Moon loon tune


The 50th anniversary of the moon landing will be in 2019, but don’t expect a golden year from those who insist it was a hoax. After 49+ years, this bunch still resorts to long-disproven scenarios, while summarily dismissing any discomfiting evidence.

As to why NASA would pretend to go to the moon, deniers have speculated it could have been seen as a Cold War victory, that it distracted from the Vietnam War, or that it would ensure the space administration would continue being funded. While those all might have been consequences of a successful moonshot, that’s separate from it being proof the whole thing was staged. Using this line of thinking is to commit the Affirming the Consequent fallacy.

Since a sizable majority think we went to the moon and most who feel otherwise are incapable of being persuaded, why blog about it? Primarily because there may be a 12-year-old who is hearing denier points and refutations to them for the first time. Scientific knowledge is always one generation from extinction. Plus, addressing these points is a rejoinder to those who claim skeptics and scientists are the truly closed-minded and are mindless sheep who instinctively swallow what we are fed.

After the Apollo and Gemini launches, early flat-Earthers Samuel Shenton and Charles Johnson responded with launches of their own, in the form of charging they were fabrications. This included an evidence-free assertion that Arthur C. Clarke directed, wrote, and produced the moon-landing script. This was updated to become Stanley Kubrick in another narrative. The latter assertion was initially a parody of the Clarke claim, but has come to be interpreted as serious by some deniers. This is similar to how some flat Earth folks are coming to believe there is no Finland or Australia, ideas that were written as satirical criticisms of flat Earthers. However, fashioning a Poe against these types is nearly impossible because it will come to be taken as true by those without the mental acumen to realize they are being mocked.

The question deniers have most difficulty answering is why NASA would fake five  subsequent landings. The moving pieces that would have to be seamlessly assembled for one successful hoax would be astronomical, and each further attempt would run further risk of getting caught. The return trips were interpreted by deniers as attempts to continue the momentum, while the fact that we haven’t been back since 1972 or set up  moon colonies are said to be proof it was staged. So return trips and a lack thereof are both considered evidence of a hoax by the conspiracy theorist.

According to Sketoid’s Brian Dunning, 400,000 persons worked on the moon mission. Yet, all were able to overcome the desire for wealth that an exposé might bring. None were overcome with guilt, none let something slip in an unguarded moment, none got drunk enough to say something, none made a deathbed confession. Dunning further noted that 3,500 journalists investigated, researched, reported, and observed every second of Apollo 11 and were unable to uncover anything suggesting it was a charade. To a conspiracy theorist, that means another 3,500 persons were in on it. To everyone else, it’s more solid evidence of the moon launch and landing being authentic.

Now let’s plow through some of the denier points. One of the more frequently-parroted is that persons attempting to leave Earth’s orbit would be fried by the Van Allen belts. This is an example of what Dr. Steven Novella means when he says pseudoscientists and alternative medics use science like a drunk uses a lamppost: For support, not illumination.

The radiation belts have been discovered, understood, and explained by science. Moon landing deniers, a subset of pseudoscientists, use this discovery to try and score a point for their side, whereas they generally have a jaded view of science. Religious flat Earther Philip Stallings insists the Van Allen belts are another name for the firmament God set in place in Genesis. However, never has a scientific explanation been replaced by a religious one. Scientists did not discover, define, and explain the Van Allen Belts, only to be supplanted by those penning Genesis. Those religious writers did not discover errors in the original Van Allen belt research, leading to our understanding of the firmament. Rather, Genesis authors came up with what their eyes and their very limited knowledge of the natural world permitted. A few millennium later, science learned the truth. Still, Stallings claims that we cannot penetrate the firmament, which he thinks is the Van Allen belt, or that if we could, it would not be survivable.

They key here is that astronauts traveled thorough the belts in a rocket, not in an extended stay hotel. They made it through this high-radiation zone in an hour, only one percent of the the time necessary to start experiencing radiation sickness.

