Category: pseudoscience

Discussion of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, by Michael Brooks

I read a review of Michael Brooks’s 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense on the Uncertain Principles blog. I haven’t read the book, but the review tickled me enough that I looked around for more info and found Jennifer Ouellette’s review in The New Scientist where Brooks is a contributor.

Both Chad Orzel and Jennifer Ouellette give Brooks weak “this book has some weak parts but also some good parts” reviews. Just from the reviews and blurbs I can tell Brooks book is destructive, part worthless speculation on the meaning of anomalous results that are almost certainly erroneous and part flattering discussion of pseudoscience.

Why are people giving Brooks such gentle reviews? The physics results are typical of the lot. John Webb’s fine-structure result is of the same sort as the Viking experiment result. Interesting if true, but not reproduced and instead contradicted by other experiments and thus uninteresting.

Brooks doesn’t understand that for something to not ‘Make Sense’ it has to be true. Anomalous *verified* results, results that can’t be explained theoretically or seem to contradict existing results are the kinds of things that ‘Don’t Make Sense’ but could be cool. These are the kinds of things that Brooks should be writing about.

One of Brooks’s topics is the mimivirus, a virus with the largest genome known so far (1.2 Mb). I can’t imagine anything particularly Earth shaking about it–it’s really big for a virus, but that’s it. Biology is littered with oddities and weird exceptions. No one tell Brooks about ttn-1, a titin protein 57X larger than the average worm protein. Or about the ostrich.

The placebo effect has two components, self-delusion and a poorly understood mechanism whereby the state of mind can affect the body. The mind->body connection is true and poorly understood, the proper subject of Brook’s book.

In Jennifer Ouellette’s review she says that Brooks includes homeopathy because of its relation to the placebo effect. This is ridiculous–any of the thousands of worthless ‘medical’ treatments known from blood letting to magic spells have this property.

Brooks’s inclusion of homeopathy and death is complete nonsense. Homeopathy is pseudoscience, bunkum. And there well understood evolutionary reasons why organisms die, death (and aging) are not even anomalous.

Bigfoot and cheap cameras

You would think someone would have caught a photo of bigfoot by now considering how much more common cameras have become in the past decade. Point-and-click cameras and cell phone cameras are in everyone’s pocket. Instead, ‘peak Bigfoot’ was in the 50’s and 60’s, when cheap movie cameras became available to the hoaxing public…

Pepper spray antidote

Pepper spray has been around for years now, but there is not commonly available antidote. And we know how the active ingredient, capsaicin acts to active, or hold open, the ion channels that transduce pain signals. In fact, a quick Google shows that capsaicin binds and activates a receptor called the vanilloid receptor subtype 1 (VR1), a member of a group of related receptors called TRP ion channels that are activated by temperature changes.

Capsaicin chemical structure
Capsaicin chemical structure (from Wikipedia)

So an antidote would be an inhibitor of the VR1 receptor, and such a thing should be easy to find, or create, and in fact another Google shows that several have been created. Capsazepine was the first inhibitor discovered, way back in 1994. Activators and inhibitors of this receptor have many potential uses as analgesics and anti-inflammation compounds so there is a lot of research interest.

Capsaicin inhibitor capsazepine (from Wikipedia)

A spray containing one of these inhibitors should be an effective antidote for pepper spray. But surprisingly no such inhibitor is available! The small quantities of purified inhibitors are available in small quantities for research purposes (i.e. capsazepine, 50mg for $455 but I can’t find anyone who has made an antidote preparation. This should be safe and fairly easy. Safe, because it would be applied mainly externally, and because pepper spray is itself fairly safe–aside from the pain and shock it is used to cause. It doesn’t have other, non-specific side effects. And relatively easy to make because the literature describes the synthesis of inhibitors from capsaicin itself. So the starting product used to make an inhibitor can be capsaicin, and capsaicin is readily available in large quantities!

