“Milk dud” (Raw milk)

COWMILK

I once had the occasion to be staying in the remote Mongolian countryside. Emerging from my ger and moving across a backdrop of steppes and yaks, I made my way to a rugged farmer sitting on a three-legged wooden stool and milking a cow by hand. Mesmerized, I gazed at those hands, worn and beaten by 64 central Asian winters, and toughened by as many years of fence building, log splitting, and his current undertaking of drawing lactose products straight from the source and depositing them in a steel container. I remained captivated by this rustic, pristine scene until from the farmer’s flannel jacket came the ring of a cell phone.

That smacked me right back into 2010. While the ancient scene had been charming to me, it was presumably was less so for the subject. To him, the milking was a daily chore as opposed to a quaint anachronism for a wonderstruck tourist. The liquid product itself is also the subject of some unjustified love. To raw milk advocates, gulping the contents of the Mongolian farmer’s bucket would be preferable to the homogenized, pasteurized, refrigerated variety most of us buy at Hy-Vee and Jewel-Osco.

I’m assured by both raw milk advocates and detractors that there is a difference in taste and texture between the two kinds. But we are unconcerned here with those qualities and want only to examine health claims the advocates make, both for raw milk, and against the pasteurized versions.

In pasteurization, milk is heated to about 165 degrees for 15 seconds, then immediately cooled back down. This kills microbes like bacteria, funguses, and algae, thus ensuring that dangers like salmonella and e. coli are zapped.

Though most associated with milk, pasteurization is applied to other food and drink in order to extend shelf life and improve safety. Still, opponents insist the brief heating gets rid of not only harmful microbes, but also of nutrients.

It is true that Vitamins B1, B12, C, and E are in reduced through pasteurization. But even raw milk contains these only in negligible amounts. Nutrients in fat and lactose comprise the majority of milk’s benefits and those remain unaffected by heating and cooling. Going from very little of those four vitamins to even less is an acceptable tradeoff for the safety that pasteurization brings.

Milk is usually fortified with Vitamin D, and some raw milk advocates falsely claim this is done in order to replace the Vitamin D that gets lost through pasteurization. However, milk does not naturally contain Vitamin D and dairies only started adding it in the 1930s as part of the public health campaign to battle rickets.

On another issue, raw milk proponents correctly note that the bacteria lactobacillus, which aids digestion and helps convert sugar to energy, disappears during pasteurization. But this is fine, as the body naturally produces adequate amounts of it.

There is a second claim that strictly speaking is accurate, but fails to tell the whole story. Advocates say pasteurization kills probiotic bacteria that can eliminate harmful bacteria like salmonella and e. coli. This is true, but irrelevant since pasteurization kills dangerous microbes, and indeed, is the whole reason the procedure is undertaken. If it removes innocuous microbes as well, that’s inconsequential collateral damage. Besides, while different strains of bacteria sometimes do battle, it’s hardly as simple as the Good Bacteria in White Hats always vanquishing the Bad Bacteria in Black Hats. Either one can win if they are left to fight it out, whereas pasteurization eliminates the problem.

Moving from the true-but-misleading to the just-plain-false, there are assertions that raw milk can cure eczema, asthma, and allergies. The notion is that bacteria in raw milk can prep a child’s immune system and protect them if such conditions arise. Brian Dunning at Skeptoid noted this describes how vaccines work and wrote that “if it were possible to vaccinate against eczema, asthma, and all allergies, then drug companies would have done it decades ago for immense profits.”

After pasteurization comes homogenization, a process in which fat particles are sent through a fine strain and broken into small pieces. This serves to make the fat level consistent in every drink of milk that anyone takes. Hence, homogenized milk is uniform throughout, while the raw version has an upper layer which is fat and light, then a heavier layer underneath.

Homogenization impacts taste and texture, but has no bearing on health, nor does opting against the practice. There were alarmist claims about homogenization increasing the chance of heart attacks and digestion problems, but these assertions withered after being subjected to clinical trials.

Raw milk inherently makes bacterial infection much more likely than the pasteurized variety. According to the CDC, four out of five dairy-based outbreaks come from raw milk or cheese. This is an especially high percentage since only a tiny amount of dairy products consumed in the U.S. are raw milk and its byproducts.

I liken drinking raw milk to regularly consuming intoxicating quantities of liquor. Chug away if you like, don’t give it to your kids, don’t pretend scientists say it’s beneficial, and don’t be surprised if the impact on your body is excruciating. I’ll stick with pasteurized milk. Not only is it safe, you can also get it in chocolate.

 

“No touch hogwash” (Johrei)

M MOUSE

Johrei is described by proponents as a healing attained through manipulation of a mystical energy field. Practitioners move their hands around the client without touching them, with a goal, according to the Johrei Institute, of “using of universal life energy to foster positive changes to the physical and spiritual body and to dispel negative energy.”

