Drugs in disguise

The study of medicine has been around in some form probably for as long as we have been recognizably human, however, ideas of how to ensure the quality and efficacy of medicines have only evolved very recently. In prescientific cultures, it was the norm to accept unconditionally what the ‘traditional authority’ had to say about healing. Whether medical knowledge came from a respected group of elders, a mysterious shaman, or the church, it was the final word and wasn’t open to inquiry. Often, medical systems were more an artifact of each group’s cultural history than they were a useful collection of knowledge about medicinally active plants to be found in the local environment.

The major shift in thinking came around 1400 to 1700, during what we now call the Medical Renaissance. Thanks to the reformation of the church and a decline in conservatism, the shackles were finally removed from medical science, and a much needed rebirth was allowed to happen. Physicians like Andreas Vesalius, Ambroise Paré, and William Harvey began to question ‘traditional authority’, disproving many of its theories, and discovering that many of its treatments were useless, even downright dangerous. For the first time, students of medicine were encouraged to check their findings so that they could better understand the human body, and ensure the safety and efficacy of treatments.

The initial spark for this huge shift in medical thinking didn’t come from a new freedom of inquiry, but from tragedy, one of the greatest to ever befall mankind: the Black Plague, when 45–50% of the European population was wiped out during a four-year period.(1) With the shortcomings of contemporary medical knowledge so glaringly evident, people became frustrated with the old, stagnant ways of thinking about health. If half of your friends and loved ones died from an unknown disease, you would probably question the state of medical knowledge too.

Unfortunately, it has always taken tragedy to catalyze medical reform, and historically, the development of drug regulation has been no different – its history is written on tombstones. In 1937, the improperly prepared sulfanilamide medicine, Elixir Sulfanilamide, caused the death of over 100 people. Harold Watkins, the chief pharmacist and chemist at the company that manufactured the drug, was unaware that the solvent they were using was poisonous to humans, and at the time there were no regulations requiring premarket safety testing of new drugs.(2) When pressed to admit wrongdoing, the owner of the company infamously stated, “We have been supplying a legitimate professional demand and not once could have foreseen the unlooked-for results. I do not feel that there was any responsibility on our part.”(3) Evidently Watkins had enough guilt for the two of them, as he promptly committed suicide. Following the crisis, Congress enacted the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, giving the FDA the authority to oversee the safety of drugs and to outlaw misbranded and adulterated drugs.(4) However, it took another, much worse tragedy to truly give the FDA the authority to decide which drugs made it to the market. This time, the drug responsible was thalidomide. Initially hailed as a “wonder drug”, it was primarily intended as a sedative and hypnotic, but was also used to alleviate morning sickness in pregnant women. Shortly after the drug went to market, 10,000 cases of phocomelia (malformed limbs) in infants were reported throughout Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Approximately 50 percent of the woman who had given birth to deformed children had taken thalidomide during the first trimester of pregnancy. In response, US Congress passed the Kefauver-Harris Drug Amendments. For the first time, drug manufactures were required to prove the efficacy of their drugs before they could sell them.(5) These disasters, among many others, prompted the introduction of tougher regulations for the testing and licensing of drugs worldwide, and increased awareness of the risk of negative side effects.

What is a Drug?

No medicine is completely safe. If something has active ingredients of any kind, there is the potential for adverse side effects in a high enough dose. Even after safety and efficacy has been established, it takes special training, access to necessary information, and an understanding of that information to know how much of which drug is required for a specific indication, and then you have to understand how different drugs interact within the body – an almost impossibly complicated task when dealing with more than two drugs. Thus, there is an inherent risk to all drugs, and they must be treated with extreme care. This is why it is crucial to understand what qualifies as a drug, and what doesn’t.

Strictly speaking, there is no single accepted definition of the word “drug”, as the word has different meanings in different contexts. However, this isn’t a question of semantics. Legal and colloquial distinctions usages aside, the simplest, biochemical definition is: anything that has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.(6) Your body doesn’t distinguish between things that are intended to be used as drugs, and things that behave like drugs but aren’t putatively regarded as such. Drugs can come in many forms, such as ointments, injections, pills, or powders. Even the line between drugs and food can be blurry. Eating certain foods can trigger the release of the same chemicals in the brain involved in addiction and withdrawal, and can effect the absorption of prescription drugs, altering their effects.(7) It is irrelevant where something comes from, or what form it takes. As far as you body is concerned, a drug is a drug.

Drugs in Disguise

Drugs aren’t like ordinary consumer products, because people’s lives hang in the balance. The way that they used to be sold boggles the mind; anyone could set up shop, and they were under no obligation to prove that their products did what they were supposed to and weren’t going to cause harm. In this unregulated market, drugs had unknown safety and efficacy at best, and killed people at worst. Thankfully, we are now protected from ineffective, potentially dangerous drugs. Or are we?

Having managed to position themselves ambiguously between medical and food manufacturers, “nutritional supplement” manufacturers bypass the regulations that drugs are subjected to. However, drugs are what they are selling, in all but name.(8) By rallying their troops, they have forcefully acquired an exorbitant privilege: virtual immunity against regulation. Taking advantage of the widespread climate of distrust and disillusionment toward government caused by events like the Vietnam War and Watergate, they convinced their customers that the government was trying to take away their goodies, warned retailers that they would be put out of business, and portrayed health regulators as selfish conspirators who were in bed with the medical profession and big pharma. In this way, they have been able to overturn every attempt by regulatory bodies to regulate their products as drugs.

