Category Archives: Skepticism

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 Homeopathy, on the other hand, is based on outdated knowledge, bad science, and magic.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>

Chocolate: the poisonous killer that… ah, never mind


Being a blogger who writes about skepticism can be frustrating. After reading yet another “Never eat <whatever>! It’s a poison! THEY don’t want you to know!” article, I had this grand plan of writing something similar, but satirical. I was going to write an article that warned about something many people love – chocolate. This was going to be similar to the hilarious “dihydrogen monoxide” hoax from a bunch of years ago. I chose chocolate because it’s something that is enjoyed by many people but few know much about what’s in it or how it’s made. Could there be toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of chocolate? Sure, maybe, I don’t know.

I was going to do some research into the chemical make-up of chocolate, the growing and manufacturing process, packaging, marketing, all that kind of stuff. Anything even remotely negative was going to be blown out of proportion. Facts would be exaggerated. I wasn’t going to add outright lies, but maybe stretch the truth a little here and there. I’d stress that chocolate contains chemicals and genetically modified foods. I’d point out alternate uses for some of the chemicals in it. The longer the chemical name, the better. I’d point out things in chocolate that were “chemically similar” to some actual toxin, as if that means anything. And I’d make sure to use the word “chemicals” a lot.

chocolate

Then I’d add some stories about “people I knew” or had heard of. So-and-so got really sick and stopped eating chocolate and got better. Hell, I could even use my own experience – I had some chocolate the morning of my pancreatitis attack (true) and spent the next two months in the hospital (true). But then after two months without chocolate (true), I went home and I’m totally fine today (true)! All of those things marked “true” are true, even if they’re completely unrelated. And there you have it – a compelling story that is completely true! Totally misleading, but true!

Finally, I’d point out that many people know that chocolate is toxic to dogs and cats (and this is completely true), so how can something toxic to them be safe for humans? (Answer: easy, we’re not the same.)

The result was going to be an article that would make people think that chocolate was a horrible toxic product, child slavery was used to make it (though this may not be far from the truth, unfortunately), companies that made it were hiding the truth, and the FDA was in on the whole conspiracy. It was going to be fun! Then at the end I’d explain how I’d stretched the truth and exaggerated things and such, thus making the point that when you see articles talking about how toxic aspartame is (or high-fructose corn syrup, or genetically modified foods, or whatever) you should think twice about what you’re reading, and realize that these types of articles routinely use misleading wording to scare people.

But I can’t write such an article for one simple reason: people already have, and theirs isn’t satirical. It’s full of the same half-truths and scary-sounding words and stuff that I was going to use, but these people actually believe it.

Skeptical writers have known about this type of situation for years, and even have a law called Poe’s Law describing it. Poe’s Law states:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.

Poe’s Law was originally coined to refer to Creationism, i.e. you can’t write a parody of Creationism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing. It was then modified to include any other “extreme ideology” like alternative medicines or (especially) conspiracy theories but it applies just the same. No matter how wacky you write your parody or satire, someone believes something that’s wackier than that.

Discovering this article scuttled my whole idea, since mine was going to be essentially the same. So not only are these people publishing half-truths and deliberately misleading stuff to try to play on people’s fears (not to mention scientific illiteracy), but now they’re screwing with my blog. I won’t stand for it. I’m going to eat some chocolate right now. That’ll show ’em.

Why skepticism, and how I became "that guy"


The Flamborough Santa Claus parade was a little over week ago. Gail and Nicky were on the Scouting float, and Ryan and I went to watch the parade with some friends. One of them bought some cotton candy for her kids but rather than buying the one bag each they asked for, she bought one that they all could share. This was partially because it was $5 per bag (which probably contained 35¢ worth of sugar and 2¢ worth of food colouring) and partially, she said, because she didn’t want her kids bouncing off the walls all night. I almost spoke up to tell her that sugar doesn’t affect behaviour and that there’s no such thing as a “sugar rush”, but I didn’t. I said nothing at all. Why? Because I remembered the avocados.

