“Unholy cow” (Science and religion)


When it comes to the conflict between science and religion, I argue that, on linguistic grounds, there is none. That’s because a conflict indicates there are two hostile parties. Yet here, the assault is unilateral. No biologists are trying to force churches to teach evolutionary science. No cosmologists are calling for equal time in Sunday School class. By contrast, some activists with a religious agenda make unceasing attempts to foist mandatory creationism and Bible study classes onto public education students.

A second reason why there is, in a strict sense, no conflict is because science and religion are concerned with separate questions. Religion concentrates on rituals, dogma, and attempts to solve moral dilemmas.

As to science, it is a process that attempts to explain the natural world and those who inhabit it by following this method: 1. Define the question; 2. Develop a hypothesis; 3. Make a prediction; 4. Test that prediction; 5. Analyze the results using proper statistics; 6. Attempt to replicate findings; 7. Submit findings for peer review; 8. Share data. The process doesn’t end there, as other scientists use the same method to further test if the conclusions are sound or mistaken.

Religion has its literal sacred cows, while there are no figurative ones in science. The field goes where the evidence leads and positions its thinking accordingly. University of Chicago biology professor emeritus Jerry Coyne writes that, “Religion adjudicates truth not empirically, but via dogma, scripture and authority – in other words, through faith, defined in Hebrews 11 as ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ In science, faith without evidence is a vice, while in religion it’s a virtue.”

One problem with relying on faith is that different religions make competing claims. Without witnessing the claims in action, without examining them, without testing them, without experimenting on them, and without utilizing the Scientific Method, it’s impossible to assess their validity.

There are up to 4,200 religions to choose from, and these are forever dividing like cells that some of those religions are probably denying the existence of. There are 37 varieties of Baptist and more than 100 offshoots of Mormonism, which itself an iconoclastic take on Christianity. Judaism ranges from the ultraorthodox, whose adherents hold dim views of gays, women, and other religions, all the way to reform denominations, which emphasize individual autonomy, pluralism, and evolved ethics, and which reject strict beliefs and practices. In between those extremes are orthodox, conservative, and liberal Jews, with each of these categories being broken down to even more specific strains.

Likewise, there are many schools of Buddhism, from saffron-robed, shaven-headed monks who believe in assorted deities and the power of prayer, to Phil Jackson’s form of Zen, which is little more than a leadership and success philosophy served with a side dish of meditation. The massive problem, then, with deciding things on faith is that one has to presuppose that their specific religious view – which they likely were instructed from preschool to adopt – is the correct one.

Yet, no religion has proven or disproven the existence of any god, goddess, demigod, angel, demon, miracle, or fulfilled prophecy. Coyne asks, “How many gods are there? What are their natures and moral creeds? Is there an afterlife? Why is there moral and physical evil? There is no one answer to any of these questions. All is mystery, for all rests on faith.”

Meanwhile, were it not for successful employment of the Scientific Method, you would not be reading this right now. Science has also yielded benefits in the form of medicine, food quality, safety, transportation, and so much more.

Still, some persons chide science for previous errors, but this is to misunderstand the scientific process. It is a means of continually questioning its findings, trying to disprove itself, with an end goal of increasing our knowledge of how things work. It is a self-correcting process. These detractors might, as one example, belittle science for once thinking that asbestos was safe. But these folks are inadvertently admitting that science works because it was through the trial-and-error method which defines the field that we came to know asbestos is dangerous.

Additionally, admitting errors and adjusting a position as justified by the evidence is admirable. That’s a much better response than being proudly stationary and unbending, and remaining incapable of being moved by any evidence, reason, or persuasion.

While some on a religious bent criticize science, they are selective in this derision, as they will latch onto a point if it seems to further their religion. Science blogger Bob Seidensticker told the story of Catholic priest and cosmologist Georges Lemaître, who suggested that the universe is expanding and formulated what became the Big Bang theory. When strong evidence for the Big Bang emerged, Pope Pius VII noted Lemaître’s Catholicism and declared the Big Bang to be affirmation of Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light.”

Lemaître responded by calling it a poor strategy for Christians to intermingle science and religion. Because to be consistent, they would also have to embrace science when it contradicted their faith. Such as what happens when one considers the geologic column in light if Genesis, which if taken literally, teaches that fully-formed animals were spoken into existence in their present form 5,000 years ago.

