“You don’t know HAARP” (Weather control)


On this blog, we sometimes address positions that encourage potentially lethal or harmful behavior, such eschewing vaccines, prohibiting importation of genetically modified foods into drought-stricken areas, or treating lymphoma with tree bark.

Then there are issues which are serious but pose no danger to public health, such as evolution denial, taxpayer-funded anthropologists chasing Bigfoot, or multi-level marketing scams. Finally, there are the silly notions, such as a flat Earth, ancient aliens carving the Nazca lines, or “grounding,” the idea that walking barefoot on grass will enable one to can access unspecified energies for multitudinous health benefits.

Suspecting that HAARP is a nefarious undertaking would seem to fall into the latter category, but last year we saw how even seemingly innocuous issues can have serious consequences.  

In October 2016, two Georgia men who fervently believed the HAARP conspiracy theory traveled to Gakona, Alaska, equipped with firepower, maps, and deadly intent. Alex Jones and Nick Begich had convinced the would-be attackers that HAARP controls our weather and minds. I’ve always found the last part of that claim self-defeating. If we KNOW they are controlling our minds, the control isn’t working. And if minds are being controlled, it’s not by top secret government technology, but rather by YouTube narrators with foreboding voices. Most of the blame for this lies on Begich, who wrote a book with contents almost as horrible as its title, Angels Don’t Play This HAARP.

The Department of Defense began the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in 1992 to study the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. The resulting research has advanced deep underwater communication with nuclear submarines and has assisted with the detection of underground military facilities.

Some do not accept this disappointingly mundane reality. Ironically, most HAARP conspiracy theorists are right wingers who are ostentatiously pro-military, want unbending loyalty to the current White House occupant, and are generally OK with the expanse of government police power. Yet they bristle when seeing what they think are the results of this blank check being cashed.

This includes the federal government having the ability to modify the weather. One unwritten rule of conspiracy theories is that the intent must be malevolent. So rather than creating a typhoon to target North Korean leaders or siccing a sandstorm on ISIS, HAARP overlords are responsible for this year’s rash of Atlantic and Gulf Coast hurricanes and California wildfires, as well as various tornadoes and earthquakes.

However, there is nothing classified about HAARP. No security clearance is needed to tour the facility and there is an annual open house. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning did a Google Earth search which revealed four cars in a small parking lot. There were no security barriers and there was no blurring of the imagery as happens when one does a Google Earth search for classified areas.

That’s because there is no reason to hide what HAARP is doing. Most of the year, its activities consist of university and government scientists conducting ionosphere research. HAARP has an observatory and adjacent large field with 180 high-frequency antennas. The program has no potential to impact weather since the frequency emitted by HAARP instruments are incapable of being absorbed by the troposphere. That is the lowest point of Earth’s atmosphere and the level at which almost all weather conditions occur. One must go all the way to our atmosphere’s top level, the ionosphere, before HAARP’s transmitted energy can be absorbed, and that is much too high to impact weather.

So why does haarp.net dub the project a “military research laboratory to build new machines for their killing fields”? It stems from some haphazard, if not deliberate, misinterpretations.

ARCO Power Technologies constructed the HAARP facility. A scientist for one of the company’s subsidiaries, Dr. Bernard Eastlund, owns the patent for a “method and apparatus for altering a region in Earth’s atmosphere, ionosphere, and/or magnetosphere.” Eastlund’s method would require a location near the poles, where the lines of the Earth’s magnetic field are roughly perpendicular to the surface, and where there is thought to be natural gas reserves.

This is unrelated to the work done at HAARP, but theorists have finagled a connection.  Known inaccurately as the HAARP patent, Eastland’s invention is regularly presented in conspiracy circles as being the method by which Uncle Sam unleashes his unnatural disasters.

In truth, the patent involves using natural gas to generate electricity in order to create electromagnetic radiation. Again, this would take place far too high to affect the weather. The idea that Eastland’s invention could be used to unleash hail and other plagues from on high is unfounded.

What’s more, Eastlund’s patent is for a speculative device, not for a completed invention. This hypothetical object would be about one million times more powerful than anything HAARP has unleashed. None of his patent’s drawings resemble anything present at the HAARP site. Dunning noted, for example, that HAARP’s antenna array measures about 1,000 feet on a side, while Eastlund’s imagined device would have to be spread over 14 miles.

There is also the issue of mechanism. Theorists believe HAARP controls the weather by heating up the atmosphere. But they never explain how warming a small area above Alaska would cause tectonic plates under California to collide, or make Atlantic waves and winds form a rapidly rotating storm system.


“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)


While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationist’s substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the Sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth, and will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a Flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.

