A Critical Review of “GMO OMG” (Part 2): Fear and Loathing in Haiti

After talking to random people on the streets of his local town about GMOs, Jeremy Seifert travels to Haiti, where he says “something happened that really awakened me to a much bigger story about seeds and food and control.” In June 2010, more than 10,000 Haitians gathered together in the streets to protest a generous donation of seeds that Monsanto offered to the people of Haiti in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the country five months earlier. Instigated by the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), the Haitians sent as strong a message to Monsanto as they knew how: they burned 60,000 sacks of the seeds given to them.

The hostility of the Haitian people to Monsanto is as strong as it is irrational. Seifert interviews Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Peasant Movement, who claims that Monsanto’s seeds are poisonous and that they are “destroying the life of the land and destroying the people.” Jean-Baptiste never provides us with evidence for this, or even so much as an explanation of why he believes the seeds are poisonous and destructive. After filming members of the Peasant Movement singing a song about chasing Monsanto out of their country, Seifert talks to peasant farmers who do at least try to articulate why they believe Monsanto is a threat. “We plant produce that you can plant every year,” one farmer says. “With the Monsanto product, you can plant just one time. That’s why we didn’t take it.”

But Seifert’s coverage of the Haitian protest omits a crucial fact: the seeds donated by Monsanto were not genetically modified. They were actually hybrid seeds, which is not the same thing as genetically modified seeds. Seifert’s film even includes a graphic representation of a Huffington Post headline stating that the seeds being burned were hybrid seeds. [1] But either Seifert does not know the difference between hybrid products and genetic modification, or he is counting on his audience not knowing the difference. Either way, the narrative he is constructing about Haitian peasant farmers burning GM seeds is erroneous.

GMO OMG 2

Screenshot from GMO OMG

A hybrid seed is simply the product of selective cross-pollination between two different plant species for the perpetuation of desirable traits. Humans have been manipulating plants in this way for thousands of years. The effectiveness of such selected traits diminishes with each successive generation of the hybrid plant’s offspring. This is the reason why the seeds Monsanto donated to Haiti could only be planted once. It’s simply a fact of genetics.

Some staple crops grown and consumed worldwide are the result of this hybridization process. Hybrid corn, for example, is one of the most important breakthroughs in agriculture and replaced the use of randomly-mated varieties in the early twentieth century. Owing largely to its substantially better yield and hardier resistance to drought than its open-pollinated predecessor, hybrid corn has been a staple crop since its wide and rapid acceptance by American Midwestern farmers in the 1930s. [2] This breakthrough happened four decades before scientists developed the first genetically modified organism in 1972, and hybridization still does not require genetic modification by humans. The modern banana, for example, is a domesticated hybrid between two wild banana species (Musa balbisiana and Musa acuminata) and clearly does not fall under the category of genetically modified organism. In some cases, natural selection can result in hybridized plants, whereas genetic modification of plants consists of a highly specific and artificially controlled transfer of two or more genes from any organism, however distantly related, directly into a plant’s genome. That is the key difference between hybrid seeds and genetically modified seeds.

Another way in which Seifert misleads his viewers is by conflating the entirety of Monsanto’s seed donation with other seeds that were purchased by other Haitian farmers and which turned out to be impotent. He travels to a farm in the small Haitian town of Mirebalais, where farmers planted seeds that failed to grow. According to one Mirebalais farmer interviewed in the film, “We pulled them up and threw them away, because they came up withered, turned red. They weren’t good for us, so we pulled them up and threw them away. They made us pay. So now we lost both money and seed. It didn’t do us any good.”

Instead of examining any number of possible reasons behind this seed failure – for example, the possibility that the environmental and ecological effects of the earthquake might have something to do with it – Seifert has edited into the film a deceptively smooth segue from first talking about the total shipment of 475 tons of seeds that Monsanto donated to talking about a different group of farmers who were disappointed with seeds they purchased from farmer association stores. The initial shipment of Monsanto seeds used in Mirebalais were distributed to these farmer associations by the WINNER project (Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources), a five-year, $126 million program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to aid Haitian farmers in improving agricultural practices for increased yields. [3] GMO OMG implies that Monsanto made the farmers pay for the seeds that the Mirebalais farmers were disappointed with, but this is not true, as the following information on Monsanto’s website makes clear:

The seeds are being provided free-of-charge by Monsanto. WINNER will distribute the seeds through farmer association stores to be sold at a significantly reduced price. The farmer stores will use the revenue to reinvest in other inputs to support farmers in the future. The farmer associations alone will receive revenue from the sales. [4]

Far from making money in a backhanded manner, Monsanto did not benefit financially from giving their seeds away. The false narrative that Seifert is endorsing in his film is one that probably harmed a lot of Haitian people in the long term. This is not to suggest that the people of Haiti are not well within their right to refuse a gift from a large American corporation. And there are some legitimate criticisms to be made concerning the economic and ecological viability of rapidly introducing improved seed into regions where indigenous agricultural practices have remained unchanged for over two hundred years. [5] But the fact remains that Haiti had just suffered a massive natural disaster that claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. The damage the earthquake caused to Haiti’s arable farmlands meant that many more people would suffer from food shortages and malnutrition. The earthquake wiped out entire crops, and Haiti’s government did not have the resources required to rebuild their agricultural infrastructure from scratch and keep the population well fed. Under such devastating circumstances, is it reasonable for needy people to refuse a very generous donation of seeds for any reason? Granted, the peasant farmers protesting Monsanto and burning their seeds had convinced themselves that Monsanto’s seeds were “poisonous” and threatened their food sovereignty and agricultural way of life. But when the alternative is starving, it is bizarre that the Peasant Movement would not be content to stop at mere refusal, but to also turn that refusal into a mass spectacle of proudly burning seeds. Meanwhile, it is sobering to consider how their actions might have negatively affected other starving, injured, and displaced Haitians who did not agree with what the Peasant Movement was doing. Seifert even admits in his film just how dire the situation in Haiti was after the earthquake:

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. People suffer from crippling poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. The earthquake made an already desperate situation much worse. With hundreds of thousands dead and countless bodies lost beneath the rubble, and over a million people crammed into tent cities, the agro-chemical company Monsanto offered Haiti 475 tons of seeds. So why would poor rural farmers burn seeds?

That’s a very good question. Unfortunately, Seifert uncritically accepts the factually incorrect rationale of the Peasant Movement of Papaye at face value because it serves the anti-GMO narrative he is building.


 

NOTES

[1] Beverly Bell, “Haitian Farmers Commit to Burning Monsanto Hybrid Seeds,” The World Post, May 17, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beverly-bell/haitian-farmers-commit-to_b_578807.html (accessed April 17, 2016).

[2] James F. Crow, “90 Years Ago: The Beginning of Hybrid Maize,” Genetics 148, no. 3 (March 1998): 923-928. http://www.genetics.org/content/148/3/923 (accessed April 17, 2016); Paul K. Conkin, A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), pp. 119-20.

[3] USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), “Seed System Security Assessment: Haiti,” Technical Report (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: USAID, 2010).

[4] Monsanto, “Monsanto Donates Corn and Vegetable Seeds to Haiti” (n.d.), http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/pages/haiti-seed-donation.aspx (accessed April 17, 2016).

[5] John Mazzeo and Barrett P. Brenton, “Peasant Resistance to Hybrid Seed in Haiti: The Implications of Agro-industrial Inputs through Humanitarian Aid on Food Security, Food Sovereignty, and Cultural Identity,” in Hanna Garth, ed., Food and Identity in the Caribbean (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), pp. 121-138.

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The Tribeca Film Festival vs. Anti-Vax Propaganda

De Niro and Tribeca

The tension between good science and conspiracy-happy fearmongering about some of the most important innovations in science has manifested itself in every aspect of social life, including and perhaps especially in popular culture. A recent instance of this tension can be seen in the kerfuffle that arose in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Robert De Niro, one of the founders and organizers of the annual event, approved a controversial documentary film titled Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe for screening at the festival. The documentary’s main thesis is that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is suppressing data that proves a causal link between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and the neurodevelopmental disorder known as autism.

It would be bad enough if this film was made by any relatively unknown independent filmmaker. But what makes De Niro’s initial approval even worse is that Vaxxed was produced by none other than Andrew Wakefield, the former physician and medical researcher from Britain who faked data in a study he wrote that claimed a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This study was published in 1998 in the medical journal The Lancet but was later retracted and withdrawn by the journal when an investigation revealed that Wakefield’s paper was fraudulent. As a result, Wakefield was struck off the medical register and stripped of his license to practice medicine in the UK. Now thoroughly and irreparably discredited by the scientific community, Wakefield nevertheless went on to become the popular media’s spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement. Wakefield’s influence contributed to a global decrease in vaccination rates, and because of this he is directly responsible for vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths of at least thousands of people who eschewed vaccination based on his advice.

