RealClearScience Newton Blog

The Biggest Junk Science of 2018

Ross Pomeroy - December 17, 2018

Science is essentially the search for and recognition of reality. Each year, there are those who ignore this endeavor entirely, preferring fictitious narratives to concrete truths. There are also those who willfully deny fact for their own gain. Both groups of people can do real harm by flouting the truth, and so, at the closing of the year, we highlight their most egregious missteps over the preceding twelve months. In highlighting these junk science stories, it is our hope that they won't be replicated.


10. Doctor Oz Endorses Astrology. Celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz is a quack doctor, plain and simple. Once a respected surgeon, he left behind his legitimacy long ago by touting questionable health advice, bogus cures, and weight loss "miracles" on his popular daytime television show. This summer, he fell even further down the rabbit hole by tweeting an endorsement of astrology. Astrology, not to be confused with astronomy, suggests that the positions of celestial objects affect the fortunes of people and outcome of events here on Earth. Though patently ridiculous, the pseudoscience has still been tested and – unsurprisingly – been found to be completely bogus. But bogus is good enough for Doctor Oz, it seems.


The Top 10 Websites for Science in 2018

Ross Pomeroy - December 10, 2018

The sheer amount of substandard science content on the Internet will make your head spin. Too many websites are chock-full of copy and pasted press releases, ideologically tainted writing, or downright lazy, hyped, or misleading reporting. RealClearScience's job is to filter out all of the garbage to bring you the most relevant, interesting, and accurate science news and opinion. During this pursuit, we notice a number of websites that rise above the rest. Here are our picks for the top websites for science in 2018.

First, the honorable mentions (in no particular order):

The Atlantic


Five Perpetual Motion Machines, and Why None of Them Work

Ross Pomeroy - December 3, 2018

To the eccentric inventor, perpetual motion probably seems a low-hanging fruit. Sure, those pesky Laws of Thermodynamics tell us that no machine can do work forever without some sort of energy input, but there's no reason these archaic, esoteric musings can't be overcome. Just a single spark of ingenuity would rattle physics and earn never-ending fame and fortune!

Many have tried, of course, and all have failed.

Let's take a look at a few more notable attempts.

The Overbalanced Wheel. Perhaps the earliest recorded inkling of perpetual motion came courtesy of renowned medieval mathematician Bhaskara in the 12th century. The Indian thinker proposed an "overbalanced" wheel in which weights would swing on one side, applying a greater torque to keep the wheel spinning. A quick glance at the wheel in motion reveals why this idea is doomed to fail. One side of the wheel will always have more weights, thus keeping the torques boringly in balance.

Albert Einstein: A Prophet for a Religion of Science?

Ross Pomeroy - November 30, 2018

Albert Einstein once modestly remarked that he had just a "couple of ideas" in his scientific career. Though few in number, these ideas garnered Einstein enduring notoriety. Recently, however, Einstein's religious views have been earning media attention. A handwritten letter he penned a year before his death is set to go on public display in New York today before being auctioned for an estimated $1.5 million on Tuesday. In the letter, Einstein writes, "The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change anything about this."

From this statement, one might surmise that Albert Einstein was irreligious, or even an outright atheist. But when asked, he denied it. There are people who say there is no God,” he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” 

"You may call me an agnostic," Einstein clarified on another occasion, "but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth."

Many writers have repeatedly tried to pigeonhole Einstein into one camp of belief or another, or at least deny one side's claim of ownership over the famous physicist, but when it came to religion, Einstein's innumerable writings and musings suggest that he walked an enlightened middle way, a path guided in various respects by an entirely new "cosmic" religion, one founded in rationalism and opposed to dogmatism, without churches or central teachings, whose God is not a being but rather the structure of the universe itself.

Do Plants Behave Like Animals?

Ross Pomeroy - November 26, 2018

Your daffodils don't care what you have to say. They aren't uplifted by Mozart's symphonies. They don't feel pain when being pruned.

