Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Part II)

Part II of Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist, titled “All the World’s a Stage,” describes the events of September 11, 2001 in a manner very similar to Dylan Avery’s 2005 conspiracy documentary Loose Change. In fact, many portions of Part II are pulled directly from Avery’s film. [1] In Joseph’s film, as in Loose Change, we are presented with the basic 9/11 conspiracy theories with which most people by now are familiar: 9/11 was either an inside job directly planned and executed by the US government or an attack of which they had prior knowledge and simply allowed to happen. Specifically, Part II deals with issues relating to General Ahmed and Mohammed Atta, the financing of the attacks, the hijacker passport, the claim that some hijackers were found alive after the attacks, the (allegedly) fake Osama bin Laden video, the Carlyle Group, the Pentagon and others. Every one of the major claims made here has been thoroughly debunked by many researchers, so I will limit this present analysis to the most persistent and popular of the arguments that appear in Zeitgeist.

This middle portion of Zeitgeist differs from the approach used in both Parts I and III, sections in which Peter Joseph provides his own commentary. Part II, on the other hand, contains many sound bites and media clips and very little else. The “discussion” is a mishmash of interview clips, news pieces, and excerpts from other 9/11 conspiracy documentaries. Joseph would have done well to leave this part out of the film altogether, or at least to cover the subject more concisely in Part III. First-time viewers of Zeitgeist are liable to get a strong sense that they have been thrown violently out of one documentary and treated to another when they view as far as Part II. What, we wonder, do the events of 9/11 have to do with the origins of Christianity? This section of the film does a great disservice to critical thinkers everywhere, particularly atheists. Here we are presented with someone who professes to have done careful research on the mythical origins of religion, only to find ourselves immersed in a shameless promotion of tinfoil-hat 9/11 conspiracy-mongering within the same film.

The belief that 9/11 was an inside job or false flag operation is a variation on a well-known and common theme that invariably emerges in the wake of any massive terrorist attack or act of war. One manifestation of this theme is the belief that Pearl Harbor was a US government conspiracy, a theory Joseph promotes later in Part III. [2] Those who promote a conspiratorial interpretation of the events surrounding 9/11 have now been thoroughly debunked, and their continued use of the same old arguments and tactics in debate indicates as much. After the so-called “9/11 Truthers” have cherry-picked the data they want to use in argument, they typically focus on a single issue to the exclusion of other aspects of their broader and more general conspiracy theory they know have been satisfactorily refuted. The point of this tactic is to divert attention away from what is understood by all to be devastating to the conspiracy theorists’ claims and use rhetoric as a substitute for hard evidence. In doing this, the typical Truther hopes to establish what they imagine constitutes a default case for other closely-related conspiracy theories. 9/11 Trutherism rarely exists in isolation; those who believe 9/11 was an inside job almost always believe in a handful of other conspiracy theories.

The theories surrounding World Trade Center Building Seven (WTC 7) stand as particularly illustrative examples of this diversionary tactic. After everything else in the 9/11 Truthers’ arsenal of argumentation was thoroughly debunked, their argument that the collapse of Building Seven was a controlled demolition became their favorite talking point. Because conspiracy theories surrounding the collapse of Building Seven seem to be one of the most persistent aspects of 9/11 harped upon by the Truther community, I will indulge them and focus much of my critical attention on this subject.

But let us first dispense with the arguments made in Zeitgeist Part II that are most easily refuted, and in fact had been shown conclusively to be false long before Joseph made his movie. Some of the most egregious mistakes are logical ones. For example, Part II begins by playing several media clips in which witnesses and first responders to the WTC attacks say they heard a series of explosions while the attack was underway. The implication made here is that since several people heard explosions, there must have been explosives involved. Not only is this inaccurate, it is also an example of extremely bad logic.

The poster boy for the explosion/explosive hypothesis is William Rodriguez, who at the time of the attacks was employed as a janitor at the WTC’s North Tower. Following the attacks, he embarked on speaking tours relating his experiences of being the “Last Man Out,” as he dubbed himself. He became a darling of the 9/11 Truther community and a vocal critic of the US government, which he believes planted the alleged explosives. Zeitgeist features a clip from one of Rodriguez’s lectures:

“Our office was on the B1 level. As I was talking to a supervisor . . . all of a sudden we hear BOOM! An explosion so hard that it pushed us upwards! And it came from the basement between the B2 level and the B3 level. And when I went to verbalize, we hear BOOM! The impact of the plane on the top.”

One problem with Rodriguez’s testimony is that it has changed over time, with later accounts differing from and being inconsistent with his initial story. [3] He has also displayed an unwillingness to entertain more rational explanations for the basement explosion he believes he heard. His account has grown to include other “suspicious noises” and other “small explosions” rationally explained by the fact that other sounds would inevitably have been heard while the attacks were underway, including the falling of lift shafts, structural vibrations, and explosions (not explosives) going off on different floors. No one should expect to hear just a single loud sound and nothing else.

Other mistakes in the film have to do with factual inaccuracies that nobody would make who had first taken the time to conduct the most cursory of research before committing their fallacies to film. A case in point is Zeitgeist’s claim that debris from Flight 93, the plane that was hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 and crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, was found six miles away from the crash site. Presumably, the implication being made here is that the plane was shot out of the sky, not deliberately crashed by hijackers on board. The film uses a video clip from a CNN Breaking News broadcast to promote this idea. In this clip, CNN correspondent Brian Cabell says,

“The FBI and the state police here have confirmed that they have cordoned off a second area about six to eight miles away from the crater here. This is apparently another debris site. Why would debris be located six miles away? Could it have been blown that far away? Seems highly unlikely.”

There actually was no such confirmation, and the statement was determined to be erroneous in very short order. Various pieces of debris from the plane, including passengers’ personal effects, did end up in the lake. However, “Indian Lake is less than 1.5 miles southeast of the impact crater as the crow flies – not 6 miles, as indicated by online driving directions – easily within range of debris blasted skyward by the explosion from the crash.” [4] The wind was blowing in a northwesterly direction that day, toward Indian Lake. This wind, combined with the blast generated by the heat of the crashing plane, would easily have carried debris from the crash the short distance to the lake. The satellite photo below shows the close proximity of the lake to the crash site.

all-the-world-a-stage
Next we turn to the Truthers’ claims about Building 7 of the World Trade Center. Peter Joseph’s treatment of this subject in Zeitgeist amounts to little more than an argument from ignorance, relying on the alleged mysteriousness and inscrutability of the building’s collapse. Zeitgeist begins its discussion of Building 7 by saying,

Part of the problem is that most people simply don’t know much about Building Seven, due to the extraordinary secrecy surrounding this collapse.

Never mind the fact that the destruction of Building 7 has been thoroughly and carefully analyzed in peer-reviewed studies that are freely available to anyone who has an interest in finding out what took place. Peter Joseph has just presumed to educate us poor, ignorant half-wits on the esoteric secrets that he has uncovered. And where did Joseph find these “extraordinary secrets”? Well, he found them on conspiracy websites, conspiracy “documentaries,” and C-SPAN videos. Long before Zeitgeist was made, these so-called “extraordinary secrets” had been making the rounds on Internet discussion forums frequented by armchair investigators whose “research” consisted mostly of spending hours watching YouTube videos.

  • Claim 1: It was brought down by what we know was a controlled demolition.” . . . “Controlled demolitions, they look just like that. You know, kink in the middle and then that building just comes straight down almost at free fall speed.”

Fire was primarily responsible for the collapse of WTC 7, as it was for the collapse of the Twin Towers. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the buildings’ trusses were sagged due to the heat from the fires, which were ignited by the impact of debris from World Trade Center 1. The heat bowed the columns inward, eventually causing the building to collapse. [5] There are a few ways we know for a fact the collapse of the towers and of Building 7 were not controlled demolitions. For one thing, loud explosions are characteristic of controlled demolitions. WTC 7 made no loud noise as it fell. For another, massive buildings do not simply fall over as small buildings might. When the tremendous weight of a building’s upper floors collapses upon the floors below them, the only way to go is straight down. [6] The resulting downward motion may exhibit the illusion of symmetry to the untrained eye. However, the manner in which both WTC 7 and the Twin Towers fell is exactly what we would expect to see in uncontrolled collapses caused by intense heat from jet fuel.

Consider also that the towers were built at or near the extreme end of modern engineering capabilities. The loss of strength in even a single steel column of WTC 7 did not even need to be substantial (although it was) in order for the weight of the upper floors to lose their support. [7] The domino effect resulting from the collapse of just one floor makes for a collapse that may appear to be symmetric to someone who does not understand how controlled demolitions work. They are never symmetrical.

Moreover (as we discuss in more detail below), fire was not the only factor that contributed to the buildings’ collapse, and fuel was not the only thing burning in WTC 7 or in the Twin Towers on September 11. The buildings were equipped with several large diesel storage tanks that served as back-up generators. Along with everything else in the building that was flammable (rugs, curtains, furniture, paper, etc.), these diesel tanks fueled the fires that contributed to the collapse.

