It was a dark and stormy day


Eclipses initially inspired fear, but today we understand the mechanics behind them, so they inspire, um, well, I guess it’s still fear. At least among some groups. And I’m not referring to the science enthusiasts who are fretting that an all-day road trip may turn into nothing more than a cloud viewing.

First, the basics for any second graders or Flat Earthers who have stumbled onto the blog: A total solar eclipse happens when the moon is close enough to Earth and it simultaneously crosses the path of the sun. This results in the moon blotting out the sun for a few minutes and a shadow being cast on part of Earth’s surface.

For a competing hypothesis, we leave the astronomy book and head to a Flat Earth group active in Colorado, headed by Bob Knodel. This bunch was profiled last month by the Denver Post, and the article related this exchange between Knodel and his underling:

“How are we Flat Earthers supposed to explain to our friends the solar eclipse in August,” asked one attendee. The room fell silent. “We’ll have to do more research and get back to you on that,” Knodel replied.

While awaiting his further investigation, let’s look at a few other ways the approaching eclipse may have been handled by other Flat Earthers. I say ‘may’ because, while I consider my Poe-meter finely tuned, it does get tough with these guys.

Now, being a Flat Earther normally requires more than thinking our planet is a plane instead of a sphere. The belief sets up a series of ad hoc rationalizations. For example, the planet being dark and light simultaneously would be impossible on a flat Earth, so an idea was invented that the sun and moon do a continuous loop over Earth and remain a fixed distance away from each other.

This, in turn, requires embracing geocentrism and a stationary planet. This supposed static loop of Earth’s star and satellite, however, would make an eclipse impossible. Rather than admit this, Knodel and his ilk are engaged in unspecified further research. And while this research has yielded no explanation of what is blocking the sun if not the moon, Flat Earth proponents are still using the celestial event to try and bolster their cause.

For example, they argue that an object’s shadow can never be smaller than the object itself.  They will use a ball and flashlight and point out the resulting shadow on the wall is larger than the ball.

This demonstrates why the Scientific Method embraces peer review and not self-produced videos. quoted physics professor Will Kinney, who noted that treating the sun and a small flashlight as similar is the mistake here. While a flashlight sends out a narrow, concentrated beam, the massive sun sends broad light to all parts of the solar system.

Per the article, “Because of the sun and moon’s size and distance, they look like they’re the same size, but they’re not. You could re-create the solar eclipse at home, but not like it’s being done on YouTube videos. What you need is an extended light source that is at such a distance that it’s almost exactly the same apparent size as the thing you’re blocking it with.”

Beyond that, the only points I could find ascribed to Flat Earthers were probably Poes. A Reddit user described the upcoming eclipse as “maintenance downtime of the sun/moon hologram, which will get a firmware upgrade.”

Another argued that the moon is 400 times larger than the sun, so that’s why the latter’s light is being eclipsed. This was dismissed by Flat Earthers as trolling, not because of the complete lack of evidence for it – Flat Earthers are fine with such distinctions – but because it contradicts the Flat Earth model where the sun and moon are about the same size and always the same distance apart.

From here, we will move onto those who think the eclipse is real, but feel it entails more than an explicable celestial event.

We will begin with, which embraces the most ubiquitous of the pseudoscientific approaches, the misuse of the word ‘energy.’ It managed to get that word in a dozen times during its essay on the eclipse. Here’s a sample: “As the Total Solar Eclipse gets closer, energies are rising more rapidly than ever. In the last few weeks, have you noticed people acting abnormal, like a person who is normally chilled out becoming anxious? This is because of the energy making its way to us.”

This is, of course, selective memory. In reality, some people act out of character during times of unremarkable celestial body positioning and others act normal during an eclipse. Still others bind together unrelated items and top them with a bow of post hoc reasoning.

Continuing, our anonymous author writes, “During this total solar eclipse, you will be engulfed much more intensely by the glittering streams of magical light beaming around the moon. I cannot explain with words how intense and magical this energy to come is.”

His stated inability to explain it with words doesn’t stop him from trying. Here are the results of those efforts: “The sun represents focus, self-expression, and is aggressive while the moon is something we use as a means of really putting our goals within reach. The total solar eclipse is a way for us to provoke external changes. It forces us into taking the route we have to in order to reach where we need to be.” That part could be seen as true, as some astronomy geeks are planning a route so they can see the eclipse in its totality.

Next, our writer “strongly suggests focusing on the moon’s energy and using your Labrodite crystals to get things going and provide you with a protective vibration.” He has no specific advice for those whose Labrodite crystal supplies are low, or who lack any vibrating protections. But he closes a mostly foreboding discourse by encouraging us to “not be afraid of what is to come.” Now there’s some advice of his that I can take.

