“Do your own research” (DYOR) has become a mantra of our age. Websites and social media personalities dispense this advice on a daily basis about topics ranging from the safety and efficacy of vaccines to global warming. And it makes sense, no? Looking up the facts and making up your own mind about issues such as vaccination or global warming and other things seems to be a reasonable proposition. It also requires you to think and become involved as opposed to being apathetic or passive. Isn’t this what every concerned person and good citizen should do?
Well, let me ask you the following question: are you qualified to do your own research regarding scientific topics that require complex specialized knowledge and experience?
Training in most areas of science is a process where it often takes more than a decade to master the complexity of the science. And I am not only talking about the theoretical aspects. There is an understanding of the science, the scientific process, and its nuances that you can only gain from performing experiments and/or making observations under the guidance of experienced scientific mentors and within the context of a research group and a research project. So why do those who dispense the “do your own research” advice feel that regular folks are qualified to navigate the intricacy of the biology, chemistry, and physics behind vaccines or global warming and its effects to an extent sufficient to understand them and form valid opinions?
Let me answer this question for you.
Those who dispense the “do your own research” advice know very well that most people are not qualified to do that, and in fact, they count on it.
The real purpose of the “do your own research” advice is to undermine the experts, and get people to accept certain ideas that will make them more likely to uphold the interests of those opposed to science and/or buy their products.
The “do your own research” advice doesn’t occur in a vacuum. This advice is often dispensed within the highly biased pages of a website or chat group. It often takes the form of “I’ve read that vaccines cause this terrible thing (link supplied). I don’t know if it’s true, but do your own research”. Or, “I’ve read that climate change data is bogus (link supplied). I don’t know if it’s true, but do your own research”. This “nudge nudge wink wink” environment is not conducive to an evenhanded appraisal of the evidence that will produce a well-informed opinion. Rather it is nothing more than a recipe to lure people down the rabbit hole of their biases by cherry-picking the articles they read and the researchers they follow.
Just consider the complexity involved in “doing your own research”.
You found a scientific article that says one thing. Do you understand the science? Is the methodology sound? Are the experimental protocols acceptable? Were the correct statistical analyses performed? Do the conclusions follow from the results? Was it published in a reputable journal? Has it been retracted? Has it been cited by other scientists? Has it been criticized? Do other scientists agree? Are there other articles that say the opposite? How many? How do you find them? What is their quality? How do you decide who is right and what is sound? Can you figure this out impartially, or are you biased? And if you are biased, what steps will you take to prevent your biases from affecting your research?
Do the particular scientists that you follow make sense to you? What are their credentials? Where do they work? How many publications do they have, and what has been their impact? Are they active in their scientific fields? Do others disagree with them? Why? Are these scientists you follow considered mainstream or are they a fringe? Do these scientists claim there are “conspiracies” and rant against the “scientific establishment”? Do these scientists try to convince their scientific peers, or have they instead taken their case to “the people”?
These questions are daunting to non-scientists attempting to make sense of the scientific literature, the nuances and dynamics of scientists and their research, and the social context in which it occurs.
But here is the amazing thing.
This problem is not limited to highly complex scientific topics. In the years of the Trump presidency, through the pandemic, and leading up to the attack on the Capitol on January 6th of 2022, millions of people “did their own research” and concluded that Mr. Trump was fighting a cabal of satanic pedophiles in the government, businesses, and media who kidnaped tens of thousands of children, tortured them, and drank their blood. Here the issue was not bias against science, it was bias against common sense! The QAnon phenomenon is a prime example of what can happen when people “do their own research”.
If some individuals could manipulate ordinary people into “doing their own research” and accepting the fantastic premises of QAnon, think about how much easier it is to manipulate people into accepting distorted views about vaccines or climate change. The experts are called experts for a reason, and it is folly to try to disregard what they say.
So should we forgo examining what scientists publish and accept everything they tell us?
Of course not! Scientists can make mistakes or delude themselves, and some scientists may even be dishonest. Additionally, some people in the pseudosciences can misrepresent their discipline as valid and themselves as experts. Instead of focusing on individual scientists, look for the consensus within a scientific field. Instead of trying to go it alone, contact scientists or science popularizers who are respected within the scientific community. Ask to be referred to legitimate science websites and avoid those that rant against the scientific establishment insulting scientists and peddling innuendo, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories. If you are going to do your own research, value what the majority of experts have to say about the matter.
Image by Alejandro Escamilla from Wikipedia Commons is the public domain.
I came across an interview that journalist Bill Moyers did with Christian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe back in 2014. The topic of their conversation is about the particular situation of Evangelical Christians in the United States as it relates to denial of climate change, but I believe the interview is remarkable because of the broader applicability of Dr. Hayhoe’s ideas as to why denial of many issues has been embraced by various communities and what can be done about it.
You can watch the interview in the video above, but I will provide a recap of the major points of the interview.
Dr. Hayhoe’s argument is that climate change is a hot button issue for many people because they feel it threatens all that they hold dear. However, what people reject about climate change is not so much the science but the solutions. Climate change is something that affects the community, and as such, efforts to deal with climate change require large numbers of people to work together, which means that the government has to be involved. But opposition to government is deeply rooted in the American psyche, and any legislation to limit what people can do or use is viewed with mistrust. Thus, climate change has become a casualty of much larger societal issues. This has been compounded by the fact that people have been lied to by those in whom they deposited their trust.
On the one hand, the leaders who many of these people trust because they share their values, have told them that climate change is a hoax, or that it’s real but it’s not a big deal and nothing has to be done about it. Or in the absence of clear leaders, political and media personalities who don’t like the solutions to climate change have stepped in. And because these individuals say the same things that people believe with regards to many other issues, the people put their trust in them. On the other hand, the spokespeople for the opposite point of view have often been scientists who do not share the values of the communities they are addressing. People will not believe messengers whom they do not trust because they perceive them as not sharing their values.
