“Eyeful Tower” (5G)

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For a few years now, baseless fears about cell phone technology causing brain cancer have been a conspiracy theory staple. This, even though the metadata of reputable studies shows there to be no harm to humans from radiofrequency radiation. A New York Times article noted that while cell phone use has exploded exponentially in the last 30 years, there has been no corresponding skyrocketing of glioma in that time.

This is to be expected, as cell phones and towers emit non-ionizing radiation, which rests on the safe side, by a comfortable margin, of the electromagnetic spectrum. Dr. Steven Novella wrote that 5G and other wireless communications technologies operate at too low a frequency and energy level to cause tissue damage. “It is too low power to break chemical bonds,” he explained. “The computer screen you are looking at right now is bathing you is much more powerful and higher frequency EM radiation than any 5G network.”

 By contrast, ionizing radiation is harmful since it can damage DNA and kill cells, possibly leading to cancer. But saying that 5G can spur rogue cell growth because, like X-rays it is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, is to commit the composition fallacy. It makes no more sense than thinking 5G could be used to get an inner look at our bones.

A graph touted by believers in wireless communication nefariousness shows that tissue injury becomes more pronounced as radio wave frequency escalates. But according to William Broad in Scientific American, the graph fails to consider the shielding capabilities of human skin. He wrote, “Radio waves become safer at higher frequencies, not more dangerous. At higher radio frequencies, the skin acts as a barrier, shielding the brain from exposure.”

With that out of the way, the anti-5G throng has switched its focus to the coronavirus and insist that 5G towers are spreading the respiratory tract infection. In most cases, this is considered an intentional act by a malevolent cabal. They even consider stay-at-home orders to be a plot to keep people from seeing the towers being constructed.

Proponents note in harrowing tones that 5G networks began appearing regularly in late 2019, the same time that coronavirus started spreading. Further, Italy, China, and South Korea are all at the forefront of this emerging technology and have all been coronavirus hot spots. This is textbook post hoc reasoning, wrapped in a self-righteous bow. It also represents extreme cherry-picking since it ignores that nearly every country has had a coronavirus case, while most nations have yet to employ 5G technology.

Advocates also tout a map of COVID-19 clusters and compare those areas with places that recently tested 5G technology. While the overlap is substantial, this is again a correlation-causation error. The overlapped areas were merely major U.S. cities

On April 1, one QAnon theory, which would have been considered an April Fools prank were it not for the source, warned that we were at the beginning of a 10-day stretch where electricity and the Internet would be unavailable anywhere. In the midst of this confusion, the 5G/coronavirus brigade would amp up its invasion and implement mass slaughter. The end date has arrived and we are still here. In classic doomsday mindset, believers have doubled down and are either promising that an even-worse demise is being plotted, or are claiming that calamity has been averted because brave citizen journalists exposed the plan.

People drawn to such conspiracy theories prefer the element of control they seem to offer. Believing that he or she has access to hidden information, and is more clever than the brainwashed sheep, gives the conspiracy theorist comfort.

China and Bill Gates are often cited by theorists as being behind the spread. These are both extremely powerful entities with vast resources and the idea of one or both of them coming after us and our loved ones is terrifying. So theorists seek solace in the idea of exposing them and readying for battle.

The truth, readily available to anyone who wants it, is that scientists have sequenced COVID-19’s genome and have traced its evolutionary path from other coronaviruses and they understand how this mutation transferred from animal to human. It shows none of the markers of genetic engineering. And as Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted, if the virus is an engineered bioweapon, it is remarkably inefficient. It has killed three percent of its victims, 15 times less than most bioweapons.

Further, there has been no scenario put forth from theorists as to why low electromagnetic radiation would cause a virus characterized by fever, dry coughs, and respiratory tract infections.

Those who most fervently deny this reality have taken their belief to disturbing heights. This has included the burning down of 5G towers and the intentional derailing of a train in an attempt to crash it into a military ship that had been enlisted in the COVID-19 fight. Put another way, believing in such a theory can be a worse evil than what the conspiracy is supposed to be bringing.  

 

 

“Tall tale” (Si-Te-Cah)

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In the Nevada desert sits a small cave that 130 centuries past was part of Lake Lahontan. Unlike the parched landscape today, this area at the time represented one of the continent’s largest bodies of water. When it dried, native tribespeople inhabited Lovelock Cave.

Legend refers to this population as Si-Te-Cah, described as 10-foot tall redheaded cannibals. As one might suspect (or would never suspect, based on one’s gullibility), no bones exist to support this extraordinary claim.

The most thorough study of the area – and indeed, one of the most exhaustive researches in anthropology history – was completed by University of California professor Llewellyn L. Loud, whose parents presumably fixated on the letter L.

Loud collected more than 10,000 artifacts over his 17-year excavation, and his massive publication about what he had uncovered contained nary a giant reference. All subsequent examinations and digs were likewise behemoth-free.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning wrote that a complete radiometric history has been done of the cave, and once again, there’s no evidence of anyone falling from a beanstalk.

The idea of the tribe being redheaded is much less shocking, but would still fall beyond the scope of what has ever been known to exist. Every Native American tribe has members with raven hair, as opposed to auburn.

Dunning deduced that the tribespeople had red hair, but only post-mortem. He wrote, “Pigment in dark hair nearly always turns red after centuries of burial in certain temperatures and soil chemistry.”

As to the cannibalism, this also has an element of truth, albeit barely. A tiny percentage of the bones found at Lovelock Cave had been split and had their marrow removed. This suggests desperate tribe members had once resorted to cannibalism as a last-ditch attempt to stay alive. To describe the people as cannibals would be no more accurate than saying that Uruguayans are, based on what happened in the aftermath of the famous 1972 plane crash.

So where did this idea of flesh-eating ginger giants come from? Two-thirds of it we owe to a 19th Century book by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins of the Paiute tribe. She tells how her brave people rose up against a savage population of redheaded cannibals.

In this tale, the heroic Paiutes chased the brutes into the cave, which the good guys then covered with firewood. The barbarians were given the choice to forsake their barbarism and join the Paiutes. They gave no response and suffered a fiery fate.

As to their being giants, Dunning suspects that may have stemmed from a common misidentification that occurs when unearthing Native American burial sites. The skeletons are often separated in such a way that the bones appear, especially to one unfamiliar with burial customs, to have belonged to a person eight feet tall.

“Corona with lies” (Sylvia Browne virus prediction)

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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 interesting. 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.