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Facebook, stop using my posts to promote pseudoscience!

While I tend to agree with those who say that the proliferation of fake news and harmful pseudoscience on social media sites like Facebook is a symptom of bigger problems, such as lack of critical thinking skills among readers and knee-jerk tribalism, the platform itself isn’t helping things.  While Facebook has acknowledged some responsibility and has reportedly made changes to improve the situation, I’m not sure enough is being done.

Below is a screenshot of one of our posts linking to an article that intends to address various cancer related myths, and which Facebook has decided to pair with three stories pushing dangerous cancer related myths.  Have a look.

While this may be inadvertent, it should nevertheless be unacceptable.  The problem here isn’t simply the fact that misinformation is making its way onto Facebook.  I happen to be of the mind that people should be free to use social media sites to say whatever they please.  That, of course, means that dangerous rumors and outright lies are going to make the rounds, but I feel more progress can be made by confronting these things and having discussions rather than banning such material outright.  No doubt there are lines to be drawn and I am not advocating some sort of safe haven for fake news or medical quackery, but that is a bit beyond the scope of this post.

The idea that conversation is the best path to combat pseudoscience and propaganda on social media is, admittedly, idealistic.  The average comment exchange on Facebook is probably anything but productive.  But one of the biggest hurtles skeptic and science communicators face is that Facebook is not a level playing field.  The screenshot above is a perfect example of why.

Anytime a skeptical or science page attempts to get solid, comprehensive information out there, chances are Facebook is using the opportunity to spread rumors and harmful pseudoscience right along with it.  Facebook users run the gamut from savvy to novice, and so it isn’t unreasonable to think some people may see the links paired with our post and assume that we are somehow endorsing them.  People can get the idea that the myths we are debunking  is that cancer is a legitimate disease, chemotherapy is helpful, and that doctors want to help.  This works to defeat the purpose of posting such links to in the first place.

With our article Facebook has decided to include three dangerous and well debunked claims.  The first is that cancer cannot survive in an alkaline environment.  The idea here is that if we change our diet to include alkaline foods we can change our blood pH to be more alkaline and thus kill cancer cells.  This information has been addressed by a number of sources including this article from Quackwatch.  In short, blood pH is tightly regulated by our bodies, so no matter how many alkaline foods you eat your blood pH will stay within a narrow range.  Further, regular healthy cells cannot function in an highly alkaline environment either, so even if you did manage to change your blood pH you would be harming more than just the cancer.  The goal should be to eat a balanced and varied diet.  The idea that by eating certain foods we can bring about significant and lasting changes in blood pH is as absurd as the idea that eating cold foods will result in significant and lasting changes in body temperature.  Both are kept in a narrow range by the body and if they aren’t, you’ll need to seek actual medical attention, not simply eat a plate of broccoli.

The next claim is that a combination of lemon juice and baking soda produces effects ten thousand times stronger than chemotherapy.  The article itself talks almost exclusively about lemons, with the baking soda seeming to be an afterthought to “normalize the pH of the body.”  A quick search of snopes finds debunking for this one.

The best that can be said at this point is that citrus fruits may potentially harbor anti-cancer properties that could help ward off cancer. No reputable scientific or medical studies have reported that lemons have definitively been found to be a “proven remedy against cancers of all types,” nor has any of the (conveniently unnamed) “world’s largest drug manufacturers” reported discovering that lemons are “10,000 times stronger than chemotherapy” and that their ingestion can “destroy malignant [cancer] cells.”

In addition to the information from snopes, the idea also fails on several basic levels.  First, if chemicals in lemons were found to have reliable anti-cancer properties these chemicals would be isolated and given to patients as part of, you guessed it, chemotherapy.   Chemotherapy is nothing more than a collection of chemicals which have been demonstrated to have an effect on cancer.  By demonizing chemotherapy the authors are bashing the very thing they are promoting, but lack the proper understanding to realize it.  Additionally, chemotherapy is tailored to the situation of every individual patient.  The treatments can vary depending on the type of cancer, the progression of the disease, and the circumstances and lifestyle of the patient. Doctors would never recommend chemotherapy without carefully considering these factors and consulting a biopsy of the cancer.   The blunt idea that a substance ten thousand times stronger than chemo would be good for the patient ignores all these protocols and reveals a deep ignorance of what cancer is or how chemotherapy works.  Does Facebook really think this is an idea that needs to be put in front of more eyes?

The last claim is one I find the most egregious.  This article spreads the idea that doctors are diagnosing healthy patients with cancer for no other reason than to charge them for chemo treatments.   The idea here is to undermine the trust people put into doctors so that the choice of alternative treatments seems more reasonable.  The article cites one single doctor who, apparently, admitted to “intentionally and wrongfully diagnosing healthy people with cancer.”  It then goes on to state “Like him there are thousands of legally practicing Doctors and oncologists in the United States and abroad who are guilty of the same crimes, but because they fly below the radar, they are never caught.”  One has to wonder though, if these doctors are never caught, how does the author of the article know they exist?   While I have no doubt that this happens – one can find examples of individual doctors doing all sorts of nefarious things – the article gives no justification for reporting that this is a widespread problem or that medical establishments condone such behavior.

In addition to the terrible information Facebook is promoting with these links, even worse is the inclusion of a “share” button immediately after each headline.  If you spend any time trying to promote good information on Facebook you’ll quickly realize that the phenomenon of people reading nothing more than headlines, making their own assumptions, and then walking away with the idea that those assumptions are backed up by proper journalism is a big part of the problem. If people never actually read the content in the articles they have no chance of using their BS detecting skills to judge the integrity of the information.   By adding a share button directly after the headline Facebook is encouraging this behavior.  One of the suggestions Facebook gives to prospective page owners is that they should share quality links with engaging content that the reader will find useful, but the very dynamics of the platform itself seems to suggest that this is not all that important after all.  All one needs is a sensational headline that stokes the fear and cynicism readers may be harboring and you can influence the public narrative and reinforce the myths that do so much harm, and which take hours and hours of good skeptical journalism to debunk.

Let me reiterate that I am not asking Facebook to police what is and isn’t allowed on Facebook.  However, the result of this feature is that anytime a science communicator wants to share what they think is good information, they must weigh the benefits against the possibility that they will be putting dangerous misinformation in front of more eyes.  This is information which has the potential to cause real harm in a real person’s life.  To some people this creates a legitimate moral quandary.  I don’t think people should have to face such a quandary simply because they want to share something on Facebook.

While I sympathize with Facebook and acknowledge that the phenomenon of fake news and pseudoscience on social media is a problem that can’t be fixed with a few mere tweaks to algorithms, there is no excuse for the practice seen here.  By giving a boost to misinformation and pseudoscience anytime that pseudoscience is being addressed, Facebook helps to ensure that the efforts of skeptical and science communicators is counterproductive and a waste of time.

Immunized Hypothesis

What if I told you that I can turn invisible?  You probably wouldn’t believe me and would want me to prove it.  But what If I said that I can only turn invisible when no one is looking at me?   You might recognize that you have no way to disprove my claim, but I doubt you are going to be compelled to take me seriously.

Astute students of critical thinking may recognize this technique as special pleading.  Special pleading is a logical fallacy in which we respond to disproofs of our claims or beliefs by saying those disproofs don’t count, because our claim or belief is special.  A classic example is when a psychic agrees to have their powers tested and, upon failing the test, they say the test was unfair or designed to produce a negative result.   I told you that I could locate water blindfolded using only a dowsing stick, but now that I’ve failed I’ve realized you didn’t use water from an underground source.  This form of special pleading usually comes after-the-fact, meaning we present claims or beliefs as if they could be tested, but then, upon failing, we decide the test doesn’t apply.

In the above example we are attacking the test itself.  There is another more common form of special pleading in which we do not condemn the test, but rather, we modify our claim.  This is a form known as moving the goalposts.  The result is the same – our claims cannot be tested – but the path is a little different.  Carl Sagan illustrates this beautifully in his book The Demon-Haunted World, in which he claims to have a dragon in his garage.

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

So, rather than saying the test itself was the problem, we are left with a convoluted claim that defies every test.  We’ve moved the goalposts so far that no one can reach  them.  This is sometimes referred to as supernatural creep because we can start with a claim that is plausible and ever so slowly creep towards the supernatural, crossing the line of falsifiability along the way.  A claim that there is a race of Bigfoot living undetected in the forest is at least something we can investigate.  But when we fail to find Bigfoot using traps, dogs, and trail cameras, the claim might then be modified to explain that Bigfoot has the ability to somehow sense and avoid traps, dogs and trail cameras.  Eventually we get to a place where Bigfoot is a psychic interdimensional being capable popping in and out of existence as he pleases.  And yes, there are people making such claims. Again, upon hearing such a claim you may recognize that you have no way to disprove it, yet you still wouldn’t be compelled to take it seriously.

But what if I don’t want to wait for testing to make my claim special?  What if I want to preemptively shield my claim from criticism or testing of any kind?  Luckily I have another form of special pleading that I can apply before-the-fact.  This is known as immunized hypothesis.  I can simply construct my claims in such a way as to deflect objections of any kind.  I can claim to have psychic powers that do not work in the presence of skeptics, or I can claim that ghosts are real but only show themselves to people that already believe in them.  I am still adding caveats to my claims, but I am doing it before people have a chance to question them. It’s like adding wheels to the goalposts before the game even starts. This may not seem like a particularly persuasive technique to use in the real world, yet we see two common forms of this tactic on social media that seem to enjoy a considerable amount of success.

If I tell people that biotech companies are forcing farmers to use their seeds and produce poisonous crops, and then I respond to any objections by asking “who paid you to say that,” I’ve immunized my claim from any criticism.   I just include the idea that people are being paid to disagree with me as part of my claim.  Anyone who argues against me can be dismissed as simply being a paid shill, which confirms at least part of my hypothesis and relieves me of any duty to defend.  This may sound silly and transparent, but it’s something skeptics and science communicators hear on a daily basis and often from people who are completely sincere.  It’s also a very common technique used by internet gurus and promoters of alternative medicine to shield themselves from criticism, some of which have millions of followers.   It’s known as the shill gambit.