As it happens, one of De Niro’s children has autism, making the subject of vaccinations one that hits close to home for him. He made a statement explaining what motivated his initial decision to approve Wakefield’s film. “My intent in screening this film,” he said, “was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.” But due to the uproar that came from the scientific community almost immediately after it was announced that an anti-vaccination film would be screened, De Niro and other organizers made the very wise decision to remove Vaxxed from the festival.

The response of Wakefield’s supporters in the anti-vaccination movement was a predictable one: they claim that Wakefield is being censored. Unsurprisingly, Mike Adams of Natural News was very quick to jump on this bandwagon, blaming the removal of Wakefield’s film from the festival on “an intense censorship effort waged by the vaccine-pushing mainstream media and pharma-funded media science trolls.” This charge is frankly childish and absurd in the extreme. The decision to pull Wakefield’s film is clearly not an instance of censorship under any reasonable definition of the word. Dr. Steven Novella’s blog post on this topic nicely nails the distinction between quality control and censorship:

When the government blocks content because they don’t like what it says, that is censorship. When a private institution declines to provide their venue to promote content, that is quality control and/or editorial policy, not censorship. Crying “censorship” in the latter case just makes you look like a whiny idiot.

Mike Adams, not satisfied with being merely a whiny idiot, has graduated to the status of unhinged lunatic who proudly displays his ignorance of what historical verisimilitude would look like. In a recent Natural News article, Adams launched into a lengthy and schizophrenic tirade in which he likened Robert De Niro to Joseph Goebbels and called the Tribeca Film Festival “the official state-run film festival of approved speech.” The portion I quote below would be enough to make Godwin weep:

Today, just as Americans are waking up to the shocking fact that the vaccine industry has been systematically poisoning their children for decades while committing scientific fraud to hide the evidence of harm, Robert De Niro has followed in the footsteps of Joseph Goebbels as the Tribeca Propaganda Minister of Truth, silencing independent filmmakers who have extraordinary contributions to offer the world.

As a privately-owned production company, the Tribeca Film Festival is under no obligation to provide a platform to all views that come knocking. The Tribeca Film Festival has a vested interest in maintaining a reputation for promoting high-quality filmmaking, and ideally that should mean holding their documentary selections to a fact-based standard. The festival organizers presumably do not want to damage that hard-earned reputation by exposing their audience to anti-scientific propaganda, and that is a perfectly legitimate reason for either rejecting film candidates or – as happened in this case – retracting an original decision to air a film that they later found to disseminate highly questionable content. As we will see, Wakefield’s film is hardly the “extraordinary contribution” Adams has deluded himself into thinking it is.

Vaxxed vs. Facts

Vaxxed

What is the nature of this film’s highly questionable content? David Gorski, a surgeon who writes under the nom de plume of “Orac,” has written an excellent and nicely detailed takedown of the film and its claims on his Respectful Insolence blog, which is my main source for the brief explanation that follows. Vaxxed tells the story of William W. Thompson, popularly regarded by the anti-vaccine crowd as the “CDC Whistleblower.” Thompson, who worked as a psychologist for the CDC, co-authored an important paper in 2004 with Frank DeStefano and others critically examining the alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The DeStefano et al study failed to show any positive correlation or causation, but Thompson disagreed with his colleagues on a technical issue having to do with how some of the data were handled.

Thompson took his complaints to Brian Hooker, a former biochemical engineer who now spends his time as an anti-vaccine quack. Hooker seized the opportunity that was handed to him when Thompson made the mistake of confiding in him. He selectively edited the recorded conversations he had with Thompson, putting portions of the audio out of sequence and lifting other bits out of context, to make it seem as if Thompson was blowing the whistle on a CDC conspiracy to hide the truth. But Thompson himself never explicitly accused his colleagues of fraud. In fact, as Orac has discussed on his blog, he never even argued that the confounding race factor he thought he detected in the data indicated the MMR vaccine/autism link that Brian Hooker wanted to tease out of him. Hooker, like Andrew Wakefield before him, manufactured a lie to support his anti-scientific vendetta against vaccines. He then put the lie into Thompson’s mouth, effectively exploiting Thompson’s apparent difficulty in communicating and getting along well with others, as well as his anger management issues.

These dishonestly-edited telephone conversations form the basis and main narrative thread of Wakefield’s new film. Vaxxed also relies heavily on a very poorly and unprofessionally conducted “reanalysis” paper written by Hooker that has been thoroughly discredited by the epidemiological community and ultimately retracted from the journal Translational Neurodegeneration for its grossly incompetent use of basic statistics. Hooker’s “reanalysis” tortured the data into a positive correlation between the MMR vaccine and cases of autism in African-American boys. As Orac points out in his detailed critical review of Hooker’s paper, even if this correlation really was positive (it isn’t), the results would still disprove the central thesis on which Andrew Wakefield has built his sordid reputation:

Even if Hooker is “right,” he has just undermined the MMR-autism hypothesis and proven Wakefield wrong, with the possible (and unlikely) exception of a single group, African American males. Given the dubiousness of his analysis and background, he hasn’t even demonstrated it for them, either, particularly given the copious other studies that have failed to find a correlation between MMR and autism. What he has done, apparently, is found grist for a perfect conspiracy theory to demonize the CDC, play the race card in a truly despicable fashion, and cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the CDC vaccination program, knowing that most of the white antivaccine activists who support hate the CDC so much that they won’t notice that even Hooker’s reanalysis doesn’t support their belief that vaccines caused the autism in their children.

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

So it seems one can only go so far with pseudoscientific lies and misinformation in the scientific community. But apparently Wakefield will take anything he can get at this point, even when what he gets is a documentary that not only contradicts what he’s been preaching for years, but also suffers from abysmally poor production quality, as is evident from the film’s trailer.

Unfortunately, by not being more discerning in his first once-over of Wakefield’s film, De Niro and the Tribeca Film Festival have effectively given Vaxxed the attention and publicity Wakefield wanted it to enjoy all along. This situation has allowed the anti-vaccination movement to construct a bogus censorship narrative. But their wedge strategy is apparent to anyone well-informed on the issues. They are crying censorship as a substitute for the sound, evidence-based argumentation that they lack. No one is conspiring to silence Wakefield. The reality is simply that his documentary is a piece of shit that has no place in any respectable venue.


 

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A Critical Review of “GMO OMG” (Part 1): He Blinded Me with Pseudoscience

Wasting all your time on drama, could be solving real crime
Waste away your mind too.

~ My Morning Jacket, “Highly Suspicious


GMO OMG poster

Independent filmmaker Jeremy Seifert chose a very apt title for the anti-GMO documentary he wrote and directed in 2013. The title, GMO OMG, is an expression of incredulity, shock, and confusion about the subject he treats. These are qualities that Seifert has found very useful in constructing his narrative. He plays upon peoples’ misconceptions and fears about genetically modified organisms in food manufacturing. In the end he manages to convince himself of these misconceptions and fears.

There is some nice production quality in GMO OMG. It is beautifully shot and aesthetically pleasing to watch. It is a family-oriented flick with a homely and earthy feel. In this sense, it differs from the conspiracy-happy fringe fare of previous anti-GMO documentaries such as Gary Null’s Seeds of Death. Its slick and aesthetic packaging makes it accessible to a much more mainstream audience of well-intentioned but uninformed people who will find its tone more appealing than the jackbooted nuttiness of other anti-GMO films and videos. But intellectually, GMO OMG leaves much to be desired, and its mainstream façade makes it more worthy of refutation and correction.

Jeremy Seifert begins his documentary by pulling out all the sentimental stops, appealing to his viewers’ emotions about the love of family and the care of young children. He tells a story about his son Finn teaching himself how to read at the age of three by copying letters from a seed catalog. This activity led Finn, six years old at the time the documentary was filmed, to fall in love with seeds. This made Seifert begin thinking more about seeds and how food is produced, and he comes to the conclusion that he has a lot to be worried about:

We tried to be awake and make good decisions, to look out for our children and do our best for them. But one thing we totally missed – we just never heard about it – was GMOs, genetically modified organisms. Seeds, much like my son Finn’s seeds but with altered genes. And they are in our food, for either good or ill I didn’t know. But it bothered me that we were eating them and didn’t even know what they were. I decided to see if anyone else knew about GMOs. And that was the beginning of a very long journey.

