“Plate histrionics” (Glyphosate fears)


There is a claim out there (way out there) that the weed killer glyphosate is present in food at unsafe levels. This claim appears in a work promoted by the likes of Food Democracy Now and Food Babe, not in peer reviewed journals. Still, in this forum, we place a premium on what is said, not who said it, so let’s examine the assertions. 

The publication endorsed by the aforementioned pair alleges that that studies have uncovered dangerous amounts of the herbicide glyphosate in our cabbage and Oreos, among many other edibles. The cover of this work shows a foreboding figure in a hazmat suit saturating future food with what is implied to be toxic levels of chemicals. Accompanying that image is a munching baby next to a spray bottle of Roundup, a Monsanto product which contains glyphosate.

If shouts of alarm ever accompany a scientific study, they should come from those hearing the results, not those giving them. When the latter happens, it is almost always a sign that the “research” was meant only to confirm a desired outcome and that the Scientific Method was skirted. Still, let’s look at what the report said, not its cover or who produced it, in order to make a critical analysis of it.

Michelle Miller of Ag Daily notes that the methods used in the studies make it impossible to distinguish glyphosate from similar chemical structures and may not even be able to differentiate it from water. She wrote, “To detect glyphosate…costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and is a very difficult, scientifically complex task.” The methods cited in these studies fail to meet those standards, though not as spectacularly as Zen Honeycutt’s $125 device meant to detect glyphosate levels.   

Another crucial point is how little glyphosate is spread over large farming aread. It’s just 22 ounces per acre, which would be equal to about two sodas sprinkled on a baseball diamond. Moreover, Miller reports that she sprays just two days a year and that’s done early in the growing season, before the edible part of the plant has emerged. Pointing out that the dose makes the poison, Miller adds that glyphosate is less toxic than baking soda.

Besides, the weed killer impacts enzymes found in plants and does not affect mammals, including humans. The only harm done to animals is when lab rats, mice, and fish are force fed outrageous amounts of it.

I’m all for studies as long as they follow established protocols, employ the Scientific Method, are replicable, and are peer reviewed. Along those lines, the Government Accountability Office once called on the FDA to monitor food for glyphosate residue. But the effort was halted due to a lack of agreement on testing protocols, equipment shortcomings, and the varying analysis methods at the different FDA laboratories.

Sensing a connection between the shuttered testing program and the experiments on overdosed rodents, Food Babe pounced: “Could it be that Monsanto didn’t like the results they started getting, especially since the FDA found glyphosate in foods that should be especially safe like BABY FOOD?”

Shouting something doesn’t make it more relevant and all caps won’t make it more accurate. Instead of providing evidence for the conspiracy she suggested, Food Babe let her followers assume it was true. She provided no examples of test results that Monsanto wouldn’t like, offered no audio recordings about keeping the findings hush-hush, and presented no independent lab experiments that revealed dangerous amounts of herbicide on our plates.

Another vacuous Food Babe claim is that multiple studies show that while probable harm to humans from glyphosate begins at one part per 10 billion, foods in the studies were found to have 1,000 times that. In truth, only one of the studies she listed provided support for that claim, and that one involved testing on mice. And even among vermin, the danger was considered potential instead of probable. Glyphosate, if it’s detectable on any food at all, is in nowhere close to a dangerous amount.

There are legitimate dietary concerns out there, by glyphosate residue is not among them. Alarmist, untrue charges, on the other hand, are much harder to stomach.


“Silver lying” (Beale ciphers)


Legend tells that a man named Thomas Beale discovered gold, silver, and jewels in present-day Colorado two centuries ago. Beale and 30 compatriots transported the haul, worth about $43 million today, to Bedford Country, Virginia, where they buried it.

Beale wrote three encoded letters about the valuables and left them with hotel proprietor Robert Morriss. The first note explained where the treasure lay; the second described what the valuables were comprised of; and the third mystery missive listed the names, locations, and relatives of the 30 persons who could share in the loot. Only the second of these letters has been decoded.

