I was prompted to write about pareidolia, the phenomenon of seeing shapes or patterns in everyday stuff, because of this facepalm-inducing story from The Telegraph.
Yes, the bride in the upcoming Royal Wedding has been spotted in Jelly bean form. And its big news for the Brits.
The British really confuse me. Not only do they waste huge amounts of tax payer dollars so that the useless Monarchy can live a life of luxury, purely for being figureheads. It is an outdated form of government and I don’t understand it.
But a jellybean? Seriously?
This is a classic instance of pareidolia. Though pareidolia can occur for all types of shapes and patterns, it is especially strong for patterns that look like human faces.
People are seeing Kate Middleton’s face everywhere in buildup to this Royal Wedding. It is at the forefront of their minds. And when a random collection of food dye happens to look like a person with long hair, it HAS to be Kate Middleton! (Could also be Kurt Cobain if you ask me)
But it doesn’t just happen with jellybeans. People have claimed to see the Virgin Mary’s face in things from toast to soiled bed sheets. There was the infamous Face on Mars, which turned out to be just a big hill.
So why does this happen to us?
Humans have evolved to rapidly recognize human faces as a safety mechanism. Being able to see in an approaching person is a friend or an enemy was quite advantageous to developing species.
A study in 2009
found that objects incidentally perceived as faces evoked an early (165ms) activation in the ventral fusiform cortex, at a time and location similar to that evoked by faces, whereas common objects did not evoke such activation
Our brains are hard-wired to quickly recognize face-like patterns, which is why this kind of story pops up so much. It is also why the ‘faces’ are always famous person or religious figures, instead of your brother Bob or my cousin Phil. They evoke an emotional response and so faces that we see photographed or on TV all the time are often the first ones our memories access.
But I’m sure someone will pay a lot of money for this delicious candy. I mean, have you seen some of the crap they’ve been selling with the happy couple’s faces on it?
Yes, and it could have been prevented.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, a recent outbreak of measles in the Twin Cities area was caused in part by former doctor and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s influential but fraudulent study suggesting a connection between child vaccination and autism.
So why weren’t the children vaccinated?
Several of the parents informed the Health Department they had avoided the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccine out of concerns their children would be at risk of autism.
If you read this blog at all (or any other skeptic blog, for that matter) you know this already. But once more, with feeling…
None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Nil.
Ok, I’m starting to get worked up. It happens when I talk about vaccines especially.
Why? Well usually when a scientist’s outlandish claims get debunked it is an “I told you so!” situation.
But when children (or anyone) get hurt or hospitalized as a result of those outlandish claims, it becomes a “Bang your head against the wall because this could have been prevented” situation.
Maybe we could call this a “Wakefield” situation; a “When Are Kids Ever going to Forgive us for letting Idiots Endanger their Lives with Debunked science” situation.
The reality is starting to set in, as Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University, lays out:
Hospitalizations and deaths have occurred—all preventable, had the children been immunized. In the U.S., some parents withhold vaccines; others stretch out the vaccination schedule, leaving children susceptible to disease for longer than they should.
I don’t know if the damage caused by that original Wakefield paper will ever be fully undone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to undo as much as possible.
The Globe continues its descent from decent reporting to tabloid-like fear mongering. The culprit this time is a completely unskeptical article containing a condensed interview with Paul Connet, “a U.S. academic and public-health advocate”. He has recently penned a book called ‘The Case Against Fluoride’.
The article is available here, but I was so disappointed with the article’s lack of counter evidence or even discussion, that I feel the need to provide such commentary here. Let’s look at a few of the questions that were asked:
Before you became involved in this issue, you were skeptical that fluoride was harmful and thought critics of the practice were misguided. What changed your mind?
There were two things. The first was that fluoride interfered with hydrogen bonds, which are common in proteins and other important molecules in our bodies. That sent alarm bells ringing through my head. The second was that the level in mothers’ milk was incredibly low. When you see what nature’s take on it is, which is don’t give the baby much fluoride, then I felt this doesn’t make any sense to add it to water.