The remedy to this situation will not come from more information and more science, but rather from dealing with who we are as humans and how we function politically. Dr. Hayhoe says that, although caring about the climate is consistent with who people are as Christians, we have increasingly confounded our politics with out faith. Instead of allowing faith to determine our attitudes to political and social issues, we are allowing our political party to dictate our attitude towards issues that are clearly consistent with who we are.
Finally, Dr. Hayhoe says that everyone has a list of things they care about such as the health of their kids, job security, the cost of living, faith etc., and climate change should not be viewed as one more thing to put on the list that competes with the others because climate change is already affecting the top things on everyone’s list. Climate change is affecting the things most people care about, love, and hold dear.
There are other aspects to the interview, but the ones I’ve mentioned above are those that I think are more generalizable to other situations where misinformation and social dynamics are getting in the way of people accepting and acting on a reality. One possible such situation is COVID-19 vaccine denial.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and necessary, there is a certain proportion of the population of the United States that refuses to accept the vaccine. In parallels with climate change deniers, the sector of the population opposed to vaccination tends to be conservative and distrusting of government. In another parallel to climate change denial, this group of people tends to listen to media that reinforce their fears feeding them misinformation about vaccines. At the same time, this group of people is distrusting of what scientists say about vaccines, and especially of those scientists associated with the government.
Like the evangelicals who have allowed their politics to replace their faith in guiding them with regards to climate change, the vaccine deniers have allowed their politics to replace their common sense and instinct of self-preservation when it comes to vaccines. And like climate change deniers, vaccine deniers have a list of things they hold dear and care about, and COVID-19 has probably affected every single item on the top of their lists, from the health of people they admire, acquaintances, friends, and family, to the impact on the economy.
Dr. Hayhoe advocates finding trusted messengers within the evangelical community (people who are like them, such as she is) to spread the message that we need to act on climate change. This is indeed a strategy that is currently being pursued in the case of vaccine denial. The government is trying to recruit media personalities and local respected leaders to talk in favor of vaccination. But I think we can go about finding these trusted messengers in an additional way which relies on another parallel between COVID-19 and climate change.
Much like climate change, COVID-19 affects everyone, and there is a growing list of vaccines deniers, who have been seriously ill or died due to the virus. The people who listened to these vaccine deniers have now been knocked back to their senses in the most brutal of ways. And I think that their stories should be used to snap vaccine deniers from the stranglehold that their politics have on their common sense and instinct of self-preservation. And unlike climate change, there is no ambiguity as to the cause of the harm. If someone loses their property, a friend, or a loved one to rising sea levels or a fire or a hurricane, they can always be told that there is no direct proof that climate change caused it. But if someone dies due to COVID-19, that reality cannot be denied.
So, find out who are those vaccine deniers that were harmed by COVID-19 and seek out their audiences, their acquaintances, their friends, and their families, and ask them to tell their story to those in their communities and to champion vaccination. Every serious vaccine-preventable COVID-19 illness or death among the community of vaccine deniers is a tragedy. But the silver lining is that these illnesses and deaths will generate a group of people willing to open their minds to vaccination and promote it. I think these people have an important role to play in stopping vaccine denial.
Image from pixabay by Gerd Altmann is free for commercial use and was modified from the original.
The scientific establishment is inherently conservative and sets a high bar for the acceptance of new ideas, which allows for the efficient allocation of resources to fund research that makes sense and is worthwhile pursuing. Of course, like all human affairs this is not a perfect process, and sometimes the scientific establishment has rejected ideas that turned out to be true (although sometimes rightfully so), but what is the alternative? Should we have a system where every scientist with a new idea gets funded to pursue it? We can’t do this because resources are limited. The ideas of scientists are judged by the scientific establishment, which is made up of the immediate peers of scientists plus institutions, funding agencies, and the rest of the scientific community. And many of these ideas get rejected. In fact, I believe one important function of the scientific establishment is not so much accepting the right ideas but rather rejecting the wrong ones. Most scientists think that the acceptance of false ideas as true is more harmful than the rejection of true ideas as false. In this sense the scientific establishment is the keeper of the virtue of science because it protects science and society at large from ideas or claims that are wrong, fraudulent, or just plain stupid. Let’s look at some notable false ideas rejected by the scientific establishment.
Stefan Marinov (1931 - 1997) was a Bulgarian physicist who often advocated contrarian ideas in science. He strongly argued for the reality of perpetual motion machines which would yield free energy, and against mainstream scientific theories such as the theory of relativity. Marinov’s experimental results were never replicated and his views were never accepted by most scientists. Towards the end of his life even he found evidence that a perpetual motion machine he had built did not work and that a physical law that he had criticized was correct after all.
The American molecular biologist Peter Duesberg (1936 - ) performed pioneering work in how viruses can cause cancer, but when the HIV virus was identified in the 1980s as the cause of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Duesberg refused to accept this, and he started publishing articles opposing the idea. Duesberg began gathering supporters which ended up forming a sizeable and vocal group that developed some political, social, and media clout. The group considered that AIDs was not caused by the HIV virus but by other factors that could include drug use, sexual behavior, malnutrition, inadequate sanitation, or hemophilia. Among the AIDS denialists were individuals of note such as Nobel Prize winning scientist Kari Mullis and National Medal of Science winning scientist Lynn Margulis. Thanks to the scientific establishment, these erroneous ideas were not accepted and the identification of the HIV virus and the acceptance that it caused AIDS permitted the development of tests and therapies. The sad exception was South Africa where the government bought into the arguments of the AIDS denialists delaying antiviral treatments to people suffering from AIDS which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
Paul Kammerer (1880 - 1926) an Austrian biologist who strongly advocated a theory opposite to Darwinian evolution called Lamarckism. This theory posits that organisms can pass to their descendants traits that they acquire during their lives. To buttress his arguments he famously presented the results of an experiment where he forced toads that normally mate on land to mate in the water. He reported that over two generations the toads developed black pads on their feet (nuptial pads) which provided more traction for the process of mating in the water. He stated that these pads were an acquired trait that proved his views. However, it was discovered that the pads had been created by the injection of ink into the feet of the toads. Kammerer acknowledged the finding, but claimed he was innocent of the forgery. Other have tried to reproduce Kammerer’s experimental results, but were not successful. The scientific establishment never accepted his ideas.
