Flat Earth Week, Day 2: Flat Out Wrong


It’s interesting – and a bit infuriating – how many conspiracy theories paste the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as one of their biggest, baddest bogeymen, especially considering that (A) NASA is one of the most transparent government agencies in existence, with a huge public outreach mission, and (B) NASA is not the only gatekeeper to information concerning the cosmos.  In other words, even if NASA knew that Earth was flat but wanted to keep it a secret, they wouldn’t be able to.  There are simply too many other people who are in a position to blow the whistle.

An article published in the Independent last month underscores the difficulty of keeping big secrets over long periods of time.  According to the article, Dr David Grimes at the University of Oxford developed a formula showing that the more people know about a sophisticated conspiracy, the more quickly it will be exposed.  Although the article focused mainly on Moon Landing deniers, Dr Grimes’s conclusions are presumably still valid when it comes to Flat Earth conspiracy theories.

Think about this: there are literally thousands – if not millions – of photographs of Earth taken from outer space.  In fact, there have been satellites launched with the express purpose of taking pictures of Earth.  NASA is just one organization responsible for launching and monitoring these spacecraft.  The European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have also launched a fair number of satellites capable of taking pictures of Earth.  Here are a few of the beautiful shots of our homeworld as seen by their spaceborne eyes.

ESA’s Rosetta captured this true-color image of Earth during its November 2007 swing-by on the way to its cometary rendezvous.

JAXA’s lunar orbiter KAGUYA watched Earth “rising” behind the Moon’s horizon.  About 40 seconds have elapsed from the first frame to the last frame.

Notice anything about these images?  For starters, neither image was captured by NASA.  Also, the shape of Earth in both images is decidedly round.

Of course, dedicated Flat Earthers will not be deterred by such evidence; after all, these images could easily have been faked.  That’s the problem with Flat Earthers – nay, with conspiracy theorists of any stripe.  There is no evidence so compelling as to shake them from their convictions, which renders their convictions meaningless.

But even if we had never placed a camera in outer space and turned it back toward Earth, this meme would still be bunk.  There are many ways to know that Earth is round, even without photographic evidence.  For example, Earth always casts a round shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse.  Furthermore, ships sailing over the horizon disappear bottom first.  Here’s video evidence for those that have never witnessed this phenomenon firsthand:

There are several cuts in the video because the sailboat is moving quite slowly and it would take more than an hour to show the entire process.  However, if you’ve got a lot of time to spare, the uncut version can be found here.

Still not convinced?  If you’re a Flat Earther, then of course you’re not.  You have your own brand of “logic” that doesn’t mesh well with the logic used by everybody else.  Here’s one more piece of evidence – although I could go on – that refutes the notion of a Flat Earth.  If you take a trip from the extreme northern latitudes to the extreme southern latitudes, you will see an entirely different set of stars and constellations in the night sky.  The Globe Earth model explains this phenomenon perfectly.  If people are stuck to the surface of a globe, then people in opposite hemispheres each have their own set of stars that are never visible to people living in the opposite hemisphere, owing to the fact that they would be perpetually below the horizon.  For example, the North Star, Polaris, is never visible to anybody south of the equator, just as the bright star Canopus is never visible to people north of 37º north latitude.

Of course Flat Earthers have an “answer” for this as well; in fact, they go so far as to claim the shifting constellations as a point in their column.  (This is a frustrating tactic commonly employed by Creationists as well.)  According to the Flat Earth Wiki, the apparent shift in constellations as one travels southward from the North Pole (or, in the Flat Earth model, outward from the center) is caused by nothing more than perspective.  You see, in the Flat Earth model, the stars are not light years away.  Instead, they are merely thousands of miles above our heads.  The pole star is directly overhead when one stands in the center of the disc Earth, and as one moves outward, it shifts downward toward the vanishing point.  When you have moved sufficiently far from the central point of the disc, Polaris sinks and vanishes into the haze of the horizon.  Meanwhile, stars that are further outward “rise” and become more prominent as you position yourself beneath them.  Isn’t that neat?

One major problem: there is also a south celestial pole.  Although there is no star currently positioned prominently near the south celestial pole, there still exists a point in the southern skies around which all southern stars seem to revolve on a nightly basis.  This wouldn’t happen on a Flat Earth.  On a Flat Earth, the farther south you went (meaning, the closer you got to the Antarctic ice wall), the further removed you would be from the center of the sky’s rotation.  As you brushed against the shores of Antarctica, all the stars would seem to zip by overhead, moving much faster than their more northern counterparts, since they are much further from the center of rotation.  This is exactly the opposite of what we observe.  In the far southern hemisphere, the stars high above seem to trace smaller and smaller circles as they get closer to the south celestial pole.  Only at the equator do the overhead stars seem to have the fastest nightly velocities with respect to the ground.  Try as they might, Flat Earthers cannot fit the facts of the night sky into their model…because their model is wrong.

There is one question that remains to be answered, and it is perhaps the most vexing: assuming that Earth really is flat and the space agencies of the world know it, why the cover-up?  What do the world’s governments stand to gain by pretending?  With other loony conspiracy theories (the 9/11 “truth” movement or the Moon landing hoax conspiracy, e.g.), the theorists have at least presented somewhat compelling reasons for the conspiracy (even though they’re still wrong).  But it’s very hard to imagine what the shadowy New World Order would gain by having everybody believe in a round Earth.

No doubt the religiously-motivated Flat Earthers believe that the “Globe Earth myth” is a lie invented by Satan to draw people away from God’s saving truth.  We saw a bit of that sentiment yesterday.  Others may simply believe that the whole-world government (Flat Earthers are typically big into that kind of idea) intends to keep people as docile as possible by keeping them as ignorant as possible.  If they can cultivate an entire species of people who overwhelmingly believe a lie, what other horrible things can they convince us to believe?