If I tell you that naturopaths know of a particular fruit which can cure cancer but that such information is being suppressed by Big Pharma, I’ve immunized my claim from testing of any kind.  Not only can I dismiss detractors as merely being part of the conspiracy, I can dismiss all scientific evidence as well.  After all, science is just a method of testing claims, and if my claim cannot be tested that makes any scientific study or review ineffective.  I don’t have to produce clinical trials if my claim includes the idea that such trials are being denied.  If there actually have been trials but they are negative, I can claim that these negative results were manufactured by the conspiracy.  Conspiracy is the easiest and ultimate method of immunizing a hypothesis, since all evidence against the hypothesis simply becomes part of the conspiracy.  This technique is again a favorite of gurus and promoters of alternative medicine, but it also lends itself to all forms of science denial.  It’s no coincidence that denial of everything from vaccines to climate change to the moon landing grounds itself in conspiracy rhetoric.  It’s easy, it’s simple, and it’s encompassing.  But most importantly, for millions of people, it works.

Although claims of conspiracy and allegations of shilling should be as unimpressive as the claim that I can only turn invisible when no one is looking,  these techniques are prominent and comprise a large portion of the push-back science communicators receive when trying to debunk pseudoscientific claims.  It’s also something that is not rare to hear when just talking among friends.  To a large portion of the public this small bit of sophistry is enough to make the conclusions seem reasonable and shut down any inquiry.

While the fact that conspiracies do happen and that entities have been known to bankroll disinformation campaigns is enough to warrant skepticism, the mere accusation itself should not be enough to convince anyone.  “Follow the money” can indeed be pertinent advice, but you have to actually do the following and show your work, not merely construct a narrative which incorporates a profit motive.  A good skeptic knows to ask for evidence, and when request for evidence is substituted by merely immunizing the hypothesis, it’s good reason to not take the claim seriously.  If my claim only holds up when no one is looking, it’s not a claim worth being looked at.


Logical Fallacies vs Cognitive Biases

Because skeptics often talk about cognitive biases alongside logical fallacies and other thinking errors, it’s easy to get the idea that a bias is just another mistake that you can learn to avoid.  This is a false impression that your brain will happily accommodate by ignoring its own biases while recognizing them in other people.  You may then get frustrated at others when you notice them succumbing to biased thinking, which may lead you to view them as ignorant, stupid or lazy.

It’s important to realize a cognitive bias is different from a logical fallacy. With practice, we can learn to recognize and completely avoid mistakes of logic. This is not true of biases. While faults of logic come from how we think, and thus we can simply change our thinking to be more logical, biases arise from the very cognitive machinery that allows us to think. In short, we can’t process information without them.

A cognitive bias is not necessarily a thinking error.  Biases can manifest as a sort of prejudice, but it’s best to think of them as a thinking tendency.  Biases slant our thinking towards certain avenues and conclusions, and often times those conclusions are useful.  Behind every cognitive bias is a mental process which is automatic and to which our conscious minds have no access.  Biases are a result of the mechanisms the brain uses to help it quickly make sense of information and experiences.  Each of us, everyday, are in situations where quickly making sense of the world is a very useful ability.  But, as with many things in life, quickness comes at the price of quality.  While the mental operations behind biases may offer us a quick and useful view of reality, that view will inevitably be distorted and incomplete. Biases are also subject to our brain’s penchant to be self-serving and over protective.  So, while biased thinking may be practical in many situations, if your situation calls for important decisions, fair assessments or accurate conclusions, they can be a big problem.

What makes biases particularly problematic is their insidiousness.  Because biases are seamlessly ingrained into our cognitive architecture, they often do not feel to us like tendencies or prejudices. On the contrary, they often feel like wisdom or enlightenment. Your brain is set up to allow biases to masquerade as rationality, and as such, personal introspection does little to help us recognize them. A cognitive bias is a blind spot in your thinking and, just like the blind spot in your vision, it’s very hard to notice without it being pointed out. Further, once you do notice, there isn’t really much you can do to avoid it. At best, you can try to recognize situations which are likely to trigger biased thinking, you can understand the mistake it is likely to lead to, the information it is preventing you from having, or the perspective it obscures, and attempt to mitigate. This is easier to do with some biases than others, but preventing bias all together is not an option. Being inclined to think that you can avoid a bias because you are aware of it is itself a bias. (bias within bias)

Consider this quote from Daniel Kahneman, who has studied these biases and their effects probably more than any other researcher.  “Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely….And I have made much more progress in recognizing the errors of others than my own.”

So why learn about biases if we cannot prevent them? The answer is simple, to keep yourself from consciously embracing them. While it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to intuitively see past our biases, we can avert the urge to run with them and eagerly allow them to distort our view. We can stop ourselves from falling back on them as a defense when our positions are challenged. We can open our views up to criticism from our peers. We do not learn about biases so we can exile them from our thoughts, but so we can recognize them as a source of humility.  The more precisely we understand biases the more effectively we can apply critical thinking and skepticism, and the better we can design tools and processes intended to compensate.


Now, all this doesn’t mean we are completely helpless and have no hope of ever clearly understanding the world.  It just means that we have to reach outside of ourselves to do it effectively.  This is one more reason why the scientific method is necessary if we want accurate answers about how reality operates. We need an outside process which attempts to avoid and account for the biases that human intellect cannot. One of the key functions of science is quality control, and this is a primary reason why anecdotal information and personal experience can never be used to trump scientific answers. If you disagree with something science says because your personal experience was different, then the proper channel for that disagreement is more science. Simply put, if you’re not disagreeing with science by using more science, then there is no way to know if your disagreement is due to bias. This may seem unfair, but it is a rule enforced by nature, not by science.

 It’s no coincidence that many effects and phenomena disappear when we view them through the lens of science. It’s because they never existed in the first place, and were merely an artifact of bias.


Shill is the New Neener

I think it’s time to say we officially have a new logical fallacy – the argument from shill. If you’ve spent anytime following a discussion about science on social media you’ll be familiar with the accusation. Companies across the spectrum are apparently employing hordes of unscrupulous people to promote, defend and disagree on their behalf. Sure, they’ll claim not to be a shill, but we know they are lying. How do we know they’re lying? Because they’re shills!

The shill accusation is quite dynamic in its logical failing. As the above statement demonstrates, it can be stated as a tautology. When presented without evidence, it’s a red herring. When used preemptively, it poisons the well. But at the heart of the argument is the most classic of fallacies, the ad hominem, which is the grown up version of “I don’t have to listen to you because I don’t like you.”

The argument from shill is, like many logical fallacies, informal. This means that the basic logical structure of the statement can be sound. To suggest that we should be suspicious of what someone is saying because they are being disingenuous is reasonable. Informal fallacies are made invalid by the context, and every reasonable person should agree that a valid context for an accusation involves evidence.

This means that if a shill accusation is accompanied by evidence, then maybe it’s true or maybe it isn’t, but it’s not a logical fallacy. The fallacy is committed when the sole piece of evidence is the fact that the accused has disagreed with the accuser. When the argument boils down to “you’ve challenged what I’ve said, therefore no one should listen to you,” then the only argument you’re making is that you shouldn’t be challenged.

When someone makes the shill accusation they immediately turn the conversation to be about the evidence. If they are unwilling to discuss or unable to present any, you can safely call them on this fallacy. At that point it is up to you to decide if you want to continue conversing with them or not.

I recommend dismissing them as readily as they’ve dismissed you, here’s why. If I have decided that you are being paid to say something simply because I do not like what you are saying, then I’ve not only demonstrated faulty logic, I’ve also signified my standards for evidence. I’ve shown that I am willing to believe something based on nothing but my personal bias, and then repeat it in a public forum as if it were true. I’ve also shown that I am not really interested in having an actual conversation so much as simply broadcasting my claims and then smearing anyone who would question them. At the very least, I’ve shown you that I am not willing to think about the issue if it involves thinking I could be wrong. I’ve merely put my thumb to my nose, wiggled my fingers and declared “neener neener.”

The argument from shill shows everyone which field the accuser wants to play on, and that field is the schoolyard playground where facts and logic do not hold as much sway as calling someone a doody head. This is the arena you prefer when you have a desperate need to feel right while only possessing enough skill to convince a 5 y/o.  So if that’s the sort of conversation you want to have, then go for it.  But if you’d like to have an actual exchange of ideas where criticism is welcomed, evidence is examined, and better ideas come out the other end, you should probably move on.

Natural selection “doing its job”

We’ve argued before that there is no such thing as completely harmless pseudoscience. But some forms more than others can easily entail consequences that are tragically tangible, including death. Medical pseudoscience, to name the most obvious example, can be devastating to both your life and your life savings. And with reported deaths of unvaccinated children, patients with treatable diseases and even healthy users of ‘alternative’ treatments making fairly regular appearances in the news, these stories are in turn a fairly common feature on skeptical social media. If you’re reading this post, chances are that in at least one of the comment threads these stories attract, you will have come across (and perhaps even typed yourself) something along the lines of Here we have it, ladies and gentlement! Natural selection in action!

A close cousin of assertions they had it coming, and serves them right, this variety of thread-fodder combines abject callousness with a misconception of natural selection that rivals even the most clueless creationist: the idea that if we sensible people just look on, we’ll bear witness to natural selection weeding out people who are stupid enough to believe such stupid nonsense, and quite right too. The implication, of course, is that at some point in the future, we’ll be a sturdy race of genuinely sapient Homo who just aren’t susceptible to “woo” anymore. All that’s required to reach this point is that we and our descendents let nature run its course.

Yes, yes, OK, OK, we realise that most people probably don’t really mean it. The natural-selection-doing-its-job guff probably serves primarily as just a quick and cheap means of signalling membership to Team Skeptic. But if solidarity is your sole reason for making such statements, you should realise that in reality you are hurting, not helping, the team image. As such, we feel duty-bound to signal our strong distaste for the sentiment, however non-committal that sentiment might normally be. We’ll start building our case with some scientific objections that arise from an understanding of natural selection itself, and finish up with objections from basic human decency.

Reasons why the statement is probably false

What is natural selection’s “job”, then?

Anyone who knows anything about (biological) selection knows that it doesn’t have foresight, and so it might seem like stating the obvious to say that it really doesn’t have a “job”—a word that is inextricably tied up with goalishness—at all. By “job”, these commenters obviously mean “blind generation of adaptation”, right?

