Corona with lies

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Kim Kardashian and lesser-known oxygen thieves are wowed by this prediction Sylvia Browne made in 2008: “Around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling…is that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived.”

While Kardashian and the others consider this a reference to the coronavirus, the evidence fails to support the weight of such a claim. First, the illness, as Benjamin Radford of the Center of Inquiry wrote, is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness.” Instead, 80 percent of patients have mild symptoms and the morality rate hovers at three percent.

Second, the assertion that COVID-19 resists all known treatments is an inaccurate descriptor of the virus. Radford notes that doctors know how to treat the symptoms, they just don’t yet have a cure. A third Browne misfire is that the virus will vanish as quickly as it appeared.

Browne made other claims about global viruses and each prognostication increases the chance that at least one of them will seem to be correct. Four years prior to the prophecy that has proponents excited, Browne shared a similar vision. In the earlier soothsaying, she wrote, “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely.”

Again, multiple guesses like this increases the chances that one version of the prediction will seem to score a hit. Followers decide which one is closest to reality and forget about the others.

For instance, one part of the prophecy trimmed from the 2008 book was that the disease’s source and cure would by unknown. Yet, the source has been identified as a food market in Wuhan, China. Obvious misses like this are why Browne’s followers are posting her 2008 prophecy and not the earlier version. Proponents have seized on the more correct version and ignored or rationalized away the earlier prediction.

As to a cure, Radford writes that, “Viruses themselves can’t be cured, though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are ‘cured’ of Covid-19 when they recover from it.”

There’s also the matter of visions that aren’t just fuzzy, but completely obscured. In the same book Kardashian raves about, Browne prophesied that by now there we be cures for AIDS and the common cold, telemarketing would be extinct, humans would have made it to Mars, and that there would be flying cop cars. Only in the world of psychics would a success rate this pitiful be considered doing a good job.

“The Certainty Principle” (Alternative medicine diagnoses)

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One of the main causes of stress is the unknown. When staring a new job, an employee will wonder what the boss will be like, what the expecations are, and how cool they keep the break room fridge. But as the worker learns these answers, he or she settles into a routine and the fear of the unknown dissipates.

But until an answer is given, the stress continues. More stressful than the unknown at a new job is the angst over a serious health issue. That’s why the seeming ability of alt-med practitioners to offer a definitive diagnosis and a treatment plan can seem attractive. Their answers are often painless, quick, and inexpensive, making it more appealing. But the biggest hook is certainty.

However, Dr. Harriett Hall wrote in the Skeptical Inquirer that uncertainty is a legitimate, important part of many medical diagnoses. She recalled from her days as a practicing physician how patients would clamor for more testing when a thorough checkup and exam failed to find the cause of their malady.

She recalled, “They wanted an answer and thought if we just did more tests, the answer would become evident. I had to explain to them that we had done all the indicated tests and that further indiscriminate testing would only muddy the waters.”

Moreover, when the chance of a disease is minuscule, a test is much more likely to produce a false positive than a true one. Testing for 100 different ailments might suggest the patient has one or two of the conditions, but these would likely be false results, which, Hall explained,  “would only lead to further fruitless diagnostic efforts, including possibly dangerous invasive procedures.”

Sometimes, conditions resolve on their own. The cyclical nature of many illnesses is why many alt-med practices seem to work. By the time one is seeking an applied kinesiologist or a Reiki practitioner, the condition has likely been bugging the patient for some time, so they resort to alt-med. When the symptom then runs its course, alt-med gets the credit and another glowing anecdote in lieu of data.

This desire for certainty fuels alt-med. If a medical doctor tells someone that their leg cramps are a common ailment of unknown origin and will likely resolve, that can leave the patient unsatisfied. The diagnosis may include pain relief pills or leg exercises, but this lacks the reassurance of a quick fix.

Conversely, peddlers of craniosacral therapy, Joy Touch, and iridology will insist they know the precise cause, the specific cure, and how to guard against its recurrence, the latter involving regular visits to their office. This leaves the patient with an artificial reassurance.