In many cases, the why of the Flat Earth conspiracy theory seems to simply be ignored.  Some Flat Earthers contend that because Earth looks flat from their perspective, it must be flat, and that any statement to the contrary is a lie.  How sad it must be to live in a world limited only to one perspective.

Flat Earth Week, Day 1: Flat Out Stupid

I realize I’m probably giving it far more attention than it deserves, but I have decided to dedicate an entire Stupid Bad™ week to the mother of all conspiracy theories: Flat Earthism.  Strap in, kids!


I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: This is low-hanging fruit.

Still, it bears discussing, because the Flat Earth belief system (I refuse to call it a theory) has recently enjoyed a sudden resurgence of attention thanks to the Twitter ramblings of Atlanta-based rapper B.o.B. and former celebrity (or so I’ve been told) Tila Tequila (Warning: NSFW language).  Now you might think it unworthy of your time to pay much attention to the ill-informed tirades of a couple of limelight seekers, but here’s the thing: Flat Earthism is not just embraced by those desperately clinging to relevance.  You’ve heard of the Flat Earth Society, often invoked as a proxy for someone who holds really, really ludicrous beliefs?  Well, they’re real, and by all accounts, they’re serious.

Before we go any further, let’s say something that ought not need to be said: Earth is not flat.  Earth is a sphere, or an oblate spheroid if you’re pedantic.  There are so many lines of evidence converging on this singular conclusion that to deny the roundness of Earth smacks of outright contrarianism and willful ignorance.

There are several different forms of Flat Earthism, and it’s beyond my means or desire to compare them all.  Suffice it to say that the defining characteristic of all Flat Earth belief systems is that our planet is not a planet at all, but a more-or-less flat disk, with minor variations in flatness where we experience hills, valleys, and suchlike.

Dedicated Flat Earthers have answers (not good answers, but answers nonetheless) for every objection that might be raised by a Globe Earther – by which I mean somebody reasonable and correct.  The most prevalent version of Flat Earthism holds that Earth is a circular disc, with the North Pole in the center and Antarctica around the rim.  Acoording to this model, Antarctica is an ice wall that holds all of Earth’s water in place.

But wait, you might reasonably ask: Wouldn’t gravity cause an object as big as Flat Earth to automatically crush into a sphere?  Gravity doesn’t exist, they say, or at least, it doesn’t exist on Earth (although gravitation apparently does exist among the Moon, planets, and stars, which raises even more questions).  What we perceive as gravity is actually the result of Earth accelerating through space at about 9.8 m/s².  That in itself is not as crazy as it sounds: Einstein showed that an accelerating reference frame is totally indistinguishable from a stationary reference frame in which there is a constant gravitational pull.  Flat Earthers, however, have yet to explain what force could possibly cause an object as large as Earth to accelerate perpetually.  Even in a Flat Earth model, mass and inertia are still real things that must be overcome in order to make something accelerate.

Furthermore, why does gravity vary with altitude, if Earth is simply a disc accelerating through space?  Apparently the weak gravitation of the Moon, Sun, and stars partially negates the effect of the acceleration-induced pseudo-gravity we experience while standing on Earth’s surface.  Yeah, I don’t know how that’s supposed to work either.  But it makes perfect sense to a Flat Earther.

So what kind of person is the typical Flat Earther?  Based on this meme, you might think that modern Flat Earthers are also Biblical literalists.  That’s rarely the case, though: in fact, Daniel Shenton, President of the most recent incarnation of the Flat Earth Society, accepts the reality of evolution and human-caused climate change – ideas that are typically anathema to religious fundies.  One Flat Earther even claims that evolution proves that Earth is flat, if you can imagine such a thing.

Creationist groups jubilantly point this out to their detractors: “See?  Flat Earthers believe in evolution and global warming as well!  If Flat Earthers are so wrong about the shape of Earth, then maybe they’re wrong about the other stuff too!”  Creationists are also quick to claim that Flat Earthism was not prevalent during the Church’s glory days in the Middle Ages, and that only a small but vocal minority of Church officials rejected the idea of a globe Earth.

In any case, this meme’s author apparently did not get the message about Creationists eschewing Flat Earthism.  In his literal interpretation of scripture, Earth is unmoving, which means he must reject other Flat Earthers’ ideas vis-à-vis constant acceleration.  This guy is marching to the beat of his own ignorant drum, and I say good for him.  Don’t let anybody else tell you how to be nuts, anonymous meme maker!

Since this guy’s diatribe is likely to ignite a firestorm of controversy among the Bible Believers, let’s tackle this question next: What is the Bible’s official position regarding the shape of Earth and its motion through the cosmos?

ChristianAnswers.net claims that Bible writers did not literally believe in a flat Earth, and that any scripture which seems to point to the idea of a flat Earth is simply the “language of appearance” (a curious position for a Biblical literalist to take).  As evidence, they point to a few key scriptures in which Bible writers seem to indicate that they understood at least a little bit about Earth’s shape and its place in the Universe:

Isaiah 40:22 (KJV): It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:

According to Bible-believing Globe Earthers: the Hebrew translation of the word circle can also mean sphere (although that might be wrong, according to the Institute for Biblical & Scientific Studies), which means that, at best, there’s a 50/50 chance that this passage speaks of a spherical Earth.  And hey, a 50/50 chance is all a Biblical apologist needs to press on!

Job 26:7 (KJV): He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing.

See?  It says so right there!  Earth is just floating in space, not resting on the backs of turtles or what have you.

