Category Archives: Skepticism

Apparently, I don’t exist


On an episode of Law and Order, a defense attorney is cross-examining a witness (testifying about what killed the deceased) in what looks like a slam-dunk case. The attorney knows the case against his client is very damning, and is trying to find some “reasonable doubt” for the jury to latch on to, with no luck. Finally, in desperation, he asks “It is possible that something else killed him?” The witness replies matter-of-factly, “It’s possible that death rays from Mars killed him. But I don’t think so.”


Noted evangelist Ray Comfort has decided that atheists don’t really exist. Note the way he words it: “There can be no such things [sic] as an atheist.” He’s not just saying that atheists don’t exist, he’s saying they can’t exist. Seeing as I am one, I was curious to know why Mr. Comfort doesn’t believe in me. So I read it.

Comfort is the same guy who once did a video with former actor Kirk Cameron about why the banana is “the atheist’s nightmare” – because it’s conveniently shaped for human hands, it has a non-slip surface, has a biodegradable wrapper, and other nonsensical reasons. Obviously, it must have been designed by God. This is ridiculous on a number of levels. First off, the banana he describes is one of a number of types of banana, and others don’t have the same qualities. Bananas don’t grow all over the world, which you’d think they would if God had designed them to be human food. The coconut was presumably also designed by God but grows in an inconvenient location and the wrapper is much more difficult to get through. There are lots of things that grow on plants that have many of these qualities but are poisonous. But most importantly, the banana he describes was not designed by God at all; it is the way it is because of hundreds of years of domestication – we keep and cultivate only the plants that grow the bananas the way we want them.

(Note that Comfort has since semi-recanted, saying that he now realizes that the argument was invalid because of the way the banana was bred. But now he says that it’s kind of still valid because God gave us the ability to do the breeding in the first place.)

Anyway, his reasoning for why atheists don’t exist is as follows:

To say categorically, “There is no God,” is to make an absolute statement. For the statement to be true, I must know for certain that there is no God in the entire universe. No human being has all knowledge. Therefore, none of us is able to truthfully make this assertion.

While this is undeniably true, it’s also completely meaningless. An atheist is not someone who claims to know for a fact that God does not exist, he’s someone who believes that God does not exist. Even the people who put atheist messages on billboards and buses phrased it as “There’s probably no God.” Not “unequivocally”, not “definitely”. “Probably”. I don’t need to know everything about everything in order to believe this. Can I prove it? No, but I’m not trying to and no atheist has ever (seriously) claimed to be able to. You see evangelists claiming “proof” of God all the time, but none of them has ever actually provided any.

During Bill Nye’s debate on evolution with Ken Ham, each was asked about what would make them change their minds. Nye responded as any skeptic would – if there was actual evidence, I’d change my mind.

We would need just one piece of evidence, we would need the fossil that swam from one layer to another; we would need evidence that the universe is not expanding, we need evidence that the stars appear to be far away, but they’re not. … Bring out any of those things, and you would change me immediately.

Ham responded that nothing possibly could:

And so, as far as the word of God is concerned, no one’s ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.

So if I were to ask Mr. Ham whether it’s possible that he’s wrong, it’s pretty clear what his answer would be: no, it’s not possible. If Mr. Ham asked me, however, I’d happily admit that it’s possible I’m wrong. It’s definitely possible that there’s a God who created the universe 6000 years ago and then decided to leave no incontrovertible evidence of his existence and make the universe look exactly like it would had it been created in a big bang 14 billion years ago. But I don’t think so.

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Waitin’ on the world to change


How the world should work

Science: Hey everyone! We’ve invented a way to genetically modify plants! We can grow ten times as much food in the same farmland and maybe help solve world hunger! Or we could add nutrients that are naturally missing in the food! Or make it last longer before it spoils!

General public: Interesting! How safe is it for human consumption? Does the food have the same nutritional value? What are the long term health effects?

Science: Good questions! We’re not sure yet, but we’re running trials and studies now. We’ll let you know.

5-10 years pass

Science: Great news! Studies show that the genetically modified food is just as healthy and we have not come across any long-term health concerns!

General public: Great! Bring it on!

World peace and happiness ensues


How the world really works

Science: Hey everyone! We’ve invented a way to genetically modify plants! We can grow ten times as much food in the same farmland and maybe help solve world hunger! Or we could add nutrients that are naturally missing in the food! Or make it last longer before it spoils!

Small subset of vocal anti-science people: What? That’s not natural! It’s Franken-food! It’s turning normal healthy food into abnormal mutant food! I’m not a scientist or anything, but since I don’t understand the science behind it, it can’t be healthy. It uses chemicals and things I can’t pronounce!

Science: Well, what you said doesn’t really make sense, but to be honest, we really haven’t studied it enough yet. We’re running trials and studies now. We’ll let you know.

Anti-science people: It doesn’t matter! We don’t trust it and nothing you can say will change our minds!

5-10 years of anti-science people talking about how bad GMO is

Science: Great news! Studies show that the genetically modified food is just as healthy and we have not come across any long-term health concerns!

General public: But those guys have been saying for years how dangerous GMOs are! I’m not eating that stuff! We should ban it, or force companies to label it so people will know they’re eating dangerous Franken-food!

Science: What? There’s no evidence that it’s dangerous. In fact, we’ve demonstrated that it’s not dangerous. Where did you get this information from?

Anti-science people: Well of course you’d say that. You’re in league with Monsanto and the evil GMO companies to poison the world and get rich!