That letter included instructions on how to use the Declaration of Independence to decipher the text. Though littered with numerous spelling errors, the revealed message, after substantial copy editing, yields this script: “I have deposited in the county of Bedford, about four miles from Buford’s, in an excavation or vault, six feet below the surface of the ground, the following articles.”

Morriss was never able to solve the other ciphers. He shared them James Ward, who in1885 published them in a pamphlet, which also included the background story. Of note, the phrases,   punctuation, and vocabulary range in the pamphlet are similar enough to the supposed writings of Beale that they likely emanated from the same source. As nearly seven decades had elapsed between the supposed Colorado trip and the pamphlet’s publication, Beale, if he ever existed, would likely have been deceased by 1885, strongly suggesting that Ward or a conspirator were the author of both tracts.

If the method for decoding the second letter is used when trying to decipher the other texts, it produces such sequences such as “abcdefghiijklmmnohpp,” and does so multiple times. The American Cryptogram Association states that the chances of such a run appearing twice in genuine text would be one in a hundred trillion. It could be that a source other than the Declaration of Independence is meant to be used in the decoding, but if so, Beale inconsistently left this crucial information out of the other two letters. There’s also the issue of why he would use different keys since all the messages were meant to be decoded at once.

So the ciphers are made up of one easily decoded message and two that, if genuine, have utterly baffled world-class cryptographers for more than a century. Such a combination seems utterly implausible. Another giveaway to the ciphers’ likely fraudulent nature is that the third garbled missive, at barely 600 words, is insufficient to list the names, addresses, hometowns, and kinfolk of 30 persons.

Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, looked into the Beale Papers thoroughly and found still more discrepancies. He unearthed no record of a Thomas Beale in Buford County, Va., during the time Beale was allegedly residing there. Nickell also learned that Morriss only became a hotel proprietor in 1823, whereas the pamphlet listed him as running the operation in 1820 when Beale stayed there as a guest.

Further, a linguistic analysis showed that some words in the pamphlet, such as stampede and improvise, which were not part of the English vocabulary in the 1820s. There’s also the highly unlikely scenario of 30 men agreeing to keep massive wealth buried, as opposed to spending, saving, and investing it.

Additionally, the tale has the crew sojourning in St. Louis on their way back east, and banks had opened on that side of the Mississippi by then. It would have been wise and cautions to deposit the metal and jewels, as opposed to carrying them by mule for another thousand miles and risk their theft or loss, only to bury them, which carries still more risk.

Geology raises still further doubts. According to Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning, gold and silver in ore form appear much different than they do after refining and purification. Yet Beale’s account has the men simply recognizing the gold and silver, then packing it up in a series of digs and trips that lasted 18 months. It strains credulity to think that a massive amount of valuables would be out in the open, seen only by 30 accidental prospectors who neither speak of it nor horde it for a year and a half.

What’s more, Dunning writes that gold and silver pure enough to be distinct from one another are never found in the same place. If they are in close proximity, they are alloyed and only become recognized as separate metals during refinement and purification.

None of this is enough to overcome greed or, if I’m being less jaded, curiosity and intrigue. Many self-styled treasure hunters have descended on Bedford County, although the only money that’s changed hands has been the fines levied on them for trespassing and unauthorized digging.

Other persons have tried to decipher the remaining letters by employing the Magna Carta, Bible, and U.S. Constitution, without success. I examined the codes and compared them with some of my blog posts to see if it revealed the location. Nothing yet, but tonight I’ll try doing that while lining up the posts and ciphers with Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz.


“Fool injected” (Anti-vax argument)


One of the keys to developing critical thinking skills is to understand the importance of addressing a point and not the person making it. Focusing on irrelevant factors like the speaker’s color, gender, ethnicity, politics, economic status, or background will leave one vulnerable to committing an ad hominem, specifically a genetic fallacy.

A few years ago, I came across a graph that purported to demonstrate that measles was well on its way out before the vaccine to combat it was introduced. It showed that the death rate from measles had dramatically declined before persons began being immunized for it. The conclusion was that the vaccine was inconsequential to the disease’s demise. To dismiss this as the ramble of an anti-vax loon would have been to commit an ad hominem. To address the point from a critical thinking perspective, I needed to examine the claim for truthfulness, then see if the whole picture was being painted, and also consider other angles.