Another argument deniers try to make is that a loud rocket motor would make it impossible to hear astronaut voices. However, viewers could hear the communication with NASA because where the astronauts were, there was no air and therefore no sound. Secondly, the microphones were inside insulating helmets.

A third point deniers raise is that photos of the Lunar Module on the surface are missing a blast crater that presumably should have resulted from its landing. Of this, Dunning wrote, “When the Lunar Module came in to land, it came in with horizontal velocity as the pilot searched for a place to land. Once he found one, he descended, throttled back, and a probe extending over a meter below the landing pads touched the ground and shut off the rocket motor. It was only a very brief moment that the rocket nozzle was actually directed at the landing site, and only at reduced power.”

A similar point is that the Lunar Module’s landing rocket would have blasted all the dust away from the area, so any footprints would have been obliterated. However, there is no air on the moon and no resulting shockwaves. The powerful flames and swirling smoke associated with rocket launches happen because exhaust is being pushed into the air. With no wind or air in the equation, there is no consequent explosion.

The one claim so hackneyed that almost everyone has heard is that the U.S. flag is flapping in a supposedly-nonexistent breeze. This was caused by two factors. First, the flag was folded for the moon trip and the seeming rustling is actually just the creasing that resulted. Second, the apparent movement only happens when an astronaut is adjusting the pole.

Still another denier objection centers on photos of an astronaut that feature another moonwalker’s reflection in his helmet visor. This is supposedly crucial because neither astronaut has a camera to his face. However, this is because astronaut cameras were affixed to their spacesuit. Keeping with camera points, deniers say film would have melted in the 250-degree weather. However, Apollo astronauts used cameras and film specifically made for and insulated against such temperature extremes.

There were other still objections raised by deniers that I handled during this blog’s nascent days if one wishes to read more.

For years, deniers challenged NASA to provide photos of landing sites with vehicles left behind. In 2009, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter provided just such proof. Two years later, the same craft produced clearer images. Like those who considered President Obama’s release of his long-term birth certificate to be MORE proof that he was Kenyan-born because of layers or the timing of the release or whatever, those who thought Armstrong and Aldrin never left orbit were even more convinced of this after the 2009 and 2011 images were made public. They were computer-generated or otherwise fabricated. They were not released in 1975 or 1985 because of technology limitations – not with satellites, but with PhotoShop. To a hardcore conspiracy theorist, any disproving evidence is part of the cover-up.

Besides these photos, a second key piece of evidence that the moon landing happened is the extensive monitoring of Apollo flights. Astronomers, academics, journalists, and excited amateurs all employed telescopes, radios, and radar to track the mission. This included enemies such as the Soviets. Observatories and hobbyists worldwide reported sightings of the Apollo spacecraft. Had the Apollo spacecraft remained in Earthly orbit, it would have been easy to spot even without a telescope.

Then there are the rocks brought back by astronauts. These rocks have been radiometrically dated as being nearly four and a half billion years old, more ancient than any naturally-occurring Earth rock. Dunning further noted, “The moon rocks have impact craters only a millimeter across, created by impacts from micrometeors traveling about 50,000 miles per hour. This is impossible on Earth because the atmosphere blocks them, and it can’t be faked because we don’t have anything that can accelerate small projectiles to that speed.”

What say you to all this, Philip Stallings? From his blog: “1969. That was the year you were told we went to the moon. Do you see anything suspicious about that number? Three 6’s.” I’m only seeing one six myself. Maybe the two nines got turned upside down when they hit the firmament.





Water water everywhere, so let’s all take a drink


Most of us need eight hours a sleep a night to fully function. But the daytime equivalent of needing eight glasses of water per day rests on myth.

Zero glasses per day would leave someone dead within a week, while eight glasses is likely more than necessary, so where does the true number lie? That depends on the person and circumstances.

Whoever the person, their body will be among the least efficient users of water on the planet. Regrettably for us homo sapiens, the need we can go the second-shortest time without (after oxygen) is one which our bodies can store little of. Further, we have no way to replenish spent water supplies other than drinking it or having in administered intravenously. The latter is impractical outside a medical setting, so we need to make sure we gulp enough, but the idea that means eight glasses a day for persons of every age, weight, climate, and activity level is mistaken.