He begins this “long journey” by going out and asking people on the street if they know what GMOs are and if they eat them. None of the 25 or so queried people included in the final cut even know what GMOs are, much less whether or not they eat them. This is typically what happens when you ask a random sample of people to explain a scientific subject they have no educational background in. The implication is fairly uncontroversial: much of the general public really is completely uninformed about what GMOs are. But Seifert is not interested in educating the public. Instead, the whole point of his informal survey seems to be to make it seem as if the subject of GMOs is a hopelessly complicated issue. He wants his viewing audience to be overwhelmed and intimidated by the subject. This is made clear by what he says next:

I suddenly felt uneasy about all the food we were eating. So I did some research to answer a very basic question: what is a GMO? According to the World Health Organization, GMOs are “Organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” But what does that mean exactly?

It gets complicated pretty quickly. They involve Agrobacterium tumefaciens and vectors and Ti plasmids and Cry1Ab genes taken from a soil-dwelling bacteria [sic] called Bacillus thuringiensis. There are glyphosate-resistant enzymes called EPSPS, and my favorite, a gene gun with protoplast electroporation bombarding cells with gold particles coded with DNA encoding.

Seifert double- and triple-tracks his voice in the background audio during this narration to turn it into a cacophony designed to make the information he is throwing at the viewer seem more confusing and complicated than it really is. He never goes on to explain any of the things he includes in his list of complicated things. This is not good science communication. It’s just an attempt to intimidate his viewers with scary-sounding and obscure-sounding technical terms.

GMO OMG 1

Jeremy Seifert trying to intimidate his viewers with words he thinks sound scary.

To be fair, Seifert does go on to provide a fairly accurate and succinct, if somewhat oversimplified, explanation of the difference between pesticide producers (such as Bt corn) and herbicide resisters (such as Roundup Ready Soybeans), which constitute the two basic types of GMOs. No other anti-GMO documentary that I am aware of explains this difference, so I give credit to Seifert for doing so. However, Seifert then makes this patently false statement:

I couldn’t find anything definitive on the health effects of GMOs. Most studies were only three months in length, done by the same companies selling the GMOs. The studies aren’t peer-reviewed and they refuse to release the raw data to the public. Were they hiding something?

Seifert got all of that wrong. There are over 2000 scientific studies on the health effects of GMOs. [1] These studies are all peer-reviewed, and to claim otherwise as Seifert does is patently absurd. This embarrassment of riches has resulted in an overwhelming scientific consensus that GM foods are at least just as safe for human consumption as any non-GMO food. The American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded in 2012 that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” [2] In a massive study assessing the potential unintended health effects of genetically engineered food, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that, “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” [3] Several other large and highly respected science and health organizations from other countries have made similar statements based on the wealth of evidence that has been amassed.

In fact, according to one systematic meta-study reviewing 20 years of research, GM foods are statistically safer than traditionally-bred, non-GM foods. “Our assessment,” report the authors, “is that there appears to be overwhelming evidence that transgenesis is less disruptive of crop composition compared with traditional breeding, which itself has a tremendous history of safety.” [4] This is because genetic variation that occurs naturally and through traditional breeding practices is much greater than any observable compositional changes brought about by specific and targeted genetic modification. The authors conclude:

It is concluded that suspect unintended compositional effects that could be caused by genetic modification have not materialized on the basis of this substantial literature. Hence, compositional equivalence studies uniquely required for GM crops may no longer be justified on the basis of scientific uncertainty. [5]

This directly contradicts Seifert’s implication that public ignorance on the subject of GMOs is a reflection of uncertainty in the scientific community. And while there is nothing wrong with being skeptical of research conducted by the industries developing and marketing these GMOs, a significant portion of these peer-reviewed studies have been done by scientists with no connection to either the pharmaceutical or agricultural industries. [6]

Seifert is also lying when he says that most studies on the health effects of GMOs are only three months in length. Seifert is merely regurgitating a claim that is very commonly touted by people opposed to GMOs. What the anti-GMO crowd conveniently fails to mention is that they are disingenuously representing animal feed studies as if they were studies about GMO health effects. The reality is that animal feed studies are only one part of a very long and very rigorous regulatory process applied to GM food development. Animal feed experts have determined that after many animals (including chickens, pigs, and rodents) have consumed food, 90 days is the length of time it takes for any potentially harmful toxicants to be detected in the animal. [7]

Seifert’s denial of the existence of long-term studies is also wrong. In addition to animal feed studies, there are numerous long-term studies of the health effects of GM foods that are freely available to the public. These studies range from 10-20 years in length, most of which are conducted at a cost in excess of tens of millions per year. The European Union, for example, has conducted 15 year-long studies and has spent more than €300 million on research projects looking into the biosafety of GMOs. In a 2010 overview assessment of EU research on GMOs, the European Commission stated, “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” [8] In the U.S. alone, it takes between 12 and 15 years to go through the regulatory process required by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to move genetically modified foods from the initial R&D stage to the shelves of your local grocery store.

If Seifert has done any of the research he says he’s done, he should know all this. If he had gone the intellectually honest route and avoided going into his research with a preconceived conclusion, he might have ended up titling his film GMO OK. But Seifert clearly did not go about his project in an intellectually honest way. Seifert is the one trying to hide facts that contradict his narrative, not the biotech industry.


 

NOTES

[1] JoAnna Wendel and Jon Entine, “With 2000+ Global Studies Affirming Safety, GM Foods among Most Analyzed Subjects in Science,” Genetic Literacy Project, October 8, 2013, https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/with-2000-global-studies-confirming-safety-gm-foods-among-most-analyzed-subject-in-science/ (accessed April 3, 2016).

[2] American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods” (20 October 2012), http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/AAAS_GM_statement.pdf (accessed April 3, 2016).

[3] The National Academy of Sciences, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2004), p. 8. PDF available at http://nap.edu/10977 (accessed April 3, 2016).

[4] Rod A. Herman and William D. Price, “Unintended Compositional Changes in Genetically Modified (GM) Crops: 20 Years of Research,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 61 (February 2013): 11695-11701. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/jf400135r (accessed April 3, 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marc Brazeau, “About Those Industry Funded GMO Studies…,” Biology Fortified, February 28, 2014, http://www.biofortified.org/2014/02/industry-funded-gmo-studies/ (accessed April 3, 2016).

[7] EFSA GMO Panel Working Group on Animal Feeding Trials, “Safety and Nutritional Assessment of GM Plants and Derived Food and Feed: The Role of Animal Feeding Trials,” Food and Chemical Toxicology 46 (March 2008): S2-S70.

[8] European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research (2001-2010) (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2010), p. 16. Available online at https://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf (accessed April 3, 2016).

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The Zika Virus: Debunking the Myths

Zika Virus

In January 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the Zika virus is a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” They have been strongly recommending that people everywhere educate themselves on what the virus is and what it is capable of and have prescribed a few simple precautionary measures to properly protect themselves. [1] On February 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the virus can be transmitted via sexual contact. This announcement was based on three case reports, the most recent at the time having been confirmed in Dallas County, Texas. [2] The CDC is currently investigating at least 14 new reports of possible sexual transmission of the virus, which remain unconfirmed as of this writing. [3] But sexual transmission of the virus, while known to be possible, appears to relatively rare. The virus is transmitted primarily by the female Aedes aegypti mosquito.

One of the WHO’s rationales for declaring the Zika virus a cause for international concern is the association of infection of the virus with Guillan-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder which has been known to cause temporary paralysis in its victims. [4] There is another more serious concern. Some evidence suggests that pregnant women who contract the virus may give birth to children with abnormally small head size, a condition known as microcephaly. [5] The evidence for this link remains merely correlative and circumstantial and still needs much additional study, but is still deemed sufficiently strong to warrant caution. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has stated, “Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctor or other healthcare provider first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip.” [6]

Zika is not a new virus; scientists first isolated it in Ugandan rhesus monkeys in 1947. [7] But this new outbreak has brought the virus to a new and unprecedented level of public awareness. Little more than a week following the release of international health alerts regarding the outbreak, conspiracy theories about Zika started pouring in fast and furious. [8] Some of these conspiracy theorists believe the outbreak was manufactured by bioterrorists whose intent is to kill millions of people, with one website laying the blame on the Rockefellers. [9] This notion is absurd because patients who have been infected the virus do not typically die, and only about 1 in 5 people who have acquired the virus exhibit any symptoms. These symptoms, which usually last for about a week at most, include mild fever, conjunctivitis (red or sore eyes), headache, joint pain, muscle pain, and rash. [10] So any real bioterrorists would quickly find the Zika virus to be one of the most ineffective and uneconomical means of implementing depopulation. Others insist that the Zika virus doesn’t even exist, that it’s a hoax designed to make people get a vaccine they don’t need. [11] This also makes no sense, since there is currently no drug treatment for the Zika infection, and a vaccine has not yet been developed.