Not all worry is about what will be overhead. In South Carolina, there have been concerns about what creatures the eclipse may unleash.  The state’s Emergency Management Division tweeted a map of where eyewitnesses over the years have said they have spotted lizard people. The agency warned, “We do not know if lizard men become more active during a solar eclipse, but we advise residents to remain ever vigilant.” This increased awareness seems to be working, as no reptilians have been spotted this week in Myrtle Beach.

Meanwhile, reports there is angst about the eclipse being the  precursor of a collision with Nibiru. The gist of Nibiru beliefs is that this rouge planet will eventually either collide with Earth or throw it off its axis. Either way, Earthlings are hosed. This makes for a supple belief, as its ominous nature fits in nicely with awe-inspiring phenomenon, but its inevitability enables it to work when nothing special is going on.

Most often, though, it is when something noteworthy is happening skyward that Nibiru believers get excited – about our impending doom. The Hale-Bopp Comet’s initial appearance, in fact, was the genesis of the notion that a runway giant planet is coming to get us. Nancy Lieder predicted that Nibiru would annihilate Earth in 2003, which then became 2012, which then became she won’t say because it would cause panic, a justification whose lameness is only topped by its arrogance.

It is understandable why the ancients ascribed natural disasters and phenomenon to gods and goddesses. Lightning bolts being Zeus hurling a spear, wind being a bellowing giant’s breath, a tempest being an upset Neptune, got it. Similarly, it’s easy to see why an unexplained blotting of the sun would freak people out. But unexplained does not mean it was inexplicable, and astronomers eventually figured it out. Which is what makes Ann Graham Lotz’s take on the eclipse so pitiful.

Despite our complete understanding of what is happening and why, Lotz is determined to put a Bronze Age spin on it, punctuated by self-congratulation and self-righteousness. She quotes Joel 2:31, which reads, “The sun will be turned to darkness before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” She cites this scripture without explaining why the eclipses that have come along since the verse was written have been free of Earth-changing calamity.

Lotz wrote that when reading this passage, “I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America! The warning is triggered by the total solar eclipse of August 21.” This is nothing more than subjective validation and a belief that the strength of a conviction matters more than its accuracy.

As to the amateur astronomers and school children enthused about the event, Lotz has strong condemnation. “The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.” Ah, got it. This is all just a distraction that will enable to Iranians to conquer our heathen selves.

Where most of see the alignment of the astronomical bodies and the laws of astrophysics, Lotz sees a holy harbinger. “God is signaling us about something. Time will tell what that something is.” These impossibly vague descriptors will allow Lotz to claim any tragedy at any time as fulfillment of her prophecy.

The aforementioned ancients had little knowledge of what was going on in their world, so they constructed supernatural explanations. Initially, their gaps in knowledge were extremely broad and were filled in with concocted deities. As knowledge expanded, those gaps shrank and today there aren’t many left. There are a few, such as not knowing how life originated, and some folks find comfort in these gaps, thinking the lack of full scientific understanding means that their god did it. But Lotz takes it even further. Even though we understand what an eclipse is and why it occurs, she still insists in foisting her fears and fantasies onto it.

In summary, Monday will bring one of the following: Divine judgement, mass extinction via a careening planet, reptilian generation, a mysterious object overhead, magical moon rays, or a standard solar eclipse. In any case, I’m there.

Brain on the water


Our deepest ancestors came from the water and it has sustained life ever since. But can we ask even more of it?

Well, according to the folks at Brain Gym, drinking it in a particular manner can improve learning and increase mental agility. And it’s not just precise liquid consumption that can build cranial power. 

The basic idea behind Brain Gym is that engaging in specific body movements can develop the brain and enhance learning. Techniques to accomplish this  include crawling, drawing, rolling, swinging, bouncing balls, throwing beanbags, walking on beams, tracing symbols in the air, measured breathing, and gulping the aforementioned beverage in a particular way. All this will allegedly make learning more seamless and quick. Other benefits include playing sports more efficiently, having more drive, and being a jolly all around good chap.

Brain Gym was a 1970s creation by Dr. Paul Dennison his wife, Gail, and the couple borrowed heavily from the techniques of the applied kinesiology. This pseudoscience teaches that the diagnosis and treatment of disease can be achieved by testing muscles for strength and weakness. It is to muscles what the feet, eyes, and spine are to reflexology, iridology, and chiropractic, respectively. Applied kinesiology’s techniques are little more than employment of the ideomotor response, unconscious resistance or lack thereof, and applied pressure.

Brain Gym, then, takes applied kinesiology’s ideas and incorporates gyrations to  purportedly usher in sweeping mental benefits. There have been a few vanity and self-published studies on these claims, but there’s nothing in legitimate scientific literature to support them. Moreover, these assertions are chock full of pseudoscientific goodness, which happens when one invents words that sound scientific but are not, or where one misuses science terms.

