Travis Christofferson, an unimpressive snake-oil salesman

Yesterday, I was being mildly harangued by a cancer quack — I know, this is usually Orac‘s beat, but there’s a lot of non-specific cross-talk by ignoramuses, wouldn’t you know. Anyway, this quack told me I’m supposed to read this book by another quack, Travis Christofferson, and didn’t I know that the Warburg effect was the key to curing cancer? This is annoying, because when I’m given a source I feel obligated to look it up, so I had to waste time digging around the internet for Christofferson. Fortunately, this guy is easy to dismiss.

He has a website titled Single Cause, Single Cure. That’s right, he claims that there is a single cause for cancer, and it’s a metabolic disorder cause by your bad diet. There’s also a single general strategy for treating it, which involves targeting the Warburg effect with a ketogenic diet, among other broad metabolic treatments.

First strike: treating cancer as a single, simple disease caused by one factor. We know this isn’t true. I recently wrote about Tissue Organization Field Theory, that postulates that one factor in generating cancers might be epigenetic shifts caused by the cell’s environment, but no one (well, no one sensible) thinks that’s the only cause. We know about the effect of carcinogens, which may damage DNA; we know about inherited genetic predispositions caused by variations in gene sequence; we know about effects of local inflammation; there are viruses that can induce transformations to a cancerous state. We’ve taken cancers apart gene by gene and found the frequent players that trigger the cancer, and they are genes that regulate, for instance, cell proliferation, cell signaling, and yes, cell metabolism. You are not going to fix a broken retinoblastoma gene with a low-carb diet.

Second strike: Christofferson has zero qualifications. He has a Pre-Medical undergraduate degree and a Master’s degree in Materials Engineering and Science. There is no such thing as a pre-medical degree. A pre-med is someone who has declared an intent to apply to medical school when they graduate; I have lots of students I advise who are pre-med, and all that means is that I recommend that they take courses outside the required courses for their degree within a discipline, so they’re told to take anatomy and physiology courses, a psychology course, a communications course, microbiology, etc., outside of the list of required courses to get a B.A. in biology (they can also be, for instance, an English major and a pre-med), and that I nag them in their junior year about taking the MCATs. You either have a medical degree, which requires going to a qualified medical school, or you don’t. He doesn’t. He has a degree in molecular biology from Montana State University, and either lost interest in or didn’t get accepted to medical school, and instead went to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for a Master’s degree in Material Engineering and Science. SDSMT is not a medical school, not even close.

Third strike: Christofferson is endorsed by Joseph Mercola. When the money-grubbing, dishonest arch-quack is your sponsor, you can trust that everything about it is tainted. Mercola did a fawning interview with Christofferson in which he asked, Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were a simple dietary tweak that could not only prevent but treat the vast majority of these cancers?

Yes, it would be interesting. It would also be interesting if every time I sneezed, hundred-dollar bills shot out of my ears. It does not mean that I’m snorting black pepper as a revenue source. That Mercola asks a stupid question does not imply that there exists a simple dietary tweak to cure cancer.

Fourth strike (how many of these do you get before the umpire drags you off the field?): these quacks like to pretend that they have some bold new insight, but the fact is that legitimate cancer researchers have been exploring metabolic treatments for decades, and there are real studies in progress. They aren’t a magic bullet, but tackling metabolic processes in cancer cells might be helpful, and real doctors are testing it.

This brings me back to the question of whether cancer is a metabolic disease or a genetic disease, the answer to which I promised early on. The likely answer? It’s both! Indeed, a “chicken or the egg” argument continues about whether it is the metabolic abnormalities that cause the mutations observed in cancer cells or whether it is the mutations that produce the metabolic abnormalities. Most likely, it’s a little of both, the exact proportion of which depending upon the tumor cell, that combine in an unholy synergistic circle to drive cancer cells to be more and more abnormal and aggressive. Moreover, cancer is about far more than just the genomics or the metabolism of cancer cells. It’s also the immune system and the tumor microenvironment (the cells and connective tissue in which tumors arise and grow). As I’ve said time and time and time again, cancer is complicated, real complicated. The relative contributions of genetic mutations, metabolic derangements, immune cell dysfunction, and influences of the microenvironment are likely to vary depending upon the type of tumor and, as a consequence, require different treatments. In the end, as with many hyped cancer cures, the ketogenic diet might be helpful for some tumors and almost certainly won’t be helpful for others. Dr. Seyfried might be on to something, but he’s gone a bit off the deep end in apparently thinking that he’s found out something about cancer that no one else takes seriously—or has even thought of before.

