Organic Food is Not Sustainable

Like a shrinking number of North Americans, I grew up in a small farming community. Almost half of my classmates were up before dawn each day to feed livestock, gather eggs, and tend to newborn calves around the farm. Discussions of 4H club assignments were common at school, and class field trips often took the form of a tour of a classmate’s family farm. The closest that I ever got to farming was when my family planted a vegetable garden in our backyard – until we replaced it with a pool. Like my family’s short-lived vegetable garden, many of the farms in my community would have also been classified as organic. This meant that their livestock were not subjected to growth hormones or other artificial substances, they did not spray synthetic pesticides on their crops, and they abstained from growing crops that were genetically modified.

niche-farm@2xFarming labels at home went no further than describing the outputs of your operation. The terms “organic”, “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised”, or “cage-free” were never present, despite the practices all being widespread. The only branding that occurred on the farms in my community were on the hindquarters of beef cattle. The branding of our farms and food is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Another branding term commonly used synonymously with organic food is sustainability. The concept of sustainability gets blindly applied to many “green” products without an understanding of what the term actually means. Many “sustainable” products are quite the opposite and are largely the result of greenwashing products to appeal to the values shared by socially and environmentally conscious consumers.

According to Stanford University, sustainability is: “...the ability to provide for the needs of the world’s current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. When a process is sustainable, it can be carried out over and over without negative environmental effects or impossibly high costs to anyone involved.

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Sustainability is based on the interaction between environmental, social, and economic factors in a given system. With regards to sustainable agriculture, the focus is to keep the environmental impact low, reduce costs, increase yields, and increase access to food. Curiously, organic food achieves none of these benchmarks. So if organic food isn’t an agricultural solution based on better science, economics, or social impacts, then why is it perceived that way in our culture?

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Despite being present for centuries, organic farming and food rapidly gained popularity in the mid 2000s in response to cultural rejections of modernity. The rapid changes in technology created a sense of apprehension and even fear in the march forward towards more advanced technology. Even today, Americans fear technology more than death itself, second only to natural disasters. According to sociologist Christopher Bader:

“People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology”.

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The dotcom crash of the early 2000s signalled to many that we may be rushing too quickly into a technocracy. A countercultural push backwards towards a more authentic way of living yielded many new cultural trends, and organic food was one of the most prevalent. Organic was not simply a new product label, it was an entire lifestyle created to reject the destructive, mainstream, corporate-controlled norms of our food, clothing, and any other products a company  could tack an “organic” label on. And perhaps more importantly, it was an excellent way to create products that could command much higher prices.

The organic food movement proved very effective at achieving just that: U.S. organic food sales have grown from $20 billion to over $40 billion in a little over a decade. One of the more curious features of the organic movement is that organic products are sold as salt-of-the-earth, warm, friendly, ethical products, when in fact many organic farms are just as large as many conventional farms. Very little of the organic products for sale at the supermarket are from small mom & pop operations – you’ll need to visit the farmer’s market to enjoy those types of purchases.

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Even more interesting is the ownership of many organic brands. The organic movement is fundamentally based on the principle of mainstream rejection of the corporatization of our food. Yet the largest organic brands are owned by the same multinationals that organic consumers often criticize for their unethical practices. Many conscious consumers have been duped by the notion that their organic purchases are ethically and morally superior to those who purchase conventionally produced foods. This is a costly mistake: Consumer Reports estimates organic food averaged 47% more than non-organic. Paying almost 1.5 times as much for the same product at a chemical and nutritional level hardly seems economically sustainable to me.

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Follow the money: a map of the ownership of major organic food brands

But what about the environmental impacts? That’s where the real value of sustainability lies, right? The common myth presented about organic food is that it is produced without the application of pesticides. Indicative of what is typical in terms of public education on the subject, the David Suzuki Foundation purposely omits the fact that organic agriculture still employs the use of pesticides. However, not only do organic farms use pesticides, they also spray them more often. While organic farming guidelines prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, natural pesticides are still allowed.

Natural pesticides are inefficient and less effective than synthetic pesticides, which is why they need to be applied more often in higher dosages to achieve the same results. One of the most common pesticides used by organic farmers is a toxin derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, otherwise known as Bt. The name may sound familiar, as it’s the same Bt found in the name of Bt corn, a transgenic product of biotechnology giant Monsanto that employs the use of an inserted gene to grant the plant the ability to manufacture its own defense against potential pests. The latter is a healthier for the environment because it’s more accurately targeted and doesn’t come in the form of a pesticide.

In addition to the harmful biological effects caused by increased pesticide use, further environmental damage is caused through the production of and machinery used to spray pesticides and harvest crops. Organic farms still use tractors, combines, and other fossil fuel-burning machinery to plant and harvest their crops. Increased pesticide use also drives up cost in terms of a higher purchase volume and the cost of equipment operation. Organic farming also produces lower crop yields per acre than conventional farming models. These operational inefficiencies are covered by the higher price point of organic food. Higher food prices are the opposite of what true sustainability aims to achieve; specifically, the sustainability pillars of viability and equitability.

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 “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” – Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions.

Sustainability seeks to build multi-dimensional, stable systems with longevity in mind. Global food security is a serious problem, but embracing organic food is not the solution. Neither is conventional agriculture. While the latter may be more productive in terms of raw output, decreased waste, and reduced pesticide application thanks to genetically modified crops and improvements to pesticide specificity and efficacy, the massive input of fertilizer and continued  application of pesticides to many crops will continue to harm the environment.

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An algal bloom in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fertilizer run-off into the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie has produced hypoxic environments due to algal blooms that are detrimental to the balance of life in these ecosystems. Fertilizer pollution is still a factor on large organic farms; the input of nitrogen and phosphorus is still large, albeit from a natural source (manure) instead of from artificial fertilizer. A meta-analysis of European organic farming indicated that manure can actually impact environmental toxicity more severely than artificial fertilizer as a product of water contamination.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not honey bee populations that need help – honey bees are essentially domesticated animals, and do not require the same level of attention as wild bees do. Their populations have held steady since the 1990s. The decline of wild bee populations has been linked to a variety of factors including Varroa mites, neonicotinoid pesticides, and mono-cropping practices of most industrial-scale farms.  Legislation that outlaws neonicotinoid pesticides is still based on preliminary science and a clear link between this class of pesticide and the overall viability of bee populations has not yet been firmly established.

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Source: The US Department of Agriculture

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Currently, conventional agriculture is a more sustainable practice than organic agriculture. The aversion to certain technologies that organic agricultural is based on will always be the Achilles heel of the industry. But conventional agriculture is far from perfect. With the rapid development of the middle class in China and many societies in Africa, food security for a growing global population will become increasingly important in the coming decades. In order to increase the level of sustainability of global agriculture, a paradigm shift needs to occur within industrial agriculture.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is one such approach that holds promise for the future. The complexity of ecological systems makes IPM a notoriously difficult process, but by augmenting natural systems to self-govern themselves, we reduce the need for pesticide inputs, producing reduced environmental impacts and operational expenses. While IPM is often more expensive in terms of capital expenses due to the research needed to adequately test the proposed system, operational expenses plummet drastically once the system begins to take shape.

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A tree infected by Mountain Pine Beetles

For example, extensive biological control work has been implemented for the Mountain Pine Beetle, a menace to timber companies in the Pacific Northwest. The beetles aggregate in massive groups on Ponderosa pine trees to feed and reproduce. Natural predators are attracted to pheromones emitted by adult beetles during this phase of their life cycle. What timber companies now do is spray “bait trees” – these are trees that are dead or otherwise undesirable – with a pine beetle mating pheromone isolated in a lab. The beetles aggregate on the bait tree, and the natural predators of the beetle converge on the tree to eliminate the threat. No harmful pesticides are required, and the cost to apply pheromones is a fraction of the cost of spraying pesticides.

In addition to a reduced pesticide input, a move towards increased support for localized food systems and wrestling control of agriculture away from large factory farms is needed if sustainable food systems can develop. For example, most of the world’s corn is grown in North America, yet almost none of it is consumed by humans. The majority of North American corn goes towards feeding livestock or biofuel consumption. Rising food prices have been associated with the increased demand for livestock feed and biofuel production. North America’s dependency on meat is contributing to higher and higher food prices, and those below the poverty line are the most vulnerable.

More support for GM crops is also needed. The current misguided opposition to GM crops is hindering the progress of modern agriculture. Land is a finite resource on our planet, so in order to maximize the productivity of our land, technological advancement is needed. GM crops are also designed to reduce food waste and crop failure, which have major implications for food security on a global scale. Our agriculture industry will need to adapt to maintain a level of sustainability compatible with the demands of the future. The key is to draw on a hybridized system of agriculture that uses the best of both worlds. Organic food is a step in the wrong direction, and should be abandoned in favour of favourable practices that are based on science, not first-world ideologies.

Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.” – Roger Cohen, The Organic Fable

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Attention, Narcissism, and our Anti-Science Culture

My academic background is in ecology and environmental science, and like all other fields of study, science is not immune to politics; many scientific camps are divided by political interests and personal beliefs. This may be surprising when you consider that a field based on such heavy empiricism such as science can still be subject to such polarized internal debate, but science cannot answer everything, and as humans, we are still vulnerable to our personal beliefs, choices, and emotions. I was aware of this issue (I even took a course in my undergrad called Political Biology), and yet I was still surprised by the number of anti-science beliefs held by people who work in the environmental scene. I soon discovered that this is not an isolated scenario; an entire culture of anti-science has been steadily growing in recent decades, and much of it is masked in pseudoscience or scientific myth.

The political left has a large distrust of industry, corporations, and is primarily opposed to capitalism as a whole. Due to the destruction of our environment thanks to widespread industrial activity around the world as a result of capitalism, the left is also heavily concerned with environmental issues. What is often conflated with the negative effects that capitalism has on the environment is industrial science. Common examples of this include opposition to genetically modified foods, opposition to certain pesticides, or opposition to western medicine & vaccination programs.

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While the political left may be the dark horse in the anti-science race, the political right has long been the front-runner. With its fair share of pervasive anti-science beliefs such as creationism or climate change denial, citizens with strong conservative beliefs have long been ridiculed by the scientific community. What has become clear in recent years is that our culture is becoming largely untrustworthy of science no matter what our political affiliation or good intentions align with. Where did this widespread mistrust of scientists and the scientific industry come from? A change in cultural tastes combined with cognitive bias.

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Hartmann_Maschinenhalle_1868_(01)Once the Industrial Revolution forever altered the pace of production capabilities, skilled labour was the commodity most in demand. With all of this new technology becoming widely available, the world needed people to operate it. Within a few decades, the blue collar labour market was satiated, so the economy progressed towards the acquisition of knowledge and information. We had the technology to create a variety of products and services, so science and technology took massive leaps forward during the “knowledge economy”. Major innovations such as home appliances, the automobile, and space travel emerged from our quest for knowledge and its application. The field of marketing was invented at this time to inform, educate, and persuade consumers to purchase certain products over others. Above all else, information was the driving force behind the economy.

Once the Internet was developed, knowledge became widespread – so widespread that information began to lose its value. The professions that gained the most prestige during the knowledge economy – scientists, professors, and even physicians saw their value dwindle in the face of the abundance of knowledge, despite the fact that the overall intelligence of general population had not changed. For example, despite the wide availability of knowledge, average SAT scores have not changed in decades (see figure below). However, when you combine the abundance of knowledge with a growing culture of narcissism and a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, you get the current anti-science state of today. This is not to say that the world is overwhelmingly against science, but notable cases of anti or pseudo science are much more common today thanks to the rate at which information can spread*.