Depending on which branch of alternative medicine the provider practices, the focus will be on a different body part that is allegedly the center of heath – the spine for chiropractic, the feet for reflexology, the hand for Therapeutic Touch, the skull for craniosacral therapy – and so on. Tellingly, when such practitioners gather for a group talk or forum, they never challenge each other even though they can’t all be right. If an acupuncturist claims the movement of qi through meridians determines everyone’s health, this is at odds with the iridologist’s insistence that every illness is caused by a disturbance within the eye. Yet all the practitioners and audience members nod and somehow merrily agree.

Many of those audience members may not even have an ailment. The craving for certainty causes some patients to embrace an unproven treatment for a disease or condition never shown to exist. This includes chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue, and Leaky Gut Syndrome. These are imaginary illnesses, but a desperate patient finally has a name to associate with a real or perceived medical misfortune. They now know what they are suffering from and a kindly alt-med practitioner has the cure. The practitioner offers them sympathy and an attentive ear, plus a diagnosis and treatment plan that sounds sciencey but has no medical basis.

And while replicable double-blind studies remain the benchmark of medical efficacy, they have trouble matching personal experience. A person who would never read or understand a 60-page paper can most assuredly know that a technique worked for them. But as Hall wrote, “You had a symptom, you tried a remedy, and your symptom went away. It might have gone away without any treatment, it might have gone away because of the treatment, or it might have gone away despite the treatment. Before antibiotics, there were people who survived pneumonia. Spontaneous remissions occur.”

Compare that mindset to that of alt-med darling Andrew Weil. Hall wrote that Weil ran “tests of osteopathic manipulation for ear infections, and when the experiments showed no effect, he said, ‘I’m sure there’s an effect there. We couldn’t capture it in the way we set up the experiment.’”

Such a conclusion is silly, to be certain.

“Hire power” (Coincidences)

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There are those who insist there is no such thing as coincidences. And not by coincidence, most of these people are largely unfamiliar with concepts like the Law of Truly Large Numbers, subjective validation, selective memory, and post hoc reasoning. Additionally, they prefer to feel that they are in control, or that they at least have a benevolent higher force acting on their behalf.

This need to feel in control hampers the acceptance of randomness and downplays the role that luck, both good and bad, plays in everyone’s life.

Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Ralph Lewis told of a flight attendant who, through a series of mishaps, was unable to get onboard one of the ill-fated Sept. 11 flights. While this no doubt had deep personal meaning to her, there is no need to tie any cosmic force or higher power into it, any more than there is reason to put the blame for the lives lost on anyone but the terrorists.

Lewis works as a hospital psychiatrist, where he sees “patients grapple with the randomness of adversity and the lack of control over life’s outcomes.” Indeed, we as a species naturally seek patterns in life, to the point of finding a face in our Honey Nut Cheerios. This has often been beneficial, such as when our hominin ancestors recognized a trend that going near large-fanged beasts leads to ill results. Or their realization that a certain stripe or color meant a plant can be safely consumed.

But Lewis writes that we notice patterns so frequently that we detect them where none exist, and therefore erroneously tie together disparate occurrences. In some cases, that further leads to deducing that invisible entities conspired to make this happen. These forces can take the form of a god, demon, karma, or even vaguer concepts like spirituality, oneness, or there being “something more.”

A related factor is mankind’s love of stories. Lewis explains that we prefer “grand narratives with an overarching point and a satisfying end.” It’s bad enough when we are deprived of this at the movies. But when we are left without a satisfactory explanation for why a Kindergartener gets leukemia or why a man is wrongfully convicted, it’s much more difficult to grapple with.

Also coming into play is the Law of Truly Large Numbers. With billions of people undertaking hundreds of actions every day, it would be incredible if there were NO instances of amazing coincidences and occurrences. These can be explained with the Law and there exists no reason to infer into a higher meaning to it, no matter how much subjective validation may lead one to wish otherwise. Subjective validation refers to thinking something powerful is at work because it has personal meaning or connection. But the amount of emotion felt is unrelated to whether a fortuitous occurrence has a cosmic cause.

One reason people may think a hidden power is at work is because humans take more notice of events or items that impact them or that they find intersting. Lewis offered a hypothetical example of a woman who is contemplating motherhood.

She will likely pay more attention to baby product advertisements and may even interpret them as an omen.
Similarly, when facing adversity or a serious illness, people can recoil at the idea of it being determined by random chance instead of a plan that needs to be foiled. A lifelong smoker who contracts lung cancer is unlikely to feel this way, but someone who has never lit up and becomes afflicted with the disease just might. While the feeling that our life and universe are being controlled can bring comfort and reassurance, in cases such as the non-smoking lung cancer patient, it can instead cause feelings of being abandoned and spurned.