For example, one of Brain Gym’s primary tenets is that the brain’s two hemispheres should be acting in coordination. It’s true that different parts of the brain must communicate with each other for proper brain function, so there’s the science. But from this, the Dennisons jump to unjustified conclusions by trying to marry this neurological basic with light aerobics and arriving at improved mental agility. This gets even more bizarre when it leads to claims such as yawning being able to improve eyesight.

More pseudoscience is seen in the description of what happens when fingers are pressed together: “This shifts electrical energy from the survival centers in the hindbrain to the reasoning centers in the midbrain and neocortex, thus activating hemispheric integration. Then the tongue pressing into the roof of the mouth stimulates the limbic system for emotional processing in concert with more refined reasoning in the frontal lobes.” There are several big, impressive sounding words there, but it’s unsubstantiated gobbledygook with no connection to learning.

Brain Gym holds that optimal brain function occurs only if motor skills are learned in proper sequence. It even deduces that if children are developmentally disabled, it may be because they walked before they crawled. Therefore, they conclude that the cure for mental retardation may be crawling exercises. This is offensive to the developmentally disabled, their families, and most decent folk. This offense would be irrelevant if the crawling technique worked, but there is no peer-reviewed literature anywhere to support this extraordinary claim. A similarly baseless claim is that reading difficulty stems from mixed cerebral dominance. For me, reading difficulties usually arise when I come across terms like mixed cerebral dominance.

There are still other claims that these exercises can improve faulty vision, or that vision exercises can reverse learning disabilities. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology issued a joint statement strongly discrediting these ideas.

The Brain Gym website’s FAQ calls the program “distinctive, as it addresses the physical rather than mental components of learning.” Distinctive, yes. Effective, no. Brain Gym activities may be fun, build camaraderie, and provide moderate exercise, but they are unrelated to improving one’s ability at reading, writing, or arithmetic.

The program also places value of “brain buttons,” which are described as points on the neck that, when touched in certain ways, will stimulate blood flow to the brain. This is akin to chiropractic meridians or new age healing chakras and have no biological basis. 

Other joys are wiggling one’s ears to “stimulate the reticular formation of the brain” and rocking head back and forth to improve “comprehension and rational thinking.”

Despite starting in California, Brain Gym is mostly a UK phenomenon and the Guardian’s resident skeptic, Ben Goldacre, leads the charge against the program. He regularly fields e-mails from frustrated students, who find the techniques’ supposed benefits ludicrous.

“They’re actually taught that if one holds drinking water in the mouth for a few seconds, it will go through the roof of the mouth and be absorbed by the brain,” an exasperated Goldacre reports.

Water, water everywhere, still won’t help you think.

“Doctored evidence” (Exorcism)


Dr. Steven Novella is a leader of the skeptics movement and in this capacity regularly has to fend off damage done to the name of his employer, the Yale Medical School, by his coworker, Dr. David Katz. The latter uses the university’s reputation and resources to endorse all manner of unproven techniques and procedures and then calls them medicine.

On top of this, Novella has now another prominent man with Yale ties to do battle against. Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Yale alum psychologist, has expressed belief in demon possession and has found sympathetic forums in CNN and The Washington Post. The issue is not so much Gallagher’s belief as it is his dangling of his education and scientific background to try and bolster this contention. As we will see, this Appeal to Authority is only one of a half dozen logical fallacies Gallagher commits in making his case for diabolical disturbances.

CNN’s piece this month featured extensive quotes Gallagher fed to credulous interviewer John Blake. It also contained a token appearance by Novella, who is only mentioned beginning in the 63rd paragraph. Up until then, Blake had unquestioningly allowed Gallagher to talk of persons levitating, objects flying off shelves, victims speaking perfect Latin, and a 90-pound woman throwing a 250-pound man across the room.

The CNN pieces is less evidence for demonic possession than it is for Gallagher being in possession of fallacious thinking skills and faulty reasoning.

For example, he claims that allegedly possessed persons display hidden knowledge, such as how the exorcist’s mother died or what pets he owned. But this could be explained through cold reading. As to demonstrating unexpected strength, Novella noted this would not be unusual for someone hyped on emotions and fueled by adrenaline. As to the Latin, there is no telling if the person had ever studied the language, nor is there reason to suspect this would be a favored method of communication among Satan’s soldiers.

There is also the sizable issue of all this being hearsay. Gallagher provides no video evidence nor any other means of documenting his extraordinary claims. It is reasonable to expect more proof for claims of flying people and objects than a person saying it happened. There is no way to try and corroborate his tales or examine them for signs of trickery, hidden accomplices, or fabrication.

Further, even if these phenomenon had occurred, they are unexplained and it is the appeal to ignorance to fill in that gap with invisible visitors from the underworld.

Other than the anecdotes about defying the laws of gravity and physics, the cases cited by Gallagher are explicable through cold reading, educated guesswork, selective memory, and subjective validation.

