Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Political astrology

There is one word that makes me see red, skepticism-wise, and that word is "clickbait."

Clickbait articles, sensationalized bullshit that has as its only point inducing gullible people to click on links and therefore generate advertising revenue, are bad enough from an ethical standpoint.  But what really torques me about this sort of thing is the fact that many of the clickers end up believing what they read, regardless of the reliability of the source.  The strategy started with such dubious sites as The Weekly World News and Above Top Secret, but has moved its way into more mainstream media (The Daily Mail has adopted this approach to the extent that most of us refer to it as The Daily Fail).  And now, it has moved all the way up to the media source on which I found a clickbait article yesterday...

... none other than CNN.

The article in question, which required the collaboration of no less than three authors -- Pamela Boykoff, Alexandra Field, and Jason Kwok -- is entitled, "2016 Election: Which Candidate Will Triumph in the Year of the Monkey?"  And it is about -- yes -- using feng shui and Chinese astrology to predict who's going to win in November.

[image courtesy of photographer Jakub Hałun and the Wikimedia Commons]

The worst part about this is that it's not even in some kind of "Weird Stuff" category of CNN's webpage.  It's filed squarely under CNN Politics.  Let me be clear about this: this is not politics.  This is pseudoscientific nonsense.  Let me give you a taste of what's on it, so you don't have to click on the link and give them ad money yourself:
With the Year of the Monkey and the New Hampshire primary upon us, CNN asked Hong Kong fortune teller Priscilla Lam to divine the fates of the candidates battling it out for the U.S. presidency. 
A practitioner of feng shui, the ancient Chinese system of summoning good luck, she combined the art of face reading with analysis of the candidates' birthdays and current life cycles according to the Chinese Zodiac. 
She says the new lunar year will fuel good fortune for "earth dog" Donald Trump, while also lighting a fire under Hillary Clinton. 
Bernie Sanders' missing metal is a problem with older voters and the fighting elements of fire, and water might just leave Marco Rubio all wet.  And don't ask about Ted Cruz's face reading. 
Lam says she is "about 80%" confident in her predictions for the 2016 election. Those sound like pretty good odds.
So, yeah.  That's the level of political reporting we're seeing.  Trump's going to do well because he's an "earth dog."  Hillary Clinton's on fire.

And trust me, I don't even want to think about Ted Cruz's face, much less read it.

If we further peruse the article, we find out that Donald Trump has "a lot of sunshine in his favor."  that Hillary Clinton "has flexible lips," that Marco Rubio's "nose is okay -- it means management skill or power," and that Ted Cruz is in trouble because "in his birthday there is no wood... if you burn the wood, the fire can come up."

Whatever the fuck that means.

And the whole time I'm looking at this, I'm thinking, "how the hell is this news?"

The answer, of course, is that it isn't.  This is clickbait.  But the problem is, seeing such nonsense on a an internationally-known news media source gives it a veneer of authority, and reinforces the belief people have in such pseudoscientific claptrap.

So I'm really not able to laugh this sort of thing off.  I spend enough time, as a high school science teacher, trying to instill in students a good understanding of how the universe works, along with some skills regarding telling truth from falsehood.  Having something like this in mainstream media just makes my job that much harder, something I very much don't need.  Fighting the creationists and the climate-change deniers is bad enough; I really don't want to have to do battle with the Chinese astrologers as well.

Monday, February 8, 2016

GMO burrito attack

Many of you have undoubtedly heard about Chipotle's announcement last April that they were switching over to using entirely GMO-free ingredients.  The whole thing had us science types rolling our eyes, because it has been shown repeatedly that GMOs aren't dangerous in general (even though there have been rare specific cases that have had untoward effects, and those have been taken off the market).  Despite the evidence, the health-food cadre applauded Chipotle's move, saying that it was reassuring that at least one restaurant chain was doing the Right Thing.

Which is about all of the good news that Chipotle had in 2015, because beginning in the summer, they have had one problem after another with food-borne illnesses.  First, there was a norovirus outbreak in Seattle in July, followed by another in Simi Valley, California in August, sickening at least 240 people in the process.  August and September saw an outbreak of salmonella in Minnesota that sickened 64.  Another 52 contracted E. coli in October from restaurants in nine different states.  Then norovirus reappeared in Boston in December, causing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea for 136 patrons.