But there’s also this:

Matthew 4:8 (KJV): Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

The “him” referred to in this passage is Jesus Christ.  Are we to assume that Matthew is using the “language of appearance” when he claims that there is a mountain tall enough to see all the kingdoms of Earth?  If Earth is a globe (and it is), then there is no way you can view all of its kingdoms, even from the tallest mountain.  The highest point on Earth is the top of Mount Everest, which, at 8,848 meters above sea level, gives you a view of about 340 kilometers (211 miles) in any direction that isn’t obscured by another mountain.  The largest authoritative jurisdictions in the time of Jesus were the Roman Empire ringing the Mediterranean Sea, the Parthian Empire centered on modern-day Iran, and the Han Dynasty in China.  These three empires, along with other autonomous regions, formed a continuous chain of dominance from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, nearly 12,000 kilometers (7400 miles) long.  If Mount Everest were dropped smack in the middle of the Roman Empire during the first century C.E., not only would you not be able to see all the kingdoms of the world, but you wouldn’t even be able to see all of the Empire.  Unless you believe Earth is flat.

So…either Matthew was speaking metaphorically or making a gross exaggeration, or he truly believed that Earth was flat and that all of its kingdoms were visible from a sufficiently tall mountain.  All of these possibilities are embarrassing for Biblical literalists and Creationists trying to distance themselves from Flat Earthism.

And so is this meme.

The bottom line is this: it doesn’t matter whether a Flat Earther is a Creationist or one who accepts the well-supported theory of evolution by natural selection; in either case he is wrong about Earth’s shape.  No matter what his motivations or arguments are, he is wrong, and demonstrably so.  People have known for thousands of years that Earth is round; it’s one of the oldest established truths in all of modern science.  To claim otherwise in 2016 is to be willfully ignorant and proud of it.

In observation of Poe’s law, which says that parodies of extremist views are easily mistakable for sincere expression of said views, I realize that this meme might be a parody.  In fact, I sort of hope that is the case, for the author’s sake.  Parody or not, however, it is still representative of very wrong ideas that some people seem to genuinely believe.

False Flag Fables


Whoa, that’s a whole lot of conspiracy idiocy rolled into one meme!

For those of you who aren’t up on your conspiracy lingo, a “false flag” is a horrific event allegedly staged by a government but made to appear as if it is executed by somebody else, usually an enemy of that same government.  If you find yourself involved in a conversation with a conspiracy theorist, you might hear him claim that 9/11 or the Sandy Hook massacre were false flags.  Hardcore conspiracy theorists can assert that any disaster, even hurricanes and earthquakes, are false flags staged by nefarious government organizations.  To the truly committed anti-government conspiracy theorist, there is no event so disastrous, no loss of life so horrendous, that he cannot trivialize it by attempting to distract the mourning public with his cry-for-attention batshit theories.

Have I given the impression that I don’t much care for conspiracy theorists?

Oh, let’s be clear.  I’m not saying that false flag operations never happen.  Governments are made of people, and people are notoriously crappy to each other.  The American government has certainly been involved in more than its fair share of shady doings.  For example, according to declassified documents, the United States considered launching an elaborate false flag operation in the 1960s to justify a military attack on Cuba.  The plan would have involved:

  • faking an attack on the United States naval base at Guantanamo,
  • sinking an American military ship in Cuban waters, and
  • blowing up unmanned military and civilian aircraft in or near Cuban airspace, then blaming the destruction of the planes on Cuban MiG fighter jets.

The desired outcome of these false flag operations was to foment anti-Cuban sentiment among the American public, thereby cementing our desire to wage war against the island nation.  Pretty shady, right?

So far be it from me to say that false flags are always loony conspiracy theories.  But at the same time, I try to embrace a position of healthy skepticism whenever somebody cries false flag.  And that’s the problem (well, one of the problems) with career conspiracy theorists.  Their dedication to labeling every tragedy as a false flag not only detracts from their credibility, but it also lessens their audience’s ability to critically evaluate the evidence surrounding a tragedy and make informed opinions.  It becomes an instinct among the conspiracy-minded…a reflex, if you will.

And what about this meme, this steaming pile of bovine excrement?  To me, if the author really has advance knowledge of an impending false flag attack, then he has a responsibility to divulge the location and time of said attack, so that his readers might protect themselves.  The author’s inability or unwillingness to provide those critical details indicates that either:

  1. The author has no such knowledge, and this meme is merely a pre-emptive tactic to claim that the next national tragedy is a false flag and say “I told you so”, or
  2. The author is more interested in sowing fear and paranoia than in saving American lives, in which case, to hell with him.


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I would like to thank Twitter user @IbrahimKaher for suggesting this vomitous meme, and the website from which it came.  I would also like to apologize for taking so long to cover it.  Unfortunately, professional concerns have kept me from updating my blog as frequently as I would like to.  But enough excuses…on we go!

Let’s talk about The Illuminati.  I used to think that the Illuminati were sort of a joke, the go-to reference for people who wanted to goof about vague, shadowy conspiracy organizations.  To blame the Illuminati for anything is sort of like claiming that Earth is flat, or that the Moon landings were faked.  The rest of us look at you and laugh, because we know you can’t really be serious, right?  Nobody actually believes in the Illuminati, do they?


Apparently some people do believe, and they believe hard.  (And some people believe – or claim to believe – that Earth is flat, and that the Moon landings were faked…but those are memes for another day.)  So before we address the Ebola nonsense, it behooves us to take a close look at the Illuminati.  If this blog disappears forever shortly after this is posted, you’ll know it’s because they got me!

The original Illuminati were a secret fraternity founded in Bavaria in 1776…and shut down by the authorities nine years later.  During their brief run, they were populated by the intellectual elite of Bavarian society: doctors, lawyers, judges, and politicians.  Despite their limited membership (at the height of their power, the Illuminati claimed between 650 and 2,500 members, depending on how you count them), the Illuminati had their fingers in many aspects of upper society.  Ironically, it was their pervasive presence in politics that would lead to their ruination.  As their numbers swelled, loose talk among their ranks precipitated an unintended transition in their status as a “secret” society.  The existence of the group, and its perceived influence in the court and in the political arena, became common knowledge.  This sparked considerable unrest among the uninitiated.  In 1785, Charles Theodore, duke of Bavaria, issued an edict banning all secret societies, including the Illuminati.  Officials raided the homes of known Illuminati members and published their secret documents.  With their cover blown and their influence dissolved, the original Illuminati effectively ceased to exist.

