From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 14 No. 10
"Thinking is what a great many people think they are doing when they are simply rearranging their prejudices." -- William James
New Index: For over twenty years, readers have been submitting comments on the entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary. I've added an Index of all Reader Comments.
Revised: Hulda Clark.
The anti-GMO Campaign: Mission Accomplished!
update 4/24/16 Kevin Folta wins the 2016 CAST Borlaug Agricultural Communications Award.
Dr. Kevin Folta is chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida. His Ph.D. (1998) is in molecular biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. His areas of specialization are listed as the functional genomics of small fruit crops, plant transformation, photomorphogenesis and flowering, the genetic basis of flavors, and science communication and outreach. Recently, however, he decided to step back from his role as a science communicator. Why? Because of intense and relentless harassment from anti-GMO fanatics. One blogger describes the anti-GMO attacks on Folta and others as neo-McCarthyism:
The attack on biotechnology resembles the political campaigns in Cold War America: attack the people, not the idea; create a culture of fear; keep on the offence to make others answer your leading questions; make the institutions appear as part of the cause of the problem … These are activist tricks now used against industry on a daily basis. Like McCarthy’s campaign of intimidation, with the organic lobby’s fight against GMOs, free speech, open thought and public discourse suffer in the endless barrage of zealous allegations. Civil liberties and the right to pursue research have succumbed to pressure from the moralistic mob waging war on science.
On November 4, 2015, Folta announced on his blog:
With a most heavy heart I have to report that the recent events have bled into this forum, and I have to suspend communication through this blog.
Folta described the events last August in a post published on the Genetic Literacy Project website. The condensed version of the story goes like this. A respected scientist who has defended GMO research and products becomes the subject of an all-out attack from anti-GMO forces, including a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) demand that he produce all his emails for a California anti-GMO activist group. Folta was just one of 40 scientists targeted by anti-GMO troops for FOIA demands. Why? To protect the public's health? To uncover corrupt practices or police unethical behavior? To insure that the public's money is being well spent? No. The FOIA demands are made to find anything that can be used to defame or discredit the scientists, even if that means distorting the truth and manufacturing devious and defamatory narratives. In Folta's case, the attacks included this posting on Craigslist:
A PLoS post on August 13 (now removed), "written by Paul D. Thacker and Charles Seife, attacked Dr. Folta for a whole host of sins, including a claim that he was more or less directing Monsanto’s strategies for dealing with GMO labeling laws."* Folta responded to the attacks, mistaking his attackers for rational people with some fragment of decency. Folta wondered:
Why would they target me? I am well trained in transgenic technology, familiarly, “GMOs”. I teach science communication to farmers and scientists, and explain to them how to discuss issues in biotechnology, the risks and benefits, strengths and limitations, with concerned public audiences — something they historically have not done well.
My desire to synthesize and teach the scientific literature has drawn the ire of anti-GMO activists, that feel a scientist speaking about science, must be some puppet of an agricultural conspiracy. That is why my emails were requested by the group US Right to Know.
Lowlife Mike Adams jumped on the bandwagon with his usual reckless claims and charges. A Twitter account in the name of GM Watch levied an equally vile attack. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a mathematician known for The Black Swan, whose anti-GMO work has not been well received by scholars in the field, called Folta despicable and a liar. Jon Entine returned the favor, more or less, by calling Taleb "the darling of GMO opponents" in an article mockingly titled "Is Nassim Taleb a 'dangerous imbecile' or on the pay of anti-GMO activists?"
At the conclusion of his response to his critics last August, Folta wrote:
...what good is it to have a mechanism to uncover the truth, if the truth is twisted into a lie, and unabashedly used to damage the credibility, reputation, and careers of scientists that simply defend science and teach inconvenient facts? When scientists are guilty until proven innocent, and written realities are manipulated to create false narratives from public records, how do we stand a chance?