So is it safe to assume that people dying of quackery will—however slowly—produce adaptation?

Natural selection is, to use George Williams’ definition, “statistical bias in the relative rates of survival of alternatives”. It is an inevitable property of populations comprising varying entities whose reproductive rates are causally linked to heritable attributes of those entities. If you have reproducing entities that are different from each other, where those differences correspond to differential reproductive output, you get natural selection…or, more accurately, you are looking at natural selection.

This textbook ‘recipe’ for evolution is, as Peter Godfrey-Smith puts it, “simply a numerical statement describing a mechanism that in the short term does no more than change the distribution of characteristics in a population”. It actually says nothing at all about adaptation; nothing about a source of new variation; nothing about the mode of reproduction; nothing about the criteria by which reproduction is favoured (ie., nothing about the ‘environment’). In other words, it is necessary, but not sufficient, for what we normally think of as evolution: the kind of cumulative change that leads to adaptation.

For proof of principle, consider the following example: I fill a basket with fifty blue balls and fifty red balls. I then decide, on seeing the result, that I want three times as many balls, but that red is twice as good as blue. So for every blue ball, I add another blue ball, and for every red ball, I add two more red balls (ie., I do so with a probability of 1). I am left with a population of 100 blue balls and 200 red balls. The End.

Believe it or not, this is “natural selection in action”, because whether any given ball gets to “reproduce” depends on something inherent to it. Yes, it involves foresight; yes, it lasts for only one ‘generation’; yes, it’s boring as hell, etc. etc. But as far as I can see, it still qualifies as an example of the basic mechanism that characterises selection, according to text-book definitions.

With this bare-bones definition of selection in mind, I’ll now discuss some of the problems facing the quackery adaptation hypothesis.

1) Are people who believe in quackery statistically more likely to die than those who do not?

Remember, natural selection is statistical bias. While people are killed by quackery, the very fact that we hear about this in the news testifies to it being a rare (ie. newsworthy) cause of death. And that is despite the immense popularity of unscientific health treatment. For instance, in 2007, 38.3% of adults in the United States reported having used some form of CAM, with that figure standing at 11.8% for children. In that same year, approximately $11.9 billion was spent by American adults alone on over 354 million visits to CAM practitioners. $2.9 bn of spending on CAM (again, only in the US) was accounted for by homeopathic ‘medicines’ alone.

Of all those who believe in the powers of alternative medicine, is the proportion who die as a result of quackery significant enough not to be drowned out by statistical noise? In biological evolution, the issue of how much extra risk of dying before reproducing that a given gene needs to confer in order to be subject to natural selection is complicated (as illustrated nicely by this fiddly debate on the subject).

It is certainly true that over geological periods, and given large populations, nature has enormous statistical power to ‘pick out’ tiny signals. However, even if all other things being equal there definitely were a statistically meaningful link between belief in alternative medicine and excess mortality, it might well be that such beliefs also make people more likely to behave in ways that could slightly reduce risk of dying. Here are some candidates I can think of:

  • Eat more fruit and vegetables
  • Meditate
  • Make more of an active effort to socialise with like-minded people
  • Have more opportunities (through New Age ‘workshops’/spiritual gatherings etc) to socialise with like-minded people
  • Be more likely to regularly take part in synchronous group activities (like drum circles for instance), which have been shown to do things like reduce pain threshold and induce social bonding effects
  • Exercise more (yoga?)
  • Get more sleep (because of reduced stress levels brought on by all the above?)
  • Have more children
  • Have more like-minded, child-orientated friends to look after their children

(I’m just throwing these ideas out there – I’m not saying that pseudoscience has fitness-enhancing effects, I’m saying that it might do. More on this, and the distinction between baby and bathwater when it comes to pseudoscience, in a future post.)

2) Beliefs are not genetic.

Things like antivaccinationism or a belief in homeopathy are inherited culturally via your social network. Whether or not you are antivax hinges on how you were raised, what crowds you hang out in, the nature of your educational history, and pure chance too, in the sense of coinciding events and whose influence you just happen to fall under at certain moments of susceptibility.

Williams stressed that “[t]he natural selection of phenotypes cannot in itself produce cumulative change, because phenotypes are extremely temporary manifestations.” Biological evolution is able to produce adaptation because of the ‘immortal’ nature of DNA.

Now, there is a massive ongoing debate about ‘cultural evolution’, the study of which sees cultural ‘variants’ as the rough equivalents of genes, since they (or at least representations of them) do survive beyond the destruction of individuals. It would be a mistake to try and summarise the arguments constituting that debate here (there is a huge amount of writing on the subject, which you can easily seek out for yourself), but I will just say that over the course of an MSc on cognitive evolution, I began to feel that the real point of contention is not so much whether culture evolves per se, but rather whether cultural evolution has much explanatory value. Can it—like biological evolution—decipher patterns that are otherwise mysterious, and that cannot be better probed via direct study of the human mind?

Leaving all that aside, there is a fundamental difficulty with the idea that a cultural trait which has evolved over multiple generations could serve as a proxy for ‘weeding out’ in a genetic reproductive sense. Namely, it leaves us with the problem of explaining the initial rise of the trait’s popularity. iIf we say that medical pseudoscience is the product of cultural evolution, we automatically admit that so far, it has not been good enough at killing people to prevent its own spread. Insodoing, we undermine the hypothesis linking quackery with reproductive disadvantage and have to concede that at the population level, the trait may be genetically neutral (or perhaps even slightly advantageous).

It does assume a fair bit of evolutionary theory, but for those who are interested, here’s an excellent recent paper that goes into more detail about the relationship between genetic and cultural fitness.

Some might argue in response that only stupid people take pseudoscience so far that it actually kills them—that *this* is what natural selection is currently in the process of weeding out—and that cleverer people, while they might dabble with a bit of airy-fairy stuff when it suits them, are not liable to get completely and utterly hooked, and will make good health decisions when it comes to matters of life or death. But…

3) Pseudoscience may well not even be linked to low intelligence (which does itself have a significant genetic component).

With so much aggressive anti-science propaganda out there, it is easy for a bright and well-meaning person to be duped by the movement. Steve Jobs is one noteable example.

The most successful pseudoscience preys on cognitive biases and thinking fallacies that are inherent to us all, thanks, ironically, to none other than natural selection. No matter how intelligent or vigilant one is in their thinking, it’s impossible to not succumb to the effects of something like confirmation bias. (Here’s a video looking at a potential evolutionary rationale behind confirmation bias)

In-built cognitive biases represent perhaps the most fundamental reason why the scientific method is necessary in the first place: we need an outside, impartial process that aims to circumvent and compensate for rigged jury that is the human mind. To echo the sentiments of Richard Feynman, there is no one easier to fool than yourself.

4) Is pseudoscience “a trait”?

The quackery adaptation argument tacitly assumes that, say, the antivaxxers come from the same population as the crystal-healers, and the homeopathy afficionados, etc. It’s true that the best predictor of one fringe belief is belief in other fringe beliefs. But the overlap isn’t perfect, which reflects the reality that it doesn’t make sense to think of the pseudoscientific mindset as a simple monolithic attribute. So if there were any underlying genetic components of belief in pseudoscience, the question of the associated statistical bias in survival that these components conferred would become even shakier, implying even more swamping from statistical noise, as we considered these components separately.

As a loose analogy, we might predict that somebody with a complex disease like ALS would turn out to have some of the major genetic risk factors for the disease. And in some cases, we’d be correct. But ALS is not really a single disease. ALS is just the term given to a family of diseases which cluster together within a certain range of physiological symptoms. Each case of ALS is the observable outcome of a unique constellation from an open-ended spectrum of genetic (and environmental) risk factors, with every patient having a unique aetiological profile. Some patients may not present any of the known major genetic risk factors, but rather were unlucky enough to have been born with lots and lots of very minor genetic risk factors that, individually, are not deleterious enough to have been weeded out of the human genome.

Rather than a delineable ‘trait’ that can be thought about in simple selective terms, a pseudoscientific mindset seems to me (if we’re going to assume, without any evidence whatsoever, that it has some meaningful genetic basis) closer to something like ALS. It doesn’t really make sense to think of ALS as ‘a trait’, which (when we’re talking about evolution) really refers to the direct outcome of a gene or small number of genes that is therefore inherited in predictable ways. For anybody who is interested, I wrote more about the genetics of complex disease here. The relevant section is under the heading “ALS Cannot be Cured Naturally”.

Reasons why the statement is just shitty, regardless of whether it’s false

Even if pseudoscientific beliefs were linked straightforwardly to genetically-mediated intelligence, what kind of person would approve of the systematic weeding out of less intelligent people? Intelligence isn’t the only wonderful thing that people can have to offer, and those who are not naturally great problem-solvers are definitely not excluded from skepticism. The nuts and bolts of skepticism are simple rules of thumb for navigating the world, and if you think it’s only possible to successfully teach these rules to people with above-average intelligence, then maybe, just maybe, you aren’t as clever as you think you are. Furthermore, not all people with below-average intelligence are believers in pseudoscientific ideas. (An antivaccination stance, for instance, characterises only a relatively tiny fraction of the population.)

As well as having less than zero value in terms of informing people, the statement does nothing to console, support or inspire. It serves only to colour the skeptic movement as a bunch of misanthropic cynics indifferent to human misfortune and misery. Rather than communicating support for Team Skeptic, it shows an apathy to the movement’s message. After all, why bother to promote skepticism? The endeavour must ultimately be a manifestation of—and subsumed by—a deeper concern for wellbeing, driven by compassion and the conviction that everyone deserves to reap the benefits that you yourself are fortunate enough to reap from a scientific worldview. Twisting this message into one of spite and contempt is perverse as it helps exactly nobody. The only reason for doing so is indulgence in gluttonous superiority, and amounts to using other people’s suffering as a means to stroke your own ego.

Let’s stop being gratuitiously horrible to each other. To combat pseudoscience and misinformation, we have to equip people with the tools they need to spot it. Waiting for natural selection to “do its job” will leave us standing there like lemons – it won’t work and, in our view, the idea just serves to brutalise people. It is parasitic on, and not part of, skepticism. Nobody “deserves” to die of measles. And making out that they might do is just shitty, whether you “really mean it” or not.