Fifth strike: the foundation of a useful cancer therapy lies in empirical research. You test it. It’s hard work. You do not leap into publishing books for pop audiences that declare you have a path to the cure, as Christofferson has. If switching to a ketogenic diet could cure cancer, why do people still die of cancer? This is a disease that provokes desperation and fear, the perfect medium for quacks who want to profit by selling false hope.

I am unpersuaded.

I may have to write something up about the Warburg effect later. I am not a cancer research, but I am a cell biologist, and I know a fair bit about cellular metabolism — it annoys me to see basic cell biology, which Christofferson would have been exposed to as an undergraduate, being abused by quacks, especially when there are so many readily available papers in the scientific literature about the molecular biology and biochemistry of the Warburg effect.

The Ark Park is a grifter’s dream

I’m afraid this article on the Ark Park and their plans for expansion is a little too subtle. It’s main thesis is that the people behind Answers in Genesis are glorified carnies, working to rake in the bucks from the rubes, while pushing an oddball version of Christianity. Ken Ham is talking out of both sides of his mouth: to his co-religionists, he declares his collection of carnival rides to be a sacred mission for the church, but when he’s talking to anyone else it’s a commercial enterprise that deserves state support because it will bring in jobs.

Except that it doesn’t.

But the project’s single largest source of funding was actually $62 million in junk bonds floated by the town of Willamstown, population less than 4,000, home to the Ark Encounter and the county seat of Grant County, which faced bankruptcy this spring.

“In terms of revenue for the county, we don’t get too much from them,” says the county’s chief executive, Stephen Wood. The Ark Encounter negotiated a vastly discounted 30-year rate on property taxes in 2013 under a previous administration. “I hate it, but that’s the deal,” says Wood.

A town smaller than the one I live in can float $62 million in bonds? I do not understand economics.

And what few jobs it does create have some rather restrictive limitations.

As a condition of employment, the museum and ark staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement of faith rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. So any non-Christians, believers in evolution, or members of the LGBT community — and their supporters — need not apply. (Although, due to less stringent hiring requirements for contractors, an actor who allegedly operated a gay porn site was hired to portray Adam in one of the Creation Museum’s original videos.)

The article is fine on explaining how the Ark Park is a tourist trap constructed with subsidies of dubious legality, but once again, the bad science isn’t adequately highlighted. I guess I’m going to have to do it.

I’m attending the 2017 Midwest Zebrafish Meeting in Cincinnati next month, and on Friday, 16 June, before the meeting starts, I’m planning to visit the Ark Park, take pictures, put together some commentary and rebuttals, etc. Anyone else care to join me?

Unfortunately, one other thing I learned from the article is the cost of admission: $40 freaking dollars per adult. They really are trying to fleece the flock. I’ll go once to catalog the lies, but never again.

The schedule for Convergence is now available

Yes! Convergence is happening on 6-9 July (the weekend before the Society for Developmental Biology meeting — I’m going to be hanging out in Minneapolis a lot in early July), and I’m going to be on 7 panels, which is not the most I’ve ever done, but is a credible effort. Should be fun, if a little tiring.

Anyone else going? Of course you are. There’ll be about 6,000 people there, I would estimate.

Now that’s an interesting variation of the argumentum ad populum

People are crawling out of the woodwork to defend that bogus Boghossian hoax and they’re making some awesomely bad arguments to do so. Here’s one guy who makes a sweeping dismissal of all of the social sciences because few of their journals are highly ranked.

There is a curious lack of social science or humanities journals in the top 100. For instance, there is only one journal dedicated to psychology. If business and economics are counted, then a total of 12 of the top 100 journals cover the social sciences. (Put another way, there are more top 100 journals covering the biomedical subdisciplines of cell biology/microbiology/molecular biology than all the social sciences combined.) SJR considers Administrative Science Quarterly (which we classified as a business journal) to be a sociology journal, so it represents the one sociology journal in the top 100.

How many gender studies journals are in the top 100? Zero. In fact, there is only one gender studies journal in the top 1,000. Titled Gender and Society, it ranks at #933.

The takeaway from this analysis is clear: The hard sciences constitute the hottest fields and most prestigious journals. By comparison, social science journals are not nearly as prestigious. By definition, that means social science journals, as a whole, are not cited by prestigious journals.

There are many reasons for that. But one of them certainly is that the quality of the research just isn’t very good. That’s why penis hoax articles can get published.

That’s a stunningly stupid interpretation. How stupid? Well, he has helpfully organized the list of top 100 journals in descending order for us.

Apparently the quality of the research in mathematics just isn’t very good, using his reasoning.