*This historical evolution of the economy is largely based on ideas from The Fourth Economy by Ron Davison

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How does narcissism influence distrust of scientific authorities? Recall that SAT scores haven’t changed much in decades, yet the percentage of students on the honor roll has. University enrollment has also ballooned. In essence, we now have an entire generation who think that they’re much smarter than they actually are due to the grades they achieved or the school they attend. What this generation chooses to ignore is the unfortunate position that many high school teachers are in: competition to attend university and be rich and successful is more intense than ever, so more students than ever need high grades to compete. The pressure falls onto the shoulders of their teachers to be complacent with the demand. With a grossly inflated sense of intelligence comes an overestimation of one’s abilities.

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The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the cognitive bias associated with those who score low on various intelligence tests, who overestimate their abilities, are unable to recognize their incompetency, and are unable to accurately recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. Inversely, highly competent individuals underestimated their abilities and also underestimated the complexity of tasks for others that they themselves found easy. To put it bluntly, stupid people think that they’re smart and talented and don’t realize how stupid they actually are, and smart people are humble, but incredibly poor judges of how easy things are for the general public. Combine this cognitive bias with a healthy dose of narcissism and an abundance of information and you have a recipe for disaster.

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A graphical representation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Instead of placing their trust in their doctor, many people think that their doctors are stupid and that they know what’s best for their health, or their children’s, all because they “did their research” using WebMD and a few articles written by a guy with an undergraduate degree philosophy. Because information is widely available, people don’t place the same value in the “keepers” of knowledge like scientists or physicians that they once did. For example, instead of listening to overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods for consumption, some people would rather listen to bloggers whose relevant credentials include a computer and hands.

Trust is often placed in the alternative, because the alternative is viewed as exciting, honest, and free of corruption. Sometimes society fails people, and instead of accepting the fact that sometimes bad things happen to people regardless of how they conduct their lives, they blame “the system” and seek out the alternative in a quest for salvation. This is what leads people to make irrational decisions like foregoing chemotherapy in favour of coffee enemas, only consuming organic food to cure allergies, cancer or autism, abstaining from vaccinations, or becoming a Scientologist.

Jessica Alba shopping at Whole Foods Market. Many of our beliefs or practices are influenced by celebrities, often in an aspirational attempt to live like they do, even if what they do is not backed by any credible evidence. The belief that organic food is better for you is a marketing ploy and lifestyle gimmick reinforced by photos like this one.

Jessica Alba shopping at Whole Foods Market. Many of our beliefs or practices are influenced by celebrities, often in an aspirational attempt to live like they do, even if what they do is not backed by any credible evidence. The belief that organic food is better for you is a marketing ploy and lifestyle gimmick reinforced by photos like this one.

So why do people place their trust in sources who have professional level credentials (MD, PhD, etc…) who promote alternative solutions to their problems? The answer lies in a different appeal of the alternative: its moral superiority and “cool” factor. Going to the doctor to get a prescription isn’t cool. Getting vaccinated isn’t. Neither is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. But undergoing a detox program is! So is beating cancer with wheatgrass enemas and a raw vegan diet. Eating green coffee bean extract or going on the paleo diet to shed pounds is also cool. Because of the susceptibility of people in today’s world for narcissism and status, they will be more likely to compete and participate in activities that make them appear morally superior and cool, which is precisely why these anti-scientific practices have been gaining steam in recent decades. Science is boring and uncool, but raw juice detox programs aren’t.

Because information is so pervasive – we are constantly bombarded with hordes of it every day – it becomes quite difficult to pick apart the correct story, because its often buried under a landfill of sensationalist junk. It is not the content of information that we base our choices on; it is how the information attracts our attention. Unfortunately, this often leads people down the incorrect path, because agencies that peddle misinformation are adept at constructing headlines or concepts that are attention-grabbing. This is the same reason why conspiracy theories are so popular. Facts are often mundane and boring; real news is created through excitement. The concept of virality is heavily based in attention and triggering emotions such as fear or anger, not in the quality or truthiness of the article’s content.

Gwyneth Paltrow has come under fire recently for repeatedly promoting bogus health and wellness products and treatments. One thing people don't understand is that Gwyneth Paltrow is attractive and healthy because of genetics and her lifestyle afforded by her wealth, not because of detox programs or vaginal steaming sessions.

Gwyneth Paltrow has come under fire recently for repeatedly promoting bogus health and wellness products and treatments. One thing people don’t understand is that Gwyneth Paltrow is attractive and healthy because of genetics and her lifestyle afforded by her wealth, not because of detox programs or vaginal steaming sessions.

This attention-based economy is primarily the reason why the environmental movement is so frustrating and convoluted; there are great causes at work, but there are just as many causes that are hypocritical or simply based on fictitious premises. Alarmist campaigns get the most attention, and due to preconceived notions about capitalism or political affiliations, most supporters of these types of campaigns will not yield in the debate on the issue. What is fallacious about this scenario is the fact that there should not be a debate in the first place. A debate is based on two differing opinions; perhaps a new policy on economic reform or education, or where tax dollars should be spent. What is so confusing of today’s anti-science culture is that we are debating issues that are explained by overwhelming scientific consensus using nothing but opinions and anecdotal evidence erroneously attributed to causation, when it is merely correlation at best.

Due to the culture of narcissism and the Dunning-Kruger effect, opponents of science are exceptionally unyielding because they are unaware of how flawed their argument is, or they simply have too much pride in their perceived intellect to admit that they’re wrong. Education and intelligence has an established importance and value in society, so no one wants to admit that they’re wrong, let alone unintelligent. In an ever-increasing population and society that values self-expression, promotes uniqueness, and breeds narcissism, we will continue to see people abandoning the boring world of science in favour of cool and exciting alternatives, which can often have fatal impacts.

What opponents of science need to understand is that there is no scientific industry conspiracy: all physicians are not pill-pushing industry shills, GM crops are not dangerous, and you can’t cure cancer with turmeric and a prayer. We all like to think that we’re well-educated, special people who deserve no wrong, but we all must remember a few things to help correct our behaviour: i) we’re not that special; we’re not that smart; we’re wrong more than we think; ii) we need to place more trust in the consensus of esteemed scientific professionals who have made it their career to better understand problems in our world and stop thinking that we know better than they do just because we don’t agree with them; iii) stop listening to dangerous and poorly-researched advice wrapped in a veil of “truth” or “enlightenment” that is created for the financial benefit of a few people at the expense of thousands. Eventually, opponents to contentious scientific topics may come around; after all, Galileo was once thrown in jail for believing that the Earth revolved the Sun.

The trial of Galileo Galilei.

The trial of Galileo Galilei.

 

Feathers and Fur: Navigating the Coyote Fur Debate of Canada Goose Jackets

AVE221-Canada+Goose+2013121Canada Goose has been manufacturing their famous down-filled parkas for over 50 years, but the now iconic brand was relatively unknown until GQ magazine ran a feature in their October 2008 issue that endorsed the company’s signature Expedition parka.

Canada Goose in GQ

Canada Goose in GQ

The company’s revenue has increased from $3 million in 2001 to over $200 million as of 2014, and the exponential growth spiked after the GQ feature. Like anything popular, Canada Goose has faced its fair share of criticism, from the gaudy signature patch applied to all of their products to their counterfeiting issues, but the largest issue facing Canada Goose is the controversy surrounding their use of coyote fur on some of their products.

Animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals have launched media campaigns against Canada Goose to criticize their use of coyote fur. These campaigns are full of disturbing images of trapped coyotes, reports that trapped coyotes remain trapped for days, and even describe coyotes biting their own leg off in order to return to their young. Despite numerous criticisms for PETA’s extreme views on promoting animal welfare, such as one campaign that discouraged milk consumption by linking it to autism, the subject of fur use in the fashion industry remains a heavily debated topic due to humanity’s widespread affection for animals, particularly furry ones.

A typical PETA anti-fur ad

A typical PETA anti-fur ad

Anti-fur ads are very effective; they tug at the heartstrings of viewers and cause a moral dilemma – who would ever want to hurt a cute, fluffy animal? There are indeed problems with the fur industry, such as the unsustainable practice of fur farming. If you aren’t aware of what a fur farm is, it’s essentially a factory farm where animals are raised and harvested not for their meat, but for their fur.

Mink in cages at a fur farm.

Mink in cages at a fur farm.

 

Much like factory farms, fur farms are crowded and stressful for the animals inhabiting them, but like factory farms, they are a necessary evil in order to meet the supply of their product. If it were sustainable to efficiently harvest all of the mink required in the fur industry, that system would be in place; unfortunately, just like factory farms are required to sustain the world’s appetite for meat, fur farms are required to sustain the world’s fur industry.

However, this article is about coyote fur used on Canada Goose jackets, and the coyotes harvested for that purpose are all trapped, not farmed. My issue with animal rights groups’ attacks on trapping coyotes for their fur lies in their lack of understanding of the biology of the coyote, as well as humanity’s tendency to react with a sympathetic bias towards certain genera of animals, such as mammals or birds, simply because they’re cute or have fur. First, let’s go a little more in-depth into the biology of the coyote.

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An adult coyote

Historically, coyotes were native to central plains of the United States, and their range periodically extended North to the prairies of Canada and South into Mexico. Their recent expansion into Northeastern regions in North America has been caused by several factors: the deforestation of the Northeast for human settlement, the increase in food sources such as livestock, and the eradication of the former apex predator of the Northeast, the gray wolf. Coyotes are opportunistic breeders, which means that populations only breed as a function of available food. Because of the increase in livestock populations in North America, coyotes now have a plentiful food source available.

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The eradication of gray wolves during the 1800s by American settlers was seen as the solution to a growing number of wolf attacks on livestock. The ecological niche of apex predator was left vacant, and aside from the North American black bear, no sizable predators existed in the Northeast. White-tailed deer populations exploded as a result of a lack of predation to the point that these animals are now viewed as urban pests. White-tailed deer are browsing animals, which means that they feed on trees and shrubs. The ecological damage caused by white-tailed deer disrupts the healthy growth of young trees and shrubs and impedes the regenerative cycles of forests. Additionally, deer also cause human injury & mortality – not to mention repair expenses – as the result of vehicular collisions.

Ecological damage typical of white-tailed deer.

Ecological damage caused by white-tailed deer.

Recently, coyotes have begun to fill the niche of apex predator in many regions of the Northeast. Since black bears do not feed on ungulates (animals like deer, moose, or antelope), coyotes now have an overpopulated food source. As mentioned before, coyotes are breeders of opportunity, so with an abundant food source, coyote populations have been steadily increasing in the past few decades. However, coyotes are smaller than wolves, so preying on deer is less common for coyotes, as they prefer smaller prey species like rabbits. With the increase in livestock, coyotes have a food source that is readily accessible and easy to prey upon; a sheep is not as fast nor as potentially violent as a deer.

Coyotes have replaced wolves in many regions where wolves have been extirpated.

Coyotes have replaced wolves in many regions where wolves have been extirpated.

Preventing coyote attacks are now a routine part of every livestock owner’s life. Attacks from coyotes on pets and even humans are now becoming more commonplace as coyote populations adapt and become more comfortable living in such close proximity to humans. Coyotes, like the deer they prey on, are now considered urban pests. In fact, the problem has gotten so bad in Saskatchewan that the Provincial government issued a bounty on coyotes in November 2009; over 71,000 bounties were claimed by March 2010.

