The death of critical thinking or just bad journalism?

Woo hooThere was a recent article on Patheos.com with the scary headline, “Young People Are Choosing Horoscopes and Crystals Over Fundamentalist Religions.” The last part of that might seem good news, but the first part is highly troubling. It suggests a continued descent into the New Dark Ages where science, logic, and reason are replaced by woo hoo.

Let’s be clear from the start: astrology is bunk. Magic rocks are bunk. Guardian angels, reiki, homeopathy, psychic readings, tarot cards, energy healing, reflexology, phrenology, and iridology are all bunk. None are based on anything close to science, reality or fact. At the very least destructive they are mere entertainment, at their worst they are a cultish belief in magic and superstition. But the piece is more sensationalism than fact.

The author of the Patheos article – supposedly a skeptic who describes it as a trend towards a “less violent form of nonsense” – writes,

Believe it or not, I don’t oppose this. We should be moving away from fundamentalist adherence to ancient dogmas, and more toward this type of relaxed take-what-works-and-drop-the-rest approach. And if you can make yourself feel better without hurting anyone, I say you should go for it.

No, no, no. The test for meaning, for benefit, relevance, utility or truthfulness is not whether it makes you feel better. That’s simply being selfish. You can get the same from eating ice cream or splurging on something you want to own. The news is full of politicians – local to federal – doing something to benefit themselves, not the people they supposedly serve. Epicureanism notwithstanding, there ought to be a benefit to more than just yourself.

Not harming anyone is good, of course, but by itself not good enough to make it the sole basis of anyone’s beliefs or practices. Where is the ethical or moral substrate? The greater good? Too easily not harming anyone can become simply avoidance and excuses for not actually doing something.

But who is to determine harm? if children see their parents believing in something, they are likely to follow suit. Nonsense is as harmful to their minds as a religious cult. Believing in magic stones can easily lead to question all forms of science, reason and medicine (hint: New Age anti-vaxxers…)

And for all their faults, fantasies and flaws, at least most religions have a moral and ethical basis – you don’t get that in any form of woo hoo. It’s trite to consider all aspects of religion as “nonsense” just because you dismiss the supernatural aspects of it. 

Furthermore, belief – even in nonsense – spreads like a virus. Look at the anti-GMO and anti-gluten fads, the anti-vaccine wingnuts, the chemtrail and reptiloid conspiracies, and every diet fad. Behind all of these woo hoo beliefs are hordes of con artists, bullshitters and hoaxsters eager to get rich by prying money away from the gullible. Being scammed or conned by them is surely a form of harm.
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Hegseth, hand washing and social media

Fox News host Pete Hegseth has said on air that he has not washed his hands for 10 years because “germs are not a real thing”.

That’s the headline you read on dozens of media sites and shared throughout social media (this one from BBC News). Instant reactions (mine included) were “ewwww…” followed by negative comments on Fox News in general. But when you stop to think about it, could it be true? Can someone actually go a decade without washing his hands?

No. Surely he bathes or showers regularly. One can’t believe a TV show host would be so unhygienic. His co-hosts would surely comment. Maybe he’s not as observant of the niceties of personal hygiene as others, but a whole decade?

And face it, it’s difficult to believe that even a Fox News host is so stupid as to not believe in germs. Alex Jones, and maybe the other fringe wingnuts like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers could believe such piffle, but surely not a mainstream media host with a university education. Could he? OMG!!!! the tweets erupted.

Predictably, social media lit up like a pinball machine over this comment. So Hegseth tried to explain:

Mr Hegseth later told USA Today that his remarks were intended to be a joke.
“We live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell (a hand sanitiser) in their pockets, and they sanitise 19,000 times a day as if that’s going to save their life,” he said.
“I take care of myself and all that, but I don’t obsess over everything all the time.”
Of the public reaction, he said it was ridiculous how people took things so “literally and seriously” so that their “heads explode”.

He’s right. We react and often over-react. We are knee-jerk trained. Social media has made us into Pavlovian emotional hair-triggers. I am sometimes guilty of it, too, because I am as susceptible to confirmation bias as everyone else. No matter how hard I try to use reason, sometimes those eager little response hormones kick in first. Having our beliefs confirmed is comforting and reinforces them.

But Hegseth’s joke, if indeed it was one, didn’t get everyone laughing. It was a joke without a punchline. A lot of people believed it was true. And others found fault his later explanation, as noted in The Guardian:

On Twitter on Monday, Hegseth gave mixed messages. He claimed he had been joking and paraphrased the president in blaming the media for being so “self-righteous and angry”. He also said he supported drinking from hosepipes and riding bikes without a helmet…

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GWT treatment a sure cure for NAWHS syndrome

GWT in actionAfter years of research* and development, I have finally worked out the details for the treatment of the viral NAWHS (New Age Woo Hoo Susceptibility) syndrome: GWT or Gullibility Whack Therapy. And I’m going to found my own institute: The Whack-a-Wacko Institute of Common Sense Therapy. I stand to make millions.