Another problem is that a system that ranks journals by their ‘significance’, that is, how frequently cited they are by related journals, is going to be sensitive to numbers of participants within a discipline, so this metric is also going to be strongly skewed; popular disciplines will have more popular journals, regardless of their relative quality. So just to give you an idea of the numbers of people working within these general fields:

Number of scientists and engineers in the US: 6.2 million.

Number of psychologists in the US: 188,000.

Number of sociologists in the US: less than 3,000, which does seem awfully low; same source says the number of biochemists, just biochemists, is about 34,000.

So it is totally unsurprising that fewer social sciences journals are listed among the top 100 journals — there are fewer social scientists. It’s also meaningless to compare a broad category of “biomedical journals” with a sub-sub-discipline like “gender studies journals”. Everything about this is bad logic.

But then, it’s also unsurprising given the source. This is coming from the American Council on Science and Health, which is a reactionary pro-industry think-tank of dubious value.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader once said of ACSH,

A consumer group is an organization which advocates the interests of unrepresented consumers and must either maintain its own intellectual independence or be directly accountable to its membership. In contrast, ACSH is a consumer front organization for its business backers. It has seized the language and style of the existing consumer organizations, but its real purpose, you might say, is to glove the hand that feeds it.

Numerous ACSH publications (that do not disclose the corporations that have funded the organization) take positions attacking public concerns about various corporate products and practices, such as genetically modified foods (GMOs), pesticides, herbicides, and more, and have sought to downplay concerns raised by scientists and consumers. However, the tobacco industry has never been an ACSH client, and Whelan has very cleverly used her anti-tobacco stance to gain some credibility among health professionals and some activist groups. All of the tobacco connections were conducted by her partner, Fred Stare.

Some of the products ACSH has defended over the years include DDT, asbestos, and Agent Orange, as well as common pesticides. ACSH has often called environmentalists and consumer actvists “terrorists,” arguing that their criticisms and concerns about potential health and environmental risks are threats to society.[2]

ACSH has been funded by big agri-businesses and trade groups like Kellogg, General Mills, Pepsico, and the American Beverage Association, among others.

It’s also a front for the Koch brothers.

I’m not going to reject a scholarly discipline because some conservative shill found a way to tag it with a small number; I’d have to admit that zebrafish developmental biology must be of lower quality because there are fewer publications on that specific subject than in, say, geology, which is such obvious nonsense the author should have noticed. But I am happy to follow the money to dismiss a source because it is funded entirely by industries that are trying to protect their bottom line with fake science that undermines honest work.

Tear ’em all down

Wow. This is one of the monuments taken down in Louisiana. It does not forlornly honor the war dead, it celebrates a paramilitary seizure of the state government by white supremacists, and it isn’t at all coy about saying so.

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

“Gave us our state”. They weren’t shy about saying who owned the state, who belonged there, who was going to control everything, even if it was at gunpoint.

I’m now agreeing that these should be removed, but not destroyed. They belong in a museum. A museum of shame, disgrace, and dishonor. Hey, good ol’ boys, this is what your granpappy fought and died for, for slavery and oppression, and don’t you forget it!

Do you look like a crook?

I learned two awful things from this article on pseudo-scientific physiognomy: 1) Cesare Lombroso’s head is preserved in a jar in a museum in Italy, and 2) people are even now trying to identify criminals from photos. Not from their records, oh no, but from the implied fact that they look like criminals.

Lombroso, you may recall, had this terrible idea that you could identify bad people by their looks, by their facial features, bumps on their head, etc. These were familiar notions held by Nazis, who actually published school books to instruct kids on how to recognize Jews (it is often hard to recognize the Jew as a swindler and criminal […] How to tell a Jew: the Jewish nose is bent. It looks like the number six…), and Lombroso’s ideas fed directly into the eugenics movement. People who don’t look exactly like us must be lesser, don’t you know.

Modern neo-Nazis are saying the same things now, like that wretched MRA/MGTOW/PUA/Whatever at Chateau Heartiste:

You CAN judge a book by its cover: ugly people are more crime-prone.

Shitlibs have a look. Shitlords have a look. And you can predict with better than 50/50 chance which 2016 presidential candidate a person supports based on nothing more than their photograph.

Thanks, Cesare, for your contributions to bigotry. It seems kind of appropriate that in death, your head was chopped off and dropped in a bucket of formaldehyde. It’s unseemly, I suppose, but I do hope other body parts suffered similar indignities.