The Dalai Lama said if science and Buddhism collide, you have to go with the science. From the reasonable, supple positions of Lemaître and the Dalai Lama, we venture 180 degrees to find Christian apologists such as Ken Ham, William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, and Frank Turek. Cosmic background radiation and the amount of light elements provide strong evidence for the universe being 13.4 billion years old, yet even that amount of time would be insufficient for Ham to make the same concession about his religion that the Dalai Lama made with Buddhism.

Ham and the rest have zero interest in the truth and are only interested in furthering an agenda. As Seidensticker noted, “The last thing they would do is say, ‘If you show my scientific claims to be false, then I will no longer believe.”  Ham admitted as much in his debate with Bill Nye. They arrive at their conclusion first, seek out confirmatory evidence, and dismiss anything that disproves their idea.

Craig, Strobel, and Turek are not submitting work for peer review, are not increasing our understanding of the natural world, and are not collaborating on papers with biologists, astrophysicists, and chemists. Instead, they pose questions that might make for intriguing parlor games, but whose answers rely not on experiment or evidence, but on faith.

One example would be the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The gist of this logic is: 1. Whatever begins to exist had a cause; 2. The universe began to exist; 3. Therefore, the universe had a cause; 4. The god I believe in was that cause. Other instances are the fine tuning and design arguments, which assume things could only have turned out this way if given a supernatural boost. This is the begging the question fallacy and fails to satisfy even the first step in the Scientific Method. It neglects to even define the question and jumps to the conclusion that the Christian god did it.

The earliest humans invented and rationalized supernatural beings as a way of trying to explain the world around them. It provided a handy answer for wind, lightning, and natural disasters. Later, it might have been used to answer why there was disease, death, or misfortune visited on a tribe or village. As science explained more, there was less need for a deity, and gods were relegated to increasingly-shrinking gaps. Religious believers still issue challenges as to how the first living being came to be or how humans acquired a sense of right or wrong. They insist that if science has yet to find the solution, the challenger’s favored god must be squeezed into the equation. So far, however, neither magic nor the supernatural has ever proven to be the answer.


“Snakes and blathers” (DNA in ancient artwork, India anti-science)


Today, we will examine a pair of claims floated in the past year that were presented as furthering human knowledge, but which were supported with almost no evidence. One is secular, the other religious, but our concern here is not with any spirituality or lack thereof, but with the truth.

The first example comes courtesy Jordan Peterson, a somewhat eclectic and iconoclastic Canadian psychology professor. While not a religious extremist like those in the other example, Peterson maintains friendly ties with the Christian right and on the rare occasions he has spoken about atheists, has had nasty things to say. In this instance, however, his claims don’t have a religious bent. He has periodically proclaimed, with inconsistent degrees of certainty, that entangled serpents in ancient artwork depict DNA strands.

Short for deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA is a molecule that contains a person’s hereditary blueprint and decides which amino acids are embedded in certain proteins and in what order they lie. As to its shape, Skeptic blogger Emil Karlsson writes that strands in a DNA double helix run anti-parallel, or in a head-to-toe fashion. The double helix also has a major groove and a minor groove, which are formed by the DNA molecule’s backbone.

A winding staircase would more resemble DNA than entangled snakes in artwork. The suggestion that disparate ancient people had all acquired knowledge of a structure that scientists only became aware of during the nascent years of rock and roll is grandiose claim, one which Peterson fails to support with evidence beyond suggesting a similar appearance.

There are better explanations than long-lost knowledge for why ancient artists would have employed twisting snakes in intimate positions. First, snakes entwine themselves when mating, so the images may represent reproduction, creation, or childbirth. In other cases, the serpentine symbols may depict a culture’s deities. They could also represent fear, as snakes fascinate many of us in a macabre sense. Some are venomous and they have striking differences from humans, with no arms, legs, eyelids, or visible ears, and having a narrow, forked tongue. It’s easy to see why an artist would consider them to be striking subject matter.

Peterson makes the point that intertwined snakes existed in ancient art from places as far apart as China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Australia, and India. The insinuation is that the artists were drawing from a common source. Such thinking is a frequent error committed by Young Earth Creationists, ancient alien aficionados, and cryptozoologists. They think because lookalike images crop up in cultures that never intermingled, the characters existed in real life.