During the 1970s, when the FDA tried to limit false claims and require warning labels on potentially dangerous supplements, angry supplement consumers and sellers persuaded congress to pass the Proxmire Amendments, which prohibited the FDA from setting standards to limit the potency of supplements and regulate them as drugs based on their potency.(9) In the early 1990s, Congress was considering two bills that would have given federal agencies greater power to combat health frauds. One would have harshened the penalties for violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The other would have made it illegal to advertise nutritional or therapeutic claims that would not be permissible on supplement labels. During the same period, the FDA was also considering tightening regulations for these labels. Alarmed, the supplement industry and its supporters generated an avalanche of complaints to Congress. The end result was the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, appropriately nicknamed the “snake oil protection act” by the New Yorke Times.(10) The DSHEA made “dietary supplements” a separate regulatory category, and expanded the types of products that could be marketed under this category. It went far beyond the usual definition of “dietary supplements”, and included things like herbs, amino acids, hormones, as well as any preparation, combination, or constituent of those ingredients. The DSHEA made it nearly impossible for regulatory bodies like the FDA to regulate anything that fits into this overly inclusive category.(11)

Today, supplement manufacturers are supposed to indicate their new product is safe and effective prior to introduction. However, they can use anything that they want for evidence. To date, the FDA does not have any standards for what the evidence must contain, or how trustworthy it must be. It is left entirely up to the manufacturer submitting the premarket notification to choose what information provides the basis for their conclusion that their product is safe and effective.(12) It’s an empty gesture, superficially making it seem like some effort has been made to ensure safety and efficacy. The truth is, supplement manufacturers and distributors are still living in a time where anyone can sell anything they want. They just have to jump through a couple of hoops first. As a result of this leniency, useless and dangerous ingredients are being allowed on the market all the time. The FDA has to wait until after a product is released to find out whether it is truly safe, through reports of adverse events. Until enough people get hurt for a noticeable pattern to emerge, there is nothing to protect consumers from dangerous supplements. In other words, tragedies have to happen before these products can be taken off the market…shouldn’t we be beyond that by now?

The False Dichotomy

Why do people fall for the false dichotomy between prescription drugs and herbal remedies? They instinctively draw a line between “artificial” drugs created by pharmaceutical companies, and “natural”, herbal remedies. They reason that herbal remedies must be safe because they are “natural”; must be effective because they have been used for thousands of years; and must be something other than drugs because they aren’t produced artificially. Additionally, they often believe that herbal remedies are created by small, “mom and pop” businesses who actually want to heal you, whereas pharmaceutical companies only want to temporarily treat your symptoms so that you’ll come back for more. I think that is a fair, non-straw-man summary of a common set of beliefs.

Claim 1: “Herbs are natural, therefor safe.”

This leap of logic stems from the notoriously naive naturalistic fallacy. It’s absurdity would be amusing if it wasn’t taken so seriously by so many. The fact that people fall for it just goes to show how separated they really are from nature: in reality, nature is a dangerous place where one must fight constantly to survive, and if something isn’t trying to kill you, there’s a good chance you’re trying to kill it. For now, let’s just ignore that fallacious premise, and go straight to the conclusion that herbs are safe. It is demonstrably false. Adverse side effects from so called “natural” remedies are well documented. Between 1983 and 2004, 1.3 million reports of adverse reactions to supplements, vitamins, and minerals were reported to poison control centers in the United States, and 175,268 required hospitalization. In 2012, it was estimated by the FDA that 50,000 adverse reactions occurred every year.(13) As herbs have become all the rage, and are more readily available thanks to globalization, more toxic effects are being observed. Compounding the problem is the fact that, once exotic herbs reach the west, they aren’t necessarily being prepared or used in the same way as their traditional counterparts. The traditional way isn’t always best, but there is an undeniable risk in randomly altering dosage and preparation without any kind of safety testing. For example, Mahuang, an herb found in relatively small doses in Chinese medicines, is used in far higher concentrations in the West. This has resulted in a number of cases of sudden cardiac death, many of which occurred in young adults who used ephedra, a concoction that contains Mahuang, and didn’t even stray from the recommended dosage.(14)

Here is a list of common, natural herbs which have a potential for unwanted side effects:

Blue cohosh: neonatal heart failure.(15)
Valerian: hepatitis, insomnia (ironic, considering one of the things it is meant to treat is insomnia).(16)
Kava: liver damage.(17)
Nutmeg: hallucinations (one side effect which may actually be desired).(18)
Wormwood: seizures.(19)
Stevia leaves: in high doses, possible decreased fertility.(20)
Concentrated green tea extracts: liver damage.(21)
Thujone (found in absinthe): neurological damage.(22)
Concentrated garlic: increased risk of bleeding.(23)

It’s not just the supplements themselves that can be harmful, but what’s contaminating them. Herbal remedies exported from overseas are sometimes contaminated with lead and other heavy metals. In 2004, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that 20 percent of Ayurvedic remedies obtained from shops near Boston’s City Hall contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and arsenic.(24)

Claim 2: “Herbs have been used for thousands of years, therefor they must work.”

Many age old herbal remedies have proven to be useful, and have therefor been assimilated into modern medicine. Indeed, there may be a correlation between a herbs traditional use and its actual usefulness. However, it does not logically follow that something “must” be useful because it has been used for a long time. Nonetheless, people use this fallacious appeal to antiquity to continue to cling to an herb even after double blinded, placebo-controlled trials have shown it to be no more useful than placebo.

The appeal to antiquity is especially disingenuous when applied to medicinal claims, because nearly all pre-scientific systems used for deciding whether something had medicinal properties were based on “vitalism”, an illogical superstition which fails to grasp mechanistic concepts that are absolutely integral to the study of medicine. Vitalism claims that living things are infused with an essence. Essentially, it is a form of begging the question, because it attempts to explain something by invoking a circular concept that says nothing new about the thing it is attempting to explain. Historically, this has attracted the ire of many famous intellectuals. Molière parodied it in Le Malade imaginaire, where a vitalist “answers” the question, “Why does opium cause sleep?”, with “because of its soporific power”, Thomas Huxley compared vitalism to stating that water behaves the way it does because of its “aquosity”, and his grandson Julian Huxley compared vitalism to explaining how a railroad locomotive works by saying that it has “locomotive force”.(25) An example of a vitalistic system used in pre-scientific medicine is the “Doctrine of Signatures”, which states that herbs that resemble parts of the human body can cure ailments that affect that part of the body, because they seem to share similar qualities. This lead William Coles, a 17th-century botanist and herbalist, to believe that walnut could cure headaches because, in his opinion, they resembled heads.(26)

Back in the day, many considered this way of thinking quite profound. Today, it is interesting, but clearly wrong. Yet herbs that have been traditionally used for a long time usually have their roots in bizarre, unscientific methodologies like this. Is that really something to brag about? Modern pharmacology has its roots in herbalism, and many drugs are still derived from herbs (ephedrine, warfarin, digitalin, aspirin etc.). However, herbs didn’t evolve specifically to heal us. When they have useful properties, that is just a happy accident. Modern biotechnology allows us to isolate their useful ingredients, and improve upon them so that they can be targeted towards specific processes and have fewer negative side-effects. This should be celebrated, not feared.