That notion dates to a 1945 U.S. Food and Nutrition Board suggestion that persons get two and a half liters of water daily. Two key items here. First, this amount was based on the mostly-correct idea that humans on average lose about two liters of water per day. But no research was conducted to affirm the idea of 2.5 liters being right for all persons in all circumstances. Second, the recommendation included the long-forgotten caveat that some of the consumed water could come from food sources.

All foods contain water, from the copious amount in aptly-named watermelon to the negligible level in saltines. The food and drink one intakes without thinking about it may suffice for one’s needs and the easy trick is to let thirst be your guide. There is no need to consciously ingest eight 8-ounce glasses per day unless that happens to coincide with what your thirst dictates.

Humans lose water in vapor form when we breathe and still more is lost through urine and sweat. Even an Inuit coach potato will perspire, though imperceptibly, and this goes back to our inefficient use of internal water supplies. Our bodies use sweat for temperature control by drawing heat off the skin, where it evaporates.

The amount varies by person and environment, but the average amount lost per day to sweating, breathing, and urinating is two liters. Whatever is lost must be replenished to maintain equilibrium. But, again, two liters is merely the average, and the determining factor is how much a given person has lost, and water contained in foods also serves to replace spent reserves.

Of course, one should adjust if in hot weather or doing hard labor. And in an article on the McGill University website, Dr. Christopher Labos cautions that the thirst reflex wanes with age, which is one reason seniors die during heat waves. So age, temperature, and activity can all result in reasonable exceptions to the notion that consciously drinking a set amount of water per day is unnecessary.

If a person in those circumstances drinks too much, they should be fine. Except in extreme cases, drinking more water than what the body needs is harmless, though without benefit. Excess amounts will be pissed away. The kidneys’ primary role is to ensure water losses equal water intake. If they fail in this mission and water retention occurs, the victim will experience swollen feet, with this ballooning then creeping its way up the legs. This is nature’s way of letting us know a vital organ is failing and we need medical attention immediately.

There have been isolated cases of water toxemia, a disruption of brain function that occurs when the usual balance of electrolytes is thrown off through severe over-hydration.

The campy 1970s phenomenon, the Book of Lists, reported on a woman who was convinced she was susceptible to the same type of cancer that killed her mother, so she consumed gallons of water for days on end, causing her overtaxed kidneys to shut down, killing her. Then in 2007, Californian Jennifer Strange died in a radio stunt gone horribly wrong. She chugged about two gallons per day without urinating in an attempt to win a contest prize of a Wii system.

Like the 1970s victim referenced in the previous paragraph, some persons think extra water will make the kidneys more efficient. But Labos cited a randomized study in the American Medical Association journal in which 631 kidney disease patients drank more water than members of a control group and experienced no improvement.

So  the best available evidence points to the notion of needing eight glasses a day to be unfounded. If they start messing with my eight hours of sleep, then we’ll have issues.



“Tea’d off” (Kombucha)


There is an appeal in making something yourself. When I concoct a pizza from scratch, I save money and it comes with a feeling of accomplishment that is unavailable from swinging by Papa John’s. This satisfaction would be even more pronounced if I grew the tomatoes myself and turned them into sauce. Similarly, I hear fishermen wax about the feeling of self-reliance that comes from catching, cleaning, and frying one’s own meal.

Those who produce a homemade tea called kombucha also get this pride, but unlike anglers or home chefs, some of these folks claim to cure diabetes or arrest the aging process. Kombucha is touted as an Old Wives Tale panacea and is one of many such products, though it is a somewhat unusual variety, coming in beverage form.