But this more accurately speaks to the commonality of the artistic process. Besides, the supposedly similar creatures usually don’t look that much alike. With snakes, the similarity is there, but that’s because humans know what the slithering reptiles look like, which is not the case with dragons, Yetis, and Andromedans. This leads to another strike against Peterson’s hypothesis: The ubiquity of snakes. Snakes existed in all these places, so their portrayal in artwork requires no extraordinary explanation.

Perhaps the most important point is that entangled snakes in ancient artwork have only negligible resemblance to DNA. Karlsson pointed out the substantial differences. First, the snakes do not mirror the DNA strands’ anti-parallel positioning. If the snakes were depicting DNA, they should run in opposite directions from each other, not be head-to-head. Second, the art does not include any structure resembling nucleotides, which run horizontally in DNA strands and which would connect the snakes is the artist was modeling DNA. Next, there are no structures akin to 5 carbon sugars, the part of DNA which resembles Tinker Toy assemblies. Finally, the snakes are without grooves.

Moving on to the second example, a trio of speakers this month at the Indian Science Congress made shocking claims that attribute relatively modern developments and ideas to writers of ancient Hindu scriptures and they deities they crafted.

Chemist and university vice-chancellor, Gollapalli Rao, cited an ancient Indian poem as proof that stem-cell research and test-tube babies existed in India thousands of years ago. And anyone with an in vitro fertilization appointment at that time could have flown there on one of the airplanes the country had been blessed with by Ravana, a deca-headed demon-god. Rao based this claim off his reading of the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Such claims always run in one direction. A religious person might try to bolster a favorite theological text by extracting a supposedly scientific interpretation from it. By contrast, no scientist ever tries to strengthen a peer-reviewed article by pointing out its consistency to a 4,000-year-old religious tract.   

Meanwhile, paleontologist Ashu Khosla credited dinosaurs as the work of Brahma. But at least he didn’t deny the behemoths’ existence, and Rao affirmed the science behind in vitro fertilization and flight. Much worse was speaker Kannan Krishnan, who contested the theories of Einstein and Newton because of Krishnan’s interpretation of Hindu scripture.

Fortunately, this highly-creative science was limited to three persons out of hundreds of attendees. In another piece of cheering news, event organizers promised that next year they will vet the speakers. So I’m guessing we won’t be hearing from Jordan Peterson and his snakes.

“Scar of David” (Zionist conspiracy)


For the past few thousand years, there have been incessant accusations leveled at the Hebrew people. They are said to be crippling society, spreading disease, running a shadow government, running the real government, manipulating currency, weakening the white race, undermining the church, and plotting to swipe your grilled cheese.

They do all this as either communists, Free Masons, the Illuminati, Bohemian Grove leaders, Rothschilds, New World Order perpetrators, or Reptilians.

While anti-Semitism if most associated with the Nazis, Hitler and his monstrous minions were merely the most searing and extreme instance of illogical hatred toward Jews. In Persia, Xerxes ordered the extermination of all Jews within his jurisdiction. Roman emperors, Greek kings, and Spanish rulers have all given the same genocidal dictate. During the Dark Ages, panicked Europeans blamed Jews for the Plague. Pogroms have been regular features on the continent, as well as in western Asia, and there has also been legally-mandated discrimination, segregation, violence directed at synagogues, and cartoons that portray Jews in grotesque caricature.

Czarist Russia had anti-Semitism woven into its official policy since Jews were accused of fomenting a revolution from within. When the regime collapsed in 1917, it occurred without much Jewish involvement. Hitler used a similar tact, accusing Jews – who were less than one percent of the German population – of committing traitorous acts that cost the country victory in World War I. This alleged power out of proportion to Jewish numbers is typical of charges leveled at the people.  

These charges have been sustained for many centuries, from Jews being accused of slaughtering babies for their blood during Passover in the Middle Ages, to their descendants engineering the 9/11 attacks. One myth associated with the latter is that Jews employed at the World Trade Center stayed home that day.

All this is led by an elaborate hierarchy. Sometimes names are given – a Soros, an Eisner, a Bloomberg – but many more unknown persons are assumed to be allies and lackeys in this quest for world dominion and subjugation of decent folk.