Science: What?!? That makes no sense at all, and you never answered our question about where you got your information. Why would we try to poison the world? Remember we live in the world too. We’d be poisoning ourselves and our own families. Plus, how does poisoning the world make us rich?

Anti-science people: The fact that there’s no evidence of the conspiracy proves the conspiracy is real! They’re covering it all up!

General public: Conspiracy! GMO is evil!

Science: (sigh)

Top 5 reasons why there is no global medical conspiracy


If you look at websites, blogs, or Facebook pages about things like alternative medicines, organic/all-natural foods, or conspiracy theories you will almost undoubtedly find people talking about “the medical conspiracy”. The idea here is that there are natural cures for many (some say all) diseases, and the medical and pharmaceutical industries know about them but are suppressing the information. They do this because they make more money from treating but not curing diseases than they would from curing them. In some cases, the conspiracy also says that “Big Pharma” has created cures but they’re also being suppressed for the same reason. (Of course, nobody explains why Big Pharma would spend the time and money working on creating such cures if they’re going to suppress them.) The alternative medicine industry is all over this idea, because otherwise they have no good answer to “If <whatever> works, then why doesn’t every doctor advise their patients to use it?”

At first blush, this sounds like it could make sense – would you rather charge someone $25,000 once for a very expensive cure, or $1,000 a month for treatment that will be required for the rest of their life? You probably would make a lot more money keeping people sick and therefore dependent on your treatment. But we need to think deeper. What would be required for such a conspiracy to exist and succeed?

Here are five reasons why this idea is ludicrous. Throughout these answers, we’re going to assume that the conspiracy does exist, that natural cures for diseases do exist, that the people running it would like it to continue, and that they’d like to keep it quiet from the general public. Then we’ll examine the ramifications of those assumptions.

Reality Check

1. The number of people involved would be immense.

Surely there are some medical professionals out there who are more interested in the health of their patients than in making money. What would happen if one of them didn’t know about the conspiracy and unwittingly started telling their patients about the natural cures that really work, rather than giving them the expensive drugs and invasive surgeries that are part of the conspiracy? Even worse, what if they started telling their fellow doctors about the cures? It would spread like wildfire! But the whole conspiracy would then be exposed or unraveled. People would be cured and no longer have to pay for expensive medication! We can’t have that! So the conspiracy would have to include almost all doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, medical researchers, professors, even dentists, dental hygienists, and veterinarians. We’re talking about the entire medical and pharmaceutical industries as well as every non-alternative medical school in the world.

Since this is a massive cover-up, there would have to be non-medical people involved as well. So not only would this include the medical professionals, scientists, and professors but also post-doc and graduate medical students, company executives, lawyers, actuaries, accountants, admin people, you name it.

The entire insurance industry would have to be part of the conspiracy as well since they’re footing the bill for lots of expensive medications for their customers. You’re delusional if you think they’re just going to take the word of doctors and scientists that this super-expensive medication (that they’re paying for!) is the best option – they’re going to do (or at least fund) their own research. What happens if they come up with a different conclusion than the corrupt medical researchers? The people running the conspiracy can’t take that chance.

But of course, it’s all about the Benjamins. If the conspiracy is true then the insurance companies have undoubtedly figured out what would happen if the public found out about the natural cures for everything. First, they’d save a ton of money by not having to pay for expensive medication. Second, they’d lose a ton of money because a lot of people wouldn’t bother paying for health insurance anymore. They’ve done the math. I don’t know which but one of these must be true:

  1. They’d lose more money through lost revenue than they’d save by not paying for expensive medication. This wouldn’t benefit them at all, so they can’t let the public find out. It’s in their best interest to be in on the conspiracy. Or…
  2. They’d save more money than than they’d lose in revenue. This would cost them millions, and so they’d waste no time in exposing the conspiracy.

Since #2 hasn’t happened, we know that the insurance companies must be in on it.

And don’t forget the FDA in the US, and its equivalents in all other countries. They absolutely must be involved – what if the expensive drugs don’t get approved for use and the cheap natural ones do?

With all the medical, pharmaceutical, educational, insurance, and government people involved, this would have to involve at the very least millions of people, possibly tens or even hundreds of millions, in every country in the world. This would be by far the most massive and complicated conspiracy in human history. And yet with those millions of people involved, there’s no concrete evidence of it.

2. Success in corrupting the people involved would have to be near 100%.

Most of the people involved in the conspiracy would be doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc. But none of these people knew about the conspiracy before they got into those professions. Almost all of them are people who originally chose to get into the medical profession because they wanted to spend their lives helping sick people. For the conspiracy to succeed, all of them must have:

  • been informed of the conspiracy, and
  • abandoned their ethics and their reasons for getting into medicine in the first place, and
  • been corrupted to the point of either joining the conspiracy and saying nothing, or not joining the conspiracy but somehow keeping quiet about it.

The number of people who were informed of the conspiracy and were outraged and immediately went public is near zero. I can’t say it is zero because I have seen people on various alternative medicine sites claim that they were in the medical profession but got out because it was, in their opinion, ineffective or corrupt. But the number of people who were outraged and went public with compelling evidence of the conspiracy is zero. None. Nobody.

Drugs and Money3. Most of the people who would have to be involved in the conspiracy have no incentive.