In 1988 the French scientist Jacques Benveniste (1935-2004) published an experiment that seemed to lend credence to the concept of homeopathy in which extremely diluted solutions are claimed to have effects even though no trace of any solute is present. A team sent by a science journal to Benveniste’s lab could not replicate the experiment under rigorous conditions and other scientists have not been able to replicate the results either. Alleged homeopathic effects have also been claimed to have been detected by the Nobel Prize winning scientists Brian Josephson and Luc Montagnier, but attempts to validate their claims have failed. The scientific establishment does not accept the occurrence of homeopathic effects or homeopathy to be a valid science.
In 2020, the journals Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine published articles that claimed that the drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) did not have effects against COVID-19 and in fact was harmful to human patients. Many scientists read the articles and spotted several problems that were communicated to the editors of the journals and the authors of the articles. The articles were then retracted. Despite the criticisms, this affair demonstrated that the scientific process worked. Error was detected, addressed, and corrected. On the flipside, the claim that HCQ works against COVID-19 has been pushed by doctors such as Vladimir Zelenko, scientists such as the Yale epidemiologist Harvey Risch, and groups such as the Front-Line Doctors, but so far HCQ has not been found to work as a single agent or when combined with antibiotics against COVID-19 in the best designed studies, or to have antiviral effects against the COVID-19 virus. When it comes to HCQ the scientific establishment has been able so far to discard false claims both for and against HCQ.
The foregoing are but a very tiny fraction of the ideas that have been evaluated, questioned, and discarded by the scientific establishment. Thanks to the scientific establishment, society is not mired in error, wasting resources on nonsense, and isn’t flooded with quack cures and ineffective therapies. That is part of what the scientific establishment has done for you.
The image from Alpha Stock Images by Nick Youngson is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
In Facebook I belong to a group that pays tribute to one of my all-time favorite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes, written by Will Watterson. Watterson's strip about a hyperkinetic albeit imaginative kid named Calvin and his alter ego stuffed tiger, Hobbes, ran from 1985 to 1996 in the United States. Calvin, is the quintessential brat who often strains the nerves of his mostly tolerant parents, while Hobbes plays the straight man to Calvin’s antics. The comic strip often parodies modern life at the personal, family, and societal levels.
The most salient feature of the comic strip is Hobbes. When someone besides Calvin is around, Hobbes is shown as a stuffed toy tiger, but when Hobbes is alone with Calvin, he is portrayed as a walking talking tiger. This has been interpreted in several ways by fans of the strip, with some people claiming that the walking talking Hobbes is a figment of Calvin’s imagination while others claim that the tiger actually comes alive when he’s alone with Calvin.
One of the members of the Facebook group posted what Watterson once wrote about the ambiguity of Hobbes’ nature.
The so-called "gimmick" of my strip — the two versions of Hobbes — is sometimes misunderstood. I don't think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin's around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin's imagination. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that's how life works. None of us sees the world exactly the same way, and I just draw that literally in the strip. Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.
I took exception to this, and I posted on the group’s page the following:
“This is not true. There is only one reality. We may perceive it in different ways, but those perceptions still have to have a high degree of correlation to reality for life to be possible. If I see the edge of a cliff and you don't, I will survive, and you will die. Seeing a walking talking tiger instead of a stuffed tiger is not just ‘another way’ to perceive reality, it is a fantasy. There are perceptions of reality which may make sense to some people, but they are false.”
A few people replied to my comment making several claims. Among these where that “everyone has their sense of reality’, that “there is no consensus regarding the interpretation of reality”, and that research into the quantum realm validates this notion; that “only those dogmatically adhering to their own perspective dare speak with any certainty when it comes to asserting that their interpretation of reality holds all due authority and finality in its validity”, and “what makes you an expert on reality? How do you know that for one a thing is not real that is for another?”.
I wanted to put together my replies to some of these comments in this post, because the implications go beyond a mere comic strip.
I understand that the perception of reality by different people can be different: for example, color blind people vs people with normal color vision. In fact, our perception of reality doesn’t even have to be “veridical”. However, as I stated in my comment, there has to be a big enough correlation between reality and our perception of it for life to be possible. All around us the world is full of patterns, regularities, and things happening one way and not another, that allow us to figure out how to go about living. Reality is not anarchical, and there are millions of consensuses regarding the nature of reality all around us. For example, the sidewalk under our feet WILL NOT turn into quicksand and swallow us, a tree WILL NOT uproot itself and chase us, a cloud WILL NOT turn into lead and fall on us, etc. We don't have to live in fear of these occurrences, because we have internalized how the world works. This ability is part of our evolutionary programing and has survival value.
Scientists go beyond this intuitive understanding of reality that we have all developed by performing tests to gain insight into more complex aspects of reality and they discard those views of reality that are incompatible with the evidence. With the exception of the quantum realm, so far all the evidence we have indicates that, at least at our level, we live in a deterministic world. Things are one way and not another. Some things are possible, and others aren’t.
I agree that some individuals see a reality that is very different from the one the rest of us see, but many of those people are unable to function in the real world and can even put their lives and those of others in danger. That is why they are treated with medication or locked up in psychiatric wards. Their view of reality IS NOT an “alternative view”, it is a FALSE view. I agree children often see reality in a way that is different from adults, but this is why they are treated like children and are under the care and supervision of adults. And it is our job as adults to assist in weaning them of their childhood fantasies, so they can take their place in the adult world.
Of course, when I post things like these, I come across as an arrogant, insufferable, “know better than thou” jerk divorced from the magic of childhood who is disrespectful of other people’s points of view. Let me just state two things.
1) I am a fan of fiction and fantasy. From Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to comic strips such as Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, or The Far Side; and from the numerous incarnations of the Star Trek franchise (I’m a Trekkie) to many works of horror such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Aliens, Night of the Living dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Texas chainsaw Massacre, or the Rocky Horror Picture show. I enjoy fiction and fantasy and find inspiration in them, so much so that I also write short stories. Fiction and fantasy have important roles in adulthood, but they ARE NOT reality, and as adults we must recognize this.