Proponents credit kombucha with being able to relieve many symptoms or illnesses, a typical trait in the world of anecdote-heavy folk remedies. What it is supposed to cure will depend on what is ailing the person, as the placebo effect, post hoc reasoning, and the fluctuating nature of many illnesses do what double blind studies cannot, i.e., testify to the drink’s efficacy. The consequences are mild if the self-administering patient thinks kombucha will take care of sniffles, hives, or hair loss, but they are potentially fatal if one expects it to resolve hypertension, HIV, or cancer.

Often described as time-honored or an old family recipe, it therefore appeals to those vulnerable to the antiquity and naturalistic fallacies. With regard to the former, the tea is often associated with Ukraine and is said to go back hundreds or thousands of years. There is some creativity here, as its supposed place of origins eschews the usual locales of ancient medical wisdom like China, India, Egypt, and Native American tribes.

Regardless of its real or imagined medicinal properties, kombucha is sweetened black tea fermented by a yeast-bacteria blend. This mixture forms what resembles a quarter-inch thick rubbery mat. These can be ordered online, though this messes with that whole back to nature vibe. The makeup of the mats varies depending on the climate where it’s made, as well as which bacteria and yeast are available.  

Skeptic leaders Scott Gavura and Edzard Ernst looked separately in kombucha claims and neither could find any clinical trials that showed the drink to have an identifiable health benefit. None of its active ingredients would suggest any medicinal effects beyond the negligible impact that small amounts of alcohol and caffeine might have.

However, given its lack of uniformity and regulation, the tea may carry risk. Gavura cited the case of an alcoholic who developed jaundice after two weeks of kombucha imbibing, and other users have contracted hepatitis, lactic acidosis, acute renal failure, and other nasties. It is especially crucial that those with a compromised immune system avoid the product, even though Wellness Mama touts the tea as an immune booster.

She also highlights the possibly true but irrelevant fact that kombucha “has been around for centuries in many different cultures.” Despite this appeal to antiquity, she also manages an appeal to novelty, an impressive pseudoscientific double. She writes, “Once a very obscure drink, kombucha is now a popular beverage that is available at most health food stores and many local grocery stores.”

Her more specific claims range from trivial to potentially deadly. For example, she says it will increase energy, an arbitrary distinction that means little if the promise is not realized. At the other end of the spectrum is her insistence that it will detoxify the liver. The liver’s function IS to detoxify, so if it needs detoxed, you should be in an ER, not a tea shop.

I will credit Wellness Mama with saying kombucha is not a panacea and she owns up to the lack of double blind studies, though tries to dismiss that by pointing out the lack of double blind studies on flossing. It would be kind of hard for a study subject to not know if they were flossing, so such a trial is implausible. By pointing out that flossing and kombucha both lack double blind testing, Wellness Mama commits the false equivalence fallacy, where one asserts two elements are equal because they have a common trait. We know from studies involving sets of identical twins that flossing and brushing removes more plaque and prevents more tartar than does brushing alone. But the more important point is that nothing about flossing studies or lack thereof attests to what kombucha can do.

Wellness Mama tosses out some of the alternative medicine standbys, for example saying the tea detoxifies, without explaining which toxins are being extracted or by what process kombucha manages this. A second hackneyed claim is that the tea boosts the drinker’s immunity. Boosting the immune system is not only impossible (except in extreme cases like stage 4 cancer or HIV positivity), it is not even desirable. Overactive immune systems are the cause of autoimmune disorders like lupus, myositis, and Chron’s disease.  

Another alt-med darling promoting kombucha is Dr. Axe. He remains unencumbered by the modest restraint Wellness Mama offers, extoling kombucha as an “immortal health elixir originating in the Far East 2,000 years ago. Kombucha is a beverage with tremendous health benefits extending to your heart, your brain, and especially your gut.” And you’ll be amazed with what it does to your sense of hyperbole.

He parrots Mama’s detoxing and immune-boosting lines, but completes the alt-med triumvirate by calling the tea “anti-inflammatory.” This is another buzzword that, when employed by alt-med proponents, is almost certainly being misused or oversimplified.