But the most popular and widespread conspiracy theories are those that blame the outbreak on genetically modified mosquitoes, the Tdap vaccine, and the biotech corporation Monsanto. These three myths are summarized and examined here.

 Myth 1: GMOs and the Zika Virus

By far the most elaborate as well as most pervasive conspiracy theory about the Zika virus is the claim that a genetically-modified mosquito created by the British biotech company Oxitec is responsible for the outbreak in Brazil. This claim is of course popular among anti-GMO activists, especially those who fall into the tinfoil hat variety (which, of course, doesn’t narrow it down all that much). Nobody should be surprised to find the theory being enthusiastically promoted by professional fear-monger and medical quack Mike Adams. In a blog post published on his Natural News website, Adams begins by congratulating himself, saying he has been “warning for years of the unintended consequences of genetic pollution.” He indulges in some more of this ego-stroking before getting on to blaming the genetically modified mosquitoes for the outbreak:

Now we may be seeing the first wave of the horrific destruction that can be unleashed by self-replicating genetically modified organisms. The Zika virus, now spreading with unbridled ferocity, appears to have been caused by the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes that scientists hoped would sharply reduce malaria infections. [12]

What is Adams’ source for this claim? Rather than citing any reputable scientific journal, he instead quotes the Daily Mirror as his main source, an online news outlet with very low journalistic standards. Later in his article, Adams explicitly suggests what most other anti-GMO speculators have only implied, namely that the evil, moustache-twirling, fedora-donning scientists at Oxitec planned and orchestrated the Zika virus outbreak:

If you give these scientists the most optimistic credit possible, you might say they intended for a positive outcome but didn’t realize the risks of what they were doing. But a more pessimistic analysis of their actions might reasonably conclude that they’re testing a bioweapon delivery system against humanity. . . . Now, it seems, humanity is beginning to witness the true cost of arrogantly playing God with nature. [13]

The loony narrative about the Zika virus being used as a bioweapon in the service of depopulation is of course favored by Alex Jones and his Info Wars website, where Kit Daniels claims that “the mainstream media admitted the Zika outbreak was possibly caused by the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil.” [14] One wonders what “mainstream” sources he is referring to. Like Mike Adams, Daniels cites only the Daily Mirror, which on its own hardly constitutes a widespread admission by mainstream media in general. In fact, other adherents of the Zika/GMO connection are saying the opposite is true. For example, The Ecologist’s Oliver Tickell says the mainstream media has failed to pay proper attention to “the correlation between the incidence of Zika and the area of release of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes engineered for male insterility [sic].” [15] Apparently these anti-GMO writers can’t agree among themselves on whether the mainstream media is admitting a connection or suppressing information regarding it.

This connection between the Zika virus and Oxitec’s GMOs is spurious for at least three reasons.

1. Oxitec’s genetically-modified mosquitoes were not released in the same place where the outbreak occurred. The epicenter of the outbreak is on the eastern tip of South America, the majority of initial cases being clustered in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande de Norte on the coast. Epidemiologists tracing the path of the outbreak have concluded that the Zika outbreak “almost certainly” originated in Recife, Brazil. [16] The nearest Oxitec release site in Juazeiro, Bahia in northeastern Brazil is nearly 400 miles away from this city and nearly 550 miles away from the coastal areas most affected by the virus. This is important because mosquitoes do not live long enough to travel distances much greater than 58 meters.

2. All of Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes were sterile males, whereas the primary transmission vector of the Zika virus is the female A. aegypti mosquito. The field test was designed to determine whether or not the genetically-modified mosquitoes would decrease the general mosquito population. And they did: mosquito population in every one of the tested areas was decreased by about 90 percent. [17] Even more to the point, male mosquitoes do not bite.

3. The conspiracy theorists’ explanation as to how Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes could be the actual cause of the Zika virus (given that male mosquitoes do not bite) is highly convoluted and full of holes. Oliver Tickell, for example, suggests that the “promiscuous piggyBac transposon now present in the local Aedes aegypti population takes the opportunity to jump into the Zika virus, probably on numerous occasions.” He thinks the next logical step in this process is that “certain mutated strains of Zika acquire a selective advantage, making them more virulent and giving them an enhanced ability to enter and disrupt human DNA.” [18]

This proposed mechanism is scientifically nonsensical on several levels. First, the size of the mosquitoes’ Oxitec-modified transposon gene is nearly the same size as the entire Zika virus genome. At a size of about 8.4kb, the transposon used by Oxitec simply cannot “jump” into the Zika virus, which has a size of about 10.8kb. Second, Zika is a single-stranded RNA virus, whereas the PiggyBac transposon is a double-stranded DNA element. It is physically impossible for DNA to jump into an RNA virus. Finally, the urgency and speed with which the task of sequencing the Zika genome was carried out by scientists itself falsifies the conspiracy theorists’ claims about a promiscuous mosquito gene jumping into the Zika virus. Cell biologist Christie Wilcox explains why:

But perhaps most to the point, mosquito genes, from genetic modification or otherwise, are not present in the Zika virus in Brazil. The whole genome of the Zika virus is tiny, and it’s easily sequenced—which is exactly what scientists in Brazil have done. That means there was no “jumping DNA” responsible, period. Given the importance of this outbreak, scientists published their sequencing results as openly and as quickly as possible. I’ll say it again: They did not find any transposons or mosquito genes of any kind. They did, however, find some interesting mutational changes which may explain why the outbreak in Brazil seems to be worse than previous outbreaks; the mutational changes may have led to an increase in viral titers. [19]

A viral titer is defined by virologists as the lowest concentration of a virus that is still capable of infecting host cells. Wilcox goes on to explain that an increase in minimum viable levels of this concentration may account for the sudden rise in cases of microcephaly compared to previous outbreaks that were not nearly as widespread. She links to a peer-reviewed study published in November 2015 which shows evidence that the observed mutational changes are significantly facilitated by adaptation of a specific codon by human genes. [20] In other words, microbiologists are beginning to understand why the current outbreak of microcephaly in Brazil seems to be worse than previous outbreaks. As always, further study is needed to conclusively pin down what is going on, but we can definitively rule out any suggestion that GMOs of any kind are responsible.

Myth 2: The Tdap Vaccine and Microcephaly

It is not in the least surprising that vaccines would join GMOs in the list of biological technologies that fearmongers and paranoid luddites are eager to blame for something like Zika. And true to our expectations, another Zika-related conspiracy theory suggests that the tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis (Tdap) vaccine is responsible for the presumed rise in Brazilian babies born with microcephaly. This claim is promoted on the ridiculously-titled Brazilian Shrunken Head Babies website, where we find the following argument from incredulity:

Note that Zika is not a new virus; it has been around for decades. No explanation has been given as to why suddenly it could be causing all these cases of microcephaly. No one is seriously asking the question, “What has changed?”

There is no theorizing about the possibility that the cases of microcephaly could be linked to the mandating of the Tdap vaccine for all pregnant women in Brazil about 10 months earlier. The government has “assumed” the cause is a virus. [21]

Note that the author at the “shrunken head babies” website is eager to point out the lack of explanation for how the Zika virus could be causing the increase in microcephaly cases. Yet ironically, the writer provides no hint of an explanation as to why, if Tdap truly was the cause of the microcephaly spike in Brazil, there has been no similar rise in microcephaly in any other country where the Tdap vaccine is also administered to pregnant women.

Even putting that important logical error aside, this conspiracy theory does not make any medical sense. Tara Smith, an infectious disease doctor, explains why in an article on her Aetiology blog:

First, the vaccine isn’t recommended until relatively late in pregnancy; even one of the links cited by the “shrunken heads” page notes that it’s suggested in the 27th to 36th week of pregnancy. This is very late in pregnancy to have such a severe effect on brain/skull development. For other microbes that cause microcephaly (such as cytomegalovirus or rubella), infection occurring in the first half of the pregnancy (before 20 weeks) is usually associated with a higher likelihood of adverse developmental outcomes, not one very late like Tdap. [22]

Myth 3: Monsanto and Pesticide

Now we come to the Zika myth that I consider to be the most worthy of refutation, because it is the one that has resulted in the most harm to people’s wellbeing. I refer to the theory that the increase in Brazilian babies born with microcephaly is causally linked not to the Zika virus, but rather to pyriproxyfen, a pesticide introduced by health officials into South American water supplies in 2014 to kill mosquito larvae.