Dr. Folta has decided it's time to give up, at least for the time being. On the same day that he stepped back from his blog, he wrote on Facebook:
Hi Everybody. I'll keep it short. The attacks are relentless, I'm under a lot of pressure on many fronts. I'm taking the opportunity to disappear from public visibility and focus on my lab and my students. It has been a challenging time. I appreciate the support, I'm grateful for your wishes, but this battle is vicious and one-sided, and I think I'm well served bowing out of the public science conversation for the foreseeable future. Thank you.
To which, David Gorski responded:
This is a depressing development. Yet another public advocate of science has been driven to give up the fight because of the harassment of anti-science forces. Kevin was one of the foremost voices countering anti-GMO pseudoscience, and now he is gone. I’m not criticizing him for his decision. I really can’t blame him for deciding that his advocacy just wasn’t worth the price he was paying. Consider the price. Besides having to deal with anti-GMO activists harassing him online, he had to deal with numerous complaints to his administration about his science advocacy.
Meanwhile, the anti-GMO nonsense lives on in such places as Naturalon's 16 Cancer Causing Foods You Probably Eat Every Day. Number 10 on the list: GMOs. Number 16: non-organic fruits. The article begins with "Genetically modified organisms, more commonly called GMO’s, are foods that have been modified by chemicals and grown with chemicals." They could have added that these foods were planted by beings made of chemicals and the foods themselves are made of chemicals. Maybe the Naturalon folks think that if they claim something was grown with chemicals, they've also shown that it causes cancer. They don't mention cancer in the remaining few paragraphs. They do mention Árpád Pusztai's discredited study on potatoes and mice. And they claim that the FDA doesn't test GMO foods, implying that we-the-stupid think that GMO foods have been tested for safety when they haven't. Actually, a team of Italian scientists catalogued and analyzed 1,783 studies about the safety and environmental impacts of GMO foods and the researchers couldn’t find a single credible example demonstrating that GM foods pose any harm to humans or animals. I know; these Italians are all Monsanto shills.
Conservapedia sets the record straight about Skepdic
I was surprised to find that Conservapedia, that inane confabulation claiming to be an alternative to Wikipedia, has an entry for The Skeptic's Dictionary that, even though outdated, is mostly fair and accurate. I wasn't taken to task for defending GMOs or non-organic fruits, which has gotten me more than a few emails claiming I'm not a real skeptic. Conservapedia tells its readers that in the SD's treatment of junk science "clearly false theories such as global warming and evolution are left out." As expected, no sources were listed for the claims that there is no global warming and that evolution has not happened. I suppose we can assume the source for both claims was the Bible, that "copulation of many books," as one of my students put it. Or perhaps the source was Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson.
Another Email Meant to Set Me Straight
Mike Rupert sent me a link to an article about a psychiatrist who has declared that a 5-year-old boy whose mother says he knows algebra and speaks and writes in six languages is telepathic. "I wrote you about this very thing a few years back and you attempted to explain it away," Mike wrote. "It was pretty lame on your part, bro. Good luck." I may have ignored Mike because his language and level of criticism were too sophisticated for my meager talents. Anyway, even though I don't remember Mike and have no record of any previous communication with him, I do remember the psychiatrist in the story, Diane Hennacy Powell. Dr. Powell is the author of The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena. About five years ago, I nominated her for the Equine Posterior Achievement Award:
...created to honor that leader whose abilities to misrepresent an issue, manipulate his/her followers, brazenly disregard reality or pander to our baser instincts reach such ridiculous levels that we don't know whether to laugh or cry. In other words, a genuine "horse's patootie."