This is what the dietician blog Abbey’s Kitchen had to say on the matter: “Inflammation is a complicated condition that cannot be solved or worsened with one single food. If someone is trying to sell you a supplement or diet as anti-inflammatory, or shame you for enjoying an inflammatory hot dog at the ball game, you can be sure it’s a real stretch. If you stick to a balanced diet rich in fruits and veggies, kick the smoking, drinking, and drugs, and exercise regularly, you’ll be in pretty great shape.”

Axe’s most nebulous claim is that kombucha will improve the drinker’s mental state. Hmm, well maybe if it’s mixed with scotch.


“Locally groan” (Local produce)


The list of alarmist adjectives on some food containers is so long that soon it may need to be continued on the back. Gluten-free, MSG-free, rBST-free, non-GMO, organic, no aspartame, no glyphosate, all-natural, no preservatives, no added hormones, no antibiotics.

I have addressed these concocted carton concerns before and will not be rehashing them here. But when this word parade would include the word “local,” I figured that’s one I could support. The closer the food on my plate is to the farm where it was grown, the less fuel and resultant pollutants are being produced. Or so it seemed. But Brian Dunning at Skeptoid cautions this may not always be the case. This issue is complex and edibles shipped from farther away may sometimes mean fewer emissions.

Besides being a critical thinker, skeptic, and possessor of broad knowledge, Dunning also has a background in food produce. He once worked for a company that blossomed from a family fruit stand to a chain that sold produce from local family farms. In its nascent years, the company would send a truck to each farmer it purchased from and deliver the food straight from its store to the grocer’s. As the number of stores multiplied, the company maintained this method.

But soon the owners realized that finding a farmer near each new store it opened  was unfeasible. Sending a truck to each farm and to each market resulted in the routes crisscrossing and defeating the strategy’s intent. It proved to be terribly inefficient, besides being the antithesis of the green-friendliness they were aiming for.

So the company combined routes, enabling it to use fewer and smaller trucks, which meant less local produce but also less burned fuel. A distribution center still got the food out quickly but substantially reduced the total mileage. As the company continued to grow, larger distributions centers were built, sometimes even farther away from the markets they delivered to, but the energy savings continued to be realized.

This can work even on monumental scales. In some cases, Conex-sized purchases made from a company overseas might still be cheaper for the retailer. A crop’s cost is driven mostly by the conditions required to grow it. Spain’s soil and climate makes for fertile tomato growing year-round. By contrast, perennially dreary England means tomato growers there need to use heated greenhouses. The costs associated with that method must be passed onto the consumer. Therefore, a food wholesaler in Leeds would be making a good decision in terms of profit and energy efficiency if he has the red fruits shipped from Catalonia rather than from five miles away.

Or say you live in Moline and want some wool or lamb chops for your business. There are no shepherds in your neighborhood, so whatever are you to do? You could head to rural Illinois and likely find someone who could help. But if buying on a large scale, this would not be the most energy-efficient method.

New Zealand’s climate allows for perennial sheep grazing, so our prospective purchaser would be better off looking there. And despite being almost halfway around the world from New Zealand, if our British tomato buyers decided to branch into mutton, they would make less of an environmental impact by buying from someone near Auckland as opposed to someone in the London vicinity. A New York Times article noted that, “Lamb…shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produces 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton, while British lamb produces 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed.”

Finally, Dunning cited the case of cattle producer Joel Salatin, who stipulates that customers must come to his ranch. That may seem like a method of reducing emissions, but it actually exacerbates the problem. Under this plan, if 200 customers want Salatin’s beef, 200 of them will get in a car and drive to him. A better strategy would be to only service orders that use no more than a specified amount of fuel spent per pound of beef purchased. But at least he’s not selling it in packages that spend 20 words telling the consumer what’s not in it.




“Hang a leftie” (Southpaw shaming)


In my early teens at church, some older youth were talking about a tabloid article which purported that all lefthanders were from outer space. This led the preacher’s southpaw son to say into the fountain pen he was holding, “They’ve discovered us, Master.”

