ben Radford (paranormal investigator)--in an article entitled "Professional hoax-busters on Planned Parenthood, anti-vaxxers and the disinformation age." The article begins by reminding us of the obvious: we live in an age where misinformation and disinformation are spread with a tap of the finger by almost anybody from almost anywhere on the planet. The need to keep reminding ourselves of this obvious fact may be the reason behind The New York Times setting up a page on how to tell fake news from real news. (Yes, I know there's some irony here: the outfit that was duped into publishing fake stories from the Cheney gang about WMDs in Iraq that assisted in building the case to engage in the debacle known as "the Iraq war" is now giving advice on how not to be duped. The NYT gang couldn't tell fake reports from real ones when Jason Blair was on the staff.) Just about any story is believable to some people and anybody can be hoaxed. Tell a believable story on a topic many people are passionate about and tell that story in a realistic and authoritative way, and there is a good chance your story will go viral without anybody caring about or doing any fact checking. If the story confirms one's biases, an uncontrollable urge to pass it on seems to possess many people, including journalists.
We now know that an anti-abortion/pro-birth group published a doctored video that seemed to show Planned Parenthood as a group of evil murderers of babies, completely insensitive to any human feelings about abortion. The video was produced by an outfit that deceptively calls itself The Center for Medical Progress (CMP). The organization was set up David Daleiden in 2013 and aims to use any means necessary to undermine any group that is pro-choice. CMP set up a fake biomedical research company called Biomax Procurement Services (BPS). BPS was used as a cover to enable CMP anti-abortion fanatics "to pose as buyers of fetal tissues and organs and secretly record Planned Parenthood officials during meetings."* The Biomax deception wasn't enough; CMP then created a highly edited video that depicted Planned Parenthood as profiting from the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses, a practice which is illegal. CMP also inserted a video of an apparently dying baby very recently removed from the womb that was overdubbed with conversations about fetal tissue used for research purposes. There is never any denial by Planned Parenthood that it receives a fee for fetal tissue from scientific investigators, but the evidence (gathered by such groups as FactCheck.org) proves that there is no profit in the practice because the fees charged--$30 to $100-- barely cover expenses. Because a number of Republicans were duped by the doctored CMP video, the government was nearly shut down by the anti-abortion/pro-birth lobby.
To call the CMP video a hoax rather than a criminal, malicious deception and distortion of the facts aimed at implicating an innocent group in illegal activity seems to treat these sinful, wicked people with more respect than they deserve. These folks have every right to oppose all abortions and to argue that every pregnancy should be brought to full term. They can believe, if they want, that a human being is formed at the moment of conception. What they have no right to do is to demand that we all agree with them. Nor do they have a right to lie and deceive to achieve their goal of arousing opposition to anyone who disagrees with them. (For those who believe that human life begins at the moment of conception, consider that a fertilized egg takes at least a week before it attaches to the uterine wall, a necessary condition for a zygote to develop into an embryo and into a fetus and eventually into a human baby. Many billions of fertilized eggs never make it to the attachment stage, mostly because of chromosomal abnormalitites in the gametes and embryos.* Some get attached in a fallopian tube or elsewhere. Does that mean that nature is a murderer? Or, if you believe some god is directly infusing a soul into a fertilized egg at the moment of fertilization, then is that god a murderer?)
In any case, CMP is not alone in trying to manipulate beliefs and actions by producing and promoting false stories. Hence, the interest in and importance of knowing how to tell fake stories from real ones. All too often, a story comes along that fits with what you already believe or want to believe and you do not take any time to verify before passing it on. Confirmation bias is the chief vice among those who pass on false stories. For example, a fellow recently wrote me that his wife is on Taxol for breast cancer. A colleague sent him a link to an article where the author claims that "a compound in ginger is 10000x more effective than Taxol," meaning, one might think, that ginger would be a much more effective treatment than Taxol for breast cancer. The website happens to be one I've seen before: GreenMedInfo run by Sayer Ji. It is on my (mental) list of Sites Not To Be Trusted, along with NaturalNews, Mercola, Dr. Oz, Daily Mail, and the like. I would never pass on anything from such sites without first verifying it from other, more reliable, sources. (A Google search for "Ginger: 10,000x Stronger Than Chemo" yielded over 7,000 hits, one from a twitter post with only 13 retweets.) The first thing I'd do here is look for a citation to the scientific evidence that supports the claim. Once I've identified at least one study, I ask where was it published and who did the research. In this case, there is a single study published in PLoS by Anasuya Ray, Smreti Vasudevan, and Suparna Sengupta. For those who don't know anything about PLoS, Wikipedia says:
PLoS (for Public Library of Science) is a nonprofit open access scientific publishing project aimed at creating a library of open access journals and other scientific literature under an open content license.... The publications are primarily funded by payments from the authors.