Claim 3: “Herbs aren’t drugs.”

This one is rather easy, because in showing that herbs have the potential for unwanted side effects, I have already proved it wrong. Like I said, a drug is anything that causes a physiological effect when introduced into the body, and herbs contain pharmacological active ingredients that have physiological effects on the human body. These ingredients exist in unpredictable doses, are often not well understood, and sometimes haven’t even been identified. Just like conventional drugs, herbal remedies can interfere with other drugs. For example, St. John’s Wort can increase the rate at which the liver metabolizes other drugs. The only thing that separates herbs from prescription drugs is that they are sold deceptively as “dietary supplements.”

Claim 4: “Manufacturers of herbal remedies want to cure you, Big Pharma wants to keep you sick.”

This is an incredibly popular conspiracy theory, and it will probably be around for as long as peddlers of alternative medicine find it useful to depict themselves as the only alternative to a corrupt tyrant. It relies solely upon the “cui bono” fallacy: whichever party gains the most from an event must be the cause of that event (ironically, I came dangerously close to committing this fallacy in the last sentence). The same logic is used by those who reason that 9/11 was an inside job, because the Bush administration gained from going to war in the Middle East. Just like 9/11 “truthers”, Big Pharma conspiracists offer this line of reasoning as if it constitutes real evidence. One common charge is that the cure for cancer is being withheld so that Big Pharma can continue to profit from treating it’s symptoms. Ridiculous. Big Pharma isn’t a single monolithic entity, it consists of doctors, universities, health organizations, research laboratories, private companies, and government agencies, competing with each other to make scientific discoveries. There is no organized plot to keep people sick. If one of them discovers the cure for some debilitating disease, they jump on it. Yes, Big Pharma is driven by money. But why would Big Pharma want to make us all sick? Just like the alternative-medicine industry, it is easier for them to profit from making us think we’re sick, by pathologizing normal biological and social variation. That is why, if you watched too many TV ads, you could be led to believe that high cholesterol is a disease, when it is really just a risk factor. However, alt-med practitioners are arguably even more guilty than Big Pharma when it comes to disease mongering: chiropractic subluxations, chronic lyme disease, full body PH imbalances resulting from modern diets, morgellons disease, and heavy metal poisoning resulting from vaccines are all imaginary ailments that alt-med companies capitalize on.


I will leave you with an excellent quote from Paul Offit, one of my skeptical heroes. In a single paragraph, he sums it up perfectly.

Although conventional therapies can be disappointing, alternative therapies shouldn’t be given a free pass…. All therapies should be held to the same high standard of proof; otherwise we’ll continue to be hoodwinked by healers who ask us to believe in them rather than in the science that fails to support their claims. And it’ll happen when we’re most vulnerable, most willing to spend whatever it takes for the promise of a cure.

-Paul Offit, Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine


1. Wear, Andrew, Roger Kenneth French, and Iain M. Lonie. The Medical Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge University press, 1985. eBook. <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=tlM9AAAAIAAJ&lpg=PR8&ots=PMBXh-lp6K&dq=medical renaissance&lr&pg=PR8

2. Akst, Jef. “The Elixir Tragedy, 1937.” Scientist. 06 2013: Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

3. Ballentine, Carol. “Sulfanilamide Disaster.” FDA Consumer magazine. 06 1981: Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

4. United States. Food and Drug Administration. FDA History – Part II. 2012. Web. .

5. Fintel, Bara, Athena T. Samaras, and Edson Carias. ” The Thalidomide Tragedy: Lessons for Drug Safety and Regulation.” Science in Society. 28 06 2009: Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

6. Ophardt, Charles. “Drug Activity.” Chemwiki. .

7. Edlund, Mattthew J. “Is that a food or drug?.” Psychology Today. 05 05 2011: Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

8. Novella, Steven. “Herbs Are Drugs.” Skeptical Inquirer. 37.2. (2013): Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

9. United States. Food and Drug Administration. This Week In FDA History – April 22, 1976. Web. .

10. “The 1993 Snake Oil Protection Act.” New York Times 05 10 1993, Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

11. Barrett, Stephen. “How the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 Weakened the FDA .” Quackwatch. N.p., 02 02 2007. Web. 26 Nov 2013. .

12. United States. Food and Drug Administration. New Dietary Ingredients in Dietary Supplements – Background for Industry. Web. .

13. Offit, Paul. Do You Believe In Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. Harper, 2013. Print; excerpt from: Groopman, Jerome. “The Quackish Cult of Alternative Medicine – Dr. Paul Offit’s battle against charlatanism .” New Republic. 19 10 2013: Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

14. Wikipedia contributors. “Ephedra.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 12th November 2013. .

15. Jones TK, , and Lawsom MB. “Profound neonatal congestive heart failure caused by maternal consumption of blue cohosh herbal medication..” PubMed. (1998): Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

16. Hepatoxicity: MacGregor FB, Abernethy VE, Dahabra S, Cobden I, Hayes PC (1989). “Hepatotoxicity of herbal remedies”. British Medical Journal; Insomnia: United States. National Institutes of Health. MedlinePlus. Web. .

17. Clough AR, , Bailie RS, and Bailie RS. n. page. Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

18. Brenner, N, O S Frank, and E Knight. “Chronic Nutmeg Psychosis.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 86.3 (1993): 179-180. Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

19. “Wormwood Side Effects and Safety.” WebMD. Web. .