When I did so, I learned that the anti-vaxxer’s point was accurate, but incomplete. While the death rate for measles was going down before the advent of the vaccine, the morbidity rate was not. Measles is an endemic disease, so populations can build resistance to it, but it can also be deadly when introduced to a new group. This, when combined with measles’ highly contagious nature and the susceptibility of preschoolers to it, explains why incidences of the disease spiked and descended several times, at approximately four-year intervals.

But there has been no such spike, or even a tiny bump, since the vaccine was introduced in 1964. In fact, there were 364 measles deaths in 1963, and none by 2004, a reduction of 100 percent. The anti-vaxxer’s chart showed how many persons were dying from measles, but not how many persons were contracting it. Advances in health care had enabled more persons to live with the disease, but only the vaccine eliminated it.   

Earlier this year, I again made myself examine an anti-vaxxer claim rather than dismissing it. For years, I had pointed out there was more formaldehyde in a pear than in any vaccine. But one day, I read an anti-vax blog that asked, “When was the last time you injected a pear?” The point was that the way a substance enters the body makes a difference and the blogger even noted that one could safely drink cobra venom.

And he’s correct. Swallowing the snake juice would be different from having fangs inject it into you. If one were so inclined to try the former, the gastrointestinal tract would break down the venom, similar to how the body digests proteins in food. Also, if one drank venom, it would never enter the bloodstream in active form. By contrast, when a snake bites someone, the victim has nothing beneath its skin or in its muscles to counteract the venom. Since it’s not broken down, the venom swims to the lymph glands and into the bloodstream, where it attacks the nervous system and heart, perhaps fatally.

But while anti-vaxxers are correct on these points, they again fail to understand that this has no bearing on a vaccine’s efficiency or safety. While a snakebite and a vaccine both involve injected substances, using this to compare the two is a false equivalency because one saves lives and the other ends them.   

Like the measles deaths graph, if I had dismissed the pear point because it came from someone I viewed as an anti-vax, pro-disease crank, I would have failed my critical thinking test for the day. Consider this an endorsement for avoiding echo chambers and contemplating various viewpoints. Sometimes the opposing view will be right; other times, it will be wrong, but will cause you to examine the issue and learn something you hadn’t realized. In this case, what I learned was the difference in how the body handles injections and ingestions, and the impact this has on a vaccine’s efficacy.  

The key is how much of a substance gets into the bloodstream because once it’s there, the body will process it the same, regardless of how it arrived. With snake venom, there are too many toxins for the body to handle and the poison makes its way to vital organs. While vaccines have ingredients that would be dangerous in high doses, these are in tiny amounts and toxicity is determined by dose, not ingredient. Further, venom contains active neurotoxins and vaccines do not.

Anti-vaxxers may argue that vaccines bypass the immune system, but again, they are being selective with the facts. Vaccines will bypass the body’s first line of defense, but they are designed to do so and won’t work otherwise. Vaccines contain antigens, which are dead or damaged viruses that are active enough to provoke an immune response, but too impotent to be harmful. This forces the body to develop antibodies against the real virus and thereby become immune to it. If the antigens were destroyed right away, they would never serve their purpose. Besides, antigens are not straggling interlopers, but rather they work their way out of the body like other foreign substances.

Since anti-vaxxers focus on injections, I wonder if their movement would have gained its sinister steam if it didn’t have scary needles to fall back on. What if vaccines were in chewable tablet or powder form and yielded a sweet taste as opposed to a sore arm? According to the Vaxplanations blog, the reason such an approach cannot be pursued is because oral forms of most vaccines would be incapable of getting past the gastrointestinal tract. Stomach acid, enzymes, and gut bacteria would render them useless. There are a few exceptions, such as the oral vaccines for rotavirus and polio, which work because both diseases are caused by gut pathogens.


“Shake, Prattle, and Roll” (Ideomotor Response)


Summoning the dead, determining the location of buried items without a metal detector, and making known the thoughts of the uncommunicative would all be remarkable traits. But while none of these disparate abilities exist, there are people who believe they possess them, and the explanation lies partly in the Ideomotor Response.