A little while ago, Gail bought a couple of avocados, something we don’t eat very often, and made some guacamole. Once we finished it (mmmmmm), she bought some more avocados, and when we finished those she bought some more again. I mentioned that she seemed to be enjoying the avocados lately and she said yes, but part of the reason she had bought them was because she’d heard that they’re a “superfood”. Before I could say a word, however, she added “but I don’t want to argue with you over whether they really are a superfood”. I wasn’t planning on arguing about it or even talking about it, but I had to wonder why she felt she had to head me off.

(Aside: Please don’t take this as a criticism of my wife. If the “superfood” thing had any bearing on her decision to buy the avocados, I know that it was a distant second to “They’re yummy”. She’s not as into the skepticism thing as I am but she doesn’t get caught up in this kind of hype.)

I realized that since I started getting sort of caught up in the skeptical movement about a year and a half ago, my skepticism has become a defining part of me. I am not embarrassed or ashamed of this at all; I’m proud to be a skeptic. Each of my last few blog articles has been skeptical in one way or another, it inspired the first piece of fiction I’ve written in decades, and I listen to no less than four different skeptical podcasts every week. But I did not realize that this might have a negative effect on my friends and family. Perhaps I have become “that guy” – the one that nobody wants to talk to because he argues with everything. I certainly don’t try to argue with everything, and I wouldn’t in general call myself an argumentative person.

But when someone talks about how they had acupuncture the other day and how it made them feel better, I want to point out that it was almost entirely due to the placebo effect, i.e. the belief that what the acupuncturist is doing will help. This is a well-known and well-documented, if not entirely well-understood, effect. In addition, here was a caring and helpful person who was making an effort to help you relieve your pain – that interaction with the acupuncturist likely played a role in the pain relief as well.

But as you can imagine, explaining this to the acupuncture patient isn’t likely to get the desired response of “Oh really? I’ll have to do some research into that before I spend money on it again. Thanks for the information!”

Yes, going to the acupuncturist probably did relieve some of your pain. But the truth is that it’s only partial relief, it’s only temporary, and it doesn’t relieve the actual cause of the pain in the first place. The truth is that the needles themselves serve no purpose. Alternative medicine is a pet peeve of mine, leading to one of my favourite quotes:

There’s a name for alternative medicine techniques that have been proven effective. They’re called “medicine.”

Acupuncture is just one type: the truth is that your homeopathic remedy relies entirely on the placebo effect. The truth is that your plastic power bracelet does nothing. The truth is that most products prescribed by doctors work even if they’re not all-natural and contain (gasp) chemicals.

This applies to a lot of other things too: the truth is that sugar doesn’t make kids hyper. The truth is that being outside on a cold day with wet hair will not make you sick. The truth is that taking vitamin C (in large or small doses) will not prevent you from getting a cold. There are plenty of other things that everyone “just knows” that are patently false.

But people don’t always want to hear the truth, and the guy that is always pointing out the truth is “that guy” – the annoying guy who doesn’t believe in anything.

Why is the search for truth annoying? I’m not trying to be a know-it-all. I’m not trying to argue for the sake of arguing. I want to know how the world actually works, not how people think it should work, or how people used to think it worked. My assumption is that others want to know how it works as well. If my wife is buying avocados because she likes them, great. But if she’s buying them because of some magic property that they don’t have, she’s wasting her – our – money. If you’re getting acupuncture and it’s making you feel better, great. But I strongly believe that you deserve to know that the needles themselves are not doing anything. If you know that and still decide to go, that’s fine. You’re making an informed decision.

This is not a rant about “why doesn’t everyone believe what I believe?” There are many things that are unproven (and unprovable). On these issues, some people believe one way and others believe another. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind on anything.

But when numerous clinical studies show that some herbal remedy does not work, and reliable, unbiased studies showing that it does work are few and far between, you have to start believing that maybe it doesn’t actually work, even if you think your own experience has shown the opposite. Human memories are far from perfect, and without controls, there are too many variables. Good scientific studies eliminate the variables, and are not subject to imperfect memories or things like confirmation bias. Science is the search for truth. Trust the science.