I also learned, unsurprisingly, that some people are trying to make physiognomy seem more scientific by making computers do it. As the article explains it length, but I’ll simply summarize in brief: if you train a neural network to find patterns, it will find them whether they’re actually there or not. As we know from those surreal images produced by Deep Dream, if all a piece of software knows how to do is highlight dogs and eyeballs in an image, it will find dogs and eyeballs everywhere.

You will rightly point out that the real test is if they spot the signal they’re searching for in some images, but not all, and if the software guesses correctly. Apparently, this software was trained on a small number of images, and they aren’t making the data available, so it’s hard to guess exactly what features they’re cueing on; the article speculates that it may be as trivial as whether the innocent faces were smiling and the criminal faces were scowling.

So another thing I learned is that if the Nazis take over and start scanning all our faces for criminal tendencies, you’d better smile like a giddy idiot all the time.

[Read more…]

He was “the good one”?

Guess who is a predatory slumlord, who owns huge numbers of lower middle class properties, fails to maintain them, and who hounds the residents with persistent lawyers, demanding often invented fees and penalties that the people cannot pay? It’s that quiet young man who has been given an exalted position in our government.

Very few of the complex residents I met, even ones who had been pursued at length in court by JK2 Westminster, had any idea that their rent and late fees were going to the family company of the president’s son-in-law. “That Jared Kushner?” Danny Jackson, a plumber in his 15th year living at Harbor Point Estates, exclaimed. “Oh, my God. And I thought he was the good one.”

Read the whole thing. The whole family is a skeevy assortment of nasty ratfuckers and villains, poisoning everything they touch.

The Antennae of Morris

Imagine that you are going to come visit me in Morris, Minnesota — you’re welcome, anytime, since it’s not as if we’re overwhelmed with visitors. You’ll probably come from our major metropolitan center to the east, Minneapolis/St Paul. Get on I-94, heading west; follow the signs to Fargo.

As long as we’re imagining, imagine it’s mid-winter and late at night. That’s the best time to drive the lonely roads. You usually don’t have to worry about the condition of the highways, because it’s Minnesota, and if it’s been snowing there will have been teams of plows out, quickly clearing them.

You leave the big city, and you’ll pass through the smaller, but still substantial, city of St Cloud about an hour later. Prepare yourself, everything from there on out is progressively more rural and thinly populated.

Don’t drive all the way to Fargo, although it would be easy to do. Get off the freeway at Sauk Centre, birthplace of Sinclair Lewis (and they won’t let you forget it). Sauk Centre has a population of about 4500 people, and it’s mostly downhill from here. You’re going to get on a little two lane country road, Highway 28, and keep heading west through Glenwood (pop. 2500), Starbuck (pop. 1300), and Cyrus (pop. less than 300). It’ll take you about an hour to get from Sauk Centre to Morris, and you’ll need to take your time, because Highway 28 is a notorious speed trap all along its length.

I recommend the night journey in winter because while there isn’t much engaging scenery, as you travel farther and farther from the population centers, it gets darker and darker. Our winter skies tend to be crisp and clear, and you’ll get spectacular views of the stars, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see the northern lights off to your right. You’re in no hurry — we’ll be home to let you in however late it is when you arrive — so feel free to pull over, turn off your headlights, and let your eyes get adjusted to the dark. It’ll be beautiful.

Unless it’s gray and snowing. Sorry. That happens fairly often.

Keep going, keep going.

After passing through Cyrus, which you’ll only notice because the speed limit abruptly drops to 30 miles per hour (and trust me, you’d better obey it), you’ll hurtle on through the darkness. The first portent that Morris is ahead will be three slowly pulsing red lights in the sky. They were my first sight of the town when I came here, 17 years ago. They are the aircraft warning lights atop the radio antenna masts around the edge of town. They’re particularly noticeable as you drive through the flat and empty cornfields because they hover above the horizon and are so clearly human artifacts, but there isn’t the usual clutter of a cityscape to distract your attention from them.

They fascinate me.

Two hundred years ago, there were very few Europeans here — an occasional French explorer — but many scattered communities of the Lakota, their populations depleted by waves of diseases. They, like virtually every human population around the world at that time and earlier, had networks of communication with other communities. Like every population up to that time, though, communication required that someone get up and get on a horse or boat or on their own two legs and travel elsewhere. The transmitters and receivers and medium of signaling were the people themselves. A village would have a trading post or post office or the equivalent as locus of interactions between communities.

About one hundred and fifty years ago, that began to change with the invention of railroads and telegraphy. At that point we added rails and wires connecting communities for much more rapid signaling, and the new features added to our towns were the telegraph office, the railroad depot, and the water tower. Every thriving town would have a water tower and supplies to feed the locomotives, and would be linked to other town with a parade of telegraph poles.