It is also worth pointing out that nobody was inside WTC 7 when it fell, and no casualties resulted from that particular collapse. Therefore, why does it matter whether the building was purposefully demolished or not? If it was in fact a controlled demolition that was planned and executed as a terrorist act by the US government, wouldn’t it make more sense to demolish the building while it was occupied by people? What would be the point of blowing up an empty building?

  • Claim 2: NEVER before or after 911 has any steel building collapsed from fire. . . . “Building 7 wasn’t even hit by a jet.” “This building had fires on only two or three floors.

Let us first address the claim that WTC 7 was less damaged than other surviving buildings that were located closer to the Twin Towers. Clearing up this point will demonstrate that WTC 7 is far less of a mystery than Zeitgeist makes it out to be. The only reason this particular claim has been allowed to flourish as long as it has is because most cameras capturing the 9/11 event were trained on the Twin Towers themselves and away from Building 7. However, eyewitness testimony from several independent sources indicates conclusively that the claim is simply false. [8] From these lines of evidence, the idea that Building Seven did not suffer substantial damage as a result of the collapse of the other towers is clearly ludicrous, as can easily be ascertained by footage from hundreds of videos. [9] Below is an NIST photograph of the damage sustained by WTC 7. [10] Take special note of the damage at the edge of the southwest face.

all-the-world-a-stage-2
The damage captured in this photograph is consistent with many eyewitness testimonies, both from firemen working on or near the site and from the general public, who were quite certain that the building was going to collapse based simply on their observations. More vivid photographs of the damage sustained by Building 7 are shown below. There is a good reason why 9/11 Truthers never display these photos on their websites and blogs.

wtc7
As for the claim that a symmetrical collapse of a steel building “has never happened before or since,” this is simply false. A prime example is the L’Ambiance Plazza in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a steel structure which collapsed during construction in 1987. [11] Other examples include the Lian Yak building in Singapore, which in March 1986 collapsed in the same pancake fashion as the World Trade Center buildings. [12] Yet another example is Ronan Point Flats, where a gas explosion on the 18th floor destroyed structural panels on the perimeter, resulting in the collapse of floors, again in pancake fashion. [13] Other collapses such as the Civic Tower (Torre Civica) of Pavia, Italy in 1989, St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice in 1902 and the bell tower of the St. Maria Magdalena Cathedral  in Goch, Germany in 1993 add yet more nails to the coffin of the Truthers’ claim that pancaking only happens in controlled demolitions. [14]

  • Claim 3: For well over 6 weeks after the collapse, hot spots of over 2000 ° F were documented in the debris. That is 500 ° F hotter than jet fuel even burns. “The molten steel was found ‘three, four, and five weeks later, when the rubble was being removed’ . . . molten steel was also found underneath World Trade Center 7.

The claim that molten metal was seen in the basements of the building long after the collapse is closely related to the theory, which we have debunked above, that controlled demolition was responsible for bringing the building down. No photograph evidence supports the claimed presence of molten metal in the World Trade Center basements. One of the 9/11 Truthers’ favorite photographs is of a crane picking up a glowing red-orange object, shown below:

all-the-world-a-stage-3
The glowing object in the photograph, which is shown in Zeitgeist, is not molten metal. If it was molten, it would drip and the crane’s claw would not be able to grasp it and lift it up.

But how, ask the 9/11 Truthers, can fire alone account for this molten metal? While it is true that jet fuel, which burns at 1,517 degrees Fahrenheit, is not hot enough to reach steel’s melting point of 2,777 degrees Fahrenheit, this is not the whole picture. Retired New York deputy fire chief Vincent Dunn, author of Collapse of Burning Buildings[15] has become well-known among the 9/11 Truth community for a quote they often take out of context: “I have never seen melted steel in a building fire.” The remainder of this quote is as follows: “But I’ve seen a lot of twisted, warped, bent and sagging steel. What happens is that the steel tries to expand at both ends, but when it can no longer expand, it sags and the surrounding concrete cracks.” [16]

There was therefore no need for the building’s steel to reach the melting point in order for the building to lose its structural integrity. At 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, steel loses over 50 percent of its strength, and at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 90 percent of steel’s strength is lost. This is more than sufficient to warp and sag steel. As we noted above, jet fuel was not the only thing burning in the building. Rugs, curtains, furniture, paper and other combustible material intensified the inferno that was initially catalyzed by the jet fuel. [17] A study conducted by NIST showed that some pockets of fire in the building reached a temperature as high as 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures great enough to reduce the strength of the steel in many places of the building to less than 10 percent its original integrity. The result was a pile of twisted, warped, bent and sagging steel in the basement area. [18]

The claim that traces of thermite were found in the rubble of the WTC buildings has been promoted by Steven Jones, a professor of physics at Brigham Young University. Jones is featured in Zeitgeist talking about thermite and the alleged pools of metal in the basements of all three buildings:

“I started looking at the molten metal. All three buildings – both towers, in the rubble, in the basement areas – and Building 7, there’s these pools of molten metal . . .

So I’m looking through the official reports. What do they say about the molten metal? They say nothing. Now wait a minute. This is important evidence! So where’d that come from?”

There is no discussion of “molten” metal in the official reports because there was no molten metal to speak of, only the “twisted, warped, bent and sagging” steel that Vincent Dunn mentioned in the quote cited above. Besides, the main focus of the 9/11 Commission Report was on the terrorists’ attack targets. WTC 7 was not a target, and so is not afforded as much discussion in the report. Steven Jones and other 9/11 Truthers have made a great deal of fuss over this, going to the extreme of accusing the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report of being part of the government’s cover-up. However, WTC 7 is mentioned several times in the Report, just not in the context the conspiracy theorists want it to be mentioned. [19]

Where did Jones’ “important evidence” come from? Jones believes the only explanation is thermite, a pyrotechnic chemical compound that undergoes a violent reaction when ignited by heat:

“Thermite is so hot that it’ll just cut through steel – through structural steel for example – like a knife through butter. The products are molten iron and aluminum oxide, which goes off primarily as a dust. You know those enormous dust clouds? You can imagine when you assemble these chemicals on a large scale.”

Thermite can get very hot, but the reaction works slowly and it would require ridiculously massive amounts for it to cut through steel. There is no evidential justification for positing thermite in order to account for the “enormous dust clouds.” The collapse of several thousand tons of concrete is more than sufficient to explain that. [20]

This is representative of the way in which Zeitgeist ignores simple and much more plausible explanations for the seeming “anomalies” that it highlights. A case in point is the film’s treatment of the crash of Flight 77 into the Pentagon. The film throws a great deal of information relating to this at the viewer in rapid succession:

No seats, no luggage, no bodies. Nothing but bricks and limestone.

Clip from Dylan Avery’s film Loose Change: “The official explanation is that the intense heat from the jet fuel vaporized the entire plane. Flight 77 had two Rolls-Royce engines made of steel and titanium alloy and weighed six tons each. It is scientifically impossible [that] 12 tons of steel and titanium was vaporized by jet fuel.”

David Ray Griffin: “We were also told that the bodies were able to be identified, either by their fingerprints or by their DNA. So what kind of fire can vaporize aluminum and tempered steel, and yet leave human bodies intact?”

CNN Live: “From my close-up inspection, there’s no evidence of a plane having crashed anywhere near the Pentagon, and as I said, the only pieces left that you can see are small enough that you can pick up in your hand.”

David Ray Griffin: “Shortly after the strike, government agents picked up debris and carried it off. The entire lawn was covered with dirt and gravel, so that any remaining forensic evidence was literally covered up. The videos from security cameras [on the nearby CITGO gas station and Sheraton Hotel], which would show what really hit the Pentagon, were immediately confiscated by agents of the FBI, and the Department of Justice has to this day refused to release them. If these videos would prove that the Pentagon was really hit by a 757, most of us would assume the government would release them.”

We can quickly dispense with the claims that are outright lies. Contrary to Griffin’s assertion, security camera footage of Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon is freely available for all to see, and the government never attempted to hide or confiscate it. One such piece of video footage clearly shows a plane in the background on the right hand side seconds before impact. [21] David Ray Griffin and Peter Joseph apparently assume that their followers will never bother to investigate their assertions for themselves.

The notions that there was no downed plane at the Pentagon and that the official explanation was vaporization of the plane upon impact are false. Hundreds of photographs are available on the Internet documenting the 757 wreckage. Of course, denying that a plane crashed into the Pentagon requires one to also deny the undeniable, namely the fact that human remains were seen at the site. [22] There were also many eyewitnesses who attest to seeing and/or hearing a commercial passenger jet crash into the Pentagon. [23] The Truthers must also dismiss this testimony out of hand to maintain their fantasy of a nonexistent plane.