What Gallagher lacks in evidence and substantiation, he makes up for in ad hoc reasoning. Specifically, he says demons won’t submit to lab studies or video analysis because they want to sow doubt, not confirm their existence.

To this, Novella retorted, “Skeptics will recognize this a special pleading, otherwise known as making up lame excuses to explain why you don’t have any actual evidence.”

Similarly, Gallagher credits demons with being tricky and able to avoid persons when they choose. Novella notes this is nearly identical to the rationale offered by aficionados of other unverified phenomenon. They claim aliens are too advanced to allow themselves to be observed, that Bigfoot has mastered stealth, that psychic powers are dulled by a skeptic’s negative vibes, or that western medicine is incapable of testing its eastern counterpart.

Novella reports that he has seen scores of videos of alleged exorcisms and they all lack any spectacular footage. No unimagined strength, no spinning heads, no sudden recitation of a dead tongue, nobody taking flight, no little girl slamming a man into the wall with a flick of her wrist.

Again, Blake tossed a bare bone to skeptics near the end of his story by giving Novella a brief say. But even this is followed by Gallagher being allowed to respond to his opponent’s criticism, while the token doubter is afforded no such luxury. Then the story ends on a sympathetic note for the exorcist.

I have noticed a decline in CNN’s standards. They still put out lots of good products, but allow themselves to be taken in by the occasional tripe, so this story was none too surprising. By contrast, I was saddened to see that the publication responsible for the Pentagon Papers and exposing Watergate had allowed itself to become a venue for such topics.

In his Post column, Gallagher gives passing praise to skepticism and science before veering sharply into the Appeals to Personal Incredulity and Ignorance. He wrote,  “The subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. I could only explain it as paranormal ability.”

A basic distinction of the skepticism and science Gallagher had earlier alluded to is that an event being unexplained does not make it inexplicable. Nor is the observer granted carte blanche to fill in the blanks with the answer he favors. For evidence to be of any value, it must be attained through the Scientific Method.  

Toward the end of his column, Gallagher fires off two more logical fallacies. He commits the Appeal to Consequences by bemoaning, “Those who dismiss these cases unwittingly prevent patients from receiving the help they desperately require.” And those psychologists who encourage mentally ill patients to engage in guerilla warfare against furtive monsters are committing malpractice.

Gallagher completes his traipse through the fallacy landscape with an ad hominem, calling skeptics “closedminded, “vitriolic,” “unpersuadable,” and “materialist.” Even if all that is true, it provides zero evidence that demons are being conjured on  Gallagher’s couch.

“Grey doesn’t matter” (Nanotechnology hysteria)


Nanotechnology refers to the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. There are thousands of nanotechnology products, including components in such diverse items as tennis balls, beer bottles, flak vests, power drills, and home pregnancy tests. In all these instances, nanotechnology allows manufacturers to design the precise, optimal product when the specific arrangement of molecules may not exist in nature, or may be impossible to construct with conventional engineering.

Like any technology, there is potential for harm through error or intent. But while there are what could be called “nano-weapons,” these are all conventional weapons that incorporate nanoscale material in some way. It does not refer to a swarm of tiny robots who escape from a 1950s SciFi flick and rummage about in our bodies subcutaneously.

Still, there are concerns with how nanotechnology could be used, with some opponents more measured than others. There have even been two unsuccessful attempts on the lives of nanotechnology researchers in the last decade by eco-anarchists.

Among those who are not failed assassins, there are some more legitimate worries, such as the resultant tiny particles perhaps being hazardous to the respiratory system in the same way that asbestos is. This is a reasonable concern,  but any new material can be unexpectedly hazardous, so the potential problems of  nanotechnology are not unique to this particular scientific advancement.

What stokes most of the fear is the notion of self-replicating nanobots being the catalyst for an impending doomsday. In this scenario, the exponential growth of these machines require them to devour Earth’s materials along the way.

Eric Drexler’s book Engines of Creation first raised the possibility of this occurrence. He coined the term “grey goo” to describe the proverbial living mass of nanobots. He proffered a scenario whereby a runaway reaction produces more grey goo than the entire mass Earth in less than two days. However, this idea assumes the continued availability of both raw materials and a fuel source for these created critters.

Brian Dunning at Skeptoid noted that these nanoscale machines would have to do their construction by selecting and placing one atom at a time. Besides being hampered by this laborious process, these hypothetical nanobots would also have substantial power needs and would generate tremendous heat waste. And, Dunning continued, “Unless they were in an environment consisting solely of carbon and hydrogen atoms, nanobots would quickly become mired in a swamp of useless, unwanted molecules. Their ability to spread physically is likely always going to be confined to a very specific given resource.”

And as machines, they are reliant on outside help. Our most advanced commercial airliner would be of no value without fuel and pilots, and it would eventually break down without preventive maintenance, spare parts, and safety inspections. Similarly, nanobots would fail without a support network. They also must still be given instructions from an external computer, and this lack of autonomy is a built-in safety measure against any grey goo apocalypse.  