Obviously, for this conspiracy to be successful, all of the people involved in it must be willing to sacrifice their ethics – letting patients die, allowing them to suffer in pain and discomfort for years, allowing their friends and family members to suffer both emotionally and financially, and all for the promise of big money. There are certainly leading medical professors and doctors that make boatloads of money. But what about your average nurse in a hospital? She’d have to be involved, or she’d be curing people left and right instead of keeping them sick. But how many nurses do you know that are rich? According to this survey, the median annual wage for a nurse is about $65,000 in the US. That’s pretty decent money, but would every nurse sacrifice their ethics for only $65k a year?

Maybe the $65k is just their salary, and they get other secret kickbacks from the conspiracy. In that case, not only would all the nurses need to be involved, but their families as well. Otherwise the nurse’s spouse might wonder where that extra few million dollars or the Porsche in the driveway came from. If that’s the case, then it’s true for most of the other people involved as well, and we just doubled the number of people who’d have to be complicit in the conspiracy.

4. The whistleblowers are still alive.

According to the conspiracy, all medical professionals are willing to let patients suffer and die needlessly. So why are the whistleblowers still alive? Mike Adams from NaturalNews.com talks about the conspiracy every day, as do people on hundreds of other web sites. There are many people running natural medicine practices that by their very existence threaten to expose the conspiracy. If doctors are willing to let millions of people die from already-cured diseases, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t be above killing people who are exposing the conspiracy and threatening their substantial profits. But this isn’t happening.

5. There’s more money to be made in providing cures than in suppressing them.

Say you’re a medical researcher and you discover something (natural or otherwise) that kills only cancer cells, or stimulates the pancreas to continuously produce more insulin, or cures Alzheimer’s or AIDS or something else. (Let’s just gloss over the huge question of why your job even exists – again, why Big Pharma would spend tons of money and time researching for such cures only to suppress them. It’s not like the first person to find a cure prevents others from finding it.) In your job, you obviously know about the conspiracy to keep it suppressed, so you’d have to report your findings to your superiors and not tell anybody about it.

But say you don’t.

Say you know a few other researchers and you have them replicate your tests and then you all go public and create a company to sell this new found cure. You tell the world “We have a cure for cancer, and we’ll sell a dose to anyone who wants it. For $1000, you can be free of cancer forever.” Such a company would be swimming in money and the discoverers would be world famous – the Nobel Prize, cover of Time, money for nothing, chicks for free, all that good stuff.

Could this company make more money by having people pay them $1000 a month for life rather than $1000 once? Yes, but once again that assumes that every medical researcher would sacrifice their ethics for even bigger money. Would many sacrifice their ethics for $10 million? Sure. But would they sacrifice their ethics and $10 million for $50 million? $100 million? Maybe but I’m sure there are a few who would take the $10 million and keep their ethics intact.

To avoid their researchers going public, the overseers of the conspiracy would have to bribe them with immense amounts of money that would keep them from going public. They’d have to make sure they do this before the big breakthroughs are made and somehow guarantee the researchers’ loyalty. The researchers would then have to explain to their friends and family members why they are multi-gazillionaires but none of their research has even been published.

Oh wait, I know how this could be explained! And it explains the nurse problem described in #3 above!

Theory: Lotteries like Powerball are actually run by the people running the medical conspiracy. It’s their way of bribing people involved in the conspiracy to keep quiet in such a way that it’s easy to explain to their friends and families why they’re suddenly rich.


So basically, if we assume the conspiracy exists, then we find a number of inconsistencies with what we’d expect and what we see in the real world. If the conclusions are wrong (that all doctors and nurses in the world are rich and corrupt, and everyone who tries to expose the conspiracy is silenced), then our initial assumption must be wrong. There is no conspiracy. Reductio ad absurdum.

Some of the people who believe in this supposed conspiracy do so because they’ve had a bad experience of some kind. Perhaps they or a loved one was misdiagnosed and got sicker instead of better. Perhaps someone they know even died from such a misdiagnosis. Are there incompetent doctors who prescribe the wrong medication or the wrong dosage, misdiagnose patients, and so on? Of course there are. Remember the old joke: what do you call the person who finished last in his medical school graduating class? You call him “doctor”. But it’s a huge stretch to assume that all doctors are this bad and also to assume that any errors that are made are actually part of the conspiracy and not simply mistakes made by fallible human beings.

Are there unscrupulous doctors, nurses, etc. who would take place in such a conspiracy? Almost certainly. But again, it’s a massive stretch to extend this to all or even most doctors.

None of this addresses whether these natural cures exist or if alternative medicine actually works (better than placebo). If not, then the idea of the conspiracy is moot since there’d be no point. But we can see that the likelihood of the conspiracy existing is virtually nil, and so if alternative medicine really is the cure-all miracle that it claims to be, we come back to the question I mentioned at the top: why don’t the majority of doctors recommend reiki, homeopathy, faith healing, or other naturopathic techniques to their patients?

Now, what’s more likely? That this incredibly complex and vast conspiracy actually exists and is functioning perfectly (and yet they are doing nothing about the people trying to expose it), or that the medical community really does have humanity’s health as their primary goal and it’s just a very difficult and expensive process?

 

Shout out to my brother-in-law Stephen, who’s currently at Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto fighting liver cancer. He asked me to post something interesting for him to read – I hope this will suffice. Hang in there, buddy. We’re all thinking about you.

Homeopathy: Much ado about nothing


I visited a doctor a little while ago and he suggested three different treatments for me. The first was expensive and not covered by insurance. The second was a strong drug that could be hard on the liver, and given my medical history he said it was not a good idea for me. The third was what he called a “homeopathic” remedy. The description did not sound remotely homeopathic, so I questioned him on it. He admitted it was actually a naturopathic remedy, and that he didn’t know the difference between “naturopathic” and “homeopathic”. I informed him.