Even by the loose standards of this conspiracy theory, one of its more preposterous manifestations is in portraying The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as the Jews’ diabolical playbook. This has long since been exposed as a hoax, as it is a nearly-identical copy of The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. This work was a satirical work centering of Napoleon III plotting to conquer the world. For Elders of Zion, Large sections were plagiarized, with “Jews” replacing “Napoleon III.”

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning has identified three primary types of anti-Semitism. The first kind couches itself in a veneer of superiority. Just as a Klansman might consider Hispanics to be lazy, dirty, and justifiably destitute, there is an anti-Semitism that sees Jews as lowlifes, worthy of scorn but not to be feared except as criminals. This was the overwhelming type of anti-Semitism for millennia, but is the rarest type today.

The second kind rests at the opposite end of the spectrum and paints Jews as residing in a pit of avarice and cruelty, where they assume positions as our dark overlords who control the banking system and direct perpetual warfare for their benefit. Closely related to this is the belief in a Zionist-Occupied Government, where Jews make the la and institute policy, either for real or by proxy.

Finally, we have a religious anti-Semitism practiced by Christians and Muslims. Islamic distrust of Jews has been sustained for a millennium and a half and continues unabated. The practice of usury – oft times necessitated since Jews were forbidden to own property or run a business – was traditionally one of the reasons. That’s still the case, though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a much larger factor.

Christian disdain for Jewry was far more common 100 years ago. The Hebrew people were seen as messiah-denying, hell-bound heathens who slaughtered the savior. We don’t see this brand much anymore, as most American evangelical fundamentalists are convinced that blessings from the Abrahamic god will flow proportionally to the level of obsequious the U.S. displays toward Jerusalem.

However, there are some outside the Christian mainstream who prefer a more conspiratorial flavor to their worldview and who feel the end times will be ushered in by a Jewish anti-Christ. Additionally, there are some bigots without a religious bent who insist immigration is a Jewish plot to destroy the white race – a curious goal for a people who themselves are conspicuously light in melanin.

In an attempt to bolster their case, proponents of these conspiracy theories may point to the inordinate Jewish influence in business, the news media, and entertainment, but this is committing the affirming the consequent fallacy. It is failing to consider correlation and causation and other factors that can explain Jewish success in these areas. Also, this success does not mean it is used to realize a nefarious agenda.

Like other gloom-and-doom scenarios, the anti-Semitic one collapses under the weight of its extravagant claims. The fruition of those ghastly goals takes place in an Eternal Tomorrow, always on the cusp of happening, yet never quite arriving. To hear anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists tell it, there exists an incomprehensibly malevolent, highly-organized cabal of geniuses with supreme power and authority; It has at its disposal every means of manipulating commerce, trade, and militaries; It clandestinely pull the strings of legislatures, monarchies, industries, and the press. The end state is to solidify this power and bring the rest of us to our collective knees. Yet this has been said to have been the case for thousands of years and it never happens. These completely evil, supremely powerful people have had the means and desire to complete this dastardly deed, yet they all keep dying without it being accomplished. With those deaths, the theory should perish as well.


“Revisionist herstory” (Amelia Earhart disappearance)


Amelia Earhart started flying 50 years before states began considering the Equal Rights Amendment. Given her iconic, trailblazing status, her literal vanishing makes for a human tragedy and represents much unfulfilled promise. However, it also creates easy fodder for those who wish for a more exciting conclusion than a plane crash. The somewhat-still-respectable Nat Geo and the not-at-all-respectable History Channel have broadcast schlock fests promoting creative viewpoints about her disappearance.

Probably the wildest idea is that Earhart served as a spy and was captured by the Japanese, who groomed her to become Tokyo Rose. Competing for least likely scenario is the notion that she was held by Japan, but released after World War II and returned to the United States under an assumed name. The New Jersey banker identified in a book as the one perpetuating this ruse successfully sued the publisher and had the terrible tome withdrawn.

A hypothesis centering on Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan making it to Gardner, another South Pacific island, seems a little more credible by comparison. But these claims evaporate when one considers geography, navigation techniques, and Coast Guard logs.

One of the few areas of agreement between the mainstream and alternative camps is that Earhart and Noonan departed Papua New Guinea on July 2, 1937, bound for a refueling stop 2,500 miles away on Howland, a treeless speck of flat coral measuring barely two square miles.