“False alarm” (Manufactured memories)

Head And Mind Puzzle

We all have false memories but when these surface during criminal trials, there are severe consequences. Probably the most infamous example is the McMartin preschool injustice in the mid-1980s. A few years later, advertising executive Gary Ramona spent five years in prison after his daughter was goaded by two overenthusiastic therapists into thinking he had raped her as a child.

Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw is an expert on how false memories form and is sometimes called as a defense witness. She also works with members of law enforcement and the military to suggest interrogation techniques that will make false confessions less likely.

Shaw listed several factors that cause a person to “recover” a “lost memory.” It matters who the accuser was with when the memory was recalled, what questions were asked, and what their state of mind was. Were they vulnerable to a therapist implanting a constructed memory, such as which happened in the Ramona tragedy?

It is usually telling when a traumatic memory surfaces for the first time during  therapy conducted decades later. That’s what happened to Eileen Franklin, who at 29 instantaneously “recalled” in a hypnotherapy session that her father George had raped and killed her childhood friend. Subsequent recollections included vivid images and specifics of the event. She knew what type of jewelry the victim was wearing, where curves in the dirt road near the killing site were, and how dense the surrounding forest was. She also recalled that the deceased was concealed under a mattress.

However, detectives later realized that all the details she had given had appeared in newspaper accounts of the case. The only exceptions were things that Eileen had gotten wrong. For instance, the victim was found wearing two rings, not the single silver one she had recalled. She was also mistaken on the time of day it occurred. There were other inconsistencies. The mattress covering the victim was too big to fit into the Franklins’ car, which is where Eileen said her father retrieved it from. Still, Franklin was convicted, then released six years later after DNA evidence showed he could not have committed the crime.

Eileen’s case had the major tell-tale signs of false memory: Sex abuse by someone known to the victim or witness and the repressed memory being brought out during hypnotherapy or psychotherapy.

Let’s spend a little time going over these techniques. The Quad Cities’ Genesis Health System has continued its embrace of pretend alternative medicine by offering hypnotherapy, which it describes as “accessing the subconscious to rearrange the associations that drive your daily behaviors. Hypnotherapy is a treatment focusing primarily on your subconscious. Hypnosis is a natural state people slip in and out of all day long, and hypnotherapy merely takes advantage of that state to better understand the client’s mentality.”

Sounds like all this can be a post for another day. For now, we’ll let it suffice that hypnotherapy can be of limited use in a few instances, but should be avoided by someone trying to work through deep-seeded issues. Further, any “revelation” that emerges when a hypnotherapist coaxes a mentally anguished patient to dig deeper should not be the impetus to incarcerate the alleged perpetrator.

Psychotherapy, meanwhile, is defined as “the treatment of mental disorders by psychological rather than medical means.” It can be valuable and beneficial, but any spontaneous memories from 25 years ago should still not be a precursor to criminal charges.

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus worked with defense attorneys to get Franklin’s conviction overturned and her involvement in the case spurred her to do pioneer research into false memories.

The idea of repressed memories gained traction in the era of McMartin, Geraldo specials, and UFO abduction tales. In these and similar instances, patients were encouraged to visualize, to let their mind wander to where the therapist guided, and to use their imagination to access repressed memories. And few of them were recalling that extra yummy ice cream cone from 15 summers ago. They were dredging up trauma.

To determine how susceptible a person might be to suggestion by an authority figure, Loftus recruited 24 participants and gave each of them narratives outlining four experiences from their childhood. Three of the stories came from their parents’ recollections, while the fourth was a work of fiction. In this outlier, the subject was said to have been lost at the mall, then returned by a stranger to their parents. Participants were directed to write down as many details as they could about the four storylines. When interviewed about their recollections, some began to share the emotions they experienced while being lost and then returned. Some even detailed the rescuer’s clothing, even though none of this had happened.

One-fourth of the subjects ended up recalling this event that never occurred. Loftus stressed the importance that the other person in the room can play in false memories popping up. “The key is suggestibility,” she said. “Often, false memories develop because there’s exposure to external suggestive information. Or people can draw inferences about what might have happened.”

In such situations, persons can assume pieces to fill in the gaps. These embellishments may come from other people’s accounts, their own imagination, or their current situation.

Being convinced that one wandered from the mall’s play area in Kindergarten is one thing, but what if the accusation were of something sinister? Shaw wondered if she could get the same response when trying to convince someone they had committed a crime. Inspired by the Loftus experiment, Shaw told 30 recruits that she had received details from their acquaintances about a time in their teens when the participants had assaulted someone or stolen something. To make it more believable, Shaw included accurate biological information, such as where they were living at the time, where they normally hung out, and the name of their partner in imagined crime.