2) Reality is not a democracy, and alternative views of reality, especially those unsupported by evidence are not always valid or worthy of respect. Are the QAnon folks right in their claims of the existence of a worldwide cabal of satanic, cannibalistic, pedophiles? Was the 2020 presidential election a fraud? Was 911 an inside job? Is COVID-19 no worse than the flu? Will the COVID-19 vaccine modify your DNA and implant a microchip that will allow the government to track you? Was the moon landing a hoax and is the Earth flat? Was the Earth and all life on it created 10,000 years ago? Is the government spraying you with chemicals? These are not “alternative” views of reality, these are FALSE views of reality and should be treated as such.
So, to wrap it up, yes, by all means enjoy and be inspired by Calvin and Hobbes (or other works of fiction and fantasy), but all the while understanding that Hobbes IS NOT a walking talking tiger but just a figment of Calvin’s imagination.
Calvin and Hobbes image by Bill Watterson is a Wallpaper from flickr by Brad Arnold and is used here under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.
Movies often take artistic license when it comes to well-known physical, chemical, and biological principles, and there are certain stunts in movies that do not resemble the actual occurrences that happen in reality. However, most of these things are hardly noticed by the majority of the public who, truth be told, is there to mostly have a good time and not to nitpick about whether what is depicted could happen in the real world. There are, of course, some limits. You do not want to show something so laughable that will compromise your viewers' suspension of disbelief, but where do we draw the line?
In this post we are going to examine some of things in films that defy the laws of nature.
Decapitation or Brain Destruction
Occurrence: In movies you sometimes find that a character is decapitated, or their brain is destroyed, yet its body nevertheless lingers on in the same position for a few dramatic seconds before falling.
Reality: Maintaining the posture of a body with joints (for example knee and hip joints) against the force of gravity is a continuous second by second task. Upright standing bodies even at rest are maintained this way due to the forces of muscles contracting and pulling against bones. If these muscles were to relax, the body will immediately collapse like a puppet suddenly deprived of its strings. What makes muscles contract is the action of the brain. The brain constantly sends signals through the nerves for the muscles to contract to a greater or lesser degree in order to keep bodies upright and regulate posture. If the brain is severed from the body or is destroyed these signals cease, muscles relax, and the body falls instantaneously to the ground.
Occurrence: When people in movies lose consciousness and fall from a standing position, they never seem to clearly bang their heads or certain areas of their bodies against the ground.
Reality: Falls in real life can be life threatening mostly because of the damage sustained by head impacts. In movies, the actors or their stunt doubles fall in ways that protect the head and other areas such as the tailbone from injury. These “Hollywood Falls” are designed to dissipate the energy of the fall and avoid injury. In the real world, when a person loses consciousness and falls, they cannot maneuver their bodies into the right position to avoid serious damage, especially to the head.
Growth of Mass
Occurrence: Some movies feature an entity or a character that undergoes a transformation which greatly increases their size in a matter of seconds or minutes.
Reality: A living thing cannot just grow to a large size without an equally sizeable input of mass and energy (for example carbon dioxide and sunlight). Any added mass has to come from somewhere. You can’t get something from nothing. Additionally, there has to be a mechanism to generate the extra mass from a precursor, and any such mechanism would presumably require a number of steps and would take time not only to generate the extra mass but to distribute it properly. For example, a type of algae called kelp can use the carbon dioxide in the water to make plant material through photosynthesis, and it can grow in optimal conditions up to two feet per day! This makes it one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet, but still far short of the growth spurts exhibited by some monsters, aliens, or other fantastical entities in the movies.
Explosions in Space
Occurrence: When people within a spaceship witness a large explosion in space, they hear the sound of the explosion and the spaceship is rocked by the shock wave.
Reality: Shock waves are areas of compression of a medium such as air. The explosion pushes air molecules into each other, and that effect propagates to neighboring air molecules and so on forming a shock wave that upon reaching our ears is perceived as a loud sound. The medium of space is not dense enough to propagate the type of shock waves that would rock spaceships and be audible to human beings.
Freezing or Blowing Up When Exposed to the Vacuum of Space
Occurrence: Movies depict people freezing or blowing up when exposed to the vacuum of space without wearing a space suit.
Reality: Because space is largely devoid of mass, two of the three ways by which the body loses heat, conduction and convection, are missing. Heat can then only be lost by radiation. A person suddenly exposed to outer space would not instantly freeze and in fact would only feel mildly cool. Similarly, a person exposed to the vacuum of space will not explode. The air in their lungs would expand causing serious damage if it is not exhaled, and a certain amount of the water in the blood and soft tissues would transition to the gaseous phase (ebullism) which will lead to significant swelling and bruising of the body, but not an explosion. The greatest threat is lack of oxygen which would lead to loss of consciousness in a matter of seconds followed by death.
Groups of Animals Surviving by Preying on Themselves
Occurrence: Some movies show a large group of animals in a deserted or isolated environment that have survived solely by preying on each other.
Reality: This situation is untenable because conversion of energy is not 100% efficient and doesn’t happen at once. Several animals would have to be consumed over the life cycle of a single animal for it to reach maturity and procreate. The new animals would fail to produce a replacement for the animals they have consumed. Each generation of the animals will become progressively smaller until they become extinct.
Humans or Monsters of Very Large Size
Occurrence: In movies, huge beings, many several stories high, are depicted with bodies that are not that different in proportions from the bodies they would have if they were much smaller.
Reality: As bodies change in size, several of their parameters do not increase by an equivalent measure. An increase in body size leads to a much higher increase in body volume, and this creates all sorts of problems. Consider, for example, that a higher volume leads to a higher weight which has to be supported. The reality is that all those colossal beings depicted in the movies with those body plans would collapse under their own weight and also experience a host of other issues affecting things such as regulation of body temperature, blood circulation and aeration, metabolism, etc.
Do any of these differences between the movies and real life bother you? Please leave a comment and let me know.