This theory was first circulated by a report issued by an Argentinian environmentalist group that calls itself Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Town (PCST). With a name like that, it comes as no surprise that this group is not an objective peer-reviewed source of information. Since at least 2010, PCST has been pushing an anti-pesticide agenda that blames pesticides for a whole laundry list of birth defects and reproductive disorders without bothering to perform any epidemiological studies of their own to back their claims. “In other words,” writes surgeon David Gorski (aka Orac), “this is a biased report from a biased group presenting no evidence to back up its conclusions. It’s all speculation based on a fear of pesticides.” [23]

Let’s look at the claim made by the PCST group in their own words:

A dramatic increase of congenital malformations, especially microcephaly in newborns, was detected and quickly linked to the Zika virus by the Brazilian Ministry of Health. However, they fail to recognise that in the area where most sick persons live, a chemical larvicide producing malformations in mosquitoes has been applied for 18 months, and that this poison (pyroproxyfen [sic]) is applied by the State on drinking water used by the affected population. [. . .]

Malformations detected in thousands of children from pregnant women living in areas where the Brazilian state added pyriproxyfen to drinking water is not a coincidence, even though the Ministry of Health places a direct blame on Zika virus for this damage, while trying to ignore its responsibility and ruling out the hypothesis of direct and cumulative chemical damage caused by years of endocrine and immunological disruption of the affected population. [24]

Upon the release of this report, the story was eagerly picked up by a number of online venues, especially those with a bent for conspiracy theories. The story also spread like wildfire on social media, which focused heavily on the fact that the pesticide is manufactured by Sumitomo, a Japanese chemical company and a corporate partner of the American biotech company Monsanto. Endorsement of the theory, at least of a passive and latent sort, has even spilled over into some mainstream media sources. For example, the story was presented as a legitimate case for controversy by Cenk Uygur, host of the popular progressive news show The Young Turks[25] It was only a matter of time before Monsanto, already hated and feared by many uninformed consumers of popular media, was directly blamed for Brazil’s rise in birth defects.

The problem is that this theory is completely wrong, and the errors it makes can quickly be discovered by the most cursory of research. First, there is no evidence to suggest any link between pyriproxyfen (or any other pesticide for that matter), and microcephaly. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that pyriproxyfen use can result in “endocrine and immunological disruption” of any kind. Pyriproxyfen has been extensively and thoroughly tested and is considered to be one of the safest pesticides available. [26] These tests have even included studies specifically on the effect of pyriproxyfen on reproductive health and fetal development in animals. [27]

Second, notice that this claim makes the same error we saw being committed by proponents of the idea that the Tdap vaccine is the real cause of microcephaly. The Zika/pyriproxyfen connection is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation. We can be confident that this is so based on the simple fact that pyriproxyfen has been used in many other countries, including the United States, where no corresponding increase in microcephaly has been seen.

Third, neither Monsanto nor any of its subsidiaries sells or manufactures pyriproxyfen. Sumitomo Chemical is not a subsidiary of Monsanto, but is rather a corporate partner working with Monsanto specifically in the area of crop protection and weed elimination. [28] Their business relationship has nothing whatsoever to do with the Zika virus or microcephaly.

Unfortunately, the baseless fearmongering directed at pyriproxyfen has made an impact on health officials in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, who on February 13, 2016 banned use of the pesticide based on the claims made in the PCST report. [29] Herein lies the tangible danger of anti-scientific vendettas and conspiratorial thinking. It can result in policy based on fear-driven misinformation that negatively impacts the lives and wellbeing of the people affected by the policy. Banning pyriproxyfen means the disease-bearing mosquitoes the larvicide was designed and proven to kill will gain an advantage and potentially undo all the hard work carried out by credible scientists.

We can take a similar lesson from the other two myths we have examined and debunked in this article. Conspiracy theories and misplaced scapegoating are interfering with the educational efforts by scientists and detracting from the conversation we need to be having about solutions to the Zika outbreak and prevention of its further spread. These solutions need to be evidence-based, and when evidence takes a back seat to wild conjecture with no basis in reality, these solutions become much harder to come by and more people suffer as a result.

Oxitec’s GM mosquitoes have played a significant role in combating dengue fever, malaria, and other similar diseases. The Tdap vaccine protects pregnant women and their unborn children from tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough. Sumitomo Chemical’s pyriproxyfen pesticide has been demonstrated to be a safe and highly effective means of preventing mosquito larvae from contaminating water supplies and in protecting the crops we depend on for our survival from a number of predatory insects. Their corporate partner Monsanto has made amazing strides in developing agricultural technologies and methods that have an important role to play in alleviating the world’s food shortage problems. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists who denounce all these technologies have made no contribution whatsoever to anyone’s wellbeing or to science in general. People like Alex Jones and Mike Adams complain about scientists “playing God,” preferring instead that millions of people regress to a primitive state of living. But no higher power is going to make the world a better place for us. We humans have to do that on our own. And we have, thanks to science and to the critical thinking that demonstrates the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the conspiracy theorists’ mindset.


NOTES

[1] The WHO’s guidelines for both prevention and treatment of the Zika infection is available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/zika/en/ (accessed February 21, 2016).

[2] Rae Ellen Bichell, “What We Know So Far about Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus,” Shots: Health News from NPR, February 3, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/02/03/465339603/what-we-know-so-far-about-sexual-transmission-of-zika-virus (accessed February 22, 2016).

[3] CDC Newsroom, “CDC encourages following guidance to prevent sexual transmission of Zika virus,” US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC, February 23, 2016, http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/s0223-zika-guidance.html (accessed February 27, 2016).

[4] Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Zika Virus: Colombia Warns of Spike in Patients with Related Paralysis Disorder,” The Guardian, January 28, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/28/zika-virus-colombia-paralysis-disorder-guillain-barre (accessed February 22, 2016).

[5] E.E. Petersen, J.E. Staples, D. Meaney-Delman, et al, “Interim Guidelines for Pregnant Women during a Zika Virus Outbreak — United States, 2016,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) 65, no. 2 (January 22, 2016): 30–33. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6502e1.

[6] CDC Newsroom, “CDC issues interim travel guidance related to Zika virus for 14 Countries and Territories in Central and South America and the Caribbean,” US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC, January 15, 2016, http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/s0315-zika-virus-travel.html (accessed February 21, 2016).

[7] G.W. Dick, S.F. Kitchen, and A.J. Haddow, “Zika Virus. I. Isolations and Serological Specificity,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene 46, no. 5 (September 1952): 509-520.

[8] Orac, “Zika Virus and Microcephaly: The Conspiracy Theories Flow Fast and Furious,” Respectful Insolence, February 5, 2016, http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/02/05/zika-virus-the-conspiracy-theories-flow-fast-and-furious/ (accessed February 6, 2016).

[9] Lilya la Felore, “The ‘Zika’ Virus Was Created and Patented the Rockefellers, the Goal is to Kill Millions of People,” Zon News, February 2, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/glx9zd8 (accessed February 23, 2016).

[10] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment,” Zika Virus, http://www.cdc.gov/zika/symptoms/ (accessed February 26, 2016).

[11] Jon Rappoport, “Zika Freakout: The Hoax and the Covert Op Continue,” Jon Rappoport’s Blog, January 29, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/zfe8tej (accessed February 23, 2016).

[12] Mike Adams, “Zika Virus Outbreak Linked to Release of Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes,” Natural News, February 1, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hh8szvu (accessed February 21, 2016).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kit Daniels, “Top Expert: Zika Virus a Bioweapon,” InfoWars.com, February 1, 2016, http://www.infowars.com/top-expert-zika-virus-a-bioweapon/ (accessed February 21, 2016).

[15] Oliver Tickell, “Pandora’s Box: How GM Mosquitos Could Have Caused Brazil’s Microcephaly Disaster,” The Ecologist, February 1, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hf8t7ds (accessed February 21, 2016).

[16] Alexandra Sifferlin, “How Brazil Uncovered the Possible Connection between Zika and Microcephaly,” Time, February 1, 2016, http://time.com/4202262/zika-brazil-doctors-recife-investigation-outbreak/ (accessed February 22, 2016).

[17] Danilo O. Carvalho, et al., “Suppression of a Field Population of Aedes aegypti in Brazil by Sustained Release of Transgenic Male Mosquitoes,” PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases 9, no. 7 (July 2, 2015): e0003864. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0003864.

[18] Tickell, “Pandora’s Box.”

[19] Christie Wilcox, “No, GM Mosquitoes Didn’t Start the Zika Outbreak,” Science Sushi, January 31, 2016, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/science-sushi/2016/01/31/genetically-modified-mosquitoes-didnt-start-zika-ourbreak/ (accessed February 21, 2016).

[20] Caio Cesar de Melo Freire, et al., “Spread of the Pandemic Zika Virus Lineage is Associated with NS1 Codon Usage Adaptation in Humans,” BioRxiv (published online November 25, 2015). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/032839.