For what it’s worth, I chose the natural remedy and it is working nicely, thank you.

Homeopathy is one of the most hilariously silly alternative medicine systems. I decided to write this article because it seems that many people don’t know what homeopathy is, and confuse it with herbal remedies or naturopathic medicine in general (as the doctor did). Herbal remedies and homeopathic remedies are quite different. While some herbal remedies are pseudoscientific, having no evidence of their efficacy, many others really do work and many of the drugs and medicines we all use are based on herbal remedies. Homeopathy, on the other hand, is based on outdated knowledge, bad science, and magic.

What is homeopathy?

A homeopathic remedy is one in which you take something that may cause an illness and make a strongly diluted solution of it in order to cure the illness. The idea is termed “like cures like”, meaning that the thing that makes you sick can also cure you. This is not the outrageous part – that’s (kind of) the idea that vaccines are based on. The outrageous part is the dilution.

It’s very easy to make a homeopathic solution. Take 1 mL of whatever the original substance is and mix it in 100 mL of water. In an actual homeopathic remedy, you’d need to shake or bang the container a few times after each dilution. Then take 1 mL of the resulting solution (not all of it, just 1 mL – you can throw the rest away) and mix it in a different 100 mL of water. Then take 1 mL of that  solution and mix it in a different 100 mL of water. We’ve now diluted the original substance in a ratio of 1:100 three times. This is the same as 1:1003, or 1:1,000,000, termed 3C. It should be obvious that there isn’t much of the original substance in the resulting mixture.

Now repeat that procedure twenty-seven more times. This is now 30C, which is what’s typically used in homeopathic remedies. (Note that some homeopathic remedies use a dilution of up to 200C.) The odds of there being a single molecule of the original substance in the final mixture are infinitesimal. Here’s a frequently-used comparison. If the entire Atlantic Ocean was fresh water and you added a pinch of salt and mixed it up, the resulting solution would be about 12C. Each number you go up (i.e. from 12C to 13C) results in a solution 100 times weaker than the previous one. You have to do this 18 times to get from 12C to 30C, so the solution is 10018 times weaker. A standard homeopathic solution is a billion billion billion billion billion billion times weaker than that pinch of salt in the ocean. When you pay $10 for a little vial of a homeopathic remedy, that’s what you’re spending your money on. Pure water. Homeopaths will confirm this.

(Note that sometimes it’s not a liquid solution that you’re buying, it’s sometimes a sugar pill that has been treated with the 30C solution. Homeopaths will also confirm that the pill itself does nothing, it’s just a delivery mechanism for the solution.)

One other rule of homeopathy: the more the substance is diluted, the stronger it is. You want an extra-strength version? Mix it in more water. This leads to all kinds of homeopathy jokes:

I accidentally overdosed on my homeopathic medicine the other day. I didn’t take it.

Why would anyone ever buy a homeopathic remedy twice? When you’re about to run out, just dilute it some more.

There’s even a homeopathic webcomic.

So if the stuff you’re buying doesn’t have any of the original substance left in it, how do homeopaths claim it works? This is where it gets really silly. The water remembers. Homeopathy posits that you can dilute the solution to the point that there isn’t any of the original substance left and the water contains some memory of the substance and that is what cures the disease. Actually it’s not – that’s what triggers your body’s “vital life force” to cure the disease. Note that this “life force” is the same one that chiropractors claim to influence when they make spinal adjustments, and it’s the same one acupuncturists claim to influence when they insert their needles. There is no evidence that such a force exists.

Not only is water memory implausible, scientific tests have shown that any artificial ordering of water molecules (i.e. what might pass for “memory”) breaks down after roughly 50 femtoseconds, which is 50 millionths of a nanosecond. And I’m not talking about a nanosecond meaning “a very small amount of time”, I’m talking about an actual nanosecond, i.e. a billionth of a second.

None of this matters

Having said all that, none of it matters. When it’s all said and done, who cares how something works as long as it works? There are lots of different types of medicines out there, and I have no idea how most of them work. There are even some that modern medical science can’t fully explain. But that doesn’t mean they don’t work.

Homeopaths will argue that “you can’t say homeopathy doesn’t work just because you think it’s silly.” They’re absolutely right. They’ll say “you can’t say homeopathy doesn’t work just because you don’t know how it could work” and they’re right again. The reason we know it doesn’t work is from the thousands of studies and trials that have been done over the past hundred years that show it doesn’t work. There’s no need to explain why it doesn’t work, and there’s no need to come up with an explanation of how it could work if it did. The studies prove that it just doesn’t.

Full disclosure: while researching this article, I ran across lots of published studies that concluded that homeopathic remedies worked better than placebo. Some of them didn’t have proper blinding or randomization or things like that, and so they can be dismissed out of hand. But many cannot. I am not a scientist so I cannot look at a study and determine whether it was done properly or whether the data supports the conclusions, so I must read other people’s interpretations and decide if I trust them. Scientists and skeptics believe the data is clear – homeopathy doesn’t work. Homeopaths believe the data is clear – homeopathy works. I could simply trust the skeptics because I’m a skeptic, but that could be looked at as a personal bias. But I do trust the skeptics, and here’s why.

