Seeing is, um, inventing?

It’s a truism in cognitive psychology and neurobiology that “seeing” is not what happens in the eyes, but what is perceived by the “higher” brain centers. Our perceptual process largely consists of various brain centers removing information from the stream and pre-digesting it so that the decision-making and analysis parts of the brain are not overwhelmed by too much information. For instance, your visual cortex auto-corrects for lighting changes (like a good digital camera, only better) so you don’t even perceive the dramatic color shifting that “really” happens when the sun comes out from behind a cloud. That explains the famous white-and-gold dress that was really black-and-blue … or vice versa? The brain constantly corrects color perception for what it “thinks” (it isn’t really thought) the lighting is, and in this case can be fooled.

I just experienced a higher-brain-level version of this illusion. Not as dramatic or reproducible, but interesting.

I was looking at the front page of Wikipedia (for today as I write, April 14). The explanation of the featured image refers to scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

Quick: did you read his last name as “Pierce”? Dr. Peirce’s name was not spelled in the far more common way (as the standard spelling of a word meaning “puncture with a sharp object”). However, practiced readers of English will tend to read it as the standard spelling because we don’t consciously take the time to analyze the spelling of familiar words. We “sight read” by recognizing the overall pattern at a lower (subconscious) level and our consciousness receives only the meaning (and/or sound) of the word. That’s a perceptual illusion, like the dress illusion but from a different brain area. (Meaning-perception takes place chronologically after color-perception.)

I had a two-stage experience. I had actually heard of Peirce before, and recognized the name. I also misperceived it as “Pierce”. So my thought process was, “Hey, Wikipedia misspelled his name. I’d better correct it.” At that point, I looked back at it, with my perceptions tuned to perceive spelling instead of meaning, and immediately saw that it was correct in the first place. That brought my normal ability to ignore the shapes and order of the letters when reading to conscious attention, so I blogged about it.

I’ve always been fascinated by illusions, but this is one time I was blindsided by one I hadn’t thought about before.

You’re fat because toxins

So I bought some groceries today, and this store has ads on the back of its receipts. I got this one.


So this … establishment is claiming that overweight (but only between 10 and 40 pounds of it?) is caused by both toxins and acid?


I suppose, in some cases, overweight could be caused by real toxins. Say they cause dropsy. You just can’t remove toxins by bathing your feet in water and minerals. This is clearly the “Ionic Foot Bath” scam. They literally claim that the system draws toxins out through the soles of the feet–that is, some of the thickest, most impermeable skin the body has. It’s literally a con game. The bath shown above (illustrated better at the linked article) contains a water-based solution that turns black after you submerge your feet in it. The claim is that the discoloration is the toxins dissolved in the water. The truth is that the water changes color whether or not you put your feet in! It’s just iron compounds created the apparatus itself.

The acid part sounds like traditional pH quackery, which attributes various diseases and syndromes to the body’s being too acid or basic (pH imbalance). As Dr. Steven Novella explains here, the body just doesn’t work that way. If you’re “too acid” you’re in immediate danger of death, not just overweight.

With some trepidation I checked out their web site. Phountain Health is a pretty full-service stuff-not-actually-shown-to-work company. The first item on their site is a “Detox Body Wrap”. They sell dietary supplements, a “Vitamin D sun bed”, alkaline water, dietary diatomaceous earth (which is literally dirt they recommend you eat), and many other things. Oddly, no foot bath seems to be listed. They do list cryotherapy.

You should be ashamed of yourselves, Stop and Shop. That’s two of the three remaining major grocery chains near my home, what with Best Yet Market‘s homegrown pseudoscience.

Torment your children and maybe kill your neighbors in the name of “natural”

Yeah, that’s an inflammatory headline. And it’s true.

A “Naturopathic Doctor” named Heather Dexter didn’t get her children vaccinated and refused to treat them for pertussis (whooping cough) She originally bragged about this at her own blog at, but has now deleted that article.