[21] The Outliers, “The Story,” Brazilian Shrunken Head Babies: Zika or Tdap? January 17, 2016, https://brazilianshrunkenheadbabies.wordpress.com/2016/01/17/the-story/ (accessed February 26, 2016).

[22] Tara C. Smith, “The Zika Conspiracies Have Begun,” Aetiology, February 3, 2016, http://scienceblogs.com/aetiology/2016/02/03/the-zika-conspiracies-have-begun/ (accessed February 26, 2016).

[23] Orac, “Oh, Myyyy! George Takei Falls for a Zika Virus Conspiracy Theory,” Respectful Insolence, February 15, 2016, http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/02/15/say-it-aint-so-george-george-takei-falls-for-a-zika-virus-conspiracy-theory/ (accessed February 27, 2016).

[24] Red Universitaria de Ambiente y Salud (REDUAS), “REPORT from Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Town regarding Dengue-Zika, Microcephaly, and Massive Spraying with Chemical Poisons,” February 9, 2016, http://www.reduas.com.ar/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2016/02/Informe-Zika-de-Reduas_TRAD.pdf (accessed February 27, 2016).

[25] The Young Turks, “Monsanto to Blame? Zika Virus Conspiracy Theory Explained” (video), YouTube, February 15, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1MPlEWqRAs&feature=youtu.be (accessed February 16, 2016).

[26] World Health Organization, “Pyriproxyfen in Drinking-water: Use for Vector Control in Drinking-water Sources and Containers,” Background document for preparation of WHO Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, WHO/HSE/AMR/08.03/9, 2008.

[27] Australian Science Media Centre, “EXPERT REACTION: Is a pesticide, not Zika virus, causing microcephaly?” SciMex, February 15, 2016, https://www.scimex.org/newsfeed/expert-reaction-is-a-pesticide,-not-zika-virus,-causing-microcephaly (accessed February 27, 2016).

[28] Monsanto, “Monsanto, Sumitomo Chemical and Valent Announce Long-Term Crop Protection Collaboration” (press release), October 19, 2010, http://www.sumitomo-chem.co.jp/english/newsreleases/docs/20101020_1.pdf (accessed February 27, 2016).

[29] Reed Johnson and Rogerio Jelmayer, “Brazil State Bans Pesticide after Zika Claim,” Wall Street Journal, February 15, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/brazil-state-bans-pesticide-after-zika-claim-1455584596?cb=logged0.2977367139282986 (accessed February 27, 2016).

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Physics and Philosophy: Is There a Common Ground?

Physics and Philosophy

In a famous remark touching on the difficulty of grasping physics at the quantum level, the late great physicist and science communicator Richard Feynman wrote, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” [1] I boldly differ with Feynman on this point. Thousands of people, including even some non-physicists, understand at least the basics of quantum mechanics reasonably well (his admirable and characteristic modesty notwithstanding, Feynman himself had a very solid understanding of the subject). However, Feynman’s remark does apply very well to those who write about quantum mechanics in abstract philosophical or metaphysical terms, especially those who have no background or expertise in physics. Like any other area of knowledge, scientific or otherwise, it is important that one really understands the subject before coming up with a complex thesis on it. Many if not most self-described gurus of “quantum spirituality” do not meet this criterion of qualification. Much of the popular literature claiming parallels between New Age belief and quantum mechanics are shining examples of a sort of “intellectual anarchy” that is trendy in today’s culture. As Milton Rothman writes,

Everyday anarchy romps through the current intellectual scene: an engineer [young-earth creationist Henry Morris] writes books on evolution, a science fiction writer becomes a psychotherapy guru and founds a new religion [L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology pseudoscience], a psychoanalyst rewrites the laws of celestial mechanics [Immanuel Velikovsky of Worlds in Collision infamy], theologians give pronouncements on physics, physicists write books on theology, and legislators write laws defining life. [2]

To this list of prominent examples we can add the spectacle of a physician named Deepak Chopra writing books about and making grand pronouncements on quantum mechanics, despite the fact that he clearly has no understanding of or educational background in quantum mechanics.

The looseness with which quantum mechanics is treated by armchair physicists who have an ideological bone to pick is one of the justified reasons for the prevailing attitude of dislike toward philosophy currently seen among many in the physics community (this is mostly the case with experimental and practical physicists, but is true even of some theoretical physicists as well). This was not always the case; the current aversion to philosophy among the hard physics community started in earnest with the post-World War II physicists. Prior to the war, the great physicists of the twentieth century – among them Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger – were very interested in the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics and of the other kinds of physics they studied. This interest was especially strong in Einstein, who often waxed philosophical in his writings and lectures. This early interest in philosophy among physicists is not (or should not be) inherently surprising or anomalous. As Rothman points out, “modern philosophy of science is to a great extent the philosophy of quantum theory . . . quantum theory, in its role as the fundamental theory of matter and energy, makes a number of statements which contradict our ‘commonsense’ notions of nature. Philosophical problems arise when we try to make scientific sense out of these contradictions.” [3]

Notwithstanding the conduciveness of quantum theory to philosophical “hashing out,” the group that came into prominence in the physics community following World War II (led for the most part by Richard Feynman, Steven Weinberg and other household names) drastically changed the attitudes of most physicists toward philosophy. They emphasized that all we can really know is what we measure and observe, all the rest being nothing but empty and meaningless talk. If we can make accurate measurements and then describe those accurate measurements with theories, it does not matter what the theory really means. Arguing about the underlying “meaning” of theories is a waste of valuable time. The only relevant issue is whether the theory actually works. If it does, then it is “true enough.” If it does not work, it is useless and we toss it out on our way back to the starting board. That is all we really we need to understand, because everything for which we use our scientific theories is based on observed objects and phenomena, not on ontological meaning.

For example, theories are useful for building practical things like electronic circuits. Maxwell’s equations of electricity allow us to create electromagnetic fields emitted by antennae. Do those fields actually exist? As far as the pragmatic physicist is concerned, they can be said to exist only in the sense that they have an observable effect. But no one has ever actually seen an electric field or a magnetic field. All we can see are particles such as electrons being accelerated by the presence of other electrons or other charged particles. That activity is what physicists measure and observe. The description of that measured observation is the theory, in this case a model of fields. If the theory works, then it is good enough and physicists do not lose sleep over questions of whether there is a one-to-one correspondence between theories and ultimate reality. This is why the definitions physicists use in their calculations and data analysis are strictly operational in nature. For example, starting with Einstein in the early twentieth century, scientists have defined time as “what one reads on a clock.” All the other various observational qualities scientists routinely employ follow on the heels of this pragmatic and operational approach: Distance is what you read with a meter stick, a meter being currently defined by international agreement as the distance light traverses between two points in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second. Temperature is what you read on a thermometer, etc. [4] Metaphysics has no place in this approach. As the late experimental particle physicist Victor Stenger explained, “Describing nature in terms of physical variables is like sketching or photographing an object. Isn’t it rather foolish to equate images on a piece of paper with the real thing? Confusing an image with reality is a common characteristic of small children.” [5]

If empirical observations and experiments are the building blocks of scientific models, then operational definitions are the language in which the instruction manual is written. In his popular 1988 book A Brief History of Time (a book more often purchased and quoted than read and understood), world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking defines the true value of a theory in terms of such model-building:

I shall take the simple-minded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean). A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations. [6]

This description and account of scientific theory represents, in my view, a legitimate philosophical approach to determining the truth value of any proposition in science. Creationists who parasitize existing biological knowledge in order to make their denial of evolution sound plausible and New Age gurus who distort quantum mechanics in order to make a scientific-sounding case for their preconceived spiritualistic beliefs have not satisfied any criteria of a good theory. This is because the quantum New Agers’ strained harmonization of science and spirituality and the creationists’ post-hoc rationalization of evolutionary evidence fail to actually explain anything we observe.