At 6:14 a.m., the aviating duo radioed to the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was situated near Howland to assist with flight logistics. At the time, Earhart reported they were within 200 miles, but at 7:42, she alerted Coast Guardsmen that her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra was running low on fuel and that she saw no land. Her last known attempt to communicate came an hour later. A massive search conducted by nine ships and 66 aircraft produced no sign of the aviators or their plane.

The best evidence suggests the globetrotting duo ran out of fuel after miscalculating Howland’s location. It was dark, the atoll is tiny, and if they were very far off at all, the smoke plumes the Coast Guard was offering for visual support would have been unseen.

The Itasca crew could only pin the likely crash location to a broad expanse encompassing 23,000 nautical miles north of Howland. The fuel supply would have been insufficient to get beyond this area, and the two certainly would have been incapable of reaching Gardner. Alternative guesses are hypotheses at best, though unrestrained conjecture is more abject description. Claiming that her disappearance was caused by the Pacific Ocean’s version of the Bermuda Triangle would be nearly as convincing.

Earhart’s final radio transmission to the Itasca said they were in the immediate vicinity of Howland. However, Howland’s position was misplaced on Earhart’s chart by about five nautical miles. This would still have placed the island within the her vision, but if piloting or navigation errors were added to the mix, and the plane was beyond those five miles, the results could be fatal.

The only true mystery is exactly where in the ocean Earhart met her doom. Still, members of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) argues that she managed to make it to Gardner, where she and Noonan lived as castaways and made unsuccessful attempts at radioing for help or otherwise escaping their Pacific predicament. This resembles Gilligan’s Island and, in fact, the premise is about as goofy. Gardner sits 350 nautical miles north of Howland and getting there from Papua New Guinea would have required flying in a far more northeasterly direction than someone setting out for Howland would have employed.

TIGHAR, buoyed by the Nat Geo, maintains that debris and bones found on Gardner supports its position. However, the island has been frequently populated since the 19th Century by sundry types, to include pearl divers, colonists, Coast Guardsmen, and yachtsmen. There is no DNA evidence from the bones or other items that tie them to Earhart or Noonan.

An even more outlandish scenario, championed by the (cough cough) History Channel, is that the doomed duo were taken aboard a Japanese boat, which evaded the 4,000 search party members looking for them, and that they were then held as prisoners of war, even though the U.S. and Japan would not come to blows for another four years. The most prominent piece of evidence offered for this position was a photograph in the U.S. National Archives that show a man and woman on Jaluit Atoll.

Fittingly, this idea crashed spectacularly. Japanese military historian Kouta Yamano searched the photo database of Japan’s equivalent of the Library of Congress and it took him half an hour to find the photo in a 1935 book.

These types of conclusions are reached only if one begins with the assumption that Earhart and Noonan made it to Gardner, and then attempts to shoehorn in photos, bones, campfire pits, and artifacts to meet a predetermined storyline. Trying to ascertain if there could by another source for the items is not part of the equation. Instead, proponents jump to the least likely conclusion – that the debris belonged to someone who was never known to have been to the island and who had never planned on doing so.

For example, a partial human skeleton was found in 1940 and its discoverer, Gerald Gallagher, shipped the bones to Dr. David Hoodless, who determined the bones to be a relatively small male of European descent. That was enough for TIGHAR to conclude that the bones belonged to Noonan, as opposed to any of the hundreds of British colonists who were known to have made it to Gardner.

In more pretzel logic, ITHGAR considered the heel of a woman’s shoe found on Gardner to have be Earhart’s. Far more likely was that it belonged to a pearl diver, colonist, military member, or a victim of a 1929 shipwreck in the area. Unless one has a predisposed, insatiable desire to attribute this neglected footwear to a lost aviation pioneer, there is no reason to do so.

“Inflamed issue” (Anti-inflammatory diets)


Detoxing, boosting immunity, and decreasing inflammation are the trifecta of ill-defined alternative medicine gimmicks.

Only the liver and kidneys detox and if those are failing, you need the ER, not a Gwyneth Paltrow organic bean falafel.

And except in extreme cases, such as HIV positivity or late-stage cancer, immune boosting is neither possible nor desirable. In fact, it is the defining feature of autoimmune disorders such as arthritis and lupus.