Some modern fraternal organizations have assumed the name Illuminati; some of them even claim dubious links to the original Bavarian Illuminati.  There is no evidence that any modern Illuminati organizations enjoy the same power and influence allegedly wielded by their namesake, nor that the original Illuminati persist.

But what does evidence matter to a conspiracy theorist?

Ask a true believer, and you’ll learn that the Illuminati are still alive and well; that they are more pervasive and influential than ever before.  To a conspiracy theorist, the Illuminati are a worldwide group of politicians, bankers, celebrities, and other high-profile, high-power individuals who serve as society’s puppet masters.  (Check out this delightful Gawker article for a partial list of the more visible Illuminati members.)  Apparently, the Illuminati start and stop wars, manipulate currency, and rig elections.  Their ultimate goal: nothing less than the establishment of a New World Order, a worldwide authoritarian government.

Of course, the Illuminati know that a one-world government will never succeed without the complicity of the governed.  And what better way to generate compliance than through fear…particularly fear of a deadly virus?  Yes, that’s right, folks: Ebola is an Illuminati tactic to disrupt the natural flow of business and politics.  Presumably the world’s most elite movers and shakers will swoop in and assert their authority over the crumbled remains of society, and we’ll all be glad for them to do so.

Before we proceed, I would like to point out an interesting bit of irony: the meme’s author suggests that the Illuminati seek to instill fear and panic via their controlled release of Ebola, but what does this meme spread if not fear?  I mean, look at it!  Creepy faces, skinless humans, spatters of blood everywhere?  I know: this meme is the work of the Illuminati!  Those crafty bastards!

Moving along:  the major problem with this meme (other than the questionable design choices) is that Ebola was eventually brought under control.  Despite its frightening spread, including into the United States, it did not result in a worldwide closure of borders.  Governments did not collapse; on the contrary, they did what they could to ensure the health and safety of their people.  And they were eventually successful; in the past day, Sierra Leone has been officially declared Ebola-free, according to BBC News.  Only a handful of Ebola cases persist in neighboring Guinea; even so, the border between Sierra Leone and Guinea remains open, albeit with heightened health screening in place.

Ebola had an enormous impact on the lives and cultures of the people in the hardest-hit nations; that much is certain.  Yet despite the devastation wreaked by the virus, life marches on.  Governments, whatever their shortcomings, remain intact; there is no evidence that any shadowy organizations have seized control.  No evidence, the conspiracy theorist would argue, is exactly how the Illuminati want it.  But that’s the problem with arguing for the continued existence of the Illuminati as a worldwide governing body: you can’t use zero evidence…as evidence.

Someone Needs a Debris-fing

Pentagon Debris

We’re going to be talking about plane crashes, obviously.  If you’re particularly saddened by news of the recent crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps (and I can’t blame you if you are), you may wish to scroll on by.

This crash was tragic, not only because of the loss of life but also because co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s mental illness may have pushed him to intentionally drive the airplane down.  This meme claims that the debris from Flight 9525 was spread over 215,000 square feet, or roughly the same area as two city blocks.  I suspect the terrain surrounding the impact site may have constrained the spread of debris, but it’s hard to say for sure.

The second part of this meme is utter nonsense.  There were many pieces of airplane debris found in and around the Pentagon in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, crash of American Airlines Flight 77.  What this meme’s author means is “I can’t personally see any airplane debris in the pictures shared by the 9/11 ‘Truther’ websites I frequent; therefore, none was ever found.”

What kind of debris should one expect to see in the wake of a plane crash?  Of course it depends on many factors, not the least of which is the intent of the pilot.

When a pilot is trying to avoid a catastrophic crash, he focuses on reducing the plane’s speed (if possible).  With less speed, the plane has less kinetic energy.  It may break apart on impact, but the pieces will be larger.  Whole engines or sections of fuselage may survive the crash.  Since most airplane crashes are accidental, we’re accustomed to seeing debris fields featuring large, mostly-intact sections of the airplane – evidence that the pilot saw what was coming and did his or her best to mitigate the damage.

But when a pilot is intentionally trying to wreck the plane, he does not slow down.  The hijackers aboard Flight 77 intended to hit the Pentagon with full force; as a result, the destruction of the plane was total.  The plane’s body was ripped into tiny shreds by the crash and ensuing explosion.  If you can’t look at post-crash photos of the Pentagon and see huge chunks of airplane littering the lawn, it’s because the airplane was thoroughly reduced to small, twisted, scorched shards of metal.  At the risk of sounding insensitive, complaining that no wreckage is visible in the post-attack photographs of the Pentagon’s west lawn is similar to complaining that no pine cones are visible in the same photographs.

Furthermore, most of the wreckage would have been carried inside the building by the momentum of the airplane.  There’s a well-known law in physics (well-known to everybody but 9/11 “Truthers”, apparently) called the Law of Conservation of Momentum.  The Law of Conservation of Momentum states that the momentum of an object tends not to change, unless that object is acted upon by an outside force.  If the object splits into smaller parts, each part carries a fraction of the original object’s momentum proportional to its mass.  Furthermore, if that object collides with something else, the total momentum is spread out over all the bodies involved in the collision.  In any case, overall momentum is conserved.

When American Airlines Flight 77 struck the western face of the Pentagon, it had a lot of momentum.  That momentum was spread out to millions of tiny pieces, each of which tended to keep moving in the same direction as the original airplane.  Most of the airplane’s wreckage would be found inside the Pentagon building, because that’s the direction the plane was going.