Homeopaths point to certain trials that show homeopathy’s effectiveness as proof that it works. But they also say “It has been established beyond doubt and accepted by many researchers, that the placebo-controlled randomised controlled trial is not a fitting research tool with which to test homeopathy.” So they use the studies that show their results as proof, and dismiss the ones that show different results as “these types of tests aren’t appropriate”. Note that they’re not claiming that there was a problem with the studies themselves, it’s the entire concept of the randomized trial that they disagree with. There are two logical fallacies here: cherry picking (picking only data that agrees with you) and special pleading (saying that it’s impossible to test this claim but not saying why). There’s also no reasoning for why the generally accepted science of a randomized trial is not “fitting”.

Conclusion

Homeopathy was invented in the early 1800’s, during a time when almost everything known about healthcare and the human body was wrong. Medical science has changed almost entirely in that time, with innumerable advances and breakthroughs over the decades. And yet homeopaths have clung to the same concepts despite there being no non-anecdotal evidence that it works and no theoretical way that it could. There have been no advancements in homeopathy in 200 years – all of the original theories are still in use today. Homeopaths have had 200 years to prove to everyone that it’s effective and they’ve utterly failed. If it was truly effective, there’d be no need to convince anyone of anything and it wouldn’t be alternative medicine, it would just be medicine.

But what if it did work? What if water actually did retain a memory of a substance diluted in it, and could be used to cure some illness caused by that substance? How would the water know which substance to remember – the one you just diluted beyond existence, or other substances the water has been in contact with? As I read on one site, “One wonders in vain how water remembers only the molecules the homeopath has introduced at some point in the water’s history and forgets all those trips down the toilet”.

If water truly had memory, there would be no need to mix anything. All the water on Earth would have some memory of all the substances it’s been in contact with over however many millions of years, and since it’s been diluted many thousands of times, it’d be pretty potent. All the water on Earth would be a homeopathic remedy for everything. Every time you drink water, you’d be triggering your body’s immune reaction against every disease, even if you didn’t have it. Everyone would be healthy all the time.

And we’d all be drinking dinosaur pee.

Wi-fi, fear-mongering, and pickles


Once again, I have to respond to a fallacious letter to the editor in my local paper, the Flamborough Review. And once again, it’s by the same guy. This is the third of his letters I’ve responded to; the first was about teachers and the second was about vaccination. Here is the letter in its entirety:

The  idea of  “learning commons” in children’s libraries is a noble idea, although I am not an advocate of this kind of technology in primary schools.

We are distancing our children so far from the fundamentals that they will no longer have a foundation to build on.

Reading, writing, arithmetic and spelling has gone the way of the dodo. As a parent I am concerned, as are many others, that technology is beginning to replace the fundamentals. I can see it in the work my daughter brings home, and the work she doesn’t bring home.

Another concern is the use of Wi-Fi in primary schools. Our children’s exposure to electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) is a cause for worry. According to Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and Environment at the University of Albany, there is a great body of work that shows continued exposure to EMF effects changes in the ability to learn and remember. Last fall, the World Health Organization could no longer afford to ignore the research and deemed EMF to be a Class 2 carcinogen. The list of Class 2 materials also includes items such as asbestos, lead and diesel fumes. I am certain I would not send my child to a room full of diesel fumes, so how can I consciously send her to a room full of harmful radiation?

In 2011, biologist Andrew Goldsworthy gave a witness statement to a standing committee on health regarding the dangers of EMF. One of the most horrific statements from his speech was, “it was first shown by Bawin et. al in the ‘70s that weak amplitude radio waves can remove calcium from brain cell membranes. This destabilizes them, making them more likely to leak. This is important in the brain because the normal function of brain cells depends on the controlled passage of specific ions through the membranes. When they leak, ions flow uncontrollably…When this occurs in a fetus or young child, it retards brain development…Wi-Fi should be considered an impediment rather than an aid to learning and should be avoided, especially by pregnant teachers.”

The very governments and agencies mandated to protect us allow this kind of harmful technology to exist. We need to reduce or eliminate our exposure to as many toxins as we can, for our own health, and that of our children.

There is a parents’ group in Collingwood trying to get Wi-Fi out of their schools, yet officials are siding with Health Canada, which is ignoring its own scientific data. Please go to safe school.ca and read up on this issue. Some of the evidenced side effects include nausea, headaches, dizziness, attention and focusing problems, low blood counts, disturbance of the immune system and heart palpitations and racing heartbeats.

I will be asking the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board for the results of their testing to see what levels my child is being exposed to.

Kevin Inglehart, Lynden

My only comment on the opening bit about education is that my sons are in grades 9 and 6, all in the Hamilton public system, and they are certainly learning the fundamentals as well as technology. They certainly learn things differently than I did thirty years ago, but that’s to be expected. Perhaps this is a problem with the particular school or his daughter’s teacher. It could also be a problem with his expectations and not with the school board at all.

But onto the other issue he raises, that of wi-fi routers causing health problems. This time, I’m not going to write a letter to the editor in rebuttal of this. I’m going to write my rebuttal here rather than submitting it to the Review. Submitting it would require making it fit for general consumption, and so I’d have to refrain from the sarcasm and ridicule that I really feel like using. I’d also have to shorten it since I’ll probably write a lot here and the Review won’t print it if it’s too long. Quite honestly, I just can’t be bothered to clean it up and make it short. Writing concisely is much more difficult than just spouting off; in the words of Blaise Pascal, “I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

So, to business. First off, the EM radiation given off by a wi-fi router is called “non-ionizing” radiation, which means that it’s not strong enough to remove electrons from atoms. This also means that it does not cause damage to cells. This is in contrast to ionizing forms of radiation, such as X-rays and UV rays, which do cause cell damage. Some forms of non-ionizing radiation (like microwaves) can heat things up and the heat can cause damage, but wi-fi signals are just not strong enough even for that.

