“Khmer Ruse” (Angkor stegosaur)

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There exists an ancient temple carving in Cambodia that is interpreted to be a stegosaur by some folks. “Some folks” in this case being a euphemism for Young Earth Creationists. So anthropology professor Scott Burnett investigated these claims by spending two weeks at the site, named Ta Prohm, and at adjacent Khmer locations in Angkor Archaeological Park. He reported his findings in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Young Earth Creationists use the supposed stegosaur depiction as evidence that dinosaurs and humans were contemporaries. YECs maintain that all extinct and extant life arose by supernatural means less than 10,000 years ago, so dinosaurs dying out 150 million years back would throw a T- Rex-sized bone into that idea. Even by YEC standards, the Ta Prohm stegosaur hypothesis puts dinosaurs crazily close to the modern day. The Khmer Empire lasted from the 9th to 15th Centuries, a period that includes Joan of Arc’s brief lifetime.

The stegosaur claim made by YECs rests on these four points: 1. The carving resembles a stegosaur; 2. The image is ancient and not a modern hoax; 3. There are other known animals represented at Ta Prohm, so the carving represents a real creature; and 4. Stegosaurs had to have been known to the sculptor.

YECs are correct on point two, so we will not delve anymore into that assertion. As to the first point, while the carving somewhat resembles a stegosaur, this interpretation is primarily based on one item – apparent dorsal plates in a ridge pattern along the creature’s back. However, conspicuously missing from this supposed stegosaur are a long neck, a small plain head, and cool tail spikes, all of which are associated with this particular dinosaur.

YECs retort that the carving’s large head and horn-like appendages represent a muzzle, and that its tail spikes were removed for safety reasons by the captive stegosaur’s owner. This ad hoc reasoning is indicative of one reaching a predetermined conclusion rather than examining the evidence. There are zero anthropological or paleontological discoveries that suggest dinosaurs were alive 1,000 years ago, much less any proof that they were domesticated by Mekong Delta inhabitants.  

Further, Burnett argues that the muddled muzzle notion guess fails to account for other anatomical inconsistencies. For example, the animal’s limbs are uniform, whereas stegosaurs had long hind limbs but short, stout legs up front. As to the putative dorsal plates – the one seeming consistency with stegosaurs – there are explanations that negate the need to jump to the dinosaur conclusion. For example, Burnett pointed out the supposed plates might instead be background foliage or decorative elements. We’ll come back to that point a little later.

For now, on to the YEC’s third argument – that since there are known animals depicted at Ta Prohm, the bas relief carving is therefore a stegosaur. This is at once the affirming of the consequent fallacy and a refusal to acknowledge that mythological creatures are represented at the site.

YECs are correct that some of the carvings are of known animals. Nevertheless, Burnett cautions against exaggerating “our ability to interpret art across cultures, let alone those separated by over eight centuries, and particularly out of context.” He added that the site includes mythological animals, as well as genuine beasts who are riding atop deities. What’s more, the dividing line between natural and supernatural fauna is a blurred one in Khmer imagery.

As to the specifics of Angkor Archaeological Park carvings, they are laden with Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. The artist who created the bas relief in question may have been depicting one of those religions’ mythological animals, which has a superficial similarity with a stegosaur.

Similarly, several carvings of supposed animals at the site may not be what YECs presume them to be. Rather than being a monkey or deer, they may be a mythological beast, in the same sense that Bigfoot looks like an oversize upright gorilla and the Loch Ness Monster could be taken to be a plesiosaur’s cousin.

Burnett points out that the Indian epic Ramayana is a frequent subject matter of stone carvings in the Khmer region. The tale includes anthropomorphic primate brothers who pursue a demon that lured their sister away assuming the form of a beautiful golden deer.

“The ruins are full of Hindu and Buddhist iconography and symbolism,” Burnett wrote. “Mythological and supernatural beings abound at sites in the region. Some are chimeric in nature, including at Ta Prohm a muscular animal sitting upright, with a bird beak and long ears or horns. It also bears plates along the back reminiscent of the ‘stegosaur.” This seems a fatal blow to YEC contentions that the carving has to be of a real animal and that stegosaurs must have been known to the sculptor.

To gain a wider perspective, Burnett spent 10 days visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park, accessing and analyzing dozens images. Burnett had suspected that the supposed dorsal plates could instead be background foliage. So he searched for other animal carvings with similar features to this one, and he also looked for any images that seemed to be of the supposed stegosaur but without the plates. He explained that he looked for carving of animals with “five key characteristics — quadrupedal posture, thick limbs of roughly equal length, an arched back, ornamented head, and long tail, in the absence of a sixth characteristic—dorsal plates.” And he did uncover a depicted animal that satisfied those criteria.