“I disagree with you in theory” (Conspiracies)


Today we will look at why most conspiracy theories are bonkers. In doing so, we will look at what differentiates a legitimate conspiracy theory from the ones associated with tinfoil hats, multiple exclamation points, and Bohemian Grove references.

First, most supposed conspiracies would require a highly unreasonable amount of secrecy. Depending on the plot, it would necessarily involve hundreds, thousands, or even millions of participants. Real conspiracies collapse when an investigator uncovers it or an insider reveals the misdeeds. This is how the public found out about John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators, Tuskegee syphilis experiments,  the Gulf of Tonkin incident, COINTELPRO, Watergate, the Lewinsky scandal, and NSA abuses.

By contrast, conspiracy theories asserted by Alex Jones and David Icke require accepting that any number of conspirators can seamlessly execute complex plans with untold moving parts and nimbly move around any unexpected obstacles without the plan ever coming apart or being exposed. And by exposed, I don’t mean a YouTuber, saying, “That is not enough blood for someone with a missing limb, so here we see more evidence that the Boston Marathon bombing was staged.” By evidence, I am referring to what Woodward and Bernstein published, what Ken Starr presented in depositions, what then-Bradley Manning released, and what the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI purloined from government offices.

The more people that know of the plan, the more chance it will be exposed. Each person added to the conspiracy is one more member that can be forgetful, get tricked, be blackmailed, succumb to bribery, or grow disillusioned. Every new recruit is one more person that could expose the plot out of spite, incompetence, guilt, or by accident. Conspiracies about hidden cancer cures, 9/11 being an inside job, and Earth being flat would have been exposed with mounds of specific, irrefutable evidence long ago if they were real.

But wait a minute, Mr. Critical Thinking Skeptic, are you not committing the survivor bias fallacy? Surely there have been evil doings by governments, corporations, or criminal enterprises that were never exposed, right? Yes, it is likely that some plots have stayed furtive. But that does nothing to bolster conspiracy theories that are being supported with flimsy evidence.

Manning and Edward Snowden both leaked around 700,000 documents apiece. Recalling other examples of genuine conspiracy theories and the evidence for them, skeptic blogger Emil Karlsson wrote, “The Watergate scandal had burglars being arrested, a money trail that could be followed and mapped, confessions, and several rounds of incriminating audio tapes. The IB affair revealed that Swedish government had a secret military intelligence and counterintelligence agency that the parliament was unaware of that monitored and registered people … and secretly infiltrated their organizations and attempted to provoke them into committing crimes. This conspiracy was exposed by two journalists and a photographer who got their hands on crucial evidence provided by a disgruntled employee. They then spent months stalking and photographing IB members and even intercepted posts sent between field agents and the headquarters of the organization.”

In a similar exposure, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI burgled an FBI field office and made off with several dossiers, which they then forwarded  to the media. That is how the bureau’s illegal program to surveil, infiltrate, and discredit U.S. political organizations came to light.

Compare that to what WAKETHESHEEPLE!! is offering for his, ahem, evidence. One example is a photo of a World Trade Center tower collapsing, with a couple of windows blowing out a few stories below the mushroom of smoke. The accompanying text reads, “Oops! We set off this explosion too early.” In reality, the windows blew out as the result of unequal pressure. Had the theorist performed diligent journalism by seeking out multiple physicists and architects, he would have gained this information. Instead, he was content to unilaterally deduce and announce what had happened.

On conspiracy theory websites, great evidence will be placed on family members not crying when being interviewed about their loved ones, and this argument from ignorance will be considered of greater value than coroner reports, ballistic evidence, and scores of witnesses. After a shooting in California, a police detective was telling news reporters about the importance of training for such events, and he said that previous drills had paid off. In relating this, he misspoke and said “the shooting, which we played out here today,” as opposed to “the shooting, which played out here today.” About the same time, a fellow law enforcement officer placed his hand on his face. These two events were presented as evidence of it being staged, with the detective accidentally revealing the ruse, which caused his co-worker to cover his face, in an “oh no” moment.

Sometimes such exposures are said to be done on purpose, albeit clandestinely. There have been several non-satirical attempts to tie Simpsons episodes into conspiracy theories. The idea is that that evil Hollywood Jews are tipping their hand at the atrocities they are about to unleash. This has included supposed references to 9/11 and even Pizzagate, more than 25 years before that especially ridiculous conspiracy theory surfaced. Similarly, a passport in The Matrix expiring on Sept. 11, 2001, is supposedly another clue. Of course, this requires ignoring any references to any other dates that appeared in any movie prior to the attacks. While the 9/11/2001 expiration date is mildly interesting, the Law of Truly Large Numbers is in play here.