It’s true that electromagnetic radiation is considered a class 2B carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). All that means is that it’s on a list of things that have not been shown to be carcinogenic but require further study. Ken Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, says:

Saying that something is a ‘possible carcinogen’ is a bit like saying someone is a ‘possible shoplifter’ because he was in the store when the watch was stolen. [reference]

Here are some other things that are on the same “Class 2B carcinogen” list (the entire list is here):

  • coffee
  • asphalt
  • nickel
  • pickled vegetables
  • carpentry and joinery
  • chroloprene (also known as Neoprene, a synthetic rubber used in hundreds of products including clothing)
  • aloe vera
  • gingko biloba extract
  • talc-based body powder

Presumably Mr. Inglehart will be petitioning the school board to move the local Tim Horton’s further away from the schools, to remove wood shop entirely, and to ban pickles from student lunches.

Asbestos and diesel exhaust, which Mr. Inglehart claims are on the type 2 list, are actually type 1. (Diesel fuel is 2B.) Lead is on the 2B list, but lead is known for being a neurotoxin, not a carcinogen.

I did visit the web site Mr. Inglehart suggested, and found many anecdotes describing how people became sick when they installed wifi routers in their home or school. But as we all know (don’t we?), such anecdotes are scientifically meaningless. (One famous skeptical quote is “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”) There were also some studies that showed a possible association between cancer and cell phone towers – note that this is “possible association” not “proven causality”, and a cell phone tower is not the same thing as a wifi router.

It comes down to this: unless you are a biophysicist specializing in this kind of research, you have to read what others have done and then trust someone. I haven’t done the research myself, and I probably couldn’t understand the details of the studies if you put them in front of me. But I do trust the World Health Organization, who says (emphasis mine):

In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. … Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. [reference]

The Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion says

After a decade of additional research, there is still no conclusive evidence of adverse effects on health at exposure levels below current Canadian guidelines.

and

…there is no plausible evidence that would indicate current public exposures to Wi-Fi are causing adverse effects on health. [reference]

Just like a lot of other conspiracy theories, this one is based on bad data, bad assumptions, and mistrust of the scientific community. Then you wrap it all up with scary words like “carcinogen” and stories about people getting sick, and give it to parents while implying that if they don’t do anything about it, they obviously don’t care about their children’s health. If you do that, you might be able to convince parents that this is a real problem. That’s why we have school boards considering getting rid of wi-fi, not because it’s actually a problem.


I’ve seen a number of other letters to the Review from this same person. The majority of them are filled with fear-mongering and conspiracies like the “dangers” of vaccines and water fluoridation and that “banks and large corporations own and control the media“. Most of them are just opinions and have no references, but some of them, like this one, have references to one or two articles or scientists who happen to disagree with just about every other scientist in the world. It’s possible that he accidentally stumbled upon an article that describes the exact opposite of the scientific consensus and believed it wholeheartedly. But it seems unlikely that he’s done this several times, so I am forced to assume that he simply mistrusts science and government, and believes in any conspiracy theory he hears.

I find it partially amusing but mostly irritating that these conspiracy believers (and many alt-medicine believers too) are all “mainstream science is wrong” and “mainstream science is covering up the truth” until they find a scientist who supports them, and then they’re all “this person believes us and he’s a scientist so he knows what he’s talking about and you can trust him! And not all those other scientists! Just this one!” Sorry, folks, you can’t have it both ways. Either you trust the scientists (or more accurately, the science) or you don’t.


Update: I did end up writing a letter to the editor. Here it is:

I feel compelled to respond to Mr. Inglehart’s letter, which contains half-truths and misleading statements, so that other parents don’t concern themselves with a problem that does not exist. Wi-fi routers in our schools are not a cause for concern. There are certainly people who believe that they are, including a few scientists, but the vast majority of studies that have been done have shown no negative effects on health at all.

It’s true that electromagnetic radiation is considered a class 2B carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). What that actually means is that it’s on a list of things that have not been shown to be carcinogenic but require further study. Other items on this list include coffee, asphalt, pickled vegetables, carpentry and joinery, aloe vera, and talc-based body powder. I don’t hear anyone leading the charge against wood shop or pickles in school lunches.

But if you’re going to believe the WHO’s “possible carcinogen” list, you should really believe the WHO when they say “In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. … Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”

More locally, the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion says “After a decade of additional research, there is still no conclusive evidence of adverse effects on health at exposure levels below current Canadian guidelines. …there is no plausible evidence that would indicate current public exposures to Wi-Fi are causing adverse effects on health.”

There is no point is spending more taxpayer money looking at something that has been studied this much when the overwhelming majority of the studies show the same thing – that there are no negative health effects caused by wi-fi signals.

Graeme Perrow
Waterdown

Toxic thinking


I’ve been seeing more and more articles and blog postings like this one recently, all about “detoxifying” your home or your life or your body. They all talk about these vague “toxins” generally but never say what toxins. Then they talk about some of the dangers to society and how to either avoid or fix them but most of the time, the “dangers” aren’t actually dangerous and the “solutions” are either non-existent, ineffective because they don’t work, or ineffective because there’s no problem to solve in the first place.