As to his suspicion that the plates were actually foliage, Burnett “found clear evidence suggesting that ornamental elaboration and vegetation are much more parsimonious explanations for the appearance of the animal. Dorsal ornamentation or vegetation is clearly associated with the animal immediately above the stegosaur. Even higher in the column of images that appear to be conveying a narrative of sorts, are plate- or petal-like depictions. On other occasions, vegetation might be seen underneath or behind animals.”

Finally, the YEC assertion lacks any evidence from the time period that would be consistent with dinosaurs living amongst the Khmer people. There are no dinosaur images on ceramics, paintings, or drawings from the era. More crucially, anthropologists have yet to find dinosaur bones among cultural deposits from this period. The terrible lizards are nowhere to be found among the exhaustive species lists compiled from Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions at Angkor sites. Additionally, Zhou Daguan served as Chinese ambassador to Angkor barely a century after the supposed stegosaur image was created. He kept a journal that included descriptions of animals from that time and place, and he jotted down nothing that would be consistent with a late Triassic herbivore.

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“Ticked off” (Weaponized insects)

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A New Jersey congressman has convinced his colleagues the Pentagon should investigate whether the government once weaponized ticks, thus creating Lyme disease. This twisted tale has a second act in which the insidious insects are loosed and begin spreading the disease throughout the congressman’s home state.

The house unanimously approved Rep. Chris Smith’s amendment and according to Vice, the Department of Defense will investigate “whether any ticks or insects used in such experiments were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design.”

Smith suspects the military may have considered ticks or other insects to be potential biological weapons delivery platforms during the Cold War. The alleged experiments were said to be carried out between 1950 and 1975 on Plum Island, N.Y., near New Jersey. Smith bases this mostly on the contents of Bitten: The Secret History of Lyme Disease and Biological Weapons by science journalist Kris Newby.

The author describes New Jersey as “ground zero of this outbreak,” with Smith’s district being especially hard hit. To be sure, the Garden State has had its share of the disease, including 5,092 reported cases in 2017. In the Vice article, Newby surmises that the military may have focused on rickettsia, a tick-borne germ  that acts like a virus.

But entomology experts say the notion of airborne chemical warfare via parasitic arachnids is inconsistent with history, geography, and science.

“There’s evidence that Lyme disease was here before Columbus,” said,Phil Baker, executive director for the American Lyme Disease Foundation. Besides that, he continued, Lyme disease is not fatal, making it an unlikely candidate for a potential biological weapon.

Richard Ostfeld, who holds a Ph.D. in disease ecology, agreed with Baker that the tick’s long history makes Smith’s conspiracy theory highly unlikely.

“Both the tick and the bacterium that cause Lyme disease are ancient creatures,” he explained. “There is strong scientific evidence that the present-day forms of this bacterium diverged from a common ancestor at least 60,000 years ago.” Also, a mummy found in the Alps and dating back more than 5,000 years showed traces of Lyme.

Not only is the disease not of recent vintage, but it is found throughout the United States, as well as Europe and Asia.

“The notion that Lyme was created on Plum Island doesn’t represent the real geographic distribution of the disease in recent decades,” Ostfeld said.

Smith, however, is hopeful that the investigation will reveal something akin to a 1950s SciFi flick. He further hopes this will lead to a cure and stated, “The millions of people suffering from Lyme and other tick-borne diseases deserve to know the truth.”

The likely truth, however, is that it’s the investigation which is sucking taxpayers dry.

 

“Not oil it’s cracked up to be” (CBD)

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CBD oil is touted as a cure or mitigation for a wide range of illnesses and conditions. CBD is one of many chemical compounds that are isolated from cannabis, with CBD and THC being the most well-known. THC is what gets marijuana smokers stoned, whereas CBD has no such impact.

But will CBD make a patient healthier? There are a few conditions it might help, but there is inconsistency among CBD products. Depending on location, CBD oil might be available only on the black market or have quasi-legal status, and in these instances, there is no oversight with regard to product quality and uniformity. By contrast, in some countries where cannabis is legal, licensed dealers must have independent validation of CBD and THC content, as well as verification of quality.

In either case, the evidence for CBD oil as a medicine is scant, and its efficacy is established for only a few conditions. Those include Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, but there is insufficient reason to believe it acts as a painkiller, and there is zero evidence it treats or prevents cancer.