I’m not trying to be “that guy”. I’m not trying to be irritating. I just want the truth. I tell others because I assume they want the truth as well.

We can handle the truth.

Hangin’ with the zombies


Natural News is the best. The absolute number one, no question. If you are looking for the biggest source of bullshit on the internet, Natural News is the place to go.

There are all kinds of crazy stories on that site, mostly about how the healthcare industry is a huge conspiracy to keep people sick and how there are natural and “chemical-free” remedies for everything from indigestion to cancer (and of course the healthcare conspiracy is covering them up). But this article takes the cake. This is the granddaddy of them all – the one that combines all the different conspiracy theories together.

It’s called “Everything is rigged – health, politics, finance and more – but here’s how to beat the system”. The author says that multiple industries – food, health, government, banking, justice, news, even war – are “rigged to cheat you, to suppress you, and ultimately to suppress your human potential“. Nowhere does he say why, other than the generic and evidence-free claims of corporations maximizing profits by taking advantage of their customers. He also implies that corporations and banks are in control of the government, though again he doesn’t say how or why. There are almost no links in the article that don’t go back to Natural News itself, so all of these conspiracy claims are just stated as if they’re common knowledge (they’re not) and don’t need evidence (they do).

What’s the author’s way to beat the system? Don’t play. Don’t send your kid to “government-run indoctrination centers known as public schools, home school them.” Right, because everyone has that option. Don’t watch cable news propaganda, get your news from Natural News. Just a touch self-serving, no? Don’t vote for any president at all, since “voting for a presidential candidate legitimizes the corrupt system“, but “it’s definitely important to vote for local candidates“. So the federal system is corrupt but the local one isn’t?

He doesn’t even seem to realize the conflicting claims he’s making. He claims that the “food system is rigged with GMOs* that actually poison you while spreading genetic pollution across farms and fields everywhere.” He also says that “Government regulators are completely rigged. The FDA looks out primarily for the interests of Monsanto* and drug companies, not the safety of the American people.” Then later, he suggests we “buy organic and avoid the GMOs“. Because you know that food marked organic meets all the standards for that label. You know that the organic farm isn’t being doused with “genetic pollution”. You know the farmer isn’t using pesticides and such and just claiming it’s organic so he can charge three times as much money for the same apples. How do you know these things? Because the government regulates use of the term “organic” and won’t let – but wait! These guys don’t trust the government or their regulators!

* – Monsanto is a huge American biotech company that is pioneering research into genetically modified crops, also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

They state that the government is trying to poison everyone. If that’s true, what better way for them to do it than to come up with a word that tells people “this product is SAFE!” and then just slap that word on stuff whether it’s safe or not? And while they’re at it, they should triple the price of organic things so they make more money at the same time! Unless you personally go to the farms and watch the entire farming process from beginning to end, you kind of have to trust the government regulators, don’t you? Assuming the government is corrupt and trying to poison us almost guarantees that the organic industry is part of it.

Finally, the author comes up with five levels of “awareness / awakening” numbered, oddly enough, from 0 to 4. Level 0 is “Zombie”, someone who is ignorant of all of the conspiracies previously discussed. This is apparently 90% of people. He then lists some “keywords and concepts that typically relate” to such Zombies: “Football, sports scores, TV sitcoms, processed junk food, vaccinations, playing the lotto, following doctors’ orders, submitting to apparent authority, going along with the status quo.” Wow. Not too judgmental.

Level 1 is “Awakened”, and this describes people who are just starting to ask questions about all of these conspiracies. These people “read ingredients on foods” and watch “documentaries instead of sports”. But if the food industry and government regulators are both corrupt, what good does reading the ingredients on foods do? They’re obviously mislabeled so the Zombies don’t find out about the mind-control chemicals the government puts in everything. Except organic stuff, of course. And the bit about documentaries makes total sense because once you realize that government and Big Pharma control the entire food and healthcare industries, obviously you lose your interest in something unrelated like sports.