These descriptors do little to differentiate Johrei from Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Qi Gong, and other practices that purport to access an unspecified type by energy by an undefined means for generic health benefits.

Where Johrei somewhat distinguishes itself is that its sessions are about more than purported healing. Johrei advertises itself as a belief system that incorporates art appreciation, flower arranging, and organic gardening. Adherents view these activities as a means to attain spiritual enlightenment, satisfy a deity, and eventually access an Earthly utopia.

The Johrei Fellowship says it does not diagnose or treat illness, yet the Johrei Institute, which is run by the fellowship, proclaims the practice to be “non-invasive energy healing.” It also calls attention to Johrei’s “universal vibration,” which it redundantly notes is “available to all.”

As to Johrei’s efficiency, the fellowship states, “In most cases, the effects of Johrei become enhanced with repeated practice over several weeks. But each individual is unique depending on existing circumstances.” In other words, keep using our stuff until it works.

The institute describes itself as having been “established to prove the effectiveness of Johrei through scientific medical research.” It begins with the assumption that it works, then seeks confirming evidence, as opposed to following where the evidence leads.

All researchers on the Institute’s website are staff members at the University of Arizona. In its search for this Fantasia energy, the university has received $2 million of taxpayer money via the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Here’s what you’re paying for. Researchers at U of A are looking into the feasibility that, per the Johrei Fellowship, “Illness is the manifestation of the universal principle that whenever an accumulation of negativity occurs, a cleansing action takes place. Physical purification is a sign that our life force energy is working properly. Colds, coughs, and fevers cleanse our bodies to eliminate accumulated toxins and are nature’s way of restoring rhythmic balance.”

A likeminded confused ramble is provided by their compatriots at the Johrei Institute: “Johrei is a manifestation of divine energy that can be transmitted through one individual to another for spiritual healing. As the spiritual body is cleansed, the mind and body are also uplifted, healed and attuned to spiritual truth.”

Nothing in there about statistically significant results, falsifiability, testability, repeatable experiments, or randomized sample groups. As such, it’s little wonder that Science-Based Medicine’s Jesse Luke found only 19 results when he typed Johrei into a PubMed search. By way of comparison, another form of healing, chemotherapy, yields 3 million entries. As to Johrei’s PubMed literature, the practice was the focus of such titles as “Johnrei Effects on Water: A Pilot Study by Counting Drops,” “Effect of spiritual healing on growth of bacteria cultures,” and “Johrei enhances the growth of sucrose crystals.”

Luke reviewed the studies and provided this analysis of Johrei: “There is no credible mechanism with which it could interact with a human body to exert effects, no reason to suspect its claims of divine providence are possible, nor that other components such as flower arranging could lead us to an earthly utopia.” That’s good enough for me, but if wanting more specifics on Luke’s take, those are available here, beginning with paragraph 13: http://tiny.cc/4teomy

Johrei is one of the least original alternative medicines forms, heavily copying Reiki. It was made up just a few years after Reiki, also in Japan, and involved a vague energy which a practitioner transferred to the client by hand gestures. Also like Reiki, the creator of Johrei (Mokichi Okado) asserted he had received this healing power through mountaintop enlightenment. Another similarity Johrei has to Reiki, as well as every other alternative medicine procedure, is a complete lack of cures it has bestowed on the world.

Of his search for such cures, Okado said, “A permanent solution for disease is not possible by treating only the body and neglecting the spirit.” I for one am glad that approach was not adopted by Edward Jenner or Jonas Salk.

“Chronic tonic” (Alternative medicine dangers for the chronically ill)

ALT MED PIC

When I began this blog, I envisioned profiling those who hunt ghosts, imaginary animals, and aliens, as well as addressing the likes of geocentrists. While all this has happened, I surprisingly found that my most frequent topic was alternative medicine.

One reason is because there are so many forms of it and they just keep coming. We seldom hear of new crypto critters to chase; ghosts are usually haunting the 17th Century castle in which they dwelt; aliens seem to have deemed return trips too risky since Roswell; and a couple of thorough posts on geocentrists suffice since they are not exactly churning out a redwood’s worth of peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals that need to be perused and refuted.

But alt-med has always flourished because people get sick and people have to see their loved ones suffer. They want to feel that they are doing something about it and are making a difference so they are vulnerable to being preyed upon.

This can afflict persons of all classifications. Those with little formal education and money can embrace a witch doctor or voodoo, while the affluent are all about Goop and detox cleanses.

Consider two persons, 50 percent of whom are still on Facebook Friends list. One has little understanding of science and is something of a dullard in general. He embraces Yongevity scams, the naturalistic fallacy, and seems to be a nascent anti-vaxxer. The other works as a medical doctor.

