Analogy Failure

Gay Marriage and Guns

If you took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, in high school, you may remember the analogy questions in the verbal section. An analogy question offers a pair of terms that share some logical relationship, then asks you to identify another pair of terms that share the same relationship. Here’s an example from the Kaplan Test Prep website:


(A) law:anarchy
(B) hunger:thirst
(C) etiquette:discipline
(D) love:treason
(E) stimulant:sensitivity

Medicine is used to prevent illness, in the same way that law is meant to prevent anarchy; hence, answer (A) is the best choice. None of the other choices have the same function/purpose relationship. In any analogy there must be a solid logical connection on both sides. If the logic that binds the analogy is faulty, then the analogy doesn’t work. And if the analogy doesn’t work, you probably shouldn’t use it in a Facebook conversation and then turn it into a meme.

That’s the problem with this meme; the logical connection between Red’s statement and Blue’s statement is weak. Red repeats the gun control mantra: they are not in favor of banning all guns – just the military-grade assault weapons that can kill the most people in the shortest time. Blue responds by arguing that Republicans (which Blue claims not to be) don’t want to ban all marriages, just the ones that ick them out the most. I’m sure Blue is patting himself on the back for his clever argument, but before he feels too proud of himself, Blue should consider that there is a big difference between wanting to prevent the average citizen from purchasing his eighteenth machine gun, and wanting to prevent Adam and Steve from cementing a commitment forged in love.

Now I shouldn’t have to explain the difference, but just in case Blue (or somebody with a similar mindset) wanders across this blog some day – I’ll indulge you. Gay marriage doesn’t kill people. It doesn’t allow one person to kill dozens of people in a matter of seconds. Need proof? Since 2008, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized gay marriage, either by court decision, state legislature, or popular vote. Since 2008, the homicide rate in the United States has declined from 5.4 per 100,000 people to only 4.7. See? Legal gay marriage doesn’t cause murders – it prevents them! (I know: there’s no causal connection between legal gay marriages and decreasing murder rates. It was a joke.)

So when Republicans cast their votes against gay marriage, they’re not really championing a cause that protects the health and safety of United States citizens; they’re just trying to solidify their own biases into law. That’s why the arguments of a gun control proponent do not sound like the arguments of an anti-gay-marriage Republican. Once you scratch the surface, there are vastly different motivations and likely consequences.

It tickles me, though, that Blue – an avowed non-Republican – is improperly using Republican arguments as a weapon to discredit the argument of a gun control proponent. Are Republicans the new Hitler in Internet-based “debates”? There’s an intriguing thought.



What single-celled organism are you? How Klingon are you? Why should anybody else care? If you have a Facebook account and friends, there are no less than one trillion quiz websites dedicated to helping you discover (and more importantly, share) the answers to these questions (except for the last one). I’m sure you’ve seen the results of these quizzes pasted on your social media friends’ walls: I am Jules Garfunkel! (in response to the question “Which Lesser-Known Sibling of a 1960’s Folk Icon Are You?”) or I am Hageman! (“Which Blood Clotting Factor Are You?”). Recently, there have been a spate of quizzes which assign you some percentage instead of giving you a yes/no, either/or answer. For example, you might learn that you are 71% antidisestablishmentarianist, or maybe 38% lactose intolerant.

Now in my opinion, these quizzes are generally a harmless – and pointless – diversion. The image above, though, was spawned by a quiz – “How Open-Minded Are You?” – that is a little more interesting than its kin. There are few concepts so widely misunderstood and abused in logical arguments as open-mindedness. Whenever somebody is trying to sell you a load of baloney, and you’re not biting, they’ll encourage you to be more open-minded. In common parlance, the entreaty to “be more open-minded” is essentially the same as asking somebody to accept your arguments without critical thought of any kind.

Before we turn our microscope on the quiz itself, I invite you to spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with what it really means to be open-minded, care of YouTube user QualiaSoup:

QualiaSoup’s discussion is largely limited to claims of the supernatural, but I think his definition of open-mindedness is applicable in all situations: open-mindedness is the willingness to consider new ideas, but not necessarily to embrace them without critical thought or supporting evidence.

The quiz asks ten questions to determine how open-minded you are, but do the questions really evaluate open-mindedness. Let’s take a look at each one and find out.

Question 1

Your friend asks if they can choose an outfit for you to wear, one that is radically different from your own style. You…

  1. laugh in their face. No way.
  2. grudgingly let them pick an outfit, but refuse to wear it in public.
  3. reluctantly try the look out in public.
  4. LOVE this plan! So much fun!