Level 2 is “Informed”, consisting of people who have “taught themselves a significant amount of real history and the way the world really works“. (The emphasis on “real history” is his, not mine.) They even mention that these people should have a knowledge of “basic science“. Obviously he’s hoping nobody that reads Natural News has reached this level or they’d realize what a load of crap it is.

Level 3 is “Mastery”, which is people with great influence – the “innovators, creators and often communicators“. The idea is “achieving relevance in a world largely populated by utterly irrelevant people“. Since he’s already said that this is less than 1% of the population, he just called over 99% of the world’s population irrelevant.

Level 4 is “Enlightenment”, and “far less than one in a million” people ever get here, and only through “the highest dedication to spiritual awakening“. At this level, “individuals become withdrawn from the material world and really have no interest in interacting with individuals of lower levels of awareness“. He says this like it’s the pinnacle of human achievement, but I don’t think I’d want to be there. I kind of like interacting with my fellow Zombies.

The author never states which group he considers himself a part of, but it’s obvious he thinks he’s at the top. One of the scariest parts of the article is the list of facebook comments below it. It’s filled with people who also consider themselves at level 4 and honestly say things like “It can be so difficult and lonely at this level” and “it’s lonely at the top of the mountain”. First off, if far less than one in a million people reach level 4, then there are less than 7,000 level 4’s in the world today. We should feel honoured that a bunch of them all decided to interact with us Zombies. But these are people who “really have no interest in interacting with individuals of lower levels of awareness” – and they’ve joined facebook? If reaching level 4 turns you into a holier-than-thou douchebag, I definitely don’t want to get there – especially if you’re a lonely holier-than-thou douchebag.

On his “levels of awakening” scale, I’d call myself a level 2, since I’m making an effort to be informed on “real history” and basic science. I listen to a number of science-based podcasts and follow science news on the internet, I do read ingredients on food, and I do enjoy watching documentaries. But I also watch sports and I’m skeptical of pretty much everything on Natural News, so that probably pushes me back down to level 0. If that’s the case, so be it. I’d much rather hang out down here with my fellow Zombies than with people who consider themselves in a group that’s better than everyone else just because they believe the same bullshit.

Anti-vaccination messages are the real danger


There was a letter to the editor in the Flamborough Review this past week about how harmful vaccinations are. I felt compelled to respond, not only because I’m a skeptic and get angry when I read crap like this, but because this is in my local paper, and if people read this misinformation and decide not to get vaccinated, that could directly affect me and my family.

Interestingly, the letter was written by the same guy who wrote another letter to the editor, that one about teachers, that I responded to a little over a year ago.

Here’s the text of his letter, reproduced here in case the link above vanishes sometime in the future.

I wanted to voice my opinion, backed by evidence, that vaccines, of any sort, are dangerous.

The first vaccine was developed in the late 1700s in England when cowpox pus was inserted under the skin of an eight-year-old in the belief that it would make people immune to smallpox. What happened over the next century was an epidemic of small pox incidents, to 95 per cent of the population.

A 2012 study by Dr. Witt, an infectious disease specialist in California, found  whooping cough is more prevalent in vaccinated children that those who are not vaccinated. In 2010, a mumps outbreak occurred in New Jersey in more than 1,000 children, over 80 per cent of whom had been vaccinated with the MMR shot. A study in New Zealand found that children born after 1977, who were vaccinated, were 25 per cent more likely to contract asthma. Finally, in June of this year, a couple in Italy won their court case when it was conclusively established that the MMR vaccine had triggered autism in their child. The MMR shot in Italy contains the same “ingredients” as in North America.

There are web links to dozens of cases that have proven vaccines trigger all sorts of diseases in children. Allopathic medicine is not interested in curing. It only treats symptoms and pushes invasive procedures of surgery and medicine that create more complications. Also, Health Canada does not perform any independent studies of any drug. They simply review the data supplied to them by the companies seeking approval.

Do your due diligence, become enlightened and educated about what is going in you and your children. Hopefully you will realize you are being deceived and much of the information you need to know is being suppressed.