Funny as that impromptu line was, it obscured the fact that being a lefthander in church just a few hundred years before that would have been no laughing matter. Just how long the church considers something evil will vary by sin. Gays and evolution have sat near the top of this Luciferian list for more than a century. Meanwhile, excoriations of Catholics and dancing have moved to the fringe of Christianity. And congregations who consider mixed fabrics and lefties to be Satanic spawn are virtually extinct.

While southpaws were traditionally reviled in most societies, there have been exceptions. Ancient Andeans thought lefthanders were bestowed with magical and healing properties. Also offering left-handed compliments were Greeks and Celts, the latter associating them with femininity and, therefore, the continuation of life. Jews and Christians likewise tied left-handedness to womanhood, but given the misogyny prevalent in those religions, adherents considered this a detrimental trait. Believers viewed lefties like they did their womenfolk: Inferior, weak, and destined for subservience.

In the book of Matthew, souls gather at check-in to see where their eternal reservations have been made and are told, “He shall say unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” While the malefactors are tossed into a burning lake, Jesus sits at God’s right hand. With these images in mind, more than a few left hands were bruised by a nun’s ruler and it was common fairly deep into the 20th Century for schools to forcibly retrain lefthanders to use the correct side.

Christianity claimed no monopoly on this southpaw shaming. Even today, many Muslims and Hindus use their right hand for honorable tasks such as greeting friends, signing contracts, and accepting gifts. Meanwhile, the lowly left is reserved for actions considered unclean. These habits grew from sanitation issues. Since the right served as the dominant hand for 90 percent of the population, persons used it when eating, handling food, and interacting with others. The left hand, meanwhile, was used for hygienic activities. These customs were uniform with no consideration of an individual’s dominant hand so the left came to be considered unclean.

And these were minor annoyances compared to how other cultures dealt with left-handedness. Some 19th Century Zulu tribes scalded youngsters’ left hands so they would no longer be of use.  Perpetrators of the Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials went one worse, sometimes executing persons for using the wrong hand.

Tired of religion having all the fun out in left field, pseudoscientists got in on the act. Downplaying the morally degenerate angle, they instead considered lefties to be a biological mistake. In the early 1900s, criminologist pioneer Cesare Lombroso offered precisely that take with writings that would make a Klansman proud. Switching the blame from Beelzebub to the brain, Lombroso insisted that “as man advances in civilization and culture, he shows an always greater right-sidedness as compared to…women and savage races.” Lombroso further associated left-handedness with the primitive and the barbaric, while considering right-handers to be civilized and peaceful.

Around the same time, a McClure’s article informed readers than southpaws were “more common among the lower strata, negroes, and savages.” If desiring a viewpoint even more, um, right wing, consider what Austrian physician and psychologist Wilhelm Stekel wrote in 1911: “The right-hand path always signifies the way to righteousness, the left-hand the path to crime. Thus the left may signify homosexuality, incest, and perversion, while the right signifies marriage.”

This bigotry faded over the next few decades, though it lingered in some quarters. In the 1970s, psychologist Theodore Blau was still calling left-handed children sinister, academically suspect, and prone to mental illness. And just three years ago, an Oklahoma preschool teacher forced a 4-year old southpaw to use his right hand. When pressed for an explanation, the teacher referenced a publication that branded lefthanders evil, unlucky, and sinister. She also made note of Satan’s supposed southpaw status.

One of the few nuggets of accuracy in all this is that nine out of 10 humans are left-handed. And this biological determination runs very deep. In a Discover article, retired University of Kansas anthropologist David Frayer discussed how he deduced that 1.8 million years ago, Neanderthals had the same 9-to-1 preference.

He observed a series of ridges on the outer surfaces of Neanderthals’ upper front teeth. As to how this indicated hand preference, the article explained: “One direction of diagonal marks, either from upper right to lower left or upper left to lower right, would dominate. Individuals working with tough, fibrous material could have held it between their teeth and one hand, then used an edged stone tool to saw off a small piece with the other hand.” These observations showed the 9-to-1 ratio.  