Hydrogen bonding is a form of attraction between the positive hydrogen atom and an electronegative atom. Connet is referring to a paper written in 1981 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The paper found that hydrogen bonds are quite strong in a fluoride-amide solution and that this may affect proteins. Amides also appear in proteins, and he believes that this will have some kind of biological effect. I have not found, however, any papers finding that this effect can be extended to fluoride detrimentally affecting human proteins in vivo. In fact, it is fluoride’s effect on hydrogen bonding that may be part of the reason it is beneficial to tooth enamel.
His second reason for fearing fluoride just seems silly. It’s not in breast milk therefore we should not use it? This just flat-out doesn’t make sense. We have evolved to a point where we can use medicine and vaccines to improve our health beyond that which has naturally occurred through evolution. To deprive an infant of these advantages because they are not in mother’s milk is ridiculous.
In the case of fluoridation, the water supply is being used as a drug-delivery mechanism to treat a medical condition. Why is this wrong, in your view?
It violates people’s right to informed consent, which has always been the strongest argument against fluoridation. We’ve never done it with other drugs. Since fluoridation began in 1945, not one other substance has been added to the water to address a health concern. You shouldn’t use the water supply to deliver medication, for obvious reasons. You can’t control the dose. You can’t control who will get it. There is no individual supervision. The whole practice doesn’t make sense from a medical point of view.
True, we have never use water to deliver other drugs. But we have in salt. Iodised salt was introduced in the United States in 1924 to help prevent goiters and iodine deficiency. I don’t hear anyone complaining about the lack of goiters.
Dose control is a noble concern, but not relevant. So long as the fluoride concentration is controlled and tested regularly (about 0.5 to 1 mg/L), it would take an unfeasible amount of water ingestion to even have a chance of causing any detrimental health effects.
The right to informed consent is actually the one argument I think has merit. However, people are always informed if fluoride is added to their water supply and do have the option to get a water filter to remove the majority of it if they wish.
The first U.S. fluoridation trial began in the mid-1940s. Would fluoridation pass a modern, drug-style clinical trial or risk assessment?
There is no way on planet Earth that you could get fluoridation through today. It’s only because it’s been an inherited practice and so much credibility is at stake for the medical community that keeps it going.
This is just flat-out wrong. Studies on the effect of fluoride have never stopped and continue to be updated. The consensus remains the same: fluoride is an effective and safe means of preventing dental caries.
What are the health dangers from fluoridation?
I think we’re going to pay a huge price. I’m convinced, based on animal studies, clinical trials and epidemiological studies, that drinking fluoridated water for a whole lifetime will increase your risk of arthritis and also increase your risk of hip fractures, which is very serious in the elderly. The reason for these problems is that half the fluoride people ingest is stored in the bone. We may also have a problem with it lowering the IQ of children. There are 23 studies from four countries that have found a possible association between drinking naturally fluoridated water and lower IQ in children.
Regions which have artificially fluoridated water, that is, water in which the fluoride concentration is controlled, show no significant correlation between arthritis or hip fractures. The statement that “half the fluoride ingested is stored in the bone” is not necessarily true. 75-90% of ingested fluoride is absorbed and in adults about 60% of absorbed fluoride is retained. Connet’s concern about the IQ of children comes from studies of naturally fluoridated water, that is, water which does not have the fluoride added by the city, but comes from natural sources or fluoride pollution. These naturally fluoridated waters supplies usually have much, much higher concentrations of fluoride than artificially fluoridated sources.
A lot of these concerns are based on flimsy evidence and straw man arguments. There are however, a couple of things I do actually agree with:
1. Naturally fluoridated water supplies are a problem because the concentration are too high and may cause adverse health effects. However, this concern should not be unfairly extended to artificially fluoridated water supplies.
2. The argument about informed consent is a valid one. But if you don’t want fluoride in your water because of this reason, don’t argue it based on health effects; argue it based on an informed consent platform.
Oh and one more thing. I am actually worried about the fluoride in MY water supply. The reason is because Calgary has voted to remove it.
I will definitely be making sure there is fluoride in my toothpaste.
So by now you’ve probably all heard about Dr. Richard Hoover, the NASA scientist who possibly has discovered alien bacteria in meteorites. Now that I’ve had a chance to read the paper itself and the opinions of some researchers more closely related to the fields of astronomy and, more importantly, biology, I want to give you a better idea of what this paper is saying.