10 Reasons Why Hidden Cancer Cure Conspiracy Theories Fail


Extremely popular on Facebook and other social media is the idea that a cure for cancer has been found but is being suppressed. The reason given for the suppression is universally the same. The premise is that companies stand to make more money by treating a chronic disease than from curing it. It’s a simple idea with a simple justification, but the implications are staggeringly complicated. If we consider what the world would have to look like for this conspiracy theory to be true, we immediately see numerous holes and contradictions.

It is the nature of human thinking to become upset with behavior we see as unfair. If we are told that the rich and powerful are allowing human suffering to continue for the sake of their wallets, the inclination is to be outraged. Unfortunately, it’s also human nature to justify such feelings once we have them. This causes many to focus on the outrage and forget to think things through and, when presented with the various logical snags inherent to this trope, to rationalize with whatever justifications and compartmental logic is necessary to maintain the outrage. It’s a basic phenomenon we see with virtually all forms of pseudoscience: Start with a conclusion and do whatever it takes to support it.

Here we present 10 reasons why the hidden cures narrative is untenable. We urge people to not only consider these points, but to also pay attention to how they are dismissed or explained away by conspiracy mongers. We believe the methods used to counter these points go a long way to explain why the hidden cure trope exists and persists, and that they reveal a flawed thought process rather than any sort of evidential substance. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and promoters of the hidden cure conspiracy have no evidence whatsoever: just a narrative. Even worse, the narrative has no internal logical consistency.

We have used a cancer cure to illustrate these points, but a hidden cure conspiracy for any disease faces similar criticism. We have also chosen to temporarily put aside the fact that there are many types of cancer, and that different types of cancer would likely require different cures, in order to focus on the implausible logistics that the narrative would require.

1. Not all organizations involved in medical research are for-profit.

It is a myth that all research funding comes from organizations with corporate interests. Universities across the world regularly engage in research, and charities such as American Cancer Society regularly contribute funds. Major breakthroughs in cancer treatments have come from such sources, and in principle there is nothing stopping them from finding the “ultimate” breakthrough.  

This is inconvenient to the conspiracy because without a profit motive the narrative immediately falls apart. It’s like saying that charities dedicated to ending hunger secretly want children to starve just so they have reason to keep the charities active. While it’s true that charitable organizations sometimes become corrupted or were never sincere in the first place, that is usually due to the actions of one or a few people. This conspiracy demands that all people in every organization be perfectly corrupt without fail.

2. Medical researchers and their families are just as susceptible to cancer and other diseases as anyone else.

An obvious implication of a “hidden cure” conspiracy is that researchers and business owners are willing to put the company and shareholders ahead of the lives of themselves and their loved ones. It implies that the thousands of individuals involved in research are flawlessly obedient drones never giving in to the temptation to help someone they care for deeply, or to better the world.  It means doctors and scientists must be willing to sit and watch their mothers, their daughters, and their spouses suffer and struggle with a disease they know themselves to be curable.  It requires a single-minded hive-mentality immune to compassion or grief and a willingness to put a single goal above all personal comfort and well-being. There is no company or government on Earth that’s ever been able to operate in that manner. It would literally require an army of sociopaths that, despite feeling no sympathy for others, are somehow able to come together and mutually agree on a course of action which necessitates self-sacrifice for the sake of their co-conspirators.

3. Even the CEOs of companies won’t be able to utilize their billions if they’re dead from something their companies could have cured.

Even if you buy into the idea that powerful people do not care about their friends and families, the very appeal to selfishness made by the greed/profit angle says they care a great deal about themselves. If we were to notice that an overwhelming majority of corporate heads and government officials have managed to escape cancer, then we might have reason to be suspicious that a cure has been found and is being saved for a select few. But that’s not what’s happening. With each passing year the list of rich and powerful people who die from cancer becomes more populated. It includes corporate CEOs, politicians, government leaders, Big Pharma employees, and heads of state from around the world. We would have to believe that these people know of a cure but decide not to use it so as to avoid suspicion. It’s silly to think that any of these people, many who already have fantastic amounts of money, would be willing to face the specter of a slow lingering death just to have a little more. It can’t be true that these people are so selfish as to hide a cure in favor of their own gain, yet so selfless that they are willing to die so the conspiracy can remain secret. These sorts of contradictions arise not from evidence or reasoning, but from making as many assumptions as needed to justify the trope of a hidden cure without contemplating their logical implications in sufficient depth.

4. Many if not most researchers are more likely to value fame, prestige and personal achievement over sheer quantity of money.

Even if we tacitly accept that scientists and doctors do not care about making a difference the world or helping sick people, we still can’t assume that the only thing they care about is money. Any scientist who finds or participates in research leading to a breakthrough cure is going to be instantly famous among colleagues and peers. It’s a chance to show all the foes and detractors from your entire life that you are not a loser, that you are in fact the very best at what you do. It not only means a Nobel Prize, it virtually guarantees statues and entire buildings erected in your honor and a mention in virtually every medical and science textbook. It means you can set your salary and work for any company you choose, doing whatever research you like. It means adoration from millions of victims and family members whom you have saved. Finding a cancer cure would mean a reputation to rival that of Einstein’s and a legacy which will persist throughout history. It’s not very easy to believe that any scientist would be willing sweep these benefits under the rug along with the cure, and the more shallow and selfish the conspiracy claims the scientists to be, the more likely it is that they value total personal gain over mere financial gain alone.

5. While all governments would have to be in on it, not all would make money.

Many such conspiracy theories rely on cooperation between governments and pharmaceutical companies, yet there are countries with socialized medicine who could dramatically reduce their healthcare costs if they were to expose hidden cures that were being suppressed. Is it likely that they’d be sitting idly by, losing money while everyone else gets rich? Wouldn’t any country like to reduce healthcare costs and instead spend the money on things like defense and energy development? No, we’d have to believe that, in a world where the “hidden cure” conspiracy can be uncovered by anyone with a laptop and WiFi connection, these countries had somehow missed it.

6. Pushback from insurance companies.

Again, if any conspiracy theorist with a computer can find evidence of a hidden cure, then insurance companies must also be aware of it. Why would big insurance companies continue paying for expensive yet inefficacious treatments when a cheap and effective cure is available? If hiding the cure brings in the big bucks, then insurance companies are the ones largely responsible for paying the bill. They’d have every incentive imaginable to uncover and expose the suppression of superior and cheap treatments. Why would they be motivated to keep quiet while forking over huge sums of money to something they know to be a fraud? Again, we’d have to believe that they had somehow missed it.

7. Actually, companies WOULD make a lot of money from cures.

In what universe would a treatment of such monumental efficacy not be marketable? If it could be patented, then the inventors would go down in history for their achievements (which to many scientists is more valuable than just being ridiculously rich but unrecognized for their accomplishments), and the company they worked for would make billions. Sometimes conspiracy theorists respond to this by claiming that the hidden cures might not be patentable, but that’s not a valid argument either (for two reasons).

Firstly, companies can and do make a lot of money from non-patented products and services all the time (including pharmaceutical companies). This may consist of selling generic drugs, which in some countries comprises the majority of drugs legally sold, or over-the-counter natural supplements, which already comprise a $30 billion industry in their own right.

Secondly, it’s not unheard of for a company to come up with a spinoff of a natural substance which CAN be patented. In fact, that’s the case with a sizable portion of the medications already out there. Often all that is required is the isolation and purification of the active compound, and perhaps a slight modification of its chemical structure, or the introduction of a particular drug delivery system.

8. Companies are already choosing cure or prevention over profit.

There are already examples of inexpensive products which are very effective at eradicating a particular disease despite the fact that letting people get sick and then treating them would yield more profit per patient. However, companies still create them, which would seem to contradict the claim that companies are so ruthless they’d rather people suffer so they can milk a little more money out of them than to market a cure. Why haven’t vaccines and antibiotics been suppressed? Is there not more money to be made from tuberculosis by treating the symptoms instead of administering the cure? Would no one stand to profit if measles were rampant in America instead of rare? Why would companies be so selective about which cures to hide and which to utilize? Again, this only makes sense if you use logic and reasoning not with the aim of finding truth, but with the aim of justifying the trope. Start with the idea that a cure is being hidden and then use whatever assumptions are needed to maintain the narrative, despite confounding details.

Also interesting is when these people learn of the HPV vaccine, which is intended to help prevent cancer, they use the same flimsy logic to dismiss it. They tell you not to trust it because it’s just a ploy to make money. In true conspiracy theory fashion, everything becomes evidence of a conspiracy, even when companies are trying to prevent cancer rather than treat it. This is yet more indication that these theorists are motivated only to serve suspicion and conspiracy mongering while having no allegiance to candid investigation or intellectual honesty.

9. There’s more than one for-profit company out there, which means competition.

If you assert that a cure would destroy a pharmaceutical company’s profits, then you are also asserting that finding a cure would be a good way for one particular company to beat down all the rest. If all other companies are selling a lifelong regimen which treats symptoms but doesn’t cure, then you only need to set the cost of your cure somewhere just below the cost of that regimen to make tons of money while also devastating your rivals. You then can leverage the prestige that comes with your cure as weight when asking for donations, when seeking investors, when choosing partners and when applying for loans. You can enjoy the millions of dollars in free marketing and promotion which attaches your company name to success. You also have the added benefit of not watching your loved ones die of a curable disease just so you can protect the profits of your shareholders.

It isn’t even necessary for a company to find their own cure first. They could still use the conspiracy against itself. If one of them blew the lid off of some alleged secret cure, or exposed a fatal flaw in a treatment developed by a competitor, they would mop up the floor with their competition. They could then market themselves as The Company You Can Trust. Imagine all the nefarious things they could then get away with if the public saw them as being above suspicion. Even if it were true that there is no money in a cure, the conspiracy itself creates an extraordinary opportunity for any one company to rise to the top and then have cover to do whatever other corrupt thing they please. The more greedy and ruthless a company is, the more likely they are to take advantage of this opportunity. It’s silly to think these companies have no problem double-crossing the public, but would never think of double-crossing each other. 