The author of this story has a son who was diagnosed with autism and says that our “toxic” environment is the cause for her son’s illness. (Somewhat surprisingly, she makes no mention of vaccines.) She then describes ways to “de-toxify” your life. She certainly makes some good points in the article – drink water instead of other stuff, eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid processed snacks, eat rice crackers or veggie chips, go to farmers markets, these are all great suggestions. But here are some of the points she makes that directly contradict modern science and medicine:

The world in which our children are currently growing up, is significantly more toxic than the one in which we did as children, exponentially more so than our parents.

Really? How do you figure? We and our parents lived through lead (in the pipes, paint, toys, etc.), asbestos, DDT, Thalidomide, and other actual toxins, all of which are now known to cause no end of health problems. Specifically what toxins are you talking about that are significantly or exponentially worse than those?

organic_comic

We know organic is best. Food dyes and colors make our kids wild. GMOs are terrifying. Gluten, soy, corn, and dairy are the high allergens and can cause all sorts of issues. Juice is unnecessary sugar and calories.

Nope, probably not, nope, nope (provisionally), OK. Organic food is no healthier or safer than non-organic (See references 1, 2). I did read about a study that food dyes may cause hyperactivity in children, but the FDA in the US has thus far declared that “a causal relationship between exposure to color additives and hyperactivity in children in the general population has not been established” (3). GMO food is no less healthy or safe than non-GMO (4). If you have Celiac disease, gluten is certainly something you want to avoid. But if you don’t, it’s harmless (5). Soy, corn, and dairy are indeed allergens and can cause all kinds of problems if you are allergic. But I could find no articles indicating that they’re a problem if you are not allergic. (6). The juice one I’d agree with.

Allopathic medicine is a term coined by Samuel Hahnemann, the father of Homeopathy, in reference to ‘mainstream Western medicine’. In simple terms, it refers to our constant need to address and suppress every symptom our body sends us of illness.

“Western medicine just treats the symptoms” is a common misconception in the alternative medicine community. If that were true, doctors wouldn’t prescribe antibiotics for pneumonia, they’d just give you a cough suppressant. If you have pain because of appendicitis, do they treat the pain? No, they remove the appendix – that’s treating the cause, not the symptom. I recently heard Dr. Steven Novella (a neurologist and prof at the Yale School of Medicine) talking about this, and he said that other than managing the pain of terminal patients to make them comfortable, so-called “Western” medicine is entirely about treating the cause of health problems and not just the symptoms. So is alternative medicine, but the two just disagree on how to determine the causes. Western medicine uses science, alternative medicine uses magic.

I had severe acute pancreatitis a few years ago and spent two months in the hospital. One of my biggest symptoms was intense pain, caused by my pancreas effectively choking on a gallstone. Did the doctors treat my pain? Of course they did. They also performed major abdominal surgery, an MRI, several X-rays and ultrasounds, countless CT scans and a number of other procedures to deal with the cause of this condition, not just the pain. Three years later, except for being a type 2 diabetic I am fully back to normal, and I owe my life to those doctors and nurses. How would an acupuncturist deal with pancreatitis? They wouldn’t – they’d either (a) send you to a hospital because they know they can do nothing, or (b) ironically attempt to treat the pain and not the cause, thereby killing you.

The author says that fever is our body’s natural reaction to an infection (true) and that we shouldn’t attempt to reduce the fever because of that. But then a couple of paragraphs later, she says we should use “good old fashioned ‘grandmas recipes’… like placing the soles of the feet in water for a fever”. Didn’t she just say we should not try to reduce fever?

Look to Homeopathy. … Or find a local homeopath to work with, Queen Elizabeth does!

Not only has homeopathy never been proven effective, it’s actually harmful to those who would use it instead of seeing a real doctor and getting real medication (7). In fact, there is no known mechanism by which it could be effective.  It’s nothing but water or a sugar pill – the very definition of placebo. The fact that Queen Elizabeth has been duped into using homeopathy means nothing.

And finally EMF. Electromagnetic Fields. We live in a world of wireless. There are frequencies from our cell phones, internet connections, microwaves, smart TVs, etc, all around us and our cells are not accustomed to that. The damage is not yet fully known.

Tin foil hatElectromagnetic sensitivity has repeatedly been shown to be nonexistent. People who claim that they are negatively affected by electromagnetic fields consistently show symptoms until proper blinding is added. When they don’t already know whether they are being exposed or not, they can’t tell. (8, 9)

The article then links to a couple of web sites that sell products that are supposed to help people with EMF sensitivity. Since EMF sensitivity doesn’t exist, these products can’t work, and some of the claims they make are ridiculous. But that doesn’t stop these people from charging $89 for something that “protects you from cell phone radiation”,  between $310 and $380 for a plate that “clears EMF pollution and geopathic stress”, and even $160 for the ultimate in irony: a USB thingy that uses your wifi router to somehow broadcast EMF protection.


These kind of articles frustrate me to no end, because the more articles like this there are, the more likely people are to read them and believe them. Science and modern “Western” medicine has given us the world we live in today – people are healthier now than ever before, life spans are longer, fewer people are dying of hunger, and so on. We haven’t solved all the problems – people do still die of hunger and there are still many diseases that science has not yet found answers for – but the human average lifespan has more than doubled since 1900 and that’s due to science, not to people harmonizing their life energy field with that of the earth.