Wikipedia: Discovery and development of TRPV1 antagonists

Great Health Nuttery

Ah, health nuttery, a spice that can be added to anything. I’ve heard it many times, that alternative medicine and quack cures have a collection of ideas (all bonkers) that often get combined together. You see all sorts of combinations. Qi magnets, detoxifying magnets, Qi detoxification. Most of these terms mean so little that they can be combined randomly to make a novel-sounding new types of alt. med.

It’s really just like advertising, where there is a pool of non-specific positive adjectives that are slapped on a product to jazz it up. Pick any two or three: new, brighter, improved, best, free, breakthrough, exciting.

That’s all background for describing something that made me bust a gut. Bear Grylls, star of the Man vs. Wild survival show, had caught and gutted a fish. As he often does, he starts chomping on it raw. Then he says it’s high in protein, gives you energy, and helps boost the immune system. Yes, boosts the immune system! One of the universal alt med claims! If you are stranded in the wilderness without shelter, fire, food, or water, ‘Does this boost my immune system?’ is not on your list of priorities. Bear didn’t think through his food options, and think, I could eat a caterpillar, but a fish will boost my immune system more, so I’ll try and catch a fish. No, the choice was a raw fish or nothing, and it is literally true that a fish, being food, would be better for the immune system than not eating for the day. Trivially true, but really, really funny!

When did scientists become aware of global warming?

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol agreement to reduce green gases was signed by 30+ nations including (as best I can tell) all the Western countries except the US. So it was clear in 1997 that the world was warming and green house gas emissions needed to be reduced, but *when* exactly did scientists figure this out?

My memory of the issue with a little proding stretches back to the 1992 climate agreement signed by George HW Bush, officially called the U.N. Framework Convention of Climate Change. It called on countries to cut green house gas emissions but didn’t set binding targets. So global warming was understood back in ’92, and must have been known about years earlier for political action to have been taken then. I didn’t know about research earlier than the 1970s modeling research.

A great talk laying out the history of global warming science by historian Naomi Oreskes is on the web:

She lays out a number of landmarks. She gives an interesting talk–I’ve pared it away and just list the landmarks here:

  • 1931, E. O. Hulbert, increasing atmospheric CO2 2-3X will lead to 4-7°K increase in world temperature.
  • 1938, G. S. Calender, increasing CO2 leading to increased temps, 1880-1930s
  • 1957, Suess and Revelle paper pointing out that dumping back into the atmosphere over a few decades CO2 stored over millions of years in coal and oil could heat up the world. Calls for detailed research into the world CO2 budget–where will the CO2 go, and what secondary effects will there be?
  • 1964, NAS committee warns of “inadvertent weather modification” caused by CO2 from burning fossil fuels.
  • 1965, Keeling, about 1/2 of CO2 from burning fossil fuels will end up in the atmosphere.
  • 1965, President’s Science Advisory Committee, Board on Environmental Pollution, by 2000 there will 25% more CO2 in the atmosphere and marked and uncontrollable changes in climate could occur.
  • 1979, JASON committee reports that predicted increases in atmospheric CO2 will increase world temperature 2.4°C or 2.8°C (two different JASON models). Further, the increase will be much greater at the poles, 10-12°C [Now observed].
  • 1979, Charney report summarizes climate science “If CO2 continues to increase, [we] find no reason to doubt that climate changes will result, and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.”
  • 1988, IPCC created to study climate and suggest solutions.
  • 1988, US National Energy Policy Act, “to establish a national energy policy that will quickly reduce the generation of CO2 and trace gases as quickly as is feasible in order to slow the pace and degree of atmospheric warming…to protect the global environment.”
  • 1992, U.N. Framework Convention of Climate Change
  • 1997, the Kyoto Protocol