Image of Godzilla from pixabay is free for commercial use.
Every now and them when I have the patience, I take a deep breath and visit pseudoscientific websites. These websites are laden with misconceptions, misinformation, and lies that tend to make my blood boil, but it is important to try to read what these people are arguing so you can counter it effectively. Recently I was reading a creationist website, Answers in Genesis, when I happened upon an article regarding whether we really landed on the moon. The article goes over the skepticism that some people, including Christians, have expressed about whether we really landed on the moon. The author of the article stated that he could rebut point by point the arguments made by the moon landing skeptics, but since that has already been done, he pursues what he calls a “much more straightforward approach”.
The author of the article mentions that two of the twelve men who landed on the moon are now born-again Christians, and that they wrote books about their experience as astronauts. Thus, to doubt the moon landing is tantamount to accusing two fellow Christians of lying. And because the standard in the Bible to establish the truth of certain issues requires two or three witnesses, the testimony from these two reliable Christians should be enough to allow other Christians to accept that the moon landing is true.
Reading this I chuckled. Of the 12 men who landed on the moon, there were 10 non-born-again Christians that would have told you exactly the same thing that the two born-again Christians would have told you. However, because these ten men were not in this religious category, their testimony is presumably not as trustworthy as that from the two born-again ones. Although the author acknowledges that there is other evidence and arguments that could be brought to bear on the issue, he considers this the most straightforward approach. People should accept this is true because those who they should trust claim it is true.
As it turns out, this method of settling the truth is in fact very ancient. People may not understand the arguments regarding an issue, and they may not have confidence in the evidence, but they will believe those who they trust. And those who they trust have been traditionally those who they know and those with whom they share the same values. In fact, this phenomenon is so well recognized that when governments or organizations wish to disseminate a message of public importance, they often contact respected members of the target community who are willing to transmit the message. For example, Dr. Fauci has outlined a government strategy to increase vaccination levels that involves recruiting “trusted messengers” in communities across the country to explain why it is important to get vaccinated. Finding these trusted messengers is as important as the message itself.
Most of the time these trusted messengers belong to the circle of family, friends, or those who are known in the community (preacher, police officer, etc.). People may also trust total strangers as long as they are convinced that the strangers share the same beliefs and values as they do. From antiquity, this propensity to trust those who you know and those who share your beliefs and values has created bubbles that have insulated groups of people from outside influences, so much so that throughout history a lot of time and effort has been spent by people or groups of people figuring out how break past these bubbles to earn the allegiance of others.
The advent of mass media has made it possible for individuals and groups to penetrate these bubbles and reach people at the very heart of their communities, and this process has accelerated with the advent of the internet and has had a cascading effect. Nowadays total strangers can reach with ease people they have never met and deliver to them messages to earn their trust which they then pass to others. Sometimes this is a positive development as, for example, when people are convinced that vaccination is important. However, individuals who do not provide people with factual information can also gain their trust. One example of this was the fraud claims of the 2020 election.
The 2020 election will go down in history as one of the most scrutinized and contested elections. The large amount of court cases, recounts, audits, and other investigations that were, and are still being conducted is breathtaking, not only for the sheer numbers, but also for the fact that no evidence of significant election fraud has been uncovered. But what was even more remarkable is what happened to Republicans who had been trusted members of their communities and parties, and then acknowledged the reality that there is no evidence of significant fraud.
For example, Georgia’s top election official, Brad Raffensperger, called Georgia’s election for Biden and reaffirmed that after two recounts and an audit. Raffensperger is a pro-life Republican who has never voted for a Democrat, and who twice voted for Trump. Nevertheless, he received death threats to himself and to his family and had to go into hiding for a week. The death threats kept coming even months after the election. Instead of supporting him, the Republican party of Georgia censured Raffensperger, and it looks like Republicans will not support him for reelection.
Another example is, Ed McBroom, a state senator for Michigan who headed an exhaustive 8-month investigation into the legitimacy of the Michigan election. McBroom, a fourth-generation farmer and a pro-life Republican who is music director of his church, reviewed claim after claim, found no evidence of fraud, and issued his report. Almost overnight, people who had known him for years, supported him, and believed him to be honest, ceased to trust him. McBroom also received a barrage of emails, texts, and phone calls insulting him and threatening him.
The above has also happened to many other Republican officials ranging from election operatives to governors who declared they did not find any significant fraud in the results of the election. It seems that the ancient bubble that protected people from outside influences has been busted forever. People now regularly anoint as trusted messengers individuals from outside their immediate communities whom they don’t know and have never met. And this happens to the detriment of the trust they would otherwise normally place in family, friends, acquaintances, or those whom they know for sure to share their beliefs and values. This power in the right hands can be used to do good, but in the wrong hands it can be used to isolate people from reality and manipulate them.
Such is the unsettling power of the trusted messenger.
Trust sign by Nick Youngson from Picserver.Org is used here with no modification under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Those opposed to vaccines (antivaxxers) are fond of quoting government figures to argue that there have been many adverse events due to COVID vaccines. They then proceed to state that because the government figures underreport these adverse events this means that the problem is much, much, worse. They also argue that there is a conspiracy to keep this information from the American public, and they demand that COVID vaccination should stop.
What are antivaxxers talking about? What are these government figures? Are they quoting them correctly? What do the numbers mean?
By the time vaccines are allowed to be used on the US population, they have gone through multiple clinical trials and other evaluations that have certified they are safe. But this vaccine safety is based on data gathered from at most a few tens of thousands of people. Therefore, it is understood that when vaccines are applied to a population of tens or hundreds of millions there may be some low frequency adverse events that may have not been detected in the clinical trials with a smaller group of people. To account for this, the government in 1990 created a federal database called VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) that is meant to act as an early warning system to detect possible safety problems with vaccines.
However, VAERS is a passive reporting system. This means that anyone can file a VAERS report regardless of its nature, and that report is entered into the database and cannot be removed without the permission of the person who reported it. Although knowingly filing a false VAERS report is a violation of Federal law, if you are convinced that the adverse event you are describing, no matter how outlandish, is tied to a vaccine, it will be incorporated into the database.