The entire goal of science is and has always been to advance human knowledge. So why is it that so many people are now rejecting science and getting their health information from whoever on the internet? They ignore just about every doctor in the world and listen to Jenny McCarthy when it comes to vaccines. They believe that anything “all-natural” must be healthier than anything that’s not (as I’ve said before, e. coli and salmonella are all-natural, while Tylenol is not). They read Natural News and believe the guy who tries to convince the world (without evidence) that the entire healthcare and pharmaceutical industries worldwide are global conspiracies and that millions of people wouldn’t die of cancer every year if they just listened to him.

The worst part is that it’s not just the cranks and tinfoil-hat people who believe this stuff – the general public seems to think that GMO food will kill us all and that obviously organic food is healthier than non-organic. What happens if some company uses genetic modification to create a type of wheat or rice or corn or whatever that is resistant to diseases and has extra nutrients and can be stored for longer without going bad and allows farms to increase their yield tenfold? Note that this is not outside the realm of possibility – these kinds of things are why we do genetic manipulation in the first place. Crops like this could solve much of the world’s hunger problems (and yes I know that’s a little simplistic) but if enough people are scared of GMO food, it may not matter because the research will get shut down before we get there. That’s really sad.

I can only hope that sometime in the not-too-distant future, people start embracing science once again and abandoning things like medicine based on magic or remedies that are popular only because they were used in China a few thousand years ago or fear of things just because they are not well understood. Let’s start moving human knowledge forwards again, not pushing it backwards.

References

Unlike the original article, I am including references for all the claims I’ve made here.

  1. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
  2. The Annals of Internal Medicine, produced by the American College of Physicians
  3. An FDA quote from CBS Chicago
  4. The World Health Organization. You may disagree with the business practices and policies of GMO companies like Monsanto, but that’s a problem with the companies, not the GMO food itself.
  5. The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
  6. No references here, because I couldn’t find any from reliable science-based medicine sites talking about corn or soy problems or dairy problems that weren’t related to lactose-intolerance. But bullshit sites like Natural News were filled with articles saying dairy is universally harmful, which implies to me that it’s not.
  7. The Journal of Medical Ethics
  8. Psychosomatic Medicine, from the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine
  9. The World Health Organization

Give up telling people about Facebook hoaxes? Done.


Yet another “Facebook is making all your data public!” hoax is making the rounds. This one has to do with the new Facebook Graph thing that was just rolled out over the last couple of weeks. And once again, as we see so often, people are posting it without thinking. Here’s the text:

Hello to all of you who are on my list of contacts of Facebook. I would like to ask a favor of you…. You may not know that Facebook has changed its privacy configuration once again. Thanks to the new “Graphic app”, any person in Facebook anywhere in the world can see our photos, our “likes” and our “comments”. During the next two weeks, I am going to keep this message posted and I ask you to do the following and comment “DONE”. Those of my friends who do not maintain my information in private will be eliminated from my list of friends, because I want the information I share with you, my friends, to remain among my friends and not be available to the whole world. I want to be able to publish photos of my friends and family without strangers being able to see them which is what happens now when you choose “like” or “comment”.

Unfortunately we cannot change this configuration because Facebook has made it like this. So, please, place your cursor over my photo that appears in this box (without clicking) and a window will open. Now move the cursor to the word “Friends”, again without clicking and then on “Settings”. Uncheck “Life Events” and “Comments and Like”. This way my activity with my family and friends will no longer be made public. Now, copy and paste this text on your own wall (do not “share” it!). Once I see it published on your page, I will un-check the same for you. Thanks so much!!

Let’s do some critical thinking and examine this, shall we?

  1. Facebook has over a billion users. Granted, the company has never been known for its tight security and in the past they have changed default settings (i.e. those for new users or those who were using the defaults anyway) so that they were less secure than before. But changing existing security settings would likely piss a lot of people off. Are they likely to do this?
  2. Facebook security settings are kind of silly anyway. You should always assume that anything you post on Facebook or anywhere else on the internet will be available to everyone in the world forever. Regardless of what you post and how you attempt to protect it, there’s nothing stopping someone from cutting and pasting it or taking a screen shot and posting that or even printing it on a piece of paper. Internet privacy is, for the most part, an oxymoron.
  3. The average number of friends that any one person has is 130 (reference). Some have many more than this – I know people with 500+ friends. If you post this request and 75% of your friends respond, you’re going to have almost 100 comments on that posting (or hundreds if you’re really popular). Did you really plan to go through your entire friends list in a couple of weeks one by one and “unfriend” those who didn’t respond? Admit it, this was an empty threat.
  4. If you really pay attention to the security settings, you should realize that what you’re telling people to do is actually change their own settings so that they will not see your “life events” or “comments and likes”. It has nothing to do with what other people will see.
  5. With very rare exceptions, any time you see a posting asking you to repost it or send it to all your friends, it’s almost certainly a hoax. This has been true for many Facebook hoaxes as well as email chain letters and such that I’ve been seeing for over twenty years.

I don’t expect everyone to immediately realize that these things are fake; they are getting more and more “realistic” and I’ve seen people who really should know better get caught by them. But surely anyone who’s been on Facebook for more than a year has seen a few of these, and know better, right? ‘fraid not.

I saw one the other day and left a comment (the very first comment on the posting) saying that it was a hoax. By the next morning, there were three “Done” comments – obviously these people had taken the time to read the entire posting and believe it, but not to read my one-line comment and believe it. I guess this makes sense, since these people are friends of the original poster but none of them knew me. Why should they believe me? So I left another comment with a link to the snopes.com article about it. Surely that will convince people, won’t it? By the end of the day, here’s what I saw:

Facebook hoax

<bangs head on desk repeatedly>