These myths originally reached the mainstream with the book The Secret Life of Plants, which later became a feature documentary. Occult author Peter Tompkins told readers that plants might very well be sentient. To support his claim, he cited a polygraph expert attesting that his lie detector test caught sparks of activity in plants exposed to various stimuli, including subtle threats. Tompkins also referenced a crank scientist who claimed that he had detected plant consciousness and also found that mustard seeds could receive interstellar signals from the cosmos, perhaps from plants on distant worlds.

The scientific community brutally panned Tompkins' work, but the public ate it up. Soon, gardeners all over the world were reading to their plants and playing them classical music. Oddly enough, subsequent studies actually showed that these tactics may boost plant growth, but not because seedlings enjoy a soothing voice. Sound waves cause vibration, and this vibration seems to trigger a beneficial response via a yet unknown mechanism. Sunlight, water, and nutrients matter much, much more to a plant's wellbeing, however.

Decades after The Secret Life of Plants, there's a more nuanced scientific debate going on: do plants behave the same way that animals do?

Why Doesn't a Super-Bacterium Take Over the Ocean?

Ross Pomeroy - November 19, 2018

To the naked eye, great expanses of ocean can seem nearly devoid of life. But examine just a teaspoon of seawater and you'd reach a drastically different conclusion. Not only is there life, there is gobs of it – anywhere from one million to five million bacteria. In that same sample, you'd also find up to fifty million viruses, which aren't technically alive, but buzz with activity. How these viruses and bacteria interact in this hidden world shapes the fate of the entire ocean.

As many as a billion species of bacteria inhabit the oceans, and if it were up to any one of them, they would probably rule uncontested. Such a monopoly would prove devastating for most other ocean life, however. When bacterial species explosively bloom unchecked, they can produce toxins in large concentrations, block out sunlight for photosynthesizing organisms below the surface, and deplete oxygen in the water. Sometimes this can happen over hundreds of miles. Imagine a bloom that covered an entire ocean!

Thankfully, the ocean's viruses, which are mostly bacteriophages (attacking only bacteria), prevent any single bacterial species from achieving unfettered control. When one bacterial species does bloom out of proportion, it becomes a tantalizing target for viruses. Stephen Palumbi, a Professor of Biology and Director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University described what happens next in his book The Extreme Life of the Sea, co-authored with his son, science writer Anthony Palumbi.

"Viruses mutate, and some of those mutations allow them to attack the huge hoard of bacterial prey, infiltrating the bloom. Fresh viruses exploded from a dead bacterium need only travel a few microns to the next bacterium to start the next killing cycle."

The Silliest Lawsuit Against Monsanto

Ross Pomeroy - November 13, 2018

Monsanto may be gone, but the lawsuits against the former agricultural company live on. When German life sciences company Bayer acquired the agribusiness behemoth earlier this year, they inherited around $15 billion in revenues, $2.2 billion in profits, as well as at least 8,000 lawsuits. Most recently, Northern California groundskeeper Dewayne "Lee" Johnson, who sadly is dying of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, successfully garnered $78 million from the company after winning a civil suit contending that chronic exposure to Monsanto's weedkiller Roundup caused his cancer, even though his claim sharply conflicts with a mountain of scientific evidence.

Jury judgments such as these are unfortunately based on poor thinking rather than reasoned thought. Fear of supposedly insidious chemicals and GMOs, all created by "Monsatan," drives people to irrational decisions.

Perhaps the best example of this occurred back in 2011. The Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association (OSGTA), a group representing a quarter of the nation's organic farmers, sued Monsanto to "protect themselves from being accused of patent infringement should [their crops] ever become contaminated by Monsanto's genetically modified seed." Yes, organic farmers were suing Monsanto in order to prevent themselves from being sued by Monsanto.

In court, they claimed that Monsanto sues organic farmers when genetically modified soybean, corn, cotton, sugar beet, and canola seeds blow into organic crops and germinate. They further claimed that this threat had sowed a "climate of fear" throughout the organic farming community.