Clearly, coyotes are a problem in North America, and will continue to be as long as humans raise livestock. From a biological standpoint, the harvest of coyotes for their fur is not damaging at all to ecosystems they inhabit, as the next breeding cycle will see lost individuals replaced by increased offspring numbers. The coyote cull in Saskatchewan was ineffective; the reproductive strategy of the surviving coyotes accounted for the individuals lost in the cull. Experts state that limiting food sources is the only effective strategy, but good luck telling sheep farmers to close up shop.

Coyotes are a constant nuisance for sheep farmers and now even pet owners.

Coyotes are a constant nuisance for sheep farmers and now even pet owners.

This brings us to the complicated issue of animal ethics. It is impossible to have unanimous support for the harvest of a fur-bearing animal – humans are highly driven and influenced by our emotions and the thought of killing a cute furry animal is a difficult one to process. One needs to look no further than the complicated matter of the seal hunt in Newfoundland & Labrador to see just how contentious the harvest of animals for their fur (and meat) can be. The seal hunt is further complicated by the issue of Indigenous People’s rights, but that’s a whole other issue. What we often forget is that animals have limited lifespans (except if you’re a certain immortal jellyfish), and animals succumb to death due to old age, predation, or disease just like we all do.

The seal hunt. A very controversial practice in Canada.

The seal hunt: a very controversial practice in Canada.

Trapping or hunting, despite their more “savage” reputations among the masses, are in fact the most humane methods of harvesting game or fur-bearers, especially when compared to the conditions present on fur farms or factory farms. When an animal is harvested as a result of trapping or hunting, it is almost always a full grown adult that has bred a few times and lived a healthy, fulfilling life. Juveniles or new offspring are avoided because they are undesirable for meat or fur.

The question of abandoning the trapping & fur business altogether in favour of synthetic materials is an oft-proposed alternative; however, for the same reason that synthetic leather will never replicate the quality and feel of the real thing, synthetic fur is simply not a valid substitute for the real thing. Genuine fur is much better at repelling snow and cold than synthetic fur, and despite the fact that the majority of Canada Goose jacket owners buy the jacket for the brand and not the function of the fur hood, the premium brand image that Canada Goose sells needs to be accompanied by premium materials; that means real fur.

The issue of harvesting animals for their fur is also one of great contention. We are the only species of animal that kills other animals for uses beyond the scope of absolute necessity for survival. In the past, fur-bearing animals provided us with warmth, so their harvest was necessary, but today we are not dependent on furs to keep warm.

The debate on ethics will likely never be settled, because animal ethics are so subjective. We have made large strides in our knowledge of the biology of the creatures we harvest for our own use, but we have also taken many strides backward with the dependence on factory farming. The purpose of this article was to simply present the biological side of the Canada Goose coyote fur debate and help to rationalize the overall fur debate picture, which has unfortunately been polluted with sensationalist claims and a great deal of misinformation about the fur industry. The harvest of fur-bearing animals is certainly far from perfect from a moral standpoint, but it’s not as ethically (or biologically) poor as some of our more regular practices.

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The Breakfast Snub: How Digital Wildfires Killed Kellogg’s

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The name Kellogg has been synonymous with breakfast for over a century, but the company’s cereal products have experienced a massive sales slump in the past half decade that has led to a loss of hundreds of jobs for factory workers as the company restructures and alters its strategy moving forward. As is customary in the tumultuous food industry, diet trends dictate the flow of sales, and companies must adapt or risk significant losses. The Kellogg story is a particularly unfortunate one because the dip in sales can be attributed in part to digital misinformation.

A report by the World Economic Forum lists massive digital misinformation as one of the largest threats in the modern world, forming a bridge between technological and geopolitical risk. Information available on the Internet is grossly unregulated, which is both equal parts a strength and weakness. The speed and virality with which information can travel is remarkable, and this can cause immediate financial consequences for firms.

W.K. Kellogg, the inventor of breakfast cereal.

W.K. Kellogg, the inventor of breakfast cereal.

Kellogg’s is a major player in the breakfast cereal industry, with annual revenues of almost 15 billion USD in 2013. In fact, the company’s founder, Will K. Kellogg, is credited with practically inventing the modern idea of breakfast. Before Kellogg, North Americans woke up and consumed leftovers, which caused widespread indigestion due to a lack of proper food storage technologies like refrigeration. Kellogg’s older brother John was a holistic physician who worked at a wellness centre that catered to the wealthy, where patrons would undergo expensive therapies that involved enemas and hydrotherapy.

Together, the brothers sought to solve the population’s breakfast dilemma, and due to their faith, they were both strict vegetarians, so the Kellogg brothers needed to develop a breakfast food that aligned with their diet. The result was what we know today as Corn Flakes, the world’s first breakfast cereal.

Kellogg acquired Pringles in 2012

Kellogg acquired Pringles in 2012

Today, the very product that made the company famous has been waning in popularity. In fact, the percentage of total revenue from cereal has been steadily declining in the past decade. In 2000, breakfast cereal accounted for 70 percent of Kellogg’s sales; in 2014 that number shrunk to 45 percent. A $2.7 billion acquisition of the Pringles brand from Proctor & Gamble in 2012 helped to alleviate the damage to Kellogg caused by shrinking cereal sales, but this still didn’t solve the dwindling sales of their breakfast products.

We know that Kellogg – and indeed all cereal companies – are struggling to sell breakfast cereal, but what is at the root of this shift in breakfast preferences? Breakfast hasn’t disappeared from our diet; in fact, 1 in 5 restaurant trips are for breakfast, and sales of other breakfast-related products like greek yogurt or eggs have surged in recent years. So if not a disappearance of breakfast, then what? Ironically, the very same class of wealthy individuals who practiced holistic medicine and other alternative approaches to their health are the cause of the massive sales decline for the very breakfast product invented to combat their ailing health.

Low carbohydrate diets have been a trend throughout history as long as people have been concerned about their body weight, but none of these diets have ever had more proof than what is found in the books coupled to these diets and anecdotal testimonials of those on the diet, particularly celebrities. For example, today’s Paleo Diet was the Stone Age Diet 40 years ago, and the Atkins Diet has been popular twice: once in the 1970s when Dr. Atkins published his first book, and again beginning in 2002 when he published a revised edition.

At their core, these diets are the same based on the fact that they both encourage the users to abstain from consuming carbohydrates. While limiting the intake of carbohydrates is a key component to any healthy diet, eliminating carbohydrates, specifically grains, altogether as part of a healthy diet has never been supported by scientific consensus. Breakfast cereal sales have survived periods of low-carb diet popularity, but it was not until the past decade that health gurus decided to turn their sights on new enemies more specific than just carbs: GMOs, wheat, gluten, and non-organic foods.

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In 2011, a preventative cardiologist from Wisconsin named William Davis published Wheat Belly, a book that proclaims that wheat is the underlying cause of numerous adverse health conditions in our society. Dr. Davis describes wheat as “toxic” and refers to modern wheat crops as “Frankenwheat”, stating that the wheat grown today is nothing like the wheat grown in the 1950s and 1960s. This book had profound effects on the public’s perception of wheat in their diets, despite the fact that none of Davis’ claims are supported by any evidence that can be considered conclusive.

Despite the rejection of Davis’ claims by the scientific community, the ideas promoted by Wheat Belly caught on and helped contribute to the decline in sales of products that contained wheat. A great deal of breakfast cereals contain wheat or wheat products, and the North American consumers’ new found aversion to wheat also helped contribute to the hysteria surrounding a particular protein contained in wheat (and other grains): gluten.

Dr. Peter Gibson is a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the G.I. unit at Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. Unlike most people who talk about the effects that gluten has on the body, Dr. Gibson actually boasts the qualifications to do so, and when he and his team published a study in 2011 that described a possible link between gluten and gastric distress, the world took notice. Despite a small sample size and an experimental design that left much room for improvement, the notion that gluten could be the culprit behind everything from gastric distress to autism soon caught widespread attention in developed countries, and the gluten-free industry exploded. By 2016, gluten-free products are predicted to have sales in excess of $15 billion, which is double the 2011 total. Entire aisles in grocery stores now house gluten-free products, which used to be incredibly hard to find for the 1% of the population who have celiac disease and cannot actually consume gluten.

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True to the nature of science, Dr. Gibson and his team revisited their study and sought to improve the design to confirm that gluten was indeed the cause for gastric distress. In 2013, Dr. Gibson reported that the startling results of his first study were not supported by the data of his second, more extensive study. In fact, he determined that the cause of the gastric distress exhibited by patients was not related to diet at all, but rather, the mind. The results of both the 2011 & 2013 studies were in fact influenced by the Placebo Effect. Additionally, the results of the 2013 study provided evidence that gastric distress is caused not by gluten, but by a group of products found in grain collectively known as FODMAPs, which include fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. Many gluten-free products are also free of FODMAPs, so the effect that people report when on a gluten-free diet may be due to the lack of FODMAPs in their diet. Despite a lack of support from scientific evidence, gluten is still widely feared and omitted from the diets of many consumers in North America.

A classic example of a meme designed to ignite a digital wildfire.

A classic example of a meme designed to ignite a “digital wildfire”.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into the case with GMOs and the fiercely uneducated and biased opposition they face from North American consumers, but the examples of wheat, corn, and gluten avoidance sufficiently encompasses the belief system under which these groups operate. It is a system of impatience, logical fallacy -particularly ad proc ergo propter hoc (correlation does not imply causation) -and anti-corporate bias. This system of beliefs is incredibly influential today because of how quickly information can spread and how difficult it can be to fact-check fast enough to keep up with the production and spread of new misinformation. Essentially, before the word can get out that wheat isn’t actually toxic or that gluten is only harmful for 1% of the population or that GM corn isn’t harmful to your health, the world has already changed and accepted this as fact, and the affected industries must cope with these rapid changes.

Greek Yogurt has surged in popularity in recent years due to its high protein content and the fact that it's gluten-free.

Greek Yogurt has surged in popularity in recent years due to its high protein content and the fact that it’s gluten-free.

With regards to what we eat for breakfast, the influence of this school of thought has resulted in a drastic change. Cereal sales are significantly down, while yogurt and egg sales are surging. In fact, rival cereal giant General Mills made the strategic purchase of Yoplait, one of the largest yogurt companies in the world, for $2.2 billion to ensure stability. The reason behind these changes is the result of the misinformation spread by anti-wheat, anti-gluten, and anti-GMO (essentially, anti-corporate) consumer mindsets that have trickled down to the masses from the select few fringe groups who aggressively promote their agendas.

-1x-1Protein has become a popular selling point in recent years, as evidenced by the increase in yogurt and egg sales, and further evidenced by the increase in sales by cereals that advertise their high protein content. For example, in the graph pictured above, we can see that the award for top sales increase belongs to Special K Protein, while the largest drop belongs to numerous Kashi cereals. This is quite the perplexing result: one would think that a company that markets to the natural, organic-loving crowd like Kashi would experience a surge in sales during a time when the opinions of the very groups it is targeted at reign supreme. However, in Kashi’s case, being organic isn’t enough. For a cereal of that sort to experience a healthy sales growth, it would need to be marketed as gluten/wheat/GMO free or high in protein. Bonus points if it includes a “superfood” like quinoa.