10. Hiding the cure would cost more.

Game theoretic calculations are a lot more subtle than the overly simplistic worldview that hidden cures conspiracy theorists tend to hold. Each company complicit in the conspiracy would have to weigh the likelihood and consequences of being double-crossed by their competitors and of every single scientist formerly on their payroll against the predicted benefits. As we’ve pointed out, a conspiracy this large would require cooperation from many entities that would actually lose money. In order for the conspiracy to work, each of those entities would need to be incentivized to stay quiet; in other words, they’d have to be paid more than they would lose. That’s every country with socialized healthcare and every insurance company which pays for treatments. Don’t forget that each doctor, researcher and scientist involved in any aspect would need to be paid an amount sufficient to overcome any temptation to squeal. Clinical trials are an integral part of drug discovery. That’s even more information to suppress and more people who need paid off. All of this comes after the billions spent on research and development to find the cure in the first place. Also needed would be a small army of henchmen capable of dispatching with those who will not cooperate, and with a budget sufficient to cover this all up. This army would also be required to monitor independent and rival researchers, and would need to get to them before they stumbled onto the cure themselves, so as to either pay them off or kill them. At that point, the price tag for having the privilege of holding the hidden cure would likely be in the trillions. To any corporation in this position, having a cure to hide would be a burden: not a boon.

Strictly speaking, it may be possible to continually amend the hidden cures conspiracy theory with a never ending regress of evidence-free ad hoc assumptions to make the narrative seem to hang together. Indeed, that is a quintessential feature and attraction of most grand scale conspiracy theories. However, the more ad hoc assumptions and the more people who’d have to be involved in order to preserve the narrative, the less likely the story is to actually be possible, so at some point it may be useful to simply apply Ockham’s razor, and concede the monumental implausibility of the hidden cures conspiracy hypothesis.

Co-authored by IFHP and The Credible Hulk.

For a deeper look at why cancer is hard to cure, try:

Don’t be seduced by Will Self

I watched this interview yesterday, featuring Will Self and Martin Rowson, and was shocked by the degree of incoherence, the misplaced antipathy and (somewhat ironically, given the subject matter) sweeping generalisations that — dare I say it — border on racist. It’s being shared all over social media, so I felt duty-bound to respond.

Let me start by saying that, since Wednesday’s attacks, I’ve learnt that some people have rather strange ideas about what “Je suis Charlie” is supposed to signify. For example, some people, I’ve found, think that it means “I aspire to be Charlie Hebdo because I totally agree with everything the magazine has ever expressed and it is the embodiment of freedom.” Self’s answer to the interviewer’s question, “Vous êtes Charlie?” (Are you Charlie?) suggest that he hasn’t really thought about what the statement means, either.

It was Christopher Hitchens, back in 2005, who first said that the killing of cartoonists because of their cartoons should be met with such a statement, “on the model of Spartacus”. Though it’s not clear whether or not Joachim Roncin, originator of the phrase “Je suis Charlie”, was referring explicitly to Spartacus or not, it seems clear to me that its message is equivalent.

Anyone who is even remotely interested in the free-speech/offensive cartoons debate should watch the video below, featuring Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie. He makes reference to Spartacus at 9.20 ish (though you should watch it from the beginning to the end – so worthwhile).

One more thing before I begin in earnest: the entire channel 4 discussion can I think be identified as a conflation of the question “should inflammatory cartoons be published in the first place?” with “what should we do once violence has occurred?”. This conflation is explored by Salman Rushdie at 25.07. I really can’t recommend highly enough that you have a listen.


First, notice, and keep in mind, that Self’s opening gambit is:

“My value is free speech. Unquestionably.” Remember this as he proceeds to completely contradict himself.

“But I think we need to be aware of the fact that free speech comes with responsibilities”, he continues.

I have to disagree. It’s not that “free speech”, in and of itself, “comes with” responsibility, as if the former actually necessitates the latter – it’s “being a decent and/or functioning human being” that necessitates taking on responsibilities. Actually, free speech per se is, and has to be, perfectly compatible with irresponsibility. Free speech allows us — has to allow us — by law, to be indecent and dysfunctional because people have different ideas about what is indecent and what is dysfunctional. Placing bans and legal sanctions on “being mean”, for instance, thus opens up an immense and dangerous can of worms, which I don’t think I need to illustrate here.

Freedom of expression can surely only mean one thing: the right to express yourself as you please, so long as what you’re expressing doesn’t prevent others from expressing themselves as they please.

The possible consequences of being mean for no reason, and the fact that human beings tend (all things being equal) to need some kind of motivation (however misguided that motivation may be) to be mean, act as pretty good natural checks against unprovoked, wanton meanness, in most cases. Despite freedom of expression, people in free countries tend to be able to walk down the street without having insults hurled at them. Of course, there are exceptions, and dealing with them is part of normal, messy social life.

In other words, Self has it backwards. Life comes with responsibilities, and those responsibilities are in fact what make free speech possible, and necessary.

“Rights [like free speech] can only be constituted within a defined area where they can be enforced”, he continues.

What does this even mean? Seriously, read it a few times and tell me it doesn’t sound like the words of a confused person. Free speech isn’t something we “enforce”, it’s something we allow. Anyway, I assume he means something like “free speech has to have defined limits in order to be a good thing for society.”

He goes on: “The whole problem with our modern world is that’s no longer the case.”

So, to clarify, his argument is that free speech is “no longer” delineated properly in our society, such that it is no longer doing us any good. We’ve pushed the boundaries out so far that freedom of speech is now…“unconstitutable”. This seems like a very weird and foggy idea, but no matter.

It’s just not true that we “no longer” cordon off free speech so that it exists within a “defined area”.

  • If you engage in an invasion of someone’s personal space to say what you want to say, actively pestering them (by following them, emailing them non-stop, phoning them non-stop, etc), ie. if you harass them;
  • If you make threats like “I’m going to kill you”, or “if you don’t do X then I will hurt you”, or broadcast commands for others to kill so-and-so or such-and-such a group of people, ie, if you threaten them;
  • And if you print outright lies about someone, ie. if what you express is libellous,

Then you can be prosecuted (ie. you have stepped beyond the “defined area” of free speech), because in doing these things, you have prevented others from being free to express themselves as human beings, because instead they are having to divert their attention and efforts to running away from you, or hiding so as to avoid being murdered by the people you’ve incited, or working to clear their name of crimes they didn’t commit (and perhaps fleeing those who seek misdirected vengeance for those crimes). Moreover, your freedom of speech in other people’s property, or on other people’s blogs, is limited. If you annoy someone in a domain that they own, then they are within their rights to tell you to leave, or block you.

Actually, freedom to express oneself without harming others is a pretty internally consistent value. Like any value, it falls short of being “absolute”, but actually, fuzzy boundaries are a property of all categories – this is the rule rather than the exception. And it’s why we allow amendments, by-laws and sub-clauses to be added to our social contracts.

Now Martin Rowson gets the floor.

Note that he starts by saying that he agrees with what Self has just said, but then really doesn’t say anything to corroborate this alleged agreement.

“I don’t like my colleagues being murdered because of what they do, and I spend most of my time pushing the envelope as far as I can. But within the bounds – I self-censor a lot”

What bounds?

Those of the newspapers, he explains. He bears in mind “what newspapers would tolerate”. And when asked to confirm, therefore, that he wouldn’t depict Muhammad, he responds, with a curious mixture of loftiness and nervousness, that he did so in the past.

So the interviewer says, slightly baffled, “so… you haven’t self-censored…?”

To which Rowson responds (and this did make me chuckle), “well, no I haven’t, because I got away with it.”


In other words, his “bounds” are defined by terrorist threats. Not elevated human sensitivity as to where the limits of what one is happy to come out and say ought to lie, as a decent human being. The only reason he would think twice now is because “people wouldn’t publish it”. So, all he adds to the discussion thus far is a re-stating of the very basis for the “Je suis Charlie” adage.

Back to Self. After the interviewer asks whether this doesn’t just mean that the extremists are winning, he responds:

“Well no they’re not [Sanctimonious guffaw]. The whole problem with this dynamic is that with each of these terrorist attacks, and don’t get me wrong, [generic condemnation of murder and arguably unsophisticated use of the word “evil” to describe people who have been systematically brainwashed by scripture], I think the point about this is that the whole notion seems to be that freedom of speech is some kind of absolute right, and that’s exactly the same as a religious point of view, interestingly.”

As I already pointed out, freedom of expression is limited. There are various cases in which the right to express one’s self is overridden by other rights protected by law. His claim that freedom of speech is perceived as an absolute right is baseless. He’s plucked it out of the ether. I don’t know anyone who would argue that free speech is “absolute”. This is just slippery rhetoric – applied as a brain lubricant to facilitate easy passage for the egregious false equivocation he follows it up with.

Belief in free speech, however unrefined, couldn’t be any further from “a religious point of view”.

This statement is incorrect on so many levels that an essay could be written on it, and in fact many have been — it’s pretty much just a rehashing of the facile, endlessly recycled claim that atheism has “become a religion” — but let me type the first couple of things that come to mind (leaving aside the fact that the non-absoluteness of free speech has been written in to the law, as per my earlier paragraph).

Even if freedom of speech were an absolutist “point of view”, absolutism about non-absolutness would still contrast enormously with absolutism regarding rules that actively and gratuitously restrict self-expression – ie, rules that claim that you must believe in a specific, pre-defined supernatural being – and which are enforced via surveillance not just of the streets you walk down (a pet hate of Self’s) but of your every thought.

“Absolutism” about free speech (which I hold doesn’t exist anyway) shares with scriptural dogma only the most singular and irrelevant, content-free property. Let me explain what I mean.

If religions were “absolutist” about harmless and inconsequential things like the idea that rabbits are green (YES, ALL OF THEM, EVERY SINGLE ONE), then 1) they wouldn’t catch on in the first place, and 2) if they somehow did, people could simply observe the mismatch with reality and cease to believe, suffering no repercussions. What makes “religions” bad (leaving aside the vast differences between, say, Islam and Jainism – both being “religions”) is their intrusion on people’s personal lives, their nullification of people’s freedom to explore, and their demands that people submit to their rules on pain of eternal torment (oh and sometimes mortal torment on Planet Earth too…mentioning no names and quoting no quotes…).

Self’s focus on “absolutism” as a property that can make religion “exactly the same” as other things is astoundingly dense. I hope it was just a bad day.