The whole thing prompted the chain to announce a one-day closure in February 2016 to train staff on food safety, which seems a little after-the-fact but is better than nothing.  And the whole thing would have gone down as another example of dubious handling of a crisis by a corporation, if Mike Adams hadn't gotten involved.

Yes, Mike Adams, the "Health Ranger" and owner of Natural News, who spends much of his time sounding like a raving lunatic.  This time, he says, the bad guys have been caught red-handed.  The series of illnesses contracted by patrons of Chipotle aren't just an example of bad food handling and poor cleanliness standards; no, this is a deliberate attack by "food terrorists" to discredit the restaurant because of their fearless stand on GMOs.

I'm not making this up.  Here's a direct quote:
After observing recent events involving Chipotle and e.coli, here's my analysis of the situation: Chipotle's e.coli outbreaks are not random chance.  They are the result of the biotech industry unleashing bioterrorism attacks against the only fast food company that has publicly denounced GMOs. 
How do we know?  The CDC has already admitted that some of these e.coli outbreaks involve a "rare genetic strain" of e.coli not normally seen in foods.  Furthermore, we also know the track record of the biotech industry engaging in the most criminal, dirty, sleazebag tactics imaginable against any person or company that speaks out against GMOs.
So that's it?  No evidence?  Your "analysis" is based on the E. coli strain being "rare" and that the biotech industry is made up of a bunch of bad guys?  Oh, but wait... he says this same tactic has been used against another victim:
Doctor Oz, for example, was maliciously targeted in a defamation campaign funded by the biotech industry earlier this year.  The onslaught against Oz was initiated because he publicly expressed his support for honest GMO labeling on foods.
No, the investigation (hardly a "defamation campaign") was launched because Oz was giving health advice that was demonstrably false and selling supplements that were ineffective, not because he was against GMOs.  And using Dr. Oz, who still rakes in millions, as an example of a pitiful victim of an "onslaught" leaves me trying to find a word stronger than "disingenuous" and failing completely.

Adams doesn't mince words, however.  He spells it out plainly:
There is absolutely no question that the biotech industry will resort to ANY activity necessary to destroy food companies that oppose GMOs.  And yes, this includes acts of bioterrorism against Chipotle -- something that's ridiculously easy for biotech industry operatives to carry out with simple, low-cost laboratory supplies sold online at places like Amazon.com. 
To be clear, what's really happening at Chipotle is that biotech industry shills are deliberately contaminating Chipotle's food with strains of e.coli in a malicious attempt to destroy both the reputation and finances of the Chipotle food chain...  The idea that exposing the public to e.coli might be harmful to some people doesn't cause them to hesitate for even a moment.  The more people get sick or die from their Chipotle operation, the better for biotech!
What is funniest about all of this is that Chipotle is currently under investigation itself for selling food containing GMOs -- after they declared themselves GMO-free.  "We have always been clear that our soft drinks contained GMO ingredients, and that the animals from which our meat comes consume GMO feed.  But, that does not mean that our meat is GMO, any more than people would be genetically modified if they eat GMO foods," said Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s Communications Director.

So Chipotle is GMO-free in the sense of selling some food that is GMO-free and some that is not, and not being up front with its customers about which is which.  Got it.

And this is the company that the Evil Biotech Terrorists are targeting because they're too green?

[image courtesy of photographer Rosalee Yagihara and the Wikimedia Commons]

Let me reiterate: the vast majority of GMO foods are completely safe to consume.  Certain of them -- Bt corn comes to mind -- actually decrease the quantity of pesticides used by farmers, resulting in a healthier environment.  Others, like the GM papayas that are resistant to ringspot virus, have rescued an entire industry from bankruptcy (and it's to be hoped that the Evil Biotech guys will find a similar way to save bananas from the fungus Tropical Race 4, and oranges from the bacterial disease huanglongbing -- before two of our favorite fruits are a thing of the past).

The problem is, understanding the risks and benefits of genetic modification requires that you learn some science, and for a lot of people, it's easier to listen to people like Mike Adams rant about how the biotech industry is trying to DESTROY THE HUMAN RACE MWA HA HA HA HA HA.  It's not like we haven't had ample evidence that Adams's proclamations are nonsense; but unfortunately, in the media the usual case is that the guy who screams the loudest is the one who gets believed.