20. Melis, MS. “Effects of chronic administration of Stevia rebaudiana on fertility in rats..” Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 67.2 (1999): 157-61.. Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

21. “Green Tea Polyphenols May Cause Liver Damage In High Doses.” Medical News Today. 26 02 2006: Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

22. “Public statement on the use of herbal medicinal products containing thujone.” European Medicines Agency. Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products , 22 05 2012. Web. 26 Nov 2013. .

23. “GARLIC Side Effects & Safety.” WebMD. N.p.. Web. 26 Nov 2013. .

24. Saper, RB, SN Kales, J Paquin , MJ Burns, DM Eisenberg, RB Davis , and RS Phillips. “Heavy metal content of ayurvedic herbal medicine products..” Journal of the American Medical Association. (2004): Web. 26 Nov. 2013. .

25. Wikipedia contributors. “Vitalism.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 21 November 2013. .

26. Wikipedia contributors. “Doctrine of signatures.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 November 2013. .

The Photon Belt.

Some new age channellers state that, sometime in the not too distant future, the Earth will come into contact with something that they call the “photon band”, or “photon belt.” When this happens, they say, our planet will be rained with “pure energy”. Those who have cleansed their “lightbodies” will be ready to be whisked away to heaven, and those who haven’t will perish/be left on earth to continue spiritual growth/have their souls cleansed to prepare them for the next arrival of the photon belt.


It’s important to note that there have been a number of failed predictions that have been made as to the date of Earth’s collision with the photon belt. Dates given so far have been 1992, 1997, 2011, and 2012. Each has come to pass, leaving behind a slew of disappointed crackpots. Each time they slink away, make up an excuse for why nothing happened, and pull another date out of thin air. After their forecast failed in 1997, they began repeating, verbatim, this hilariously illiterate and nonsensical ad hoc rationalization:  “Earth was put into special hole in it that was drilled by a coherent bow wave of gamma particles from a nova that was first observed by astronomers in 1987″. Then, undeterred, they set their sites on 2012.


While the photon belt is a part of fuzzy new age philosophy, there are a few explicit claims that can be put to the test.


1.    According to new age sources, the photon belt was discovered in 1961 by satellites. They’re re-writing history here. Plenty of space related things happened that year (for instance, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first person to travel into space), but none of them had anything to do with a “photon belt”. Unless–cue sinister sounding orchestral hits–the government has covered it all up…


2.    They claim that the belt encircles the Pleiades. This is also false, as no anomaly of the “photon belt” variety has been discovered near the Pleiades. The Pleiades star cluster is located within an interstellar cloud of gas, plasma, and dust, which appears streaky due to the alignment of its particles with the magnetic fields between stars. There’s nothing belt-like about it, and there’s certainly no more reason to think that it has magical powers than there is to think that any other interstellar cloud does.


3.    They claim that our sun orbits the Pleiades every 26,000 years, reaching the mid-point of the belt every 12,500 years. Our sun doesn’t orbit the Pleiades. Moreover, we’re actually moving away from them. According to the Hubble telescope’s fine guidance sensors, we’re currently about 424 light years away.


No photon belt has been discovered, but is it theoretically possible for one to exist? Sort of, but it would take some pretty special circumstances. Photons travel in straight lines, and the only thing that could make them form anything close to a belt would be a black hole. Light rays are forced to bend around black holes near their event horizon, forming a photon sphere­–the closest thing to a photon belt that has the privilege of existing. What would happen if we were to come into contact with one? Would “pure energy” rain down from the heavens, cleansing our souls? Well, the pure energy thing isn’t even worth considering, because the way they are using the word energy is scientifically meaningless. As the Debunkatron himself pointed out in Skeptoid podcast #1, anytime somebody uses the word energy to mean anything other than “work potential”, they are misusing it, and co-opting it for their own vague and ambiguous meaning. In the physical sciences, energy is simply a computable quantity that can be associated with any system, used to denote something’s potential to do work. Energy isn’t a substance, any more than “volume” or “mass” are substances, so to speak of “pure” energy makes no sense, it’s not even wrong. As for the idea of our souls being cleansed…this presupposes that we have souls to be cleansed, but the soul has never been isolated or measured, nor has its existence been inferred through science. The human brain is sufficiently complex to generate consciousness, end of story. If we were to actually come into contact with a photon sphere a spiritual awakening would be the last thing on our mind. That is, unless you think the gruesome fate of “spaghettification” (the stretching of objects into long thin shapes in a very strong gravitational field such as a black hole) is conducive to that sort of thing. I guess I’ll concede that it would stretch your brain, which isn’t that far off from “expanding your mind.”


In conclusion, the photon belt seems to be some sort of demented, new-age spin on the rapture myth. Evidently, somebody (who probably smelled strongly of patchouli oil) wasn’t satisfied with the regular, vanilla, christian rapture, and decided – perhaps after a nip of ayahuasca – to sex it up a bit. The resulting convolution of half-baked ideas has the typical narrative that is common to all rapture myths (where a chosen few leave behind the great unwashed masses to get sucked up into a paradisiacal realm), but is steeped in sci-fi technobabble, dressed in new age clothes, and harder to suspend disbelief for than ever before. I’ll confess that it is terribly easy prey, and probably a harmless bit of pseudoscience (if there is such a thing), but it presents us with an excellent opportunity to hone our skepticism.






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Do you believe in ______?

When someone asks you whether you believe in god, spirits, auras, or spiritual energy, you should reply by asking them to define exactly what they mean by those words. If you do, what you will typically find is that they respond by unpacking the concept into even more nebulous terms and concepts that themselves require definitions. Essentially, what you find is that they are using the word as a place holder for something that they are unable to describe.