Thanks to digital misinformation, the food industry has become incredibly volatile, and what the WEF terms “digital wildfires” – essentially rapid surges in popularity – constantly pose threats to products or entire companies. It could be as simple as a tweet, slightly more complex like a Facebook meme, and even an article or a book. Every day we are bombarded with messages of what new superfood can cure cancer, what atrocity a big food corporation has committed, or what diet we need to eat or face dire consequences. And most of it is exaggerated, dangerously untrue, or is simply “eat your vegetables” dressed up in fancy wrapping in order to sell books or nutrition seminars.

kelloggs_closure_20131210Sadly, as a result of these constant digital wildfires, a factory in London, Ontario now lies vacant, the 450 jobs it provided gone, and thousands more Kellogg factory workers are at risk. The article in the link quotes a former employee who blamed “corporate greed” for the result of the closure, but unfortunately, if sales are down, companies need to cut a few branches off to keep the tree alive. At the root of the cause is not corporate greed, because if sales and profits are up, there is no need to close a plant. What caused these 450 workers to lose their jobs is society’s lack of scientific literacy and hysteria surrounding the corporate food industry. Digital wildfires related to the food industry caused a shift in diet supported by no scientific evidence, and as a result, 450 people are now out of work and a century-old factory lies deserted.

The last box of Frosted Flakes made at the London, Ontario Kellogg plant.

The last box of Frosted Flakes made at the London, Ontario Kellogg plant.

5 Tips to Help You Science Better on the Internet

In recent years, there has been a significant anti-science movement in popular culture. This has led to debate over important issues such as climate change, vaccine efficacy & safety, or the safety of genetically modified food. The issue has become so pervasive in our culture that it even made the March 2015 cover of National Geographic.

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Those who hold the belief that science is a bunch of evil men in white lab coats are unaware of how the process science is actually conducted. Science is not scary, it is not hellbent on humanity’s destruction, and it is certainly not all funded by evil corporations. In fact, most of it is conducted at public institutions with open visibility to the research being conducted. I think that scientific literacy is incredibly lacking in today’s population, and it is important that a greater percentage of the population not only understand how the process of science actually works, but also learn how to sniff out bad science.

Here are 5 tips to help those who lack a formal scientific education better understand some basic principles upon which science is built and how to evaluate scientific claims. It is my hope that this article can help others become more scientifically literate and alleviate any concerns or fears of science they may currently hold.

 

1) Understand the principle steps of the scientific method, specifically, replication.

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The scientific method: notice the replication step (reproduce the experiment)

The most common mistake made when referring to scientific findings is that people are unaware of the how the scientific method actually works. The scientific method is a guideline for how to produce logically sound conclusions from a series scientific experiments.

When a group of researchers performs an experiment, they publish their results in a scientific journal. Doing so makes their findings available to the public, and one of the main purposes of publishing your results is to allow other scientists to review, critique, and replicate and potentially improve on or modify your work. Replication is the step I would like to focus on, because an ignorance of that step has led to some very controversial conclusions, specifically that the MMR vaccine for measles causes autism and that GMOs cause cancerous tumours.

The studies I have referenced have in fact both been retracted from their respective scientific journals due to, among other things, erroneously reported data and poorly designed methods. A large part of how this data was discovered to be falsified was through the process of replication. If an experiment was designed properly, one scientist should be able to produce similar results as another scientist if they follow the method properly. Because scientists were unable to produce results that were similar to that of Dr. Wakefield or Dr. Seralini, questions were raised at the legitimacy of the findings. As a result, the experiments were investigated and determined to be irrelevant because of their lack of reproducibility.

Unfortunately, the results of one study that support a preconceived notion in a debate are often treated as irrefutable proof. This condition has been termed “single study syndrome” by Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, and this term describes the attitude that many individuals possess who are skeptical or mistrusting of science. However, as demonstrated by the principle of replication, one study is never sufficient evidence to support a notion in a debate, especially if you consider the journal that the study has been published in, which conveniently leads into the 2nd tip.

2) The results of one study do not “prove” anything; not all journals are created equal.

In scientific vernacular, the word prove is a dangerous term, because there are always sources of error, however miniscule they may be. Any quality research paper will use words like “demonstrate” or “suggest”, but any research paper that employs pervasive use of the words prove or proof is suspect at best. In recent years, scientists from Oxford and Harvard have had papers accepted for publication in open access online scientific journals that demonstrate the suspect publishing scrutinies of many online journals. Online scientific journals do not operate under the same constraints as traditional print journals do. If you consider a traditional print journal, such as Nature or Science, the editors of these journals get hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions for each issue. In order to maintain an excellent publishing record, only the top submissions are selected for publication.

This is the basic of what is known as “peer review”. A panel of researchers who are highly accomplished in their respective fields are responsible for reviewing submissions to determine if the methods are sound, the data are accurate, and the conclusions are logical. Peer review allows for a system of checks and balances that keeps science as honest and open-minded as possible. As a result of their excellent publishing reputation, studies that are published in top journals are more highly respected and prone to citation in future studies. Subscriptions are required to view these journals, but because of their excellent reputation, these journals never have an issue selling subscriptions to educational institutions or fellow researchers.

Most online open access journals operate under a different business model. Since these journals are open access, anyone can access their content, so they need a different source of income. If a group of authors wishes to publish their results in an online open access journal, they can simply pay the journal a publishing fee, and the journal will publish their work; there is no panel of submission reviewers to weed out the lower quality submissions.

The two links above provide an eye-opening account of how researchers from world-renowned universities purposely published studies that were completely fabricated (the Harvard paper was titled: “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs? The surgical and neoplastic role of cacao extract in breakfast cereals”). The online journals were prepared to publish these papers if the researchers would commit to paying a “processing fee” of $500. The Harvard paper contained a completely made up experiment authored by two fake authors: Pinkerton A. LeBrain and Orson Welles. Journals that operate under this model have legitimate sounding names, but the quality of the papers contained in these journals pales in comparison to their similarly-named cousins.

So if the names of these open access journals are very similar, how do you know if a journal’s contents are trustworthy? There are two useful metrics to determine the influence and prestige of of scientific journal: the SJR and the h-index, the latter of which can also help determine the influence and prestige of an individual researcher.

The SJR, or scientific journal ranking, is a ranking of the average number of weighted citations received by documents published in the journal in a given time period. Essentially, the more citations a journal garners, the more influential its contents – pretty straightforward reasoning. The h-index is a measure of publishing reputation first described by Jorge E. Hirsch, which is calculated using the following formula: A scientist has index h if h of his/her Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np − h) papers have no more than h citations each.

In other words, if I’m a researcher and I have published 15 papers that contain at least 15 citations, I have an h-index of 15; if I have published 20 papers with at least 20 citations, my h-index will be 20, and so on. 300px-H-index-en.svg

These two methods should be used in conjunction when evaluating the quality of a journal, as the SJR of many journals can be inflated with popular review articles or techniques. For example, the paper that first described the technique and application of Polymerase Chain Reaction, a very common technique in molecular biology, will be referenced quite often due to the popularity of the technique in DNA sequencing. A common technique used by anti-science websites is to cite studies to support a preconceived notion (GMOs are harmful, vaccines cause health complications).

For example, the website gmoevidence.com, a website dedicated to proving the harms of GMOs, uses studies from “independent researchers” to support their agenda. If we examine an article on the website, “Dr. Oraby: GM Soy and Maize Toxic to Rats”, we can break down the anti-scientific approach employed by these types of websites and find the faults in their reasoning. The first step to determining the legitimacy of a study is to investigate the quality of the journal it was published in.

The study in question was published in the Turkish Journal of Biology. If we search for the journal using the SJR database, we can see that the journal has a very low h-index ranking relative to top journals. The top two journals in the world, Nature and Science, have h-indices of 829 and 801, respectively, which means that in the last 3 years, Nature has published 829 articles that have been cited 829 times while Science has published 801 articles cited 801 times.

The Turkish Journal of Biology has an h-index of 18, which means that in the last three years, the journal has published 18 papers that have been published 18 times. As a result, the journal has a very low h-index ranking relative to other journals around the world. The Turkish Journal of Biology also contains a very high number of self-citations, which is indicative of intellectual inbreeding and an overall low quality of research.

Additionally, almost 40% of the journal’s documents have been uncited, which further supports the notion that documents published in the Turkish Journal of Biology are not very influential; the research methods are poorly designed and the results are not significant in the grand scheme of the scientific community. In a recent review of literature across all academic disciplines, researchers found that almost 90% of scientific papers were cited at least once. The fact that the journal has such a high number of uncited documents indicates that no other scientists are performing similar work, which further supports the notion that the quality of this study is suspect at best.

After examining the journal and drawing the appropriate conclusions from the h-index and SJR, we can take the investigation one step further by examining the authors of the paper. For simplicity, let’s examine the lead author on the paper, Dr. Hanaa Oraby. Google Scholar provides a citation search tool that enables anyone to search for an researcher’s scientific publications.

A search for Dr. Oraby reveals that she has published 17 papers since 1989, has received 113 total citations on her work, and has an h-index of 5. Not bad, but if we examine her paper mentioned in the GMO evidence article, we can see that it has not received any citations! In fact, Dr. Oraby has published a total of 8 papers – including one other one on the dangers of GMOs – that have received no citations. Based on this analysis, we can conclude that Dr. Oraby’s research on GMOs has not been sought out by her peers.

This is due to several reasons, the most obvious of which is that her research simply isn’t useful or influential enough to cite, which is a polite way of saying that it’s poor science. Simply put, just because one study reaches a conclusion is no reason to accept that conclusion as credible fact. The journal quality and the researcher’s publishing history can reveal a great deal about their research credibility.

3) Beware of circular referencing and intellectual inbreeding.

Another common tactic briefly discussed in the previous example was that of intellectual inbreeding, which is an impediment for producing quality research. A good researcher will examine multiple angles of their experiment to find many different layers of evidence for their argument. Breadth of coverage makes for sound reasoning and a more stable base of support. This doesn’t mean that more citations automatically makes a paper stronger, but a greater variety of evidence sources usually does.

Consider the case of many pseudoscientific websites: while many of their articles may include a good deal of references, these references often loop back to previous articles written by the same author, or they reference the same study multiple times. Many websites publish multiple articles reporting the results of the same study years apart. Circular referencing is not an adequate form of evidence, and is a common deceptive tactic employed by many pseudoscientific websites to dress up their articles under a guise of credibility.

4) Just because an author has appropriate credentials does not mean that their research is valid.

This point builds upon the concepts of peer review and replication. There are a growing number of individuals who are taking advantage of the public’s nature to trust single sources of authority; after all, we are raised to trust our doctor, our dentist, our veterinarian, our pharmacist, and, if we attend university, our professor. Unfortunately, as discussed previously, one study – or in this case one person – does not necessarily equate to a valid opinion. This is otherwise known as an “appeal to authority” – a common logical fallacy.

If your doctor tells you to take your regularly prescribed medication for a thoroughly researched ailment, such as taking an antibiotic like Penicillin for an infected cut, then there should be no doubt in your mind to trust them. What you should be wary of is methods touted as “new” or “revolutionary”. These words are used to dress up unsupported claims dreamed up by individuals with the proper credentials but lacking the proper evidence. Those who are most commonly guilty of this are physicians or other “doctors” who design new diets, lifestyles, or supplements; by and large these are all designed to profit off of unsuspecting patients, and these methods are dressed up in scientific jargon that doesn’t hold water with actual research.