Griffin states nothing definitive when he suggests that human bodies cannot remain intact in a crash that “vaporized” the aluminum and tempered steel plane they were in. Besides the fact that the plane did not vaporize, human bodies do not turn to ash until approximately two to three hours of burning at 1100 degrees Fahrenheit.[24] The fires at the Pentagon never reached that temperature, and they did not burn in just one location for two to three consecutive hours. This means material was naturally left over from the inferno. Identification of the bodies, including fingerprinting and DNA analysis, was difficult but it was done.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists have made an art form of rationalizing all these explanations away. Nothing is preventing them from looking at the many photographs of the plane wreckage or reading the many accounts by eyewitnesses who saw the plane crash into the Pentagon. But their foregone conclusion allows them to argue with a straight face that the pieces of the plane were planted on the site by government agents and that all the eyewitnesses were paid-off government shills. At this point, the conspiracy theory mindset becomes so far-fetched that it collapses under its own weight, especially considering the sheer number of people who would have to be in on the conspiracy. [25]

This level of ad-hoc rationalization is strikingly similar to young-earth creationists who argue that the Devil planted dinosaur fossils in the Geologic Column with the appearance of a succession of great ages in order to lead scientists astray (or, alternatively, that God did so in order to test the faith of those wo defend the biblical creation account). A crucial component of the scientific method is the criterion of falsifiability. If no room is made for critical inquiry or for building into one’s investigation of a given event or phenomenon a means of knowing when a hypothesis has failed, dogmatic religion is the inevitable result. The Zeitgeist Movement is clearly an example of a faith-based movement, not a scientifically-based one, and Peter Joseph has become a religious cult leader. It is a matter of record that he habitually censors dissenting opinion.

Inherent in the conspiracy-theory mindset is a glaring self-contradiction. According to the paranoid mindset, the people spearheading and carrying out the conspiracy wield incredible resources and are masterfully clever, while simultaneously displaying incomprehensible stupidity. How is it that those evil geniuses conspiring against us have access to such great and unimaginable power, influence and cleverness, yet commit countless stupid mistakes and blunders that make it obvious to pattern-seeking amateurs that a conspiracy is in play? Furthermore, if the conspiracy theorists were truly on the right track, we would not be hearing from them long enough for their ideas to have gained any traction in public discourse. If he was really on to something, Alex Jones would not have survived to say most of what he has said over the years. In fact, in order to maintain their own credibility, the big names in the 9/11 Truth community such as Dylan Avery and David Ray Griffin should be obliged to fake their own assassinations.

Had Peter Joseph taken this self-contradiction into consideration, he may not have included a media clip that is shown in Zeitgeist in which then-president George W. Bush is speaking at a press conference. In this press conference footage, a reporter asks Bush, “Why are you and the Vice President insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 Commission?” This question was asked because the Commission had requested that Bush and Dick Cheney meet separately, rather than together. In response, Bush sidesteps the question: “Because it’s a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 Commission is looking forward to asking us, and I’m looking forward to answering them.” Zeitgeist goes on to point out that Bush and Cheney met with the committee only on their own terms, which included appearing together, not allowing family members or the press to attend, not being under oath, and no allowing of recordings or transcripts. The suggestion made is that Bush and Cheney were being extremely secretive about the process by which the 9/11 Commission Report was written because they were hiding heinous crimes of a massive scale.

The reality is that Bush’s and Cheney’s conditions for meeting with the committee had more to do with administrative incompetence than with any conspiratorial preparations. The reason Bush and Cheney met with the committee together rather than separately is likely because Bush was not intellectually capable of handling the committee’s questions alone. Ironically, the Bush administration’s attempts to cover their ass for the incompetent blunders they made have done more to contribute to theories of a brilliantly-conceived conspiracy than almost anything else. A cover-up to mask administrative stupidity is plausible, while a cover-up to mask a massive inside terrorist job is highly implausible.

The 9/11 Truth movement strains credulity so far that it would actually be more plausible to propose that the 9/11 Truth movement is itself a government conspiracy to convince the educated and intelligent segment of the population that they were not responsible for 9/11. This is the hilarious premise of the South Park episode titled “Mystery of the Urinal Deuce.” This episode’s convoluted storyline involves Cartman trying to convince his peers that the US government planned and orchestrated 9/11, while Kyle and Stan meet up with a conspiracy organization called 911truth.org (which is an actual website). After being seized by a SWAT team and taken to the White House for questioning, Bush shoots the 911truth representative in the head, and proceeds to describe the method by which they pulled off the attacks. As summed up by another character at the end of the episode, “All the 9/11 conspiracy Web sites are run by the government. The 9/11 conspiracy . . . is a government conspiracy!”


 

NOTES

[1] Dylan Avery, Loose Change: 2nd Edition Recut (Microcinema International, 2007).

[2] Other prominent conspiracy theorists have also made comparisons between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in connection with the false-flag operation theory. See, for example, David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11 (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2004).

[3] Mike Williams, “William Rodriguez,” 911Myths.com, n.d. http://911myths.com/html/william_rodriguez.html (accessed September 11, 2016).

[4] David Dunbar and Brad Reagan, eds., Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts (New York: Hearst Books, 2006), p. 90.

[5] NIST and NCSTAR 1A, “Final Report on the Collapse of World Trade Center Building 7,” National Institute of Standards and Technology (November 2008). Available online at https://www.nist.gov/node/599811?pub_id=861610 (accessed September 11, 2016).

[6] Ramon Gilsanz and Willa Ng, “Single Point of Failure: How the Loss of One Column May Have Led to the Collapse of WTC 7,” Structure Magazine, November 2007: 42-45.  Available online at http://www.structuremag.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/SF-WTC7-Gilsanz-Nov071.pdf (accessed September 11, 2016).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark Roberts, “Eyewitness Accounts of WTC 7 Fires,” in World Trade Center Building 7 and the Lies of the “9/11 Truth Movement”, https://sites.google.com/site/wtc7lies/eyewitnessaccountsofwtc7fires (accessed September 11, 2016).

[9] Debunking911, “WTC 7 Fires and South Side Hole” (video), YouTube, March 27, 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Afb7eUHr64U (accessed September 11, 2001).

[10] National Institute of Standards and Technology, “NIST Response to the World Trade Center Disaster: Federal Building and Fire Safety Investigation of the World Trade Center Disaster – Part IIC – WTC 7 Collapse,” NIST PowerPoint, April 5, 2005. Available online at http://www.nist.gov/el/disasterstudies/wtc/upload/WTC-Part-IIC-WTC-7-Collapse-Final.pdf (accessed September 11, 2016).

[11] Frank J. Heger, “L’Ambiance Plazza,” The Engineer, October 24, 2006, http://www.engineering.com/Library/ArticlesPage/tabid/85/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/168/LAmbiance-Plazza.aspx (accessed September 11, 2016).

[12] Standing Committee on Structural Safety, “Seventh Report of the Committee: For the Two Years Ending July 1987” (September 1987), http://www.structural-safety.org/media/41885/162_7th_SCOSS_report_1987.pdf (accessed May 24, 2015).

[13] David Scott, Barbara Lane, and Craig Gibbons, “Fire Induced Progressive Collapse,” Proceedings of the Workshop on Prevention of Progressive Collapse, Multihazard Mitigation Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences, Rosemont, IL, July 10-12, 2002.

[14] Zdeněk P. Bažant and Mathieu Verdure, “Mechanics of Progressive Collapse: Learning from World Trade Center and Building Demolitions,” Journal of Engineering Mechanics 133, no. 3 (March 2007): 308-319.

[15] Vincent Dunn, Collapse of Burning Buildings: A Guide to Fireground Safety (New York: Fire Engineering, 1988).

[16] Popular Mechanics Reporting Team, “9/11: Debunking the Myths,” Popular Mechanics 182, no. 3 (March 2005): 75.

[17] Thomas W. Eagar and Christopher Musso, “Why Did the World Trade Center Collapse? Science, Engineering, and Speculation,” Journal of the Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society 53, no. 12 (December 2001): 8-11.

[18] Dunbar and Reagan, eds., Debunking 9/11 Myths, pp. 37-43.

[19] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, Authorized Edition (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), pp. 284, 293, 302, 305.

[20] NIST and NCSTAR 1, “Final Report on the Collapse of the World Trade Center Towers,” National Institute of Standards and Technology (September 2005), p. 82. Available online at http://www.sustainable-design.ie/fire/NIST-NCSTAR-1-Collapse-Of-Towers.pdf (accessed September 11, 2016).

[21] Judicial Watch, “Judicial Watch September 11 Pentagon Video — 2 of 2,” YouTube, May 16, 2006, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAaP4Z3zls8 (accessed September 11, 2016).

[22] Andrea Stone, “Pentagon Searchers Encounter Grisly Scenes,” USA Today, September 13, 2001, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/sept01/2001-09-14-pentagon-usat.htm (accessed September 11, 2016).

[23] “Washington’s Heroes – On the Ground at the Pentagon on Sept. 11,” Newsweek, September 28, 2001, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3069699/ (accessed April 4, 2011).

[24] Michelle Kim, “How Cremation Works,” How Stuff Works, March 31, 2009, http://science.howstuffworks.com/cremation1.htm (accessed September 11, 2016).

[25] David Robert Grimes, “On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs,” PLoS One 11, no. 1 (January 26, 2016). http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0147905.

