“Muscle & Witless” (Liver King)

Brian Johnson endorses what he calls an extreme case of primal living. In other words, he embraces the Appeal to Antiquity fallacy. This is when some time in the past – the 1950s, the Old West, the Medieval era, or something less concrete – is touted as ideal and a period whose values we should emulate. This requires cherry picking at best and a complete mangling of history at worst.

Additionally for Johnson, his claim fell horribly flat when leaked e-mails revealed that his Muscle & Fitness-cover physique came from the relatively recent invention of anabolic steroids. He may have consumed raw animal organs and gobbled some undefined supplements as he claimed, but it was steroids that resulted in his brawn.

Johnson said he started weightlifting because classmates were bullying him. That’s possible, although when the central tenet of a person’s existence is proven fraudulent, it’s hard to believe anything else they say.

Eventually, he founded Ancestral Supplements, which borrowed heavily from the ideas of author Sally Fallon. Her philosophy eschews modern diets and lifestyles. Applied physiologist Dr. Nick Tiller wrote in Skeptical Inquirer, “With so much competition in a saturated space, Johnson needed to distinguish himself among fitness influencers…so in 2021, the Liver King was born.”

This body organ monarch said he followed a list of Tenets, which were eat, sleep, move, connect, cold, sun, fight, and bond. As one example of what this meant, move refers to being active, usually by walking, to, as Teller explained, “combat the mismatch between our genetics that evolved when humans were required to expend energy to obtain it, and our modern environment, characterized by an abundance of empty calories.”

The sleep portion highlights sleep quality, which the hypothesis holds is best managed by regular sleep cycles and blocking blue light at bedtime. Both these Tenets have some validity but when Johnson starts dispensing nutritional advice, things get dicey. His suggested intake is a supreme form of the mostly-debunked Paleo Diet. This lifestyle emphasizes consuming large amounts of organ meat.

Tiller notes organ meat contains copious amounts of iron, zinc, and riboflavin, so its consumption can be advantageous. But there is the flip side, which includes high saturated fat and cholesterol. Further, the diet embraces raw milk and raw egg yolks, both of which have potential dangers.

While ground organs have been used as food for many years, it does not go all the way back to early homo sapiens. According to Tiller, their diet leaned heavily on meat when it was dry and a more plant-based, high-fiber approach during the wet times. Despite this, Johnson insists that we modern humans are descended from “the baddest mammalian predators that ever lived,” and we owe it to their legacy and honor to eat like they did. Curiously, this mindset does not extend to eschewing electronics, sleeping in a mud hut, or wearing loincloths.

While he lauded raw eggs and organs, Johnson most enthusiastically ingested synthetic testosterone, several anabolic and androgenic steroids, plus various drugs which mediate the effects of growth hormone and stimulate appetite.

Johnson’s claim that his physique was owed to food choice and sleeping patterns was comical to anyone possessing the slightest common sense. Attaining his form is impossible without massive doses of steroids and similar concoctions. The assertion that his extreme muscle size and definition was the result of diet and lifestyle choice was absurd on its face. Additionally, if true, it would mean that everyone in the time that he is claiming to mimic would have looked the same as he does now.

Johnson tries to maintain an image of back to nature, the good old (this case really old) days and embracing extreme manhood. Yet he enjoys the luxury lifestyle that this image enables him to attain. Teller describes the comical nature of how Johnson presents himself: “He’s often pictured with spears and other weapons, holding handfuls of raw meat that look as though they’ve been cut straight from an animal’s carcass. He owns four Dobermans and a fleet of trucks including a Hummer and an American Tank from World War II…and uses a rifle to obliterate vegan food.”

Teller also points out the hypocritical irony of Johnson taping himself destroying a WiFi router because it is modern, while employing a technology unavailable 150 years ago to tape this destruction. And, of course, Johnson needs the Internet to hawk his products and image.

His one accurate claim of continuing tradition is his following in the line of anti-science charlatans that have plagued society for the last millennium.

“No Thing Coal” (Fire walking)

Fire walking could more accurately be referred to as coal brisk-pacing. It refers to traipsing barefoot across hot coals, rocks, or cinders without suffering harm. It is often employed in religious rituals or in New Age mind-over-matter seminars.