Other than the no-planes notion, probably the most ridiculous 9/11 theory centers on a 1967 Newsweek cover featuring David Rockefeller. He appears in front of the New York skyline, with his watch at 8:55, which in the twisted mind of a conspiracy theorist, reads 9/11. Theorists are assuming a minimum 34-year-plan with thousands of participants, all based on a man’s location, religion, and jewelry.

Speaking of Truthers, their idea of 9/11 being an inside job means that hijacked airliners were superfluous. If the reasons for the attacks was to get the U.S. into war, why not just blow the towers up and still pin it on Muslims? Or just invade anyway without being attacked, the way the U.S. did in Iraq, Panama, and Grenada? American foreign policy is aggressive enough that no one would have found it strange if the U.S. staged another preemptive strike.

Let’s go back to the low evidentiary threshold most conspiracy theorists have.  After the Ariana Grande concert bombing, the PA announcer tried to reassure the audience members that everything was OK so that they would file out calmly and avoid a stampede that would have magnified the tragedy. Footage from inside Manchester Arena showed that panicked attendees had started running, which prompted the announcer to implore, “Please take your time. There’s no need to bunch up. There’s no problems here. Just take your time and exit the building. Everything is fine. Walk slowly, there’s no need to run.”

In some conspiracy theory circles his reassurance that everything was OK was presented as evidence that nothing bad had happened. They also patted themselves on the back for exposing the announcement, which they claimed was not meant to be for public consumption, even though it was given in a crowded venue.

Of course, the theorists did no follow up to see if anyone was killed, talked with no police officers, no concert goers, no ER workers, and did not seek out the PA announcer. They just counted their assertion as proof.

Addressing the conspiracy theory, Snopes noted, “Greater Manchester Police confirmed that they have spoken to grieving families of the 22 deceased and that the coroner is performing postmortem examinations. Once this is complete, identities of the victims will be made public. Police are actively investigating the attack and have taken multiple people into custody. There is also ample footage taken by concert goers that shows everything from the moment the bomb exploded to people scrambling for safety. Authorities have identified the suicide bomber as 22-year-old Salman Abedi.”

Again, all these persons would need to be involved and stay silent for this conspiracy, which would serve no purpose, to have been executed.

Beyond the secrecy, another issue is that conspiracy theorists attribute inconsistent capabilities to those pulling off the plot. Masterminds are portrayed as impossibly brilliant in their management of persons, resources, planning, and execution. They are said to wield nearly unlimited power and cruelty, and are described as ruthless, intelligent, and efficient. They have planned for every contingency, are highly adaptable, have infiltrated the highest levels of government, science, and economics, and have untold minions ready to commit mayhem on their behalf. They conceal or destroy all evidence and ‘disappear’ those who try to expose them. Yet, they are unable to remove YouTube videos. They have the world’s greatest tech minds on their side, yet they are unable to take down websites exposing their dastardly deeds. The strongest argument against alleged conspirators having the massive reach of power attributed to them is that theorists still alive to expose them.

“Which nobody should deny” (Genocide denial)


Other than their tragic natures, there would seem to be little connection between the Srebrenica massacre and Typhoon Haiyan. They were separated by 20 years, one was in the Balkans while the other ravaged Asian island nations, and the former was a deliberate act, the latter a natural disaster.

Yet there is a tie-in, however tenuous and eye-rolling. Some who deny that the genocide occurred offer a novel explanation for the mass of uncovered corpses. In this tale, the massacre was a hoax and those responsible for perpetrating it furtively slipped thousands of Philippine typhoon victims into central Europe and dumped them in the Srebrenica burial sites. I’m halfway expecting a counter theory from HAARP conspiracy theorists that Srebrenica victims were transported to Southeast Asia and passed off as typhoon fatalities.

While the idea of a massacre/typhoon connection is absurd enough to dismiss out of hand, we in the skeptic community prefer to bolster our points with science, and in this case, we find that evidence in DNA. The massacre took place primarily in July of 1995 when Bosnian Serb soldiers from Republica Srpska and the paramilitary Scorpions slew 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. According to The Atlantic, DNA advances have enabled war crimes investigators to document the massacre in minute detail.

In his Atlantic piece, David Rohde wrote that uncovering the remains was made difficult because Bosnian Serbs went to great effort to conceal victims’ bodies. Several months after the killings, they dug up many of the mass graves, dismembered the corpses, and hid them in dozens of locations. This means that body parts from one victim are often in multiple sites. Despite this challenge, the International Commission on Missing Persons collected 22,268 blood samples from Srebrenica survivors and matched them to 6,827 recovered bodies.

However, even this DNA evidence is dismissed by deniers. To conspiracy theorists, inconvenient evidence is part of the cover-up, evidence not uncovered shows how well it’s being hidden, and scientists and journalists who provide contrary information are in on the plot or blindly contributing to it.