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Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Part I)

zeitgeist-1

The discussions on the origins of Christianity in Zeitgeist may sound very compelling to those “village atheists” who make a hobby of searching for that elusive single argument that destroys Christianity as a credible belief system in one fell swoop. But any such easy argument is bound to be an oversimplification of historical or philosophical complexities. The main thesis presented in Part I of Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist is essentially as follows: Christianity stole various beliefs and rituals wholesale from other earlier pagan religions and mythologies, particularly Egyptian mythology, incorporating these borrowed beliefs and rituals into its own theological system.

But this thesis has only a grain of truth to it. The formation of Christianity was certainly influenced by other religions and mythologies that predated it. But to the extent that this is true, it is trivial. Only to the extent to which this assessment is alleged to be a profound and decisive game changer is it somewhat misleading, and herein lies the problem. Instead of pointing out the actual religions by which Christianity was influenced, such as the Babylonian religions and Zoroastrianism (the two primary formative influences for Christianity) Zeitgeist opts to dive into completely unrelated belief systems and form spurious connections between them.

With the rise of Zoroastrianism and the Babylonian religions came the emergence of monotheism and the dualistic concept of “good versus evil” in its first stages of development. Concepts such as a worldwide flood, angels and demons, Manichean dualism and other elements of this sort were heavily influenced by Babylonian tales and ultimately came to be acquired by Judaism. Professional historians for at least the past two hundred years have refined the art and the science of tracing and documenting the various changes, additions, and deletions that eventually formed what we today recognize as orthodox Christianity. Determining the source of Christianity’s major tenets and rituals is a task that requires a great deal of careful and painstaking research, and there is a strong consensus among those who have done this hard work that there is a lack of evidence for Zeitgeist’s claim that any sort of insidious conspiracy was in play during Christianity’s formative years. Much of the information relevant to this research is contained in the pages of the canonical Bible itself. The Old Testament is essentially a buffet from which the various off-shooting sects of Judaism, including Christianity, chose which elements and themes they wanted, incorporated these into the documents that eventually formed the New Testament, and added in information about the man they believed was the Jewish Messiah. There was no organized conspiracy in this picking-and-choosing exercise. The process took centuries to unfold, and was messy and unfocused for most of the time it was happening.


Jesus and Other Gods

Rather than educating its viewers about historical facts along these lines and exploring what is actually flawed about Christianity as a belief system, the Zeitgeist makes claims that are not just speculative, but factually incorrect. The part early in the film in which the Egyptian god Horus is being discussed is a particularly egregious case in point. First, Joseph erroneously identifies Horus as the Sun God of Egypt. Horus was actually the god of the sky in Egypt’s mythology, and Ra was the sun god. [1] The source of this confusion may lie in the fact that later on during Egypt’s dynastic era, Horus and Ra became fused together into a single deity. [2] But Joseph does not bother pointing this out, but instead flatly states that Horus was the sun god with no added qualifications. After committing this basic error, Joseph relates this bio:

Broadly speaking, the story of Horus is as follows: Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east, which in turn, three kings followed to locate and adorn the new-born savior. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry. Horus had 12 disciples he traveled about with, performing miracles such as healing the sick and walking on water. Horus was known by many gestural names such as The Truth, The Light, God’s Anointed Son, The Good Shepherd, The Lamb of God, and many others. After being betrayed by Typhon, Horus was crucified, buried for 3 days, and thus, resurrected.

The point Joseph is trying to make here is obvious: The Jesus character in the New Testament is purported to have done all these things. And indeed, the similarities between Horus and Jesus appear to be very striking.

Unfortunately, almost all of these parallels were completely made up by Peter Joseph.

Horus was not born on December 25. According to mythology, he was born on either the second or the fifth of the “epagomenal days,” depending on which version you read. [3] The ancient Egyptians divided their calendar into 12 months of 30 days each. The epagomenal days, which were added to compensate for the days of the astronomical year missing from the ancient Egyptian calendar, landed on August 24-28, not in December. His mother Isis was not a virgin; Horus was conceived from the sexual union of Isis with the corpse of her husband Osiris. [4] There are no references in the Horus mythology to a “star in the east” followed by three kings, and nothing about Horus being a child teacher or being baptized at age 30. There is also no evidence that Horus was ever referred to by the gestural titles commonly applied to the Jesus character. if we are very generous, the only example from pagan mythology that could possibly be construed as matching the motif of 12 disciples is found in a drawing from the Amduat, an ancient Egyptian funerary text, which depicts the Egyptian god Horus seated before twelve figures in the Seventh Hour of the Night. [5] But there is no mention in any known ancient mythology of Horus having 12 disciples. None of the known stories of Horus have him being betrayed by Typhon, and he was not crucified. [6] In short, Horus and Jesus have very little in common.

Joseph continues in the same vein throughout the remainder of Part I, dragging in lists of motifs and elements that are characteristic of most religions, such as resurrection from the dead, and asserting that mere thematic similarity is evidence of Christianity’s falsehood. It’s as if Joseph is under the faulty impression that rising from the dead is a feat that would not be ubiquitously desired by most religions past and present. Resurrection is a universal concept, one that has deeply fascinated people in virtually all world cultures throughout history. This is especially true of societies in ancient times that had little or no concept of medicine and the life sciences. It therefore comes as no surprise that it was very common and popular to believe, for example, that the sun created all life on earth or that the sun is a powerful deity because it provides daylight and sustains life. There is no good reason to suppose Christianity could not have developed similar conceptions independently. To insist otherwise, as Joseph does in his film, is to be ignorant of both history and mythology. Christianity had its own set of particular formative influences, one of these being Judaism, which in turn borrowed from earlier belief systems. Similarity does not in and of itself denote wholesale plagiarism from the earlier idea.

So Peter Joseph protests far too much in Zeitgeist. As we previously mentioned, the heretical Jewish sect known today as Christianity selected from a rich buffet of theological concepts and ideas within both Judaism and the Persian religions. Why would the proto-Christian believers have any need to turn to Egyptian mythology for inspiration? One need not study the history of Christianity very long before discovering its similarities with several other cultures in the surrounding regions. Most of the stories being told and retold over and over again did come out of Egypt, as Joseph suggests.

The sources Joseph cites in support of his thesis are highly questionable. One such source that he relies on particularly heavily is Kersey Grave’s seminal 1875 work The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. Anyone who is familiar with this book will recognize the strong allusions to its central themes in Zeitgeist[7] In his book, Graves made a large number of comparisons and alleged many precursory connections to the Christ story among other gods, Horus being only one. Much of what is discussed in Part I of Zeitgeist come from Grave’s work. The fact that this book is not sourced in the film may be owing to the general consensus among historians that the book is decidedly unscholarly and highly unreliable. The most heavily-cited sources listed for Part I of Zeitgeist are the works of mythicist and conspiracy theorist Dorothy M. Murdock (more popularly known by her pen name Acharya S) and the nineteenth-century self-styled Egyptologist Gerald Massey, upon whom Murdock heavily depends in her own writings. Much of what is contained in Part I of Zeitgeist is lifted directly from Acharya’s 1999 book The Christ Conspiracy[8] and nearly all sources for Part I ultimately lead back to Gerald Massey and other like-minded authors. Most of these cited authors are dismissed by most scholars as unreliable in their research methods.

In addition to Horus, Joseph sees parallels to Jesus in the gods Attis, Krishna, Dionysus and Mithra. Joseph believes these pagan gods form the inspirational and ideological basis of the Christ myth. Most of these earlier pagan deities, he says, were born of a virgin on December 25, were followed by 12 inner-circle disciples, and were crucified and resurrected, in some cases three days after their death. To quote directly from the film:

The fact of the matter is there are numerous saviors, from different periods, from all over the world, which subscribe to these general characteristics. The question remains: why these attributes, why the virgin birth on December 25th, why dead for three days and the inevitable resurrection, why 12 disciples or followers?

The answer is that none of these mythological figures Joseph mentions fit all these characteristics. None were dead for three days and then resurrected. None were born on December 25, with the exception of Mithra, who was not born of a virgin but instead was produced fully formed out of a rock. [9] None of the others listed had virgin births. In fact, the Hindu deity Krishna was the eighth son born to the princess Devaki. [10] Like the Horus-Jesus connection, the parallels claimed between Jesus and these gods range from dubious at best to factually incorrect at worst.


The Zodiac and the Bible

But Joseph has a different explanation for these made-up parallels which comes straight out of left field. He concludes that these common attributes exist because Jesus, like these other god-men, was conceived of as a solar deity. Using the same arguments used by Acharya S before him, Joseph suggests that Jesus is more accurately understood to be the Sun of God rather than the son. This, he argues, nicely turns out to be the origin of the cross, or crucifix, on which Jesus died according to medieval religious tradition. This cross was not a literal instrument of execution, says Joseph, but instead is symbolic of the solar formation known as the Southern Cross. In short, Joseph makes out the entire Christian story to be one elaborate astrological analogy:

This is the cross of the Zodiac, one of the oldest conceptual images in human history. It reflects the sun as it figuratively passes through the 12 major constellations over the course of a year. It also reflects the 12 months of the year, the four seasons, and the solstices and equinoxes. The term “Zodiac” relates to the fact that constellations were anthropomorphized, or personified, as figures, or animals.