It works like this: Every time a client utters a comment about the healing benefits of any flavour of New Age woo hoo including homeopathy, who avoids vaccinations, gluten and GMOs, who quotes Dr. Oz, Dr. Mercola or Gwyneth Paltrow, who confesses to using ear candling, magic crystals, reflexology, reiki, feng shui or aromatherapy, who professes a belief in astrology, guardian angels, auras, psychics or tarot cards, who prefers “alternative medicine” or ayurveda instead of real medicine, or goes to a “medical intuitive” instead of a real doctor has precisely 30 seconds to cite scientific research that validates their claims or get whacked.

I’ll come to your home, your workplace, your favourite restaurant or pub and stand behind you. Every time you utter some pseudoscience or New Age codswallop, I’ll whack the back of your head and shout “bullshit!” for everyone to hear. I’ll stand with you in the grocery store line and if you dare pick up a Goop, Dr. Oz or Oprah magazine, you’ll get a whack. If you tune into Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix TV show, I’ll whack both you and the TV set. If you stop in the mall to look at the display of essential oils, I’ll whack you.

I’ll offer various levels of treatment with graduated scales from Gentle Reminder using a feather duster to Are You Off Your Freakin’ Rocker? using a dog’s latex squeaky toy — a loud one, so everyone also hears it. I’ll have rates by the hour or by the whack. Given the raging amount of woo hoo online and the susceptibility of people to the babblings of poorly-educated glitterati, I will have no shortage of potential clients.
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Local media is letting us down

Doesn't understandRule number one in The Elements of Journalism is: “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Number three is “Its essence is a discipline of verification.” Keep those two in mind as you read this.

I recognize that local reporting is not always the same calibre as the investigative journalism we expect from national media, but in my view (and experience as a former reporter and editor), blindly accepting claims about health, wellness or science without questioning, let alone confirming them through a credible source, and then repeating those statements in a story is not responsible reporting. It’s just typing.

There’s a recent story on Collingwood Today titled, “Firefighters getting charged up by new wellness device” that strikes me as a good example of poor journalism. The story is about Collingwood’s Fire Department buying a mat,

…called a Seqex, and it uses Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy to help the firefighters detox, relax, and heal when necessary.
The device comes from Health Wellness Industries in Collingwood, where the owner and president Kim Sartor has built a business selling and offering treatments in the Seqex system.

The manufacturer is SISTEMI SRL (Italian Society of Seqex Electro Medical and Innovative Technologies), and they have numerous products all that start with Seqex, such as Seqex Fam and Seqex Radiant Mat. Which particular one this is could have been easily confirmed with a five-second internet search. Or maybe a single question. Several Seqex products were recalled in 2016, by the way, because the company didn’t have a licence to sell them in Canada until late 2017.

You already know from many, many science-based articles debunking it that detox is New Age woo hoo, not a treatment, nor a cure. It is, as Science-Based Medicine calls it, “Ritual purification masquerading as medicine and wellness.” The site also notes, “Detox Scams are Worthless and Potentially Dangerous” and calls it “a marketing strategy… designed to treat a nonexistent condition.” Any detoxification your body does is through your liver, colon and kidneys not through smoothies or electromagnetic stimulation. That too, a reporter could easily establish. And no, you can’t sweat out toxins in a sauna, either because of simple biology: “Humans sweat to cool ourselves, not to excrete waste products or clear toxic substances.”

The “Seqex is a Class 2 medical device, which means it can be used without a doctor administering it – similar to a sleep apnea machine.”

That doesn’t explain what the classification means. All medical devices need to be licensed in Canada.

Class categorization is a risk evaluation, not a determination of efficacy or wellness. In Canada, “Medical devices are classified into one of Classes I to IV by means of the classification rules set out in Schedule 1, where Class I represents the lowest risk and Class IV represents the highest risk.” A licence doesn’t mean it works as advertised; just that it meets labelling and safety standards: see Section 32.2 of the law. Licensing relies on the manufacturer’s attestation that it’s safe and meets these requirements:

-certification that device is manufactured according to international Quality Management System standard.-manufacturer’s attestation that device satisfies the safety, effectiveness in MDR (Medical Device Regulations); labelling reviewed.

Other Class II medical devices include contact lenses, epidural catheters, pregnancy kits and surgical gloves.

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What is science? It’s not this stuff.


Recently in a Facebook post, two of us were squabbling in typical Facebook-fashion over “alternative medicine” and related treatments (many of which came into the discussion as links to pseudoscience and/or charlatan’s websites).