Now, CBD does have some impact on the body, which also means side effects. CBD oil can hamper or increase the effects of some pharmaceutical drugs, so any patient popping prescription pills should know the risk of combining their medication with CBD oil. Furthermore, aggression, anger, irritability, agitation, and sleepiness have all been reported with CBD products. With no set dosage prescribed and little in the way of controlled, double blind studies, unknowns about CBD oil include its efficiency, its long-term effects, and its safety.

The fact that marijuana was illegal for so long despite suspected medical benefits and it being much less dangerous than tobacco and alcohol seemingly lends credence to the idea that there was a government and Big Pharma cover-up. But in truth, legislation was based on panic, not corruption. And the pharmaceutical industry would have profited from the product were it legal.

While marijuana, which includes CBD has shown some medical promise, smoking it or eating it in brownie form would be far less efficient than identifying, isolating, and extracting the active ingredient and distributing it at the proper dosage.

Dr. David Gorski of Science-Based Medicine writes that most research cited by proponents as suggesting cannabis cures cancer are either in vitro or animal studies. Most often, these do not translate to human use or benefit.

Cannabis will not cure cancer, either in smoked form or extracted as CBD oil. Gorski further cautions that even in purified form, naturally-derived or synthetic cannabinoids demonstrate only modest antitumor abilities in preclinical models. This means they would have to be added to existing chemotherapeutic regimens to possibly have any benefit. Gorski explains, “If they do find their way into the routine clinical treatment of cancer, it will be through rigorous pharmacological studies and rigorous clinical trials, the latter of which, in particular, are painfully lacking.”

Further research is justified, but at this point, CBD oil’s status as a near-panacea is unjustified and such assertions are almost always a pseudoscience giveaway.

“Planted evidence” (Plant sentience)

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A sentient plant is usually considered to be in the realm of science fiction. Think Audrey II from The Little Shop of Horrors. But some researchers are open to the idea that plants are capable of emotions and the ability to feel, perceive, or experience stimuli objectively. These Proponents compare electrical signaling in plants to nervous systems in animals.

Those on the other side of the debate consider this analogy superficial and think it fails to consider the brain’s functions and complexity. The model of consciousness developed by neurobiologist Todd Feinberg and medical professor Jon Mallatt ascribes to brains a certain level of structure and ability that enable the bodies that house them to have subjective experiences. The electrical signaling system in plants lacks these distinctions, they say.

Feinberg and Mallatt compared simple and complex animal brains, and in an interview with the Genetic Literacy Project, retired biology professor Lincoln Taiz said the duo “concluded that only vertebrates, arthropods, and cephalopods possess the threshold brain structure for consciousness. Plants, which don’t even have neurons, let alone brains, don’t have” this structure. Instead, he continued, “What we’ve seen is that plants and animals evolved very different life strategies. The brain is very expensive organ, and there’s absolutely no advantage to the plant to have a highly developed nervous system.”

As to electrical signals, plants use them like a distribution center to send charged molecules to membranes, and also to deliver internal messages. When the former happens it might cause a plant’s leaves to curl since ionic movement may force water to leave the cells, changing their shape. In the latter, when an insect chomps on one leaf, this might initiate a defensive mechanism in the rest of the appendages. These types of actions can make it seem like the plant is choosing its responses, but Taiz stresses the reactions are the result of genetic coding and fine-tuning via natural selection.

Plants might curl their leaves when touched or grow more rapidly near competitors. They can even seduce and trap  insects, with the Venus Flytrap being the best-known example. But Taiz, Feinberg, and Mallatt argue there is no sound evidence that indicates plants choose their actions, gain knowledge, or suffer pain.

One study cited by plant sentience proponents involves possible conditioning of the perennial flower mimosa pudica. In experiments, its leaves defensively curl when the plant is dropped. After many iterations of this without damage occurring, the leaves cease to curl. But when the plant is shaken, the leaves again curl, which seems to rule out fatigue as the reason that response stopped.

But this is a misinterpretation, Taiz cautions: “The shaking was actually quite violent. Because the shaking stimulus was stronger than the dropping stimulus, it doesn’t definitively rule out sensory adaptation, which doesn’t involve learning.”

So it seems that thinking, acting plants are still in the domain of movies and tabloids. That’s fine by me. I don’t much care for such notions as a killer cactus or poison oak having the ability to spew its sap.

“Psi sigh” (Parapsychology)

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Psychology professor Etzel Cardeña wrote an article last year for American Psychologist that purports to show evidence for parapsychological phenomena. To bolster his case, Cardeña referenced quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity, and the block universe hypothesis, a model in which past, present, and future exist simultaneously.