What many of these unscientific claims take advantage of is the general public’s lack of scientific literacy. It is said that the average university biology course contains more new words than a university language course, so becoming scientifically literate is difficult enough given the large vocabulary required to navigate scientific concepts. By sprinkling some authentic-sounding science terms on a product or service that they are selling, anyone with the letters “Dr.” before their name can make a bogus product or service seem quite legitimate. This is often done to sell the individual’s brand to the public, whether it’s a book, seminars, health consultations, or other practices done outside the scope of their professional designation.

A classic example of a pseudoscientific book written by someone with illusory credentials

A classic example of a pseudoscientific book written by someone with illusory credentials

What much of the public doesn’t know is that even someone as educated as a physician may be just an unqualified as you or I to give advice on particular health topics. This may seem shocking, but medical school (including the residency process) is lengthy for a reason: the body is an incredibly complex system, and physicians are specialized in various areas of it for that same reason. This is why it is nonsense for a neurologist to give advice on the health of your heart; that is the area of expertise for a cardiologist. The same goes for the trend of celebrity doctors giving advice on the health of the gut as a function of overall health.

According to her CV, Dr. Amy Meyers is trained as an emergency physician – she doesn’t know more about the gut than you or I if we spent a few hours researching the matter online or if we read a basic physiology textbook. She has also been featured in the Huffington Post and on the Dr. Oz show – both of which are prone to promoting pseudoscience and health myths, so those should also pop up as red flags towards her health brand’s credibility. Unless these physicians are gastroenterologists or gastrointestinologists, they have no business posing as an expert on the health of your gut. We should also tie this back to the first point: much of what Dr. Meyers is selling hasn’t been replicated, which should raise some eyebrows as to what her true motivation is (hint: it’s money).

5) Doing your research takes a lot longer than using Google for half an hour 7783365118_ceac1b72a7_z Public distrust of science has certainly stemmed from the widespread availability of information online. It is a consequence of our arrogance as humans that we think we know better than anyone else. What we seem to forget is that there is a reason certain individuals are trained professionals and others are not.

Scientific professionals undergo years of training just to be granted their license to research or practice, and even then their education is never fully complete. There is a contingent of armchair scientists who seem to think that reading a few scientific papers or articles on a matter is a sufficient replacement for a decade of post-secondary education. If the information and training taught to medical school students or scientific researchers was widely available online, there wouldn’t be much point in enrolling in medical school or a Ph.D. in biochemistry.

What much of the public has to remember is that scientific research is still very much an artisanal pursuit, and we as the general public should give the collective of scientific professionals the respect and trust they deserve.

I hope this guide has provided you with some useful information on how to navigate the sea of scientific information available online. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and it’s important that the public learn how to identify the legitimate from the pseudoscientific. This guide was also designed to help you avoid being scammed by numerous peddlers of pseudoscience. In closing, remember that good science requires replication, no study can “prove” anything, not all journals are created equally, check the credentials of your scientific authorities, and put your trust in those who have studied science for decades.

Knowledge Dilution and the Authority Illusion: Now Anyone can be an Expert

When I was a child, my parents would force me to get outside the house almost every day. I questioned their motives, as messing around on my PlayStation or watching TV seemed like a much better option, but their insistence combined with their authority got me out the door each day. Authority is quite a powerful force to wield. With authority, one person can get millions to obey their commands, or two parents can get one child to forego an afternoon of laziness.

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In addition to your parents, one of the figures who commands a great deal of authority is your family physician. As a child, the authority of a physician is unquestionable; partly because, as a young child, you may be frightened of a visit to the doctor’s office, but a great deal of authority comes from the knowledge and experience possessed by a physician. The notion that knowledge and experience commands authority can be applied to numerous other professions held in high authoritative esteem, such as professors, lawyers, or bankers. These individuals have authority because they are experts in their respective field of study, and have the educational training and experience necessary to command respect and authority.

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Before the advent of the Internet, knowledge was a powerful commodity that was possessed by relatively few people. Only those that decided to pursue careers based around absorbing and producing knowledge had access to this rare commodity. Today, almost everyone has access to a wealth of information with the touch of a button. Unfortunately, this increase in the availability of knowledge has also lead to a dilution in authority and expertise.

Our daily media feed is awash with authority figures who lack knowledge and a critical understanding of the issues that they advocate for or speak out against. Human health is one of the most contentious issues today due to the dilution of knowledge being produced on the subject. Our physical health is an area of great concern for many people, but due to authority figures constantly bombarding our lives with mixed messages about what is truly beneficial for our health, the knowledge of human health has not only been diluted, but polluted.

Dr. Oz: physician, but not a very ethical one.

Dr. Oz: physician, but not a very ethical one.

Most authority figures who advocate for human health are, ironically, not physicians. Some may possess the letters “Dr.” in front of their name, but that does not lend them credibility nor authority on the matter. Even specialist physicians are not adequately qualified nor informed enough to comment on certain health issues. For example, if you were having issues with your cardiovascular system like high cholesterol or angina, you wouldn’t seek the advice of your dermatologist. They could offer you some basic advice due to the fact that they do possess a working knowledge of the human body, but they likely wouldn’t feel comfortable in their skin doing so.

Which begs the question of why so many human health authority figures exist today. Why aren’t there any gastrointestinologists promoting detox routines? Why don’t dentists promote oil-pulling? Why aren’t neurologists or radiologists speaking out against the dangers of cell phones, wifi in schools, or microwaving your food? If all of this “knowledge” and “research” exists on these topics and countless more, why aren’t they regularly being promoted by the individuals with over a decade of educational training on the subject, but are being promoted by individuals with access to the internet, hands, and a flashy website?

I’ve discussed in a previous article why pseudoscience promoters practice what they do, and a great portion of it is a combination of a prophetic desire and a dissatisfaction with their career earning potential. One of the major reasons why you will almost never see a physician promoting bad science and poor health advice is because they’re generating a satisfactory income, and their authority with patients is enough to satisfy the prophetic component. Unfortunately, thanks to the dilution of knowledge in the past decade, even the expertise and authority of physicians is being questioned by their patients thanks to external influence or misguided individual research.

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Profit is a big motivator for many pseudoscience peddlers

The notion that one can employ the Internet to replace the knowledge of education of their physician is ludicrous if you consider the intense educational process physicians undergo to become licensed health professionals. Our ability to access such vast amounts of information has ironically made us incredibly ignorant and arrogant when it comes to our health. Simply put, WebMd, some random quack’s blog, or even reading one scientific paper on a subject is not a valid substitute for the advice of a trained physician, dentist, pharmacist, or optometrist. Anecdotal evidence is not a valid substitute for peer-reviewed science.

One of the main problems is that doing “research” online is very narrow in scope; you fail to see the whole picture that an education from a professional school gives you. For example, one of the common knocks against vaccines is that they contain a “dangerous cocktail of chemicals and toxins”. First of all, water is a chemical by definition, but the word chemical carries a very negative connotation. Same goes for toxin: any expert in toxicology will tell you that the dose makes the poison. One of the chemicals commonly found in vaccines is formaldehyde, which most of you will recognize from funeral homes as the preservative used during embalming.

Formaldehyde is indeed a powerful preservative, and toxic to humans in large doses, but recall that the dose makes the poison. In fact, formaldehyde is present in humans all the time! There is a higher concentration of naturally occurring formaldehyde present in your bloodstream than there is in any vaccine dose. Why? Formaldehyde is a metabolic intermediary formed during the breakdown of methanol and other products in the bloodstream. Even that formaldehyde present in a vaccine you’re receiving will be broken down without any hesitation from your body; the chemical was only needed to preserve the vaccine to make it safe for transport and storage.

Formaldehyde pathology

Formaldehyde pathology

However, when your average internet health authority hears formaldehyde, they follow a very narrow-minded process. First, they Google “formaldehyde”. They see words like “chemical” or “toxin” and get scared. Then they see facts like “toxic to humans in large doses”. Using this narrow-minded way of thinking, they fail to see the big picture (formaldehyde is naturally occurring, what a “toxic” dose amount actually is) and proceed to use their authority to instill fear to their followers about something they simply lack the education and training to properly understand. Unfortunately, due to a fear of large institutions that many individuals today possess, whether it’s large corporations, big pharma, or even hospitals, this way of thinking is catching on.

What’s troubling is that the “research” and knowledge that these individuals are passing on isn’t even novel; it’s widely available on the internet and essentially just recycled content. Anyone with access to the internet and a basic scientific vocabulary can do what many pseudoscience-based health advocates do: present a narrow-minded, fear-inducing view of our current societal state of physical health. The only difference is that these individuals often hide behind the guise of academic pseudoauthority; essentially, using the letters before or after their name is a sort of authoritarian currency. What’s most upsetting is that these individuals prey on the ignorant and sell false promises and lies to their clients. They promise miracle weight-loss methods, cancer-free lifestyles, and overall “wellness”.

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If there is a common theme found among pseudoscientific practitioners, an oversimplification of incredibly complex health problems is certainly near the top of the list. Quality health and disease prevention are not 1 step solutions. There is no magic pill. You cannot cure nor prevent cancer simply ingesting more cumin. An extract of a plant will not make you lose weight. Detox routines and kits are a scam and a marketing ploy. The human body and the diseases that afflict it are so complex that even today, entire legions of specialists still routinely make mistakes and learn from them. Environmental, nutritional, biological, and genetic factors all come into play when determining the prevention, cause, and cure for disease and overall health quality.

With knowledge so accessible and important in today’s world, no one wants to appear stupid, because that implies helplessness and vulnerability. However, we have to understand that there are limitations to the knowledge available to the public, and the education and training reserved for those capable of applying it. Educating yourself is still a very valuable tool, but an abundance of knowledge should not breed close-mindedness; quite the opposite, in fact. Know what basic lifestyle choices you can make to live a healthy lifestyle, but don’t start conflating letters in front of someone’s name to automatically award them with medical authority. There’s a reason why not everyone is capable of becoming a doctor, or dentist, or whatever. And that’s fine – but trust in the empirical-based system of knowledge these individuals have been trained under. You wouldn’t go to a plumber with your electrical questions, so don’t go to a chiropractor for advice on cancer prevention.

Lies From the Internet: Food Babe’s Pumpkin Spice Latte Post

If you’ve been on Facebook in the last week, you may have come across this graphic first posted on the quack nutritional blog Food Babe. 

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It preaches the dangers of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL), an annual favourite that has recently gained a cult-like following in North America, similar to the subscribers of Food Babe. 

The graphic suggests that the PSL is full of toxic chemicals, GMO milk, and (gasp!) no real pumpkin. 

I’ll try to make this quick and painless. 

Vani Hari, better known as the Food Babe, has become famous in her crusade of pseudo science against large food corporations across America. Her educational background is in computer science, which is puzzling, since she lacks fundamental logic and reasoning skills. If you examine her blog or Facebook page, it is a clutter of poorly researched articles whose sources never include a proper scientific study. In addition to her articles, she also frequently recommends new products to her subscribers. These companies are paying her to sell their products to her brainwashed readers, who believe that buying these “natural” or “organic” products is the only way they can achieve nutritional salvation. I’ve already written in excess on why Hari operates the way she does, so now I’ll get on to debunking her dubious claims.

Before I begin, I’d like to point out that I did the research for this article in 5 minutes using nothing more than Google Scholar. It’s just that easy to disprove essentially every single one of her claims. 

Claim 1) the PSL is made with Caramel Colour Level IV, which is made with ammonia and is also a carcinogen.