This refers to a physiological trait that is responsible for unconscious, unintentional physical movements. Examples would be unknowingly tapping your foot while music plays, spiking a non-existent football as your team needs to stop the clock, or aimlessly doodling during a boring meeting (perhaps a redundant phrase). Probably the most lucrative manifestation of the Ideomotor Response was when a man trying to dream up a way out of debt mindlessly twisted a piece of metal until he accidentally fashioned the first paper clip.  

Dr. William Carpenter coined the phrase in the mid-19th Century as a portmanteau of “ideo” for ideas and “motor” for muscular movement. He linked Ideomotor Response to hypnotism, somnambulism, and what came to be known as the Placebo Effect. Since then, it has come to be associated with other things, and the person experiencing it may have no awareness of executing any movements. This leaves them potentially vulnerable to the suggestion that mystical forces are at work.

Consider dowsing and divining rods. Dowsing refers to trying to locate underground water, while divining rods can be used to look for anything a mind can come up with. The implement is usually a wishbone-shaped twig or a long, narrow piece of metal. More recent products feature ersatz electronics complete with beeping sounds and blinking lights. Operators hold the device in front of themselves and the rod’s point will allegedly start quivering when the person is standing at or near the desired object. When this happens, it might seem like magic or perhaps that some undiscovered geological feature is being tapped. It actuality, it’s just the Ideomotor Response doing its thing, occasionally aided by confirmation bias. It’s the person shaking, not the object or an unknown force.

This is one of the easier pseudoscientific ideas to test and dowsing has repeatedly flunked the exam. It was the most common method of attempting to win the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge and the grand old man of skeptics still has his money.

Spending a few bucks (or even few hundred bucks for the supposedly advanced models) in a futile attempt to find subterranean water is not that big of a deal. It’s another matter when such devices are touted as being able to find bombs. Despite exorbitant prices of up to $25,000, such products have been snagged by persons in war zones desperate for a solution, and there have been fatal results.  

While not responsible for the loss of life, the Ideomotor Response has manifested itself in another tragic way, facilitated communication. This is the notion that an otherwise uncommunicative individual can make their thoughts known on a keyboard, via a second person holding the subject’s elbow or wrist in a certain way.

This was initially billed, incorrectly, as a miraculous way for parents to be able to know what their mute child was trying to tell them. It later became the avenue for false charges of child abuse, as the patient, though the facilitated communicator, seemed to type out molestation allegations against a caregiver.

However, even the most basic test of the purported abilities have shown facilitated communication to be without merit. When only the subject has been shown an image, then the communicator is brought in and asked to help the subject type in what they saw, the failure rate is 100 percent.

Returning now to harmless manifestations of the Ideomotor Response, we will address Ouija Boards. On such objects, tweens play an innocuous, if dull, game. Matt Walsh is the latest in a long string of panicked evangelicals who consider the boards to be a devastating demonic doorway. However, the only force in play is the Ideomotor Response. For as Neil Tyson has noted, the spirit controlling the planchette always uses the same vocabulary, idiosyncratic phrases, and  spelling errors as the person they are co-piloting with.

This was best demonstrated on an episode of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit!” Two persons playing with the board were asked to stop and were then blindfolded. The board was then stealthily turned 180 degrees and when play resumed, the duo moved the planchette to where it would have gone had the board never been turned. So either the Ideomotor Response is responsible or the demons have permanent residency in the players’ eyelashes.



“Canned response” (Diet soda study)


This past month, my Facebook feed has seen a frenzy focused on fizzy drinks. The panicky parade of posts tied diet soda to dementia, stoke, Alzheimer’s, and wearing linen out of season.

The alarm centered on one study, which was read by Dr. Harriett Hall, but likely not perused by those who posted the terrified screeds. By reading it, Hall learned that there were 2,888 subjects who were followed for 10 years, and that 97 of them had a stroke, while 81 of them developed dementia, most of those displaying symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s. The authors relied on a survey of test subjects to determine how much diet soda each person consumed. All this lead to headlines which warned that drinking one or more artificially-sweetened soft drink per day was associated with a tripling of strokes, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

While worried posters presumed correlation meant causation, even the lead researcher cautioned against reaching that conclusion. That man, Matthew Pase, said, “It is not clear whether the diet sodas are causing stroke and dementia or whether unhealthy people gravitate more towards these drinks than healthier people.”