As to why it was happening even way back then, one theory holds that the brain’s hemispheres split tasks for purposes of efficiency and this division of labor included favoring the right hand for most manual activities. That would explain why most persons are right-handed, but what answer is there for the relative few who become lefties?

Neuropsychologist Chris McManus theorizes that lefties result from a mutation that began occurring around 60,000 years ago. This mutation does not precisely mandate left-handedness, but it cancels the bias for the right and gives those who inherit it a 50-50 chance of being left-handed. That clears up how a set of identical twins can include a righty and a lefty. And what McManus and Frayer have discovered likely explains why lefties are among us without needing to resort to demons, defects, or alien preacher children.


“Inheritance facts” (Heritability)


There is a minor Internet presence who calls himself the Libertarian Realist, though given his endorsement of the Confederacy and fluoridation conspiracy theories, I doubt he’s either.

And as a long-time libertarian and skeptic, I find libertarian conspiracy theorists to be the planet’s most baffling creatures. They think a government too incompetent to build roads, run schools, or implement a sensible welfare program will simultaneously master geoengineering, the AIDS crisis, and false flag shootings.

With this guy, however, conspiracy theories are only a tiny fraction of his work. He focuses mostly on race and fixates on the idea that those of his color (excluding Jews) are more intelligent and fit than all other skin tones, especially blacks.

He arrived at these conclusions mostly by misunderstanding, or choosing to ignore, how heritability works. Eminent skeptic Emil Karlsson explained that heritability estimates the amount of variation in a given trait within a population that cannot be explained by environment or random chance. Further, it is unrelated to genetic differences between populations, much as the Libertarian Realist wishes that it were.

Science blogger Gerhard Adam provided a concise description when he wrote,  “Heritability addresses the relationship between nature (genetics) and nurture (environment), so that as each changes, the variation between individuals within a population can be estimated based on these influences. In this context, environment refers to everything external to the genome that could affect expression.” 

Race pseudoscientists like the Libertarian Realist make three key errors with regard to heritability. First, they mistakenly think heritability is a measure of how genetic a trait is. They think genes are nearly the sole factor for determining traits and consider the environment much less relevant. This is mistaken since heritability is about how much variation in a trait can be explained by genetic differences.

Consider the heritability of height for North Koreans. In that country, it will mostly be determined by whether the person is in the ruling elite or is among the serfs. The vast differences in nutrition and health care between those two groups will be the primary factor. By contrast, height differences among Swedes, with their egalitarian access to healthy food and medicine, will mostly be due to genetics.

Another example. Karlsson wrote that in the mid-19th century, U.S.-born males were 3.5 inches taller on average than Dutch men. But by 2000, Dutch males were two inches taller on average than their American counterparts. According to the Libertarian Realist’s thinking, neither population should have a height advantage since the majority in both groups were white men. But changes did occur, and the tendency of U.S. men to be taller than the Dutch and the reversal of this trend would best be explained by changes in environments for both groups.

This leads into racists’ second error, that heritability explains the differences between biological populations. But heritability refers to what proportion of variation in a trait can be explained by genetic variation within a specific population and in a specific environment. It is not a measure of how genetic a trait is. Racists rely on heritability estimates to insist that IQ and other factors are immutable, but heritability also depends on environment. And more than 90 percent of genetic variation occurs within groups and genetic diversity is seen more in clines than in socially-constructed racial categories.

Finally, racists assert that heritability renders useless any attempt to alter traits by managing environmental factors. They say any change to education, income, food, medicine, and housing will not impact the person’s traits, which they maintain are fixed at birth owing to genetics. But as Angelina Jolie’s adopted children and multiple studies can attest, persons going from destitute circumstances to affluent ones will see multitudinous benefits beyond wealth.


“Ambulance deriver” (Essential oils in emergency care)


I have regularly decried the use of unproven medical treatments, especially by institutions that should know better. But as disturbing as the likes of hospital Reiki are, there is some solace in their being kept in the wing for Supplementary, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine (SCAM). As far as I know, there is no ER that will treat a ruptured kidney or compound fracture with applied kinesiology or therapeutic touch. But we are now one step closer to those nightmares with the introduction of essential oils in ambulances.