However, there is nothing mystical about it. It is merely conductivity and physics in action. While the objects themselves are hot, they conduct heat poorly. Therefore, someone spending just a few seconds crossing the pit will usually escape unscathed. By way of comparison, imagine an oven set at 350 degrees for baking macadamia nut cookies. Mmmmmm, cookies. After a few minutes, both the air inside the oven and the pan that houses the cookies will be at the same temperature. But while one could safely put one’s hand in the oven, touching the pan would be extremely painful and potentially harmful. That’s because air has a low heat capacity and little ability in the thermal conductivity department. Metal, by contrast, being much denser than air, is an efficient conductor of heat and would burn any idiot who touches it.

Bob Nixon of Australian Skeptics explains, “The difference comes from the ability of various substances to conduct or transfer heat. Air is a very poor conductor of heat, (whereas) metal conducts heat with great efficiency, even though the temperate of the oven air and the container are the same.”

As this relates to fire-walking spectacles, 1,100-degree coals will not usually burn a person’s feet, provided the participant performs more of a jaunt than a leisurely stroll. This is because coals have a low heat capacity and they serve as good thermal insulators. In addition, ash remnants from the burnt charcoal is likewise a poor heat conductor. Also, firewalkers often wet their feet beforehand, which makes burns even less likely.

Combine the poor heat conductivity with the scant time spent crossing the pit and one ends up with a seemingly miraculous movement over burning coals.

“The average human foot will happily be in contact with a glowing wood coal for about a second before sufficient heat is transferred to burn the flesh,” Nixon said. “The average step takes about half a second so for most people, so it is possible to take two steps with each foot before a dangerous amount of heat has built up.”

Burns can still occur under specific circumstances, i.e. a person with thin soles taking too much time to cross on coals that are hotter than usual. But this confluence seldom occurs since those running the show take steps to avoid it and they give explicit instructions to the walkers on how to cross.

“Mine your own business” (Sales rep opportunities)


There are glitzy Internet and TV promotions that ostentatiously tout an “outstanding business opportunity,” and they deliver on that promise. But it’s the person selling the opportunity, not buying it, who reaps the profits and enjoys sustained success.

These “opportunities” mangle the usual relationship between a company and its sales representatives. Normally, companies selling products employ salespeople or contractors, who are paid a percentage of their completed orders.

But when accepting an “opportunity” rather than a job, the salesperson still completes orders but pays indirectly for doing so. An example of how it works: For $600, you can become an authorized sales agent for Bilbo Widgets. For this $600, Bilbo Widgets will provide you with leads on prospective customers, which you pursue at your expense and on your time. Since Bilbo owns the widgets, the supposed salesperson is required to spend a portion of their income buying the product and selling it to the customer for more. In the loud, proud ads, this business relationship it is pitched thusly: The customer gets a widget, the rep makes a profit, and Bilbo gets a sale.

By way of comparison, let’s see how it’s done in a traditional business. Gandalf works for Frodo Widgets, where he has an office and the same list of leads the Bilbo rep paid for. Gandalf has use of the company’s time and resources, which assist him in reaching prospective clients. Frodo gives Gandalf a commission, of which the company keeps nothing. Our working wizard puts in predictable hours and enjoys a base salary and an employee benefits package.

The Bilbo rep counters that he has the freedom of self-employment and never has to deal with a pedantic boss or overbearing co-worker. But neither do independent sales reps who hawk products from various companies and earn a commission on every sale. But they are being paid to be sales representatives, not paying the companies for this “opportunity.” Meanwhile, Bilbo Widgets has convinced its sales agents to work at his expense, on his time, and fork over $600 for the privilege. 

By contrast, an authentic company like McDonald’s allows franchisees to benefit from a time-honored, ubiquitous brand. It licenses a supremely successful name and business model, and the company provides the patties, fries, utensils, uniforms, advertising, cleaning supplies, and everything else needed to run a fast food operation. Everyone knows McDonald’s, while almost no one outside of the five people the opportunist has managed to track down has ever heard of Bilbo Widgets. Such companies, in truth, merely sell these business “opportunities” to supplement product sales, if they have any of those.

There are many organizations who run this ruse, and I’ve had long-lost friends and long-lost barely-know-thems try and pitch the products to me on Facebook. I never responded, nor likely has anyone else, but Bilbo still makes money because its profits comes from the persons who are futilely trying to sell its product.

While $600 was the sample figure used here, some companies charge much more than that. So much more, in fact, that most persons don’t have that much money on hand. No problem, for some of these companies offer financing.