Are there photographs of plane wreckage taken inside the Pentagon building?  Yes, but they’re not easy to come by.  Most of the early photographs are private or government property and are not open for public viewing.  By the time FEMA captured the first public domain images on September 14, much of the debris had already been cleared from inside the building.  The remaining debris was torn, twisted, and charred to the extent that it was virtually impossible to distinguish from the rubble of the Pentagon itself.  Sarah Roberts, writing for Rense.com, presents some of the publicly-available images.  They show the chaos that can only result from an airliner deliberately being flown into a building.  Debris is clearly visible; including a wheel hub characteristic of an airliner’s landing gear.  The website 911review.com offers another critical analysis about why “Truthers'” claims vis-à-vis the Pentagon are all wet.

The fact that the meme’s second statement can be so easily debunked by a moment of searching demonstrates “Truthers'” violent allergy to the actual truth.  When their claims are shown to be flagrant falsehoods, many “Truthers” respond that they are “just asking questions.”  What’s wrong with asking questions, man?  Nothing’s wrong with asking questions, if you’re honest enough to accept the answers.

Quick Memes, Part 2

Last August I wrote a post called “Quick Memes“, in which I discussed a few memes that didn’t merit an entire post.  It was a smashing success moderate success thing I did, so I’ve decided to do it again!  Here is another round of memes that are irritating, but not irritating enough to spend at least 500 words ranting about.

Pepper Bumps

This Internet myth has been debunked numerous times; nevertheless, I see this meme being passed around incautiously.  I figured I would add my voice to the dissenting mix.  All peppers – including the bell variety – belong to the Nightshade family, Solanaceae, a family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.  One characteristic of all nightshades is that they produce perfect flowers.  A perfect flower has both female parts (pistils) and male parts (stamens); in other words, it is hermaphroditic.  Consequently, the fruits that arise from those flowers are neither male nor female.

Some plants do have distinct male and female flowers – sometimes on the same plant, sometimes on different plants.  It is possible for some plants to produce gendered fruits, but peppers do not.  The number of lobes on a pepper, its taste, and its seed content are due to environmental and genetic factors, but not to gender.

Verbal and Physical Abuse

A couple of things: there’s a distinct difference between cursing and verbal abuse.  If you drop an F-bomb after stubbing your toe, I doubt very many people would consider it abusive.  Also, you can be verbally abusive to somebody without ever uttering a single swear word.

The best advice is not to be abusive at all – verbally or physically.  If you’re not beating somebody up, good for you.  It still doesn’t excuse your verbal abuse.

Conspiracy Theorist

Do you believe that they’e discovered a simple, cheap cure for cancer and/or AIDS, but Big Pharma is suppressing it so they can continue to make billions by pushing pills?  Do you think the Moon landings were faked on a sound stage so the United States could beat the Soviet Union in the space race?  Do you think that President John F. Kennedy was actually assassinated by the CIA, the FBI, Vice President Johnson, or anybody other than Lee Harvey Oswald?  Do you think the government is spraying poisonous chemicals as chemtrails for the purpose of population control?  Do you think that vaccines cause autism?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you are probably a conspiracy theorist.  In that case, the rest of this section is going to make you angry.  Sorry.

The problem with conspiracy theorists is that their starting position – their baseline for evaluating the world – is cynical distrust of authority.  From there, they evaluate everything they see with a severe confirmation bias.  The only evidence they accept is that which can be contorted into supporting their viewpoint; they reject as “bullshit” anything that disproves their ideas.  They fancy themselves experts because they have read the slanted testimony of other conspiracy theorists, but what happens when somebody – perhaps a real expert – weighs in with contradictory evidence?  Conspiracy theorists view these experts as being bought and paid for by the Forces of Darkness.

The mindset of many conspiracy theorists disallows contradictory viewpoints, which is a shame.  I’ve had a few discussions with conspiracy theorists, and I know that asking a conspiracy theorist to consider alternate viewpoints is like asking a river to flow up a steep incline.  Evidence is entirely useless; conspiracy theorists seem to be enamored with the idea that all evidence can be faked; yet they fail to apply that logic to the “evidence” that seemingly supports their own conclusions.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m not some naive Pollyanna who thinks that the world is hunky-dory and everything the government says is true.  I like to think that before I put an authority figure or organization on blast for hideous crimes against humanity, I have honestly evaluated the evidence in my corner.

If you believe that conspiracy theories are pretty convincing, ask yourself why.  Then ask yourself if the evidence could be wrong.  Ask yourself if there’s any way your theories could be disproved.  If there isn’t, then your ideas do not fit the scientific definition of the word theory.  If you cannot be reasoned out of an idea…did you really use reason to get into it?

Also…I’m pretty sure the “chains” on the person’s wrists in this image are made of paper loops.

Lover or Lesbian

Here’s another nugget of wisdom from Justin “Master Chim” Garcia, that visionary who taught us how to avoid police brutality (while neglecting to admonish the police not to use brutality).  This time around, Master Chim deploys his world-famous sensitivity to determine whether you are a real man or a lesbian.  According to Master Chim, the Casanova of our age, real men shouldn’t do all that romantic girly stuff that women seem to like, such as spending time with them, or being helpful around the house, or, you know, thinking about them.  A real man, Master Chim might say, is neglectful to his female companion.  He goes out with his buddies when he wants to, regardless of her plans or wishes, and he never lifts a finger to help around the house.  Shared responsibility is for wusses, he might continue.  If you go all out to make your woman feel special, then you might as well be a woman yourself, right?

Now I’m not saying you have to do all the things on this list; that’s between you and your lady friend (and besides, flowers can get expensive!)  I’m just saying that if you do these things, you shouldn’t be cowed by men like Master Chim.  Justin “Master Chim” Garcia is not the authority on manliness that he purports to be.  Each man (and woman) must decide what is appropriate for him (or her) to do.  The last thing this world needs is more men trying to emulate Master Chim’s example.