With the first guy, I tried patiently to explain chemistry, biology, and medicine to him, only to have him unfriend me before upgrading this to a block. By then he had grown paranoid and may have considered me part of a Big Pharma plot whose oxymoronic goal was to fatally poison a populace it would use to further enrich its coffers. At the other end of the medical knowledge spectrum was the physician. But even she wrote that a lingering illness had reduced her to seeking out essential oils. She admitted feeling a tad silly about this and noted this wasn’t something she had been taught in medical school. About a half dozen enthusiastic oil users encouraged her to go for it, each of them recommending a different oil for her condition.

That right there shows the stuff doesn’t work. With a headache, someone might suggest Excedrin, but you won’t have a second person recommend cough syrup and a third poster mention their success with adhesive bandages. I toyed with the idea of sending per a PM, but decided against it. Again, she was a medical doctor and it would be superfluous if not presumptuous for me to send a missive containing phrases like double-blind studies, Germ Theory, and the plural of anecdote not being data. I’m sure she knows all of that but her condition had gotten so rough that she was desperate. That’s when many persons try an unorthodox approach, and combined with the fluctuating nature of many illnesses and pains, can cause someone to give a product undeserved credit.

That is among the reasons alternative medicine approaches will sometimes seem to work. But when they fail, the blame often falls not on the product or the practice, but on the patient. That was the focus of a post by blogger Emily Coday, who details her travails as a sufferer of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). In one poignant post, she detailed how alternative medicine harms those with chronic conditions.

She wrote that she had been advised to seek relief through prayer, biofeedback, grounding, crystals, supplements, and more, but nothing worked and she was always made to feel guilty for this. “When it was biofeedback, I wasn’t trying hard enough or practicing enough. When it was acupuncture, I wasn’t trying to relax hard enough. With supplements, I just hadn’t waited long enough for the benefits, no matter how long I waited.”

She needed only to take longer, deeper breaths, hold her visual imagery longer, or be more flexible when being attended do by the applied kinesiologist. Yet no one blames the cancer patient when chemotherapy fails.

Another problem is the danger alt-med products can pose. Anti-medicine types will gleefully list all the side effects slapped on an OTC or prescription bottle. However, these lists must include anything that could befall any user, even once. Six billion people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and medical conditions must be considered. An active ingredient, by definition, is going to have some impact on the body. The idea is to match a patient with the right product so that the change the active ingredient is causing will be positive. There are varying amounts of risk involved, and that amount, combined with the seriousness of the condition, direct the doctor and patient to the best treatment plan. In most cases, the risk is minuscule, but it is accounted for and there is no Big Pharma conspiracy to keep it quiet.

The irony is that the same persons who list the possible side effects of a drug, along with a lengthy string of its polysyllabic ingredients that are supposed to prove the product is hazardous, will hastily indulge in bark, branches, clovers, leaves, stems, or roots that have been subject to no testing. Nor do these people have any idea what active ingredients the plant might contain or in what amount. You could hand them what you describe as “a natural flowering plant from western Asia,” and they would gladly ingest hemlock. They will condemn the profits made by Big Pharma, as if the proprietors at Natural News, Green Med Info, and mercola.com are giving away their “treatments.”

Except in extreme cases where a moribund patient may wish to try an experimental treatment, persons should only use what has been proven effective in repeated double blind studies. For one thing, doing otherwise will be a waste of valuable time and money. Second, pumping unknown products into one’s self could be dangerous. With traditional medicine, the treatment’s benefits must outweigh the risks before it can be sold. By contrast, alt-med “supplements” are not screened and those with pre-existing conditions are often the most vulnerable to their affects.

For example, Coday pointed out that aspirin comes from willow bark. There are potential dangers from both this natural product and aspirin. But aspirin has been tested, the active ingredient has been isolated and extracted, a safe dosage has been doled out in capsule form, and explicit instructions tell how to properly take it. Meanwhile, users are on their own to guess the right amount if using the active ingredient in willow bark form. One could overdose on either aspirin or willow bark, but doing so with the latter would be much easier since the user wouldn’t know where to stop or how much would be enough to make them feel better. And a pre-existing chronic condition can make this all the worse.

Another way alternative medicine harms the chronically ill is cost. Beyond what they’ve spent and the debt they’ve incurred, the perennially ill continue to look for any treatment that seems to offer hope. This leads them to a naturopath or chiropractor who will try method after method, each offering the same false promise. Eventually an approach might seem to work if the illness fluctuates, but if the condition is chronic like POTS, the end is always disappointment and more hurt.