I viewed the source code for this page and determined that the quiz thinks choice 4 is the best answer. I disagree. Completely submitting yourself to the opinions of others may count as open-minded to some, but it is also uncritical and potentially dangerous? Is there any harm in letting your friend pick an outfit for you? Other than potentially looking foolish and being uncomfortable, no. But what if you uncritically accept your friend’s advice on romantic partners, business ventures, and health care? That goes well beyond open-mindedness and into the realm of uncritical thinking.

I know, I know…just because you let your friend pick out an outfit, that doesn’t mean you’re going to let her choose your spouse. I just don’t think this question (and the provided answer choices) are really indicative of open-mindedness. But there’s more to come, so let’s press on.

Question 2

You discover that your favorite author is an out-spoken misogynist. You…

  1. never read his books again.
  2. feel a little upset, but continue to read his books because you enjoy them.
  3. like him even more…because you’re a misogynist too!

The preferred answer is choice 2. Again, I’m not sure that’s an open-minded decision. It’s a personal decision – a decision that might be right for one person but not for everybody. I feel that choice 1 should carry equal weight in this question.

Question 3

You strike up a conversation at the park with an old man who seems a little senile. You quickly realize that he’s got some surprisingly racist beliefs. You…

  1. chew the old man out for being close-minded.
  2. get up and walk away.
  3. understand that there could have been many factors that led to him thinking this way, and gently try to open his mind.
  4. discover that you two have a lot in common!

It’s not too hard to guess that the quiz’s best answer is choice 3. I appreciate that the quiz awards open-minded points for understanding, and I think it is an admirable goal to try to reform an old racist. I can’t speak highly of the prospects for success, but hey, at least you tried, right?

Question 4

What do you think about books/movies/TV shows that feature an uncertain ending, where the audience/reader is left to imagine what happens next?

  1. I think it’s great sometimes.
  2. I think it’s lazy writing: No thanks.

I feel like there should be more answer choices. What about the people who respect other peoples’ enjoyment of open-ended entertainment, but feel a personal need for closure? And what does this have to do with open-mindedness anyway? The quiz awards points for choice 1; but isn’t that close-minded in that it shuts the door to other opinions without critical evaluation? Talk about lazy writing!

Question 5

Would you be willing to try a strange new dish in a foreign country? For example, if you were offered pig brain fritters in Cuba, or cold donkey meat in Beijing, would you try it? (For vegetarians, imagine being offered an unusual fruit that smells rotten.)

  1. Sure, I’ll try anything.
  2. I might try *some* weird foods, but not all.
  3. No weird food for me, weirdo.

First: Beijing is a city, not a country.

The “best” answer, according to the quiz, is choice 1. I disagree. Being willing to try anything is not open-minded; it’s foolhardy. Being open-minded in the culinary sense requires you to occasionally push your boundaries, but it does not require you to eat any abomination that’s placed in front of you. You have to think critically about what your palate can withstand. If somebody offers you a plate of strange gray meat surrounded by purple, oddly-shaped vegetables, look around. Is anybody else eating the same thing? Do they seem to be enjoying it? Do you know enough about the ingredients to ensure that you’re not allergic to any of them? Do you have plans for later, just in case your culinary adventure lands you on the porcelain throne for the rest of the evening? These are things you have to think about. Opening your mouth is not the same as opening your mind.

Question 6

Do you believe your nation could learn something from other parts of the world?

  1. Sure, there is always room for improvement.
  2. I doubt that very seriously.

The best answer, of course, is choice 1. I get what they’re doing here. Conservatives might argue that this question rewards liberal attitudes. Strangely enough, I agree, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Moving along.

Question 7

Have you ever had a real conversation with a homeless person?

  1. Yes
  2. No

According to the source code, you’re more open-minded if you’ve taken the time to converse with a homeless person. I’m not sure I understand the logic. What if you’ve never actually seen a homeless person in real life? That’s conceivable, especially for people living in sparsely-populated rural areas. Are they automatically less open-minded because of their living situation? I feel uncomfortable making that conclusion.

Question 8

Do you sometimes find yourself changing your mind about important social and political issues as you learn more about them?

  1. Sure
  2. Sometimes
  3. Never

The question contains the word sometimes, which means that choice 2 should be a lock; however, the quiz awards less credit for choice 2 than it does for choice 1. I think that’s both confusing and backwards: for true open-mindedness balanced by healthy skepticism, the answer should always be sometimes.

I know: since the question says sometimes, if you say “Sure”, you’re also saying sometimes. But it’s ambiguous and should be rewritten.

Question 9

True or False: In life, there is almost always a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, and it’s easy to see the difference between the two.