After the initial meeting, none of the participants could recall the false memory. But every night for three weeks, subjects were encouraged to spend a few minutes visualizing the event. Utilizing the techniques she knows therapists (with either well-meaning or vindictive intent) employ, Shaw eventually convinced 70 percent of the subjects they had committed this non-existent crime. All that had been required to achieve this were weaving elements of truth with consistent pressure to visualize the event.

“Science defiance” (Anti-science tactics)


There are a variety of anti-science beliefs, but proponents of them all follow the same disingenuous techniques to further their agenda.

One trick is to rely on bogus experts. Linus Pauling won the 1954 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Later, he made unsubstantiated claims that an overload of vitamins, especially C, can cure or mitigate nearly any malady. Conditions that vitamins can’t impact, like ALS, would have never happened if the orange juice regimen had started earlier. Pauling has many fans in the alternative medicine crowd and, lacking any legitimate research to support his idiosyncratic position, they will point to his elite honor in an unrelated field for support.   

Another big one is false balance. There are tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers on evolution in geology, anthropology, and biology journals. This compares with zero such papers on creationism. Yet when pushing for creationism in public school biology class, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal asked scientists, “What are you afraid of,” as if he were merely calling for reasonable presentation of two equally valid positions.

So whenever there is something like a Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate, it is one-against-one and this can portray a false balance between the two ideas. Yet Ham admitted that no amount of evidence would change his mind, so there was no genuine give-and-take like one might see in a debate on specifics of the tax code.

We also see the false balance card played with regard to climate change. An opinion page might feature someone arguing for AGW, and another against it, and this might create the impression of the ideas having equal weight. But based on the papers published in peer-reviewed climate change journals in recent years, the true numbers would have maybe 15 column inches for the denial camp and an encyclopedia-sized publication for the other side, representing the 99.8 percent of peer-reviewed papers that have been published this decade.

There is also playing up a conspiracy angle. The most widespread conspiracy comes courtesy the Flat Earthers, who have concocted a cover-up that brings together North and South Korea, Iran and Israel, and India and Pakistan. Also in on the plot are every satellite manufacturer, airline employee, astronaut, and ulta-high altitude jumper Felix Baumgartner. While NASA is often cited as the central evil figure, this conspiracy would have to precede the agency by more that two millennium, to at least Eratosthenes in the Third Century BCE. It then continued through ancient Greece and Rome, onto circumnavigation by Ferdinand Magellan’s crew,  and then the Foucault Pendulum.

Rather than questioning the mounds of peer-reviewed science supporting evolution or climate change, deniers level charges of “religious zealotry” at the researchers and their supporters. We see the same strategy by those opposed to GMOs or vaccines. Pointing out that genetic modification saved the Hawaiian papaya, that insulin is a GMO, or that genetic modification transfers no more than four genes compared to thousands in traditional breeding, will be answered with an evidence-free assertion that the poster is an industry plant. Beyond being a wild conspiracy theory, the shill accusation is also an irrelevant ad hominem. If the person were being clandestinely paid to post the previous information, that has no bearing on its accuracy. Similarly, a pro-vaxxer noting the difference between mortality and morbidity might be answered with, “You’ve been blinded by government and Big Pharma propaganda.”

In a local example last year, WQAD meteorologist Kevin Sorenson explained the science behind airplane exhaust, and pointed out this makes for harmless contrails, not mind-bending government poison. Without bothering to counter his science, detractors fantasized about the day “coming soon” when he and his children would die a horrible death from airborne chemical warfare.

Then we have cherry picking, which involves plucking a tiny piece of informational fruit and ignoring the rest of the tree. For instance, a favorite of climate change deniers is a chart showing that global warming peaked in 1998 and that average global temperature today is no more than it was then. But that’s because of an unusually strong el Niño that year. A graph starting in 1997, 1999, 2007, 1957, or 1857 would show a clear warming trend.

Another example comes from incompletely quoting Darwin when he wrote, “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

Some creationists stop the quote there, but Darwin spends the subsequent sentences explaining why the apparent absurdity is grounded in reality. He continues, “Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.”

Yet another tactic is to sow doubt on the research by casting aspersions on the researcher. University of Florida horticulturist Kevin Folta has been the focus of much venom from anti-GMO camps. The university has received thousands of FOIA requests to turn over all his work-related correspondence. There is no reason to suspect wrong-doing, it is done so that a time consuming process will keep Folta from his work as a food science researcher. Folta’s employer has also been the subject of a telephone and e-mail campaign to fire him. This demand stems from a claim he was secretly on the Monsanto payroll. In truth, all he had done was speak at one seminar the company partially sponsored. He spoke as the independent researcher he is and was not compensated one penny by Monsanto. Undaunted by these facts, one vigilante group went so far as to make his wife’s usual bicycle route available online.