She didn't have a chance at winning. The award, given by the People for the American Way, is aimed at ridiculing a political conservative. (Its alternative name is The Honorary McPalin Award.) Powell's base consists of those who think they've had a paranormal experience and those who despise the belief that there is no spiritual reality (metaphysical materialists). In any case, Powell's manifesto on ESP and the end of materialism seems to have fallen on the same deaf ears as Charles Tart's defense of the scientific evidence for the paranormal and against materialism. Neither is discussed in scientific circles as having anything to contribute to the science of consciousness. What sets Powell apart from her pro-psi/anti-materialist brethren is her belief that autistic savants are telepathic. (She says she converted from an atheistic/materialistic worldview soon after regaining consciousness after being run over by a speeding bicycle rider. "It was as though my atheism had been a software glitch that was now fixed. My brain had been rebooted with the updated program. Many people, myself included, thought that this feeling would fade. It never has."*)
Powell is a former Director of Research for the John E. Mack Institute. In an interview with Time magazine, Powell said "Experiments have shown that most psychic experiences occur when our sensory organs are muted, like when we're dreaming or having a near-death experience." Experiments have shown many false things, but these are not among them. No number of experiments could show what Hennacy Powell claims. Assuming that there are psychic experiences, there is no way that experiments could show when or under what circumstances most of them occur. Whatever any number of experiments have shown about psychic experiences, they cannot show that the results could not have occurred by other means. Sensory deprivation stimulates auditory and visual hallucinations. Perceptions under alleged psi-conducive conditions are better explained as being generated by the imagination or by the brain itself rather than by some external psi-based stimulus. Her belief in psi-conducive states shows a brazen disregard for reality and for other observers and defenders of the paranormal. Some equally competent psientists maintain that psychic experiences occur only in an agitated state. There are others, equally competent, who swear that they occur only spontaneously and can't be induced by experiments.
Not everyone agrees with me that magical thinking is one of our more base instincts, but I think Dr. Powell's pandering is on par with Dean Radin, John Mack, Deepak Chopra, and Gary Schwartz. Nothing's happened in the past five years to encourage me to change my opinion about Dr. Powell's research. I'm not qualified to judge what this 5-year-old's talents are, but I have no hesitation in rejecting Dr. Powell's declaration that he's telepathic. Using my powers of precognition, I foresee that Powell will continue to be marginalized by mainstream neuroscience and that her claim to fame will continue to be restricted to talks before the American Parapsychological Association and forays into junk science pandering on Alex Tsakiris's Skeptiko podcast.
Anecdotes, Data, & Metadata
Some people are moved to tears by stories, especially stories that provide hope and promise that something that seems uncontrollable can be controlled if only one follows the right recipe. Many cancer patients unquestionably believe stories about a natural cure for cancer that supposedly worked for some stranger who beat the odds and survived despite being told by some doctor that death was imminent. It was prayer or herbs or cannabis oil that saved the patient. It was belonging to a support group that made the difference. And if you don't believe this story, there are others. Soon the collection of stories becomes the data for a book of stories. The book will have chapters on the "nine things cancer survivors have in common" or some such thing. Few stop to ask "How many non-survivors had those traits, too?" and "How many survivors don't have those traits?" Without knowing the answers to those two questions, knowing that many cancer survivors shared certain traits means nothing, zero, zilch, nada. The same goes for knowing "the seven signs of success" or "the ten qualities of great leaders" or "the five sure-fire ways to win an election."
Think about the need to consider the missing data the next time you read about another 'miracle' diet or supplement. It may be true that there are a number of people who have stopped eating grains and sugar, for example, who are muscular, healthy, and fit. But how many people are muscular, healthy, and fit who do eat grains and sugar? And how many people who don't eat grains or sugar are unhealthy and unfit? It may be true that an individual or many individuals feel really healthy and attribute it to some supplement. But how many people feel really healthy who don't use that supplement? How many use the supplement but still don't feel healthy? Selective thinking can be seductive, but you can avoid being seduced if you remember to ask for the missing evidence the next time you're presented with a story or collection of stories that the storyteller wants to generalize from before pitching his or her latest book.