As is my wont, I continued to debunk these with links to actual medical sites and discussions on the topic from health services, universities and real doctors. The other person posted a link to a piece that had Dr. Nuzum – a naturopath*, not a medical doctor, who promotes himself and his products heavily on YouTube and social media – comment thus on fingernail ridges:

“…in oriental medicine, we have—there are ridges that go long ways down from the cuticle to the end of your fingernail. That is from gut inflammation, gut dysbiosis, and mineral deficiencies are what that points to.
Lines that go across the fingernail, those again, in oriental medicine, that would indicate an oxygen deficiency or not getting enough oxygen into your system.
“So, if you have the lines going from the cuticle to the tip of the finger, that typically, in oriental medicine, indicates gut dysbiosis, or gut inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies.
“And so, if you have lines going down your fingernails, the types of things you want to be looking at would be green foods, probiotics, minerals, multivitamin-type supplements. Those are the types of things that you would want to use.
…If there’s a line going across the fingernail, that points to an oxygen or breathing deficiency. And that would be something we’d need exercise and proper diet, and things that would support lung health and gut health at the same time to correct those.”

Caveat Emptor!The type of things he recommends are, of course, the very products he sells on his own website and promotes online (ka-ching!). But remember his advice about treating vertical lines:  vitamin supplements; and for horizontal lines (also known as Beau’s lines, a medical term which Nuzum doesn’t use – and may not even know): exercise and diet (spoiler alert: the latter is dangerous claptrap).

When I called it (and some similar New Age health posts that lacked proper scientific citation) baloney on Facebook, my verbal opponent posted this response:

…anything can be debunked! I agree science can disprove so many things. I am not encouraging ignoring allopathic medical care. I also believe choices in medical care should be presented.

Well, that’s not true. You cannot debunk gravity, for example. Or the speed of light. Or the body’s need for oxygen. Or a spherical earth, evolution, the electromagnetic spectrum, the temperature to boil water, photosynthesis and so on. Scientists may dispute the causes or effects of some phenomena such as climate change, or black holes, microwave radiation, or the extinction of the dinosaurs, the existence of a Higgs-boson particle, and supersymmetric string theory, but not to debunk them: to understand and more fully define them. Scientists endeavour to either fit new ideas into our existing knowledge or to revise that knowledge to accommodate new discoveries.

You can, however, debunk water having feelings, homeopathy, astrology, UFO abductions, chemtrails, detoxing, pH balancing, psychics, ghosts, healing crystals,  the anti-gluten fad, the anti-GMO fad, the anti-vaccination fad, magic, reflexology, iridology, reiki, channelling dead people, Donald Trump’s claims about immigration and a whole lot of other silly, New Age, sometimes dangerous, and always unfactual things.

And from every thing I’ve read so far, you can also debunk what “Dr” Nuzum says about fingernails. Quite easily, in fact. But first…

I shouldn’t have to caution readers about taking advice about food and diet from the people who want to sell you the methods, products and services they say you need. But just in case you missed it the first thousand times I warned you about it: don’t take medical, dietary or health advice only from the people who sell or manufacture the products they recommend you need to be healthy. Demand to see the peer-reviewed studies that prove the efficacy of what they promote BEFORE you shell out money for them. If the seller hasn’t got any proper in vivo studies to support their claims, you’re being conned.

I hope that will be the last time I need to remind you. And I really shouldn’t have to remind you about taking advice from people with diploma-mill certificates, either. So let’s move on.

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WTF is wrong with people these days?

What's wrong with people these days?Into everyone’s life comes the realization that we are not young and in between the time when we were, the world has changed. Not always for the better, either. In fact, it’s hard not to conclude the whole world has gone to shit since the internet arrived.

Aging is not something that, as a culture, we embrace. After all, who wants to be old? Being a senior today is way too often portrayed in the media as being vulnerable, out of touch and cranky, as if we emerged from the chrysalis of middle age into a hunched curmudgeon shuffling along with a walker, incontinence and a squint, grouching about how we miss rotary dial phones.

No, mostly we’re too busy to notice that it’s been a gradual but inexorable slide. We have jobs, hobbies, entertainment, pets, families, and even ukuleles to keep us from noticing the daily drift. We’re forever young as long as we don’t look inward. Then suddenly we look up and WTF? How did things get this way? How did I get this way? It’s like waking up with a start when you hear a door slam in the night.

I was a skeptic from an early age, but of late it seems I shake my head at human follies more often than I nod in appreciation of our accomplishments. But we all have more and more reason to be angry and astounded at human stupidity. Just spend an hour on social media or watching YouTube videos and you’ll be saying “You gotta be kidding!” so often that your Google Home device will start telling you to shut the fork up.

For me – and maybe for many of my readers – when I read headlines and news stories these days, or watch YouTube videos like those above, they are often followed in my head with a simple question: “What’s wrong with people these days?” And it’s not a once-and-a-while thing. It’s several times a day. I mean, just look at these recent stories and headlines and try not to ask yourself that question:

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