The authors of the article are affiliated with the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram, India. According to Sayer Ji, the study found that a "component within ginger known as 6-shogaol is superior to conventional chemotherapy in targeting the root cause of breast cancer malignancy: namely, the breast cancer stem cells." I could find nothing in the article that even comes close to claiming either that 6-shogaol is 10,000 times as effective as Taxol in any living human being or that 6-shogaol is superior to conventional chemotherapy in targeting breast cancer stem cells in humans. (The paper states "The results showed that for both the cell types [monolayer and spheroid], 6-shogaol was effective in spheroids at concentrations that were 5 or 2 fold higher than the effective inhibitory concentrations in monolayer cells. In contrast, taxol, even though [sic] was highly active in monolayer cells, did not show activity against the spheroids even at 10000 fold higher concentration compared to 6-shogaol.") Also, the claim that stem cells are the "root cause" of breast cancer malignancy is not argued for in the paper. The paper actually makes modest claims, which it should since it is based on what happened in the petri dish rather than in the human body. (WD-40 or Coca Cola might kill cells in a petri dish. No grand conclusions about either should be drawn from such stories should they prove to be cancer-cell killers in the lab.) So this story, like others I've seen on GreenMedInfo, is so distorted as to qualify as fake news, not real news, and shouldn't be passed on much less acted on. Yet, you can be sure that there will be "holistic, natural cures" folks who will run out and buy more ginger based on another misleading article by Sayer Ji. You can also bet that they will pass it on to anyone who will listen.
If you don't have the time or the inclination to do your own research on questionable issues, you can sometimes find websites like Stephen Barrett's Index of Questionable Treatments or Torsten Pihl's Debunkatron or WackosGallery who have done the legwork for you. But for many issues there is no easy way to fact check a story.
If a story interests me to the point where I want to pass it on and the source is one I have come to trust, I wouldn't usually do any further authentication unless the story is so far-fetched as to seem grossly implausible on its face. (I don't remember any such cases occurring, however.)
The stories I'm most cautious about are the ones that fit with my biases and beliefs that originate with a source I know nothing about. I try to verify such stories, especially if they involve interpretations of a scientific study. I want to see the study, not just the abstract, before passing on such stories. But realistically nobody has the time or the resources to fact check most stories of national interest. I wasted about an hour trying to verify the NYT claim that Laurel Harper posted on Yahoo Answers as TweetyBird that she and her son have Asperger's syndrome (couldn't verify) and that she keeps a small arsenal (verified if you can believe the police reports of what they confiscated from her apartment). The NYT article also claims that Harper took her son to a shooting range, the implication being that the mother, though a working nurse, was as crazy as her son and the main difference between this case and the Sandy Hook massacre is that the killer didn't kill his mother before going on his rampage. Nobody seems to have interviewed Laurel Harper. The Times' authors note that "Ms. Harper did not respond to messages seeking comment." No kidding. My inclination is to go with the story told by the Times because it seems plausible and fits with a bias I have about mothers who think they are experts on health issues because of their experiences with their children. Jenny McCarthy comes to mind, and her "mommy instinct" to justify her absurd claim that vaccines caused her son's autism but she cured him with special care and diet. But because this story fits one of my biases, I tried to validate some of the main claims. Even though the authors of the story say the information they got is public, I couldn't find it. I did find an apparent Facebook posting validating the gist of the story, but the source was The Daily Mail, which I don't trust, whose source is Vocativ, which I'd never heard of and whose site does not make it possible to find where the post allegedly came from on Facebook. I'm not saying the NYT article isn't accurate; I'm saying I couldn't quickly verify it and I don't have the time or the interest in digging any deeper.