The most basic function of words is to label something that you understand, and can therefor describe. If you ask me whether I think it’s going to rain tomorrow, I know what you mean by rain, because I have seen it before, and I can know to a satisfactory degree of certainty that we share the same definition: little droplets of water falling from the sky. However, if for some reason I am unaware of the existence of rain, you will have very little trouble describing what you mean: little droplets of water falling from the sky. Words pertaining to spiritual concepts, however, are used as place holders for things that people have agreed exist, but cannot describe-using unambiguous language that anyone could extract the same basic meaning from. A lack of clear definitions like this strongly suggests that a person is just dispensing pseudo-profundities. In fact, if they fail to elucidate, we are unable to evaluate whether what they are saying has any root in reality. In order for a claim to be intelligible, it must be empirically actionable. In other words, it has to be testable, either by directly measuring or observing the thing itself, or by using the claim as a model with which to make predictions (because if the claim were true, it would have real world implications that themselves could be directly observed).

One possible criticism is that I’m attacking people’s right to use metaphorical language. Touché, I am. I am not however, attacking it in general. That would entail a rejection of all linguistic art, which is useful for evoking and describing ineffable human emotions that simply cannot be described literally (at least not without bringing up physiological aspects of the human brain, which defeats the purpose). That would be foolish. What I am attacking is the use of fuzzy, metaphorical language specifically in discussions where people are attempting to describe some alleged feature of reality.

When someone asks you whether you believe in spiritual energy, they are really begging the question, “what is spiritual energy?”. If in their attempt to describe it, they resort to an argument from ignorance, invoking a host of new nebulous things that lack definitions, they have only compounded the problem. You can’t possibly answer their question, because it is fundamentally vague and unintelligible, and therefor incapable of being stated more clearly. They may sit there with a sage look on their face, expecting you to do the mental contortion required to try and make some sort of sense out of what they’ve just said, but the onus is not on you to do that. The onus is on them to make sense in the first place.

Damn nature, you complicated.

A friend recently asked me if I knew why organisms get more complicated over time. After some thought, I realized that the premise of his question is actually false (or, perhaps more accurately, half true). It assumes that evolution is inherently progressive. However, natural selection is a blind process with no intrinsic direction, where organisms can be selected for either increased or decreased complexity in response to selection pressures. While it is true that complex organisms can be produced from simpler ones, the idea that the ultimate goal of evolution is the progression of simpler organisms into “higher-order organisms”, or that this is an inevitable byproduct of evolution, is a misconception. If it were true that evolution was inherently progressive, we would expect to see only eukaryotic (multicellular) organisms, roughly 3.5 billion years after the original “primordial ooze”. But in reality, extant life on earth is predominantly made up of archae and bacteria: simple, microscopic prokaryotes. Their respective biomass outweighs “higher order”, macroscopic eukaryotes 10 to 1. Large organisms only appear more diverse to us because of sampling bias. We notice them more because we can actually see them, whereas there are only a dozen or so unicellular species that are visible to the naked eye. We live in a macro-scale world, so we are naturally macro-scale chauvinists. Nevertheless, some organisms have reached a startling degree of complexity. Take the human body. On a microscopic level, it is a choreographed colony of trillions of cells. Zoom out, and you have complex structures like the eye. How and why did there get to be so much complexity?


The first thing that needs to be addressed is why we have bodies at all. What could inspire cells to abandon their freedom, banding together to form huge lumbering multicellular organisms like us? The answer is fairly clear cut: multicellularity allows organisms to exceed the normal size limits imposed by diffusion, conferring the competitive advantages of increased size. If you are larger, you have fewer predators and less competition. Another advantage of multicellularity, which has has nothing to do with size, is the ability to have differentiated cells.
Differentiated cells provide an advantage because they have the freedom to become highly specialized, skilled at performing a single task extremely well. However, as is the case with all adaptations, multicellularity comes at a cost. For instance, if you increase in size, your need for food increases proportionally. Also, only certain uni-cellular organisms are eligible for becoming multicellular. There are probably only a few, very specific ways of making the first, crucial step towards multicellularity. Thus, only under a strict set of conditions will multi-cellularity develop. With this in mind, it’s no wonder why not all prokaryotes have made the change. This goes to show how, although a potential adaptation may seem like an upgrade from our perspective, that doesn’t guarantee that it is going to happen. Evolution has no foresight, so an adaptation must be practical and advantageous from the get go.

The Origins of Multicellularity

There are three main hypotheses for how multicellularity evolved, with the third being the most credited by the scientific community.

The Symbiotic Theory

The symbiotic theory suggests that multicellularity resulted from a symbiotic relationship between different species of single-cell organisms, each fulfilling a different role. Eventually, they became so specialized in their respective roles that they were unable to survive without each other. This type of symbiosis can be observed in nature, such as in the relationship between coral and algae. In these cases, it is likely that if one species went extinct the other would follow. However, it is unclear how each organism’s DNA could have gotten combined into one genome, making them a true, single species. Therein lies the problem with this theory.

The Cellularization Theory

The Cellularization Theory states that a single unicellular life form developed internal membranes around each of its multiple nuclei. Over time, the separated nuclei differentiated in their functions, resulting in a multicellular creature similar to modern turbellarian flatworms. However, evidence from molecular and morphological data has demonstrated that this is probably incorrect.

The Colonial Theory

Proposed by Ernst Haeckel in 1874, the Colonial Theory claims that the symbiosis of multiple members of the same species (as opposed to separate species like in the Symbiotic Theory) culminated in the first multicellular organism. The advantage of this theory is that this behaviour has been observed in several species of protista. For example, the amoeba Dictyostelium has been known to group into colonies, moving on to new locations in search of food. Some of the amoeba then differentiate from each other, a necessary precursor of multicellularity.

Regardless of the mechanism by which it develops, multicellularity, once it is achieved, stimulates further increases in complexity. This is because cells suddenly have a completely new environment, where they differentiate into numerous lineages which cooperate within the organism to work toward shared goals. From a purely evolutionary perspective, propagation is the only real goal. However, there is a tall order of tasks that must be undertaken to lead up to propagation and ensure that it is possible: maintenance of homeostasis as a stable whole, response to stimuli, growth and development, and finally, reproduction. Any mutation that aids in the completion of any one of these tasks has a good chance of staying in the gene pool, and therefor furthering the evolution of the organism–likely resulting in increased complexity.