Read the above-linked article by Scott Gavura, or the one by Dr. David Gorski. This woman permitted her children to get a life-threatening illness, and refused to give them effective treatment even when both her husband (their father) and her own father were begging her. Instead she gave them worthless nostrums like Olive Leaf Extract and worthless therapies like enemas (!) and foot massages. That’s already enough to make me despise her.

Now consider two things:

  1. She sent her infected children out to play with other children! She home-schools, but her son went to gymnastics class and they all played at the school playground. Any child who has a weakened immune system (say, because of treatment with certain drugs) or was simply unlucky and wasn’t protected by vaccination, could get this terrible, painful, potentially fatal disease.
  2. Dexter is a “doula”. This word has no legal definition, but typically means a person who assists a mother during labor and childbirth in non-medical ways. This means that she was potentially exposing newborn infants, who can’t be vaccinated, to pertussis.

It’s clear from her writing that she doesn’t even acknowledge how bizarrely irresponsible she was being.

Regular readers of this blog will remember my previous posting about naturopathy, in which I criticized a naturopathic “doctor” I called Rick. Rick is at least two steps above Dexter. He most certainly would not leave pertussis untreated or risk its spread. And Rick has now stopped practicing naturopathy to take up the honorable profession of teaching. (If he’d stop calling himself doctor because of his wizard school degree, it would be better, but I give him credit for doing the right thing.)

As for Heather Dexter: she’s a horrifying potential killer who is so far in denial she doesn’t even know it. Disgusting.

Facilitated Communication leads to sexual assault

Let’s start with the key point: Facilitated Communication (FC) is nonsense. In FC, a person who can’t communicate by speech, use a keyboard even with mechanical or electronic help, or otherwise produce words, is helped (facilitated) by a person who holds his/her hand and moves it toward what is perceived to be a desired letter. It’s described here: There are variations on the technique as I described it, but they all involve a facilitator sensing subtle muscle movements by the person they’re assisting and using that to pick letters or symbols.

Also, it is nonsense–did I mention that? Facilitated Communication is identical to Ouija Board readings or automatic writing. Psychology and neuroscience class them all as ideomotor response. It is the “facilitator” who is communicating, not the person ostensibly being assisted. This has been tested by (for instance) setting up experiments in which the facilitator knows something that the assistee does not. In all such (well-designed) experiments, the results of the test have the “speech” produced match the facilitator’s knowledge.

The facilitators do not appear to be consciously faking. Like Ouija Board users, they’re unconsciously moving the other person’s hand. And because this is an unconscious process, they can produce messages they would never consciously write in their own names. FC has led to charges and convictions of child abuse, for instance. Recently one Dr. Steven Laurys claimed that FC (by speech therapist Linda Wouters) demonstrated that a brain-damaged patient was fully conscious but couldn’t control his own body enough to communicate. To his credit, Laurys did further tests that did indeed demonstrate the the patient was not communicating at all.

Now for the latest bizarre tragedy caused by belief in FC. Dr. Anna Stubblefield, a professor of Philosophy at Rutgers, has just been convicted of sexually assaulting a man who has cerebral palsy. She claims that he is not mentally disabled and that they fell in love, despite his lack of speech, by communicating through FC. A jury has found that “D. J.” is mentally incompetent and cannot therefore give consent. D. J. is not paralyzed and can move his arms, although his condition makes him less dexterous. It isn’t clear from the story (and in fact isn’t clear in many FC cases) why he couldn’t simply point at an alphabet board, if he really was mentally capable of literacy.

Apparently Stubblefield had sex with him multiple times.

Realize that any messages Dr. Stubblefield received were from her own brain–just not the parts that normally are thought of as “the conscious mind.” In other words, she literally fell in love with herself (or more fairly, with the story she was telling herself) and then had sex with this disabled man.

She was the chair of a respected university’s philosophy department at the time, but somehow didn’t manage to learn the central lesson of science, and of the skeptical movement: doubt your own judgement. A true tragedy.

Peter Popoff: religious scammer still scamming decades after being caught

Waaay back in 1986, James Randi appeared on the Tonight Show and demonstrated that faith healer Peter Popoff had a source other than God’s word for his surprising insights into the lives of those healed. I strongly urge you to watch the video of Randi pulling back the curtain on Popoff’s blatant and despicable fraud. (Johnny Carson, the then-host of the Tonight Show, was a former magician like Randi and a like him an exposer of spiritual/religious scams, in the tradition of Houdini.)