Rohde quoted several Serbs who offered either denial of the entire massacre or insisted it had been exaggerated and only occurred in the normal course of battle. It is dismissed as a hoax perpetrated by Western powers, who are also blamed for fomenting conflict in the splintered Yugoslavia. In this theory, supposedly slain Bosnian Muslims are said to be either living in Germany or are instead dead Serb soldiers or Filipino typhoon victims. This denial is not limited to Serbs. The conspiracy theory finds adherents among Russian government officials and anti-Muslim U.S. conservatives.

Similar denials are leveled at the Holocaust and genocides in Ukraine, Armenia, Rwanda, and Cambodia, as well as the Nanking Massacre. These atrocities are accompanied by a denialist narrative in which a shadowy figure or cabal is out do disparage or destroy the nation, culture, or faith responsible for the genocide. Those perpetrating the hoax can be the CIA, Mossad, Saudi royalty, the Clintons, or whoever best fits the narrative.

In these denials, if mass murder was perpetrated, it was in self-defense. This is a double-win for the denial camp. They can defend their country or people while casting blame on a disliked party for perpetrating a self-serving ruse. As George Orwell observed, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

In many cases, denial is the first reaction to news of the genocide, as it was in Srebrenica, when the victims were dug up and reburied. Some of the bodies were also burned. This moving and desecration of the evidence made further denial easier. Then when those remains were found, an ad hoc rationale developed that the corpses were of legitimate military targets. All this is standard practice for genocide deniers, who attempt to refute what happened or at least downplay it. Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, considers denial a continuation of the genocide because it is part of a continuing attempt to psychologically and culturally destroy the victim group.

Meanwhile, blogger Emil Karlsson  has touched on the characteristics of genocide denial. These include false attempts at moral equivalence between the side perpetrating the genocide and its victims. This, to the denialist, justifies any atrocity because there were good and bad on both sides, usually more good on their end. Or it can take the form of dehumanizing the victims and considering them unworthy of sympathy, so whether it happened or not doesn’t matter. One internet meme tried to rebrand Srebrenica massacre mastermind Ratko Mladic as a mighty warrior who has been doing battle with ISIS since 1992, thereby equating  murdered grade schoolers with an Islamic terrorists.

Another tact is misusing initial estimates done by governments. The first totals of genocide fatalities are usually done by government or military officials who lack the research and documentation capabilities of scientists and historians. These first estimates may be inaccurate, perhaps wildly so. This provides easy fodder for a genocide denialist, who cites the disparate numbers of proof of a lie. If the numbers go up, they are fraudulent; if they go down, it shows it was never a big deal anyway, especially in war. A similar tactic is to exploit new discoveries or corrected errors, as new information is taken as evidence that it was all fabricated.

Yet another strategy is to quote historians out of context. In Karlsson’s post, he wrote that holocaust deniers enthusiastically reference Raul Hilberg having said that it would be hard to prove that the Holocaust happened. Sliced off is his next sentence, where he explains how historians and researchers overcome any difficulties and confirmed the event’s horrible reality. Holocaust deniers also lift a passage from Arno Mayer’s book to make it seem like he asserts that evidence for Nazi gas chambers is sparse. What they leave out is that he was referring to the SS having destroyed most of the evidence for the chambers, which wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t there to destroy.

This shows how denialists can highlight any apparent inconsistency while ignoring the totality of evidence. In an article sympathetic to Srebrenica denial, World Net Daily wrote that 37 percent of the massacre victims were on voting roles in 1996, a year after what it calls “the alleged genocide.” Voting roles are usually only purged after one misses several elections, so this demonstrates nothing and certainly does not refute the DNA evidence of the nearly 7,000 confirmed victims.

Historians take their work seriously and will correct errors when found. Genocide denialists will advertise this not as admitting an honest mistake, but as the exposing of a cover-up. For instance, WND claimed that at least 100 persons in the Srebrenica memorial sites died of natural causes. Even if true, this is a tiny percentage of those buried and does not lessen the brutality of killing young boys and senior citizens because of where they were born and what religion they practice.


“Assume the simple position” (Occam’s Razor)


I have been doing this long enough and with enough frequency that if one read a post a day it would take a year to finish the blog. I heartily encourage this activity, but for readers lacking the time or ambition, I can sum up the blog’s contents as being an endorsement of Occam’s Razor. This is the notion that, all other things being equal, the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one. Closely related to the Razor is the notion of the burden of proof, which states that the person making an assertion is required to provide evidence for it and not merely challenge listeners to disprove it.

Carl Sagan famously noted that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Suppose I amble into work late and my co-workers wonder why. One postulates that I may have encountered the road construction they had. They were there, it happened to them, they know I take the same route, so that seems a likely reason. But another wonders if I was delayed by persons on horseback engaged in a medieval war reenactment, which had taken place over the weekend on a family farm. A third co-worker speculates that I may have slipped into a wormhole where aliens detained me to obtain skin and blood samples before releasing me back onto my usual route.

