Pseudoscience: It’s All In How You Say It – And What You Don’t Say

Back in my USENET days, I used to spend a lot of time debating various animal rights activists.   I’m a strong  supporter of  animal welfare, but I have scant use for most of the “animal rights” groups.  You know, the ones who espouse  doing away with any animal products, want everyone to switch to a vegan diet, and get rid of domestic animals altogether.  One of the things they used to do (still do, actually)  was to try to piggyback onto various environmental concerns.  One figure they threw around – and yes, it was accepted by various news media – was the huge amount of water that was “necessary” to produce a pound of beef.   It was shocking, and disturbing from an environmental standpoint.    The figure came from John Robbins’ book “Diet For a New America”   Where he got that figure from was the US Department of Agriculture.  Obviously, a figure from the government agency in charge of agriculture has to be trusted, right?  Except if you looked at how the USDA came up with the figure, and why.

You see, it was a hypothetical figure.  Someone sat down an figured out the total water needed if you raised a beef cow from weaning to slaughter weight feeding it a diet of  pure corn which had been grown on irrigated fields.    The total water the cow drank, the amount of water needed to process the meat, and the water needed to grow the corn were all added together.   The problem with it?  It’s a hypothetical maximum,  not a realistic figure.  Beef cattle aren’t fed a diet of pure corn all their lives, and even in the feedlots, they’re not.  Not all – or even most – of the feed corn is grown on irrigated fields.   In other words, to someone lacking context for the figure and who might not know about cattle in the first place, it sounded appropriately bad.

I was reminded of this reading an article in the Montreal Gazette about Chicken McNuggets.  They discuss Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and point out this part:

Pollan provocatively implies that the nuggets are 56 per cent corn. Where does that number come from? Well, chickens are reared on corn, and Pollan calculates the amount of corn that is converted into chicken flesh, and adds to this the weight of other ingredients that are made from corn, such as the dextrose used in the batter, and comes up with the meaningless but attention-grabbing 56 per cent.

But it sounds terrible, doesn’t it?  Which was why it was used.  It’s a common technique, used by a number of pseudo-scientific authors (Huffington Post) or various advocacy groups, like the anti-vaccine advocates, creationists, or climate change deniers.  Take a figure out of context, and then cut and paste it into your argument.     You can even use  various true facts and then twist them.  For example,  the anti-vaccine groups make a big deal about mercury in the vaccines – which in all reality, there isn’t much, if any.  But here’s where it gets fun.  They use the figures for methylmercury, which has a low excretion rate and bioaccumulates to justify their stance.   Which is of course,very, very scary.  The problem?  Thimerosal (which is the mercury compound used in some vaccines) metabolizes to ethylmercury, which is readily excreted.  In other words, it doesn’t bioaccumulate, and is fairly rapidly removed from the body.  The equivalent is if I used all the bad things about methyl alcohol to justify banning ethyl alcohol.

Here’s another one:  Genetically modified bacteria are used to create a sweetener! Gasp!  Horror!

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener found in thousands of products worldwide, has been found to be created using genetically modified (GM) bacteria. What’s even more shocking is how long this information has been known. A 1999 article by The Independent was the first to expose the abominable process in which aspartame was created.

Which really amounts to –  nothing.  Seriously.  If you start off with “genetically modified bacteria = bad,”  “artificial=bad,” and “Monsanto=Evil” you can then leap to a conclusion without any intervening  chemical or physiological reality.  You can also find some interesting conspiracy theories like this one:  “Chemtrails.”

It is of the utmost importance that we flood the U.S. media with an awareness that a heinous crime is being committed against humanity and our precious planet in the skies around the globe. We  believe that the U.S. has bullied the rest of the world into following their chemtrail-geoengineering agenda.

Yes, terrible, isn’t it?  Since I’ve never heard of this – that’s why it’s a secret conspiracy, I guess – and the pictures they use to prove their case look remarkably like jet contrails, I don’t know why I’m … skeptical about it.  OK, really, it’s batshit insane.

It helps if you use a scary sounding name.  Everything that follows is literally true.  There’s a chemical called hydronium hydroxide, also known as DHMO.  Some of the known problems are:

  • Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities.
  • Prolonged exposure to solid DHMO causes severe tissue damage.
  • Excessive ingestion produces a number of unpleasant though not typically life-threatening side-effects.
  • DHMO is a major component of acid rain.
  • Gaseous DHMO can cause severe burns.
  • Contributes to soil erosion.
  • Leads to corrosion and oxidation of many metals.
  • Contamination of electrical systems often causes short-circuits.
  • Exposure decreases effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • Found in biopsies of pre-cancerous tumors and lesions.

Terrible stuff, right?  Scares the crap out of you, and yes, there have been surveys done where people support banning or strictly regulating it.   Of course, anyone with a little bit of chemistry background could immediately tell you what it is.  Water. Which is an example of how various activists use selective presentation combined with other fears to make a point.

Here’s another example.  I’m going to take a compound found in coal tar and petroleum, hydroxybenzene, create a sodium salt of it.  Then I’m going to heat it under pressure with carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid to create 2-hydroxybenzoic acid.  After that, I’m going to mix it with acetic anhydride to create a chemical compound called 2-acetoxybenzoic acid.   I could also take the 2-hydroxybenzoic acid, heat it with methanol, and make compound called methyl-2-hydroxybenzoate.   People use a lot of the 2-acetoxybenzoic acid, you can even buy it on store shelves.  The methyl-2-hydroxybenzoate is found in various ointments, and it’s even put into chewing gums.  My goodness, chemicals derived from petroleum are found in our food supply!  They actually ask people to use them!  Horror!  Terror!  Unnatural chemicals!    But no one really worries about them in reality.  That’s because their chemical names aren’t what they’re sold as.  They’re aspirin and oil of wintergreen.

These are examples of the tactics used by various pseudoscience advocates.  They take terms that sound “bad,”  or take facts out of context and promptly add a heavy coating of supposition and innuendo, and wrap  it into a paranoid conspiracy  to make their case.  The problem is not that these people  exist – they always have.  It’s that they have increasingly wasted real money and time by forcing others to debunk them, even when it shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place.  It hurts policy, when they gain a political voice,  as they have.  We have one political party which is consistently denying climate change, despite the evidence.    We have politicians and state education boards trying to install creationism into biology curricula.  We have government agencies spending millions to study vaccines whose safety and effectiveness have long been known.

It distracts attention and resources from very real problems we face in this country.  Worse, in some cases, it has caused real deaths, that could have been prevented.  They’re  not always “harmless” beliefs, and that is the very real danger with pseudoscience.

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2 responses to “Pseudoscience: It’s All In How You Say It – And What You Don’t Say

  1. Aquagranny911

    This must be my day for outrage.

    “Diet For A Small Planet” was written by Frances Moore Lappe in the early 1970’s. It was mostly a compendium of recipes to help people eat lower on the food chain while still getting adequate protein in their diets.

    I don’t know who this John Robbins is but he stole her book title. Sorry, Norbrook, I’m having a bad day. I couldn’t even finish your diary cause the ‘mad’ was burning through my brain. I’ll be back when I have cooled off. Later Dude