For example, Dr. James Laidter mentioned in the neurodiversity weblog that back in 2005 he entered a VAERS report claiming that an influenza vaccine had turned him into the incredible Hulk, and the claim was accepted into the database. However, due to its unusual nature, a VAERS representative did contact him, and after an amicable discussion about the limitations of VAERS, the representative requested his permission to remove the claim to which he agreed. If he had not agreed to that, the claim would have remained in the database. Another example, Kevin Leitch writing for the Left Brain Right Brain science blog mentions that he submitted a VAERS report claiming that a vaccine had turned his baby girl into Wonder Woman, and he is not even a US resident!
However, even when considering reasonable adverse events, it must be understood that VAERS reports do not stablish that there is a link between the adverse events reported and vaccination. Each day thousands of people develop a health problem and/or die in the United States in a manner unrelated to vaccines. If any of these people received a vaccine around the time they developed the health problem or died, they could be reported to VAERS thus constituting a false positive.
The experts understand that the VAERS database has a high number of these false positives, and they use the database as a very preliminary step to perform more research, gather more data, and establish for sure whether a given event being reported is a real adverse event due to vaccines or not. These experts know that quoting numbers directly from the VAERS system is meaningless insofar as learning anything about the safety of vaccines is concerned. But this is exactly what antivaxxers do! And while some antivaxxers may be ignorant about the nature of VAERS, many of the leading antivaxxer influencers know the shortcomings of VAERS and nevertheless choose to continue reporting or quoting the raw numbers to advance their platforms and promote their agendas.
Antivaxxers are also prone to saying that VAERS vastly underestimates the number of vaccine adverse events by as much as 99%, so in some of their alarmist literature they suggest that VAERS numbers should be increased by large multiples. However, although reporting to VAERS of non-serious adverse events such as soreness at the injection site is indeed very low, estimates of the sensitivity of VAERS to serious adverse events, while variable, is much higher than antivaxxers would like us to think. For example, for anaphylaxis due to seven different vaccines, estimates of VAERS reporting sensitivity ranged from 13% to 76%, while for Guillain-Barre Syndrome after three different vaccines the sensitivity ranged from 12% to 64%.
Despite its shortcomings, the VAERS system has been useful for detecting rare side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines. For example, an elevated risk of myocarditis and pericarditis has been detected in males 12-29 years of age who have received mostly two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. This is a treatable disease that involves inflammation of the heart or its surrounding membranes. The CDC convened a meeting of experts (the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices: ACIP) to analyze these cases. The analysis involved weighing any harm caused by the vaccine against its benefits. The committee concluded that the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks. However, now that we know that this age group is at an elevated risk of myocarditis/pericarditis, vaccine providers and healthcare professionals have been alerted to this side effect and its treatment.
This is the way VAERS and science are supposed to work. Rare adverse events of a vaccine are detected, and the risk/benefit is determined after a thorough evaluation of the data available. Then a rational course of action is pursued to achieve the greatest benefit with the least harm. The irresponsible use of VAERS by antivaxxers’s to concoct alarmist articles and memes promotes vaccine hesitancy which in turn prolongs the pandemic, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths and may give rise to new variants of the virus that are more resistant to the vaccine.
Photo of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from Max Pixel is in the public domain.
More than 200 years ago Marie Shelley published her novel “Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus” which told the tale of a scientist playing God and the nasty consequences that ensued. The story became a literary success which captured the imagination of generations and moved into the realms of theater and then film and television almost as soon as these were invented. It was in the 1931 film directed by James Whale (in which the master of horror Boris Karloff played the monster) that the current view of what the monster looks like was cemented in popular culture. Since then, all visual references to the Frankenstein monster have those emblematic electrode bolts sticking out of the sides of his neck.
It was also in this movie that the actor Colin Clive embodied in popular culture the image of the mad scientist with his deranged scream of, “It’s alive!”.
It is interesting that most people associate the name Frankenstein with the monster, even though the monster never had a name. Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who created it: Victor Frankenstein. It is also interesting that Frankenstein’s creation is considered to be the monster when reality is a bit more complex. This is described in a clever joke that differentiates knowledge from wisdom.
Knowledge is understanding that Frankenstein is not the monster.
Wisdom is understanding that Frankenstein is the monster.
But one of most remarkable aspects of Frankenstein as a cultural phenomenon is how we have ended up using not only the full name but also the word “Franken” as a prefix. Anything preceded by the prefix “Franken” can mean several things such as something monstrous or deformed, or something made out of many parts, or something dead or dormant which has been reanimated, or a created entity that is unusual in some real or imagined negative way or that turns on its creator. I will go over some examples in this post.
In the 1980s, the CIA supported and trained Islamic rebels (the mujahedin) fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan including Osama Bin Laden. The late president of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, warned President George H. W. Bush that he was creating a Frankenstein. And sure enough, after the rebels defeated the Soviets, they turned on the US. with ever increasing acts of terrorism, culminating with the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon.
The large hurricane that wreaked havoc upon the East Coast of the United States in 2012 killing 280 people and causing 65 billion dollars in damage, Hurricane Sandy, was dubbed a “Frankenstorm”.
In the cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants, there is a 2002 episode in which SpongeBob creates a doodle bearing his likeness that acquires a life of its own and runs amok causing all sort of mischief. The name of the episode is, of course, “Frankendoodle.”
When my daughter was in middle school, she brought home a project from her ceramics class. It was a strange dark green shape with two knobs sticking out at right angles and what appeared to be stiches on its surface. I asked her what it was and she replied, “It’s a Frankenapple!”
In the 1990s, several dog breeders began crossing purebred dogs and creating new breeds (for example crossing a poodle with a Labrador will yield a labradoodle). These new dog breeds were called “designer dogs” and unleashed a craze to buy these expensive canines which were dubbed Frankendogs by those people scandalized with the practice.