Google Search Used: “Caramel Colour Level IV Toxicity”
Study used: MacKenzie, K. M., et al. “Toxicity and carcinogenicity studies of Caramel Colour IV in F344 rats and B6C3F-1 mice.” Food and chemical toxicology30.5 (1992): 431-443.

What science and logic says: “Caramel Colour IV, a type of caramel colour used in the manufacture of cola soft drinks, was evaluated for subchronic and chronic toxicity in rats, and carcinogenicity in Fischer-344 (F344) rats and B6C3F1 mice. There were no treatment-related alterations in haematological variables or treatment-related differences in survival or in the incidence of benign or malignant tumours among treated and control groups and no toxicologically important pathological findings. On the basis of these studies, Caramel Colour IV was not toxic or carcinogenic in F344 rats or B6C3F1 mice. The highest dose level tested in the long-term studies (10 g/kg) was considered to be the no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL).”

In a nutshell, Caramel Colour Level IV is not toxic in doses regularly consumed by humans, or in this case, rats and mice. Anything can be toxic if you ingest too much of it, even water, so without listing an exact threshold on her graphic, Food Babe leaves her 1st argument with a huge, gaping hole. 

Claim 2) Absolutely no pumpkin ingredients

Umm, ok? Have you ever tried to mix real pumpkin into a drink? Not exactly the most diffusion-friendly substance on the planet. There is no harm to anyone mentioned here, other than it reduces the chance of having nasty pumpkin residue at the bottom of the drink. Claim 2 is an empty argument, so I’ll just move on and stop wasting time.

Claim 3) Made with “Monsanto Milk” or Soy Milk that contains Carrageenan. 

I won’t even touch “Monsanto Milk”, because there is still no evidence that GMOs are harmful. We have all been consuming GMO corn for decades and there has yet to be an outbreak of cancer or other disease directly associated with GMO crops, if any even exist. 

Soy Milk and Carrageenan was a different story, at least at first. When you Google “carrageenan”, you arrive at this study:

 Di Rosa, M_, J. P. Giroud, and D. A. Willoughby. “Studies of the mediators of the acute inflammatory response induced in rats in different sites by carrageenan and turpentine.” The Journal of pathology 104.1 (1971): 15-29.

The problem with this study, aside from the fact that it’s over 40 years old, is the fact that this study used degraded carrageenan, which is not deemed safe for human consumption, and is not used as a food additive. Additionally, this study applied a dose of carregeenan to rats that would never approved for a food product consumed by humans. 

This study used undegraded carrageenan, and almost no inflammatory responses were recorded. 
Weiner, Myra L., et al. “A 90-day dietary study on kappa carrageenan with emphasis on the gastrointestinal tract.” Food and chemical toxicology 45.1 (2007): 98-106.

 

Claim 4) Toxic dose of sugar  

Pretty critical to the taste of the beverage. Sugars are no different whether they are natural, refined, or the continuously lambasted high fructose corn syrup that Food Babe and her followers love to hate. The fact is, your body cannot tell the difference between a sugar molecule whether it’s natural or not. Everything is processed the same within your body. Should you work to consume less sugar? Sure, but knowing that a PSL contains that amount of sugar hardly makes it toxic; just abstain from sugary foods for the rest of your day to ensure you’re not breaching the sugar intake limit for a healthy diet. This claim is true, but there’s nothing hidden here: you should know that what you’re drinking is fairly sugary. 

 

Claim 5) Ambiguous Natural Flavours that can be made from anything on earth.

Anything on earth? Does that include pumpkins? 

There is no argument here, no facts, no logic. Next. 

Claim 6) Artificial Flavours made from substances like petroleum

Where is the list of substances? At any rate, many artificial substances are made from petroleum. Just because something is toxic in one state doesn’t mean it’s toxic in all states. It’s like that old argument that Cheez Whiz is one ingredient away from being chemically plastic. That doesn’t matter; chemistry is a binary science. Something either is or it isn’t. How “close” a substance is to another is no indication of its relative toxicity to humans.  If we’re going by that logic, I guess we should all stop drinking water, too. Water is only 1 oxygen molecule away from becoming Hydrogen Peroxide, which is a toxic substance. Chewing gum is made from petroleum, but you won’t see millions of people dropping dead after they unwrap a stick of Dubble Bubble.

 

Failed understanding of how food chemistry works. Next.

 

Claim 7) Preservatives and sulfites that can cause allergic reactions. 

Allergy science is incredibly complicated because the human body is as well. There may be some people who have an allergic reaction to a PSL, but these are outliers in the data. Since these allergies are not common enough to warrant a recipe change, why would Starbucks change anything? People are just as allergic (if not more so) to natural things as they are to artificial, so , yet again, there is no argument here.

Claim 8) Possible Pesticide Residue from using non-organic coffee beans. 

This one actually made me laugh. It’s a classic case of greenwashing to think that everything organic is wholesome, better for you, and will give you superpowers over everyone else who can’t afford to purchase all organic food. Organic foods are still treated with pesticides. Read the FDA’s requirements and policies for certified organic foods. Nowhere on there is there a rule that states that organic food is not allowed to be treated with pesticides. In fact, because organic pesticides are less effective than traditional ones, they often have to be sprayed more to have the same efficacy level. Organic is not better than traditional. It’s a placebo effect brought on by a great marketing scheme by food producers to increase profit margins on food. 

Claim 9) Contains condensed conventional milk, NOT VEGAN even with soy milk options. 

Poor grammar aside, there is also a lot of glaring problems with her last point. No reputable study anywhere has concluded that a vegan diet is better than a normal, balanced diet. 

“But I’ve read the China Study and it proves that a vegan diet is healthiest!” you say. You may come across the book through one of Tim Ferriss’ works or may have in fact read the book itself. The fact is, this study was hack science at best and has since been ripped to shreds by the scientific community. If Dr. Oz and Oprah are recommending it, you can be sure that it’s quack science. The fact that Starbucks doesn’t offer a vegan dairy option is a non-issue, unless you’re a vegan. Even then, the beverage is served with whipped cream, so you probably shouldn’t be getting it anyway. 

We have a taste for the miraculous and the new, but these “magic bean” cures are always not what they appear. It’s no wonder that they’re only advertised on daytime TV to the demographic that is the least educated. And it’s awful: these quack prophets are preying on the weak-minded and the naive on this continent.

 

Next week I’ll choose another one of Food Babe’s posts in rip it to shreds in 30 minutes or less. Seriously, it’s just that easy. Give it a try sometime. 

 

Why Quacks Exist

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor as long as there have been people, there have been sources of guidance. Deities, prophets, leaders; all have persisted through time and have been highly influential on our world. We look to them for answers to our problems, for ways to improve our lives, and we try to model our own lives in their image or vision. For thousands of years, humans modelled themselves after a god, or many gods, and these all-powerful beings generally rewarded “good” behaviour and punished “bad” behaviour. Unexplainable phenomena were attributed to these beings’ anger or sadness, and joyous, miraculous events were attributed to their pleasure and exuberance in response to our following of their teachings.

Overall, people trusted in their worshipped deity to maintain a natural order to the world, and for thousands of years it seemed like things were going pretty well. Until modern science, putting your faith in whatever deity you worshipped was the best way to explain the intricate workings of the world around you. So, even though it seems incredibly odd and foolish that the Ancient Egyptians believed that Ra, God of the Sun, traveled across the sky each day in the Mandjet and through the Underworld in the Mesektet, this was the best explanation available at the time, because nothing could disprove the logic upon which this belief was based.

This trend continued for thousands of years, while sporadic,  groundbreaking scientific discoveries were made. Even though displacement, the Heliocentric model of the Solar System, gravity, and other major discoveries occurred, the majority of the world still accepted a supernatural force to explain the majority of the phenomena in their daily lives.

As long as there has been deitical worship, there have been those seeking to unseat those in power, influence a number of people, and gain power and money as a result. The most extreme examples of these types of situations are better known as cults. The word cult carries a very negative connotation in today’s world, largely thanks to a string of violent situations over the years involving cults. The mention of Charles Manson’s name still sends chills down people’s spines due to the gruesome murders he and his fellow cult members conducted. The Order of the Solar Temple, the Church of Bible Understanding, and Scientology are other famous examples of cults, though not all are inherently violent in nature.

Tom Cruise speaking at a scientology event. Still psyched about Katie Holmes.

Tom Cruise speaking at a scientology event. Still psyched about Katie Holmes.

Cults all operate under a similar doctrine of exposing members as victims and targeting their weaknesses using fear and humiliation. They eliminate independent thought and coerce members into adopting the core philosophies and the sacred creed of the cult. The leaders of cults are often psychopathic in nature, and the victims in cults are often weak-minded people who are vulnerable to the misleading teachings of the leader and other elders in the cult.

Improper, but powerful logic is wielded as a weapon to cut into the wounds that fear and abandonment have caused for new cult members, as cult members are often seeking refuge from society because they feel as if they do not have an identity within it. Along with the promise of identity, cults offer security, respect, and friendship. These are all core needs of human beings, and this is why the control a cult has over its members is so powerful.

Fear Mongering

Fear is a powerful tool that is employed by many marketing agencies at the core of their techniques. It can either be used explicitly or implicitly, but if you examine the message that a lot of advertisements are sending, most are in fact rooted in fear. Ads for alcohol are mostly targeted at men, and they often depict men consuming whatever beverage is being sold, and while doing so they are surrounded by attractive women. If you pay close attention to most alcohol ads, the women are much more attractive relative to the guys; you rarely see model quality dudes slamming back Bud Light, but all of a sudden the beer touches their lips and they’re surrounded by a bunch of girls approaching Kate Upton levels of hotness.

How does fear play into this? If you don’t drink our beer, you’ll be a loser like this guy was before and you won’t be surrounded by pretty girls at a party.

This pattern applies to all sorts of other products:

i) Buy this shampoo or else your hair (and you) will be ugly and no one will find you attractive

ii) Buy these clothes or else you won’t happy and attractive like our models are

iii) Buy this cleaning product or else your house will be a mess and no one will want to visit you

iv) Buy this car or else women won’t see you as powerful and successful

And it works. No one is immune to the effect that fear has on you; it just affects certain people to a greater degree.

Historically, cults were created to oppose the dominant source of authority at that time. Many people who felt lost or alienated by this authority for whatever reason were scooped up by cults and turned against the rest of the world. Because organized religion was the dominant explanation for life for thousands of years, most cults throughout our ancient history have been religious in nature. If someone felt lost and fearful in the world dominated by organized religion, joining a cult offered them an apparent safe haven. These organizations never really succeeded in making a difference in the world, but many of their vilified acts still live on in infamy. Cults still live on today, but they have a different form for a number of reasons.

Reason 1) A Changing of the Guard

Enter the world today: science has since supplanted organized religion as the governing body of explanation for our observations and questions. In the past, the behaviour of cults, like all humans, was much more violent in nature.

Steven Pinker

Dr. Steven Pinker

Dr. Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In his book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Dr. Pinker goes into great detail about why we, as humans, have become progressively less violent throughout history. The main reasons are commerce, the adoption of feminist ideologies, and cosmopolitanism. Our modern society values intelligence and being cultured over strength and violence. As a result, modern cultist behaviours mirror this change, and we now embrace the logic and reason that science is comprised of to fight our battles. Even the most famous religious cult, Scientology, gives a nod in its very name to the changing of the guard from organized religion to science.