1910: The Year American Medicine Changed Forever

Ross Pomeroy - November 8, 2018

Medical education in the United States is generally regarded to be the finest in the world, and for that, you can thank Abraham Flexner. In 1910, the Louisville native and education reformer published an in-depth, damning, and eye-opening report on the state of American medical schools. In the quarter-century after the Flexner Report's publication, the entire medical profession was dissected, examined, and reforged, transforming from an unregulated free-for-all to an expert, science-based endeavor.

American medical education was in a sorry state in the early 20th century. More than 160 institutions pumped out 4,400 graduates each year, most of whom were woefully undertrained and received uneven instruction. With no agreed upon standards, many schools focused on pseudoscientific fields like electrotherapy, homeopathy, chiropractic, and naturopathy. For a patient seeking medical attention, there was no standard of care, just a daunting morass.

Seeking to cure this sickness was philanthropist and business magnate Andrew Carnegie. In the waning years of his long and fruitful life, Carnegie dedicated himself to giving away much of his amassed fortune, which tallied near $400 billion in today's dollars. One mission he particularly deemed worthy was improving healthcare in America. As part of this goal, he turned to Abraham Flexner.

Henry Pritchett, head of the Carnegie Foundation, heard about Flexner by reading his first book, The American College, which heavily criticized lectures as a method of teaching. At his own experimental college preparatory school, Flexner promoted hands-on learning and eschewed traditional tests and grades. Impressed, Pritchett tasked Flexner with surveying the quality of medical schools throughout America and Canada and providing suggestions for their improvement.

The Great Airship Delusion

Ross Pomeroy - November 5, 2018

The 1950s, 60s, and 70s were perhaps the golden age of UFO sightings in the United States. Futuristic advances in technology, thought-provoking science fiction, deep government distrust, and copious psychedelic drugs all combined to produce widespread visions of otherworldly airborne objects.

But this wasn't the first time that thousands of Americans were astonished by strange events in the sky. Between the 1880s and early 1900s, Americans from California to Boston were convinced they saw "airships" and flying "machines" buzzing the skies. Mind you, many of these accounts came out well before the Wright brothers flew the world's first powered aircraft over a distance of just 120 feet. Some airship sightings described great dirigibles with passengers onboard. Others simply reported moving lights in the night sky. One even told of an alien craft more than 150-feet long, completely featureless apart from its rudder.

Some journalists and newspapers were skeptical, but many more published the accounts uncritically to captivated readers. In the winter of 1909, during what can only be described as an "outbreak" of airship sightings in New England, tens of thousands of people claimed to see all manner of flying objects performing feats no aircraft of the day came close to accomplishing.

"It all began on 12 December, when prominent Worcester businessman Wallace Tillinghast told a Boston Herald reporter he had invented the world's first reliable heavier-than-air flying machine," Stephen Whalen and Robert E. Bartholomew recounted in the New England Quarterly.

What It Really Means to Be Open-Minded

Ross Pomeroy - October 30, 2018

Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle brand Goop claims to be "open-minded," and they want you to be, too, especially when it comes to the blatantly BS products that they sell. Never mind that there's no reputable evidence that Goop's overpriced vitamins, supplements, potions, and gadgets actually work. If you're open to the possibility that they work, then maybe they will...

But Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop completely misunderstand what it means to be open-minded. They seem to think that open-mindedness means being willing to believe that jade eggs will revitalize one's vagina (when inserted, of course), that bottled crystals boost spirituality and healing, that monk oil supports a "sexy inner-knowing," and that essential oil will "rejuvenate and shift energy as it treats the skin." But believing in this sort of magical mumbo jumbo doesn't making you open-minded. It simply makes you gullible.

Yale neurologist and prolific science podcast host Dr. Steven Novella elucidated the true definition of "open-minded" in his recently released book The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

"Being open-minded also means being open to the possibility that a claim is wrong. It doesn't mean assuming every claim is true or refusing to ever conclude that something is simply false. If the evidence leads to the conclusion that a claim is false or a phenomenon does not exist, then a truly open-minded person accepts that conclusion... Open-mindedness works in both ways."