But Lewis writes that when people understand that the universe has no inherent purpose or grand design for our lives, the mystery of why bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people vanishes. And anyway, our species’ evolution and its development of technology and civilization is more captivating and inspiring than assigning that history to supernatural forces.

“Bounced Czech” (Absinthe)

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During my days in Germany, an acquaintance of mine would rave about absinthe, which he longed to imbibe on his upcoming visit to the neighboring Czech Republic. He would alternate between hushed and excited tones when speaking about the licorice-tasting libation and he was especially fascinated by its hallucinogenic qualities.

Alas, his trip was cut short, as he failed to procure a passport and was turned back at the border. In another misfortune, he later earned a lifetime ban from the local opera house for his drunken vomiting in the aisles.

I’m unsure if the long-sought absinthe was his drink of choice that night, but if so, it would have added to the list of legendary stories associated with the liquor.

One of those myths is its supposed place of origin. Despite my crony’s explanation, it is not a product of the Czech Republic, but rather of Switzerland. The Czech fallacy formed when unscrupulous and/or opportunistic merchants swindled tourists by fraudulently stamping “absinthe” on bottles containing all manner of greenish-bluish liquids following the Velvet Revolution.

There are many other misnomers, such that it leads to insanity, hallucinations, convulsions, and even death. Artists and writers like Van Gogh and Hemingway insisted it gave them more creativity. Despite being slurped by these icons, absinthe was largely associated with society’s dregs. Western Europeans considered wine and beer to be high society drinks brimming with healthful benefits. Meanwhile, absinthe was considered detrimental and the domain of the lower classes, the crack of alcoholic drinks. Its surly reputation, combined with the prohibitionist movement, led to it be being banned in several countries.

Detractors equated its consumption with subsequent criminal acts and it was blamed for juvenile delinquency and the general loosening of morals.

Especially impactful were the murders committed by Jean Lanfray, who slew three of his family members after gulping two absinthe shots. Prudence and rationality were victims of post hoc reasoning and a hysterical populace, and legal proscription of absinthe ensued.

Lanfray was an extreme alcoholic who drank primarily wine, and he had consumed liters of the stuff the day of the murders, along with cognac and brandy. Yet somehow two absinthe shots took all the blame.

At the forefront of this moral panic was worry over thujone, which is derived from the grande wormwood, an absinthe ingredient. Detractors castigated thunjone as being responsible for deleterious effects.

But this would only have been possible if a drinker ingested it at far higher quantities and concentrations than anyone ever has. Even then, the effect likely would have been limited to convulsions. For, despite the hype, absinthe has never contained hallucinogens or opiates.

With a schlock tactic that that portended the U.S. drug war, French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan plied animals with an essential oil of wormwood, causing the literal and figurative guinea pigs to suffer seizures.

However, the oil contained a much more concentrated dose than what an absinthe drinker would ever consume. The victim animals received an exponentially larger amount, and horrified audience members demanded that the drink be outlawed. But they failed to eliminate it entirely and seven decades later, drunken opera buffs were still seeking it.

“Bum luck Egypt” (King Tut curse)

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In 1922, a team led by Howard Carter found and opened King Tut’s tomb, turning a long-forgotten ruler into perhaps the most well-known Egyptian pharaoh. Far from being grateful, Tut’s spirit responded with a fatal vengeance, the legend goes. 
In this tale, a clay tablet prominently displayed at the entrance promised death to whoever disturbed Tutankhamen’s blissful eternal rest. 

The story further goes that Lord Carnarvon was the first to succumb, being felled by disease brought by a mosquito. Many others followed, of unknown or suspicious causes. While Carter lived to an old age, the explanation is that his curse was to watch those he had led into the crypt perish.

This reeks of ad hoc reasoning, which is when a lame retort is cobbled together to deflect discomfiting information. Proponents of the curse notion would have never attributed an early Carter death to him being blessedly relieved of seeing his associates die because of his vanity. Trying to pass his reasonable life span as curse-related is obviously folly to all but the most fervent believers.