For what it's worth, here's my analysis, no screaming needed: there have been hundreds of norovirus, E. coli, and salmonella outbreaks in the past, and there's no need to invent bioterrorists to account for them.  Chipotle could certainly use some improvement in their food-handling standards, however, because five outbreaks in one year is kind of a lot.  Not to mention the fact that before they announce that they're GMO-free, they should make sure they're really GMO-free, for the benefit of people who care about such things.

And last: Mike Adams really needs to shut the hell up.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Laptops of the ancients

Every once in a while, I run into a crazy claim that is so weird that it's actually kind of charming.

That was my reaction to an article sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia yesterday, about a guy who thinks that there are images from Ancient Greece that show people using laptop computers.

Those images include this marble sculpture:


And this black-on-red ware vase:


In case that isn't sufficiently convincing, we're told that the sculpture even has cable connection ports:


Once again illustrating that you can't misinterpret it if I tell you what it is ahead of time.

The whole thing is the brainchild (to use the term loosely) of YouTube contributor StillSpeakingOut, who seems pretty convinced. "I can’t help but think," StillSpeakingOut tells us, "that Erich von Däniken had been right all this time and that most of these myths of magical artifacts given by the gods to a very restricted group of individuals in ancient civilizations were high-tech devices similar to what we have today...  I am not saying that this is depicting an ancient laptop computer, but when I look at the sculpture I can’t help but think about the Oracle of Delphi, which was supposed to allow the priests to connect with the gods to retrieve advanced information and various aspects."

No, labeling the diagram with a red arrow and the text "Laptop?" is definitely not saying that the sculpture depicts a laptop, presumably by virtue of adding the question mark.

Of course, those silly old rationalist historians have been quick to squelch the whole idea of the Ancient Greeks inventing wifi.  The "laptop" depicted in both pieces, they say, is actually one of the following:
  • a wax tablet, used for writing
  • a jewelry box
  • a mirror
But I think we can all agree that when it comes to speculating over the identity of an object in a piece of ancient art, one should definitely choose the answer that requires you to believe that the ancients had a piece of technology that they didn't, in fact, have.

Because if you think the Ancient Greeks had laptops, it kind of brings up a few questions, you know?  Like why haven't we found any traces of them in archaeological dig sites?  Where are depictions of all of the other things that you'd need to make a laptop go, like modems, routers, cables, and a mechanism for producing electricity?

And most damning of all, if the Greeks had computers, why is there no mention in their literature of people spending their free time sending each other comical pictures of cats and poorly-spelled memes suggesting that people of the opposite political party are brainless, spineless, heartless, soulless, and depraved?

When you think about it, all you have in both pieces of art are objects made of two flat things hinged together, and it's not like laptops are the only possibility for that configuration.

So I'm not buying it.  And I'm especially not impressed that as support, StillSpeakingOut brought up Erich von Däniken, who kind of sucks as an expert witness, given that he thinks that Odin, Thor, Loki et al. were aliens from another planet.  Sad to say, but the prosaic answer is almost certainly right, and the folks depicted in the art work were almost certainly not checking their Biblos-prosópou, which is as close as I can get to the Ancient Greek equivalent of "Facebook."

Friday, February 5, 2016

Puritans in charge

H. L. Mencken once quipped that "Puritanism [is] the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."  We always associate Puritanism with the 17th century, with funny hats with buckles and dark clothing and women in modest dresses -- and the torture and execution of witches.  In other words, as a thing of the past.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

However, there is a deep streak of Puritanism in our culture still.  The simultaneous obsession with and revulsion over sex in the United States is peculiar, to say the least.  You can't go to a mall without being accosted by images of nearly naked models of both genders in places like Victoria's Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch.  Movies and television are full of references to sex, both oblique and overt.  And yet a lot of the time, we alternately act as if sex is shameful or depraved, or as if it simply doesn't exist.

And in no realm does our split attitude show as clearly as in how we educate children about their own bodies.  Any time someone proposes frank, realistic sex education in schools, parents have a meltdown about the erosion of morality in the United States.  As if their children won't become sexually active unless they find out about it in class.  As if there weren't an inverse correlation between teen birth rates and the degree to which birth control, HIV prevention, and general sex education is addressed in the schools.  As if abstinence-only education programs haven't been shown over and over to be completely ineffective at reducing teen pregnancy and the incidence of STDs.