Coday also notes the drastic difference between an alt-med peddler and someone who finishes four years of traditional college followed by four years of med school and 90-hour weeks in a residency to earn the title “MD.” She wrote, “The human body is infinitely complex and so many things can go wrong. Doctors and pharmacists spend a large chunk of their lives in school learning how to treat patients better and minimize risks.” By contrast, if you say you’re a naturopath, you are. There is no need for any knowledge, specialized or otherwise.

David Katz of the Yale medical school gloats that by entertaining an unending string of conjured and concocted alternative treatments, he has an inexhaustible number of avenues to pursue. Katz’s glowing description to the contrary, this is not a good thing. Quartz crystals, magic wands, and energy-infused vitamin water have no place in an Ivy League medical school, nor any other locale dedicated to health.

Such treatments gives patients false hope and Coday compared trying unproven, unworkable treatments to being in the bargaining stage of grief.  “False hope hurts,” she wrote. “I was crushed by putting 50 plus hours into biofeedback that claimed to cure my POTS and getting so little out of it no matter how hard I tried.”

Such an experience can cause some patients to double down and try harder, sinking further into debt and desperation, as they don’t want it to all be a waste of time and money. Coday broke from the cycle, but many persons with chronic conditions are unable to do so.

Despite the lack of evidence of alternative medicine efficacy, those promoting these treatments make the grandest claims. Coday related her experience with this: “All the medications from true doctors only claimed to possibly manage the symptoms. However, alternative medicine practitioners claimed that they could cure my incurable illness or make all the symptoms disappear.”

This is because alternative medicine techniques and promise do not change based on the evidence of what works. Reiki has been around for 95 years and a session today would be identical to one received the day the Stock Market crashed. That would be fine if it worked, but there is yet to be a clinical trial under controlled conditions that suggest this is the case.

“Cutting out gluten, doing biofeedback nonstop, becoming vegan, yoga, walking, crystals, needles, etc. is not going to make an incurable illness curable,” Coday wrote. “Getting suggestions that indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of my incurable condition is frustrating and disheartening.”

Another problem afflicting the chronically ill is support groups. While laudable in intent, they can exacerbate the situation, as they are filled with anecdotes, wildly speculative treatments, and the dreaded exhortation that the patient put more into fixing what’s wrong with them.

All this illustrates why alternative medicine has been the surprise winner as my most frequent topic. Persons who spend time chasing alien crafts, Bigfoot, and poltergeists mostly harm only themselves and maybe make our society a little dumber. By contrast, alt-med charlatans hurt others and that damage can be significant.

 

“Gut filling” (Probiotics)

PROBI

Probiotics are live microorganisms that might be beneficial in certain instances when consumed. Proponents believe the bacteria can help maintain good health and treat various ailments. Probiotics are available in many forms, including pills, juice, sausage, cookies, and even cosmetics.

However, the science shows that while probiotics may hold some promise and seem to be effective for certain conditions, the health claims have largely been exaggerated. Since producers market them as supplements, attribute only vague health claims to them, and never state they can treat or cure disease, the FDA has no authority over them.

Probiotic love is the reverse of gluten hysteria. Because celiac sufferers should avoid gluten, the idea got out there that we should all do the same. Conversely, probiotics’ limited ability has been touted as a cure-all for the masses. This is a microcosm of an anti-science sentiment that will dismiss the success of antibiotics, vaccines, statins, and GMOs, while giving false credit to Reiki, wheatgrass juice, colloidal silver, and organic produce.

Concerning microbe-based treatments, the majority of studies have failed to reveal any benefit for healthy individuals. The bacteria seems to help only those suffering from specific intestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, acute diarrhea, peptic ulcers, and necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a bowel disease that afflicts premature babies. These are welcome results, but microbiologists caution that a promising study on a single strain of a particular species of bacteria should not be taken as proof that all probiotics work for all conditions in all people. Like most medicine, a probiotic treatment plan should be tailored for individual needs.

That’s not what is happening with most probiotic products on the market. In an article for Scientific American, Ferris Jabr wrote that manufacturers often select bacterial strains they know will grow in large numbers as opposed to choosing ones that have known health benefits or that have adapted to the human gastrointestinal system.

Even when probiotic bacteria survive and propagate in the stomach or intestines, there are probably too few of them to affect significant change. Per the SA article, humans’ gastrointestinal tracts contain upwards of 20 trillion bacteria, compared to the relatively paltry 100 million contained in a typical serving of probiotic grape nuts. The article further cited a review of 34 trials that studied whether probiotic supplements changed bacteria diversity in fecal samples. Kudos to the researchers on that project for taking one for Team Science. Only one of the trials revealed a noticeable change and there was no indication this alteration was beneficial.