Penis Enlargement Is Mostly Pseudoscientific BS

Ross Pomeroy - October 25, 2018

For as long as men have noticed their penises, they've been trying to make them larger. Admittedly, there's no actual evidence to back that assertion, but it's probably a fairly safe assumption. There is, however, plenty of evidence that modern techniques for penis enlargement are mostly pseudoscience, and you should steer clear of them.

To achieve a phallus like that of Priapus, a Greek god of fertility, unscrupulous purveyors sell all sorts of supplements, devices, and injectables. The vast majority do not work and may actually cause harm.

Dietary supplements are most commonly purchased, and are widely accessible via nutrition stores and online retailers like Amazon. AlphaMAN XL pills promise that their ingredients, including "Macuna Pruriens (L-Dopa), Polypodium Vulgare, Yohimbe Bark, Saw Palmetto, Muira Puama, L-Arginine & Panax Ginseng," will provide "2+ Inches in 60 days." Extensions IV goes farther, advertising up to a "4 inch gain," a bold claim indeed, as that would nearly double the length of the normal erect penis. The makers of each supplement present no evidence to back their claims, and if they did, it would almost certainly be fraudulent. Boosting the size of your penis through dietary means is physiologically implausible; it's simply not how the body works.

While dietary supplements won't do much for your penis, they do have the potential to cause bodily harm. Between 2007 and 2016, at least 776 supplements were found to be adulterated with unstudied or unsafe ingredients. Almost half of these supplements were meant to enhance sexual performance.

Have We Already Detected a Dark Matter Particle?

Ross Pomeroy - October 15, 2018

Dark matter supposedly makes up 85% of the matter in the universe, but so far, efforts to catch hypothesized dark matter particles have all ended in failure. Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) are no-shows at grand experiments housed in Italy, Canada, and the United States. Even tinier axions have not been detected either. Neutralinos, born out of supersymmetry, may look nice on paper but so far have no bearing on reality.

By definition, dark matter is hard to find, but its glaring absence is growing harder and harder to ignore. As Korey Haynes pointed out at Discover:

Decades ago, scientists were confident about the existence of the “luminiferous aether” as a medium to carry light. Now, that’s looked back on as a clumsy belief that should have been dropped far earlier than it was. Scientists persisted because they were sure that light, like sound, required a medium to move through in spite of the evidence piling up against that concept. Having been fooled once, scientists have to ask: Is dark matter the new ether?

Astrophysicist and blogger Ethan Siegel thinks that claim is overblown.

Navigating the Controversial Science on Transgender Identity

Ross Pomeroy - October 8, 2018

A cloud of controversy hovers over scientific research on transgender identity, but not necessarily because of the research itself. Ideologues threatened and unsettled by gender fluidity question research they don't like, while activists on the opposite side do the same. Bias is antithetical to properly assessing scientific findings, so slanted discussions often don't get anywhere.

Today, I'll turn to the scientific literature to tackle three controversial questions about transgender identity.

1. Can gender dysphoria, in which a person's gender identity does not match their gender assigned at birth, be affected by social factors?

Maybe. A recent study published to PLoS ONE drew condemnation from some and praise from others. Lisa Littman, an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Brown University, surveyed 256 parents of teens experiencing rapid-onset gender dysphoria. The collected surveys revealed that gender dysphoria was linked to a prior increase in social media/Internet use and "seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe." This suggests that social interactions may affect feelings of gender dysphoria.

How Bird Mummies Fueled the First Debate on Evolution

Ross Pomeroy - October 2, 2018

The Ancient Egyptians were quite fond of mummification, and not only of humans. In fact, far, far more animals were ritually preserved than people. Cats were revered and thus were regular targets. The process supposedly allowed the beloved pets to travel to the afterlife with their masters. Felines were also sacrificed and preserved as religious offerings, often to the cat-like goddess Bastet. Archaeologists unearthed so many cat mummies that by the end of the 19th century more than 19 metric tons worth were shipped to England for use as fertilizer.

An African Sacred Ibis in the Mida Creek mud flats, Kenya.