Ignore it and it won't happen, seems to be the usual approach.

Of course, when simply ignoring sex doesn't work, the modern-day Puritans choose instead to go on the offense.  Witness the recent push by lawmakers in Kansas to prosecute teachers who "expose students to material of a sexual nature."

We're not talking about pornography here.  The whole thing got started by Representative Mary Pilcher-Cook, who flipped her frilly white bonnet when she found out that there was a poster displayed in Shawnee Mission High School that had the question, "How do people express their sexual feelings?" and listed "oral sex" as one possibility.  Pilcher-Cook said, in a quote that I am not making up, "Children could have been irreparably harmed by viewing this poster... because it affects their brains."

"State laws should protect parents’ rights to safeguard our children against harmful materials, especially in schools," Pilcher-Cook went on to say.  "The fact that the poster was posted without fear is a problem in and of itself."

Phillip Cosby, head of the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri, was quick to jump to her defense.  With respect to children finding out about sex, he said, "It’s a tsunami.  And maybe we’re the Dutch boy who’s just putting their finger in the dam."  He went on to say that he can't even watch a Kansas City Royals game with his grandchildren without their seeing a commercial for erectile dysfunction.

So how is that a problem, Mr. Cosby?  When my sons were young, I can see the conversation going this way:
Television commercial:  "See your doctor if you think this medication might help your erectile dysfunction." 
My kid:  "Dad, what's 'erectile dysfunction?'" 
Me:  It's a problem some older guys get, where the penis doesn't work as it should.  There's a medication that can help." 
My kid:  "Oh.  Okay.  When's the baseball game going to be back on?"
Yup.  They'd clearly have been scarred for life.

It isn't that I'm not cognizant of the importance of a child's age with regards to what sort of material they're exposed to.  With sexuality, as with most things, there is a point where children become capable of understanding, and it's not a good idea to push ideas on kids for which they're not emotionally ready.  But we seem to have no particular problem with trusting educators to make those judgments in other realms, do we?

No one is assigning Macbeth to nine-year-olds, for example.

But there's something different about sex, apparently, that makes it taboo at any age.  Instead of being honest with our children about their own bodies, we're teaching them that their feelings and desires are inherently shameful.

I still remember a couple of years ago in my neuroscience class, when we were talking about neurotransmitters.  I brought up endorphin, which is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable feelings of all sorts, and I mentioned that endorphin is released in the brain during orgasm.

One student looked a little taken aback.  I asked him what was up.  He said, blushing scarlet, "I've never heard a teacher use that word before."

This kid, by the way, was in 11th grade.

Why shouldn't we be honest with kids about their bodies as a source of pleasure and as a way to connect with their partners, and not just as a tool for reproduction?  When we take a step past the focus on men and women as baby-making machines, it's usually only to warn students about the risks.  Only rarely do we make any effort to give teenagers a well-rounded view of sexuality.  How do we expect young people to approach sex in a respectful and responsible fashion when we won't even bring up the topic?  And considering the fact that teenagers are usually hyper-focused on sex anyhow, isn't it better to discuss it openly rather than pretend that if we ignore it, it'll go away?

But the undercurrent of Puritanism that still exists in the United States makes it unlikely that such an approach will be realized any time soon.  If we're still at the point when a state legislator wants to have criminal charges levied against a teacher for mentioning oral sex, we have a very long way to go.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Zika freakout

Can we once, just once, face a problem in the world and find a solution based in logic?  And, fer cryin' in the sink, not ascribe it to a conspiracy?

I am referring, of course, to the Zika virus, which is currently exploding in the tropics, and is suspected of being connected to microcephaly and low brain development in infants born to infected women, and also cases of the neurological disease Guillain-Barré syndrome.  (Nota bene: these connections are still tentative, and are being studied.  The evidence thus far indicates possible links, but establishing causation and finding an underlying mechanism in either case have yet to be accomplished.)

Of course, a viral disease carried by mosquitoes, with uncertain and possibly devastating consequences for the victims through an unknown mechanism, opens the door for wild speculation.  And the conspiracy-minded amongst us have certainly been quick to rise to the occasion.