Meanwhile, inflammation is blamed by some alternative medics as the cause of many diseases. This assertion comes with an accompanying claim that certain foods will prevent inflammation from ever occurring. There are a myriad of putative anti-inflammatory diets, none of them backed by empirical evidence that disease is caused by inflammation, that inflammation should necessarily be avoided, or that dietary choice would impact this.

Inflammation is unpleasant and its trademarks include redness and swelling. But in the same way that our nervous system lets us know if we’ve back into a hot pipe – giving us a temporary discomfort in exchange for avoiding long-term serious damage – inflammation promotes overall health. It is often the result of the body fending off an infection or healing an injury. Trying to halt it in such cases would likely be futile, and if one could somehow succeed, doing so would be detrimental.

Not that inflammation is always beneficial. It sometimes aggravates rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and asthma. Then there’s chronic inflammation, which accompanies a lingering illness or other long-lasting condition. But it’s crucial to understand the relationship between disease and inflammation. Inflammation does not cause a disease; Rather the disease can lead to inflammation. Inflammation can be good or bad, depending on the situation, and trying to halt it in all cases is a poor idea.  

If one is determined to try, ibuprofen is the way to go, as no foods have proven effective at decreasing inflammation. However, one can experience increased inflammation through overeating, especially after gorging on vittles high in saturated fat. After such gluttonous behavior, the body churns into overdrive as it struggles to metabolize all the munchies you’ve crammed into your pie hole while stretched on the recliner. Any such inflammation disappears after digestion. So the relationship between food and inflammation is that eating moderate portions will prevent it, other than the times where it’s the result of disease or injury, in which case it has curative properties you wouldn’t want extinguished. The key is the size of the meal, not its contents.

Some proponents of allegedly anti-inflammatory diets will blame processed foods, but this is another ill-defined term. Any change is a process, so a list of such foods would include any that are cooked, sliced, juiced, peeled, frozen, pickled, dried, sugared, fermented, dehydrated, canned, or pasteurized. As Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning put, “An uncut, unpeeled fruit or vegetable is about the only unprocessed food that it’s possible to get.”

So unless one is prepared for a diet of orange rinds and the like, the intake will include processed foods. And again, from an inflammation standpoint, as long as the portions are reasonable, a diet of cucumbers, beans, and salmon will produce the same results as one of pizza, French fries, and maple long johns. Now that’s an anti-inflammatory diet I could get into, and it would work as well as the rest.  

“Crimes with orange” (Glyphosate in OJ)


It is difficult to find orange juice containers without a Non-GMO label affixed. However, this is a redundant distinction since there are no genetically-modified oranges. These notices annoy food scientists and farmers, along with their skeptic allies. But they appeal to those who dread GMOs, such as the fearmongering group Moms Across America.

But kowtowing to this organization has done food companies little good since Moms Across America has launched another baseless attack against orange juice producers – that they drench their product in glyphosate.

This would seem highly unlikely for two reasons. First, glyphosate is made specifically for genetically modified foods, which oranges again are not. Second, it is never sprayed on trees, which is where oranges grow.

According to Kevin Folta, a University of Florida horticulturist and pariah to anti-GMO groups, the laboratory that announced the findings about glyphosate in orange juice is not an independent organization but is led by biotechnology opponent John Fagan. Of course, to dismiss findings because of their source is to commit the genetic fallacy ad hominem, which we strive to avoid. So let’s look closer at the claims and analyze them on their merits.

The testing of the tangy citrus drink was performed using a technique called LC-MS/MS, which Folta said can detect and measure glyphosate. “However,” he added, “the compound is detected in everything, so there’s no way to discriminate between a signal caused from glyphosate and a signal caused by some other compound that behaves in the same way during the chemical separation.” There would be no way to determine this absent a negative control, which the study failed to employ.

Further, there is no suggestion the testing was randomized, double-blind, or repeated. This means it’s unclear what kind of variation there was within the test or between samples. And even if the glyphosate detection was somehow real, Folta writes that the alleged amounts would be far too low to impact human health.  

Whatever the methods, the results were posted on the research organization’s website and not submitted to a peer-reviewed publication. The number one giveaway that someone is practicing pseudoscience is when they take their findings to a a sympathetic audience rather than submitting them for rigorous inspection to subject matter experts. So go ahead and drink orange juice unless you’ve always preferred Tang.