ISIS Green Screen

I…really don’t know what to do with this.  What exactly is the meme saying – that ISIS doesn’t exist?  That ISIS has never executed prisoners on a beach?  That ISIS doesn’t execute prisoners at all?  If the meme’s author believes that ISIS fakes its executions in front of a green screen, why use this image as “evidence”?  There are no active executions being depicted, and the image doesn’t strike me as one that is clearly fake.

So yeah, there’s something vaguely conspiracy-theoristy about this meme, but it doesn’t do a good job of indicating what it’s real message is.  In failing to make its point clear, the meme fails at the only function a meme has: to express an opinion or idea in a pithy, easily digestible manner.  If I have to guess what claim the meme is making, then not only is the meme Stupid and Bad…but Pointless as well.


Who the hell thinks that a good woman doesn’t get angry?  Does anybody make that claim about men?  Seriously, this meme reeks of Stupidity.  Here’s another meme expressing the worn-out idea that a woman must be emotionally tough at all times, and she shouldn’t let anything upset her.  Seriously, I don’t know anybody, good or otherwise, who doesn’t get angry from time to time.

Dress vs Building

This meme gets one thing right: people should be very concerned about the alleged off-the-books “black sites” used by the Chicago Police Department to interrogate suspects without due process or public record.  Very concerned.

But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t talk about anything else.  As one of my Facebook friends pointed out, memes like this assume that people cannot walk and chew gum at the same time.  That stupid dress may have caught the public’s attention, seemingly drowning out any other discussions, but it will fade from memory soon enough.  In the meantime, if you want to draw attention to a troubling news story, there are ways to do it without painting your friends as out-of-touch shallow idiots.

On Hitlers, Rothschilds, and the Fed

Hitler's Heritage

This meme is full of outright lies, factual contortions, and unsupported speculation.  In other words, it’s perfect for Stupid Bad Memes.

Let’s start with the United States Federal Reserve System, also known as the Fed.  The U.S. Fed is the central bank of the United States.  It was created in 1913 as part of the Federal Reserve Act.  While the Fed’s responsibilities have evolved over time, its basic function has always been to provide a measure of stability to the United States economy. (Obviously it has been more successful at some times than at others.)  The Fed monitors and controls the supply of money, supervises and regulates the nation’s banks, and ostensibly keeps a thumb on interest rates and prices, all in the service of protecting the financial interests of Americans.

It should come as no surprise that an institution neck-deep in America’s finances has become the subject of numerous conspiracy theories.  Some of the most impressively bizarre and convoluted theories ever devised focus on the shadowy organizations allegedly controlling the United States Federal Reserve, including the Illuminati, the New World Order, and, of course, the Jews.  All of these conspiracy theories play on a common fear: that our wealth is not really under our control; instead, back-stage deals between (usually foreign) billionaires are subverting our hard-won paychecks to their nefarious purposes.  And what purposes might those be?  Why, nothing less grandiose than the control of the entire world’s financial system, and all the politics money can buy.

I’ll admit: these theories do have a certain paranoid appeal.  After all, how many of us really understand the intricate workings of upper-level finance management in the United States?  How many of us are privy to the goings-on that decide the value of our money, or who can and cannot control it?  Just as a dark room or a bump in the night inspire us to conjure images of ghosts, the apparent opacity and complexity of our nation’s highest tier of financial control cause us to dream of sinister puppeteers that run the entire show.  I understand the appeal of these theories, but the rational mind must not allow itself to be seduced by them.  At some point we must resort to critical thinking.  Our judgments must be based on evidence.

Before we examine that evidence, let’s take a look at the Rothschild family.  The Rothschilds (Rothschildren?) are the descendants of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a German Jew who opened a bank in the 1760s in the Free City of Frankfurt.  He did quite well for himself and bequeathed his wealth to his fives sons, who spread the family business and established the seeds of a dynasty.  At the height of their influence, the Rothschilds were a formidable economic force.  During the 19th century, they possessed one of the world’s largest private fortunes, and several members of the Rothschild clan held positions of nobility in the governments of Europe.  Today, the Rothschilds’ fortune and influence have dwindled somewhat, the family’s wealth having been divided among hundreds of descendants; even so, they are not hurting for money.

The idea that the Rothschild family controls the United States Federal Reserve probably stems from the work of authors Gary Kah and Eustace Mullins.  According to Kah, the U.S. Fed is directly owned and operated by foreign interests, including the Rothschild Banks of London and Berlin.  Kah alleges that the Rothschild banks – and other Jewish-owned foreign financial institutions – are “Class A shareholders” of the New York branch of the U.S. Fed.  Never mind that the U.S. Fed does not have “Class A shareholders”; its stocks are classified as member stocks or public stocks.  Also, in order to believe this, you’d have to ignore legislation incorporated into the formation of the Fed which specifies that only American banks can be shareholders.

Mullins (who passed away in 2010) claimed that the New York branch was 63% owned by a cohort of eight American banks, which were in turn owned by foreign interests.  Chief among these foreign controllers, according to Mullins, is the London House of Rothschild.  Mullins’s claims are slightly more plausible than Kah’s, in that they do not require an overt violation of the laws that were created to govern the Fed, but they still lack evidential support.

Both men’s sources are elusive.  Mullins claimed that the Federal Reserve Bulletin listed the Rothschilds as share owners, but that simply isn’t true.  The Federal Reserve Bulletin has never published a list of shareholders for any of the Federal Reserve Banks (there are twelve altogether).  Gary Kah’s sources are unnamed Swiss and Saudi associates.

Mullins’s and Kah’s assertions both hinge on the idea that the entire U.S. Fed can be manipulated via its New York branch.  According to an article published by Policital Research Associates, that isn’t true either.  Each branch of the Fed answers directly to the federal government, with no branch having more control than any of its siblings.  Also contrary to the claims of Mullins and Kah, any profit generated by the U.S. Fed devolves directly to the United States Government, and not to foreign organizations.