Greedy AMA, Big Pharma, and FDA prevent cancer from being cured
There have probably been urban legends about conspiracies stifling innovation, suppressing progress, and crushing new discoveries for as long as there have been people capable of rearranging their prejudices. About fifty years ago, my young know-nothing friends and acquaintances knew that the automobile industry had created tires and engines that would never wear out but the industry kept this amazing fact secret so it could make money selling us tires we didn't need and forcing us to buy new cars when our engines gave out. The petroleum industry had a cheap synthetic fuel or knew a way to treat gasoline so cars could get hundreds of miles to the gallon, but why let us morons who drive cars in on the secret when it would cost the industry money? The number of alleged conspiracies by government agencies, corporations, the media, Big Pharma, Big University, the AMA, etc. gets larger by the second. The know-nothing-know-it-alls at this very moment are spreading their belief that there are thousands of very evil groups trying to prevent you from getting rich, curing your cancer, being healthy, finding happiness, becoming the best you there is, saving money, and being successful as well as good looking, intelligent, and free. My local fishwrap published the following letter from one such know-nothing posing as a know-it-all:
U.S. limits fight against cancer
Re “Fighting cancer; racing against time” (Forum, Nov. 1): The cancer treatments allowed in the U.S. are falling behind the rest of the world. Being limited to the “cut, burn and poison” approach to dealing with cancer does not allow U.S. health practitioners to use treatments that are now common in many other countries. The American Medical Association, the pharmaceutical companies and other governmental agencies have a stranglehold on the field of cancer treatments, and they resist changes. Their comfort is fairly clear to see – it is based upon money.
Has the author seen what is happening in other countries, not just with hoped-for developments of clinical trials, but actual cures? When we get the money out of medicine, maybe then the lawmakers and voters will really be able to ensure that life-saving medications and treatments are available.
– Allen Green, Sacramento
Mr. Green is not alone in his belief that cancer has been cured and the cure is natural and cheap, but the AMA, Big Pharma, the FDA, and who knows who else have conspired to prevent those of us with cancer from getting the cure. Why would our government or the good doctors doing cancer research in our country want to prevent us from knowing the cure for cancer? Mr. Green and his co-believers in this conspiracy are sure that it's because of the money the conspirators make by keeping us sick. Isn't it obvious, they think, that since Big Pharma and the Medical-Industrial Complex make a very healthy profit from the sale of drugs, surgical equipment, radiology machines, etc., that anything that might cut into their profits must be stifled. My response to Mr. Green?
Allen Green poses as knowledgeable about cancer treatments in the U.S., yet he doesn’t mention a single cancer treatment he’d like to see available here beyond surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy (which he refers to in conspiracy talk as “cut, burn, and poison”). His claim that “money” drives the AMA, Big Pharma, and government agencies to prevent cancer cures available in other countries rings false. If there’s a cure, there’s money to be made. If the bogeymen Green indicts are as greedy as he thinks, they’d be first in line to regulate and monopolize these imaginary cures, which, if they did exist, would not be given away for free in the countries unnamed by Green. Or, again, does he know something he’s read on the Internet but isn’t telling us?
I await the cheap, natural cure and I will go anywhere in the world for it, including Tijuana, Mexico.
Speaking of Tijuana. In "Living With Cancer: The Lure of Alternative Remedies," Susan Gubar writes of coming across a 1997 essay called “The Gift of Disease” by the postmodernist writer Kathy Acker who had breast cancer. Chemotherapy was going to cost Acker about $20,000 at the time. Mine would cost me more than that every two months if I didn't have Medicare and insurance. I've been getting treatment for 16 months. I can understand why Acker and many others without insurance or Medicare believe that treating cancer is a business that extorts huge sums of money from patients. Acker also didn't like the way "Western medicine" treated her:
The passivity and objectification imposed by Western medicine horrified her....In order not to be reduced to materiality, Ms. Acker turned to psychics, Reichian therapists, Chinese herbalists and Native American guides who encouraged her to face past traumas and unblock the energy that would heal her. They gave her a sense of her own “imagination” and the “will” to envision “a leap of faith” that brought “intellectual excitement and joy.” A year and half after writing the words “I no longer have cancer,” she died in Tijuana at an alternative cancer clinic.
I'm still waiting for that cheap, natural cure. In the meantime, I'll continue to take my chances with science-based medicine, however imperfect it might be.