The first choice requires just one assumption, that I had encountered the same construction as my co-worker had. From there, the number of assumptions increase. The equestrian excuse would require that the reenactment went beyond the scheduled date and took place in a locale other than its designated point. The final explanation would require assuming the existence in Moline of both wormholes and aliens and assume I had encountered both on my commute.

Anyone espousing the third option would have the highest difficulty level since it employs the most assumptions to reach its conclusions. Still, such attempts to shift the burden of proof and bypass Occam’s Razor happen all the time.

O.J. Simpson’s defense team attempted to shift the burden to the prosecution by trying to make it prove that Nicole wasn’t killed by Colombian drug dealers who mistook her for Faye Resnick. Judge Lance Ito disallowed this line of reasoning, owing to a total lack of evidence. “Prove it wasn’t drug dealers” is not a valid defense argument and such reasoning is not critical thinking.

While the number of assumptions is important, so too are the quality of those assumptions. The Simpson trial, like most criminal cases, had prosecutors assuming  the defendant’s guilt and defense lawyers presuming his innocence. But there was no reason to think drug lords were targeting Faye Resnick, much less confusing her for Nicole Brown Simpson, as this required more assumptions than concluding that the relevant evidence included a trail of O.J.’s DNA leading from the crime scene to his vehicle and residence, his history of abusing the victim, and bloody shoe imprints. 

Now let’s apply this to science. A blogger at logicofscience.com wrote about authoring a paper on the diet of a turtle species. In his research, he collected the shelled creatures, had them defecate in a bucket, then examined the feces. There, he found a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish. The conclusion was that these turtles ate a variety of plants, insects, and crawfish, since this explanation required the fewest assumptions.

The biology blogger noted he could have instead deduced that “someone went out before me, captured the turtles, force fed them crawfish, then put the turtles back into the pond.” Or he could have assumed this force feeding was done by aliens. But theses options would require unfounded assumptions, the latter necessitating a step beyond even the middle choice. Such conclusions are usually instances of begging the question, where speakers reach the conclusion first, then attempt to buoy that conclusion with unproven premises.

No one takes issue with the science when it involves reptile diets or other noncontroversial topics that leave world views and favored industries untouched. But if the scientific conclusions do impact those areas, there are those who seek to dull Occam’s razor, beg the question, and contort themselves in order to finagle around the evidence.

Young Earth Creationists, for example, insist all animals and plants were destroyed in a worldwide flood 5,000 years ago. This means that in the YEC scenario, all corals today would had to have started growing around the time the Pyramids were constructed. But corals grow about a foot a year under ideal conditions. The Great Barrier Reef would have taken more than 500,000 years to reach its current size.

For corals to have gotten as large as they are today, if they only started growing 5,000 years ago, they would had to have grown at a rate many times more than  has ever been observed. The standard YEC response is that perhaps growth rates were much faster in the past than they are now and that the rate has slowed down exponentially since, for reasons unknown.

They employ the same thought process with being able to see stars millions of light years away. This proves Earth has been around at least as long as it has taken the most distant starlight to reach us. But the YEC answer is that maybe the speed of light has not been constant. The coral and starlight responses are both instances of ad hoc reasoning backed by no evidence. It requires assuming that an aspect of botany or astronomy is much different from what has ever been observed or recorded. It is also begging the question. They begin with the assumption that a worldwide flood wiped everything out 5,000 years ago, then try to make all evidence (or in these cases, speculation) fit that assumption. They go from conclusion to evidence, whereas science works the other way.

A third area of creative deduction by YECs centers of alternating layers of light and dark sediment that accumulate in lakes. The different colors are the result of seasonal changes, with light layers made in winter and dark ones made in the summer. Some lake centers feature millions of these layers, so we can draw one of these conclusions:

  1. A set of two layers forms every year in these lakes. Some lakes contain millions of layers. Therefore these lakes are millions of years old.
  1. Layers were formed during the flood, through an unknown mechanism. By a second unknown means, floodwaters sorted the particles into alternating layers of sediment, then the layers managed to form only over lake beds, and did so at a rate of 10 layers per minute, rather than two per annum, which is the only rate that has been observed.

The YEC takes on these occurrences requires rejecting all data and scientists’ understanding of the natural processes involved. Their response to the scientifically-deduced facts are to offer unsupported ad hoc speculation that proposes unknown and unworkable mechanisms. They fail to manage even the first step in the Scientific Method, observation, because no one has observed the phenomena they claim are occurring. As our turtle excrement-collecting blogger noted, “If we grant creationists the ability to create unknown mechanisms in order to derive interpretations that match their pre-existing biases, then an infinite number of interpretations become possible. It is always possible to generate an ad hoc argument, which is why Occam’s Razor is so important. It tells us that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one.”