Let’s start off with the journal itself, the Journal of Cosmology. It is a journal published entirely online, though it is technically peer-reviewed. However, the journal has been known to encourage the publishing of fringe ideas and scientists that jump the gun on certain conclusions about their data.
Take for example the supposed giant planet in the Oort cloud which was discussed last month. The paper was met with scorn and skepticism from a large group of scientists, including Phil Plait. A news article by Gabriel Beck on the Journal of Cosmology homepage had said this in response to the criticism:
The torches and pitchforks crowd, led by astronomer-wannabe Phil Plait claims its not so. But then, Plait’s most famous discovery was finding one of his old socks when it went missing after a spin in his dryer.
Not exactly a scientifically sound argument, nor something you would expect to read from a credible scientist reasonably discussing a paper. So the Journal of Cosmology is not impressing me, particularly since I love Phil Plait and actually try to model the style of this blog after his. In addition, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical about ANY finding. If your research is sound, then it should be able to stand up to the highest level of scrutiny and you shouldn’t get defensive.
But Beck’s pettiness aside, this does not discount Dr. Hoover’s research out of hand, so let’s look at the actual paper.
The meteorites were imaged using an electron microscope and the images examined. What Hoover found was that some of the images showed strange “filaments” in the structure of the meteorite. Upon further inspection, the filaments seemed to correspond with the general shape and size of certain species of bacteria.
Hoover believes that the filaments were not the result of contamination of Earthly bacteria after the meteorite landed because there was a definite lack of nitrogen in the samples. This is because nitrogen fixation is an essential part of the life cycle of “Earth-based” bacteria, and the level of nitrogen in the sample should be detectable for several thousand years. Since we know the dates on which these meteorites landed, the lack of nitrogen within the sample was evidence that the filaments were in the meteorite prior to it landing on the surface of the Earth.
In one of the meteorites (Orgueil) Hoover found structures within the filaments that resembled “heterocysts”, which are specialized cells used to fix nitrogen. Hoover says that
…the detection of heterocysts provides clear and convincing evidence that the filaments are not only unambiguously biological but that they belong to one of these two orders of cyanobacteria…
Another point Hoover makes is that the Orgueil meteorite is composed of certain minerals that dissolve when exposed to water. Since we know the meteorite landed in 1864, and that cyanobacteria generally require the presence of water to live, he suggests
that none of the Orgueil samples could have ever been submerged in pools of liquid water needed to sustain the growth of large photoautotrophic cyanobacteria and required for the formation of benthic cyanobacterial mats since the meteorite arrived on Earth. Many of the filaments shown in the figures are clearly embedded in the meteorite rock matrix. Consequently, it is concluded that the Orgueil filaments cannot logically be interpreted as representing filamentous cyanobacteria that invaded the meteorite after its arrival. They are therefore interpreted as the indigenous remains of microfossils that were present in the meteorite rock matrix when the meteorite entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
Those are the basic arguments. The paper then extends its assumptions far beyond the scope of the research to discuss how this finding could be indicative of life on comets or on Europa.
So as you have probably already gathered, there are some serious problems here. My biggest problem of the paper is that it is not quantitative. How many images in total did you take? How many filaments in total did you find? How many of them exhibit shapes resembling heterocysts? If there was a colony of bacteria in the meteorite, how many of these fossilized remains should we expect to see and how many of them should have structures resembling heterocysts?
I also have a problem with heterocyst structures themselves. Does it makes sense that a bacterium that is not from Earth would have a structure similar to what Earth-based bacteria use to fix nitrogen?
I will concede that these are strange structures in the meteorites. But given the huge diversity of bacteria, doesn’t it seem like it would be quite easy to take any structure that is remotely filament-like and match it with some type of bacteria?
The answers to these questions are not given. This could be because some of them are difficult questions with complicated answers, which is fair, but they do not seem to be addressed at all.