So not only do they charge you money for the right to sell their stuff, they also make money on the cash they loan so you can do so. When a company offers financing on its product, the financing is likely the company’s true business. There are a few exceptions, such as car dealerships, which makes money if they provide the financing, but also turn a profit if they sell a new Escalade for cash. Not everyone has $30,000 handy for a new ride, so financing is a legitimate option that benefits both parties.

But for the most part, a company offering financing for its product is a red flag that the business and product are illegitimate. There are many better ways to spend money. And certainly, no one should ever be buying their job.

“Not so fast” (Speed reading)


I used to collect Easton Press books, which are extremely ornate copies of classic works. I would go through one or two a week, then enjoy them even more on the bookshelf, owing to their opulent appearance. Then the children came along and with them, the shoving, crinkling, and tearing of the terrific tomes. Additionally, the time available for reading dropped drastically. After previously going through two books a week, I now congratulate myself on finishing one ad-heavy magazine a month.

There’s nothing I can do about the torn pages, damaged ears, or sewn-in silk bookmarks ripped out. But according to claims made by speed-reading proponents, I could still markedly decrease the time it takes to get through a book and could once again be reaching for Austen, Dickens, and Dostoevsky.

These claims range from being able to manage an impressive 500 words per minute to the utterly implausible 25,000 words per minute asserted by late-night infomercial mainstay Howard Berg. This pace means Berg could order a delivery pizza, start reading Clarissa, and have the book finished before his last bite of cheese and pepperoni.

One person who did credibly attain five figures per minute was Kim Peek, whose life and abilities were loosely portrayed in Rain Man. Peek had no corpus callosum, which connects the brain’s hemispheres, and this congenital condition likely explains his superhuman ability to read two pages simultaneously, one with each eye. But while this would double his speed, it fails to explain how he managed to read and comprehend about 10,000 words per minute with a 98 percent retention rate. He consistently displayed this ability, whether he was reading Highlights or an advanced astrophysics journal. Since no one, including Peek, knew how he did it, his techniques are not taught to others and they are not the focus of speed-reading courses.

Indeed, among non-savants who did not inspire Academy Award-winning films, results from speed-reading courses are far more modest. Berg’s claim of being 2.5 times faster than Peek was never independently verified, but studies have shown show that some of his students quadrupled their speed and hit about 800 words per minute. But this comes with a substantial caveat. The technique is mostly a form of skimming, where swiftness takes precedence over comprehension.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning cited author Ronald Carver, whose research included extensive testing of different speed reading techniques. In his work, Carver consistently found that the maximum pace attained was 600 words per minute, with 75 percent retention. The average person reads about 300 words per minute and, if they pay attention and are without distractions, will retain most of what they’ve read. This means the 75 percent rate is a fairly steep tradeoff for the doubling of speed. The technique has some value, but it usually comes down to the reader’s goal. If cramming for an exam, it may be the way to go; if wanting to enjoy the latest from a favorite author, probably not.

Speed-reading emphasizes gulping down roughly 10 lines at a time, eliminating pauses. But these brief stops are likely integral to retention. Readers need to occasionally reflect or soak in what they’ve read. It may take just half a second to do so, but eliminating all the pauses greatly decreases the time it takes to read something, though again, there is a sizable drop in knowing what you’ve just read. And clearly, going back to re-read for clarity or confirmation is out.

In short, speed reading is like me listening to my wife when football is on. I get some of what is being put out, can maybe form a general outline, but there’s a good chance I’m missing the key point.

Sometimes it’s not even that good. According to Cecil Adams at Straight Dope, several trained speed readers were once asked to read a manuscript in which the even-numbered lines came from one source and the odd-numbered lines from another source. The speed readers averaged 1,700 words per minute, yet none of them found the script’s juxtaposition odd. They were so focused on getting through the text rapidly that they failed to notice it was the written equivalent of Take the Skinheads Bowling, a Camper Van Beethoven song in which every line is an intentional non sequitur.  

In another study, researcher Michael Masson tested three groups: Speed readers, normal readers, and skimmers, whose only “training” was being told be read quickly. The results showed that speed readers plowed through 700 words per minute, skimmers clocked in at 600 words, and those going at a normal pace read 240. However, those in the last group easily had the best compression, followed by the skimmers and then the speed readers. These types of studies have usually found that speed readers have a poor grasp of a text’s specifics, but they can generally pick out the main theme and could probably produce a decent outline of the script.

The name most synonymous with speed reading, Evelyn Wood, instructed students to move their hand rapidly across the page. But Masson’s research has shown this caused the hand to perform more like metronome than a pointer. It and the eye moved at the same pace, but the eye was not following the hand.