The Eye

Behold, the human eye. It refracts and focuses light, and then transduces the raw information into nerve signals, which are fed into the brain via the optic nerve to be filtered and patched together into something that we can make sense of. What could stimulate the evolution of such a complicated piece of optical machinery? How could it have evolved, when at first glance it seems like all the components would have to be there from the beginning for it to work at all? Darwin was troubled by this, and those opposed to evolution are understandably fond of quoting the following passage from On the Origin of Species:

“To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.”

However, they conveniently neglect to mention the remainder of the section, where he says that he has no problem believing that such a structure could have evolved:

“…If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.”

Evolution of the Eye

First of all, the evolution of the eye was a step-by-step, cumulative process. It didn’t just spring into existence fully formed through some astronomically lucky macro-mutation. That’s impossible. Things like that don’t happen by random chance, even over billions of years. Only with the help of a non-random process like natural selection can something like the eye come into being. Sadly, we can never know exactly how it happened, as the fossil record isn’t a perfect catalogue of intermediary forms, and even if it was, eyes are composed of soft tissues and don’t readily fossilize. Fortunately though, there are various creatures alive today with proto-eyes. Because they represent different stages in a process that could lead to an eye like ours, we can use them to assemble a hypothetical evolutionary pathway that could have been taken to arrive at the eyes we have today.
Half an eye is better than no eye, and even one percent of an eye is better than no vision at all. Even a mutation resulting in a single photoreceptor cell would confer a clear survival advantage, especially in a prehistoric world where blindness is the norm. Starting from that first photoreceptor cell, random mutations resulting in slight improvements in image fidelity provided survival advantages. These accumulated over time, resulting in a steadily increasing ramp of complexity.
Here’s the leading model used by evolutionary biologists to elaborate how this could have happened:
A mutation resulted in a single photoreceptor cell, which helped to calibrate circadian rhythms by detecting daylight. Over successive generations, possessing multiple photoreceptors became the norm in the gene pool, because individuals with mutations encoding for an increased number of photoreceptors were better able to react to their surroundings. An arms race began, fueling the evolution of the new sensory organ. Eventually, what was once just a single photoreceptor cell became a light-sensitive patch. At this point, the creature was still only able to distinguish light from dark. A slight depression in the patch created a pit, for the first time allowing a limited ability to sense from which direction light or shadow was coming from. The pit’s opening gradually narrowed to create an aperture, like that of a pinhole camera, making vision sharper. A transparent tissue formed at the front, with a concave curvature for refracting light, drastically improving image fidelity. And here we have the basic blueprint for a human eye. Every change in this process, however small, provided an advantage. It was a logical progression from 1% of an eye to 100% of an eye, and each stage was useful to its possessor.


As I mentioned before, organisms with proto-eyes corresponding to every step in the evolutionary sequence have been found. With the right selection pressures, they just might be navigating their environments with eyes like ours one day. Here are some examples.
1. Uni-cellular protists of the genus Euglena posses a small stigma, or eye spot, that is capable of detecting light, but unable to form images. 20130818-121421.jpg

(© CC 2011 Deuterostome)

2. Planarian worms have cup shaped eyes, capable of detecting the direction of a light source.

20130818-120203.jpg (© CC- 2011 Eduard Solà)

3. The nautilus has pinhole camera eyes, capable of seeing blurry images.
(© CC- 2012 Manuae)

4. Sea snails have a rudimentary lens in the form of a blob of jelly, giving them the ability to adjust their focus.

20130818-115018.jpg (© CC- 2007 Steve Childs, http://www.flickr.com/people/steve_childs)

Personal Incredulity

Darwin recognized that the idea of design arising in the absence of a designer defies intuitive common sense. In a later edition of On the Origin of Species, after he had had a chance to witness the publics reaction to his theory, he stated his opinion that their incredulity was just a failure of imagination:

“When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of vox populi, vox dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.”

Indeed, science has demonstrated over and over that the truth of things often defies common sense. To understand why we have such a hard time swallowing concepts like evolution, I think it is helpful to look at things through the lens of psychology. As a species, we are hardwired to ascribe intention and agency in an attempt to predict the behaviour of other beings. However, we are so hyper active in our propensity towards agency detection that we often ascribe agency to inanimate objects and natural forces. One byproduct of all this is a tendency to assume that anything that appears complex and purposeful must have been designed by an intelligent agent. This is exemplified by the Teleological argument, which William Paley described using his watch maker analogy. He argued that in the same way a watch’s complexity implies a designer, the evident complexity of nature implies the existence of god. In Paley’s day, it made more sense to make this argument, as a mechanism for how life could have evolved by itself had yet to be proposed. Today, in the post-Darwin days, the people making it really should know better. The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, provides a huge predictive capacity; it is a rigorous testable model of an observable phenomenon. We know that it is true, beyond all reasonable doubt, through a convergence of evidence from fields such as: palaeontology, geology, botany, zoology, comparative anatomy, bio geography, and genetics. But still there remains a barrier of doubt that, for many, all the evidence in the world won’t surmount. To grasp the rather counter-intuitive fact that “design” can spontaneously emerge in the absence of a designer, I recommend checking out Conway’s Game Of Life, a mesmerizing cellular grid program that models how complex patterns can emerge from the implementation of a few simple rules. As you watch the spiralling patterns and geometric shapes generate from practically nothing, I guarantee that your common sense will be highly offended.

We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of dangerous bullshit.