Mike Adams, founder of NaturalNews.com

Mike Adams, founder of NaturalNews.com

While no formal cults (aside from PETA) exist to oppose the scientific community, many individuals or organizations have sprang up in recent years to try and debunk science, with a particular focus on the food and medical industries.

 

 

Notable examples include Mike Adams, who operates the website NaturalNews.com; Dr. Mehmet Oz of the Dr. Oz show; and Vani Hari, author of the blog FoodBabe.com. These three are at the forefront of the anti-science movement, and most of their dubious claims have been discredited; nonetheless, they still persist today.

Quacks prey on the public’s distrust of science and preference for “alternative” methods to solving their various health problems. They use fear mongering to lash out against large corporations, big pharma, and factory farms. They use fear-mongering buzzwords like “toxin” and “chemical”, and they generally paint the picture that the scientific community is dooming mankind through their freakish laboratory experiments. The problem is that science operates under a methodology of constant checks and balances; peer review prevents bad science from being propagated, and experiments are constantly being replicated and modified due to the open-minded nature of scientists.

 

Reason 2) The Prophet (and Profit) Motive

The prophet motive is why many quacks are the way they are.

The prophet motive is why many quacks are the way they are.

Many quacks are not only influenced by profit but by being a prophet to their loyal followers. Similar to cult leaders, many quacks are pathological narcissists. By becoming a prophet of sorts to a group of people, a quack satisfies their desire for attention and an inflated sense of self. Many quacks were also not entirely content with their profession, as it left them feeling bored or unfulfilled in comparison to the demands of their narcissism.

Dr. Oz was supposedly a successful surgeon and instructor at Columbia Medical School before he launched his quack branding and TV show, so clearly his ego was writing cheques that his job couldn’t cash.

 

 

Notable quack Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopath, perhaps felt inadequate in the earning potential of his profession, so he launched Mercola.com, along with a line of natural health products sold through his website. Now he lives in a multi-million dollar estate in Illinois. Foodbabe and Mike Adams have both made enormous profits off of their quackery, and all of these factors tie into it. If money was the sole motivator, a potential quack could have easily resorted to a well-paying job that was more behind the scenes. By being at the forefront of their respective causes, quacks can simultaneously feed their egos and fill their bank accounts.

Reason 3) The Naturalist Fallacy

Most quacks today spend their time crusading for organic or natural products and against conventional farming. We surely all bought into the hype that was organic food in the mid 2000’s and it was easy to see why: the cultural attitude at that time demanded change. Unfortunately, organic food is not all it’s cracked up to be. If you take time to browse the literature available on organic food, you’ll find a number of conclusions with regards to comparative studies between organic and conventional food. Organic food is not healthier for you, nor is it more nutritious, and the only reason it tastes better is due to a placebo effect. Every single review study published arrived at this conclusion. In addition, while 75% of conventional food contains traces of residual pesticide, what is more alarming is that 25% of organic food contains the same levels. These levels are FDA approved and deemed to be non-toxic, but the illusion that organic food is pesticide free should be apparent by now.

The common pattern these quacks employ is that they will pick on a certain product, for example, fruit juice. The article will go through all the dangers of fruit juice, the industrial processes and poisons thrown into the mix, and then it will leave you hanging, as if there is no hope, which induces fear. Miraculously, the article will then do a complete 180 and showcase a whole host of healthy juices that won’t poison you and aren’t made by evil corporations. They might cost 400% more, but at least you’re in good hands consuming safe, natural products!

A very misleading sign

A very misleading sign

What constitutes “certified organic” is also very misleading. Organic farms still use pesticides, but the only difference is that these pesticides are organic in contrast to conventional synthetic ones. These pesticides have actually been shown to be more harmful than synthetic ones because of their lack of specificity, i.e.. they kill the pest and a whole host of other organisms.

On top of that, because these pesticides aren’t as target specific or effective, they actually have to be sprayed more to have the same desired effect, which is obviously more harmful than using a synthetic pesticide much less. Because of this revealing data from the scientific community, organic food sales have slowed or begun to decline. This is not some big farm conspiracy; organic food has much higher profit margins than conventional food because consumers are simply willing to pay more for it, so it wouldn’t make sense to doom something that makes you more money.

Reason 4) The Internet

 There is a wealth of information out there, and most of it is not policed whatsoever. Anyone can whip up a website and start spouting off facts without any scientific basis behind them trying to convince you that science is wrong and the government is out to get you. Online petitions, photoshop, and other previously unavailable technologies make recruiting new members to your organization so much easier. Facts can be easily twisted because websites can cite sources that are also false in nature, but appear legitimate given the context. The result is a twisted web of fact and fiction that takes a lot of work to sift through, and many people don’t have the time for that; they’d rather just buy that Brazilian power crystal.

What people need to be aware of is that quacks are out to sell you something just as badly as Wal-Mart is. They use the Naturalist Fallacy to their advantage to gouge people for higher prices and inflated senses of worth, but it’s all the same in the end. Educate yourself and be critical of the information presented to you. These individuals are intelligent people who are great at marketing themselves and their beliefs. The internet has made that incredibly easy and efficient to do, and almost anything can appear legitimate at surface glance.

Looking Ahead

There will always be individuals in a society who exhibit distrust of mainstream tastes, and there’s nothing we can do to change that; it is human nature to question the world we live in. However, there is both good and bad inquisition. All that can be done is respectful education and cautioning of the dangers of quack individuals.

Oh, and stay off the Huffington Post.

The Naturalist Fallacy: Bad Science and our Quest for Authenticity

In 2002, Dr. Michael Atkins published a revised edition of his low-carb dietary vision: Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. The diet, which had been the thrust of much of Dr. Atkins’ research programme since he published his first paper on it in 1958, was nothing new. Low carb diets have come and gone as dietary fads for the better half of two centuries, and with our culture so heavily invested in our appearance, new diets pop up every year. The two most popular diets that come to mind at the moment include the Paleo diet and the Wheat Free diet, which in essence are the same style of diet. They both advocate for the elimination of cereal grains from the diet, with the Paleo diet calling for the elimination of all grains from the diet, among other items.

The Atkins Diet: no carbs!

The Atkins Diet: no carbs!

Like most fad diets, these two diets were created by individuals who possessed a high level of post-secondary education. They based their argument for their diet’s effectiveness on scientific evidence, and given their credentials and educational background, their case holds a lot of merit on the surface. Unfortunately, what their followers fail to recognize is the process by which good science is performed: replication, peer review, and sound logic. The issue with these diets, like all fad diets before them, is the fact that they are rooted in poor science packaged as credible fact simply due to the title of their inventor. It’s the same argument I pose when someone mentions Dr. Oz and a product he advertises on his show. He uses his M.D. to give his bad science and arguments credibility, when in fact he often bases his assertions and “facts” on one or two poorly designed studies.

The Paleo diet was first described by gastroeterologist Walter L. Voegtlin in a paper he published in 1975. His argument is heavily based on anthropological presumptions, and completely ignores the possibility of genetic mutation and adaptation of the human species. The diet argues that as humans, we evolved in hunter-gatherer societies, and should only consume foods that existed in the pre-agricultural era. At first glance, this does seem like a plausible argument: a high order species such as humans do not evolve and adapt as quickly as lower order species like bacteria, which can change rapidly in response to their environments due to their short generation time. The problem with this way of thinking is that it ignores some key changes in the human genome. In the Paleolithic Era, humans could not consume lactose (the sugar in dairy products) because we lacked the enzyme (lactase) to do so. We have since evolved, and now being lactose-tolerant is the norm. The mutation for blue eyes was estimated to have evolved around 6,000 – 10,000 years ago, and while this isn’t a dominant trait in humans, it is still a prevalent one.

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Another incorrect assumption of the Paleo diet is the consumption of plants and animals themselves. Virtually all plant species today have been genetically selected and altered over the past 10,000 years. Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Kale, and Cauliflower are all the same species of plant (Brassica oleracea), and the only reason these different vegetables exist today is agricultural selection. All of the domesticated animals whose meat we consume are also drastically different as a result of domestication and breeding, so if we are basing a diet around Paleolithic nostalgia, shouldn’t we reject all domesticated forms of fruits, vegetables, and meat? If we should consume foods akin to our ancestors, then shouldn’t the foods be the same ones that were consumed by them 10,000 years ago? The fact is, the Paleo diet has been around for over thirty years, gained popularity briefly in the 1980’s after a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine supported its use, but it went away shortly after, only to resurface in the last few years. Why has this happened?

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In 2010, Andrew Potter published a book called “The Authenticity Hoax”. In the book, he describes the Western World’s recent obsession with being authentic as another quest to be “cool”. The fact that organic food was widely popular for a few years until big box stores such as Wal-Mart began incorporating organic items on their shelves is no coincidence: this pattern is seen everywhere. Now if you purchase something organic, it’s a nice bonus, but the status posturing that went along with it is largely non-existent. Organic food waned in popularity, so the new cool thing to do was to eat local. Then all of the books, diets, and restaurants that followed the “100 mile” diet started appearing. Urban farming gained a brief foothold in the backyards of many urban hipsters, and farmer’s markets experienced a brief renaissance period.

The local diet has yet to be captured by the masses, so while it is still the cool thing to do, it’s only a matter of time before something else comes along to usurp it. Enter the Paleo diet’s resurgence. It is no accident that the diet gained popularity: the Paleo diet is an authenticity driven fad diet. Rather than keep things spatially authentic, food trendsetters have set the frame of their new trend in a chronological sense. Another reason that the Paleo diet has gained such a large following is that it was coupled to another armchair scientist related idea: CrossFit.

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CrossFit (like the Paleo Diet) was in fact developed a few decades ago by Californian Greg Glassman, a former gymnast, in the hopes of improving his current weightlifting routine. He combined gymnastics exercises with Olympic weightlifting exercises and developed the CrossFit program. He based it on the philosophy of constant movement, like our ancestors evolved with during the Paleolithic Era. He pointed out that most workout routines involve few muscle groups with repeated periods of rest in between, which is not reflective of our evolutionary biology.

I won’t get into much of a criticism of CrossFit, since the world is abundant with it, including numerous physicians criticizing the health problems caused by over strenuous bouts of exercise, namely, rhabdomyolysis. What I will comment on is the rise of CrossFit and why it grew so quickly. Although Glassman officially branded and introduced his program as CrossFit in 2000, the program itself has been around for over thirty years, and with the fitness craze in the 1980’s, the cultural attitude existed for a fitness program to launch successfully, so why did it take over 30 years for CrossFit’s popularity to peak? The same reason that the Paleo Diet experienced such resurgence: the Western World’s craving for authenticity.

The “science” that CrossFit’s philosophy is based on the same vein of thought that the Paleo Diet is: Paleolithic humans were hunter-gatherers, and as a result were constantly moving due to their nomadic, unpredictable lifestyle. You never knew when your next meal would come along, or when some animal would come along that would want to make you its next meal. Tribal warfare was quite prevalent, so physical strength was paramount for survival. Again, the theory makes sense, but when you think about how relatively sedentary humans have become in the past 8,000 years since the introduction of agriculture, it’s not surprising that CrossFit is not as effective as it’s purported to be. It’s also why you have so many people injuring themselves (poor lifting form aside): the average human body simply isn’t meant to be thrown into such an intense routine without a history of athletic prowess. This is why most people who do CrossFit will see diminishing returns: humans who are genetically better athletes will benefit, but most humans are not genetically gifted as such, and as a result will probably do more harm than good to their bodies as a result.