Scientists have yet to completely understand microbiome function and the impact of probiotics on it. They don’t know how microorganisms in our gut give rise to or affect unpleasant conditions. Nor do they have a proven method for treating unhealthy gastrointestinal tracts. Katherine Hobson, writing for 538, also noted, “We still don’t even know what an ideal gut bacterial mix would look like, if there is such a thing.”

Even with health issues for which probiotics show promise, researchers are still trying to ascertain which ones are best for each condition, which dosage to administer, how long to take them, and which population would benefit. There’s no evidence that healthy persons will gain from taking a daily probiotic supplement. For those persons, the best way to maintain gastrointestinal wellness is through regular consumption of fiber, fruit, and vegetables. That’s all you need, plus you will save money by bypassing the supplement, unless your fruits and veggies are organic.

“Picture of stealth” (Ghost photos)

GHOSTPIC

This spring an alleged ghost photo made the social media rounds, with even USA Today taking a somewhat credulous view of the apparent apparition: mcaf.ee/2obpau

While most supposed ghost photos feature vague or distorted imagery, this one looks like a girl romping through the woods in upstate New York. The photo is clear and what’s unclear is why anyone was thinking it was a ghost.

There was some mention of a local legend about a girl having been killed by a train in the area, though no name was assigned, nor was there even confirmation such a tragedy had ever taken place there. The USA Today story also reports that a caller claimed the girl was his visiting granddaughter. This claim was anonymous so cannot be corroborated, but that still leaves us a long ways from any confirmation the youngster has risen from the netherworld. And why are ghosts are always said to be sticking around the farmhouse, asylum, or palace where they lived and died? They are seemingly freed from the laws of physics and could presumably travel the world for free, not even needing food money, yet they remain under a self-imposed house arrest.

While this was a case of a clear image with a fuzzy claim attached it, many ghost pictures are the other way around: A fuzzy image accompanied by a strong declaration that it is someone who met an unfortunate fate in the area. Sometimes their names are offered, at other times it is just referred to as a nurse, soldier, maid, or other designator. In any case, the images are proffered as evidence we prance about in the afterlife, still fully clothed. These assertions are sometimes augmented with speculation that photography captures an intermediate dimension not visible to human eye. This claim remains void of any proof or an explanation of how this process would work, and is an instance of Tooth Fairy Science.

Whatever changes photography undergoes, ghostly images continue to be inferred. In the field’s earliest days, before film, photographers worked with glass plates which were cleaned after each photo and used again. If the cleaning wasn’t done thoroughly, faded remnants of the previous image might show up in subsequent photos. This would make for a freaky appearance to the uninitiated, which when it came to photography, described 99 percent of the country in the 1850s.

Also of consequence is that the advent of photography was simultaneous with the birth of spiritualism. Adherents of this faith felt the dead continued to exist as conscious spirits and could communicate with the living. To spiritualists, death was viewed as another realm of existence as opposed to being merely the permanent cessation of vital bodily functions. Interaction with these spirits was considered more likely thorough avenues like mediums and séances.

William Mumler fused photography and spiritualism, ironically mixing a scientific advancement and a religious regression. He created ghost photos and presented them to a gleefully gullible consumers eager to exhibit subjective validation and confirmation bias.

Alas, he was a 19th Century Peter Popoff. Mulmer conspired with mediums, who would collect details about a dead person from relatives in exchange for half the profits Mulmer made from grieving family members. When he repeated these tales to the relatives, they were convinced he was in touch with the deceased’s spirit. Besides information about the dead person’s achievements and idiosyncrasies, mediums also provided Mumler with photos of the deceased. He then scoured his collection for someone whose appearance was similar and he dropped a faded image of that person into a second photo.   

His most famous client was Mary Todd Lincoln. I suspect finding images of this customer’s dearly departed would have been easier than in most of his cases. Mumler was eventually busted for his fraud, and while he was acquitted, he had been exposed and his career tanked. But the idea he promulgated lived on, and persons to this day continue to champion the idea that spirits are captured in pictures.

Many alleged ghost photos from the early 20th century resulted when someone inadvertently moved through a scene photographers were capturing with long exposure settings. This early photobombing created images similar to the multiple exposures on poorly-cleaned glass, but they also featured blurred motion or a repeated figure.

The double exposures continued with film-based cameras if the photographer forgot to advance the film. This was usually instantly recognizable as a mistake, but it infrequently would make it appear that a ghostly face or figure was looming.

These apparitions were consistent with an era of Dickens and Poe. Today, with the notions of auras, chakras, and an undefined New Age energy, orbs have replaced Victorian gentlemen and wailing damsels as the most popular poltergeists. An orb is usually explicable as being dust particles bathed in a camera’s flash, as opposed to it being Great Aunt Erma in aurora form.