He continues: “It [absolutism] places human ethics outside of human society. It makes them something that inhere in the cosmos in some way. And that’s not the case. All rights have to be countered with responsibilities”.

I don’t really need to rebut this because, as I’ve already argued, the premise was wrong. But I can’t help but protest nonetheless that I fail to see how this even follows from his false premise. Even if we were to take an absolutist view of free expression, it wouldn’t mean we needed to invoke the cosmos.

The interviewer then challenges him: “Except, aren’t you allowing the Islamic belief in not depicting the prophet Muhammad to trump other people’s beliefs?”

Good question. Unfortunately, Self interjects without seeming to have listened – he never answers it.

Instead, he says: “You always have to ask, with something that purports to be satire…who’s it attacking? Are they people who are in a position of power, and if it’s attacking people who are in a position of power, is it giving comfort to people who are powerless, and who are assaulted in some sense, by those powerful people?”

So, to clarify…if the people who are being attacked by media that purports to be satirical are “in a position of power”, then, he maintains, it’s only really satire if it comforts people who are being overpowered. (Presumably Self takes it as a given that satirising someone who isn’t in a position of power isn’t satire, ever.)

Again, I must protest:

  • Satire is about pointing out flaws in ideas. Yes, it’s usually directed at powerful figures, but if you look up the word in the dictionary, you’ll see that this isn’t a necessary component. “Satire” also refers to the mocking of conventions, or “anything its author thinks ridiculous”.
  • Some people who are not really in a position of power nonetheless consider themselves to be, and they are ripe for satire, particularly since people who consider themselves powerful are usually more inclined to endeavour to make themselves powerful.
  • Satire doesn’t have to be comforting.
  • How does Will Self know who is comforted by what?

He continues “This is not the dynamic with Islamist terrorists. They are not in power in our society. [Notice how he switches from the argument that would follow from “if they are in power” to the one that he just logically implied follows when those being satirised are not in power? Are you getting the impression that he thinks that Islamic terrorists are both in power and not in power? I am.] And it is not comforting the people who look at these cartoons, whether they’re in Charlie Hebdo, or in newspapers here – they don’t feel better about themselves or about life to see Islamist terrorists mocked, or the beliefs of Muslims in general mocked. Why does it make anybody feel better?”

  • Being “in a position of power” is different from “being in power in our society”. Islamist terrorists aren’t officially the latter, but they most certainly are the former, as evidenced by (for example) Martin Rowson’s expression of fear a couple of minutes ago, or the response of the press to the original Danish cartoons – terrorists are powerful enough to scare powerful people and organisations into betraying their own values. Hitchens discusses this in the video above from about 14.00 (though the entire video deals with it, really).
  • Notice the sweeping generalisation of a gargantuan, diverse swathe of people from across the globe. I can think of a large number of people who feel assaulted by Islam, and who might feel empowered by seeing it treated with irreverence. Again, I don’t think I need to illustrate this any further.
  • Satire doesn’t have to be comforting.

No, satire really does not have to be comforting. In fact, satire is always going to divide – that’s the whole point of it. Satire is supposed to make you think. Satire, in fact, is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. It is most effective when it is being directed towards people or conventions that are followed unquestioningly. If you follow a set of conventions, or a tradition, then don’t go and buy a satirical magazine, unless you have a good sense of humour. Nobody is forcing you.

The interviewer then asks: “Is that the point about Charlie Hebdo? That it’s not satire, it’s bullying?”

Now Rowson chimes in again: “The thing about Charlie Hebdo – I mean, Will disagrees with me about this but I see Charlie Hebdo in a particular tradition of souixante-huitard, you know, old-trot situationists, who provoke things just to see what happens, and we have seen what happens as a result of this. And it’s interesting that the French tradition of cartoonists is completely different from the tradition over here. We draw in a different way – the way we draw is different. And also, they are sort of very salacious and sexual and provocative and rude but they don’t do rude cartoons about their politicians in the same way we do.” [Emphasis perceived in Rowson’s own words.]

Self interrupts : “That’s what they should be doing cartoons about.”

Take note of Rowson’s statement that Self disagrees with him re. his run-down of Charlie Hebdo’s “tradition” (this becomes relevant later). Also, go and look up “soixante-huitard”. I admit I don’t know what “old trot” is. And then go and look at Charlie Hebdo cartoons on Google Images. See if you agree with his quirky characterization. In particular,


And see whether you agree that Charlie Hebdo don’t have a tradition of satirizing politicians, instead just publishing images “to see what happens”, rather than making actual, meaningful statements about politics, power dynamics, and society.

Self continues: “Because with every single terrorist attack, what we see is further curtailments of the rights we actually hold dear in our democracies. Habeas corpus, due process of law, fair and equal trial by your peers, absence of surveillance, the use of torture by our government, since 9/11. You know, if I were a cartoonist, the people I would be attacking are the security state and I think its hugely significant that the French state is now funding a million print run of Charlie Hebdo so if they’re kinda situationist radicles then what are they doing in bed with the French government?”

Has this terrorist attack really brought with it “further curtailment” of those things on Self’s list? Is he criticising the terrorists or the Western world here? If terrorist attacks causes a curtailment of our supposed right to absence of surveillance, then…shouldn’t he be satirising terrorists too? I’m extremely confused by this statement, and you should be too. Go on, read it again and see if it makes any sense. It doesn’t.

No matter, we’ll move on to the second thing he just said. (Incidentally, CCTV makes me feel safer, but maybe I’m insane.)

The whole point of free speech, Will, is that if you want to be a cartoonist, and satirise the security state, you are welcome to do so. But other people find other things more interesting to pick apart. The surveillance of people’s private thoughts by a vengeful, bigoted god, for instance. Your right to the opinion that CCTV is worse and more worthy of satire than religious dogma is enshrined by law. By holding up a sign that says “Je suis Charlie”, we are standing up for that right of yours.

Why is it “hugely significant” that the French state is now funding a million print run of Charlie Hebdo and that Charlie Hebdo is accepting it? Irrespective of their political stance (which, actually, probably can’t be captured with one stroke of a brush – this is an organization run by a number of people, who, believe it or not, probably all have different political views), government money comes from taxpayers. Should “situationist radicals” also not accept, say, government grants towards their children’s education? Or free healthcare? Would that put them “in bed with the French government”?

And besides, as I mentioned earlier, according to Rowson, Will Self disagrees with this description of Charlie Hebdo anyway. Or… does he only disagree with it when it doesn’t suit his purpose? Furthermore, even if he doesn’t disagree…

This is still just a label that Rowson thought up. I doubt very much whether Charlie Hebdo would be like “hey, we’re a radical situationist newspaper”. I’d like to ask them.

Self’s final contribution to the discussion: “The problem with the French…

Yes, he really says that.

…is that they have a conception of themselves as being in some way the repository of human rights, freedom, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and they think that they’re kind of enlightened in that way. In fact they’re a state like any other, and they’ve been responsible for some incredibly barbaric and uncivilized things, so this rhetoric that we hear in the wake of incidents like this, pitting civilization against barbarism, is frankly nonsense. It’s simply not true.”

“The problem with the French”. Do you think it’s possible to follow up such an utterance with anything salient, given that “the French” corresponds to an entire country’s-worth of people, with different ideas, cultures and affiliations?

“They have a conception of themselves”? “They think they’re enlightened”? Seriously? All French people have the same conception of themselves?

I’m not usually one for pointing out people’s casual bigotry – I tend leave that to people like Will Self. But in this case, I think it needs to be drawn attention to.

In any case, what has all this got to do with freedom of speech, and whether we should unite in support of Charlie Hebdo’s right to draw rude cartoons, without being massacred? Indeed, what, exactly, is Self’s point?

He has none. His views (which, despite the fact that I think they are noxious, he has every right to put forward) are a classic example of the tu quoque fallacy. Pointing out what you deem to be a hypocrisy, and then claiming you’ve won the argument, when you haven’t.

The support that has emerged across the globe isn’t from people “pitting civilisation against barbarism”. It’s from people standing up for the rights of a free country’s citizens to act in accordance with the laws written into that country’s constitution. France’s government (which changes periodically, remember) doesn’t need to have a squeaky clean record in order for France’s people to stand up for constitutional rights.

And while we’re on civilisation vs. barbarism, at least in a democratic state like France, the stains on its record can be pointed out by people like Will Self and criticised with reference to the ideals officially protected by its constitution. At least France has ideals of freedom and equality. If it’s not living up to those ideals, people can come out and say so, and governments can be held accountable and voted out.

Furthermore, and the importance of this cannot be understated, the constitution itself is subject to change. I’m not saying that changing laws is a simple matter, but at least France’s constitution wasn’t dreamed up by an Ancient warlord and claimed as the infallible, unalterable word of the divine.

Sentencing people to death for disagreeing with the Muhammad’s “revelations” is not just barbaric – it’s constitutionally barbaric, according to Islamic scripture. And if you don’t believe me, then read the book.

It’s easy for people living in free societies, broadcasting from the comfort of their cosy living rooms or smart channel 4 studios, to paint a country like France, where you can believe in green rabbits rather than the word of Muhammad without being stoned to death, to paint unconstitutional Western barbarism with the same brush as constitutional (scripturally sound) theocratic barbarism.

Another thing I’m not normally one for suggesting people do is to “check their privilege”. But once you see this for what it is – a person who has lived such a privileged life that their luck is no longer visible to them – you see that dogmatic brainwashing, like radioactive waste, exerts its effects far beyond the spillage site, rearing its ugly head in the most distant and unusual of places. As the Hitch would have put it, “How far the termites have spread. And haven’t they feasted well.”

I wish I had a good conclusion, but conclusions are limited by the material you are making conclusions about. Self doesn’t have a point. All he actually says, if you distill it, is that he doesn’t like the cartoons, and thinks that there are better things to be satirical about. But that’s the whole point of free speech. You get to draw cartoons that other people don’t like. His charge that satire has to be “comforting” to people who aren’t in power is just…incorrect, as well as being built on the baseless assumption that no disempowered person ever felt good seeing Islam disrobed.