For all the time and effort his detractors put into this harassment campaign, they have never questioned his science. After his public presentations, he holds a question-and-answer session and patiently stays until every query is fielded. Yet his critics don’t show up at these, they only attempt to destroy the person.

Similarly, Dr. Paul Offitt engenders homicidal rage among anti-vaxxers (I’m not exaggerating, I’ve seen online posts yearning for his death-by-stabbing). Neil Tyson and Brian Cox are the bane of Flat Earthers and geocentrists, who call them all manner of names yet can never direct this energy into a scientific method study or peer-reviewed submission stating their case. Climate change papers are dismissed with “follow the money,” while the authors are labeled government payroll whores, even though some are employed by private industry. Meanwhile, Darwin rates just below Satan and Judas in the hierarchy of a fundamentalist’s most reviled entities.

Yet another trick is to selectively highlight science they think offers support for their position.  One of the more frequent manifestations is when creationist argues that evolution would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But while the Law states that total entropy will increase over time, this only applies to a closed system. I strongly suspect that most making this claim couldn’t tell you what the First or Third Laws are, and that they only heard the Second and its subsequent creationist talking point from a fellow believer.

Similar tactics are utilized by anti-vaxxers and alternative medicine proponents, prompting Steven Novella to quip that these groups use science in the way a drunk uses a lamppost: For support, not illumination.

Then we have moving the goalposts, where when a challenge is met, rather than conceding the point, a further challenge is issued.  When On the Origin of Species was first published, detractors flatly denied evolution. Then it came to be observed both in nature and in a Petri dish. Rather than acknowledge that this confirmed Darwin’s ideas, deniers insisted that biologists were observing only incremental change and that the animal was merely adapting and becoming more efficient, but that a series of such changes would never lead to another animal a million generations later. In all this, they failed to explain what would constitute speciation.

Based on the geologic column, comparative anatomy, and DNA, scientists might conclude that one fossil is a precursor of bears and that another species found much deeper in the column is a still earlier ancestor. Creationists, while offering no support for the position, will insist these two fossils are unrelated creatures whose similar anatomical features and placement in the geologic column are coincidental. They will then issue a challenge that an intermediate species between the two be found.

When this is produced, it is claimed that this is not a middle-stage animal, but rather just a distinct third species, again with coincidental geologic column placement. The goalpost is moved yet again and another challenge is made to find a species between this latest middle find and the two between it.  

The biggest comeback to such challenges was the discovery of Tiktaalik. It had features of both fish and the four-legged tetrapods. It had fins, scales, and gills like fish, but also flat head and body, and eyes on the top of its skull, like a crocodile. Unlike fish, it had a functional neck, and had ribs resembling those of early tetrapods. There were various creationist reactions to this major find, but none of them were, “Yep, you’ve met all the requirements we’ve asked for. This is the final piece, evolution has been proven.”

Another tactic is to think that casting doubt on one mechanism of a field can invalidate the field in totality. Of course, the questioning of that mechanism is often in error. They might ask, “If man came from chimps, why are there still chimps?” This expresses a fundamental misunderstanding of the evolutionary tenet that man and the apes share a common ancestor.

Or they may credit improved sanitation for the decline in disease rates, ignoring that this would have no impact on airborne illnesses or realizing that countries with horrible sanitation, like India, still show dramatic reduction in disease following widespread vaccination.

Then we have a flat Earth meme shows a wet, spinning tennis ball with the water shooting off from it and saying this shows what would happen if Earth were likewise a rotating spheroid. They are blissfully unaware that the gravity which helps draw the water from the tennis ball is the same force confining ocean water to Earth.

This more detailed explanation was provided by an anonymous Reddit poster: “Rotation isn’t measured in miles per hour, but in Revolutions per Minute. The Revolution of Earth is per day, there are 1,440 minutes in a day, so the RPM is about one-seven ten thousandths. By contrast, a spinning tennis ball is going much faster. The ball is unable to generate enough of its gravity to capture and hold anything including water. The water in the meme is also inside the gravitational forces of a planet which also overpower the ball. The ball lacks sufficient mass to counter centripetal force of the spin applied.”

Still another anti-science strategy is the manufactroversy. One of the more prominent examples is Climategate, where a hacker broke into the University of East Anglia to copy thousands of computer files and e-mails.

Most of the e-mails delved into the minutiae of climate research and analysis, or offered details of conferences. The manufactroversy focused on a small number of e-mails, such as one in which climate scientist Kevin Trenberth wrote, “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” This was part of a discussion on the need for better monitoring of the energy flows involved in short-term climate variability, but was presented by deniers as proof that all climate scientists were perpetrating a broad  hoax.

The most frequently-recited Climategate quote came from a Phil Jones e-mail. He related using “Mike’s Nature trick” in a 1999 graph for the World Meteorological Organization “to hide the decline” in proxy temperatures derived from tree ring analyses, even though measured temperatures were rising. In mathematics, a ‘trick’ refers to a way of dealing problem, and ‘decline’ here referred to the tree ring divergence problem. But these meanings were twisted and the scientists were presented as conspirators, even though these accusations were made during the warmest year on record.