Another frequent misinterpretation focuses on insects flying in front of or landing on security cameras. Probably the most-known instance of living six-legged creatures being mistaken for dead bipedal animals took place at an Ohio gas station in 2007. A blurry, mostly transparent image seemed to be hopping and darting around the cars and customers, and was the result of insects walking on the lens.

Even a camera strap partially obscuring the lens and being out of focus from the rest of the photo can appear ghostly, whatever that is. It’s hard to say precisely whether something is a ghost when we have never captured one, despite a decade of Ghost Hunters and hundreds of professionals engaged in precisely this pursuit. 

Such hunts are almost always done at night even though there’s no reason to suspect ghosts are nocturnal. It’s done for effect and to increase ratings. But if also done during cold nights, the visible breath can be combined with camera flash to create something spooky looking. This is where pareidolia comes into play, especially in photos that aren’t hoaxes. Hoaxes involve inserting an image of a real person into a second photograph. But with the orb, insect, camera strap, and cold-breath photos, the images are impossibly vague and in many cases it’s unclear what a viewer is supposed to be seeing until it’s pointed out. Even then, what is supposedly revealed is nothing more than half a face or part of an arm, and is often covered by smoke, mist, trees, or stairs. 

While a few ghost photos might be of a form resembling a human figure, the scarcity of these pictures works against the idea that spirits of the dead are being captured on film. If these really were ghosts, and photography captured an in-between land of the not-quite-living, not-quite-dead, one would expect to see ghosts every day on every hospital camera. This is not the case. Similarly, photos of battlefields and mass terror scenes are conspicuously apparition-free.  Photos taken at Waco, Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, and Pearl Harbor should show a booming poltergeist population.

Instead, we have no ghosts from those locales, and the ones that supposedly show up in other places are the result of the effects of shadows, fog, exposure, sunlight coming through cracks in a forest, and similar factors.

For those who engage in deliberate deception, hoaxes are much easier to pull off with PhotoShop. At the same time, such advancements also make it tougher to fool multiple experts. Finally, it no answer can be found, that only means the photo is unexplained. It doesn’t mean that the default explanation is that it’s a ghost.

“Vanity Fare” (Fraudulent peer-reviewed journals)

JOURNAL

Vanity publishers are a long-time bane of the literary world. They enable a has-been and never-was to see their short story (that is way too long) in print. Not just short stories, either, but full-length ones, as well as doggerel, treatises written in Pig Latin, and anything else. These products are usually smaller-than-pocketbook size and are ergonomically challenging to hold and flip through. Still, if a novella that features no plot twists, descriptive writing, or character development needs to be bound and stitched, it’s yours for a price.

A man related to me by marriage had his autobiography printed by such a publisher. He was an older fellow whose schooling had ended after junior high when he had to tend to an ailing mother and the family farm. This sudden halt to his education was common at the time, and it’s understandable why his prose featured many superfluous apostrophes, as well as a lack of subject-verb agreement and properly-placed modifiers. 

He also had a limited vocabulary. However, about every 10th page or so, he would drop in a word like verisimilitude, loquacious, or pedagogical. It was painfully obvious that he had scanned an unabridged dictionary for lengthy, seldom-used words that he could work into what passed for his narrative, in hopes of seeming more impressive and learned. This was an especially bad idea since the book’s title and cover illustration highlighted the years he spent as a hobo.

Another memorable vanity publishing experience I had centered on a work about baseball slugger Jimmie Foxx. Distinguishing itself from other unreadable vanity-published work was that almost every page contained multiple exclamation points. In the unlikely event the author could string strung together two passable paragraphs, it would be broken up by the distracting punctuation.

These examples are harmless, if wincing. But the situation can be more serious when vanity publishers branch into chemistry, physics, and biology. Throwing out scientific jargon followed the word Journal is insufficient to prove valid research, but that’s the ruse some try to pull.

These publications fall into one of two categories: Predatory journals that charge a steep price in exchange for the author being able to say they are published in a scientific periodical; and journals that are put out by and/or cater to niche markets, such as Young Earth Creationists, homoeopathists, and climate change deniers. In either case, these periodicals provides a convenient answer when annoying skeptics ask if the claims have been submitted for peer review.

We will look at some clues that a self-described peer-reviewed scientific journal is a pretender by going through the five sections that define most papers: The abstract, introduction, method, result, and discussion.

In the abstract, an authentic scientific paper should contain a summary of each major section of the article. This allows researchers or casual observers to get a concise overview of the main methods used and conclusions reached. In all instances, the abstract should accurately summarize the paper’s contents.

This is not always the case when a predatory journal or in-house publication is involved. If a company suspects it is being embezzled, it would be insufficient for the accused to show a ledger total was consistent with the money that has come in and been paid out. Investigators would need to check first that the numbers added up, then verify that the expenditures and profits were consistent with what was claimed.