That is why almost all conspiracy theories collapse under the weight of Occam’s Razor. Some anti-vaxxers claim that pharmaceutical executives pay immunologists to say vaccines don’t cause autism. Here, we have two options:

  1. Ethical scientists reach their conclusions through sound research.
  2. These hundreds of researchers from multitudinous institutions and companies are being paid to falsify data. Moreover, none of these hundreds who are in it solely for ill-gotten gain have been lured away by wealthy anti-vaxxers offering to pay them more.

This shill accusation is similar to the charge leveled at climate scientists. On this issue, the two primary competing options are:

  1. 99.8 percent of the 12,000 peer-reviewed papers published in the last five years have attested to anthropogenic global warming, so this is likely happening.
  2. Anonymous elites are paying these thousands of climate scientists to reach this conclusion and fabricate data, yet this plan is being foiled by oil company executives and Facebook posters exposing the plot.

Again, from the logicofscience: “Ask whether there is any reason to think the scientists are corrupt other than the fact that you don’t like their conclusions.”

Going back to the Sagan quote, if one is going to assert the scientific consensus is wrong about climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, vaccines, or GMOs, it is insufficient to offer, “Were you there when the universe began?” or “Follow the money trail.” The burden of proof is on the speaker to provide clear, well-researched, and reasoned evidence for their position.

In some instances, there is no damage other than to the listener’s intelligence. Ancient Aliens attempted to branch into evolutionary biology by suggesting extraterrestrial visitors may have altered dinosaur DNA in order to have them develop into smaller creatures like birds and coelacanth.

In other instances, the misinformation is fatal. Anti-vaxxers mistakenly cite improved sanitation and nutrition as the reason for the decline in infectious diseases over the last century and a half. While those were welcomed health advances, when it comes to disease eradication, here are the two choices offered:

  1. Vaccines work by mimicking disease agents for the real deal, which is why instances of the diseases plummet after vaccines are introduced, and spike when vaccination rates fall.
  2. The introduction of vaccines has coincidentally occurred at a time when the impacts of improved sanitation and nutrition were beginning to be seen. This benefit has extended to countries with deplorable sanitation like India. This has even effected airborne diseases like rubella, which are impacted by sanitation and nutrition improvements by an unknown means. A decline in vaccine rates does not impact disease; rather there has been a coincidental reduction in sanitary and nutrition benefits for unknown reasons when vaccine rates go down. The reason all this is not universal knowledge is because nearly every immunologist is pumping out fabricated propaganda to discredit sanitation and nutrition improvements and cover for vaccines, which actually cause disease.

Those who embrace the latter idea also cotton to the idea of a repressed cancer cure. But which requires the fewest assumptions: That oncologists have been unable to find a panacea for a disease that has more than 100 variations, or that they have, but are eschewing everlasting fame, untold fortune, worldwide adulation, and the chance to spare them and their loved ones, in order to continue enriching the pharmaceutical industry, which has yet to figure out there is more money to be saved in selling that cure?

Meanwhile, 9/11 Truthers talk about the hijackers having little flight training and Tower 7 collapsing despite not bearing a direct hit. They hypothesize that Flight 93 was shot down, insist that a missile hit the Pentagon, and make repeated references to jet fuel and steel beams. However, even if all their claims were valid, it would no more indicate guilt by the Bush Administration that it would cause blame to fall on Islamic terrorists, communists, the Irish Republican Army, or the few remaining Branch Davidians. Which requires the fewest assumptions: That a wealthy and committed terrorist leader with the means and stated desire to pull of such an attack did so, as indicated by passenger phone calls, conversations between hijackers and air traffic control, and flight manifests; or that it was all an elaborate hoax that included WTC security workers, victim’s family members, the airlines, Pentagon witnesses, BBC reporters, and even Philippines police officers, who in 1995 uncovered and turned over to the FBI evidence of what became the 9/11 plot?

One final example, focusing on Bigfoot, which has two primary options. Which of these contains the fewest assumptions?

  1. A complete lack of verifiable evidence strongly suggests its non-existence.
  2. A sustainable population of eight-foot bipedal apes has lived, bred, hunted, and roamed from the Northwest Territories to the Bayou for two centuries without once being shot by a hunter, hit by a vehicle, or leaving behind a corpse, skeleton, fur patch, or excrement.

It is not on me to disprove an ad hoc rationale about a troop of lumbering beasts mastering stealth and adroitly avoiding human contact at all cost. The burden falls on those who make these assertions the centerpiece of their Sasquatch Science.