It comes down to the fact that Hoover is comparing filament structures in a meteorite to the shapes and sizes of certain bacteria on Earth. He is then making two conclusions:
- That the filaments were there prior to the meteor entering the Earth’s atmosphere and
- That the filaments were caused by the fossilization of bacteria.
Consequently, there are 3 possibilities:
- Hoover is correct that these are fossilized bacteria of a non-Earth origin.
- The filaments were caused by bacteria contamination from Earth and the lack of nitrogen could be explained by something else.
- The filaments were caused by something other than bacteria, before or after the meteorite landed on the Earth’s surface.
Frankly, even though Hoover gives a few arguments as to why he thinks the filaments were caused by alien bacteria, I think possibilities 2 and 3 are much more likely. Simply because Hoover cannot come up with another explanation for the lack of nitrogen or the presence of what look like heterocysts does not warrant the conclusion that these are fossilized extraterrestrial bacteria. That is a huge leap and it is an extremely premature assertion.
But it is still early so we will see what the experts end up saying. PZ Myers already weighed in with his opinion in a blog post called “Did Scientists Discover Bacteria in Meteorites?”:
No, no, no. No no no no no no no no.
He is chalking this one up to a glorified case of pareidolia.
In the end, it again comes down to “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
The claim is extraordinary. The evidence, unfortunately, is not.
Homeopathy operates on a principle that the more dilute a “remedy”, the more potent it becomes.
Many homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point that not a single molecule of the original ingredient remains. Just HOW dilute is this?
For example, one such homeopathic dilution is called 3C, which means the remedy was diluted to 1 part in 100, 3 times. This is approximately the number of Felicias in the world who are Felicia Day:
The post is really quite awesome and very well illustrates how ridiculous homeopathy is. Especially since some homeopathic remedies go up to 200C! To have even a single molecule of the original substance still in a sample of a 200C dilution, you would need a sample the size of not only our ENTIRE UNIVERSE, but
100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000
ADDITIONAL UNIVERSES! (Thats 10320 in scientific notation).
It boggles the mind.
In a huge skeptic fail, the city of Calgary has announced that it will remove fluoride from its water supply.
The move comes after the city council voted 10-3 in favour of stopping the addition of fluoride to the city’s water.
And now, Fluoride Action Network, based in the U.S. but which has spearheaded the anti-fluoride movement in Canada and has succeeded in Waterloo and now Calgary, is moving its fight against reason to London, Ontario.
I live in Calgary now, and I used to go to school in London. Is this a personal attack against me!?
The Fluoride Action Network has a lot of similarities with the anti-vaccine movement. They are claiming that they are “are just pushing for a review that’s badly needed after decades of conventional wisdom.”
Yet the first thing you see on their homepage, in large font: “TAKE ACTION! A Reduction in Fluoride Levels is Not Enough: Tell HHS to End Fluoridation Completely”
As the CBC reports today, the city council acted without any input from Calgary’s citizens:
Earlier in the day, city council considered and rejected by a vote of 8-5 putting the fluoride issue to a plebiscite in the 2013 municipal election.
And this was my favourite quote:
Council also rejected referring the matter to an expert panel.
So the City Council basically said “No, no. We won’t ask an expert. We know what direction the wind is blowing and we will go along with it.”
People are motivated by fear. A couple of months ago there was this piece in Maclean’s magazine about Canadians reacting to these fear tactics, including fluoride:
the Waterloo regional council voted to stop the 43-year practice of adding fluoride to the municipal drinking water, after two local residents complained that it was making them sick. Forget the fact that the only known side effect from water fluoridation—from too-high fluoride levels, specifically—is something called dental fluorosis, a.k.a. stained teeth, and that the ban was implemented despite strong opposition from the very people who stand to benefit most from the ban, namely, local dentists. Waterloo residents are now revealed as the Birthers of dental hygiene, sticking to their thesis precisely because it is so implausible.
But anti-fluoriders stick to their convictions, saying that it is not the Government’s job to maintain the health of its people, which is a crock. The government is in place to do whats best for its people. They police the streets, they manage public transportation and they plow the roads. If adding a bit of fluoride to the water is in our best interest, why shouldn’t they do it?