In other words, the early civilizations did not just follow the sun and stars, they personified them with elaborate myths involving their movements and relationships. The sun, with its life-giving and -saving qualities was personified as a representative of the unseen creator or god. It was known as “God’s Sun,” the light of the world, the savior of human kind. Likewise, the 12 constellations represented places of travel for God’s Sun and were identified by names, usually representing elements of nature that happened during that period of time. For example, Aquarius, the water bearer, who brings the spring rains.

There are two misleading implication made here. One is that the Zodiac has always been connected to or associated with the constellations, and the other is that there have always been 12 constellations. However, the oldest known zodiacs did not have 12 signs. The Babylonian zodiac, for example, originally consisted of 18 signs, [11] and the Mayan zodiac had 20 signs. [12] And while it is true that the later Egyptian and Greek zodiacs are composed of 12 signs, these signs were not recognized by all civilizations as representative of cosmic truth. Moreover, there are actually 13 constellations through which the sun passes, not twelve. For whatever odd reason, modern astrologers have ignored the presence of the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder. [13]

Joseph’s attempt to interpret the entire Christian story as one sprawling astrological allegory is even more of a stretch. Tim Callahan, religion editor for Skeptic magazine, sets the record straight in his critical review of Zeitgeist:

As to the god who is born on December 25 — this was not Krishna, but Mithra in his solar aspect as Sol Invictus (Latin for “Unconquered Sun”). The reason Mithra/Sol Invictus was born on December 25 was that in the Roman calendar of that day, that was the Winter Solstice, the 24-hour period having the fewest number of daylight hours. From that date the days get longer and the nights get shorter until the Summer Solstice. Owing to imperfections in the Roman or Julian calendar, the solstice gradually shifted to December 21, until corrections were made resulting in our present Gregorian calendar. Christianity seems to have deliberately co-opted the birthday of Mithra as a way of occupying a rival’s holiday, rather than this being the result of Jesus being a solar savior. [14]

So much for the claimed similarities in birth stories of the saviors. The alleged crucifixion of the pagan god-men is also spurious. Each one of the dying-and-rising gods mentioned by Joseph (with the possible exception of Horus) experienced excruciating deaths in the stories told about them, but none were said to have been crucified. Jesus Christ appears to be the only one who was given that distinction. Much has been made of the Orpheos Bakkikos icon, a hematite seal dating from the early Christian era which depicts Dionysus being crucified. But this seal is not, as Murdock has claimed, a pre-Christian artifact. [15] It is at least post-Christian, if not an outright early-modern forgery. [16] In any case, it is more likely an example of pagan syncretism of Christianity’s themes rather than the other way around. Syncretism was a two-way street; the Christ myth picked up and incorporated pagan material, and pagans borrowed Christian material once the latter became a viable state religion in the fourth century CE. The fallacy committed by Acharya S and Peter Joseph is to assume that all instances of parallelism or syncretism proceed in one direction only, and that the pagan traditions always had the original idea.

Here is how Joseph applies his elaborate astrological theory to the nativity of Jesus’ life:

First of all, the birth sequence is completely astrological. The star in the east is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, which, on December 24th, aligns with the 3 brightest stars in Orion’s Belt. These 3 bright stars are called today what they were called in ancient times: The Three Kings. The Three Kings and the brightest star, Sirius, all point to the place of the sunrise on December 25th. This is why the Three Kings “follow” the star in the east, in order to locate the sunrise — the birth of the sun.

Joseph’s astrological symbolism goes even deeper. As the days leading up to the winter solstice shorten, the sun eventually reaches its lowest point in the sky. Joseph sees this as representing the death of the sun. Then, right before the winter solstice comes,

Here a curious thing occurs: the Sun stops moving south, at least perceivably, for three days. During this three-day pause, the Sun resides in the vicinity of the Southern Cross, or Crux, constellation. And after this time on December 25th, the Sun moves 1 degree, this time north, foreshadowing longer days, warmth, and spring. And thus it was said: the Sun died on the cross, was dead for three days, only to be resurrected or born again.

There are several inaccuracies here, some astronomical and some historical. First, Sirius does not actually line up with Orion’s belt, and the sun has never resided within the vicinity of the Southern Cross. In fact, the Southern Cross is only visible in the southern hemisphere. [17] It cannot be seen in the skies above Bethlehem, which is located in the northern hemisphere. Second, Winter Solstice actually occurs on December 21 or 22, not December 25. [18] At this time, the sun does not become stationary in the sky. The axial tilt of the Earth on its axis is primarily responsible for the seasons. The distance of the Earth from the sun has very little effect on the change of seasons. [19] Joseph chooses his phrasing carefully here, saying that the sun perceivably stops moving in the sky before moving north again. This is a subtle yet prime example of Joseph stretching the facts to fit his preconceived narrative.

Contrary to both popular belief and the assertions of Zeitgeist, the “Three Kings” motif comes from extrabiblical religious tradition and is actually nowhere found in the biblical story of Jesus’ nativity. Many people are also unaware that there are in fact two distinct nativity stories in the New Testament. The Nativity as represented by modern-day Christmas pageants and storybooks are a combination of the stories found in Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. But when the stories of Matthew and Luke are read separately, we find that they disagree in every detail. In Matthew’s nativity story there is no Roman census, no trek of Jesus’ parents from Galilee to Bethlehem, and no birth in a stable. In Luke, there is no story of wise men from the east coming to pay tribute to Jesus.

Even in Matthew’s narrative, in which the oriental travelers appear, there is no mention of “three kings,” or even that the men were three in number. Matthew 2:1-2 states only that “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” [20]

There has been much speculation and debate over the centuries as to the nature of the magi’s “star.” One explanation that has been proposed is that the “star” was a triple alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in the Pisces constellation, a conjunction that occurred in 7 BCE. Another theory, proposed by Johannes Kepler in 1603, interprets Matthew’s star as an alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. But none of the proposed conjunctions of planets has been made to fit the available astronomical data. Other writers have suggested that the star was a comet or a supernova. [21] But these theories have failed on the grounds that no supernova or other significant astronomical phenomena was reported by any of the meticulous observers and recorders of the skies who lived at that time. [22]

The Star of Bethlehem is rooted in allegory rather than in any natural historical event. However, as we shall see, it is not the allegory Zeitgeist insists that it is. In ancient times, the idea of a rising star was often associated with the birth of a king or other noble personage. In Matthew’s Gospel account, the magi are said to have come from the East. They were probably Parthians, since the Parthian Empire was the only territory east of Israel other than the Arabian Desert.

Matthew’s Nativity account is thus a political myth: Wise men from a foreign Empire are coming to Israel to hail the infant Jesus as a king. At this time, tensions existed between the Romans and the Parthians. A Roman civil war had erupted in Macedonia in 42 BCE, fought between the forces of Brutus and Cassius Longinus on one side and the forces of the Second Triumvirate on the other. The war was initiated by Antony and Octavian, high-ranking members of the triumvirate, to avenge the Liberatores’ murder of Julius Caesar. In the aftermath of this conflict, the Parthians took advantage of the political instability in the region. They invaded the Roman Empire and established Antigonus II Mattathias, the last of the Hasmonean kings, on the Judean throne. But in 37 BCE, the Romans, led by Herod the Great, drove the Parthians out of Israel and executed Antigonus. The threat of another Parthian incursion into Judea is inherent in the act of Parthians arriving in Herod’s kingdom to recognize and pay homage to a future king. Callahan notes that this “may have been a source for Matthew’s magi in the first place.” [23] In short, the story of the magi following the star to Bethlehem is a political allegory, not an astrological one.

The only reason church tradition and popular imagination has conceived of these Parthian magi as being three in number is because they presented three gifts to Jesus in Matthew’s account. As Callahan explains, the gifts themselves also have political significance:

The gifts of the wise men – gold, frankincense and myrrh – recall the homage paid to Solomon by the queen of Sheba, since Sheba lay at the southern end of the Incense Route and was a source of both frankincense and myrrh. Naturally gifts worthy of Solomon are given to Jesus as part of the Matthean attempt to identify him with the Davidic line. The fact that there are three specific gifts is probably the reason for the popular fiction that there were three wise men. Actually, Matthew nowhere states their number. [24]

So there are no “Three Kings,” either in the night sky or in ancient writings. These personages were not “kings” in the first place, and there were not three of them. In Zeitgeist, Peter Joseph has ironically accepted all this extrabiblical elaboration of church tradition at face value in order to build his case that the Gospels draw upon astrology to weave an elaborate fabrication in order to sell the Christ character to the Church’s followers.

Indeed, Joseph appears not to have even consulted the Bible he criticizes in his film. Instead, his modus operandi throughout this first section is to bring together a number of scattered and unrelated ideas and then try to connect the dots to form patterns where none exist. Consider, for example, his allegation that the reason Jesus was said to have 12 disciples is because there are 12 signs of the Zodiac:

Now, probably the most obvious of all the astrological symbolism around Jesus regards the 12 disciples. They are simply the 12 constellations of the Zodiac, which Jesus, being the Sun, travels about with.