“Absolutely lipid” (Statins denial)


There exist among us those who advocate rejecting all medication in favor of “natural cures,” which are neither, and who implicate physicians and pharmaceutical executives in an alliance to pump patients full of needless, nefarious medication. Some of these potent pills and potions are said to kill people by the millions, which if true, would quickly leave the malevolent medics with no one left to prey on. If there was a conspiracy to sell medication that was without value, it would make more sense to sell placeboes that could be made much cheaper and which would avoid poisoning the customers.

Statins are among the drugs cited by believers in this conspiracy. Statins are lipid-lowering medications that reduce instances of cardiovascular disease among those most at risk. The anti-statin brigade includes the usual suspects, Mike Adams and Joseph Mercola, as well as a new one to me, Leonard Coldwell. The latter claims to have concocted a cure for cancer that is 92 percent effective. If so, there is truth to the hidden cancer cure conspiracy theory because Coldwell has yet to make his treatment publicly available.

Coldwell calls statins a mass murder method that invariably hardens the liver and slices 20 years off your life. In a lengthy retort, the SkepDoc Harriett Hall wrote that statins actually lengthen lifespans for those most at risk for cardiovascular disease, while lowering cholesterol. Coldwell agrees with the last part, but argues this is detrimental since he considers high cholesterol beneficial. But Hall noted, “You don’t die of either too much or too little cholesterol. You die of heart attacks and strokes, and reducing high cholesterol levels reduces your risk of those events.”

Coldwell claims that 250 being considered a normal cholesterol level is an arbitrary number dreamed up, but it actually came from measuring cholesterol levels in large populations. Those studies found that those with higher cholesterol levels were more likely to have heart attacks, and 250 is where the increase in risk was noticed.

Instead of scientifically-researched, tested, and proven statins, Coldwell recommends fending off heart disease with two bananas on an empty stomach. He cites this as a natural cure, even though the bananas we eat are remarkably unnatural, having been modified from a tiny, green, barely edible pod into today’s scrumptious elongated yellow fruit. And while regular consumption of fruits and vegetables promotes good health, there is no evidence for Coldwell’s claim that two daily bananas is an especially potent foe of cardiovascular disease.

Coldwell claims that Big Pharma spokespersons have described statins as a magic pill that will ward off heart attacks and other cardiovascular ailments. Hall shot down this strawman, noting that the medical establishment considers statins to be “drugs with risks and benefits, and the benefits have been determined to outweigh the risks.” It is not magic, doctors know how it works, and know it will work better for some than others.

Mercola and Adams both write that cholesterol has no bearing on heart disease and that statins will impair many biological functions and cause muscle pain. However, Hall’s PubMed search produced more than 30,000 articles on statins research, and a 2016 review of these studies by the Lancet found statins reduce the rate of heart attacks and strokes in at-risk patients by as much as 50 percent.

Of the 30,000 papers, Adams and Mercola cherry-pick a few isolated passages that suggest low cholesterol levels may be associated with higher death rates among the elderly. But the papers also noted this was not a causal relationship. People in their 90s often die for reasons unrelated to low cholesterol.

Critics sometimes label statins as overprescribed and while this strictly speaking is true, it is the result of a medical shortcoming, not a furtive attempt to enrich pharmaceutical executives and their lackey physicians. There is no way to know which patients will benefit from statins, but it is logical to treat anyone who may be at risk of heart attack and stroke. Consequently, many patients will take statins without seeing their risk of cardiovascular disease reduced. While the treatment won’t benefit everyone, those who do benefit do so greatly.

The detractors also highlight the drug’s possible side effects, but according to Hall, only one patient in 50,000 will develop a serious condition as a result of taking statins, and those usually disappear when the medication is discontinued. The critics also gloss over the fact that the side effects of bypassing statins can include premature death.

“Arbour missed” (ADHD denial)


Nicole Arbour has become a minor Internet celebrity by videotaping rants about groups of people who are different than Nicole Arbour. Blacks, the overweight, and feminists have all been on the receiving end of her mocking monologues. Her most recent assault is on ADHD sufferers and their parents. The gist of her railing is that the disorder is make-believe and that unfit parents should be spanking their little hellions into line.

In actuality, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has been a known clinical condition since at least the early 1900s. In his takedown of Arbour, skeptic blogger Emil Karlsson noted there are more than 30,000 articles about ADHD in PubMed.

Biological factors that contribute to ADHD include genetic variants of neurotransmitter receptors and transporters as well as differences in executive function that are related to memory and attention. Environmental factors may include brain injury, premature birth, and heavy lead exposure during pregnancy.