In 2002 the invasive Asian snakehead fish made the news when several of them were found in a pond in Crofton, Maryland. Since then, the snakehead has become established wreaking havoc in the ecosystem of the Potomac River watershed. Its voracity, resilience, and ugliness have earned it the name of “Frankenfish”. Hollywood decided to commemorate this event by releasing a movie with an eponymous title.
The punk rock band The Dead Kennedys put out a record in 1985 called “Frankenchrist.” Inside the record cover they ill-fatedly included a poster by artist Hans Rudolf Giger entitled “Penis Landscape.” In a true Frankenstein-like fashion the resulting obscenity trial nearly drove the band’s record label out of business.
In 2012, a teacher wrote an article about an unsuccessful attempt to conduct a reading class employing e-books. The title of her article? Frankenbook.
In 2015 a large 30,000-year-old virus was discovered in Siberia, and researchers planned to revive this pathogen which was dubbed a “Frankenvirus”.
In 2012, filmmaker extraordinaire Tim Burton brought to the screen a story about a boy named “Victor” who brings his dog “Sparky” back to life with a lot of unintended consequences. The name of the movie? Frankenweenie!
The folks at the Urban Dictionary define Frankenjob as “a job consisting of a variety of different, often largely unrelated, tasks and duties, often resulting from corporate downsizing, restructuring or layoffs that cause many people's jobs to be combined into one.” They give the following example: After all those layoffs, management gave Fred so many different people's work, he's got a real Frankenjob now.
Environmentalist and consumer advocacy groups often refer to genetically modified foods as Frankenfoods and to genetically modified crops as Frankencrops. Related to this, a rumor got started in 2000 that involved the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants. When the franchise began calling itself “KFC” to reflect that it offered a wider variety of food choices, the rumor originated that they did this because they were not serving chicken anymore in their restaurants but a genetically modified organism that they could not legally call chicken. So what were they rumored to be serving? Frankenchicken!
In a 1990 film a medical school dropout endeavors to bring back to life his dead girlfriend using parts obtained from dead New York prostitutes. The result? Frankenhooker!
The examples above are some of the many uses of the frankenprefix. Have you heard about a particular use that I have not listed here? Please leave a comment and let me know.
The photograph of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster from Universal Studios is in the public domain.
Some areas of research are glamorous, such as the stars, the genome, or dinosaurs. Some other areas of research are vital to our well-being, such as vaccines, heart disease, and cancer. Other areas of research are fun, such as puzzles and game theory. And the best thing about research in these areas is that you can talk about it during lunch, dinner, and cocktail parties!
However, some areas of research delve into subjects that most people would consider downright disgusting. But what are scientists to do if their pursuit of the scientific truth leads them to spend long hours in the office, the field, or the lab designing and carrying out experiments or analyses dealing with slimy icky things, body parts, tissue samples, or bodily fluids? In this post we are going to see why people consider some things disgusting, but first we are going to go over some examples of research into disgusting things that scientists have published.
Coincident Tick Infestations in the Nostrils of Wild Chimpanzees and a Human in Uganda by Hamer and coworkers, published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2013.
Here a scientist studying ticks in the nostrils of chimpanzees found that one of these arachnids had latched on to his own nose. He took it out, sequenced its DNA, and found out it may be a new species!
Buttock Augmentation: A Novel Alternative to a Lengthy Procedure by George Solomon, published in The American Journal of Cosmetic Surgery in 2016.
Who would not be interested in coming up with a better procedure to increase buttock size?
The effect of acute increase in urge to void on cognitive function in healthy adults by Lewis and coworkers, published in the journal Neurourology and Urodynamics in 2011.
In this research, scientists had people perform cognitive tasks while drinking fluid. The researchers found that the more you want to pee, the less well you perform in a cognitive task. Good to know!
Volatile components in defensive spray of the hooded skunk, Mephitis macroura by Wood and coworkers, published in the Journal of Chemical Ecology in 2002.
Here the researchers investigated all the chemical compounds present in the anal sack of a variety of skunk. This research stinks!
Experimental replication shows knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work by Eran and coworkers, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports in 2019.
An old story in archeological circles stated that a man made a knife from his frozen feces to butcher an animal. The researcher here found out these knives do not work. So now you know what not to do when trying to butcher an animal.
The fate of the embedded virgin sand flea Tunga penetrans: Hypothesis, self-experimentation and photographic sequence by Thielecke and Feldmeier, published in the journal Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease in 2013.
In this article, a researcher found that a sand flea had burrowed under her skin. She allowed it to remain there and made observations that permitted her to gain insight into how sand fleas reproduce. Now, that’s dedication!
The effect of Having Christmas Dinner with In-Laws on Gut Microbiota composition by de Clercq and coworkers, published in the Human Microbiome Journal in 2019.
Yes, you read that right. These researchers investigated how having dinner with your in laws changes the bacterial composition of your intestinal contents.
Personal space invasions in the lavatory: suggestive evidence for arousal by Middlemist and coworkers, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1976.
Here researchers found that men who have other men peeing next to them take longer to begin peeing. I would just sing that song, “Don’t stand so close to me.”
Biomechanics of male erectile function by Daniel Udelson, published in the Journal of the Royal Society, Interface in 2007.
The author of this article studied the male organ and came up with complex mathematical equations that describe its buckling as well as blood flow through it. This guy is an expert.
Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation by Meyer-Rochow and Gal published in the journal Polar Biology in 2003.
As it turns out, some researchers not only study disgusting things, but they also study why you find the things they study disgusting!
The observation was made a long time ago that those things that people find disgusting are related in various ways to infectious diseases. So, scientists have developed the hypothesis that the feeling of disgust in animals such as humans evolved to affect behavior in such a way as to reduce the risk of infection. This is the so called “parasite avoidance theory”.