Addressing these and other shortcomings in Fortune, Sy Mukherjee observed that an accurate description would be, “Study determines minor observational link, but no direct cause-and-effect, between certain people who drink artificial sugar beverages, but it has a small sample size that doesn’t include minorities or account for a whole bunch of other critical factors.” But there’s little click-bait or alarmist value in that.

Meanwhile, physician Aaron Carroll highlighted several reasons why you should take this study with a grain of, in this case, sugar. Carroll pointed out that while the conclusions were based on results from one model that adjusted for demographics, diet, physical activity, and smoking, another model which adjusted for still more potentially mitigating factors produced less-pronounced results. Yet this model received scant attention.  

Other deficiencies of the study: Various artificial sweeteners have different molecular makeups, meaning they likely have different impacts on the body; the study focused only on diet soda consumption and did not take into account the subjects ingesting artificial sweeteners through other food and drink; it highlighted relative risk rather than absolute risk, as it declared that subjects were thrice as likely to have stroke or dementia, instead of pointing out that the percentage of all subjects  who had these conditions was one half of one percent. That would fit into what would be expected of the general population.

This response to this study was the latest in a long string of doom and gloom pronouncements about several artificial sweeteners that has been going on since at least the mid-1970s. Then, the worry was over saccharin causing bladder cancer in rats. While this was true if the rats were force fed large doses of saccharin, the cancer developed through a mechanism that humans lack. So the danger was for rodents and that’s only if they got into your Diet Dr Pepper and finished off a case in short order. Had there been any truth to the rumor, bladder cancer rates would have plummeted once other sweeteners supplanted saccharin.

In the war on cola, aspartame has been especially slandered. Critics have accused it of causing seizures, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, birth defects, tinnitus, migraines, emphysema, and (fill in the blank with your own malady). Yet, as Hall noted, aspartame is the most frequently evaluated food additive and the metadata of published studies show it is safe for anyone without the genetic disorder phenylketonuria.  But those studies don’t get the headlines and the headlines that do get published usually misrepresent what studies say about carbonated refreshment.

It’s not that there could never, under any circumstance, be any harm in diet soda consumption. We should always be open to new evidence gained through double blind studies and follow where the science leads. But there is certainly harm in spreading fear through anecdotes, flawed studies, and misinterpretation of good data.


“Wishing for the end of the end times” (April 23 apocalypse)


It’s just about time for this year’s end of the world. On April 23, Earth will meet its demise, courtesy the rouge planet Nibiru. Sometimes going by the more sinister-sounding Planet X, Nibiru brings together two normally disparate groups: End-time Christians and those who prefer a more alien or deep space flavor to their ultimate mass extinction events.

These groups normally don’t get along, though the antagonism is mostly from the former camp, whose members consider the other bunch to be messing with demonic gateways akin to astrology, fortune telling, and Ouija Boards. The star searchers, meanwhile, are normally indifferent to the religious pronouncements of doom, although some occasionally use Biblical interpretations to bolster their case. Such persons are notionally religious and have undertaken a conversion of convenience because they can use one small aspect of a faith to support their cause.

For example, self-described Christian numerologist David Meade has interpreted upcoming celestial arrangements as a “sign exactly as depicted in the 12th chapter of Revelation. This is our time marker.” However, most Christians reject such definitive statements as, “The world will end on April 23,” because of Matthew 24:36. This verse declares of Earth’s final moments, “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  Still, a  minority of Christians see it otherwise and will point to verses which suggest that discernment and signs in the skies make it possible to know when God is about to call them home.

The latest Nibiru cataclysm – there have been many – embraces the biblical apocalypse angle. An alleged alignment of planets on April 23 is said to be referenced by Revelation, which tells of a “great sign in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant, and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.”