Arbour offers no research or a different interpretation of data. Rather, she is content to reject outright a swath of parents, make evidence-free claims that cola and cereal cause ADHD symptoms, and offer erroneous anecdotes. For instance, she claims the first person to describe ADHD eventually rejected his initial finding and concluded the disorder was nonexistent.

She is referring to Leon Eisenberg, who contributed to psychology’s understanding of childhood behavioral conditions, but ADHD had been identified 20 years before his birth. Second, Eisenberg never claimed ADHD was fictitious, he only thought psychosocial factors were more important than biological ones in causing the disorder.  He therefore thought that pills to control the condition were being overprescribed. Most importantly, even if Eisenberg had said ADHD doesn’t exist, that wouldn’t make it true and wouldn’t override what the tens of thousands of papers and decades have research have shown.

Another Arbour claim, one frequently espoused in the anti-ADHD camp, is that the disorder is over-diagnosed in the United States. Critics will point out that six percent of US children are identified as having ADHD, nearly 10 times what is seen in Europe, particularly France.

It is true that most American children diagnosed with ADHD would not be similarly labeled in France, while a child not diagnosed in France might be in the United States. But this is because the countries use different diagnostic systems and analyze different factors in making the determination.

In Europe, a child must show a sustained inability to adapt due to inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. In the United States, a child needs to show substantial impairment in just one of these categories.

Arbour uses the disparity when trotting out hackneyed claims of a Big Pharma conspiracy. Like most alleged conspiracies, it collapses under the weight of the ever-increasing number of participants who would need to be involved and stay silent for it to work. This one would have to involve pediatricians, school nurses, teachers, and psychiatrists working in concert to continue a sham for the benefit of shadowy pharmaceutical executives. Also conspiring would be parents such as Cristina Margolis, who blogs on issues related to ADHD.

In her response to Arbour’s characterization of parents like herself as lazy, coddling miscreants “who give kids drugs,” Margolis related her experience of being married to an ADHD sufferer and being the mother of one.

She noted that one of Arbour’s many mistakes was dismissing ADHD boys and girls as being nothing more than typical, hyper children. Margolis pointed out that hyperactivity is only one type of ADHD, with inattentiveness and a combination of the two being the others.

“Not all children with ADHD are hyper. ADHD affects people differently,” Margolis wrote. “When a child is diagnosed with ADHD, more coexisting conditions can arise as well, such as depression, anxiety, oppositional defiance disorder, and bipolar disorder. My then 6-year-old daughter told me she wanted to die. ADHD, depression, and all the other coexisting conditions are nothing to belittle and make fun of.”

This is not the first time that a public response has been warranted following a misinformation piece about the disorder. In 2015, blogger Matt Walsh labeled ADHD a myth, which prompted a detailed reply from Steven Novella of the Yale School of Medicine and president of the New England Skeptical Society.

Perhaps the most fundamental of Walsh’s errors was using “disease” and “disorder” interchangeably while failing to define either. Novella wrote, “ADHD is certainly not a disease. That term should be reserved for entities that involve a discrete pathophysiological condition. But in medicine, there are also clinical syndromes, disorders, and categories of disorders.”

Novella further explained that brain disorders are different than problems with organ systems that rely only on the health of cells and tissue: “Liver disease is largely caused by pathological processes affecting liver cells. However, brain cells also have other layers of complexity to their function, the pattern of connections, and the biochemical processes that underlie brain processing. To add another layer of complexity, part of the function of the brain is to interact with the environment, including other people and society. Because of this, medicine uses the concept of mental disorder to define a clinical entity in which a cluster of signs and symptoms relating to thought, mood, and behavior cause demonstrable harm.”

ADHD specifically is “a disorder of executive function, which is a definable neurological function that localizes to the frontal lobes. Executive function is what enables us to pay attention…and to inhibit behaviors that are not socially appropriate. Medication for ADHD improves function and outcomes and is cost effective.”

Walsh’s piece conspicuously lacked any of the technical terms and explanatory passages contained in Novella’s post. For instance, he wrote that because there is no magic line where the amount of hyperactivity and inattention crosses the threshold from normal to problematic, there is no disorder. That is the continuum fallacy and would be like arguing that because there’s no set number of drinks a person can have per week to go from a casual imbiber drinker to a lush, there are no alcoholics. While not referencing the 30,000 PubMed papers, Walsh did highlight three doctors who agree with him, displaying a cherry-picking acumen that would impress the most robust climate change denier.

Back to Margolis, she wrote that the disorder is a lifetime sentence, but that it can be controlled with diet, accommodations at school, and medication: “I hoped our daughter would respond well to treatment without medication, but she was one of many who needed more help. That is what ADHD medication is: Help. With her medication, she is excelling in school and extracurricular activities, making friends, and has gained self-confidence.” Margolis thus describes her daughter as “thriving,” while Arbour calls her “a zombie.”