  1. True
  2. False

The quiz awards points for answering “False”, and I agree with that assessment. I understand the relevance: open-mindedness requires you to contemplate various ideas, and it can be difficult to determine which idea is most valid, especially when both sides present convincing evidence. And the question contains the words almost always, which denotes a true understanding of the vagueness of real life. So I’m going to let this question slide. For now.

Question 10

Finish this sentence: “It’s been done this way for 500 years, and…”

  1. it will always be done this way.
  2. probably for a good reason.
  3. it’s probably about time for a change.
  4. I’m sure we could come up with a better way to do it.

The quiz’s best answer is choice 4. I’m ambivalent about this one. I think choice 4 would be a better answer if it said “we should evaluate whether the method we have is actually the best way of doing it, then draft a better solution if necessary.” Still, I give the author points for understanding that the old ways are not always the best ways.

Does this quiz really evaluate your open-mindedness? Well, it determines if you meet the author’s definition of open-mindedness, which, in my opinion, could use some tweaking. I’d like to re-emphasizing what I believe is the best description of open-minded thinking: open-mindedness means you are willing to consider new ideas, but not bound to accept them. As always, critical thinking and skepticism should be your tools for making important decisions.

If you answer all the questions “correctly”, your result tells you that you are 100% open-minded, and gives you this advice:

Your mind is like 7-11: Open all the time, baby. There is almost no idea too crazy for you to consider. But be careful of people who might exploit your worldview: Earth is a dangerous place for people willing to try anything!

Truer words…

Who’s The Denier?

autism deniers

One of the greatest theoretical gifts of the Internet, in my opinion, is that it grants nearly unfettered access to all sorts of scientific data. Unfortunately, many of the people who access and attempt to use scientific data have no formal scientific training. Trying to analyze data when you’re not trained to do so is akin to performing open-heart surgery without the benefit of a medical school education. It leads to gross mistakes, which leads to wrong ideas, which leads to memes like this one.

But before I dismiss this meme as so much poppycock, let me give it a fair shake. I did a bit of digging on the three supposedly inept officials pictured in this meme, and on the alleged surge in autism cases over the past few decades. Dr Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) acknowledges that diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have increased dramatically in the last few decades. He notes that doctors have expanded the definition of ASD to include many children who might previously have been diagnosed with a different condition; also, ASD testing has become more sensitive, allowing for the diagnoses of mild autism cases that could have escaped detection in previous years. But Dr Insel does not stop there; he also points to an alarming increase in other childhood ailments, including asthma, Type I diabetes, and food allergies. If environmental factors are contributing to an uptick in those other conditions, perhaps there is some external factor causing a greater incidence of ASD in children. Dr Insel believes that the cause behind the uptick in autism diagnoses is probably a combination: there are more children being affected, and more being detected. Those hardly sound like the words of an autism denier.

Dr Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsop and Dr Coleen Boyle gave a press briefing in March to talk about the growing ASD epidemic. They both say that ASD diagnoses are increasing, and stress that further research is needed to explain why. They mention the improvement in diagnostic practices but say little about the possibility that environmental factors are leading to an increased incidence rate of ASD. Dr Yeargin-Allsop and Dr Boyle are not deniers; they are cautious scientists who do not wish to hang their reputations on unsupported speculation.

If only everyone else felt the same way…

So we can dispense with the notion that these doctors are autism deniers, or that they are culpable for the apparent increase in ASD during their tenures. Why would anyone suggest otherwise?

In my research I came across a letter drafted by several “concerned organizations” that expressed the same sentiments contained in this meme. They charge that the CDC and NIMH are refusing to investigate environmental causes behind the ASD epidemic (which is patently untrue, as per Dr Insel’s article) and demand that President Obama remove these people from their posts. They claim that it is impossible for a genetic autism epidemic to arise in a single generation and that there is no “autism gene”; ironically, the three doctors they lambast would probably agree with them. Most health experts believe that autism is the result of genetic and environmental factors; in other words, there is no single cause (or gene) that makes a person autistic.

The entire scientific community is still struggling to understand the causes and nature of ASD, yet the creators of this missive (and this meme) have painted themselves as experts. How wonderful it must be to possess certainty when the best and brightest minds – the people who have spent a lifetime training to interpret scientific data – are still scratching their heads.

One thing the letter and meme do not do is provide an actual culprit for the alleged ASD epidemic. If ASD isn’t genetic (as the “concerned organizations” assert), then what environmental factor could be causing it? Thankfully, some of the “concerned organizations” are listed at the end of the letter with links to what are sure to be fact-filled websites. Click on a few of them and it becomes clear that one word is on all of their minds:


From Age of Autism (emphasis mine):

We are published to give voice to those who believe autism is an environmentally induced illness, that it is treatable, and that children can recover. For the most part, the major media in the United States aren’t interested in that point of view, they won’t investigate the causes and possible biomedical treatments of autism independently, and they don’t listen to the most important people – the parents, many of whom have witnessed autistic regression and medical illness after vaccinations. We do all those things, and more.