Another animal, the ibis, was mummified on an even greater scale. Over four million of the distinct birds were buried at the catacombs of Tune el-Gebel alone! Half a million more have been unearthed at Saqqara, the great necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital Memphis.

The finds understandably excited 19th century archaeologists, but they also fascinated naturalists. After all, here was a bounty of 2,000 to 3,000-year-old exquisitely preserved specimens to study! But out of the research erupted controversy. As Australian scientists Caitlin Curtis, Craig D. Millar, and David M. Lambert recently recounted in PLoS Biology, the mummified birds sparked what may have been the first true debate about evolution.

The learned dispute pitted two giants of biology against one another. French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who is sometimes called the "founding father of paleontology," faced off against Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, best remembered for his now disproved theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. However, in the "Sacred Ibis debate," Lamarck was on the correct side of history.

How Does Exercise Affect Testicular Health and Function?

Ross Pomeroy - September 24, 2018

Exercise may be the best thing you can do for your health. Habitual exercise supports a healthy weight, prevents cardiovascular disease, treats type II diabetes, slows the progression of Alzheimer's, alleviates depression, and helps you sleep, among many other benefits.

But is exercise such a great thing for testicular health?

That's the focus of a new review paper published to the European Journal of Applied Physiology. University of Aveiro researchers Bárbara Matos, Rita Ferreira, and Margarida Fardilha teamed up with John Howl, a Professor of Molecular Pharmacology at the University of Wolverhampton, to parse through the mixed literature on testicular function and exercise.

To briefly summarize, physical activity is generally beneficial for male reproductive health, especially if it treats obesity, but certain types of exercise and overtraining can produce negative effects. Now let's dig in to specifics.

Carl Sagan's Problems With Plato

Ross Pomeroy - September 17, 2018

Aristotle, Plato, and Pythagoras are hailed as intellectual giants and great founders of scientific thought, and it would be difficult to deny them this lofty description. In the 500s BC, Pythagoras was one of the first to recognize that the Earth was a sphere, he came up with the term "cosmos" to describe the universe, and he laid the groundwork for mathematics. Plato subsequently formed Western philosophy as it is known today. His student, Aristotle, immersed himself in astronomy, biology, physics, and geology, and made bountiful observations in all those fields. He hypothesized, gathered data, and formed conclusions, though he never eactually performed experiments.

Yet despite the collective accomplishments of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, astrophysicist and legendary science communicator Carl Sagan was not a fan.

Democritus, ancient Greek philosopher.

The trio flourished during a time of great awakening on the Greek islands. At the same time, another less heralded Greek philosopher, Democritus, was making profound discoveries as well. He was the first to recognize that everything is made of of infinitesimally small parts with spaces between them – atoms. He advocated experiment, insisting that mere perception through the senses is insufficient to arrive at true knowledge.

"Pythagoras had a very different method. He believed that laws of nature can be deduced by pure thought. He and his followers... were thoroughgoing mystics," Carl Sagan said in Cosmos.

The New England Patriots Win Because They Actually Heed Science

Ross Pomeroy - September 11, 2018

The New England Patriots quite predictably kicked off their 2018 National Football League campaign with a win on Sunday. As the victories add up, they're sure to make this year their 18th winning season in a row, a success almost certainly followed by yet another trip to the playoffs (their tenth in a row), and subsequently followed by an extended run in the postseason. One has to wonder if this all-too-predictable plot ever gets boring for Patriots fans...

For everyone else, it's easy to despise the Patriots for their success, their aura of smugness, and for Tom Brady's repeated peddling of pseudoscientific BS. There's one thing the team should be admired for, however: they win because they actually heed science's findings about football.

Football is a game steeped in tradition, and for coaches and general managers, relying on game sense and intuition has long been the norm. But these vague abilities are easily influenced by myth, anecdotes, and cognitive bias. Hard data provides far better guidance. The Patriots seem to recognize this, and fill their organization with numbers wonks who actually act on what evidence tells them.