First, we have the claim that Zika was caused by the release of genetically-modified mosquitoes by Oxitec Inc., a biotechnology firm -- in some versions of the story, caused deliberately for the purposes of population control.  And since no conspiracy is complete without a powerful rich guy controlling the whole thing, the originator of this evil master plan is...

... none other than Bill Gates.

So, the idea is that under Gates's funding and direction, Oxitec genetically engineered the virus, then genetically engineered mosquitoes to carry it, and released them in Brazil.  Since then, they (and the virus) have been spreading north rapidly.

My question is: why would Bill Gates do this, given that if the population of the Earth crashes, there will be far fewer people around to purchase updates to Windows every six weeks?  He doesn't really seem to have a lot to gain by spawning a pandemic.  And as for the conspiracy theorists, they're not really clear about this.  The upshot is, "Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, that's why."

Aedes aegypti [image courtesy of the Center for Disease Control and the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem, of course, is that the whole claim is based in a bunch of falsehoods.  As Christie Wilcox points out in her wonderful blog Science SushiZika is nothing new; it was first isolated and described in 1947 from mosquitoes collected in the Zika Forest of Uganda.  Thus the name.  It spread across Africa by 1968, made a jump to Micronesia in 2007, to Polynesia in 2013, and was first spotted in the Americas -- in Chile, not Brazil -- in 2014.  The genetically modified mosquitoes were developed to combat mosquito outbreaks, not foster them; the GM mosquitoes contain a "kill switch," a set of genes that allows them to mate but results in non-viable offspring.  And because the species of mosquito that carries Zika -- Aedes aegypti -- also carries dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever, and malaria, it's hard to imagine how this could be a bad thing, especially considering that the other option is the use of highly toxic pesticides.

But the conspiracy silliness doesn't end there.  Jon Rappoport, whose dubiously sane pronouncements have been featured in Skeptophilia before, has come up with something even goofier.  In his blog post "Zika Hoax: Five Things That Will Happen Next," we hear that there is no connection between Zika and microcephaly (which, of course, could turn out to be true; as I mentioned earlier, scientists are still investigating the point).  Then, however, he runs right off the cliff, predicting that researchers will develop a vaccine for Zika, but that the vaccine and the virus will turn out to be "weaponized biowar [agents]."

Because if you've launched a biological warfare virus, the first thing you'd do is to come up with a vaccine that's also for biological warfare.  And somehow, Zika is both a hoax and an evil biological weapon at the same time.

How evil can you get?  Cf. "Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha."

Of course, the major problem with all of this foolishness is that the basis of the conspiracy is that the release of the GM mosquitoes coincides, both in time and place, with the outbreak.  And this turns out to be false.  As Wilcox writes:
The epicenter of the outbreak and the release clearly don’t line up—the epicenter is on the coast rather than inland where the map points. Furthermore, the first confirmed cases weren’t reported in that area, but in the town of Camaçari, Bahia, which is—unsurprisingly—on the coast and several hundred kilometers from the release site indicated. 
But perhaps more importantly, the location on the map isn’t where the mosquitoes were released. That map points to Juazeiro de Norte, Ceará, which is a solid 300 km away from Juazeiro, Bahia—the actual site of the mosquito trial. That location is even more on the edge of the Zika-affected area.
On the other hand, think about it; it makes sense that they'd release the GM mosquitoes near where the outbreaks occurred.  Since the whole idea is to control Zika in Brazil, it wouldn't make much sense to release the mosquitoes in, say, Greenland.

But that sort of logic never seems to appeal as much as fact-free and panic-stricken shouting, for some reason.

In any case, bottom line: Zika isn't genetically engineered, isn't new, and isn't being spread by GM super-mosquitoes because of some obscure plot by Bill Gates.  I'd be much obliged if people would stop spreading this nonsense around, because it's got to be annoying to the scientists who are working on the real problem that Zika represents.  Thank you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Nutritional hydrogen

Yesterday I ran into an interesting example of the fact that a novel idea, explained by a non-scientist, can skew a person's reaction toward thinking it's nonsense.

The topic came up because of an email from a loyal reader of Skeptophilia who sent me a link to the website of one Zen Honeycutt, called Moms Across America, wherein she touts the value of molecular hydrogen as a nutritional supplement.  The email said, in toto, "What the hell?"