While these CrossFitters might be ripped, most people simply don't have the genetic potential to be this way.

While these CrossFitters might be ripped, most people simply don’t have the genetic potential to be this way.

I am not against people getting in shape and pushing themselves to be better. I am not against people altering their diet to something that is healthier. My issue is that there are far too many people buying into these programs time and time again, constantly jumping ship, changing who they are, and completely buying into the lifestyle that these programs represent without stopping and just thinking for a second. When the next big fitness trend comes around, or when the newest diet arrives, just wait for your Paleo or CrossFit friends to drop everything and jump ship. What people should be conscious of is the fact that this lifestyle simply is not sustainable. There is a constant cycle of lifestyle change, possible friend alienation, and the purchase of new products, only to discard all of that for the next trend in an effort to be cooler than the next person. Fitness and diet trends are often the most prominent, due to the complexity of the human body and our (relatively) poor understanding of it; these two factors are drivers behind the constant search for new ways to eat and exercise.

In 2009, Christopher McDougall published Born to Run, which popularized the practice of barefoot running. This new style of running was based on the way that humans historically ran: barefoot, or with minimalist footwear. Barefoot running enthusiasts state that this form of running reduces injuries caused by heel-tapping, which is commonly experienced while wearing running shoes. Humans ran for centuries without modern running footwear, and injuries were not evident based on anthropological research, so why should modern humans be any different?

Barefoot Runners: Ticking time bombs for shin splits.

Barefoot Runners: Ticking time bombs for shin splits.

The problem with this line of reasoning is rooted in the Naturalist Fallacy. What barefoot runners have ignored in their assumptions is that modern humans have grown up wearing shoes all of their life, and that altering the skeletomuscular structure of a human is quite a complex process. Ancient humans who ran barefoot grew up running in their bare feet. They walked, ran, and hunted barefoot, so their bodies were adapted to the process. Ancient humans also didn’t take the majority of their steps on pavement. Modern humans seem to think that a few weeks of barefoot running will change a few decades’ worth of adaptation to running shoes and paved sidewalks, and the injuries that result from barefoot running are the result of this myopic and misled view on how we should be running.

 

How Barefoot Running evolved, and should be.

How Barefoot Running evolved, and should be.

We think that simply because something is natural or historically relevant, it will also neatly fit into our lives. What we neglect to think about is how drastic the changes in our world have been in the past century. Every time I see someone wearing barefoot running shoes out for a walk in the city or out for a run on the sidewalk, I shake my head. If only they could see the irony of how their “natural” form of running or walking is taking place in the most unnatural environment on the planet.

 

UPDATE: May 8th, 2014: Vibram is now involved in a 3.75 million dollar settlement with owners of their iconic Five Finger shoes over misled health benefits advertised by Vibram’s Barefoot Technology. Not gonna say I called it, but…

 

I’ve yet to hear of any measurable benefits of barefoot running, and I believe the merits of this movement fall in line with the Paleo Diet and CrossFit: authenticity driven movements that are all victims of the Naturalist Fallacy. We need to recognize that as humans in the 21st century, we have changed our world, and we as a species have changed as well. As nice as little doses of nostalgia are, to alter your entire lifestyle around some obscure, almost pseudoscientific idea is misguided. I do think that we need some more naturalist principles in our lives, but they need to be properly adapted to mesh well with modernity. In the meantime, stop listening to armchair scientists and changing your entire life, but try to take away the positive benefits that the lifestyle encourages.

Internet Propagated Pseudoscience: The Alchemy of our Time

Last night’s debate between creationist Ken Ham and scientist Bill Nye illustrated to the world that a subject as fact-based as science still experiences a great deal of controversy. Science, which, contrary to Mr. Ham’s false dichotomy of observational science and historical science, has followed the same natural laws throughout the existence of time, still has some glaring errors and is not without controversy and corruption within itself. This corruption is often falsely attacked by the true proponents of the real corruption, creating a situation where the “good guys” are actually the ones spreading rumours largely predicated on falsified data and bad science. I’m talking, of course, about the anti-vaccine movement, the anti-GMO movement, and the naturopathic supplement industry.

I know this will be controversial, and I know that some people that I know as friends may completely disagree with what I have to say, but my hope is offer a balanced perspective on the matter, and explain the damages of pseudoscience as a cultural movement rather than directly attack people with these beliefs. This is more an attack on the methodology of how people come to their decisions, as all of these ways of thinking are largely fuelled through examples generated from anecdotal evidence, not hard science. Here we go…

As long as there’s been public access to the Internet, there’s been bullshit. It started with chain emails that promised to grant you good luck for years if you sent them along, or promised your imminent death if you refused. It continued on with mass emails that reported ludicrous events such as: the existence of aliens, the Muslim Apocalypse, or the infamous Nigerian Prince mail scam. Fast forward to the Web 2.0 era, and Facebook is the primary vehicle for the spread of all of this “information”. It could be a simple photo that “proves” Jamie Oliver has won the fight against McDonald’s and their “pink slime”, or a whole group that spreads the word about the dangers of Fruit Loops cereal, how fluoride is a mind control agent used by the government, or the “new” and “groundbreaking” research in the fight against GMOs.

Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. What is the unifying principle that all of these rumours share? Fear. Why is a rumour started in the first place? To create fear, largely enacted out of jealousy. What a lot of supporters of these rumours forget is that the most famous movements were those motivated out of jealousy to create fear in their target consumers, knowing that they could create business as a result. People who believe in a lot of these “alternative” products are simply more easily influenced by fear than others. Fear is largely motivated by that of the unknown, and for those who are uneducated on many of these matters of pseudoscience, it is easy to fall victim to alternatives. My personal experience with this has been that most of my friends point their fingers and laugh at those who buy into these alternative products and conspiracies, because we all have science degrees, so our view is altered as such. Most of these rumours are created by companies or individuals who are just as greedy and corrupt as the evil corporations that they like to attack. Let’s investigate a few examples.

1) The anti-vaccine movement. Perhaps the movement getting the most attention today. Where did it all begin? In the 1960s, there were a few famous cases of vaccine disasters, including the Cutter Incident, where live strains of polio were actually contained in the vaccine dosage. That was over 50 years ago, and medicine has made some remarkable advances since then, including much more scrutinized testing. In his 2007 paper “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Life Saver”, Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick writes that “The great irony underlying current vaccination controversies is that, as vaccines have become more effective and safer than ever before, an anti-vaccine world view, reflecting a combination of nostalgia and cultural pessimism, has become more prevalent.” I couldn’t agree more.

What is really driving the recent spike in anti-vaccination activity is the now-defunct (and yet still cited) study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. At the time, this paper demonstrated evidence for a casual link between autism and a vaccine used for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). Unbeknownst to the scientific community at the time, Dr. Wakefield had in fact been paid by British lawyer to forge his data in the hopes that it could be used as evidence in an upcoming lawsuit against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. The truth came out, Wakefield was incited as a fraud, and his name was forever tarnished. The study was removed from the prestigious British Medical Journal, The Lancet, in which it was published, and the scientific community was in general uproar. Wakefield’s results have yet to be reproduced to this day, and the MMR vaccine controversy is viewed as one of the greatest cases of fraud in recent history. Yet, the belief that vaccines are bad still persists to this day. I will dive into the ethics of this, because it has already been exhaustingly covered already by numerous articles and publications.

2) On to GMOs. A very controversial subject indeed, perhaps not because of the actual GMOs themselves, but because of one of the companies that researches, manufactures, and sells them: Monsanto. To a lot of people, GMO sounds like a very scary term, but in reality, we’ve all had GMOs at one point or another growing up. If you’ve eaten cereal in the last 20 years, you’ve ingested some GMO corn. But what about the rats with the exploding stomachs and cancer, you say? The famous study that always gets cited in the debate against GMOs is a study by Gilles-Éric Séralini that demonstrated increased rates of cancer and tumours in rats who were fed a diet of GM corn made by Monsanto. Not only were Séralini’s results never replicated, his paper was actually retracted from the journal that it was originally published in. Aside from the lack of replication, Séralini’s study contained a small control group, a strain of rats prone to cancer (his control group had similar cancer rates), and Séralini himself is a widely-known advocate against GMOs.

I googled “gmo rat study”, and the first results were from the following websites.

http://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/gmo-safety-zmgz13amzsto.aspx
http://www.naturalnews.com/037249_gmo_study_cancer_tumors_organ_damage.html

Aside from incredibly biased journalism and awfully stereotypic website names, the articles fail to address the scientific shortcomings of the study. Any supporting documents cited are also from notoriously pro-GMO organizations, and the entire argument is another one of creationism vs. science. If you believe that GMOs are truly bad for you, then that’s fine, but just know that you’re being played no different than the people you choose to convey your “holier than thou” attitude on.  Most of these agencies are out to make money, and what they’re selling you is often costly, unproven, and downright fraudulent. This leads nicely into example 3.

3) Naturopathic supplement fraud

Studies have begun to surface that show many naturopathic supplements are nothing more than greenwashed filler pills. The FDA has a list of almost 100 supplements that have been found to show fraudulent amounts of the substance advertised, or simply none of it at all. Additionally, numerous supplements have unproven effects. Dr. Oz is largely to blame for pushing many of these supplements and products to the public. A spam email was sent to my inbox a few weeks ago, so I clicked on it like any smart person would do. It was a link to a site about green coffee beans, with an embedded YouTube video of the green coffee bean segment from the Dr. Oz show. This is just one of the many examples of Dr. Oz pushing products to his audience, but what I really don’t like is how dishonest he is about the whole process. He tries to act very objective on the manner, approaching at these products with a great degree of false skepticism to reassure the audience of his scientific validity. I predict in a few years some whistle blower will emerge, and then all of the companies who paid Dr. Oz to sell their products will emerge. The guy has a Harvard MBA in addition to his MD. He’s not stupid when it comes to business.

After watching two minutes of the video, I opened a new tab and googled “green coffee bean fraud”. Tons of results. I thought so.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/green-coffee-bean-extract-does-it-really-help-you-lose-weight/article6116816/

The study is flawed, and there’s only one study out there that even demonstrates that green coffee is remotely effective. No reproducible results, control group was flawed, small study. See a trend?

This is not to say that all naturopathic medicine is flawed, or that you shouldn’t take certain supplements. For example, fish oil has is a well-known, well-established supplement that is universally agreed upon to be good for you. But if you’re basing your entire conclusion about something from anecdotal evidence, please re-evaluate how you make critical decisions in your life. It would be like me waking up hungover after a night of drinking and going to an exam I had to write. Then when I aced the exam (duh), I decided to go around saying that being hungover makes your brain more alert and your memory recall better, because I just aced an exam, and so can you. Anecdotal evidence – my brain might react completely differently to the effects of a hangover, so to take my advice could work, but it could also screw you over. Same goes for switching to organic food, or taking green coffee bean extract, or cutting out carbs, or whatever. The human body is incredibly complex, so one study on a few people or rats is not going to cut it. Quit reading bad marketing disguised as pseudoscience, and start being smart about your decisions.

What a lot of people need to start doing is check their sources. It’s not that hard. Just because someone has a “Dr.” in front of their name, that doesn’t necessarily make them a credible source. What is credible is a scientific consensus, reproducible results, and good experimental design. Somewhere along the lines we lost the process of honest science, and only wanted the results, and it’s this movement that has resulted in the explosion of pseudoscience.

So be skeptical of the skeptics. They’re out to get your money just as much as the “big evil corporations” are.