This wise strategy begins before the season even begins, with who the Patriots select to be on their team in the NFL draft. Unlike many other teams, which pursue prized players like puzzle pieces and sometimes trade away multiple players and draft picks to get them, the Patriots tend to diversify. Like investors putting their money into a range of stocks rather than going for broke on a couple, the Patriots regularly trade away their higher picks in the first round for more selections in the 2nd and 3rd rounds (there are seven rounds in total.) This is right in line with what economists Cade Massey and Richard Thaler found in a study they published back in 2005. The duo showed that players selected in the first round receive outsized salaries for what they actually accomplish. At the same time, players in the second and third rounds tend to be paid much less but still perform nearly as well on the playing field.

Is the Big Dipper Really a "Big Dipper"?

Ross Pomeroy - September 6, 2018

Many children first curiously gaze up at the night sky to "connect the dots." When they do, they see a wondrous array of pictures: animals, hunters, objects, gods... the stars are alive!

To kids in North America, one of the most recognizable pictures is the Big Dipper. Formed of the stars Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, and Alkaid, the ladle-like image is actually part of the larger constellation Ursa Major. The Big Dipper is not an official constellation; it's an asterism, basically an unofficial constellation.

And since it is unofficial, that means cultures all over the world see the Big Dipper quite differently. In Germany, Scandinavia, Romania, Hungary, and Italy, children are introduced to the set of stars as an enormous wagon.

Some in China see Wenchang Wang, a Taoist deity, accompanied by two attendants.

Toilets Are Dangerous and We Don't Need Them

Ross Pomeroy - August 29, 2018

Every day, tens of millions of Americans sit atop a foul cesspit of waste for minutes or even hours, not considering the awful risks to which they are exposing themselves. The toilet may seem innocuous and even funny to most, but in truth, it's anything but.

In 2008 alone, 234,094 nonfatal injuries occurred in American bathrooms, a quarter of them near the toilet. A rare few deaths happened as well. Bruises to the buttocks and dislocations of the hip occur when sitting or falling down on an unforgiving toilet seat. Hemorrhoids result from straining to defecate.

Also of concern are chemicals used to sanitize toilets. Bleaches and other cleaning solutions are poisonous if consumed, and may increase your risk of cancer if you use them. Moreover, the onset of childhood autism closely follows potty training. There might be a link.

Toilet proponents might shrug off the risks of noxious chemicals. They also might suggest installing wall-mounted grab bars, buying "Squatty Potties," or using child seats to minimize physical dangers, but those fixes are mere bandaids sure to fall off. There's a simpler solution: why don't we just do away with toilets and instead defecate and urinate outdoors?

Exaptation Shows That Evolution Is Not Intelligent

Ross Pomeroy - August 23, 2018

Feathers work remarkably well for flight. Fairly rigid, yet light, with a lot of surface area to push against air molecules, they permit birds to soar to great heights. Yet scientists are now starting to realize that feathers did not originally evolve for flight. Case in point, paleontologists are now finding feathers on dinosaurs whose size rendered them incapable of leaving the ground for anything more than a leap. Turns out, the same properties that make feathers great for flying also make them wonderful for insulation.

This makes feathers a quintessential example of a process called exaptation. While it seems they originally evolved to help maintain body temperature, their form and function has since adapted for flight.

"Exaptation is rampant in evolution," writes Anastasia Thanukos of the University of California Museum of Paleontology. "Any evolutionary process that involves co-opting a trait for a new function results in an exaptation. This means that all reasonably complex traits are likely to represent a layering of exaptations and adaptations."

The earliest ancestors of turtles likely evolved shells not for protection, but to serve as platforms for burrowing underground. Legs seem neatly adapted for locomotion on land, but leg-like limbs were present in a 375-million-year-old fish known as Tiktaalik, and were likely used for propping the fish up in shallow water. There are exaptations in genes, too. A gene called Distal-less controls coloration on the wings of butterflies, but since it's found in many other animals, it likely had different jobs in the ancient past. Human symbolic thinking may even be an exaptation, argues paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, since the brain regions that control it evolved long before signs of language or art first appeared in the archaeological record.

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