Whatever influence the Rothschild family has in the United States, they do not own or control the U.S. Fed; ergo, the second sentence of this meme is entirely false.  It should therefore be of no concern to the average American citizen (or to anybody else, really) whether Adolf Hitler was a Rothschild descendant.

But just for the sake of thoroughness…was Adolf Hitler a Rothschild descendant?

There’s no good evidence to suggest that he was.  Here’s what the meme does get right: Adolf was the son of Alois Hitler, né Schicklgruber, who was the illegitimate son of Maria Schicklgruber and…somebody.  The identity of Alois Hitler’s biological father is not known, although speculations are rampant.  Among the more believable hypotheses is that Alois’s father was Johann Georg Hiedler, the man who would later marry Maria Schicklgruber and raise Alois.  In an 1876 testimony before a notary and three witnesses, Alois claimed that Johann was his father and officially claimed the surname Hiedler, which was probably regularized to Hitler by a clerk.

It’s also possible that Alois’s father was Johann Nepomuk Hüttler, brother to Johann Georg Hiedler, and Adolf’s maternal great grandfather (It gets complicated, okay?).  Since Alois’s birth certificate is mute vis à vis his biological father, we may never know for certain.

It seems unlikely, however, that Alois’s father was one of Maria’s Jewish employers.  The legend of Maria’s employment in a Jewish household arises from the testimony of Hans Frank, Adolf Hitler’s private lawyer.  According to Frank, Adolf Hitler asked him to research Hitler’s genealogy in the 1930’s, following an alleged blackmail letter from one of Hitler’s relatives.  Frank claims to have turned up evidence that Maria Schicklgruber, Adolf’s paternal grandmother, was employed at the time of her pregnancy by a Jewish household in Graz named Frankenberger.  Allegedly, 19-year-old Leopold Frankengruber was the one who impregnated 42-year-old Maria Schicklgruber, and Alois was the result.

Historians largely discount Frank’s account of Hitler’s paternal heritage, largely because it doesn’t fit with facts.  Maria Schicklgruber never lived in Graz, and even if she had, the Jews had been expelled from Graz since the 15th century and would not be allowed to return until Alois was nearly 30 years old.  The story presented by Hans Frank is therefore quite improbable.

At no point did Hans Frank draw a connection between Maria Schicklgruber and the Rothschild family.  The Hitler-Rothschild connection is purported to have started with an Office of Strategic Services psychological evaluation of Adolf Hitler – one aimed to smear Hitler, if you believe the modern Hitler supporters.  (In general, I don’t, but I agree that the evidence for a Hitler-Rothschild connection is flimsy at best.)

So let’s summarize all the ways in which this meme goes wrong:

  1. There is no good evidence that Adolf Hitler is part of the Rothschild legacy.
  2. There is no good evidence that the Rothschild family controls or owns the U.S. Fed.
  3. In fact, the U.S. Fed was set up specifically to prevent dabbling by outside interests.
  4. There’s no good evidence that Alois Hitler was Lionel Rothschild’s son.
  5. And even if he was Lionel Rothschild’s son, he was never claimed by Rothschild.
  6. Hitler was not Alois’s mother-in-law’s maiden name; it was the surname of his adoptive (and possibly biological) father.
  7. Alois did not adopt the name Hiedler (or Hitler) until he was fully grown, and after his mother had already died.  By that point, his illegitimacy was no secret.
  8. Evelyn de Rothschild does not control the United States.
  9. I sincerely hope that none of our elected officials believe this tripe.  (Although considering some of the other things they seem to believe, it wouldn’t surprise me.)

It took a good deal of research to write this post, and that meant reading a lot of conflicting opinions.  The difficult part about researching a controversial topic is that you must always be mindful of an author’s agenda.  That’s hard work, I admit.  It’s much easier to just take the word of a meme, particularly when that meme sort of confirms something you already believe, but come on, conspiracy theorists…it’s time to wake up.

Further reading:

Wag the Ebola Dog

Ebola Distraction

I realize that facts are anathema to most conspiracy theorists, but let’s inspect them anyway, just in case this meme is…you know…incredibly stupid.

First, Mr Contemplative Chimp: Ebola did not just “up and vanish”.  As of December 9, 2014, Ebola is an ongoing threat in West Africa.  To date, nearly 18,000 people have been infected and more than 6,600 have died in the most widespread Ebola outbreak in history.  I’m sure the people of Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia would be thrilled if Ebola “up and vanished”, but that hasn’t happened.

I suppose you mean that Ebola “up and vanished” in the United States, but that’s not accurate either.  Despite peoples’ concerns, Ebola was never a major threat in the United States.  There were four patients diagnosed with Ebola in the United States at the height of the US “outbreak”, one of whom passed away from the disease.  And Ebola didn’t vanish; healthcare officials aggressively attacked the virus and contained its spread; subsequently, the remaining three patients recovered.  Their cases have been well-documented; it’s not as if they were just swept under the rug, never to be heard from again.

Now I think the US public’s reaction to Ebola was vastly overblown.  There was no need for the 1980’s-AIDS-like panic that sprang up around a very small number of cases, and yes, the media did their part in fanning the flames of unease.  But just because we blew this all out of proportion, that doesn’t mean Ebola was a “Wag the Dog” distraction from some deeper evil.  Sometimes, bad things just happen, and they can happen without government assistance or complicity.

But just for the sake of examining this issue thoroughly – and I know I’ll regret asking this – prithee tell: from what was the Ebola scare meant to distract us?