The idea of a curse arose during one of yellow journalism’s heydays and articles from the period were long on spooks and speculation and short on  investigation, confirmation, and corroboration. That’s why reports of the putative’s first victim’s death failed to mention Carnarvon’s fragile health or the frequency of succumbing to mosquito-related ailments in that place and time. Nor is there any photo of the curse-laden clay tablet, nor any mention of it in notes from those on the expedition.

Like all alleged curses, Tut’s is unprovable either way, and supporting the notion rests on post hoc and ad hoc hypotheses. But an attempt at a scientific explanation was made by Dr. Caroline Stenger-Phillip, who wondered if ancient mold in the tomb could have caused potentially fatal allergic reactions. 

Fruits, vegetables, and other organic items were buried in tombs, and since the tombs were hermetically sealed, mold spores could have existed and remained viable many centuries later. There were also two molds that attach themselves on mummies and can be harmful to persons with weakened immune systems. 

But these tomb toxins fail to explain the deaths. If members of the expedition party received a lethal amount, death would have come quick, not months and years later. Egyptologists never suffer this fate nor do the unending string of tourists that visit tombs daily. 

Another study reached the conclusion that not only was there no causation between a curse and early deaths, there wasn’t even a correlation. The life spans of those involved matched what would be expected from those in any other field. 

The study’s lead author, Dr. Mark Nelson considered only westerners in Carter’s party, since there was a difference in life expectancy between them and Egyptians.

Of 44 Westerners present, 25 were exposed to the curse. Those 25 lived to an average age of 70, while those not exposed lived to 75. Skeptoid‘s Brian Dunning deduced that the p-value of this difference was .87, so there’s an 87 percent chance that this difference was merely due to chance. Average survival after the date of exposure was 20.8 years for the exposed group, and 28.9 years for the unexposed group. Here, the p-value was .95, meaning there’s a 95 percent chance that there would be such a difference because of random variation. In summary, the curse is as dead as the boy pharaoh it is attached to. 

“Meteor-wrong” (Kecksburg UFO)

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In UFO lore, witnesses saw a shimmering, long-lasting fireball over a large swath of the northern U.S. and southern Canada on Dec. 9, 1965. This tale includes two dozen aircraft reports and shockwaves picked up by seismographs. There were also claims of metal debris scattered across the area where the fireball had been seen.

Most chillingly, the woods outside of Kecksburg, Pa., were allegedly cordoned off by government agents, who drove away with a large, acorn-shaped object emblazoned with unknown symbols that resembled ancient Egyptian. Popular ideas among believers was that the craft had belonged to either aliens or Nazis. Or fascist Venusians for maximum effect.

Since then, other notions have been floated. Some suspect it might have been the Soviet Kosmos-96 Venus probe, which had failed during its launch about 15 days prior and which re-entered Earth’s atmosphere the day the fireball appeared. But declassified Soviet documents now show that Kosmos-96’s orbit would have never placed it anywhere near Kecksburg.

Paranormal author Leslie Kean field a Freedom of Information Act request with NASA to force the agency to release for files on the Kecksburg event. NASA officials responded that the requested items had been lost, which even to this hardboiled skeptic seems dubious.

However, a much more well-known skeptic, Brian Dunning, noted that NASA runs the country’s space program and does not delve into searches for aliens or enemy satellites. Those seeking information on UFOs or wayward Soviet spacecraft would be better served filing FOI requests with the military or intelligence services. If there was a cover-up, NASA wasn’t the agency responsible.

Furthermore, shows on the laughably-named History Channel and likeminded networks are about selling ads and increasing viewership, not finding out what happened. Dunning explained how the programming words: “Many of my colleagues and I have appeared on these shows as expert talking heads, and the directors are constantly prompting us to say certain phrases, to repeat what we just explained but using a specific term that they want, in order to give them just the snippet of dialog that they can isolate and give viewers the impression that scientists all believe some wild alien explanation is the true one.”

This also happens to eyewitnesses, who end up seeming to endorse what the producers want when that may not be the case at all or is only part of the story.

Meteorological reports confirm that on the day of the Kecksburg incident, a hypersonic bolide made its way across part of North America. All known observations by astronomers indicate it was a meteor.

50 Kecksburg residents, representing 10 percent of the town, asked producers not to air the program because it was so laden with errors.