As a counter to Cardeña’s claims, psychologists Arthur Reber and James Alcock penned an essay for Skeptical Inquirer, in which they opined that Cardena’s effort was the latest in a 150-year failed attempt to legitimize parapsychology. There reasons for these failures, they assert, is that every claim made by psi researchers violates fundamental principles of science.

Reber and Alcock did not examine Cardeña’s data since they considered it irrelevant.  As a comparison, they noted that pigs cannot fly, so any data that points to swine being independently airborne would be the result of “flawed methodology, weak controls, inappropriate data analysis, or fraud.” They focused not so much on Cardeña’s claims but on parapsychology’s in general.

One reason they did so is because, as they noted, parapsychology is a faux field that hasn’t progressed since its inception in the 1880s. Then, as today, the overarching theme is that there is an unidentified, untraceable “more” to our universe beyond atoms, molecules, senses, people, and planets. This grandiose claim comes with zero testable or empirical evidence.

One scientific law that would need to be violated for parapsychological claims to be true is causality. Effects have causes and, with psi, there are no causal mechanisms, and none have been hypothesized. More relevant, there is no consideration of if the supposed psi effects have one causal mechanism or many. There is also the issue of inconsistency. The skeptical duo ask, “If psychokinesis affects the roll of dice in a psi lab, why not at craps tables? If telepathy exists, why are our brains not constantly abuzz with the thoughts of those around us? For allegedly existing now, the future only shows up in parapsychology lab tests.”

Then there are violations of Time’s Arrow. Parapsychology asserts an ability to warp time, most glaringly when involving precognition. Psi researchers regularly love to drop the term “Quantum Mechanics” and they often do so when referencing the entanglement effect. This in an example of pseudoscience, where scientific terms are used, albeit incorrectly, to try and lend credence to a position. Now, it’s true that two spinning particles separated in space are entangled since the state of one is simultaneously aligned with the other. But this does not equate to a reversal of time; there are merely concurrent effects.

“The notion that the strangeness of the quantum world harbors an explanation of the strangeness of parapsychology is a false equivalency,” Reber and Alcock write. Indeed, this is the secular version of “I don’t know, therefore a god did it,” with quantum mechanics replacing the instigating deity.

Quantum mechanics is hellaciously complex and probably less than one percent of people fully comprehend it. That leaves ample room for confusion and in this large area is where pseudoscientists like Cardeña operate. But there’s nothing in quantum mechanics that would validate or necessitate paranormal occurrences.

Yet another law that would need to be violated for parapsychological claims to be valid relates to thermodynamics. Again, consider precognition. For the future to impact the present, this would necessitate violating the principle that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. The act of choosing a playing card, a common technique in psi research, involves neurological processes that involves measurable biomechanical energy. The choice is presumed to be caused by a future that, having no existential reality, lacks energy.

Finally, we have an Inverse Square Law violation. In supposed telepathy, the distance between the two involved persons never seems to be a factor. This is inconsistent with the principle that signal strength falls off with the square of the distance traveled. Psi researchers again employ the entanglement effect as a possible explanation, but within quantum mechanics, there is no transmission of energy between the separated particles, they are merely entangled.

In conclusion, if psi effects were genuine, they would have already landed fatal blows to vast blocks of scientific knowledge.

“Doctor’s horrors” (Jim Meehan)

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Anti-vax doctors represent a microscopic percent of their profession, but when they highlight their medical training, it may cause some with doubts to sway the wrong way. Today we will examine the claims of one of them, Dr. Jim Meehan, as well as counterarguments from the Skeptical Raptor blogger, Dorit Rubinstein Reiss.

While Meehan uses phrases like “informed choice” and “parental rights,” he is not merely an advocate for education and options, he is explicitly anti-vaccine and encourages parents to leave their children vulnerable to miserable, dangerous, and possibly deadly diseases, rather than inoculate their offspring against them.

He claims these diseases are no big deal, might even be beneficial, and are treatable with a holistic, integrative, homeopathic, or other alt-med buzzword approach. With regard to wonderful whooping cough, magnificent measles, and sensational smallpox, the deluded doc insists there are benefits of children encountering these and other diseases. But Reiss notes that Meehan leaves it unclear exactly what a child gains from contracting the likes of diphtheria, polio, tetanus, and pertussis. Such a mindset would have been unimaginable in the days of the iron lung and is only entertained today only because vaccines’ success have made these misfortunes ones that most of us were never exposed to.