From Autism Action Network:

Autism Action Network is a national, non-partisan, grassroots, political action organization formed by parents in support of children and adults with autism, vaccne (sic) injuries, and neurodevelopmental and communication disorders.

From Canary Party:

The proper definition of safety involves a clear vision of the larger goal of regulatory work, which is securing positive health outcomes for children and families. This vision of safety requires a commitment to a total health perspective, including chronic as well as infectious disease, developmental disability as well as episodic illness, and quality of life as well as the absence of disease. It embraces a philosophy that sets a goal of zero vaccine and other medical adverse events, where these events are treated respectfully, indeed, as a resource for prevention of future adverse reactions. Achieving this goal requires a strong and global commitment to safety science, especially the study of health outcomes in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations.

From the Elizabeth Birth Center for Autism Law & Advocacy (EBCALA):

The autism community faces severe legal hurdles in many areas, including special education, insurance, healthcare, family law, criminal law and tort law, particularly related to vaccine injury. Since 2009, EBCALA has organized an annual conference each May in Chicago, Illinois during the Autism One conference to address the unique legal needs of the autism community.

From Generation Rescue:

Generation Rescue firmly believes that all parents have the power of choice – to vaccinate or not – and should be armed with the right questions to make an informed decision. We encourage all new parents to educate themselves about vaccinations so they can stand with confidence behind their decisions. Parents need to discuss vaccination options directly with their child’s pediatrician.

From Thinking Moms Revolution (in response to a question about doctors who refused to treat a mother’s unvaccinated child):

While I cannot give you advice on finding an MD who shares your (valid) concerns about immunization, I can tell you what I did for my sister when she lived in North Carolina. I asked around at all the local health food stores, yoga studios, and complementary health clinics for names of all-round well-recommended health professionals, and created a short-list for her with the names which had come up 3x or more.
From that list, there was an osteopathic doctor, a naturopathic doctor, and a traditional chinese medicine doctor, only one of which was covered by her insurance. She sees that osteopath every time she goes back, even though she’s moved overseas.

All of the “concerned organizations” who signed the letter that inspired this meme express a strong concern about vaccines (with the exception of the Holland Center, whose website doesn’t mention vaccines at all as far as I can tell). Let’s be clear, if you run an autism awareness website, there is no scientifically valid reason to mention vaccines at all, unless it is to debunk this dangerous misconception. Science-Based Medicine has a lot to say about the safety of vaccines, and many other scientific institutions, many of them operating independently, have offered their assurance that vaccines are not connected to autism at all. If there is an environmental factor contributing to a rise in the number of children affected by ASD, it isn’t vaccination.

So what about this meme? Well, it doesn’t specifically mention vaccines, but it is spawned by a mindset that clearly believes there is a link between vaccines and autism. Therefore I will go with my original impression: this meme is hogwash, and not to be taken seriously.

Proof of Nothing

Scientifically Proven

This is such a ridiculous statement; I assume it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek and does not require an extensive debunking. In case the meme’s author is serious, I would certainly love to know how researchers quantified the experience of falling in love, and furthermore how they determined when a human subject had reached that threshold.

Rather than spending any more time talking about the absurdity of measuring love, I’d like to focus on two words near the top of the meme: scientifically proven.

These words are meaningless, but you hear them used repeatedly by people trying to promote an idea or agenda. If anybody persists in telling you that something is scientifically proven, you should know that this person has a less-than-perfect understanding of science, and you might adjust your acceptance of their claims accordingly. But why should we be skeptical of people who speak of proof in science? Can scientists ever be certain of their findings?

To an extent: yes. However, in the philosophy of science (in other words, thinking about the way we know things), certainty must always be accompanied by falsifiability. An idea can be falsified if we can imagine a realistic observation that would disprove the idea. For example, the statement “All female birds lay eggs” is falsifiable since we can easily imagine the kind of discovery that would disprove the statement. Note that falsifiability does not mean that an idea is wrong; only that it could be wrong, and we know what would disprove it. If a statement is not falsifiable – usually because it is not testable – then it is not considered to be scientific.

As an idea is repeatedly tested without being disproved, scientists invest more certainty into the idea; however, no amount of testing is sufficient to completely prove a scientific statement. Proof indicates 100% certainty, and 100% certainty would require a god-like omniscience that no human possesses. So we see that the concept of “scientifically proven” is an oxymoron: if a concept is proven, it isn’t falsifiable, and if it isn’t falsifiable, it isn’t scientific. QED.