Kevin Inglehart
Lynden

Here’s my response. I wasn’t able to include my references in the letter to the editor, but I’ve included them here.

After reading Kevin Inglehart’s rant against vaccinations, I had to respond in order to provide a counterpoint in the hope that local people will not be convinced by this misleading information to skip their flu shots.

In Mr. Inglehart’s letter, he cites a study by a Dr. Witt that found that “whooping cough is more prevalent in vaccinated children than those who are not vaccinated.” If you look more closely at the study, Dr. Witt’s actual conclusion was that the whooping cough vaccine IS effective, but its effectiveness doesn’t last as long as originally thought. The number of whooping cough cases increased as the vaccine’s effectiveness diminished, and then decreased as children received their booster shot at age 12. The original claim, that most of the cases were in vaccinated children, is true but only because vaccinated children were the majority (78% on average in North America) in the first place. This is like saying that the number of right-handed children who get whooping cough is higher than the number of left-handed children who get it. Absolutely true, but it does not mean that left-handers are less likely to get sick. In general, unvaccinated children are eight times as likely to get whooping cough as vaccinated children.

Ironically, right in the middle of the front page of Dr. Witt’s clinic’s web site, there is a notice urging people to get their flu shots. If Mr. Inglehart is looking for a doctor to agree with his anti-vaccination position, he will have to look elsewhere.

Yes, outbreaks can still occur among vaccinated children, as evidenced by the mumps epidemic mentioned by Mr. Inglehart. However, such outbreaks are far smaller and the symptoms far less dangerous than if the majority of children were not vaccinated. The facts speak for themselves: The mumps vaccine was first used in 1967 and since then, the number of reported cases has decreased in the US from 186,000 per year to less than 500 per year.

Thousands of children have died and hundreds of thousands have become sick from diseases for which there are effective vaccines. On the other hand, the number of cases of autism that have been conclusively and scientifically proven to have been caused by vaccines is zero.  The Autism Science Foundation itself states “The studies are very clear; there is no relationship in the data between vaccines and autism.” In the court case in Italy, the autism-vaccination link was “conclusively established” by the judge, not by scientists. Actual scientists are outraged with the finding since it, and most anti-vaccination arguments, stem from a single study in England from the late 1990’s that was later proven to be not only false but also fraudulent.

If you believe that the entire health care industry (including millions of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, scientists, and other health care professionals around the world) is a global conspiracy to keep people sick, then nothing I write here will change your mind. For the rest of us, vaccinations are a safe and effective defense against many diseases including the flu. For the record, I am not a member of the health care industry, just someone who has done exactly what Mr. Inglehart has suggested – my own research.

References for all the claims I have made above are available at http://bit.ly/SafeVaccines.

Graeme Perrow
Waterdown

Update: My letter was not printed, but they did print another similar one from a professor at the University of Guelph. While it would have been cool if they had printed mine, I’m very glad they printed something, and something from a professor might carry more weight with people than from a regular guy like me. If there’s anyone who read the first letter and was considering not getting a flu shot because of it, hopefully this one will convince them otherwise.

National Home Services’ dirty tricks


The doorbell rang this afternoon. I answered it, and there was a guy who said he was representing National Home Services. He even had a badge with the company logo on it, and it might have had his picture, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it. He said that he and his colleague were in the neighbourhood checking on people’s hot water heaters. (Aside: why do we call it a “hot water heater”? It doesn’t heat hot water, it just heats water. It’s a water heater.) He said they were making sure that the heaters were as energy efficient as they could be, and they were upgrading them for free if not. I told him that our heater was only a year or two old so it was unlikely that we had a terribly inefficent model (this may have been a white lie – I’m not 100% sure how old it is, but it’s certainly not more than four or five years). Then he said that there was a mistake made at some point, and some of the heaters that were installed were the wrong ones and they should be replaced. Lie #1.