You know that handsome, charismatic, celebrity doctor that every stay-at-home mom secretly has a crush on? I won’t be naming him here, but let’s just say there’s a big fat clue in the title. Yes, he is a real doctor. A cardiothoracic surgeon to be exact. He used to be okay, saying common sense things about getting exercise and eating well, and doing his professional due diligence to make sure that what he recommended was based off of the best scientific evidence available. Alas, the maw of daytime television is just too gaping and bottomless for sincerity to fill, and apparently even good doctors aren’t immune to it’s corrupting power. Over the last few years, he has descended into lunacy, becoming a poster boy for supplements, complimentary, and alternative medicine (SCAM’s). His show has gradually devolved into an hour long, alt-med infomercial. Honesty and integrity have gone out the window, and all that seems to matter now is that the subject matter is sensational enough to attract viewership. If you’re a fan of him, I don’t expect to change your mind, as most people who watch his show are true believers. But I’ll try to convince you anyways that, for the following reasons, you shouldn’t trust a goddamn word he says.

1. He is almost always wearing medical scrubs. Do legitimate doctors wear scrubs outside of the hospital? That should be enough to make anyone slightly suspicious. It’s a transparent attempt to bolster his perceived legitimacy. Of course, this by itself isn’t reason enough to dismiss anyone as a hack, but it is undeniably a red flag.

2. He speaks authoritatively about things that are completely outside of his area of expertise, using his status as a heart surgeon to make strong clinical recommendations based off of little to no evidence. This takes advantage of people’s ignorance about medical specialization (many of us assume that doctors have a general knowledge about medicine, but in reality, most of them are highly specialized in only one area. They aren’t necessarily more informed than the average layperson when it comes to other areas.) Depressingly, it works.

3. The so-called “integrative” treatments that he promotes are not only outside his area of expertise, the majority of them are unsubstantiated by evidence and just plain wacky. For example, he uncritically promotes homeopathy, telling his audience that it works, however mysterious its mechanism may be. He misrepresents this as a non-controversial claim, even when all of the objective evidence shows that homeopathy does no better than placebo, because it has NO ACTIVE INGREDIENTS.

4. When he does admit that what he is saying is controversial, it is only in order to denigrate “Western” science for being unable to fathom alternative medicine. What exactly is it about mainstream science that is supposed to make it unable to detect the efficacy of alternative medicines like homeopathy? Maybe it’s because mainstream science, unlike a certain celebrity doctor’s quack modality, looks objectively at all the evidence and goes to great lengths to eliminate bias. And without subjectivity and bias, my friends, alternative medicine is dead in the water. However, don’t expect him to be blatantly anti-science at every turn. When studies are positive, he’s all for science. Heads he wins, tails you lose.

5. On account of his personal cultural bias, he vigorously advocates routine infant circumcision. This is contrary to the fact that no major medical organizations recommend it as a strictly preventative treatment (outside of of aids-ridden Subsaharan Africa), and the ethical concern that maybe it isn’t very nice to strap down your baby and chop the tip off his willy.

6. He makes gratuitous use of logical fallacies to artificially boost his rhetoric. Two of his favourites seem to be the argument from popularity and the appeal to antiquity. An example of the argument from popularity is when he frequently points out the widespread use of alternative treatments like acupuncture, as if their popularity logically makes them more likely to work (many people smoke, but is that reason enough to jump on the bandwagon?). Another favourite is the appeal to antiquity. I.e ” (insert alt-med modality) has been used to treat (insert implausibly extensive list of ailments) for thousands of years.” Ritual sacrifice and blood letting were age old, common practices in many places until not too long ago. Using similar appeals to popularity and antiquity I could promote them as well, and they would carry no more or less weight than when your favourite celebrity doctor wields them in the name of alternative medicine.

7. He leans heavily on circumstantial, anecdotal evidence to support his claims, a glaring red flag for pseudoscience. He’s a very intelligent guy, and he’s well acquainted with the fact that anecdotes are an effective way of convincing people. In fact, he no doubt has realized by now that they are the most effective way of convincing people. We are story telling animals, hardwired to learn through the experiences of others. Thus, heartfelt testimonials from relatable people will always be more emotionally compelling to us than data presented by cold, calculating scientists. The problem is, anecdotes are only good for generating possibilities, not proving hypotheses. Anyone well versed in the scientific method knows this. Unfortunately, there are just some things that we are naturally terrible at, and recognizing that our fellow humans are far too good at self deception for us to be taking their word for anything, no matter how sincere they sound, is one of them. Does that sound insufferably cynical? Sorry, it’s true (just take my word for it). What all this means is, although everyone and their dog swears by echinacea to nip that cold in the bud, we still need data to prove that the bud has actually been nipped-and that everyone and their dog aren’t just making a false causal connection after dosing with echinacea and watching their health regress to the mean (they are).

8. Like I said, he is not stupid, not by any stretch. Nor is he immune to lawsuits, which is probably why he lets other people come on to his show to make the craziest and most dangerous claims for him. He has hosted a wide variety of people who have, uh, questionable claims to knowledge: psychic scammers, faith healers, anti-vaccers, even Deepak Chopra: the Quantum Quack himself. Any show that doesn’t avoid ex-playmate, anti-vaccer Jenny Mcarthey like the plague has lost what little credibility it ever had in my book (FYI, the plague literally avoids her, so she can continue to enable its killing of little children).

9. He names reiki as his favorite alt-med modality, stating that his family has been using it “for years.” Apparently, they “swear by it.” He allegedly even employs reiki masters in the operating room for his patients. However, reiki isn’t what bothers me, however silly it may be. As long as people don’t start substituting it for real medicine, it’s pretty harmless. It’s basically just faith healing without the religious aspect. What bothers me is, he’s married to a reiki master. People who are in to alt-med complain that doctors are shills for big pharma, but when an alt-med supporter is literally in bed with the promoter, that’s not a conflict of interest?

When he speaks, millions of people listen. That’s a lot of responsibility to abuse, and it takes more energy and dedication than the average person could muster to abuse it so thoroughly and tirelessly. In a strange way, I’m impressed. Sigh. Am I not being charitable enough? Perhaps something really does happen to decent, respected professionals after someone like Oprah comes along and turns on the bright lights of showbiz. Perhaps the constant presence of hordes of smiling, nodding, starstruck fans causes them to start buying their own BS. Or, perhaps the man behind the glamorous curtain is just a greedy hack through and through, a ratings driven medical showman who wouldn’t be peddling woo if it wasn’t so bloody profitable. If only presenting good science was.