If you’re interested in learning more about how scientists work, I strongly recommend spending some time with Understanding Science 101, a website produced by the University of California at Berkeley. You won’t regret it.

If It’s On The Internet…

Total BS

If you’ve spent any time around humans, you’ve probably noticed that we’re not a rational bunch. We tend to draw conclusions based on our personal prejudices rather than empirical evidence. When confronted with conflicting evidence, we often reject it out of hand. I’m as guilty of this as everybody else; I think it’s a defense mechanism meant to keep our minds from having to reconstruct our worldviews on a daily basis. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s good for us to have a consistent image of how the world works.

Fortunately, we’ve recognized this shortcoming and invented science as a means of by-passing it. We humans use science to know about the natural world, but also to improve the quality of our lives. One of the greatest practical achievements of science is medicine, that vast branch that helps determine what’s good and bad for us.

Of course, not everybody accepts the findings of science/medicine, because – as I pointed out – it’s a lot more comfortable to stick to your ideological guns. Every now and then you’ll come across a meme like this one, which seems to fly in the face of established science. It’s tempting to dismiss this meme as so much bollocks, but let’s take the time to see what evidence is available to confirm or refute each of the author’s claims.

Exposure to the sun generates vitamin D which will protect you from cancer.

If you want to stir up a poop-storm of controversy, nothing stirs faster than the topic of cancer (not the Tropic of Cancer, which to the best of my knowledge is not controversial at all). Claim that something causes or prevents cancer, and soon you’ll have a multitude of angry self-proclaimed medical experts beating down your door to tell you why you’re wrong. Unfortunately these armchair physicians seldom come armed with peer-reviewed studies. What do the real experts have to say about the Sun, vitamin D, and cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, an arm of the National Institute of Health, the link between vitamin D and cancer is not well-understood. Here’s what we do know:

Vitamin D helps the human body process calcium and phosphorus, which are essential for healthy teeth and bones. Your skin does indeed produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, but you also get vitamin D in your food. What’s the connection between vitamin D and cancer? Early studies indicated that certain types of cancer were less common – and less often fatal – in people living close to the equator than in people living at higher latitudes. One proposed hypothesis was that since equatorial inhabitants receive more direct sunlight, their bodies produce more vitamin D. Vitamin D does seem to inhibit cancer growth in mice; perhaps something similar is happening in people? Sadly, further studies have been inconclusive. At present, there is little data to indicate what benefit, if any, vitamin D has in keeping people cancer-free.

Furthermore, there are many types of cancer: the NCI never mentions a specific link between vitamin D and skin cancer, which is the kind of cancer most often associated with excessive exposure to sunlight. So, even if vitamin D does protect you from some types of cancer, it might not protect you from skin cancer; ergo, you should probably stock up on sunscreen if you’re going to be outdoors a lot, right? Right?

Sunscreen contains chemicals that actually give you skin cancer.

Ah, so this is the author’s angle. Silly people: the Sun doesn’t cause cancer – the cream you rub on your skin to protect yourself from cancer causes cancer! What cruel irony!

Well, not so fast. Dr Ronald Siegle, writing for the Skin Cancer Foundation, debunks rumors regarding the potential carcinogenic properties of sunscreen. According to Dr Siegle, there is no compelling evidence that the ingredients in sunscreen present a cancer risk to humans. So why do some folks think otherwise?

Probably because some sunscreens contain titanium dioxide nanoparticles. Titanium dioxide in powder form is highly toxic when inhaled, and a possible carcinogen to humans. Some people are concerned that the tiny titanium dioxide particles in commercial sunscreens could penetrate through the skin and enter the bloodstream. Dr Kenneth Portier, writing for the American Cancer Society, says that scientists have been unable to determine what amount of TiO2 actually makes it through the outer layer of skin cells, and to what depth. Dr Portier also points out that not every brand of sunscreen contains titanium dioxide, and echoes Dr Siegle in saying that overall, applying sunscreen is still a smart idea if you’re going to be outdoors. Despite what some people say, sunscreen helps reduce the risk of skin cancer, so slather up.

Al Qaeda is the CIA and your government is the major threat.

This statement opens many cans of worms.

It has certainly been rumored that the United States armed and supported Al Qaeda during the latter operation’s formative years. Is there any truth to these rumors? Predictably, that depends on who you ask. The supposed link between the CIA and Al Qaeda goes back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States, in an effort to stymie the Soviets, provided support to the local Afghan mujahideen (Islamic guerilla fighters), but denies ever having been intimately connected with so-called foreign, or Arab, mujahideen who laid the foundation of Al Qaeda. United States government officials argue that there were plenty of indigenous mujahideen invested in repelling the Soviet invasion force; ergo it was unnecessary to bring in foreign fighters, particularly those who were already well-funded by Muslim sources and openly hostile to Americans.