Yes, Virginia, There is an Objective Reality Independent of Our Senses

The “job description” of every scientist can be summed up in the single word explain. The central aim of science is to demythologize our often faulty and misleading intuitions about the natural world, and thereby to convert the irrationality of pure, unfiltered discovery into the rationality of evidence-based justification. This is done through careful measurement and observation, a process by which the “laws of physics” are crafted. In other words, the laws of physics are inventions of human observers. More and more philosophers of science are beginning to take the view that, in the words of philosopher David Armstrong, “although there are regularities in the world, there are no laws of nature.” [7]

This position was independently arrived at by Victor Stenger, the particle physicist we quoted above, in his important 2006 book The Comprehensible Cosmos. What we refer to as the “laws of physics” are simply restrictions physicists place upon themselves. However, this does not mean or imply that our descriptions of the universe are arbitrary and that we “create our own reality through observation.” On the contrary, this means that scientists are actually constrained to build their models in such a way that they fit the observed data. Moreover, scientific theories and models must be formulated to be objective. That is, they cannot depend on the subjective point of view of any one observer. Stenger demonstrates mathematically in his book that one can derive most of the physics we know from just one simple assumption, which Stenger calls point-of-view invariance: “The models of physics cannot depend on any particular point of view.” [8]

Stenger did not invent the principle underlying his particular formulation of point-of-view invariance. It was discovered in the early twentieth century by a German mathematician named Emmy Noether, who in 1918 proved a theorem now known as Noether’s Theorem[9] The theorem states that any theory involving space and time, if formulated in such a way that it does not depend on any particular moment in time when the observer starts her clock (meaning the theory holds as good now as it did at any time in past history), then that theory will by definition contain a quantity that is conserved, namely energy. The theorem applies to position in space as well; if a theory does not depend on any special location in space, conservation of linear momentum necessarily follows. Finally, if no direction in space is singled out as special in the theory, conservation of angular momentum will automatically be conserved in the equations.

Practically all of classical physics follows from just these three conservation laws (the only exceptions are gravity and some electrical forces, but these do not require much more information to be accounted for). All our knowledge of classical physics, acquired from Newton to the twentieth century, follow neatly from conservation of energy, conservation of linear momentum and conservation of angular momentum, and these principles follow in turn from point-of-view invariance. The implication of Noether’s discovery is profound. It means that so far as we know there is no external force – spiritual or otherwise – governing the behavior of matter from above. This also means that the “laws” of nature do not necessarily describe ultimate reality.

Again, this does not imply the absence of an underlying objective reality independent of our subjective experience, as the peddlers of New Age mysticism would have us believe. On the contrary, point-of-view invariance and Noether’s Theorem show that there must be an objective reality. As Stenger explains,

[Point-of-view invariance] comes simply from the apparent existence of an objective reality – independent of its detailed structure. Indeed the success of point-of-view invariance can be said to provide evidence for the existence of an objective reality. Our dreams are not point-of-view invariant. If the Universe were all in our heads, our models would not be point-of-view invariant.

Point-of-view invariance is thus the mechanism by which we enforce objectivity. If we did not have an underlying objective reality, then we would not expect to be able to describe observations in a way that is independent of reference frames. [10]

Even though we currently have no way of knowing what the “true” structure of reality looks like, the existence of an objective reality underlying and informing the imperfect but adequate models we use to describe observations is confirmed every moment of every day by numerous obvious (and some not-so-obvious) impositions of what Rothman calls “laws of denial” (which he compares and contrasts with “laws of permission”). “Choosing between the possible and the impossible is a task carried out by means of the laws of denial, which tie us firmly to reality even as imaginations soar unfettered through the universe.” [11] Not everything we may want to happen can happen, the assertions of Rhonda Byrne’s doctrine of “The Secret” to the contrary notwithstanding. We cannot create our own reality, and the universe does not care what we want or desire. We cannot “dance this world away,” in the words of the Rick Springfield song.

Note that Rothman uses the word “choosing” in his statement about distinguishing between the possible and the impossible. While it is true the laws of physics are human inventions, they must agree with the observed data in order to be considered valid. For example, we cannot just “choose” to travel faster than the speed of light, no matter how much we may desire it. The theories and models scientists find useful in making testable predictions that can be verified or falsified are anything but arbitrary. Science is not a branch of postmodernism, the ill-begotten position which asserts that science is simply one cultural narrative among many and that all narratives are equally true. That is simply not the case. There is only one narrow set of “narratives” that work, namely the ones that agree with the data. Philosophy is in principle capable of making important contributions to science, but only when it is divorced completely from metaphysics and recognized for what it is: a method or toolkit for critical thinking rather than a self-contained subject or program unto itself.


NOTES

[1] Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967), p. 129.

[2] Milton A. Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism: Applying Laws of Physics to Faster-Than-Light Travel, Psychic Phenomena, Telepathy, Time Travel, UFO’s, and Other Pseudoscientific Claims (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 13.

[3] Ibid, p. 71.

[4] Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM), The International System of Units (SI), 8th ed., 2006.

[5] Victor J. Stenger, Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World beyond the Senses (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), p. 233.

[6] Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam, 1988), p. 9.

[7] D.M. Armstrong, What Is a Law of Nature? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 5.

[8] Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006), p. 57.

[9] Nina Byers, “E. Noether’s Discovery of the Deep Connection between Symmetries and Conservation Laws,” Israel Mathematical Conference Proceedings 12 (1999), http://cwp.library.ucla.edu/articles/noether.asg/noether.html (accessed February 13, 2016). This web page contains links to the original paper by Noether, including M.A. Tavel’s English translation.

[10] Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos, p. 187.

[11] Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism, p. 137.

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The Search for “Planet Nine”

Planet Nine

Artistic rendering of the hypothetical Planet Nine. Image courtesy of Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

In 2006, a team of astronomers at Caltech discovered Eris, the only trans-Neptunian dwarf planet whose mass exceeds that of Pluto. This discovery led directly to the demotion of Pluto from planet status, bringing the number of known planets in our solar system back down to eight. The man who led this team, Michael E. Brown, has since referred to himself as the “Pluto killer.” He tells the story of his contributions to Pluto’s demotion in his 2010 book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.

Now, ten years later, there is some poetic irony in the fact that Michael Brown is one of the researchers whose work may ultimately result in bringing the number of known planets in our solar system back up to nine.

Brown, along with Caltech astrophysicist Konstantin Batygin, has recently announced the discovery of tantalizing indirect evidence for the existence of a very large planet in the Kuiper Belt region of our solar system. Astronomers have not directly observed it, but its existence has been strongly inferred by the observation of anomalous gravitational influences that have been analyzed with the aid of computer modeling. If this analysis is correct, the researchers say there should be a planet ten times the mass of Earth moving in a highly unusual elliptical orbit which takes it approximately 20 times farther from the sun on average than Neptune. This places it in the “scattered disk” portion of the Kuiper Belt region.

The evidence comes in the form of anomalous orbital movements of a group of six distant Kuiper Belt objects (KPOs), which exhibit inexplicable dynamical clustering in physical space. At the outermost extremity of their orbits, all six KPOs travel around the solar system at different rates. Yet they also point in the same direction and their orbital planes are all tilted downward in the same orientation. In their joint Astronomical Journal paper “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System,” Batygin and Brown calculate that the probability of this alignment happening by chance is about 0.007 percent. This leads them to hypothesize that something with ten Earth-masses must be shaping their orbits.

Visual confirmation is still needed to confirm this object’s status as the ninth planet in our solar system. Getting this crucial visual confirmation could take years, for two reasons. First, the object’s orbit takes between 10,000 and 20,000 years to make one full orbit around the Sun. Getting visual confirmation will require seeing at least a part of this hypothetical object’s slow movement against the background stars so astronomers can confirm that it has the orbit they predict it should have. Until that is done, all we can say with confidence is that there is something out there that is ten times the mass of the Earth which may or may not be a bona fide planet. (For example, one alternative explanation, recently aired by postdoctoral astrophysics researcher Ann-Marie Madigan at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the mysterious orbit-shaper could actually be the collective effect of a “self-organization” phenomenon in which several small planetoids with a combined mass equal to that of Earth produce the observed strange dynamics.)

The second reason direct visual observation could be years away is simply due to the huge distance separating Earth-based observers from the Kuiper Belt. Whether or not our Earth-based telescopes can capture a decent image of Hypothetical Planet Nine is a debatable question. Remember that this thing is calculated to be on average 20 times farther away from the Sun than Neptune. To put this problem into perspective, consider that Pluto, which sometimes crosses the orbit of Neptune because of its highly elliptical orbit, registers as only a dim speck of light in the largest of our Earth-based telescope. And it may take several decades to launch a probe that can get close enough to Hypothetical Planet Nine to capture a high-quality image.

A new, ninth planet in our solar system would be an extraordinary and extremely rare find. The Caltech news report on this find quotes Brown as saying, “There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that’s still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.” The peer-review directed at the interpretation of the available data needs to be proportionately rigorous. The “Planet Nine” hypothesis is reasonable and plausible. But it’s also possible that the planet hypothesis could go the way of faster-than-light neutrinos or the early premature reports of gravity waves from the big bang, both of which turned out to be duds when scientists applied proper skepticism to the work before them. We just need to wait and see and not let hope interfere with the work to be done by astronomers and our evaluation of that work.