A good conclusion might be to point out what he doesn’t say. Where is his critique of Charlie Hebdo’s extremely rude cartoons featuring the pope, or Jews? As Self says himself, free speech has to be clearly defined. If we are cool with cartoons depicting the son shagging the father up the arse with the holy spirit wedged in his anus, but we’re not cool with a naked Muhammad sprawled on his front being videotaped, then we’ve lost that clear definition and we’ve entered the realm of inconsistency. That’s a recipe for disaster, and now it’s being cooked up not just by Islamic Islam exeptionists, but by non-religious ones too.

Yes, we can express social (but not legal) disapproval at others’ decisions about what to publish and what not to publish (thanks to freedom of expression). But the single most inappropriate and transparently duplicitous moment at which to do this is just after people have been massacred because of those decisions.

Post scriptum:

  • If you’re one of those people with a tendency to blame the West, or if you think Charlie Hebdo picks on Muslims disproportionately, or is a “right-wing” publication, then I urge you to read this.
  • You know what irks me? It’s not that freedom of expression isn’t being limited enough – quite the opposite. It bothers me that our government still hasn’t lifted some of the limitations upon freedom of expression that we’ve inherited from history, making it unnecessarily inconsistent in practice, even though in theory it shouldn’t have to be. I live in England. If I walk down the road with my boobs out, I’m not curtailing the rights of my compatriots to express themselves freely. But still, the nipple police will come for me. Likewise, If I take LSD at a park with my friends, I’m not curtailing anybody’s ability to express themselves. Yet if I am too obvious — too expressive — about my LSD-taking, then I am at risk of being searched, and, if I have any in my pocket, prosecuted. The government gives the nod to horrendously harmful cigarette-smoking, and binge-drinking, but outlaws numerous other, much, much less dangerous types of drug-taking, supporting the violence associated with black markets in so doing. Yuck! Fortunately, as a member of a democratic society that has freedom of expression built into its legal system, I am permitted to take part in demonstrations and rallies, write blog posts, and generally make a big fuss, about these kinds of hypocrisy.


Three Arguments the Anti-GMO Crowd Should Stop Using

The aim of this post is not to try to silence opposition to GE tech, but to stop allowing the uninformed to frame the issue. If real criticism is to be heard, and real progress made, then the elimination of red herrings is a must.

In order to avoid setting up strawmen here, I’ve included example quotes taken from the comments to posts on our page. Indeed, these three arguments often make up the bulk of any GMO discussion seen anywhere that accepts comments. You will notice I include zero reference links. That is because these arguments are based on personal ideology instead of any real-world data. Obviously, there are many evidence-based arguments that have been thoroughly debunked and so should no longer be used either, but those are outside the scope of this post.

As skeptics, we should be willing to believe any claim if it is backed up with evidence. These arguments fail to provide not only evidence of harm, but even a theory as to how GE could be harmful. When someone is trying to persuade you to take an anti-GMO stance, none of the following arguments should be tolerated.

1) Appeal to nature

“Should we really be messing with mother nature?”

Sometimes this is straightforward as in “it’s unnatural!” Other times it is a little more subtle, taking a form something along the lines of “a fish would never breed with a tomato”, but it is always an argument without substance. Whenever we pursue these arguments we find that “natural” is a term that means different things to different people, but often boils down to “stuff that I am already comfortable with.”

Logically, this is best exposed by talking about artificial selection. However, in the real world, the anti-GMO crowd misconstrues mention of selective breeding as deceit. They say it is wrong to present genetic engineering and selective breeding as the same thing, and on this point they are correct. Selective breeding (which is achieved through the method of artificial selection) is different from genetic engineering in several significant ways, and to conflate them is irresponsible. So why do we bring up selective breeding? Because an argument which draws objection from the property “unnatural” fails to distinguish selective breeding from GE. Artificial selection, by definition, removes the hand of nature (natural selection). It is capable of preserving deleterious genetic traits such as deafness in dogs. It can also produce sterile hybrids like the banana. These are things that nature tends to select against.

So, generic appeals to nature ignore the fact that selective breeding is “unnatural” too, and produces outcomes with the very same properties that those using this appeal deem unnatural.

If the logic behind your objection can be equally applied to selective breeding, yet you are not against selective breeding, something is very wrong. You should construct arguments that actually criticize what you are against and be able to explain the principles behind your arguments in no uncertain terms. A generic appeal to nature simply isn’t good enough to hold up an anti-GMO position.

Also, remember, on the level of DNA, there is no such distinction as “fish” or “tomato”.  The source of the gene is of absolutely no consequence.   While the anti-GMO crowd worries about where genes come from, science worries about what they do. This is where we should focus – on the applications and results of GE tech and the possible consequences, not some arbitrary notion of what is natural.

So, when you encounter an appeal to nature argument, ask for a definition of “natural”. Ask why “natural” substances are automatically better. If all you get is a re-statement of the appeal, then you’ll know that the person is trying to convince you with an argument that they are unable to think through themselves.

2) Not enough tests

“We do not yet know if GMOs are safe. The only tests have been by Monsanto. I do not want to be experimented on by corporations!”

This gambit tends to ring false when it is used by those groups who support the destruction of test fields. Obviously, it is hypocritical to call for more testing and then stand in the way. But, to be fair, not all of those calling for testing do advocate destroying test fields. Also, if this is made as a sincere request outlining clear goals that can be reached, then it is not a red herring. However, everyone I have ever asked who uses this argument admits that, for them personally, no amount of testing would cause them to drop their aversion to GE foods. While this is not as obvious as those who trample crops, it is just as disingenuous because it still seeks to use the precautionary principle indefinitely. They have moved the goalposts so far that even they can not see them. Furthermore, if they can not define what sufficient testing would look like, how can they define what insufficient testing does look like? Which crops should be further tested? What more should we test for? What faults are to be found with the current tests? Where is the nuance?

This is also an indirect contradiction to the claim that GE foods cause harm. It cannot be true that we have not performed enough tests to assess safety and also know that they are unsafe. This suggests a double standard where evidence of harm is believed based on unscientific standards that accept rumors and speculation, but evidence of safety is held to standards so strict as to be unobtainable.

The bottom line is that independent testing is already being done, and no scientists are calling for an end to it.  All GE crops and foods should be individually tested for safety, and those results should be available for independent review and replication. Being anti-GMO is not a necessary precursor to being an advocate of rigorous safety standards.

So when you encounter this argument, ask them to tell you exactly, without being vague, what additional tests would be satisfactory to convince them to personally consume GE food. If the answer is that no test will remove their fear, then you’ll know they are trying to convince you with an argument they do not believe themselves.

3) The right to know. (What are they hiding?)

“Whether or not they are safe to consume, I do not really care, but I do have a right to know whether or not I am consuming them.”

On the surface, the right to know argument is perhaps the most compelling red herring on this list. Why should customers be denied the right to an informed decision? Why should corporations be able to keep secret exactly what they are doing to our food in their labs? The answer is of course that they shouldn’t, and this is another façade.

I think the first thing we should do is separate the right to know from the right to demand labeling. The unstated premise here is that labeling provides some pertinent information important to the consumer.  However, if labeling does not reflect any sort of safety or nutritional concern, then what exactly is being conveyed?  The single data point that a label would provide is that a product contains a genetically engineered ingredient.  If each individual crop is rigorously tested before it is approved for market and the results available for review, then why does it matter which products those crops end up in?  The only purpose for labeling is to mark the products for those already inclined to avoid them.  Since this aversion is not based on any demonstrable  safety,  environmental or health concern, it’s a result of personal ideology.   If we start labeling foods which violate personal ideology, then we’re going to have to label them non-kosher as well.  My personal ideology says to avoid crops harvested under a full moon.  I have no data to demonstrate that these crops should be avoided, but I’m going to need a label anyway.

So, labeling is not really about knowing anything of interest to anyone who isn’t anti-GMO.  It does nothing to help the average consumer make an informed choice, and is likely to confuse instead.  To argue the right to know is to argue for transparency, and what should be transparent is the research.  The research says GE crops on the market are of no more concern than conventional crops.  To ignore the research and focus only on a single data point is to disregard the very transparency you are asking for. Someone who is passionate about ‘knowing’ will have an interest in learning, and maybe even teaching. But what we see when we examine the anti-GMO rhetoric is that their interest in learning begins and ends with confirmation bias, and what they teach has very little basis in fact, seeking to influence rather than inform. To demand the right to know while remaining apathetic to knowledge is disingenuous.

I believe people have the right to boycott anything for any reason, but I object to the idea that this notion somehow supports mandatory labeling.  I also object to the accusation that if labeling is not present, some information is being hidden.  Your boycott is your problem unless you can demonstrate that it is a problem for everyone.  Citing the right to boycott does not tell us why we ought to do so, yet this notion dominates most public discussions about anti-gmo activism.  One can be completely for the notion of the public being as informed as possible about GE technology and products without needing to take an anti-GMO stance.

4) BONUS : Organic apples/tomatoes taste better.

And here is a bonus argument. It’s really nothing more than a pet peeve, but it is sure to make you look like a simpleton. I hear it all the time. “Organic apples/tomatoes just taste better than the GMO version.” It’s always apples or tomatoes for some reason. I am not sure where these people live since no GE tomatoes or apples are currently on the market, and never mind the fact that taste is not a measure of safety. When I see this statement, it tells me the speaker is not really interested in evidence or data or even with having a sincere discussion. They are willing to lie to sway others towards their opinion. Such people disqualify themselves from being worthy of attention.

Those opposed to GE food have every right to make their case and be heard, but those listening have a social responsibility to not be swayed by generic fear-mongering and specious reasoning . All parties should set their standards higher and rise above the petty manipulations employed by science deniers. If we are so easily swayed by broken logic and appeals to emotion, if we accept propaganda and forget to demand actual evidence, then we can be convinced of anything.

Skeptical Irony

Being told GM food needs more testing by people who jump at the chance to eat the latest rare “miracle” fruit no one has ever heard of.

Being told “do your research” by people who dismiss and deny the findings of the world’s leading researchers.

Being called closed-minded by people who proudly declare they will never change their own views no matter what.

When psychics who claim an intuitive ability to communicate with the spirit world struggle to distinguish between “an M or J sounding name,” and need your help.

When people try to prove they aren’t conspiracy mongers by saying that the term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the government to discredit them and hide the truth.

When someone lectures you on the dangers of putting toxins in your body from behind a cloud of marijuana smoke.