Remarkably, Osama bin Laden, a co-founder of Al Qaeda, agreed with the United States government’s portrayal of the U.S./Al Qaeda relationship in those early years; i.e. that there was none. And yet…

Other sources, notably Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, have claimed that Osama bin Laden expressed gratitude toward the United States of America for its role in helping the Afghan mujahideen. This seems to contradict most other depictions of Osama bin Laden, who was never portrayed as being a fan of the United States.

Flash forward to September 11, 2001, when terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked four airplanes and intentionally crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Despite an extensive investigation showing that the 9/11 attacks were in fact the act of a radical Islamic terrorist organization, many conspiracy theorists leapt headfirst into the conclusion that the United States government either orchestrated the attacks themselves, or knew about them beforehand and was complicit in allowing them to happen.

The conspiracy theorists point to what they perceive as inconsistencies and physical impossibilities in the events leading up to the attacks. I don’t have the time or energy to review and debunk every conspiracy theory that has popped up in the wake of 9/11 (nor do I need to, as many sources, Popular Mechanics, e.g., have already done so). I don’t expect the diehards to be convinced; conspiracy theories are born of a need to have an explanation that fits one’s prejudices, regardless of whether the explanation is true or even plausible.

So where does that leave us? Is Al Qaeda the CIA? Is our government a major threat? There’s no evidence to support a positive answer to the first question, and I don’t think the second question even has a defensible answer. Sure, the government has done some shady stuff; in fact, it continues to do so. But just because our government has done some bad things doesn’t mean it has done every bad thing. We must be careful when leveling such accusations.

Diet products contain aspartame and aspartame causes brain cancer.

Some diet products contain aspartame, but aspartame has never been scientifically linked to an increased risk of brain cancer in humans. Many of the misconceptions about aspartame are probably connected to a hoax email that has been circulating since at least 1998. The Food & Drug Administration has responded to the email, saying that it is full of pseudoscientific nonsense. Both the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society attest to the safety of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners.

“But wait a minute,” you might say, “What about that study showing that aspartame increased cancer risks in men who drink diet sodas?” People who already wanted backing for their pre-formed conclusions that aspartame was dangerous leapt on the report like a lion on a gazelle. They seemingly had their smoking gun. Nevermind that the report’s authors – who pre-maturely promoted it – recanted their support almost immediately when the report was finally released. They called their own findings weak and untenable; in other words, they no longer felt comfortable hanging their confidence on it. Similar studies purporting to show hidden dangers in aspartame have likewise been called methodologically unsound by the international scientific community. Aspartame is one of the best-tested food additives in existence, and the available evidence – from laboratories all over the world – shows that it is safe.

Mammograms expose you to ionizing radiation which will give you cancer.

Life exposes you to ionizing radiation. Every day, every second, your body is being bombarded by charged particles and high-energy photons moving at fantastic speeds. Although these particles are sub-microscopic, they pack quite a wallop on the molecular scale; in fact, they can damage your sensitive genetic code.

In many cases your cells are able to catch the damage and repair it before it can spread. In other cases the cell is sacrificed to save its host: you. Your body has myriad ways to protect itself from the effects of ionizing radiation.

In very rare situations, a cell suffers a mutation that shuts off the mechanism that tells it when to stop growing. If your body’s defense system fails to identify and destroy the cancerous cell, it will grow and divide out of control, threatening the survival of tissues, organ systems, and eventually its own host. It’s a testament to the power of our immune systems that these aggressive cancers seldom get beyond the single-stage cell, but when they do, the results can be devastating.

If we increase our exposure to ionizing radiation, we increase the likelihood of developing cancer. Scientists have made careful measurements and estimates of the amount of radiation received in various situations, and these measurements inform dosage recommendations. Check out this website to learn about how much radiation is too much. While you’re there, be sure to click on the diagram for a closer look; it’s really informative.

As you can see, the average radiation dose from a mammogram is 3 milliSieverts. The maximum yearly dose permitted for U.S. radiation workers is 50 milliSieverts, so you could have sixteen mammograms in a one-year period without exceeding the recommended maximum dose for people who routinely work in high-radiation environments.

You would have to receive a yearly dose of 100 milliSieverts (about 33 mammograms) before you had an increased risk of cancer. I don’t think too many people will receive 33 mammograms in a year. Bottom line: the radiation you receive during a typical mammogram is far below the level needed to increase your risk for developing cancer.