There is no evidence that the number 12 as applied to the disciples of Jesus had any zodiacal significance. More likely the number was chosen to parallel the 12 tribes of Israel, not the Zodiac signs. And it is doubtful that the tribes of Israel themselves had any zodiacal reference attached to them. The evidence suggests instead that the 12 tribes were based on the 12 months of the year, since the ancient Israelites established a 12-tribe confederacy in which each tribe maintained the priestly sanctuary for one month of the year. [25] The fact that Simeon may not have even been a tribe makes the alleged connection between the tribes and the Zodiac even more tenuous. Simeon was probably a small and insignificant rural region of Judah that was afforded tribal status in order to provide support for the sanctuary.

As for Joseph’s implication that the crucifix on which Jesus died represents the Southern Cross constellation, this is shown to be highly questionable when we consider that the crucifixion stake used by the Romans in the first century was probably T-shaped. But more importantly, the history of the crucifix has very little to do with the Zodiac. Christians adopted it as the symbol of their religion because the man they revere as their savior is traditionally believed to have died on a Roman cross. If Jesus had been beaten to death with a club, one could imagine that the Christians to this day would have adopted the iconography of a club to symbolize their faith. Peter Joseph has simply taken the easy path of making false connections in order to prove something that conforms to and serves his agendas. Continuing on with its attempt to force a Zodiacal interpretation on every aspect of Christian iconography, Zeitgeist has this to say:

Coming back to the cross of the Zodiac, the figurative life of the Sun, this was not just an artistic expression or tool to track the Sun’s movements. It was also a Pagan spiritual symbol . . . This [the familiar cross with vertices within a circle] is not a symbol of Christianity. It is a Pagan adaptation of the cross of the Zodiac. This is why Jesus in early occult art is always shown with his head on the cross, for Jesus is the Sun, the Sun of God, the Light of the World, the Risen Savior, who will “come again,” as it does every morning, the Glory of God who defends against the works of darkness, as he is “born again” every morning, and can be seen “coming in the clouds”, “up in Heaven”, with his “Crown of Thorns,” or, sun rays.

Joseph makes a bold and explicit statement here: “Jesus in early occult art is always shown with his head on the cross.” This is simply not the case. Many early occult depictions of Jesus showed his head on a halo, not a cross. In fact, between the third and sixth centuries CE, halos were commonly featured in the representations of deities and other holy people. Many such religiously-venerated figures, who shared similar character details, can be seen in ancient art that have no connection to the sun whatsoever. [26]

Joseph has not even demonstrated conclusively that the cross of crucifixion, or any other cultural symbol pre-dating Christianity, is represented by the Zodiac in any meaningful or significant way. The evidence from anthropology actually indicates otherwise. The cross is one of the oldest known symbols, dating from as early as the Neolithic era, and was used by every known culture since that era for a variety of reasons. [27] The particular capacity in which the cross was used by any given culture in the past depended largely upon what the local population believed the cross to symbolize or represent. The cross-shaped sign in its earliest known form was represented as a crossing of two lines at right angles, in many cases forming an X that would be used to mark burial sites. The ankh, or ansated cross, is another cross that challenges Joseph’s portrayal of the symbol as one that always conformed to interpretations of the Zodiac throughout history. This ancient Egyptian cross form, featuring a loop that circles on the top, symbolized eternal life and fertility and often appeared as a sign in the hands of the goddess Sekhmet.

Joseph’s superficial Sunday-school understanding of the biblical texts is also apparent in the way he misquotes and misrepresents portions of the King James Bible, the version on which he relies and which itself is already full of mistranslations and copying errors[28] Consider, for instance, what Joseph says about the Passover:

At Luke 22:10, when Jesus is asked by his disciples where the next Passover will be after he is gone, Jesus replied: “Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you bearing a pitcher of water . . . follow him into the house where he entereth in.” This scripture is by far one of the most revealing of all the astrological references. The man bearing a pitcher of water is Aquarius, the water-bearer, who is always pictured as a man pouring out a pitcher of water. He represents the age after Pisces, and when the Sun (God’s Sun) leaves the Age of Pisces (Jesus), it will go into the House of Aquarius, as Aquarius follows Pisces in the precession of the equinoxes. Also, Jesus is saying that after the Age of Pisces will come the Age of Aquarius.

While the reply from Jesus in Luke 22:10 is quoted correctly here, [29] the question asked by the disciples is not. When we look at the actual context in which the disciples asked their question, we find that Joseph has misused this verse to promote a misleading claim. We find this context in Luke 22:7-9: “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.’ They said to him, ‘Where will you have us prepare it?’” [30]

The disciples in this passage are not asking where the Passover will be held at a future time following Jesus’ departure, but rather where they should be preparing and partaking of the Passover that very evening. Even if Joseph represented the context correctly, the symbolism put forth by the film is inaccurate as well. Joseph describes Aquarius as “always pictured as a man pouring out a pitcher of water.” In the Luke passage, however, the man the disciples meet is not pouring out a pitcher of water, but rather carrying a pitcher of water. If this does happen to be a symbolic reference, it is not the one Joseph’s film claims it to be.

The film’s misrepresentation of the Bible continues in its use of other passages on which it bases its argument. Joseph claims, for example, that Matthew 28 is one of the primary sources for Christian understandings of end-times doctrines:

Now, we have all heard about the end times and the end of the world. Apart from the cartoonish depictions in the Book of Revelation, the main source of this idea comes from Matthew 28:20, where Jesus says “I will be with you even to the end of the world.” However, in King James Version, “world” is a mistranslation, among many mistranslations. The actual word being used is “aeon,” which means “age.” “I will be with you even to the end of the age.” Which is true, as Jesus’ Solar Piscean personification will end when the Sun enters the Age of Aquarius. The entire concept of end times and the end of the world is a misinterpreted astrological allegory. Let’s tell that to the approximately 100 million people in America who believe the end of the world is coming.

Dismissing the Book of Revelation by saying it contains “cartoonish depictions” is ironic, considering that Revelation contains the majority of the end-times predictions in Christianity’s theological system. Either Joseph has not fully read the Bible or he is utilizing very selective tactics in order to draw a parallel between the Zodiac and the Bible, a parallel to which Revelation does not readily conform, hence Joseph’s dismissal of its significance. Matthew 28 is hardly the “main source” for Christian eschatology. Passages in Matthew 24[31] the second chapter of Second Thessalonians[32] the Book of Daniel[33] and of course Revelation [34] are far better and more in-depth sources. But it is clear that the misrepresentation and selective reasoning present in Zeitgeist is required in order to prop up a case that the Bible is an astrological document. The King James Bible contains a total of 31,173 verses. [35] If the Bible is an astrological document, one would expect to find much more than a few verses indicating astrological connections between Jesus, Passover, the Zodiac, the various dispensations, and so forth.

Ironically, Joseph’s film correctly states that the King James Version of the Bible contains mistranslations (citing the use of the word “world” in Matthew 28 which Joseph says should have been translated as “aeon”), yet Joseph relies on the King James Version to support his claims. In this way he is like the conspiracy theorist we mentioned in the introduction, who insists that the mainstream media is deceptive or untrustworthy while at the same time collecting video clips from mainstream news broadcasts to use as “evidence” for his tinfoil-hat theories. As such, Peter Joseph appears more interested in levying a general attack on the reliability of the King James translation so that he can then spin the passages he has cherry-picked however he chooses. While it is true that “world” in this case actually is a mistranslation of what should be aion, the mistranslated Greek word in question is “αιων,” [36] which means “eternity” rather than “age.” The Greek word for “age” is “παλαιώνω” (palaiono). [37] Thus, despite the mistranslation, the general idea remains correctly conveyed: “even to the end of the world” versus “even to the end of eternity.”


Was Christianity a Political Conspiracy?

To be as fair as possible and give credit where it’s due, Part I of Zeitgeist does get a few points right. The film is correct in stating that the New Testament Gospels are mostly fiction, and there is no question that some elements and concepts in Christianity were indeed inspired by earlier influential mythologies. Some pagan material did make its way into the Christ myth, and this was even acknowledged by early Christian church fathers in their writings. This is borne out by the following quote from the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100-165 CE):

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. [38]

Justin Martyr proceeds to describe a number of pagan heroes who have parallels to Jesus, including Mercury, Asclepius, Bacchus (or Dionysus), and Hercules. But while it’s true that mythology permeates the Gospels, the problem is that Peter Joseph has applied the wrong mythology to his assessment of Christianity. The religion wasn’t constructed wholecloth from a single source, nor can it be reduced to an amalgamation of hijacked astrological symbolism. Nor is there any historical evidence to suggest that the architects of Christianity were consciously orchestrating a vast and organized conspiracy to politically control the lives of people. This latter argument is presented in the conclusion to Part I, where Joseph says,

The reality is, Jesus was the Solar Deity of the Gnostic Christian sect, and like all other Pagan gods, he was a mythical figure. It was the political establishment that sought to historize the Jesus figure for social control. By 325 A.D. in Rome, Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. It was during this meeting that the politically motivated Christian Doctrines were established and thus began a long history of Christian bloodshed and spiritual fraud.