After his exposure, Popoff lost most of his income and ended up declaring bankruptcy the following year.

He’s back. Unbelievably, he’s making money by the simple expedient of lying to people. Lots of money. He is literally raking in millions, again.

Recently, a video-maker got one of Reverend Popoff’s solicitation letters. He seems to have stolen a lot of his techniques from the late Oral Roberts and other colleagues in the field of promising miracles in a non-legally-actionable manner. Some of the things Randi documented in his classic book The Faith Healers:

  • Give the mark a cheap gift. This creates a sense of obligation to give something in return.
  • Offer miracles but only if a donation is made.
  • Suggest a minimum donation and imply that larger ones show more faith and get bigger miracles.
  • Write your letter as if you (the scammer) personally sat down and hand-typed it (with fake handwritten parts) and personally mailed it to the sucker, even though your organization sends out millions of them a week.

Popoff’s letter does all of these. There’s more. Watch the video. If you want to educate yourself about the subject, read Randi’s book.

Mike Jeavons made his video funny, but Popoff is just infuriating. He exists to suck the money out of vulnerable believers. He’s exactly what people hate about religious leaders, maybe part of one step short of Jim Jones.

Bees are not aliens–When real news is not weird enough

This is apparently my day to rag on Chuck Shepherd.

In today’s News of the Weird, Chuck writes, “An ovipositor is the organ that inserts or receives an egg (especially from parasites like bees — and that thing in “Alien”).

Bees are not parasites! They lay their eggs in various structures they make, whether hives, holes in the ground, or holes drilled in wood.

OK, there are a very few bees that are nest parasites, but even they lay their eggs in holes in the ground, not in other organisms as Chuck implies.

(Receives? I’m not familiar with any usage of the term “ovipositor” for an organ that receives eggs.)

I’m pretty sure he was thinking of the various wasps that paralyze a living organism, then lay eggs on/in it, or the wasps that use the ovipositor to insert their eggs into plants, but bees and wasps can’t just be confused like that!

I like Chuck’s column, please don’t take this as a recommendation to avoid. He just knows (apparently) not very much about entomology.

Best Yet Pseudoscience

I’ve been eating much more healthily lately. Losing weight quite rapidly, to the point where my pants are falling down embarassingly and even the unpleated ones are pleating now when I put on my belt.

Part of that is buying more veggies (and eating them, of course). So I was a regular at the Best Yet Market on my route home. Great selection of produce, reasonable prices, clean, nice staff.

And now I can’t buy from them.

See, while searching for info on blueberry nutrition I came across this page. “Detox With Food!” Yuck.

I’m a scientific skeptic. That implies both that I care about using logic and evidence, and that I know something about common areas of pseudoscience. Detox is pseudoscience.

There are real toxins out there, and medical treatments for some of them. For instance, if a person accidentally drinks ethylene glycol (antifreeze) they can be treated with booze. Ethanol doesn’t remove the antifreeze from the body, but it prevents its toxic events until the toxin is naturally cleared. However, medical and scientific types don’t say “detox”. That’s pseudoscientists. They’re in general talking about toxins they can’t define, which have very non-specific effects, and the levels of which are never measured, making it impossible to demonstrate whether the “detox” or “cleanse” regimen does anything at all. Others demonize non-dangerous toxins like mercury in dental work, use non-authenticated tests like “challenge” urine tests, and interpret the results in ways supported by no science.

Best Yet Market’s web page leads with some utter nonsense: “Did you know that digesting food requires more energy than any other function in the human body?” Yes, I knew that was absolutely false. Let’s ignore actual research and just think for a moment, shall we? Is the article claiming that eating is more energy-intensive than running an ultramarathon? Would weight-lifting be considered a rest after the huge effort of consuming some bananas and drinking a Coke?