To be fair, it takes only one radiation particle to get the cancer ball rolling. The longer you live, the more likely you are to take a critical hit in your DNA. Ironically, that makes it more important that women over 50 get regular mammograms. It’s a measured risk: the microscopic impact in your yearly radiation budget is more than countered by the likelihood that you’ll detect breast cancer in its early stages.

Most vaccines contain thimerosal (mercury) that will kill you.

In a word, no. Thimerosal is not mercury; it is an organic compound that contains mercury. That’s an important distinction, because it changes how the chemical is absorbed and processed inside the body. Many vaccines used to contain thimerosal as a preservative because it would prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in the vaccine medium. According to the USFDA, thimerosal was eliminated or reduced to trace amounts in most vaccines in response to growing concerns about its safety. Today, most of the vaccines recommended for children under 6 are thimerosal-free, with the exception of flu vaccines (and you can even request a thimerosal-free flu vaccine). Contrary to this meme’s assertion, most vaccines do not contain thimerosal.

Now let’s address the second part of the statement: can thimerosal kill you? Well, it’s no secret that mercury is exceedingly bad for you, but different compounds of mercury behave in different ways. Thimerosal is a derivative of a compound called ethylmercury. The Center for Disease Control explains that ethylmercury, unlike elemental mercury and methylmercury, is broken down and eliminated by the body. It doesn’t slowly accumulate to dangerous levels; furthermore, the few vaccines that still contain thimerosal have it in exceedingly low concentrations.

You’ve no doubt heard stories of people who claim that they or their children were made ill by a vaccine. There will always be people who react badly to certain vaccines, but it almost certainly has nothing to do with mercury. As with mammograms, vaccines represent a miniscule risk, and the benefits far outweigh it.

One more question needs answering: if thimerosal is so harmless, why did the FDA request that vaccine manufacturers remove it from most of their products? The FDA and its European cousin, the AAP, followed a better-safe-than-sorry approach. They opted out of thimerosal in the remote chance that it was harmful, reasoning that there was little harm in being overly cautious. Unfortunately, the destructive and now discredited ex-Dr Andrew Wakefield confused the issue by releasing a study supposedly establishing a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. To the conspiracy-minded, the timing was too good to ignore: of course the FDA knew that vaccines cause autism; that’s why they rushed to eliminate thimerosal. By the time the dust settled on the Wakefield scandal, the damage was done. Too many parents still refuse important vaccines for their children in the mistaken belief that they pose a health risk. Subsequently, dangerous diseases that were once under control are making a roaring comeback.

Fluoride is poison and it will give you cancer and kill you and cause dental fluorosis.

It tickles me that dental fluorosis is thrown in almost as an afterthought. Fluoride will kill you…and your teeth will be ugly at your funeral!

At any rate, I’ve written about the “dangers” of fluoride before. To summarize: the fluoride levels in toothpaste and drinking water are far below dangerous levels. You would have to gobble down many tubes of toothpaste (at once) before you stood a better-than-average chance of being harmed by fluoride. There is no credible evidence to suggest that our health is being jeopardized by the fluoride we regularly consume. Warnings on toothpaste tubes are put there to protect the companies, not because their product is actually dangerous.

So that’s it. This meme was a whole lot of nonsense, but I think we’ve gained a valuable insight into the mind of its author. The author hates and distrusts the medical establishment and the government, and is willing to accept anything as long as it confirms his beliefs. Let’s consider this a cautionary tale…not of the evils of Big Government, but of the evils of uncritical thinking.

Why We All Need Feminism

Male Feminists

In 2012, sixteen students at Duke University began a social media campaign to shed light on issues of gender equality. It was called Who Needs Feminism? As part of the campaign, participants displayed posters around campus. Each poster bore an image of a man or woman holding a whiteboard sign starting with the words “I need feminism because…” The students’ motivation was to show that feminist principles could be important to everybody, and that there was no feminist archetype.

Images from and inspired by Who Needs Feminism?

Images from and inspired by Who Needs Feminism?

The students also launched a three-pronged online campaign on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Within hours their message was spreading rapidly across the Internet, and they had garnered a lot of attention, from men and women; from feminists and antifeminists.

A quick word about antifeminists: I’m not going to universally bash antifeminists by assuming that they are all misogynistic sexual predators-in-training. Just as there is no feminist archetype, there is no antifeminist archetype. They each have their own motives, even if I disagree with their conclusions. But there are those among the antifeminist crowd who betray a spectacular misunderstanding of women, their desires, and their struggle by creating garbage like this meme. If you are an antifeminist who thinks this meme is hilarious, it is to you that I address the rest of this post.