With their being no reference there to Earth, April 23, or the destruction of every man, woman, child, dog, ladybug, and fern, how does one manage such an interpretation? Elizabeth Howell at space.com wrote that Nibiru believers think the verse references the second coming of Christ and the advent of the rapture.  

Hence, believers conclude that on that day, the sun and moon will be in the constellation Virgo, as will Jupiter. The latter is said to be a euphemism for Jesus, though this conclusion seems to be reached only because Jupiter will be in Virgo, not because there would is any logical reason for our solar system’s largest planet to represent a Galilean Jewish religious leader.

In any event, Howell notes that celestial bodies will not be arranged the way doomsayers are expecting. “Jupiter is actually in Libra all day and night on April 23, while the moon is between Leo and Cancer,” she wrote. “The sun, out of view when Jupiter and the moon are in the sky, is by Pisces.”

While not occurring on April 23, the arrangement cited by believers does occur every 12 years, which would be a huge strike against the notion of it portending gloom and doom. This has led to an ad hoc rationalization that Nibiru represents the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and that its addition to the alignment will push us over the cataclysmic brim.

This planet, for which there is no evidence of existence, is touted by enthusiasts as a rocky giant in a massive, haphazard orbit, which will eventually bring about our destruction, though the dates and methods keep changing. In fact, if we all wake up on April 24, the Nibiru doomsayers already have a backup apocalypse in place, as they say it is on target to pass near Earth in October and unleash volcanic fury. I’m not much on guessing the future, but somehow I think I’ll be writing about that prediction again in early November.


“Plastic Oh No Banned” (Bottled water hysteria)


While residents of Sub-Saharan Africa and Flint, Mich., strive for access to clean drinking water, some in the West are more concerned with the containers which house this liquid. While this could be seen as a First World problem, our focus here is not on affluent privilege but on how factual such worries are. We will examine if plastic water bottles release unsafe levels of chemicals when they are heated, cooled, or reused.

There have been a myriad of such claims on the Internet for at least 15 years and they often contain a nugget of truth, but leave out key facts while leaping to unfounded conclusions. The nuggets include a factoid about heat often releasing chemicals, usually identified in forwarded chain mail as dioxins. This is sometimes accompanied with calls that the bottles be banned. Some plastics do contain levels of chemicals that could be dangerous if released or which seep into containers when heated.

But plastic water bottles are usually made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which does not have those qualities. Water can be safely stored in them, whereas gasoline probably could not be and carbolic acid certainly couldn’t be. That’s why manufactures of containers for water, gasoline, and carbolic acid all utilize different types of plastics for their products. Because they are made from polyethylene terephthalate, water bottles will not become dangerous due to heating, freezing, or reuse.

If concerned about safety, remember to use products for their intended use. There are multitudinous plastics and what each is used for is dependent on their characteristics. The American Chemical Council has gone on record that there is no science to support the claim that PET bottles will release dioxins when frozen or heated. It stated, “Dioxins can only be formed at temperatures well above 700 degrees…and there is no scientific basis for expecting dioxins to be present in plastic food or beverage containers.” So unless you live on Venus, don’t worry about leaving bottled water in your car on a summer day.

Another claim is that the plastics additive diethylhydroxylamine may seep into whatever liquid a plastic container is carrying. However, this additive is not used in plastic water bottles, nor is it created through the breakdown of such bottles. And even if it did, the agent has been approved by the FDA for food-contact applications.

Addressing these concerns, civil engineer and biologist Rolf Halden noted the irony of persons being more concerned about the containers than the product inside. “Many people do not feel comfortable drinking tap water, so they buy bottled water instead,” Dr. Halden said. “The truth is that city water is much more highly regulated and monitored for quality. Bottled water can legally contain many things we would not tolerate in municipal drinking water.”

He noted that safety can usually be assured by following warning labels and directions. For example, heat can cause some plastics to release chemicals, which is why there are cautions on certain drinking straws to refrain from using them with hot beverages.

“If you put that straw into a boiling cup of hot coffee, you have hot water extraction going on and chemicals in the straw are being extracted,” Halden explained.

Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen anyone drink coffee with a straw.