“Focal plane” (Survivor bias)


I sometimes hear tales about a childhood that consisted of unsupervised swimming, heavy whiskey drinking, riding in the back of a pickup truck, and living with asbestos and lead paint. This penalty-free daring continued in adulthood with helmetless motorcycle rides, and we’ve all heard from the 95-year-old great aunt who boasted about smoking a pack a day for three-quarters of a century. The insinuation is that none of these are a big deal since the person made it through unscathed.

But these are instances of survivor bias. Those who died doing those things are not here to tell us about it. There are also those who suffered nonlethal harm as a result. Dismissing those occurrences, especially when they are the norm, is the epitome of survivor bias, which relies on anecdotes over data. A person committing survivor bias focuses on entities that have made it through some selection, ordeal, or process, and assumes that represents the whole.

A person may say, “I wasn’t vaccinated and I’ve stayed healthy, so they’re unnecessary.” Or, “I have voraciously consumed ribs, eggs, and whole milk all my life and have below-average cholesterol. Those doctors and scientists don’t know what they’re talking about.” These conclusions take a sample size of one and apply it to the entire populace. They may even entail dismissing decades of properly-done research and empirical evidence. 

Moreover, even if a person turned out OK with a childhood of frequent smoking, drinking, and spankings, maybe he or she would have been even better without them. It might be more accurate to say that they turned out fine in SPITE of those things.

Then there’s the matter of where the ‘fine’ threshold lies. Is it merely maintaining mediocre employment while marrying, having children, and avoiding prison? I’ve heard persons who have managed not much more than this proclaim that they’ve “done OK.”

With regard to spanking, consistent research shows an increase in likely negative outcomes for those who are subjected to it. Unilaterally declaring that one has achieved an arbitrary benchmark of “doing OK” to assert that spanking is harmless is to dismiss sizable evidence to the contrary.

Another way of how it might work. One may say, “Vegans are so annoying, they always have to mention what they don’t eat.” But you are only hearing from vegans who tell you their dietary choices, not from those who refrain from doing so.

Survivor bias is also a regular feature of religion. In an interview with Larry King, Billy Graham cited a women who avoided a fatal crane plash through a series of delays that at the time seemed annoying but proved serendipitous. When Graham credited this to God, King pointed out there were scores of others who DID get on the plane.

Speaking of manned flights, the survivor bias term took root in World War II when Navy researchers studied damaged aircraft returning from missions. Their consequent suggestion was to add armor to the most-afflicted areas.  However, statistician Abraham Wald noted that researchers were only examining fighter planes that had made it back, meaning they could survive heavy hits to the affected areas. The better idea, he said, would be to galvanize parts of the plane that showed little to no damage since that is probably where planes that were shot down had gotten struck.  

Let’s look at some other examples. A study showed that cats which fell from less than six stories paradoxically had greater injuries than those who fall from six stories or higher. The initial suspicion was that the falling felines reached terminal velocity after righting themselves at five stories, after which they relaxed, leading to less severe injuries. However, a Straight Dope column suggested this was probably survivor bias since few dead cats would be brought to the veterinarian. Most of those who fell from six stories or more we likely killed on impact.

Now onto the plant world. Lianas are parasites that feast on trees, and the hosts of these unwelcome guests were seen to mostly be slow-growing and shade-tolerant. This led to a belief that lianas have stronger negative effects on these tree types. But further research showed liana infestation is actually more detrimental to trees that are light-demanding and fast-growing. So much more damaging, in fact, that it usually wipes them out, meaning researchers are less likely to find them.

The trees died, while failing mutual funds have a more figurative death. They are shuttered or absorbed into another fund. This means an investment company can accurately claim to be offering a better opportunity than what its track record would suggest since the mutual funds they are advertising are succeeding while those that failed have gone away.

During my time in Germany, I gazed in awe at the beautiful baroque architecture. But while it was amazing craftsmanship, that doesn’t mean J.S. Bach was surrounded only by stunning building designs in his time. It means those were the ones that survived because they were so amazing while the ugly ones were torn down.  

Likewise, most of us love stories with heroines like Barbara Corcoran, the Shark who turned a $1,000 loan into multibillion dollar business empire. But the idea that anyone with the right grit and inspiration can likewise become a successful entrepreneur, author, actor, soccer player, or inventor is survivor bias because we never see the failures. Nirvana and Apple both started in a garage, but there are many more bands and businesses who never left it.