This was the start of a revolution. Now towns were linked by cables and rails, and that was only the start; look up, and everywhere you go there is a webwork of wires above you, carrying power and information. There is also an invisible network of cables and pipes and fiber optic lines beneath your feet. We’re part of a grid of connections, the middle part of a sandwich of layers and layers of connectivity that bridges the continent, with steel giants marching across the landscape carrying high tension lines. These humming wires are the ley lines of reality.

But it was only the start. A bit over a century ago, there was another change: it was the age of Marconi and Tesla, spark-gap transmitters and coherers. They scarcely knew what they were doing, at first, building larger and larger devices with greater and greater voltages, generating great powerful thunderbolts that would arc across circuits and produce immense electromagnetic waves that would ripple long distances. They were crude radio transmitters, no finesse at all, that relied on brute force to produce strong enough signals that could be detected without wires. So Marconi built forests of antennae in Poldhu, Cornwall and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia to sense the sparks produced in each and bridge the ocean with information.

The transmitters have gotten more precise and the receivers more sensitive, and now we swim in an ocean of patterned electromagnetic waves. We routinely carry radio transmitters in our pockets — absent the whip-crack snap of spark-gap transmitters or the lightning nimbus of Tesla coils — and we receive a constant flow of signals with far more elegance than the slow dots and dashes of Morse code. There’s an antenna in your pocket, there’s an antenna in your computer, there are antennae in your entertainment gadgets, and there are antennae all over your town. They are a new feature of humanity, these metal latticeworks scraping the sky for information everywhere you go. Even in my tiny town in the rural midwest, on the edge of nowhere, in ‘flyover country’, everywhere you look there are cables and antennae tying us to the larger world.

I’ve been looking.

This long prelude is an attempt to justify trying something different. You see, I’ve been distracted lately — for the past couple of years, in the face of aging, I’ve been cultivating an exercise habit. I walk 5-10 kilometers a day. Three times a week I go to a local gym and work out…and I get there by walking. I walk to the grocery store. I walk to the coffee shop. I walk to the movie theater. It’s all part of a necessary maintenance program for my unfortunately senescing body.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly boring.

As it turns out, it’s difficult to read or write or scan the internet while walking or lifting weights — who knew? I’ve tried listening to podcasts, and still do, now and then, but I still have to stifle my urges to write responses, because I can’t. I hate this whole routine of having to invest time in maintaining the meat of myself when I’d rather be sinking it into the playground of the mind, but then, I have to remind myself I need to do this so my brain can keep playing longer.

So there I am, making the meat machine plod through town, my brain trying to idle and get it over with, and it can’t.

I look around. I scan the ground, I look at the rooftops, I notice odd stuff. I’m a scout droid patrolling an alien planet. I try to figure out what’s going on around me, but I’m hampered by the fact that I don’t have access to information, or rather I’m wasting time perambulating rather than tapping on a keyboard, so instead I…


This is a terrible confession. Instead, I make stuff up. I tell myself stories, in my head, about the imaginary purposes of the things I don’t immediately understand. They’re all lies. I think I’ve reinvented religion and fiction. So while disconnected from the internet and my books, I make up conspiracy theories, alien invasion stories, weird fantasies of malignant forces dwelling in town, awful dreams of where all this will end (it tells you something about me that I tend not to invent happy stories). I glom onto some odd feature of the environment and invent a purpose for it. It’s disgraceful. This is what happens when your brain is deprived of input, the gears get stripped and it starts spinning off in strange directions.

Lately, the features of the environment that have most snagged my imagination are the antennae. They’re everywhere! Have you noticed? Radio masts, cell phone towers, little whip antennas erupting out of the flank of a 19th century building, dish antennae locked into satellites, metal spikes on rooftops, we’re surrounded by these things that are either gleaning information out of the æther or beaming it to mysterious destinations. I know they’re mostly innocuous and utilitarian, but bored brains imbue the unknown with deep omens and surprising significance.

Shamelessly, I’ve been telling myself stories about them as I amble about. These are pure fiction, lies, which I’ve never indulged in before. But I’m thinking, as long as I’m making stuff up, I might try writing some of it down. And then posting it here.

So I may sporadically dump some of these lies here. Not often, I assure you, and they’ll be clearly labeled as entirely fictitious, but you know, when you spend so much time with these stories, and you’re used to just writing, it’s got to be let out. Every once in a while, then, I might post a story about the Antennae of Morris. You can just skip them. Treat them as the mad ventings of a trapped brain trying to get release, you know, as I do most of the fiction I read.

Forgive me.