Another tactic is to compare themselves with Einstein, Newton, or Galileo (though geocentrists avoid this one). The idea is that they are being opposed for their maverick thinking and that scientists are scared of having their pet positions founder. Yet science reserves its greatest accolades and awards for those who disprove conventional wisdom. If the purveyors of cold fusion, perpetual motion machines, and q-ray bracelets successfully made their cases through the employment of the Scientific Method and peer review, they would likewise be lauded.  

Finally, scientists, being homo sapiens, sometimes make mistakes. Carl Sagan famously said of science, “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re doing it wrong. If you keep making the same mistakes, you’re really doing it wrong. And if you don’t admit they’re mistakes, you’re not doing science.” But anti-science type see this as evidence of institutional incompetence rather than trial-and-error.

Medicine has moved on from trepanation and leeches, whereas Reiki is done the same now as when it began in 1922. Science uncovered the Piltdown Man hoax and owned up the errors in Nebraska Man and adjusted its thinking accordingly. Yet Nebraska Man is still presented by creationists as evidence of evolution being in error, as if one corrected mistake by one anthropologist negates the entire biology field.

“Chemical overreaction” (Panera and sodium benzoate)


Panera Bread sponsored a fireworks display in Johnston City, Ill., this year, giving the town its first such Independence Day celebration in 10 years. What would have been a commendable act was spoiled by the fearmongering which accompanied it. Although a more accurate description of the spectacle might be a fearmongering campaign slightly mitigated by a fireworks show.  

Accompanying the July 4 festivity was an advertising blitz which pointed out that both fireworks and mustard contain sodium benzoate, a preservative to retard spoilage. Panera had ostentatiously removed this ingredient from its yellowed condiment, then Tweeted, “Call us crazy, but we think that if it’s in fireworks, it shouldn’t be in food.”

Not crazy, just ignorant of how chemistry works. In truth, Panera copywriters are probably stupid instead of ignorant. They likely know that a molecule’s properties change depending on what it is combined or mixed with. But they also know there are millions of persons unaware of this, and that this scientific illiteracy can be used to entice customers.

But they didn’t fool everyone. Responses to the Panera panic included, “Salts and carbons are also in fireworks,” and “Formaldehyde is naturally occurring in foods.” There was also this zinger: “Potassium belongs in bombs, not bananas. Am I doing this right?”

Indeed, the shameful Panera episode would be like railing against a Girl Scout lemonade stand for selling a product that contains dihydrogen monoxide, which is also found in Liquid-Plumr. Similarly, butanediol is found in many cheeses and is also used to make antifreeze, and there are as many examples of this as there are products on the market.

When an ingredient is in food at unsafe levels, this will be discovered by industry or independent scientists, the product will be pulled or refined, the results will be published in journals and trade publications, and precautions will be taken to guard against it reoccurring. That’s how science works; it’s not done via advertising Tweets intended to dampen federal holidays.

While Panera loudly proclaimed its removal of artificial sodium benzoate, in quietly continues to sell food that contains the substance in natural form. Panera should be avoided for its anti-science agenda, but not for its menu ingredients. There is no evidence the amount of the sodium benzoate in Panera’s cheese and berries poses any health risk, and this is true of any food containing the substance anywhere.

Panera’s Twitter campaign came with an equally alarmist sidebar that a few credulous media outlets ran. In it, the chain warned about “difficult to pronounce words,” as if the number of syllables was related to safety. And if the ability to recite an ingredient indicates harmlessness, then any ingredient is OK as long as it’s being ingested by a chemist.

The release also blared, “Some artificial preservatives have been linked to potential health risks.” This has sometimes been true, depending on the ingredient, the dose, and the age of the person taking it. But when that happens, it’s fixed, and this is no reason for a wholesale rejection of artificial ingredients. There are natural preservatives that would be unsafe at certain levels, too.

The delirious dietary diatribe drones on with, “Another unpalatable sounding artificial preservative, azodicarbonamide, is also found in yoga mats and shoes with rubber soles. One of azodicarbonamide’s breakdown components is a recognized carcinogen,” which is irrelevant since that component is mixed with others, rendering azodicarbonamide safe. During a chemical reaction, atoms rearrange themselves to produce new substances. For any Panera executives reading this, welcome to Chemistry 101.

Finally, yet another instance of a plummeting sky: “Butylated hydroxyanisole (BH) is hard to say and harder to swallow. It is found in cereals and chewing gum, but is also used in rubber and petroleum products. It might be better used in our plastic than served on our plates.” This is a nonsensical as saying it would be OK to drink gasoline because it contains BH, which is also found in potato chips.