I don’t remember the exact words he used, but the impression he gave me was that his company was contracted by Reliance Home Comfort (the company from whom we rent our hot water heater) to check our heater and make sure it’s OK. I asked if Reliance was worried about whether we have the right heater, why didn’t they call us? He said that he didn’t know. I said that I was going to call Reliance to verify that they were sending someone for this purpose, and he admitted that he does not work for Reliance, and that National is one of their competitors. He then went on a little rant about Reliance, saying that they were an American company (Lie #2), that they are actually an investment company (Lie #3), and that George W. Bush owns 51% of the company (Lie #4). He must have mentioned three or four times that National is a Canadian company while Reliance is American. He also said stuff like Reliance had bought all the hot water heaters from Union Energy for $30 each as an investment, so it’s not in their best interest to maintain them or replace them. I have no way to verify that but from what I’ve found, Reliance Home Comfort used to be Union Energy and just changed their name in 2005. I’m guessing that that was Lie #5 but I can’t be sure.

He offered to come in and take a look at our heater and see if it was one of the ones “mistakenly” installed. What are the odds that he’d take a look at our heater and say “Nope, this one is OK. You don’t need your heater replaced. Have a nice day”? Pretty low indeed.

Eventually he must have figured out that I was not going for it, and he left. Of course, I then did some research on the internet to find out how much of what he was saying was true. I found that Reliance Home Comfort is a limited partnership, whose brand name is owned by a Canadian “open-ended limited purpose trust” called UE Waterheater Income Fund (this could, I suppose, be viewed as “an investment company”). That company is privately owned, so it’s possible that the ownership is American and it’s even possible that Mr. Bush does own 51% of it, though I found no evidence of either of those. However, the Reliance Home Comfort part operates solely in Ontario and the corporate headquarters of both Reliance and UE Waterheater are in Toronto.

I cannot say with certainty that the bit about Reliance installing the wrong water heaters was a lie. But even if it’s true, he tried to imply that he was there to simply fix the problem, when in reality he was trying to get me to switch to an entirely new company. He failed to mention that part until I pressed.

But even if what he told me was true, why do I care whether the company I rent my hot water heater from is Canadian, American, or Brazilian? As long as the heater functions properly, their service is reasonable when needed, and I’m not paying an unreasonable price for it, the fact is that I don’t care. I’ve only had to call for service once that I remember, when the heater wasn’t working very well. They came out within a day or two and replaced the heater with a brand new one, and the new one (more efficient and bigger – same monthly price) has worked flawlessly ever since.

The guy’s whole sales technique was based on (a) misleading people into thinking that he was there on behalf of whatever company they were already dealing with, and then when that didn’t work, (b) bashing Reliance by telling lies about them.

I posted this on National Home Service’s Facebook page:

Pushy sales people are one thing, but sales people who mislead and tell outright lies about your competitors are unacceptable. It doesn’t matter how good your prices or services are, I refuse to deal with a company that uses such underhanded sales techniques.

I also mentioned them on Twitter in a similar message. I don’t imagine that the Facebook comment will stay there long or that they’ll respond to it, but between those two things and this article, I’ve managed to say what I wanted to say. I don’t care if they give me a brand new water heater for $5 a month, I’m not dealing with this company.

How not to argue your point


I saw a web site recently that raised a few red flags on the ol’ skeptical radar that I’ve been exercising a lot over the last year or two. But this time it wasn’t because of some outrageous pseudoscientific alternative healthcare ghost-hunting Bigfoot-finding paranormal UFO conspiracy claim. It was a site dedicated to the increasing of the speed limit in Ontario from 100 km/h to 120 or 130 km/h. It’s not that I don’t believe in this cause; in fact I’d be totally fine if that were to happen. The flags were raised because the strategies employed by the people who created the site are very similar to other sites with more questionable goals like trying to convince people that water fluoridation is dangerous or that 9/11 was a government conspiracy.

facepalmThe site is called stop100.ca and the main page is full of ugly colourful infographics, most of which link to their facebook page, though there are other documents on the site as well. Also out in full force on this site: logical fallacies. Below, I’ll list some of the more obvious ones. Quotes from the site are in quotation marks and italics.