There is no doubt that some aspects of the Christianizing of the Roman Empire were indeed calculated for political gain. But this does not mean that the conversion of Constantine I to Christianity was not genuine. Moreover, Constantine did not make Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire. He was primarily responsible for ending the state-sanctioned persecution of Christians when he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, which legalized Christianity but did not make it the official religion. [39] That would happen several decades later with the issuance in 380 of the Edict of Thessalonica by Constantine’s successor, the Emperor Theodosius I. [40]

The purpose of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 was to consolidate a number of different Christian beliefs together into a more cohesive system. The reason consolidation and unification of various Christian beliefs was deemed necessary by the early church fathers was because the situation was much more complex and diverse than Peter Joseph’s gross oversimplification would suggest. Gnosticism was not the only form of Christianity that existed prior to the Council of Nicaea, as Joseph implies. There was a wide variety of differing view about Jesus floating around the Empire, all vying for attention and legitimization. For example, there were the adoptionists who believed Jesus was only human and was “adopted” as the Son of God at his baptism. [41] On the other end of this spectrum were the Marcionites, who believed that Jesus was a spiritual entity and not human at all. [42] In between were the proto-orthodox Christians who believed something similar to what ended up being formalized in the Nicene Creed and which modern Christians believe about Christ, that he was simultaneously human and divine. And of course there was a host of Christian mystery cults, including Gnosticism.

Rather than establish anything new, the Council of Nicaea merely chose certain doctrines pertaining to the question of Jesus’ divinity that had already been taught by various Christian churches and made those old doctrines the official position of Christendom as a whole. It was not, as Joseph seems to believe, a shadowy affair where plots were hatched in secret to politically control the Empire.

Summary and Conclusion

The ideas presented in the first chapter of Zeitgeist concerning the origins of religion, particularly the connections between Christianity and Egyptian mythology, came into their own in the late nineteenth century. This was a time when radical scholars and pseudo-historians played fast and loose with methods that were only just beginning to be used by researchers in the fledgling field of biblical criticism. At the time Zeitgeist appeared on the Internet, the arguments of the old radical scholars were beginning to trickle back into popular culture. For example, popular social critic and political commentator Bill Maher has adopted some of the arguments used by Joseph and Acharya S. For example, many of the connections drawn by Joseph between Jesus and Horus in Zeitgeist were also drawn by Maher in his 2008 documentary film Religulous. The erroneous mythic parallels to Jesus also crop up in Brian Flemming’s otherwise admirable 2005 documentary The God Who Wasn’t There. These factually-dubious themes appear to be the only aspect of these films for which Maher and Flemming did not investigate claims as closely as they should have. This demonstrates the need for even skeptics of the supernatural to be careful of the sources on which we base our arguments and criticism. Overall, Religulous and The God Who Wasn’t There contain hard-hitting social commentary and accurate criticism, with a small amount of fiction mixed in. The opposite is the case for Zeitgeist; some few points are correct, but the overwhelming majority of its claims are either blatantly inaccurate or highly tenuous.

Debunking Christianity as a credible belief system is not difficult, and fabricating damning evidence against its historicity is completely unnecessary to the task. Building a sloppy case to the effect that Christianity was wholly plagiarized from earlier pagan religion and mythology is not only a waste of time that could have been spent doing legitimate research, but it also gives honest and reputable skeptics of Christianity and the Bible a bad name. Films like Zeitgeist have the unfortunate effect of giving Christian apologists an excuse to paint all critics of biblical faith as poor researchers whose prejudice trumps any solidly-grounded critique they present. Nobody’s academic reputation is served well by drawing nonexistent parallels and connecting imaginary dots between religions and then compounding the error by suggesting that such parallels necessarily indicate that the later religion must have stolen from the earlier one.

It is not to be denied that Christianity borrowed and co-opted several theological concepts from various Roman religions. One good example that can be cited is the origin of Christmas, which was not celebrated for the first few centuries after the Christian church was formed. But then some church leaders took interest in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, in which worshippers of Mithra celebrated their god’s birth around the time of the Winter Solstice. Being the good missionaries that they were, Christians appropriated that festival, keeping the aspects of gift-giving and general merrymaking, but changing it to be about the birth of Christ instead of Mithra. However, Peter Joseph and his muse Acharya S have greatly exaggerated the extent to which Christianity stole elements from earlier faiths. And even if Christianity did steal as many concepts as Zeitgeist would have us believe, it is fallacious to conclude that a religion whose tenets feature concepts such as recurring life and death must have been taken from an earlier religion simply because the latter also featured the same concepts.

To build a special case for Christianity being a fraud consciously perpetrated upon the masses, based solely on the existence of similarities in past religions, is illogical. But what makes Zeitgeist one of the most dishonest documentaries ever produced is the manner in which it presents its arguments, over and above the actual content itself. As we have seen, the film makes direct claims to the effect that Christianity stole its central tenets and storylines from the ancient Egyptians. Yes, Christianity was influenced to some small degree by Egyptian religion, but there are far more inconsistencies than there are similarities. And the similarities exist only to the extent that the ideas and concepts incorporated by Christianity were ubiquitous throughout Mesopotamia and surrounding regions.

Moreover, when religious scholars and anthropologists encounter concepts or philosophies in one religion that are more or less exactly the same as or at least similar to those found in two or more pre-dating cultures, tracing the source of influence is often a matter of asking which culture or civilization was closer to the centers in which the newer religion first developed and flourished. In the case of Christianity, it was the Babylonians who were geographically closer and who therefore had a much more direct influence on Christianity’s development. If Christianity borrowed elements from any earlier culture or religious system, it was the Babylonians, from whom the concepts of monotheism, the dualism of good and evil, angels and demons, a worldwide flood, and others were borrowed. It should come as no surprise that similar worldviews would be fostered and developed by a culture that shared the same social and political problems and challenges as its surrounding cultures. If a people are striving to create a conceptual model of their world that makes sense of their day-to-day experience, they may find the ideas of other cultures very satisfying and thus incorporate these ideas into their own belief system. It is not anomalous for a culture to independently develop ideas and concepts that flourish in other cultures, for example to conceive of supernatural reasons for why the sun shines. There is certainly no need to posit the existence of a vast conspiracy to control gullible masses. Joseph, along with his muse Acharya S, has conducted his “research” bearing the unwarranted assumption that nothing truly original can be created within new religions or belief systems. But not all true ideas are necessarily original, and not all original ideas are inherently more valuable or informative than their derivatives.

I should mention at this point that my criticism of Peter Joseph’s anti-religious claims by no means constitutes an apology for the Christian faith. Christianity remains a very flawed religion regardless of whether Joseph’s claims are true or not. My aim here is simply to distinguish truth from falsehood. I have shown that the essential arguments presented in the first part of Zeitgeist are factually wrong. But I have no personal stake in this matter. If the various disparate claims contained in Zeitgeist are proven to be true by some startling and revolutionary archaeological discovery, my immediate response would be to update the present critique.

This contrasts sharply with the strawman skeptic conjured up in the imaginations of conspiracy theory enthusiasts, who seem to be labor under the false impression that skeptics who take the time and effort to debunk conspiracy theories are doing so because they have something to gain personally from the exercise. Some of the most common accusations levied against those of us who are skeptical of conspiracy theories, such as those promoted by Joseph and Acharya, include the charge that we are “closet Christians,” government agents, and/or the beneficiary of some powerful corporation’s payroll. When cornered in debate, accusations of this ilk are often the conspiracy theorists’ only recourse.



NOTES

[1] George Hart, The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).

[2] E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion (1899; reprint, Barnes & Noble Books, 1995).

[3] Anthony Spalinger, “Some Remarks on the Epagomenal Days in Ancient Egypt,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 54, no. 1 (January 1995): 33-47.

[4] E.A. Wallis Budge, Legends of the Gods: The Egyptian Texts, Edited with Translations (London: Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner & Co. Ltd., 1912); Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[5] This image, as rendered by A.G. Shedid, is printed in Erik Hornung, The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife, trans. David Lorton (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 48.

[6] Plutarch, “Isis and Osiris,” in Moralia Vol. V (Loeb Classical Library no. 306), trans. Frank Cole Babbitt (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1936). The full text of this work is freely available online at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/Isis_and_Osiris*/home.html (accessed September 10, 2016).

[7] Kersey Graves, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors: Christianity Before Christ (1875; reprint, Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2001).

[8] Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999). Note that Peter Joseph has taken inspiration from Acharya’s subtitle for the title of the first section of his film, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

[9] John R. Hinnells, ed., Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, 2 Vols. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975).

[10] W. Crooke, “The Legends of Krishna,” Folklore 11, no. 1 (March 1900): 1-38.

[11] Derek and Julia Parker, The New Compleat Astrologer (New York: Crescent Books, 1990), p. 194.

[12] Barbara Tedlock, Time and the Highland Maya (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).

[13] Ian Ridpath and Wil Tirion, Stars and Planets: The Most Complete Guide to the Stars, Planets, Galaxies, and the Solar System (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 194-96.

[14] Tim Callahan, “The Greatest Story Ever Garbled: A Critique of ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ – Part I of the Internet Film Zeitgeist,” Skeptic 15, no. 1 (March 2009): 61-67. Available online at http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/09-02-25/#feature (accessed May 3, 2015).