The end is nigh!

Whatever you do, don’t try to talk sense into a doomsday junky. They are fiercely protective of their belief in the apocalypse. Strangely enough though, they don’t seem to be picky about the precise details. Just as a conspiracy theorist will entertain almost any conspiracy theory (just as long as it isn’t the official story) a hardcore doomsday junkie will latch on to almost any doomsday theory. No matter how weak the evidence is, they will hang on the every word of the most inane doomsayers. This points to a profound desire to believe that the world is going to end. Interestingly, this desire isn’t strictly a feature of crazy doomsday conspiracists. Apocalipticism may be more pronounced in some, but it is nearly ubiquitous. There’s something fascinating, even appealing, about the end of the world.

Why would anyone enjoy contemplating something so horrible? There are many possible psychological explanations. Perhaps we draw comfort from nailing down the date and circumstances of our deaths, making them predictable and therefor less scary. Maybe it provides validation for those who have always had a strong sense of fatalism, giving them something to blame for their latent anxiety. Another possibility is that our inherent narcissism (which places us at the center of the narrative and can’t imagine a world without us) is comforted by the thought of the world ending with us. The thought of it continuing on without us is unbearable, like getting kicked out of a party with the knowledge that it will go on without you. Also, conspiratorial thinking, which is nearly always associated with belief in the apocalypse, has a wonderful way of making one feel special. The sense that you posses knowledge that others do not, and that you alone were clever enough to connect the dots, makes you feel uncommonly intelligent. Enlightened above all others, you can sit back and smirk as “sheeple” unwittingly go about their lives as if nothing is going to happen.

Even if you aren’t obsessed with the apocalypse, it still strikes a nerve. When the next doomsday craze comes along, the shear repetition of doomsday related discourse can’t help but plant a seed of paranoia. There’s no shame in this, as long as you use it as an incentive to educate yourself as to what the facts actually are behind the torrent of nonsense. Thankfully, for whatever reason a person believes that the end is nigh, the preponderance of the evidence points to them being wrong.
The last great doomsday scare was the “Mayan apocalypse.” Various authors said that the Maya predicted that there would be some kind of important, world-wide event on December 21st, 2012. According to some of them, the fact that the long count calendar was going to reach a round number meant that some sort of spiritual awakening would occur, according to others, the long count calendar was going to end, bringing the end of the world. Well, 2012 has come and gone, and neither happened. It’s obvious why. Like every doomsday, the Mayan Apocalypse was a complete fabrication.

Even if the Maya had been able to forecast thousands of years in the future, we had no reason to think anything would happen on December 21st, 2012, because the Mayans didn’t think the world was going to end on that date. Mayan writings refer to dates as late as 4772, so clearly they thought that the world would still be around then. People ignored this, invoking pseudosciences like astrology and numerology to bolster their claim. For the 2012 apocalypse, they even attempted to resurrect planet X (which would already have been visible to the naked eye long before December 21st if it had truly been coming to get us).
By the far the most common reason people gave for thinking the world was going to end was that they believed the Mayan calendar was coming to an end. This reasoning is similar to that used by those who believed that digital calendars rolling over to zero on the millennium would somehow spark technological armageddon. It’s like thinking that you’re car is going to explode once the odometer clicks over to some number that you’ve arbitrarily attached significance to. However, we haven’t even reached the end of the current “baktun” cycle, for that we have to wait for the year 4772. None of that matters though, because the Mayans actually considered reaching the end of the cycle something to celebrate!

Whether or not ancient people believed that the world would end on a predetermined date, I think the question that we should actually be asking is, who cares? There would be no reason for concern, even if the Maya had predicted the world was going to end today. While interesting, it would just be another pre-scientific superstition. We’re talking about a culture that practiced ritual bloodletting and human sacrifices. Yes, for such an ancient culture they had advanced astronomy, but our modern astronomy has reached a level of sophistication they couldn’t have comprehended. To make astrophysical statements about the world today, you don’t reference ancient cultures like the Mayans, you reference modern science. If something was going to happen, we would be the ones predicting it, not them.

“Y’all should know by now that if the World were going to end for any cosmic reason, I’d tell you how and I’d tell you when.” -Neil Degrasse Tyson on Twitter


In the last twenty-something years, there has been a great deal of scientific speculation about the role of oxidative stress and antioxidants in degenerative disorders and even aging. Many scientists wondered if antioxidants might treat or cure everything from Alzheimer’s to the ravages of old age. However, before any legitimate research could even be done, an industry popped up out of nowhere, marketing antioxidant products much like traveling salesmen used to market snake oil: as if they were a panacea, or cure for everything. Today, vitamins and supplements are sold to us by an unregulated industry, floating upon a sea of anecdotes and disingenuous marketing, and under no legal obligation to prove claims or admit risks. And it is all marketed using a term that has weapons-grade sales impact, a term that is right up there with other effective yet vacuous buzzwords like “natural” or “organic”:antioxidant. Billions are made capitalizing on the overly simplistic and dangerous false dichotomy stating that antioxidants are good and oxidants are bad. However, obscured by the public fervor for antioxidants, the truth has emerged, and it is more complicated. Oxidation is essential for life. One of its important roles is facilitating immune responses to bacteria and cancer. Yes, having too many oxidants is bad. “Reactive oxygen species” have the potential to do damage to cell membranes and other components. But having too many antioxidants is also bad. There is a strong association between supplementation of antioxidants and a higher mortality rate. What we require is equilibrium between the two, which can be accomplished through a normal, reasonably healthy diet.
Admittedly, no one person can get a grasp on every nuance of a subject this complicated, and many scientists think it is still reasonable to continue to conduct clinical research on possible therapeutic uses for anti-oxidants. There may be hope yet for an antioxidant to prove efficacious for some obscure degenerative disorder, but until then, the antioxidant craze seems pretty bunk to me.