The guilty party is Tri-State Ambulance of La Crosse, Wis., which uses the lubricants to try and treat minor pain, nausea, and anxiety. Skeptic leader Dr. Steven Novella called this “a fundamental failure of medical education.” Worse, this is not an outlier, but is representative of the infiltration of unproven and unworkable products and procedures into health care. This takes place even at elite institutions, such as Yale, Duke, Georgetown, and the Mayo Clinic.

This creates parasitic relationships in which bogus treatments get undeserved status because of their association with honored names and legitimate medicine. Meanwhile, genuine treatments gets referenced in the same pamphlets and home pages that praise acupuncture, iridology, and Joy Touch.

Novella wrote that treatments should be based on “clear and valid procedures for reliably answering basic questions about safety, efficacy, and fundamental issues of biology and mechanism of action.”

Compare that with WNPR’s description of aromatherapy in Tri-State’s emergency vehicles: “A few drops of essential oils are placed on a cotton ball, which is taped to the patient’s chest. Tri-State Medical Director Chris Eberlein said the smell is not overwhelming, but it does create a better environment for healing.”

“Better environment for healing” is a medically vacuous phrase used to cover for a lack of efficiency. Words like this are rampant in alternative medicine, where vague descriptors, undefined terms, and unspecified benefits are touted in lieu of double blind studies and use of the Scientific Method.

Continuing his defense of unproven treatments, Eberlein said ambulances can often be unpleasant environments for those along for the unexpected ride. That could be, although that’s probably due more to the patient’s condition than surroundings. But the level of comfort is unrelated to whether jasmine juice will tame an arthritic attack.

In the WNPR piece, Eberlein recalled that paramedics gave fentanyl to patients who ended up not needing prescription medication. Overreliance on narcotics for pain relief is a legitimate issue. But it is a non sequitur to say paramedics should therefore give their patients treatments not backed by the metadata of double blind testing. Give them Advil, for crying out loud.

Along those lines, there is some good news regarding the ambulance company’s policy. It will still give narcotics to those who need it, so essential oils will not be used to soothe substantial pain.  As dangerous as alt-med can be, it’s much worse when used in isolation. Treating cancer with targeted immunotherapy and wheatgrass is no big deal, whereas using solely the latter would likely be fatal.

The service is using six oils, with no explanation for how these were selected or offering any evidence for their efficiency. Indeed, essential oils enthusiasts rely heavily on anecdotes and post hoc reasoning. This results in spectacles such as a dozen users citing a dozen different oils to combat insomnia.

When studies are highlighted, they are often of those done in vitro, However, Novella wrote that these are usually distinct from studies that will have practical use: “These studies rarely translate to a clinical application. When you directly expose cells in a culture to a compound, what happens in that setting may say nothing about what happens when the same substance is taken by a living organism. Little or none of the compound may get absorbed or find its way to the target tissue.”

Despite my railings, it is possible some oils could someday show medical promise. Most of them are derived from plants, which are the source for about half the medicines used today. As one example, certain willow bark ingredients can eventually become aspirin. At some point, someone discovered that willow bark had recuperative properties and this could be considered the first step in the Scientific Method: Observation. Through double blind studies, testing for falsifiability, attempting to replicate, and so on, scientists eventually located the active ingredient in willow bark, extracted it, determined the safe dose, and inserted it into a pill, lotion, or syrup.

So if someone online or in your circle of friends reports that lavender works for their rosacea, it just may do that. But that’s why following up with the testing described in the previous paragraph is paramount.  If it does work, such double blind studies will validate that and they would also help researchers determine the effective amount and prevent overdose.

Foraging through a forest in quest of some willow bark to chomp on in hopes of treating a headache would likely still be somewhat effective. But there are better methods and medicines available. Those methods and medicines are also available to Tri-State Ambulance, which is why they should be offering Excedrin instead of eucalyptus.