Like a fraudulent ledger sheet, the abstract in a shady journal may not accurately reflect the findings. If the abstract claims that 78 percent of applied kinesiology patients showed noted improvement in six studies, this needs to be fully explained and supported in the paper. But a further reading may show that the studies were not double blind or that the paper left out the 81 studies that suggested no improvement. 

These unethical tactics often work because abstracts are read far more often than the entire paper. I love me some science and skepticism, but can’t recall the last time I sat down and devoured a 156-page, footnoted piece entitled, “Clonal hematopoiesis and the risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”

The reluctance of 99.9 percent of the population to seek out and read these works enables pseudoscientists to compile long lists of abstracts that seem to support their position and blast it online. Few persons would be willing and able to access all the papers, much less spend weeks detailing a refutation. Those that take on that admirable task, such as Dr. Steven Novella, Dr. Kevin Folta, and Brian Dunning, often only complete their response after the disinformation campaign has been churning for six months.

On to the introduction. While the abstract is not, strictly speaking, part of the paper, it is what almost everyone reads first. So an ideal introduction will provide a smooth segue from the abstract, then give a broader summary of the research before assuming a narrower focus. Perhaps most important, it highlights how the study has closed gaps in our scientific knowledge.   

By contrast, an introduction written by a pseudoscientist usually has an unspecified, meandering aim. This is often a sign that the “research” and “studies” were intended only to arrive at a predetermined outcome that furthers an agenda.

Consider a paper written for the Institute for Creation Research journal, in which Russell Humphreys set out to prove that Earth’s magnetic field intensity is consistent with a 6,000-year-old planet. The first five paragraphs are similar to what’s seen in legitimate scientific study journals. It outlines the mainstream position, explains the rationale behind it, suggests it is mistaken, and outlines how Humphrey’s contrarian position will be supported.

But it quickly veers from that course. The author relates time he spent employed in a GE laboratory pondering how the electric current that generates Earth’s magnetic field began, and how he came to realize the answer lied in II Peter 3:5. This leads  into another tributary of thought in which he breaks down the root meaning of the Greek word for “form.” Breaking down the original Greek or Hebrew meaning is what Young Earth Creationists and other fundamentalists do when the Bible blatantly contradicts itself or endorses a horrible idea, such as forcing a woman to marry her rapist or God siccing bears on children for teasing a bald man. They never seek out the root meaning when coming across the “love thy neighbor” sections. In this case, the word “form” didn’t mean what Humphreys wanted it to, so he finagled a new definition via a self-taught crash course in linguistics.  

Humphreys’ wandering through the scientific wilderness eventually lead him to this: “In an iron bar magnet, the individual magnetic moments of electrons in the iron atoms add up linearly to comprise the magnetic moment of the whole magnet. In the same way, the individual magnetic moments of the hydrogen nuclei in the created water would add up linearly to make an overall magnetic moment at the instant of creation. I assigned the symbol “k” to represent a fraction from 0 to 1 of the hydrogen nuclei that God aligned.”

Humphreys bypassed almost the entire Scientific Method to arrive at this conclusion and his sentence about a Hebrew deity ordering subatomic particles into existence had little bearing to his stated goal of addressing magnetic field intensity.  

Now the method section, which describes the particulars of what is being studied, be it cells, rock formations, or elk migratory habits. It will also explain what tests or observations were done and how they were carried out and what controls were used. It should also detail the statistics which resulted from these analyses.

In this section, pseudoscientific papers may contain fatal errors, such as a sample that is not representative or which featured insufficient randomization. For instance, the most well-known study to conclude that GMOs posed dangers was done by French nuclear biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini. He based this mostly on health issues that developed in rats following their ingestion of genetically-modified food.

However, members of the rat strain he used have an average lifespan of two years and experience cancer rates of more than 75 percent regardless of what munchies they find in the garbage or laboratory trough. Because the experiment covered the rats’ lifespan and since the rate of cancer was no higher among those not eating GMOs, Seralini’s conclusion of GMO danger had no validity. Another key error was his using 10 rats per group, just one-fifth of what protocols in such experiments call for.

Pseudoscientific papers are also recognizable for their lack of proper controls. There are “studies” that purport to show the efficacy of acupuncture. Yet few of these include a control group whose subjects receive telescopic needles that serve as a placebo. This makes them zero-blind studies, which are of no scientific value.

Meanwhile, the results section contains tables, graphs, and pie charts that show the study’s results in easily-digestible form. For a pseudoscientist, this portion is most likely to be the smoke-and-mirrors section of the paper. It is simple to concoct misleading impressions by cherry-picking numbers or employing tricks like only showing a tiny fraction of a Y-axis.