Being told GMOs need more testing by people who admit they will never accept GMO crops no matter how many tests are done.

Being lectured on the merits of detoxifying my body by people who think their rectum is a good place to put coffee.

When conspiracy groups who wield enough power to kill anyone and cover up everything can’t manage to take down a youtube video.

When anti-GMO activists who demand the “right to know” turn out to be among the least informed.

Being told we “can’t know the mind of God” by people who say he wants me to cut off the tip of my penis.

When aliens evade radar and erase memories to avoid detection and then make huge conspicuous circles in our crops and dump mutilated cattle on the side of the road.

Being told we don’t need to pay attention to science by people who make every effort to impersonate it, speak its language, and steal its legitimacy.


“Dog Rocks” & Meaningless Woofle

It’s a disappointment to find Pete Wedderburn, a qualified vet, endorsing “Dog Rocks”. Here’s what he printed in the Telegraph:

“The brown patches caused by dog urine on lawns are a perennial issue (to borrow a gardening term). Some people claim that a daily dollop of tomato ketchup in the dog’s dinner stops this but evidence is lacking. Dog Rocks are the most popular product marketed to help: these are placed in dogs’ water bowls, claiming to filter out excessive nitrogen and urea from the water. A high concentration of nitrates can cause grass to turn yellow or brown: the idea is that if less nitrates go into the dog, less come out the other end. Dog Rocks claim success in 80 per cent of cases when used according to instructions; they are widely available in pet shops and online (”

It is amusing that Wedderburn dismisses ketchup as a solution for lawn burns on the basis of a lack of evidence and then recommends dog rocks instead, via an appeal to popularity. One might have thought that, given his science education, he would know that popularity isn’t evidence for efficacy. In his defence, he doesn’t explicitly claim that dog rocks work – he just says that the company does. Perhaps he simply assumed on good faith that a company claiming to have conducted laboratory tests on their product must be selling something legitimate – which is of course what we really ought to be able to assume, in an ideal world. Unfortunately, this world is not ideal.

According to the the company’s website, dog rocks are “an igneous Rock with absorbing & retaining qualities” that will “stop pet urine ruining your lawn, grass, shrubs and hedging”. The site offers no evidence to back up these claims, and is home to a plethora of archetypal pseudoscience – loose ideas arranged clumsily around science jargon like “stable matrix”, “micro porous medium”, “ion exchange” and “trace elements”. The marketers print the word “PROVEN” on their product packaging in big red capital letters and, as mentioned above, claim that their product is “laboratory tested”. But they fail to offer even the vaguest insight into the nature of these tests, providing no reference whatsoever to study design, who did the testing, or whether the research was published (or even written up), let alone quantitative information  like effect sizes, standard deviation, p-values, etc. Even anti-ageing face-cream companies manage to pay enough lip-service to transparency that we can go and see that their effects are based upon the subjective reports of 20 women brought into their own lab and not peer-reviewed.

Lack of peer-reviewed studies and misuse of science words are both pseudoscience red flags. Other red flags exhibited by the website are: a page of testimonials, repetitious appeals to nature (dog rocks are “100% natural!”), appeals to pH woo (dog rocks “do not change the pH balance of dog’s urine so they should not harm your dog at all”), and a sort of variation on the appeal to ancient wisdom – I’ll call it “provincial wisdom” (dog rocks were “discovered in Australia by an Aboriginal Gardener in the 1990s”).

A quick tour around the website confirms that discerning dog-owners most certainly are not this company’s target market, and makes it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that these “lab tests” are either irrelevant to the question of whether the product actually works, or simply non-existent. Here’s the “technical blurb” (that’s their term, by the way).

Dog Rocks are a coherent Rock with a mechanically stable framework meaning no significant mineral particles are released into the pet’s drinking water, in other words, Dog Rocks do not break down or leech anything into the pet’s drinking water. Dog Rocks form a stable matrix and a micro porous medium in which active components are able to act as a water-purifying agent through ion exchange. For this reason, when placed in water, Dog Rocks will help purify the water by removing some harmful trace elements giving your dog a cleaner source of water.

Perhaps it’s crude of me to even say this, but to my mind one of the most reliable indicators of junk science and B/S is simply the quality of writing. It doesn’t take a literary connoisseur to notice that the writing style exhibited on the Dog Rocks website is cringeworthily naff and unsophisticated, and it has what I would describe as an awkwardly ingratiating, cloying tone. Although that isn’t enough to dismiss scientific claims, in my experience, this particular form of prose is a strikingly accurate predictor of pseudoscience. Fortunately for our purposes, however, we have much more to sink our teeth into than that.

You might have noticed that no explanation is offered as to how the removal of “harmful trace elements” should result in a change in urine composition such that lawn burns would be prevented. Such ambiguous conflation of terms is yet another red flag: it’s not “harmful trace elements” that cause lawn burns, it’s urea and nitrates (both nitrogen-containing substances). This irrelevant appeal to TOXINS, TOXINS, EVERYWHERE and the promise to remove them seems to have been thrown in there opportunistically as a bonus selling point. You might also have noticed that ion-exchange is a two-way street, yet according to the distributors, nothing is released from the product into Buster’s water. Which is it, Dog Rocks?

I visited the FAQ section to find out more about how the product is supposed to work. Under the heading “How do DOG ROCKS work?”, the “technical blurb” quoted above is re-printed verbatim, except with a different incarnation of woofle following the phrase, “For this reason”:

For this reason, when placed in water, Dog Rocks will help purify the water by removing some nitrates, ammonia and harmful trace elements thereby giving your dog a cleaner source of water and lowering the amount of nitrates found in their diet thereby lowering the amount that is expelled in their urine. An overload of nitrates in urine will cause lawns to burn. Dogs do produce nitrates as a by-product from the protein in their diet, but the difference between too much nitrate that will kill the grass and the amount of nitrate that will be good for the grass is very small.

Carnivores have particularly high levels of nitrogen in their urine because their diets include so much protein, and the digestion of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) creates nitrogenous waste, primarily in the form of urea. As the above quote alludes to, diluted urine can be used as a fertiliser, precisely because it contains nitrogen – one of the most important macronutrients for plants. However, at high concentrations, it causes chemical burns to roots by sapping water from them as a result of osmotic pressure. Evidence that dog rocks can transform weedkiller-wee into fertilizer, as they claim, however, is entirely absent.

On the website, the manufacturers try to gloss over the fact that the nitrogen in dogs’ urine comes overwhelmingly from the protein that they eat with their assertion (featuring in the last quote) that “the difference between too much nitrate…and the amount…that will be good for the grass is very small”. The amount of urea in canine urine is 3.5 ± 2.4 mg/dl* – like human urine, it already varies quite considerably. The manufacturers are basically admitting that the reduction in nitrogen concentration achieved by dog rocks will be “very small”, but hanging on to the case for efficacy by saying that a very small reduction is all that is needed. Their use of the phrase “very small”, without any quantification or context is entirely unscientific and misleading. Small relative to what? An infinitesimal is “very small”; so is an electron; so is an ant; so is a Falabella pony, all relative to their contexts. 

The company fails to give a threshold concentration value of urinary nitrogen beyond which urine burns plant roots, and below which it doesn’t (which is fishy in and of itself – this would have been one of the most important things to determine in those “lab tests” they say they conducted). If the change in nitrogen concentration effected by dog rocks is “very small”, then the product should only work in the subset of cases in which a dog’s initial urinary nitrogen concentration happens to be just above this undeclared value, and for owners to notice a change would require that individual dogs always produced urine with that same concentration – just a “very small” fraction above the magic value  which they don’t. In reality, urea concentration fluctuates from pee to pee – the ability to vary urine concentration is one of the most important properties of the mammalian kidney. A “very small” change would would be drowned out by the noise of this daily variation. The only way I can see dog rocks working is if they were to effect a “very big” change which, given the relatively enormous amount of protein dogs eat, is physiologically implausible. So, assuming that dog rocks do actually remove nitrates from water (the website gives us no reason to believe that they do, and plenty of red flags to suggest that they probably don’t), the idea that this would translate into prevention of lawn burns in anywhere near 80% of cases is wholly unconvincing.

To summarise, the company has failed on four levels:

1) It provides no demonstration that the nitrates in the water a dog drinks contributes significantly towards its propensity to produce lawn spots.

2) It provides no evidence that dog rocks lower nitrate concentration in drinking water, nor does it describe a plausible mechanism for how they might do so, beyond unspecified “ion exchange”. (Incidentally, if these things really could absorb nitrates, wouldn’t the company be a major seller to people who own expensive aquarium set-ups?)

3) It provides no evidence, if indeed dietary nitrates consumed in water did play a significant role, that their product could significantly reduce nitrate content in dogs’ urine, relative to the nitrates coming from other sources (particularly the meat that they eat).

4) It provides no evidence that, if indeed their product did significantly reduce the nitrate content in dog urine relative to the nitrates coming from other sources, this would translate into an impact on lawn burn.

Any evidence filling in the logical gaps in their sales pitch represented by points 1-4 above would be helpful to Dog Rocks. A demonstration of each stage, along with a functional explanation, would be most convincing. However, demonstration of point 4 alone would be a good start in making their case for efficacy. They could conduct a randomised controlled study, submitted to peer-review, in which a group of, say, a hundred volunteers used dog rocks for a few months, and a hundred used “normal” rocks instead. The outcomes could be quantified by counting the number of lawn burns at the beginning and end of the trial, and then the results statistically analysed to determine whether any significant reduction had been achieved.

Something tells me that Dog Rocks won’t rise to the challenge.

I couldn’t help quoting what one Amazon reviewer of the product said in their concluding paragraph: “The ONLY truly effective solution to brown patches on your lawn is to pour a bucket of water on the exact spot that your dog has just had a wee, as soon as they have done it. If that’s not practical, then your next best solution is to save the money you would be spending on Dog Rocks every two months, and buy 2 rolls of turf. Cut out the dead patches on your lawn, and replace them with new turf. Repeat every two months. Job done.”

*I have been unable to ascertain whether this value of 3.5 +/- 2.4 mg/dl refers to deviation across different dogs, over an individual dogs’ different pees, or a combination of the two ranges. If any vets are reading and can shed light, this would be nice for completeness.