Appeal to popularity

Also called “bandwagon” – if many people believe something, it must be true. Hundreds of years ago, the vast majority of humanity believed that the sun revolved around the Earth. Didn’t make it true.

  • One of the first things you see on the site is the question: “Do you want to legally drive at 120 km/h?” – even if 99.9% of respondents said yes, this means nothing. First off, most people coming to this site are likely to agree. Secondly, the fact that many people want something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
  • Growing in strength… over 1300 identified members on board.” Again, the popularity this movement is not relevant.
  • Most drivers prefer to flow at a very comfortable 120-130 km/h“. I’d be interested to know how they know what “most drivers” prefer. This is purely anecdotal, but I cruise on the highways around 110-115 km/h, and I don’t generally find that I’m going slower than “most drivers”.

 

Appeal to emotion

This is where they don’t use actual logic. Instead, they use your emotions (in this case, anger and mistrust of government) to try and sway you.

  • Enough lies, enough propaganda, enough politics, enough fear“. What lies are they talking about? How is keeping the speed limit artificially low a political move? They are using many people’s mistrust of government to imply some kind of conspiracy.
  • They want the government to stop “treating Ontario drivers as dangerous and incompetent by posting one of the lowest speed limits in the world“. By saying this, they are trying to piss people off and get them angry at the government so that they will agree with these conclusions.
  • They talk about the “decades of inaction since 1976“, as if the government should frequently revisit this issue.

 

Appeal to authority

Someone else said this and they’re really smart so it must be true.

  • They mention the fact that many other countries have higher speed limits than Ontario. So what? It may be that some of these countries require driver education before you can be licensed, or require occasional re-testing, or have better roads. I’ve driven in Europe (both Great Britain and France), and in my experience, drivers there are vastly superior to drivers here in terms of things like driving in the correct lanes, passing safely, and keeping up with the flow of traffic. It might just be that drivers there can handle faster speeds because they’re better drivers. Sorry, my fellow Ontarians, if you feel offended by that but that’s how I see it.
  • On the other hand, it may also be that countries with higher speed limits also have higher accident rates than Ontario. There is one page that says that this is not true about Germany, but nothing is mentioned about anywhere else. They do say that Ontario has some of the safest highways in North America, which implies that the accident rates elsewhere are higher.
  • They use the fact that other places like Texas have recently increased their speed limits. Texas also has the death penalty, allows anyone to carry a concealed weapon, and the Texas Republican party has stated that they do not agree with the teaching of critical thinking. Perhaps using Texas as the model for our legal decisions isn’t the best choice.
  • How do we know that other countries are looking at Ontario and saying “Ontario has had a 100 km/h speed limit for decades, and Ontario highways are some of the safest in North America [as stated on this site], so we should lower our speed limit”?

 

Affirming the consequent

These are what are commonly referred to as “non-sequiturs”. You state that A is true and therefore B must also be true, but A does not imply B. “Non-sequitur” literally means “it does not follow”.

  • Speed limit on Ontario’s 400-series highways was 112km/h (70 mph) forty years ago.” So? How does that prove (or even imply) that driving 120 km/h is as safe as 100 km/h?
  • Ministry of Transportation claims Ontario’s roads are some of the safest in North America and the statistics confirm this.” What makes you think that this isn’t directly attributable to our lower speed limit?
  • Divided highways are the safest roads ever invented and designed!” This is probably true, but it doesn’t mean that a 120 km/h speed limit is any more or less safe than a 100 km/h speed limit. Irrelevant.
  • The Provincial Government must stop… issuing unfair speeding tickets to vast majority of motorists who demand and wish to drive at globally accepted speeds of 120-140 km/h“. First, driving over the posted speed limit is by definition speeding, and so a speeding ticket is not unfair. (This coming from a guy who was given a speeding ticket just last week. Was I happy about it? No. Was it unfair? No.) Second, who says that speeds of 120-140 km/h are “globally accepted”? Third, where are the stats saying that the “vast majority of motorists demand and wish to drive” that fast? All these non-sequiturs in a single sentence!
  • According to the site itself, the speed limit was reduced in 1976 “to ration gasoline and widespread oil shortages“. Since these people are advocating reversing that decision, it stands to reason that they believe that global dependence on fossil fuels is significantly lower today than it was then, i.e. this is no longer a problem so we can increase the speed limit again. Is this true?
  • In a number of places, they talk about the lowering of the speed limit as having been a “political” decision, but I’m not sure what they are trying to say by that. It was a decision made by politicians, but seeing as they’re the only ones who can actually change the laws, that makes sense. Surely they’re not trying to say that there was no science or logic behind the decision, are they?