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A Physicist Calculates the Viability of Conspiracies

Apollo 17

For decades, science-based skeptics have been pointing out one of the most important flaws besetting grandiose conspiracy theories: the sheer number of people who must be involved in the execution of a large-scale conspiracy makes it extremely implausible that such plans would remain secret for long. Conspiracy theorists have never come up with an adequate or convincing counter-argument to answer this sustainability problem (although not from lack of trying). But now conspiracy theorists must contend with hard numbers recently crunched by University of Oxford physicist and mathematician David Robert Grimes that shows with mathematical rigor just how implausible and outlandish their claims really are.

Dr. Grimes’ paper, titled “On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs” and published in PLOS One, exhibits the author’s solid understanding of both popular conspiracy theories and the scientific method. The abstract reads as follows:

Conspiratorial ideation is the tendency of individuals to believe that events and power relations are secretly manipulated by certain clandestine groups and organisations. Many of these ostensibly explanatory conjectures are non-falsifiable, lacking in evidence or demonstrably false, yet public acceptance remains high. Efforts to convince the general public of the validity of medical and scientific findings can be hampered by such narratives, which can create the impression of doubt or disagreement in areas where the science is well established. . . . The theory presented here might be useful in counteracting the potentially deleterious consequences of bogus and anti-science narratives, and examining the hypothetical conditions under which sustainable conspiracy might be possible.

The mathematical model Grimes builds in this paper is essentially a failure probability analysis of grand conspiracies. The model attempts to determine how long a conspiracy could be expected to be sustained before being exposed from within. There is an important distinction to be made between exposure from within and exposure from without. Grimes only takes the former into account. Such internal leaks, he writes, “might be intentional (in the form of whistle-blowing or defection) or accidental (mistaken release of information). We concern ourselves only with potential intrinsic exposure of the conspiracy and do not consider for now the possibility that external agents may reveal the operation” (pp. 3-4). In this, Grimes is being as generous as he can to the conspiracy theorists’ narratives.

Another important distinction at work in this paper is between grand conspiracies and small conspiracies. When us skeptics criticize or debunk conspiracy theories, there is usually no shortage of people who fallaciously accuse us of denying the existence or even the possibility of all conspiracies. But when critics of conspiracy theories use the term “conspiracy,” we are actually referring to the grand type of conspiracy. Small-scale conspiracies involving less than one hundred people certainly are plausible and do in fact happen, and it would be ridiculous for anyone to deny this. Grimes is aware of this, duly noting that “there are numerous historical examples of exposed conspiracies and scandals, from Watergate to the recent revelations on the sheer scale of spying on the online activity of citizens by their own governments. It would be unfair then to simply dismiss all allegation of conspiracy as paranoid where in some instances it is demonstrably not so” (p. 2). But conspiracy theories such as the moon-landing hoax narrative or a cure for cancer being suppressed by the medical establishment are another matter entirely. These are conspiracies that would have to involve far, far more than a mere handful of people.

For his model, Grimes analyzes four modern and prominent conspiracy theories of the grand variety: (1) the NASA moon-landing conspiracy, (2) the claim that climate change is a hoax, (3) vaccination conspiracy, and (4) the conspiracy to hide or suppress a known cure for cancer. Grimes strives to use the most conservative estimates he could, generously assuming the upper limit of conspirator reliability and the lower limit of the number of people involved in the grand scheme. However, these conservative estimates still yield a series of large numbers for these particular conspiracies.

Estimating the Parameters

In order to come up with a mathematical model of grand-conspiracy sustainability, Grimes first had to figure out the number of people who need to be in on each of the four conspiracies and then calculate the probability that any one of these people would intentionally or accidentally expose the conspiracy. Grimes comments thus on the difficulty of coming up with numbers that accurately represent these probabilities:

To use the model, realistic parameter estimates are required. In particular, the parameter p, the probability of an intrinsic leak or failure, is extremely important; if p were zero, absolute conspiracy would be maintained, only resolvable by extrinsic analysis. In practice, this is not the case—historical examples show that even in incredibly secretive organizations, there is always some possibility of an accidental or intentional intrinsic leak whether by whistle-blowing or ineptitude. (p. 6)

Grimes calls on data from the following three historical examples of exposed conspiracies to his aid in developing realistic parameters for duration of the plots’ secrecy and the number of conspirators. First on the list is the National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM affair of 2013, in which NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the unprecedented extent to which the NSA was eavesdropping on civilian Internet users. Second is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment: “In 1932 the US Public Health Service began an observational study on African-American men who had contracted syphilis in Alabama. The study became unethical in the mid 1940s, when penicillin was shown to effectively cure the ailment and yet was not given to the infected men” (p. 6). This wholly unethical and clandestinely-executed experiment was finally exposed by Dr. Peter Buxtun in 1972. Finally, Grimes considers the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) forensic scandal of the mid to late 1990s: “Dr. Frederic Whitehurst wrote hundreds of letters to his superiors detailing the pseudoscientific nature of many of the FBI forensics tests. The dubious nature of these protocols resulted in a large number of innocent men being detained for decades, several of whom were executed for these crimes or died in prison, before Whitehurst exposed the debacle in 1998” (p. 6).

The Results

Using data from these historical cases to get rough estimates, Grimes’ model results in the following minimum numbers of people who would have to be involved in each of the four extraordinary conspiracy claims analyzed:

  • Moon-landing hoax: As of 1965, NASA’s peak employment was 411,000 people, all of whom would have had to keep the hoax a secret.
  • Climate-change fraud: For this one, Grimes tallied up the membership numbers of the American Geo-Physical Union, current NASA employees, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Society Fellows, the European Physical Society, and published climate scientists. The grand total comes to 405,000 people.
  • Vaccination conspiracy: Grimes was very conservative with his estimate here, using only the employees of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). He could have also included every pediatrician in this tally. But using just the numbers from the CDC and WHO, we arrive at the not-insignificant figure of 22,000
  • Suppressed cancer cure: Grimes again employs an extremely conservative estimate for this narrative, using only the number of employees of the top eight pharmaceutical companies. He did not include the number of physicians and scientists who would also certainly be involved in suppressing a known cure for cancer, but his grand total still comes out to 714,000 people.

These numbers, while large, are likely accurate to within one order of magnitude. Grimes also acknowledges that a case could be made that only a relatively small number of people would have to be in on the conspiracy, but points out that this would not be viable for scientific conspiracies, given the nature of peer-review in the scientific community:

This might potentially be the case for some political or social conspiracies, yet for a hypothetical scientific conspiracy it is probably fair to assume that all agents working with the data would have to be aware of any deception. Were this not the case, fraudulent claims or suspect data would be extrinsically exposed by other scientists upon examination of the data in much the same way that instances of scientific fraud are typically exposed by other members of the scientific community. (p. 11)

Using just those numbers in conjunction with the most conservative factors possible to calculate the likelihood that any one individual would expose the conspiracy gives us a curve of the probability that the conspiracy would be exposed following its initiation. For all four of the grand conspiracy narratives analyzed in the paper, the probability that the conspiracy would be exposed approaches 100 percent within four years. The moon-landing hoax, for example, would be exposed within a mere 3.68 years, whether we conceive of the conspiracy as a single one-time event or a sustained fabrication.

Another variable Grimes plugs into his analysis has to do with how the number of people involved in the conspiracies fluctuates over time. For example, one factor that affects the failure probability is the necessity of bringing in new people to sustain conspiracies. This would likely not be necessary for the one-time perpetrations such as the moon-landing conspiracy, but original conspirators for the other three longer-term schemes may either retire or die, making it necessary for new conspirators to take their place. When that curve is calculated and drawn, we find that the conspiracy’s failure probability changes in proportion to what Grimes terms the “extinction rate” of the conspiring party; in the course of 30 to 50 years, the probability of exposure approaches 100 percent. In the case of one-time conspiracy events in which conspirators are not being replaced over time, the probability peaks and then drops off as people die, leaving fewer and fewer people to expose the conspiracy. However, such a conspiracy has very little chance of surviving long enough to go over that peak.

In his own commentary on Grimes’ paper, Dr. Steven Novella remarks that “grand conspiracy theories tend to grow larger and more complex until they collapse under their own weight.” Grimes’ paper makes the same point, but in a highly technical and mathematically rigorous way, showing that as conspiracies grow bigger and bigger, the probability of failure climbs closer and closer to unity (or 1). The number of people that must be involved in initiating and maintaining the conspiracy is so high that sustainability over any long period of time becomes impossible. And again, Grimes’ analysis not only uses maximally conservative estimates, but also covers only the probability of internal exposure. If we take external sources of possible exposure into account (intrepid investigative journalists who are motivated by Pulitzer-Prize stardom, to take the most obvious example), we would likely find that conspiratorial secrecy could not be maintained for more than a few months.

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