And to read what she writes, it seems like woo of the worst kind.  I mean, listen to how she sells this stuff:
Approximately 3.6 billion years ago Molecular Hydrogen served as the original energy source for Primordial cellular life, fueling its metabolic processes and protecting it from the hostile environment of early Earth. Without it, life would not exist.
Which is true in the sense that 99% of the atoms in the universe are hydrogen, and a great proportion of the atoms making up the organic compounds in our body are hydrogen (in fact, they're only outnumbered by carbon).  Add that to the fact that hydrogen is what fuels the nuclear fusion reactions in our Sun, then yeah... I'd say hydrogen is pretty important.

[image courtesy of NASA]

She goes on to say:
Hydrogen is the first and most abundant element in the Universe! Two atoms combine to form hydrogen gas, H2, the smallest and most mobile molecule. This exclusive property gives it greater cellular bioavailability than any other nutrient or nutraceutical. Molecular Hydrogen can rapidly diffuse into cells, mitochondria and fluids throughout the body to deliver its unique and abundant benefits.
And once again, there's truth here, but it's so mixed up that it's misleading.  Hydrogen ions are used as energy carriers in both respiration and photosynthesis, but it's unclear if this is what she's referring to.  And the part about hydrogen diffusing quickly is a pretty dubious selling point.  After all, hydrogen cyanide is also a small, mobile molecule, capable of diffusing rapidly into your cells and your mitochondria.  The problem is, it also blocks cellular respiration, leading to the unfortunate side effect of death.

Then we hear that hydrogen is found in high quantities in "healing waters" and raw foods:
An additional benefit is that Active H2 generates an electron-rich potential (-ORP) in the water (you can measure it!). This rare property is uniquely found in fresh, raw living foods and juices, mothers milk and many of the world’s healing waters.
And that, unfortunately, is just plain nonsense.

So anyway, on and on she goes, sounding like the wooiest woo that ever wooed.  But the ironic part?

This all has some basis in fact, as far-fetched as it sounds.

Shigeo Ohta, of the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at the Nippon School of Medicine, wrote a paper describing research he'd performed on the effects of molecular hydrogen on oxidative stress.  His research, described in "Recent Progress Toward Hydrogen Medicine: Potential of Molecular Hydrogen for Preventive and Therapeutic Applications" in the June 2011 Current Pharmaceutical Design, is described as follows:
Persistent oxidative stress is one of the major causes of most lifestyle-related diseases, cancer and the aging process.  Acute oxidative stress directly causes serious damage to tissues.  Despite the clinical importance of oxidative damage, antioxidants have been of limited therapeutic success.  We have proposed that molecular hydrogen (H2) has potential as a “novel” antioxidant in preventive and therapeutic applications [Ohsawa et al., Nat Med. 2007: 13; 688-94].  H2 has a number of advantages as a potential antioxidant:  H2 rapidly diffuses into tissues and cells, and it is mild enough neither to disturb metabolic redox reactions nor to affect reactive oxygen species (ROS) that function in cell signaling, thereby, there should be little adverse effects of consuming H2.  There are several methods to ingest or consume H2, including inhaling hydrogen gas, drinking H2-dissolved water (hydrogen water), taking a hydrogen bath, injecting H2-dissolved saline (hydrogen saline), dropping hydrogen saline onto the eye, and increasing the production of intestinal H2 by bacteria.  Since the publication of the first H2 paper in Nature Medicine in 2007, the biological effects of H2 have been confirmed by the publication of more than 38 diseases, physiological states and clinical tests in leading biological/medical journals, and several groups have started clinical examinations. Moreover, H2 shows not only effects against oxidative stress, but also various anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic effects. H2 regulates various gene expressions and protein-phosphorylations, though the molecular mechanisms underlying the marked effects of very small amounts of H2 remain elusive.
When I read this, I said, and I quote, "Well, I'll be damned."  Upon doing some digging, I found corroborating papers in the Journal of Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology, the Journal of Biomedicine and Environmental Science, and the prestigious Nature Medicine.