[15] D.M. Murdock, A Pre-Christian ‘God’ on a Cross? The Orpheos Bakkikos Gem Reexamined (Seattle, WA: Stellar House Publishing, 2013).

[16] Jeffrey Spier, Late Antique and Early Christian Gems (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2007), p. 178.

[17] “Crux, Musca, Carina,” The Deep Photographic Guide to the Constellations, http://www.allthesky.com/constellations/crux/ (accessed May 7, 2015).

[18] B.A. Robinson, “Dates and Times of the Winter Solstice,” ReligiousTolerance.org, December 3, 1999, http://www.religioustolerance.org/winter_solstice2.htm (accessed September 10, 2016).

[19] Phil Plait, “What Causes the Seasons?” Bad Astronomy, January 21, 1998, http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/seasons.html (accessed September 10, 2016).

[20] Matthew 2:1-2 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/matthew/2.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[21] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1979), pp. 171-72.

[22] Tim Callahan, Secret Origins of the Bible (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 2002), p. 379.

[23] Ibid, p. 382.

[24] Ibid, p. 381.

[25] Ibid, p. 103.

[26] For some good examples, see “Artists by Nationality: Greek Artists,” Artcyclopedia: The Ultimate Guide to Great Art Online, http://www.artcyclopedia.com/nationalities/Greek.html (accessed May 3, 2015).

[27] Rudolf Koch, The Book of Signs, trans. Dybyan Holland (1930; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1955), pp. 14-29.

[28] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p. 209; DPR Jones, “A Brief History of the King James Bible” (video), YouTube, March 3, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFDwK5ko7sI (accessed May 10, 2015).

[29] Luke 22:10, with parallel translations, http://biblehub.com/luke/22-10.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[30] Luke 22:7-9 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/luke/22.htm (accessed May 9, 2015).

[31] Matthew 24 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/matthew/24.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[32] 2 Thessalonians 2 (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/2_thessalonians/2.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[33] Daniel 1 ff. (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/daniel/1.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[34] Revelation 1 ff. (English Standard Version), http://biblehub.com/esv/revelation/1.htm (accessed May 10, 2015).

[35] Stephen M. Miller and Robert V. Huber, The Bible: A History – The Making and Impact of the Bible (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2004), p. 239.

[36] Mat. 28:20 (King James Version), Blue Letter Bible, http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Mat&c=28&v=20&i=conc#s=957020 (accessed May 10, 2015).

[37] The reader can confirm this for herself by consulting Kypros-Net’s Greek-English/English-Greek dictionary at http://www.kypros.org/cgi-bin/lexicon (accessed May 10, 2015).

[38] Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 21. Translated by Leslie William Barnard in Ancient Christian Writers vol. 56 (New York: Paulist Press, 1997).

[39] W.H.C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1982).

[40] N.Q. King, The Emperor Theodosius and the Establishment of Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).

[41] See Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), chapter 2.

[42] F. Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity: Studies in Religious History from 330 B.C. to 330 A.D., Vol I (Cambridge: University Press, 1915).

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Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Introduction)

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: ‘What are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out?’ Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only – and solely – at what are the facts.
~ Bertrand Russell, 1959 [1]



Zeitgeist
is an Internet film sensation that rocked the ostensibly “freethinking” online community upon its release on Google Video in the spring of 2007. Taking the German word for “spirit of the age” as its title, the film has since become a cult phenomenon. Scores of people have credited Zeitgeist with “opening their mind” and profoundly altering their way of looking at and thinking about the world. But while Zeitgeist serves as a useful primer on several fringe ideas circulating in the areas of religion and politics, I want to argue in this paper that people should be wary of accepting its claims as gospel. The majority of claims made in the film are highly questionable at best and factually incorrect, even dishonestly so, at worst. The same standards of critical thinking and skepticism the filmmaker purports to promote and utilize in analyzing religious claims and political states of affairs are not applied to many of the historical, political, and socioeconomic claims employed to support his analyses.

Zeitgeist is the film that first introduced me to the world of conspiracy theories when I watched it upon its release. I have been fascinated ever since by conspiracy theories, not as a believer but as a skeptic interested in understanding how the anxieties and concerns of a society are channeled into the myths we create for ourselves. As a result of my interest, I have followed the work of figures such as Alex Jones, whose documentary films and radio broadcasts have made him a household name in the conspiracy-theory community. But it is often disappointing to note the paucity of information and commentary from the opposing side of the discussion, that is, from informed researchers who are skeptical of the claims made by conspiracy theorists. There are a few notable resources that come highly recommended by me. One is the online Skeptic Project (formerly known as Conspiracy Science). [2] Created by Edward L. Winston, the Skeptic Project began as a response to the relative scarcity of commentary being made to counter the proliferation of paranoid conspiracy theories on the Internet. The website is devoted to critiquing and debunking conspiracy theories of all kinds. Winston has also expanded the site’s content; in addition to shedding light on what are typically categorized as conspiracy theories, the Skeptic Project also contains sections debunking common misconceptions, myths, and urban legends.

The skeptic’s first and most important task in discerning truth from falsehood in relation to conspiracy theories is to seek out the source of a conspiracy theory. This process involves finding out what individual or group conceived of the theory, what agenda they may have, and the original evidence (if any) on which they drew. When this is done, the skeptic then stands in an informed position to figure out exactly what is wrong with the conspiracy theory or popular myth and why different groups feel motivated to add different elements to the same story. This methodology does not yield results for every single claim out there, but it does work for the vast majority of them. As an example, consider the “North American Union” conspiracy theory, an idea discussed in Part III of Zeitgeist. Where did the idea of a North American Union originate? This strictly hypothetical and speculative concept originated in a book written by Robert A. Pastor in 2001, entitled Toward a North American Community[3] Prior to the release of this book, there was never any mention by anyone of a North American Union, nor of the Amero currency that Pastor proposes in the book. A few years later, Alex Jones received word of Pastor’s idea and immediately declared the emergence of a North American Union to be literal truth, wholly disregarding the fact that the NAU was never anything more than a speculative suggestion, and one which Pastor himself did not even support.

Conspiracy theorists typically approach every piece of information they stumble across in this unreflective and schizophrenic manner. They will read a blog post or an op-ed piece from a news source that fires up their imagination, and then proceed to declare what they have come across to be fact, a sure indication that something significant and world-changing will definitely transpire. The internal contradiction that plagues the “conspiracy-around-every-corner” mindset can be seen in this tendency. Conspiracy theorists constantly tell us that we cannot trust mainstream news sources, but then attempt to back up their claims with clips from mainstream news media sources. They trust the mainstream news when it appears to validate their fears and distrust the mainstream news when it shows information contradicting their claims. When one looks at the source of conspiratorial claims, he or she may also discover exactly why the conspiracy theorists making the claims harbor their various agendas. It is usually the case that uninformed people who spread unfounded conspiracy theories on social networking sites have good intentions in mind; they want to notify people of what they have been led to believe is really transpiring. But those who initially start spreading conspiracy theories and claims usually have in mind monetary interests, political gain, or simply a desire for fame as they use their imaginations to invent myths.

Before delving with a critical eye into the content of Zeitgeist, background information on the Zeitgeist Movement is in order. The Zeitgeist Movement is a group founded by Peter Joseph, the creator of the film. Joseph envisioned and created the group as a venue through which the ideas advocated in the second and third Zeitgeist films can be actively expressed. [4] TZM is Peter Joseph’s way of not only promoting his movies, but also of endorsing the concepts behind an unrelated venture called the Venus Project, a movement founded by social engineer and futurist Jacque Fresco which seeks to bring to fruition a Technocratic resource-based economic utopia. [5] One of the stated purposes of the Zeitgeist Movement is to construct a plan to aid the Venus Project in establishing their agenda. However, like TZM, the Venus Project has not to date outlined any goals of a specific nature and has not accomplished anything concrete[6]

Zeitgeist is composed of three parts. Part I, entitled “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” discusses the origins of Christianity, asserting that the major tenets of Christian beliefs were taken whole-cloth from pre-existing myths. Part II, entitled “All the World’s a Stage,” discusses the “truth” behind 9/11, arguing that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were an inside U.S. Government. Part III, entitled “Don’t Mind the Men behind the Curtain,” argues that the federal government and the banking systems are conspiring for power and wealth consolidation. The main body of my critique is thus written in three parts, covering each section of the film in its turn.

Zeitgeist


[1] Bertrand Russell interview on BBC’s Face to Face, 1959. Video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bZv3pSaLtY (accessed September 5, 2016).

[2] Skeptic Project: “Your #1 COINTELPRO cognitive infiltration source.” http://skepticproject.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[3] Robert A. Pastor, Toward a North American Community: Lessons from the Old World to the New (Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute, 2001).

[4] http://TheZeitgeistMovement.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[5] http://www.TheVenusProject.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[6] For more in-depth information concerning the Zeitgeist Movement, see Edward L. Winston’s helpful analysis at http://www.conspiracyscience.com/articles/the-zeitgeist-movement/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

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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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