But all is not lost. There are ways to pick up the reading pace without a drop in comprehension, according to Cal-Berkeley education professor and reading expert Anne Cunningham. In the Skeptic’s Dictionary speed-reading entry, Cunningham says reading faster with high retention rates can be managed through building vocabulary, improving study skills, and polishing reading comprehension abilities. So unless you read and understood this post in 15 seconds, those methods are the ones to try.


“Market snare” (Multi-level marketing)


Most persons with a product or service will try to sell it directly to consumers, license it to retailers, or go on Shark Tank. Then we have the world of multilevel marketing, where participants attempt to succeed in business by getting people to compete against them.

That’s not how it’s presented in slick brochures, campy infomercials, and high-pressure seminars, but that’s how it works. The company who makes the product sells it to individuals at an inflated price, and the idea is for those people to recruit more salespersons under them, with a percentage of their sales going back up the line. This is an unsustainable business model and is untenable from a profit standpoint.

It’s possible the company could make money just by selling the product like a traditional business, but they have found it more profitable to have a steady stream of captive customers who buy their product and entice others to do the same.

Among the more common MLM products are panaceas in lotion and potion form. I have dealt with bogus medical and nutrition claims before, but here will focus not on the products’ inefficiency, but on the role they play in multi-level marketing. And that role is to give this charade legal cover. Since a product is ostensibly for sale, it is not considered a pyramid scheme in most jurisdictions.

But make no mistake, “multilevel marketing scam” is redundant. If used as instructed, it will fail. The company makes their money from seminars and from selling the products to distributors at inflated prices. Those persons would then have to resell it for even more, so the idea of consistent profit that way is unrealistic. That leaves recruiting others, who would be under you in this supposed non-pyramid scheme. Distributors are to get a cut from those under them, and the typical model is for an individual to recruit five persons, who themselves all get five more, making 25 persons involved. This will be easier for some than others, depending on one’s networking abilities, number of friends, and personality. But it sounds attainable, and in fact is often attained.

But there are two huge problems with this approach. First is the ridiculous business model of recruiting two dozen people, probably in your town and even in the same circles, to compete against you. And again, just selling the product won’t work because you must buy it at exorbitant prices to begin with.

The second problem is the unsustainable nature of the pyramid. If Sam recruits five salespeople and those five recruits bag five of their own, this could only be repeated seven times in a town of 75,000 before the population was exceeded. And these products are not the type that can be reasonably sold online because the original jacked-up prices will balloon ever higher with shipping costs.

Even if Sam is able to get a group of 25 distributors (who have now become his competitors), he receives no wage from the company. The time and labor he puts into selling the company’s product is uncompensated. His only pay comes from the sales generated by those in his section of the pyramid, and that is almost never enough to break even. Sam is not an employee, so he enjoys no legal protections that would entail, and he has no business assets to liquidate or sell.

Moreover, this scheme can take on a creepy feel. I occasionally quote from other blogs to support my positions, but this is the first time I’m borrowing from an evangelical Christian site, specifically womanofgrace.com. It quoted a man named Stuart Adams, who related that his immersion into MLM was akin to his previous experience as a Latter-Day Saint.

Mr. Adams: “There was a cult-like nature to this group. The meetings involved attendees standing up, giving personal testimonials of how they had been cured of their diseases, and talk of why we should not trust the medical profession when it comes to health care, but instead refer to the teachings of our leader, who was brave enough to rebel against medical conspiracy and bring us all the wonderful cures. They were convinced they were in the true group headed by the true leader.”

This particular product was sold by a former Facebook Friend of mine, who unfriended me after I questioned the legitimacy of the product and its associated conspiracy theory, so I have experienced firsthand the unquestioned devotion this cause and its almighty leader can engender.

Customers enjoy going to the mall, chain retailers, or dime stores and also embrace impromptu purchases. This is much preferable to buying cosmetics, mineral scrubs, or a Tang knockoff from their sixth best friend in his living room. And the Internet has eliminated any demand for a small distributor network that might once have worked in rural areas.

The Consumer Awareness Institute analyzed data published by MLM companies and it showed that less than one percent of participants made money. Even cheerier numbers from other sources reveal that just 10 percent of distributors even recoup the money they put in.

If you want to purchase overpriced drinks that you’ll just end up finishing off yourself anyway, head to Starbucks.