Especially strident was Ed Myers, the fire chief in 1965 who was falsely accused of helping cordon off the woods.

As to the craft and its alien accouterments punitively whisked away, the only alleged eyewitness was 10 years old at the time and he made no mention of this until quarter of a century later when appearing on the sometimes-fascinating, sometimes-sensationalist Unsolved Mysteries. No accounts from 1965 made any mention of this Unidentified Nonflying Object.

“An apple a nay” (Apple cider vinegar)

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Proponents tout apple cider vinegar as an amazing product that can fend off disease as well as managing some lesser accomplishments. But the best evidence indicates the sour fermented liquid has only modest health benefits and certainly lacks to ability to vanquish serious ailments.

It may be of some value since the product contains a probiotic, but claims associated with it can be exaggerated, sometimes spectacularly so.

Like all vinegars, the apple cider variety consists mainly of acetic acid plus whatever was in the original liquid, minus the sugar that was transformed into alcohol during fermentation. It is the acetic acid that usually leads believers to ascribe panacea qualities to the resultant product.

The most extreme assertion is that it can treat or prevent some cancers. There is no evidence anywhere to buoy this idea and anyone gulping apple cider vinegar to halt rouge cell growth is making a fatal mistake.

Those who believe in the oncological power of the sour liquid may be relying on studies in which cultured cancer cells shrunk after being exposed to vinegar or acetic acid. But as Dr. Edwin McDonald of the University of Chicago School of Medicine wrote, “We can’t directly pour ACV on cancers inside of people.

Further, you definitely can’t give someone an ACV IV infusion without causing serious harm or death.”

Another erroneous, dangerous idea is that the vinegar controls high blood pressure. This may be based on one small study of rats that showed a decrease in a specific type of blood pressure when the rodents were plied with a diet heavy in acetic acid. But like most such test results, there is no comparable conclusion reached with humans. McDonald warns, “High blood pressure is nothing to play with. There’s simply not enough data to support using ACV as a blood pressure medication. Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and take your meds.”

Sticking with serious conditions, there is scattered belief out there that apple cider vinegar lowers blood sugar among diabetics. There has been one small clinical trial in which drinking a tiny amount of the vinegar each day seemed to improve blood sugar control in patients with type 2 diabetes. And Skeptoid’s Brian

Dunning noted, “It’s biochemically plausible; the acetic acid can interfere with absorption of starches, reducing their ability to change blood sugar levels.”

However, he added, there are some caveats. First, all vinegars contain acetic acid, so there would be no added gain from ingesting the apple cider version. More importantly, the benefit is infinitesimal and the vinegar is no substitute for diabetes medication. There’s no harm in using it and there might be minor benefit to doing so, but diabetics should always take their prescribed medicine as well.

A more humble claim is that the vinegar may help with weight loss. There have been a few small studies in Japan that reached this conclusion, but the subjects were already on a diet and exercise regimen. Still, those taking the vinegar did lose more weight than those swallowing a placebo, so they’re might be something there. But the evidence is still murky, owing to insufficient sample sizes and the small number of tests. And in any event, it – at best – only helps augment weight loss. It would be an inadequate replacement for a gym routine and a healthy, balanced diet.

While the cancer claim is bogus and the idea of it being a weight loss ally is a maybe, we can conclude that all vinegar, when mixed with lemon juice, is efficient at disinfecting Salmonella-tainted products.

However, it is up to the person washing the suspect lettuce to do a thorough job. The safer method is to toss the tomatoes and cucumbers and open a can of soup instead.

Next, there are those who think apple cider vinegar can serve as an antimicrobial disinfectant for scrapes and cuts. It’s true that acetic acid is antimicrobial. But apple cider vinegar contains other ingredients that are not and dashing them on an open wound may contaminate and exacerbate it. At a minimum, it will sting like the dickens. Use a salve instead. The pain will be much less and the medicine will actually work.

Finally, we look to the belief that drinking apple cider vinegar will produce an antimicrobial effect. This is likewise mistaken. As Dunning explained, “When an acidic compound hits your duodenum just after the stomach, it’s neutralized by sodium bicarbonate and its antimicrobial properties vanish.

I don’t want to be all negative here. Let me close by saying apple cider vinegar will give your chili a right proper kick.