Mike Shepard contends in an opinion piece written for DC Gazette that Ebola’s foray onto American soil was entirely manufactured.  What evidence does he present in support of this audacious claim, you may justifiably ask?  He claims that if Thomas Duncan had really been carrying Ebola when he boarded a plane in Liberia bound for Dallas, Texas, then all of his traveling companions should have been infected.  After all, Shepard says, airplane passengers breathe recycled air.  One person’s disease is everybody’s disease on an airliner.

Of course Shepard completely ignores the well-established fact that Ebola is not an airborne virus, nor is it possible for a patient to spread the virus until he becomes symptomatic.  Duncan was not yet symptomatic when he boarded the plane to Texas; therefore, it would be extremely unlikely for anybody to catch the virus from him at that time.  The fact that the passengers of Duncan’s flight did not contract Ebola does not diminish the reality of Duncan’s unfortunate demise from that disease.

But Shepard is not content to spew just one egregious piece of misinformation.  Later, he asserts – naturally, without a shred of evidence – that the pseudo-Ebola scare was cooked up by none other than…ominous chord, please…President Barack Obama himself.  In Shepard’s paranoid fever dream, President Obama is plotting a major jihadist war against America.  What was Ebola’s role in all of this?  It was meant to distract the public while Obama sent his lackey John Kerry to smuggle ISIS operatives across our border.

I would understand if you thought I was making this up.  Nobody can be that paranoid, can they?  Nobody can be that blinded by their irrational hatred of President Obama, can they?  Well, read Shepard’s piece and judge for yourself: he really seems to believe his paranoid claptrap.

Okay, Shepard is a nutjob.  Is there anybody more rational that can show how Ebola was a manufactured distraction?

Ingri Cassel, the Director of Vaccination Liberation, thinks she can.  According to a flyer written by Cassel, Ebola isn’t even a naturally-occurring disease.  Cassel believes that the United States invented Ebola, and she has a patent application as “proof”.  (In fact, the CDC holds patents for several microorganisms and viruses, as Snopes explains, but not because it invented them.  The patents are meant to prevent for-profit organizations from patenting the organisms and extorting money from governments for research rights.)  Cassel charges that the government’s intention was to cause an epidemic and then to profit enormously from vaccine sales.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that the director of an organization called Vaccine Liberation takes a dim (and hopelessly misguided) view of all things vaccine-related.  No wonder, then, that Cassel has fallen into the conspiracy-thinking trap.  Anything she doesn’t understand, she adopts as “evidence” for that which she already believes.

Cassel’s contemptible claims do not end there.  She thinks that the ersatz Ebola outbreak is actually a vaccine-implemented sickness being used as an excuse to move troops into West Africa.  And why should the United States or any other country want an excuse to move troops into West Africa?  Why, to steal the region’s newly discovered oil reserves, of course.  It all makes sense, as long as you don’t let pesky things like facts get in your way.

Cassel’s ill-informed paranoid conspiracy theory goes on for almost two pages and draws heavily from the work of other conspiracy theorists.  After reading her flyer, one is filled with sadness – not because we actually live in the bizarro conspiracy-ridden world she suggests, but because she feels compelled to grasp at nonsensical straws to support her dangerous ideology.

I found a few more pages attempting to explain why Ebola is a distraction from something far more sinister, but the opinions of their authors seemed to fall along similar lines.  I haven’t the energy to recap each one, so I’ll conclude by saying this:  The Truth is out there, conspiracy theorists, but you cannot see it unless you’re willing to suspend your pre-formed beliefs.  You think that everybody else is blinded by complacency; I submit that you are blinded by your inflexibility.

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.

He’s Dead, Jim

Osama Is Dead

Osama bin Laden was a lot of things to a lot of people. To most people in the United States, he was a terrorist and a coward (except to the conspiracy theorists, who believe he was a scapegoat.) To Al Qaeda forces in the Middle East, he was a visionary and a figurehead. With public opinion ranging from one extreme to the other, it was clear that no matter how bin Laden was buried, or by whom, it was going to be controversial to somebody.

Shortly after the mission that closed the chapter on Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama announced that the White House would not release grisly photos of bin Laden’s body to the public, nor would they release footage of his burial at sea. In President Obama’s words, “we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” I agree with that logic; we’re dealing with an enemy that is ideologically motivated and gravely committed to its cause; showboating after a major victory would certainly not help our soldiers who are facing that same enemy.

Of course the decision was met with criticism, mostly from Republicans. (No surprise there: Republicans would probably declare their undying hatred for oxygen if President Obama said he was in favor of it.) It’s hard to tell if this meme is the work of a Republican nay-sayer who wants to take points out of President Obama’s column, or some conspiracy nutjob who thinks everything the government does, says, and thinks is a lie, but the message is plain: the meme implies that there’s something fishy surrounding the death and burial of Osama bin Laden.

The sad thing is that conspiracy theorists are utterly unconvincible, except of their own infallibility. Let’s suppose the Obama administration had published the photos and videos. Let’s say they released a death report, DNA test results, and the sworn affidavits of eighty people who personally knew that bin Laden was living in the compound attacked by Seal Team Six. And what if the administration, in a grossly inappropriate display, mounted the head of bin Laden himself on a pike in the White House’s front lawn? Would that silence the conspiracy nuts?

Of course not! In this age of digital manipulation and technological wizardry, anything and everything can be faked! The conspiracy theorists would set out to analyze every pixel, every grain, every detail – specifically looking for the flaws that would “prove” what they already believe. To a conspiracy theorist, anything he doesn’t understand in incredible detail is evidence of shenanigans. And since conspiracy theorists seldom understand much about anything, there’s a lot of shenanigans about.

President Obama, who apparently has some prior experience dealing with conspiracy theorists, wisely avoided trying to appease them. This was the only appropriate call. As for the conspiracy nuts, they need a few lessons in evaluating evidence. There’s no compelling reason to disbelieve that bin Laden was killed on the second day of May, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, unless you’re already committed to a conspiratorial narrative and forbidden by pride to disavow it.