It continues to be stupid. “… the best way to free up some extra energy is to make our digestion as quick and efficient as possible. This extra energy can better support the body’s other crucial functions, like circulation, respiration, and excretion, all of which help improve your complexion, oxygenate your cells, and eliminate excess waste in the body. The less waste that’s stored in your body, the better you’ll look and feel.” Wow. Making digestion quick and efficient sounds good, but what does it mean? Diarrhea gets food through the gut faster, but I don’t think it’s desirable. Efficient digestion helped make me fat–I get all the calories out of the food I eat. Anyone in the United States (where Best Yet Markets are located) is not short of energy–we get plenty of food, we are not starving. Therefore, “extra energy” would make us fat. (Do you see a theme in my writing today?) And how does more energy “support” circulation? If it makes the heart beat harder it just raises your blood pressure. In fact, “extra” energy tends to become fat, which then can deposit on the arterial walls, causing arteriosclerosis. And how on earth does extra energy support excretion? The kidneys do consume energy (as do the other excretory organs like the pancreas and sweat glands) but pumping more energy to them as fats and sugars in the blood doesn’t somehow make them better.

I don’t want to spend thousands of words deconstructing the entire pile of woo here. Among the nonsensical and/or unsupported ideas present are:

  • “By simply adjusting how we eat, we can improve our digestion and enjoy effortless weight loss, without giving up any of the foods we love. In other words, you can still eat practically anything and everything you want — just not necessarily all at the same time.” No, you can’t. Weight is to a first approximation calories in vs. calories out.
  • “Properly combine your meals.” They seem to mean that foods from certain categories should not be eaten together. “Be sure to wait three to four hours between your meals before switching categories (such as animal protein, starch, or nut/seed/dried fruit), and feel free to snack on neutral foods, like non-starchy vegetables, at any time of the day.” There is no scientific basis for this idea.
  • “Begin each meal with something raw.” Raw veggies (they don’t mean raw meat or sushi) are a good element in a healthy diet, but there’s no magic about starting with them and they don’t have to feature in every meal. This seems to be pure raw foods faddism, including a telltale reference to “enzymes”. “Raw plant foods are hydrating, filling, and bursting with nutrition.” Hydrating? Some of them (e.g. cucumbers) contain lots of water. Others (e.g. peas) not particularly. And why does the anonymous author think cooking removes water from food. Often it gets added, if the food is steamed or boiled.

There is actually some correct-ish advice in the article (e.g. limit sugar and animal protein). It would be hard to write at that length without being right about something. On the whole, though, it’s an embarrassing, infuriating pile of nonsense. I wrote to Best Yet suggesting they get their nutrition articles vetted by a registered dietitian, physician, or maybe scientist. No answer.

So I can’t buy from them. I’m not organizing a protest, I just would feel guilty about it.

And I miss the store. They really do have the best produce selection of any grocer within 30 minutes of my house. I need to look into local farm stands.

RFK Jr. and the legacy of Camelot: stop embarrassing everyone!

A NY Times journalist writes about how strange it is to avoid talking to a Kennedy son, which he does because RFK Jr. is so irrational and anti-factual. (May be behind a paywall–the Times allows one to read only a limited number of articles free, last I heard.)

Mr. Kennedy to the contrary, the risk from routine vaccination is incredibly low, orders of magnitude less than the risk of the actual diseases you might get if you don’t vaccinate. All his talk about “toxins” and “their brains are gone” is just not based in reality.

Kudos to Mr. Frank Bruni for calling him out on it.

Is RFK Jr. our own Prince Charles, and embarrassing pseudo-science promoter prominent in our media because of who he is related to?

Grocery Shopping With Obby

I’ve been reading The Devil’s Panties for years now. I’ve always enjoyed its slice-of-life humor. Since creator Jennie Breeden married Obby, there have been occasional position-taking strips. Obbie is listed as co-writer these days, maybe he’s more of an advocate. This one is very much to the point:

The Devil's Panties goes on a diet

The Devil’s Panties goes on a diet

I had the pleasure of meeting Jennie at Dragon Con in 2014. (Obby was away from their table when I went by.) Take a look at their comic, I think you’ll like it–and it will never, ever insult your intelligence or tell you to eat Free Range Kale.