Eclipses and earthquakes

In anticipation of last night’s lunar eclipse several sites were trotting out the folklore that there are more earthquakes around the time of an eclipse. It seems like an easy thing to study–graph earthquake frequency over time, see if there are more during eclipses. Eclipses occur every couple of years, more often if you consider partial eclipses and small/medium earthquakes occur daily, so someone must have doen this. Looking around the web, the Goddard Space Flight Center answered a Science Question on this very topic (here):

Earthlings can view two lunar eclipses and two solar eclipses just about every year

It’s known that the tides during a lunar eclipse aren’t significantly different than tides during a full Moon. Each is just another spring tide — the name for tides that occur when the Earth is between the Moon and the Sun. If tides don’t really differ substantially during an eclipse than during regular full Moon or new Moon phases, why should celestial positions effect the Earth’s surface or subsurface features? The answer is that they don’t.

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions do indeed occur at times of eclipses. But records show that they occur with no greater frequency or power than on days when full Moons or new Moons occur (without eclipses), when all the planets line up on the same side of the Sun or on days when the Moon is in a crescent or gibbous phase. As special as eclipses are, they simply don’t have a known impact on any geophysical phenomena.

And just how common are earthquakes anyway?
The ASK-AN-EARTH-SCIENTIST page by the U of Hawaii Geology and Geophysics Department says:

the Earth has about ten earthquakes of greater than magnitude 5 every day

Enzyte implodes

From the Enzyte junk enbiggener ads it was clear the whole thing was a scam. Apparently it has gone to federal court in Cincinnati:

Cincinnati Enquirer article

James Teegarden Jr., the former vice president of operations at Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, explained Tuesday in U.S. District Court how he and others at the company made up much of the content that appeared in Enzyte ads.

He said employees of the Forest Park company created fictitious doctors to endorse the pills, fabricated a customer satisfaction survey and made up numbers to back up claims about Enzyte’s effectiveness.

“So all this is a fiction?” Judge S. Arthur Spiegel asked about some of the claims.
“That’s correct, your honor,” Teegarden said.

Here’s the funniest part:

If customers complained, he said, employees were instructed to “make it as difficult as possible” for them to get their money back. In some cases, Teegarden said, Warshak required customers to produce a notarized statement from a doctor certifying Enzyte did not work.

“He said it was extremely unlikely someone would get anything notarized saying they had a small penis,” Teegarden said.

I wonder who will end up with Enzyte’s list of men who think their junk is too small. The article calls it a $100 million fraud which would imply at least hundreds of thousands of customers!

Things click into place

It’s recently come out that National Review Online (the US’s top Republican political magazine) published fake reporting of massive (and apparently imaginary) Hezbollah invasions into the Christian section of Beirut written by reporter W. Thomas Smith Jr.

He also wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Intelligent Design. Who could have guessed he wasn’t a reliable source of information?

It gets even funnier. The publisher-supplied description on Amazon says the book was “Written by an expert in the field”. Ha! Neither one of them is a biologist. And better yet, Smith is described there as having written “thousands of articles for a variety of publications”. Which comes to more than two a week, for twenty years straight. Sounds like exaggeration, though this time written by the publisher.

Kentucky Creation ‘Museum’

This year the Creation ‘Museum’, an institution devoted to the promotion of ignorance, opened in northern Kentucky just outside of Cincinnati. Here’s a colorful review by John Scalzi here. He also put together a Fickcr set of pictures with comments.

Why didn’t the political leadership of Kentucky push the site a few miles north into Ohio? That would have a been great. Oh, that’s right, the soon-to-be-ex-governor Fletcher is a creationist.

And BTW, yeah Kentucky! Fletcher was voted out of office last week. Beshear won in by a landslide (19%).

New pseudoscience: glow scams

I wonder when we’ll see the first ‘spiritual light’ scam? Implant a small LED under the skin, develop a patter for the marks, and a new scam is born. There are many options for powering and switching the light.

And one of these folks will come across fluorescent dyes. Apply to skin, add in a black light (in normal daylight it wouldn’t be noticeable) and you get a hint of a glow.