Gerber and Radford were asked by H&F Can you explain your process for deconstructing a hoax or a rumor? Gerber said she sometimes checks Snopes, a site run by Barbara and David Mikkelson who track down rumors and questionable claims on topics of general interest. For example, they recently tracked down the claim that Dr. Ben Carson said that a Muslim's brain is "wired differently." He didn't say that but the fake news site National Report did post an article claiming that Carson said:
"I've worked with Muslims, I've trained Muslims, I've performed brain surgery on Muslims. I can tell you that, anatomically, a Muslim's brain is wired differently than ours."
Carson continued, "The orbital cortex is the area involved with ethical behavior, moral decision-making, and impulse control. The Muslim brain has very low orbital cortex activity, which means less than normal suppression of behaviors such as rage and violence. Add to this their belief in Sharia Law and you have recipe for disaster. No, I would certainly not advocate for a Muslim to ever be president of the United States."
Carson did say he opposed having a Muslim as president and that may account for why many people passed this fake story on as if it were true. Apparently, even Fox News has passed on stories posted in The Onion, a satirical fake news site, as if they were real news stories. A recent headline in an Onion story about the mass killing at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, read: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. Facetious and fake, yes, but this one line hit harder at the truth than 10,000 editorials on the need for more gun control. Being in an editorial mood, I might add that while every nation has its share of mentally ill people, ours is unique in making an endless supply of weapons and ammunition available to these folks.
Radford says that when investigating a story that may be a hoax, he first tries to identify the sources. The job is over when it turns out the source is The Onion, the National Report, or some other satirical website. If the source is not a fake news site, he'll look for a variant, a version of a story that has circulated at other times in different areas. He also cross-checks sources. "Basically," he says "the process I have of investigating these hoaxes and internet rumors is a process of collecting and counting red flags. If I get to three or four or five red flags, I'm pretty sure I’m dealing with a hoax." (Speaking of variants. Many of you know that Sheriff John Hanlin whose force responded to the Umpqua Community College rampage, once posted on Facebook that he thought Sandy Hook might be a fake story to use as an excuse to confiscate our guns. In trying to verify the NYT story, I came across numerous postings on social media by conspiracy-minded folks who wondered aloud if this wasn't another fake story whose real purpose was to take away our guns.)
Another source you might use for fact checking is PolitiFact where you will find, for example, that Hillary Clinton's claim that the Benghazi probe is "the longest-running congressional investigation ever" is false. The fact-checkers found four special congressional committees whose investigations went well past the Benghazi’s panel’s 17-month run.* The Intersect at the Washington Post is another fact checking site, but like all news media sites there will be controversial judgments and accusations of bias. Carly Fiorina fans would not trust this site, I'm sure. Others might find that the Post does a good job debunking the claim that more people died taking selfies than died in shark attacks. Even so, more than 50,000 people on Facebook passed the story on.
Does the Pope Get a Free Pass?
It may appear to some that Pope Francis is trying to win over the progressives of the world with his expressed concern for the planet and the poor. It may also appear that he is not trying to win over the conservatives of the world who do not want equality and who think that anyone who is poor or unequal deserves to be poor and unequal. I think both views are a bit off the mark. I don't think the Pope cares much about anything except fulfilling what he thinks is his god's plan. There isn't much secretive about the plan: increase and multiply, and oppose any social or political movement that hinders the increase and multiply dictum. He doesn't have to woo the conservatives on the abortion or contraception issue, the Catholic Church's main concern (next to increasing its wealth, of course). Don't be disappointed if he doesn't keep his word on going after those in the Church who protect pedophile priests. And why isn't the Pope confronted on his support for inequality of women in his Church? What kind of compassionate person bullies women into carrying to full term a child conceived in rape or incest by claiming some god demands it? How compassionate is it to forbid contraception no matter what the circumstances and claim some god demands it? What kind of compassionate champion claims some god would rather see a woman dead than have her try to prevent a pregnancy?
Meanwhile, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has re-named himself Caliph Ibrahim and exhorts his warriors to do more crucifixions, beheadings, and mass executions. He encourages kidnapping and raping of women in the name of his god. His forces destroy the vestiges of ancient civilizations and cultures, from Assyrian statues to Yazidi villages. His crusaders systematically intimidate, extort, and murder anyone who doesn't accept his primitive form of Islam. What does the Pope say about this? Did he and Obama discuss this scourge? I don't know, but Francis did tell Congress that every life is sacred. Really? Did he mean it? Of course not, except in some absurd metaphysical way: some god made everybody and anything the god makes is sacred, whatever that means. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's life is not sacred. His life is profane and the world would be a far better place if people like him never came into existence.