 

Misuse of statistics

This isn’t really a logical fallacy, it’s just misleading. They show a chart of data supplied by the MTO itself, and interpret the data to “prove” their point. The numbers show that in 2009, 6.7% of fatal accidents were caused by “speed too fast”. Because this is such a small percentage (compared with things like “failed to yield right of way” and “lost control”), they argue that “Speed kills” is false. (They actually use the word “propaganda” here, as if it’s a government conspiracy to keep us all driving slow.)

But looking at the data, we see that “Driving properly” was listed as the cause of 41.3% of fatal accidents. Surely “Driving properly” is the real culprit here, and we need to clamp down on it! Also, it’s not clear where these “Apparent driver action” types came from or who categorized the accidents. It’s therefore unclear what these statistics actually mean. If a driver is driving too fast, and attempts to pass someone improperly and then loses control, that single accident falls under three categories in this list. How would that be categorized?

Right above the chart of data is a graph showing “Fatalities by location” for 1990, 2000, 2008, and 2009. The 2009 graph (same year as the data chart) shows 924 fatalities on rural roads, 803 inside urban areas, and 297 on motorways. But the data chart says that there were 828 total fatalities. At least one of these pieces of data is wrong.

In an open letter to the Minister of Transportation, they open by saying “The stop100.ca movement with over 800 identified and millions of anonymous supporters
around the Province…
” Where is the “millions of anonymous supporters” claim coming from? If they really have millions of anonymous supporters, why have only 800 of them (1300+ now) given their names?

 

On the other hand…

The site isn’t entirely without merit; there are some good points raised. Most of the quotes from politicians about keeping the speed limit where it is involve safety, but as they point out, safety wasn’t the reason the limit was lowered in the first place. But if we’re talking about safety anyway, modern cars are far safer than cars in the 60’s and 70’s when the speed limit was higher, with things like better seat belts, ABS, air bags, crumple zones, etc. In addition, modern highways are better designed than those of forty years ago.

One argument that they didn’t use relates directly to the reason the speed limit was decreased in the first place, that being the oil crisis in the mid-70’s. The idea was that cars driving at 100 km/h would use less gas than those driving at 110, so society would use less oil and we’d all be better off. But cars today are far more energy efficient than those of the mid-70’s. Your average 2012 car driving 120 km/h uses far less gas than your average 1976 car driving 100 km/h, so even if we increase the speed limit back to 110, we’d still be using less oil than we did in 1976.

 

Conclusion

Given what I’ve written above, it may seem surprising that I don’t actually disagree with the premise that the speed limit should be increased on the 400-series highways. I’d be fine with the limit being raised to 110 or even 120, but no higher than that. Despite their claims to the contrary, I think a lot of people would see a 120 km/h limit and immediately start driving 140 km/h everywhere. I also think that if they’re going to do this, they need to put a 90 km/h minimum speed, and enforce it. The minimum speed would only apply if weather and traffic conditions allowed it, but if the road is wide open and the weather is fine, there’s no reason for some idiot driving 80 km/h on the 401. I don’t believe speed by itself is as big a factor in accidents as the difference in speed between vehicles.

But the myriad of logical fallacies and statements of opinions as fact on this site dilute their points, and I don’t think it helps their case. So I’m fine with the cause these guys are fighting for. I just don’t like the way they’re fighting.