Now, it's important to note that the research I read was pretty clear that these were preliminary results, and it is far from certain what positive effects a person might accrue from consuming hydrogen-infused water.  A lot of interesting supplements and medical therapies have turned out, upon further study, not to live up to their promise.  Certainly Zen Honeycutt's enthusiasm seems a little premature.

But what I find most interesting about all of this is how unscientific commentary, blended in with misunderstanding and outright silliness, can blind you to something that actually has scientific merit.  I know that my own reaction, upon reading Honeycutt's website, was "Wow, this is serious bullshit."  And had I dismissed it out of hand because it "sounded silly," that wouldn't have been proper skepticism -- it would have been scoffing at a claim because it didn't fit my preconceived notion of how the world works.

All the more indication that the fundamental rule, when reading anything, is "check your sources."

Especially when it sounds like nonsense at first.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Flying saucer data dump

The alien conspiracy theorists and cover-up-o-philes must have experienced a serious "WTF?" moment after the release a week ago of official reports of UFOs...

... by the CIA.

Thanks to a loyal reader of Skeptophilia, I was able to peruse the CIA.gov link entitled "Take a Peek into our 'X-Files'," which begins thusly:
The CIA declassified hundreds of documents in 1978 detailing the Agency’s investigations into Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). The documents date primarily from the late 1940s and 1950s. 
To help navigate the vast amount of data contained in our FOIA UFO collection, we’ve decided to highlight a few documents both skeptics and believers will find interesting. 
Below you will find five documents we think X-Files character Agent Fox Mulder would love to use to try and persuade others of the existence of extraterrestrial activity. We also pulled five documents we think his skeptical partner, Agent Dana Scully, could use to prove there is a scientific explanation for UFO sightings. 
The truth is out there; click on the links to find it.
We are then not just invited, but positively encouraged to peruse the files on such cases as the sighting of flying saucers in East Germany in 1952 and the report from the same year describing UFOs over a uranium mine in the Belgian Congo, not to mention the report of the Scientific Advisory Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects filed with the CIA in 1953.


Then, if that wasn't wonderful enough for you, we are directed to a page called "How to Investigate a Flying Saucer" wherein we are told all about Project Blue Book.  It's as if the CIA had a sudden attack of conscience and decided to come clean on everything that the UFO world holds dear:
Before December 1947, there was no specific organization tasked with the responsibility for investigating and evaluating UFO sightings. There were no standards on how to evaluate reports coming in, nor were there any measurable data points or results from controlled experiment for comparison against reported sightings. 
To end the confusion, head of the Air Force Technical Service Command, General Nathan Twining, established Project SIGN (initially named Project SAUCER) in 1948 to collect, collate, evaluate, and distribute within the government all information relating to such sightings, on the premise that UFOs might be real (although not necessarily extraterrestrial) and of national security concern. Project SIGN eventually gave way to Project GRUDGE, which finally turned into Project BLUE BOOK in 1952.
We then are led through a systematic way to study such sightings, including methodologies for eliminating "false positives," how to identify (terrestrial) aircraft and other natural phenomena, how to gather data (and what data is critical), and how to file an eyewitness report.

I cannot begin to imagine how a diehard UFO conspiracy theorist would react to reading this.  My guess is that the reaction would largely be a scoffing dismissal of the entire site -- the stance being that of course the CIA is still covering up its knowledge of aliens (Roswell!  Groom Lake!  Dulce Base!  Area 51!).  This release of a few reports is only meant to persuade the weak-minded that the CIA has nothing to hide.  The real stuff on alien autopsies and grotesque alien/human hybridization experiments is still being covered up.

It's especially amusing that the release of these documents has coincided with the reboot of The X Files.  I do not think this is an accident, and it indicates something that I had not known before, namely that there are government intelligence agents who have a sense of humor.  If you've seen either of the two new episodes that have been aired so far, you will know that Chris Carter et al. have basically pulled out all the stops, and threw every conspiracy trope in the world into two fifty-minute shows.  And, no spoilers intended, the CIA and Department of Defense do not come out looking like heroes.

So anyway.  Anything that can induce some cognitive dissonance into the minds of conspiracy theorists is okay by me.  I don't think that the CIA is telling us everything they know -- being that "top secret" designation happens for a reason -- but it's nice to have access to at least some of the original documents.  Now, you'll have to excuse me, because I have some UFO reports to read.