Reiss writes that measles kills one victim in a thousand, while diphtheria and tetanus have a 10 percent mortality rate. So unless Meehan is presuming an everlasting paradise after death, it’s uncertain what benefits he is referring to. Polio paralyzes and kills its victims and many of the other diseases Meehan gushes over can lead to weeks of suffering followed by lifelong afflictions. Here is a modern account of measles, which Meehan considers a mild irritant that leads to a positive outcome.

Meehan also trots out the toxin gambit, which plays to anti-vaxxers’ chemophobia. He sounds the sensationalist alarm thusly: “I have seen the evidence of neurotoxicity from ingredients like aluminum, Polysorbate 80, human DNA and cellular residues from the human cells lines, upon which many of the live viruses are grown.”

Reiss notes that in about one case in a million, a person may have a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine, usually because of gelatin. So it could be argued that vaccines are only 99.9999 percent safe, but that leaves them much safer than smallpox, diphtheria, and polio.

Also, always remember that the dose and form of the ingredient is what matters. Vaccines never contain elemental aluminum, as Meehan implies. Rather, they contain tiny amounts of aluminum salts in order to prompt a stronger immune response, and these infinitesimal doses are handled by the body’s natural processes. Moreover, there is no evidence that the minuscule amounts of polysorbate 80 in vaccines poses a risk. As to the small amount of DNA that may be in a vaccine, Reiss notes that if it was that easy for fragments of DNA to impact our body, gene therapy would be much easier than it is.

The main plank in Meehan’s rambling rants is that vaccine science is fraudulent and purchased by Big Pharma. But vaccines prevent millions of hospitalizations and their accompanying medications each year, which deprives pharmaceutical companies of a fortune.

Further, there are tens of thousands of safety studies about vaccines. This research is done worldwide and is funded by multiple sources, such as businesses, universities, and governments, including governments that run a national health insurance system, and thus have a strong incentive to find preventive and curative measures.

To believe all this is part of a plot to enrich pharmaceutical company coffers and poison our children is to assume a conspiracy on an unimagined and untenable scale. It also ignores what happens when there is an issue with vaccine efficiency or safety.

Reiss cites four examples where certain strains of a vaccine were shown to be ineffective or contain a significant side effect. Each time it made for major news and the vaccines were pulled or retested. These responses are inconsistent with a secretive cover-up aimed at making pharmaceutical executives even richer with no concern for children suffering and dying.

In fact, for all his accusations, Meehan has been unable to identify an instance where a pharmaceutical company knowingly let a dangerous vaccine onto the market. And for all his dire warnings and writings, Meehan has yet to appear in peer-reviewed journal.

 

“What’s the point?” (Cell phone horns)

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There have been hell-themed moral panics before, but the latest is the first I’m aware of that asserts the literal growing of horns by our wayward youth. Writing for Vice, Caroline Haskins tells of two Australian researchers, David Shahar and Mark Sayers, who report that these pointy appendages are protruding from the lower skulls of teens and young adults. They suspect this may be due to the horned ones continually titling their head forward and downward while continually using a cell phone.

To be clear, a substantial percentage of late teens and young adults are experiencing this devilish development, though the projections don’t actually poke through the scalp. In 2016, Shahar and Sayers looked at a group of 218 subjects between ages 18 to 30, and determined that 41 percent of them had a small enthesophytes at the base of their skulls. Enthesophytes are abnormal bony projections that normally attach themselves to tendons or ligaments, and usually result from stress applied to a bone.

The question is whether these instances are being caused by cell phone use, which the researchers say is only possibility, but which sensationalized press reports have treat as a virtual certainty. These alarming articles fail to consider other causes or look into whether the enthesophytes incident rate has mushroomed in the cell phone era.

There is nothing in the duo’s studies to suggest the ubiquitous communication devices are leading to bony appendages, or that there is a correlation for two in five young adults having them. Shahar and Sayers merely say that further research on the topic is warranted.

However, a slew of news articles embraced the narrative that the world’s youth are turning into little horned monsters. Such panics have been applied to cell phones before, be it WiFi cancer scares or the assertion that there was a condition called Smartphone Pinky. This referred to an alleged deformity caused by the way people held their phone. In fact, the “deformity” was a curve in the finger bone that has been normal in humans for millenniums.

With regard to the idea of skull enthesophytes being formed by repeatedly looking down and forward, there would be questions as to why this didn’t develop when books became common. There could also be genetic or environmental factors in play, or it could be the result of general posture, not just the position one assumes when responding to text messages about what you’re bringing to the potluck.

All this represents the latest in an uninterrupted string of moral panics surrounding developing technology. Ironically, such developments make it easy to quickly saturate a virtual universe with concocted concerns about sprouting horns – horns that most readers will fittingly find out about via their phones.