Despite what you may have heard in the last meeting of your He-Man Woman Hater’s Club, feminism is not about women dominating men. Most feminists will tell you that feminism is about equality; they subscribe to the notion that women are actual people who deserve the same social, political, and economic benefits as their male counterparts. Now really, there shouldn’t be anything too upsetting about that, unless you’re part of the privileged class and you’ve bought into the fairy tale that an increase in someone else’s rights means a decrease in your own rights. Don’t worry, rights are not a limited resource. There are plenty to go around.

If you are one of these misogynistic antifeminists, then you no doubt believe that any man who espouses feminist ideals does so only because he’s trying to get laid. Let’s take a few seconds to enumerate everything that’s wrong with that position.

  1. Blogger Feminspire writes that one of the most harmful aspects of the “male feminists just want to get laid” argument is that it betrays a complete indifference to the humanity of women. Anybody who makes this argument apparently cannot understand why any man would feel otherwise; ergo, any man who appears to support a woman’s cause must be trying to con a woman into sleeping with him.
  2. Men are not all single-minded sex-seeking missiles. It is conceivable that some men have interests outside of sex. It just might be possible that some men are interested in equality for everyone, and they can express their support without expecting any sort of sexual compensation.
  3. If a feminist ally truly understands feminist ideals (and he’d better), he knows that being feminist is not a free pass to having sex anyway. A woman chooses her sexual partners based on many qualities, not just ideological compatibility. If he didn’t already know this, he would learn real quick.

I am a white, straight male. I occupy three of the five sides of the American Pentagon of Privilege (a concept I just now invented, as far as I know. The other two sides are being wealthy and Christian.) I am aware of my privilege, but I don’t want to give it away. I want everybody to have the same privilege. That means I don’t want to tear others down or block their progress. When I identify myself as an ally to feminists (and to homosexuals and to people of color), it’s not because I want something for myself; I want us all to be in the same boat. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.


Mixing Religion and Politics

The author of this meme neglects to provide any specific examples of government intrusion upon his/her religion, so I took to the Internet in search of supporting evidence.

According to Bishop David O’Connell in an opinion piece: the “Health and Human Services mandate forcing nearly all private health plans to include coverage for all FDA-approved prescription contraceptive drugs and devices, including abortifacients and surgical sterilization” constitutes an attack on the liberties of religious objectors. Yet Rev. O’Connell acknowledges in the next paragraph that President Obama extended an exemption to those same objectors, so that their organizations would not be required to cover the hated drugs and procedures, but it’s still not good enough. Apparently, Rev. O’Connell is incensed that the government allows anybody to make choices with which he personally disagrees. The government’s willingness to facilitate differing viewpoints must certainly be a sign of its gradual erosion of religious liberties, right?

But that’s just one person’s opinion. Are there others who think the government’s will is blocking their spiritual path? Oh, you bet.

Paul Roy wrote in The Guardian Liberty Voice that the recent Supreme Court case of Town of Greece v. Galloway was a classic example of religion under attack. The case was passed up from a lower court which had declared that the town of Greece, New York, could not open its legislative sessions with a (predominantly Christian) prayer. Although the case had not been decided when Roy wrote his piece, the SCOTUS eventually voted 5-4 that the town could permit volunteer chaplains to issue a prayer. Naturally, the religious right was ecstatic – they hailed it as a victory for religious liberties – but that hasn’t stopped them from grousing about government intrusion in other arenas.

Erik Stanley writes in – a website dedicated to “protecting and promoting” the rights of churches – that Washington state’s acceptance of same-sex marriages poses a threat to religious freedoms. Although the law does not require religious officials to solemnize any particular wedding, according to Stanley, wording in the bill (in Section 7 (PDF)) would require that if any church rents its facilities to non-member heterosexual couples for the purpose of getting hitched, it would be required to rent its facilities to same-sex couples.

While that may sound awfully intrusive – particularly if you’re a religious conservative – keep in mind that an open rental policy exposes the church to a lot of people with whom the church may not agree: atheists, pro-choicers, etc. When you open your doors to the public, you always take that risk. The solution is simple: either accept that your facilities will occasionally be rented for purposes with which you don’t agree, or don’t rent to non-members. Problem solved.

So is the government intruding upon our religious rights? In each of these cases, some layer of the government was trying to make our nation more inclusive, and in each case religious conservatives fought back vociferously. To the maker of this meme: it seems to me that the government isn’t intruding upon your religion. The people are asking you not to impose your religious beliefs upon others, and you are perceiving that as an intrusion. What does that say about your religion; or more directly, what does that say about you?