Climate change deniers are fond of showing charts showing a tapering off of average global temperature since 1998. But it only works if that year is the starting point. There was an unusually strong el Nino that year, so if one starts at 1997, 1999, 2009, 1950, or 1750, the warming trend is clear. A similar tactic is to show a graph that reveals the planet being warmer on average 4,000 years ago. While this may be correct, it ignores the impact that deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels has on the undisputed warming that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th Century. Nor does it address what this might mean for the planet if this continues for three more centuries.

Anti-vaxxers are also guilty. They will present graphs that show death rates from various diseases plummeting by 90 percent or more prior to the introduction of vaccines. What they fail to include are graphs that show the incidence rate of the diseases, which invariably stayed steady or peaked until tumbling immediately after vaccine introduction.  Medical advancements like the iron lung enabled patients to live longer but the overwhelming factor in eradicating any disease has been a strong vaccination program.

Finally, the discussion section highlights the study’s results and places them in the broader context of previous and continuing research. Genuine papers ensure conclusions are the complete truth, avoid spin, and invite an open forum on the study’s methods, conclusions, and deficiencies. It encourages other scientists to attempt to replicate or falsify the findings.

By contrast, proponents of pseudoscience often exaggerate or even fabricate their results and present the topic as a done deal. You might see claims along these lines: “Evolution disproven!” “Vaccines shown to be deadly!” “Climate change hoax busted!”

Exclamation points have no place in scientific journals; they’re bad enough in vanity-published baseball biographies.

 

“Don’t you lectin me” (Lectins danger)

TOMATO

Needing sustenance for an anti-GMO rally, the activist stops by Whole Foods and checks all the pedantic blocks: Organic, of course, but also nothing pasteurized or containing gluten, aspartame, sodium,  hormones, antibiotics, rBST, or MSG.

But our ever-vigilant shopper now has to take it one ostentatious step further. The latest food fear to exorcise, as of about 3 p.m. last Tuesday, are lectins. These are proteins that bind to carbohydrates and are found in many grains and beans, among other foods. When they are isolated, lectins can have both positive and negative impacts.  

In the same way that some people (let’s call them Dr. Oz and Food Babe) equate gluten as bad for everyone because it aggravates celiac symptoms, a few enterprising types are lumping all lectins in all their forms into one frightful category. This is as nonsensical as avoiding Jolly Green Giant sliced mushrooms because consuming their distant cousins that grow in the wild would cause hallucinations, sickness, and possibly death.

Such composition fallacies, in the form of assigning guilt to any product that has a seeming similarity to one that is harmful, is a staple of many self-styled heath gurus. But there’s more than one type of lectin, each has its own properties, and according to Washington Post reporter Cara Rosenbloom, “Scientists are still trying to map out all of the lectins and what they are capable of.” This unknown quantity give Oz, Babe, and their ilk another fear to prey upon.

Investigative reporter Georgi Markov was killed when a modified umbrella was used to inject a microscopic dose of ricin into his leg. Ricin is a lectin, so these can be dangerous and even deadly, but form and context are what matter. An assassin injecting concentrated ricin into a victim subcutaneously is much different than sitting down to a bowl of beans and rice.  

While there have been studies on lectins, these have been done on their isolated form, not on foods that contain them. Additionally, they have been performed in test tubes or on lab animals. Health implications, whether negative or positive, don’t always translate from rat to person, so we are unsure what health impacts might be attributable to lectins. The lack of clinical trials on the impact of lectin-containing foods on humans is not keeping alarmists from being, well, alarming. In The Plant Paradox, author Steven Gundry warns readers that to consume tomatoes is to “incite chemical warfare in our bodies.”

While some lectins become toxic at low doses, no one is eating those, especially in their isolated forms. Lectins in raw kidney beans could cause diarrhea and vomiting, so this is a sound reason to avoid consuming uncooked kidney beans. The taste and the way they grates on your throat would be two more. But this is no justification to avoid all beans no matter how prepared. There is no empirical evidence to suggest lectins in grocery store foods pose an inherent danger.

Boiling raw beans or grains make them fit for consumption. One minor concern, Rosenbloom writes, is that using slow cookers to prepare beans from scratch would not get them hot enough to zap any potentially harmful lectins. Other than that, engage in all the legume love you want.

Proponents of going lectin-free claim this dietary change could cure arthritis, multiple sclerosis, acne, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, and cancer. Such broad, exaggerated pronouncements, backed by no studies, is a pseudoscience giveaway.

There’s also the issue of what going lectin-free would mean. There would be a substantial nutrition price to pay for cutting out grains, legumes, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, oils, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, dairy, and eggs. If I followed this, the only thing left in my cart would be Ho Hos.