A group of researchers tested the theory by performing an experiment where they presented several disgusting scenarios in writing to a total of more than 2,600 participants in a study. These scenarios ranged from watching people pick their nose, spotting an unflushed toilet, or seeing pus come out of a genital sore, to accidentally using someone else’s deodorant, eating onion flavored ice cream, or watching a fly crawl across the face of a sleeping friend. The participants were asked to rate each scenario in a scale from 0 (no disgust) to 100 (extreme disgust). Using statistics, the scientists found that the responses of the participants could be categorized into six factors: avoidance of skin lesions, spoiled foods, animal vectors, promiscuous sexual practices, and individuals with poor hygiene or atypical appearance. This suggests that human beings have an instinctive “pathogen detection system” that leads them to avoid people, practices, and objects associated with infectious disease.
But research into disgust is not merely an academic endeavor. Disgust plays an important role in anxiety and phobias, and disgust is an emotion that can often affect our judgement in subtle ways. For instance, in another study researchers asked people to make moral judgments in environments where they were exposed to disgusting stimuli such as a bad smell. They found that people in the disgusting environments tended to make harsher moral judgments. This awareness of the effects of disgust in human psychology has been applied to promote the avoidance of behaviors by people that can lead to spread of disease. Unfortunately, it can also be misapplied to fan prejudice and stigmatize individuals or entire groups of people. For example, studies have revealed that people that are more prone to being disgusted have a greater intuitive disapproval of gay people, and in the past (it is more subtle nowadays) much anti-gay propaganda contained associations with disgusting images and statements.
Disgust expression photo by Eric Molina from flickr is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
I have written extensively on hydroxychloroquine (HQ) in my blog. Now that the interest of society has shifted towards the COVID-19 vaccines, it’s time to do a recap of the issues I addressed related to HQ and provide a final update.
President Trump advocated HQ and one his advisers criticized Dr. Fauci for questioning its effectiveness. The French doctor Didier Raoult claimed a 99.3% success rate in treating COVID-19 patients with HQ, and accounts of patients treated with HQ experiencing dramatic recoveries (Lazarus-like coming back from the dead effects) were appearing in the news. In my post, I warmed against accepting these isolated “dramatic effects” reports as a measure of a drug effectiveness, stated that the only measure of a drug’s effectiveness is clinical trials, and explained why.
I addressed the claim made by some doctors that HQ is 100% effective against COVID-19, and I explained not only why it is highly unlikely, but also that this is a regular claim made by charlatans. I also explain that the best clinical trials conducted so far had not found evidence that HQ worked.
I debunked the misinformation that Dr. Fauci is aligned with powerful pharmaceutical interests to hamper the adoption of HQ as a life saving drug, and that Dr. Fauci already knew HQ worked more than 15 years ago. I also addressed the issue of the articles claiming that HQ did not work and was harmful. I argued that the fact that these articles were published in medical journals and then retracted is not a conspiracy but rather indicate that science worked the way it should. I also debunked the notion that countries that had embraced the use of HQ were doing better.
I decried the politization of HQ and the notion that it is “the president’s drug”, and I outlined the evidence at the time against HQ which indicated it’s not effective against COVID-19.
I debunked in more detail the conspiracy that Fauci knew about HQ being effective, and I proceeded to explain a bold hypothesis that explains why HQ alone does not work against COVID-19.
I debunked the notions that high doses of HQ were used in some clinical trials to make HQ fail, or that pharmaceutical companies want to eliminate HQ because it’s a cheap alternative to their expensive drugs. Since some HQ proponents were then arguing that HQ only works with zinc (the zinc hypothesis), I pointed out that this contradicted their cheering of studies where HQ allegedly worked alone (which it shouldn’t have if it only works with zinc).
I examined the difference between doctors and scientists and debunked the notions that “doctors know best” and that “we don’t need randomized trials”. I also described the important role of the scientific establishment in science.
I explained why observational trials cannot provide the final evidence that HQ works, and I pointed out that even the authors of the studies that the pro-HQ folk cite in favor of HQ state that randomized trials are needed.
Despite the evidence which indicated that HQ did not work alone or with antibiotics, some HQ proponents still supported the hypothesis that HQ worked as long as you combined it with zinc. In this post I explained the evidence against HQ alone or with zinc. I also explained why it is important to remain objective and not fall in love with your hypotheses.
In this final post, I readdressed the conspiracy theory that claimed that the clinical trials of HQ were designed to make it fail. I also examined the accusation that Dr. Fauci’s unwillingness to accept that HQ works was killing people.
As I have mentioned before, to reach a conclusion regarding the activity of HQ on COVID-19 you need to focus on the studies that allocate patients to treatments at random (randomized studies). There are people that keep pushing the claim that HQ does work based on the total number of studies performed on the drug, which includes the observational (non-randomized) studies which are of lower quality because they are prone to bias. I searched a database for randomized studies of HQ and COVID-19, and only two of the studies I found were positive for the drug (1, 2), whereas 25 other studies were negative (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25).
However, whether HQ works or not cannot be established merely by counting the number of pro and con studies. Even among randomized studies, some studies are of lower quality than others. One or two high-quality studies can trump many low-quality studies. In order to evaluate the merits of studies in addressing whether HQ works for COVID-19, scientists perform analyses (studies of studies) where they assess the quality and relevance of the studies. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic several of these analyses have been performed. I searched the database for these analyses and I found 20 of them, all negative for HQ (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20).
The conclusion is inescapable, hydroxychloroquine DOES NOT work for COVID-19. Period, end of the discussion. The breathtaking number of studies conducted on this drug is a testament to its politicization. The sheer amount of manpower and resources devoted to testing HQ was unjustified when a handful of studies would have sufficed. The attacks and lies hurdled against scientists including Dr. Fauci because they refused to accept that HQ works based on the available data was unethical.
From Mr. Trump who unwisely promoted the drug to individuals such as the epidemiologist Harvey Risch and Dr. Vladimir Zelenko or groups such as the Front-Line Doctors who all claimed the drug worked even when the best evidence indicated otherwise, this saga has been a lesson on what people should not do with science and in science. Unfortunately, these people have not learned their lesson and still claim to have been right all along.
Such is the complexity of the human mind.
Image by WHO-openaccess was cropped from a PNG file by Cantons-de-l'Est and is used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license, and was modified to include the name and formula of hydroxychloroquine.