Not convinced? You want some science? Well as stated above, the only side effect of excess fluoride is stained teeth. Fear-mongerers attempt to convince us that fluoride consumption is correlated with bone cancer. But that study was not peer reviewed, and only looked at a small subset of the data. When compared with the entire population, that correlation disappeared. The authors of that study themselves noted that it had serious limitations.
But there are several reviews of actual peer-reviewed research stating that fluoride is perfectly safe at the levels maintained in public water supplies:
- Water fluoridation. Parnell C, Whelton H, O’Mullane D. Eur Arch Paediatr Dent. 2009 Sep;10(3):141-8. (Conclusion: Water fluoridation, where technically feasible and culturally acceptable, remains a relevant and valid choice as a population measure for the prevention of dental caries.)
- Systematic review of water fluoridation. McDonagh MS, Whiting PF, Wilson PM, Sutton AJ, Chestnutt I, Cooper J, Misso K, Bradley M, Treasure E, Kleijnen J.BMJ. 2000 Oct 7;321(7265):855-9. (Conclusion: The evidence of a beneficial reduction in caries should be considered together with the increased prevalence of dental fluorosis. There was no clear evidence of other potential adverse effects.)
- Water fluoridation in Australia. Spencer AJ, Slade GD, Davies M.Community Dent Health. 1996 Sep;13 Suppl 2:27-37. (Conclusion: Community water fluoridation continues to be the most effective and socially equitable measure for caries prevention among all ages by achieving community-wide exposure to the caries preventive effects of fluoride.)
- Risk-benefit balance in the use of fluoride among young children. Do LG, Spencer AJ. J Dent Res. 2007 Aug;86(8):723-8. (Conclusion: Exposure to fluoridated water was positively associated with fluorosis, but was negatively associated with caries. Using 1000-ppm-F toothpaste (compared with 400- to 550-ppm-F toothpaste) and eating/licking toothpaste were associated with higher risk of fluorosis without additional benefit in caries protection.)
- An update on fluorides and fluorosis. Levy SM.J Can Dent Assoc. 2003 May;69(5):286-91. (Conclusion: Water fluoridation and use of fluoride dentifrice are the most efficient and cost-effective ways to prevent dental caries; other modalities should be targeted toward high-risk individuals.)
Thankfully, residents of London Ontario seem to be approaching the issue with the right amount of skepticism.
“They refer to fluoride as being the equivalent of a poison or a toxin,” said Pollett, London’s top public health official. “These fears are not substantiated but nonetheless they raise concerns in people’s minds.”
Fluoride levels in London water “pose no risk to health,” he added.
London has had fluoride in its water since 1967. It costs about 40 cents per year per Londoner to put it in the system.
In another article written today by Ian Gillespie, his similar feeling about the absurdity of fluoride fears is quite apparent:
When asked about the benefits of adding fluoride to our drinking water, London Coun. Denise Brown said, “If you do any research on the Internet, you’ll find scientists believe there are health risks.”
Yes, that’s right.
And if you do more Internet “research,” you’ll also discover “experts” who argue that aliens hijacked the Voyager 2 spacecraft, Paul McCartney died in a 1966 car crash, Elvis Presley is alive and the Apollo moon landing was a hoax.
C’mon folks. Give your head a shake.
Yes, City Councilors are listening to whatever fringe group is loudest to make their decisions now it seems. They also believe that by doing “research on the internet” (what skeptics like to call ‘attending the University of Google’) they can get accurate and unbiased information.
So if you are a resident of London, please check out the real information about fluoride. Decades of credible research show that it is perfectly safe, over 90 Health organizations all over the world, who routinely review the scientific evidence, all endorse the use of fluoride in water.
The United States Center for Disease Control sees fluoride in public water supply as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of all time.
Since water fluoridation has been around for so long, people forget what happens when you remove it.
“(Officials in) Dorval, Que., took the fluoride out in 2003,” [Dr. Lynn Tomkins, president of the Ontario Dental Association] says. “And the rates of dental decay in pre-schoolers there have doubled. That’s pretty alarming.”
So if you live in Calgary, you might want to start getting better dental coverage. Because fluoridation of water is of course “the most monstrously conceived Communist plot we have ever had to face.”