The persistence of nonsense


Last week, I heard about two boring revelations.

The first is that the Shroud of Turin has finally been proven to be fake. Finally? Again. After all the dating evidence and the historical record show that it was ginned up in the 14th century, long after this story has been put to bed, people still thrash about with this crap. The ‘new’ evidence isn’t even that good — they did a blood spatter analysis. Big whoop.

Next week, news agencies will be shocked to learn that chupacabra is a coyote with mange, because they had a vet look at an old photo.

The second oh-god-my-eyes-have-rolled-back-so-far-they-turned-inside-out story comes from a usually reputable source, the Guardian. They ran a garbage article about cell phones causing cancer, full of distortions of the scientific evidence and conspiracy theories. My god, people, there is no brain cancer epidemic. Practically everyone in the country has a mobile phone now, they’re using them constantly to the point where it’s a standard comedic trope about teenagers and housewives and pedestrians and commuters going through their day with phones clamped to their faces, a gigantic shift in human behavior and reliance on these devices that occurred in only about a decade, and you’d think that if they were causally linked to any kind of cancer there’d be a corresponding surge readily detectable in the epidemiological data. There isn’t. This is a causal agent with people casting about absurdly looking for a problem it might be causing, and not finding one. So they invent an epidemic.

Fortunately, David Robert Grimes comes through with a rebuttal to the Guardian bullshit (he’s very polite. He doesn’t use the word “bullshit” or even anything poetically analogous.) He goes through all the basic, obvious evidence — cell phone radiation is low energy, non-ionizing, and multiple papers have shown a lack of correlation between cell phone use and glioma — and shows how the authors distorted in a dishonest way (he doesn’t even call them liars!) the conclusions of major research studies.

There are signs he’s losing patience with them, though.

The authors conclude by stating a “lack of definitive proof that a technology is harmful does not mean the technology is safe, yet the wireless industry has succeeded in selling this logical fallacy to the world”. Such a statement raises questions regarding their grasp of the term “logical fallacy”. The onus here is on the authors to prove their assertion – it is sheer logical contortion to present a lack of evidence as a superficial supporting argument. That the authors attribute this lack of evidence for their claims to the machinations of a nebulous big telecoms is indicative of a mindset more conspiratorial than sceptical.

This is a problem with what I call sinecure skepticism. There is a self-perpetuating market for glib, contrarian nonsense like cell phones causing cancer, or fluoridation as a communist plot, or ghosts, or the Loch Ness monster, or evolutionary psychology, and the skeptical movement has bred a group of shallow thinkers who lurch at the bait and sell cheap articles that ‘debunk’ the most superficial phenomenology (or in the worst case, write in support of garbage, like EP). In fact, the mission of many skeptics is to focus entirely on the easy crap and to neglect the big issues, because they’re too complex. I’m sure Hertsgaard and Dowie, the authors of the original article, consider themselves to be good skeptics, because skepticism has become nothing but criticism of the obvious using very little knowledge or deep expertise.

Hertsgaard and Dowie are well-regarded journalists, writing in the field of environmental journalism. They are not experts on cell biology, or cancer, or epidemiology, or medicine, or any of the fields that would be relevant to their analysis, so it was an easy leap for them to find fault with a ubiquitous technology, and to uncritically promote another round of this nonsense. David Robert Grimes is a physicist and cancer researcher who actually knows his stuff and can see right through the gross errors.

I like skeptics who actually know something — see also David Gorski or Jen Gunter or Jennifer Raff for examples — and who have actually done the hard work of acquiring deep expertise. Otherwise we get endless cycles of lightweight puffery over trivial inanity, which is exactly what the purveyors of trivial inanity want.

Ask yourself, do we really need more analyses of the Shroud of Turin?

Comments

  1. davidnangle says

    Clever, devious telecoms… curing our brain cancers without us knowing… That’s how they get ‘ya!

  2. KG says

    But is there any evidence that the Shroud of Turin doesn’t cause brain cancer? Huh? Huh?

  3. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “do we really need more analyses of the Shroud of Turin?”

    Sure we do! Flame spectroscopy.
    Better do the whole thing, to make sure that no ‘interesting bits’ are missed.

  4. says

    When it comes to cancer, a whole lot of people insist on finding a “cause”, something they can pin blame on. Those who think they live very healthy lifestyles or in an environment they consider healthy (“out in the country, doc!”) tend to be particularly vulnerable when it comes to such bullshit. Cellphones are ubiquitous and easy to point a finger at, and people remain very suspicious when it comes radiation. I know someone who, after their cancer diagnosis, said okay to chemo, but wouldn’t even listen when it came to a short course of radiation, they were that convinced radiation would give them cancer, not help to get rid of it, or prevent a recurrence.

  5. wcorvi says

    Cellphones may not cause cancer, but they DO cause really stupid behavior, like walking out into traffic, or driving 85 mph while yacking on them.

    Many years ago, I read a Zippy the Pinhead strip, where he and Griffy said, ‘Look at those people taking on their cellphones. It must be really important urgent stuff, that can’t wait until they get home or to th’ office, really crucial pressing stuff.’

    In the final panel it zooms into the people, who are saying. ‘I am on 6th ave, where are you?’ ‘I’m going around the corner now.’ ‘I just came from Starbucks.’

    I don’t own a cellphone.

  6. davidnangle says

    Caine at #4, I had a friend diagnosed with cancer, after which a married couple unfriended her IRL. They explained, “We just can’t figure out what you must have done wrong to deserve this.”

    Their tiny minds couldn’t handle the idea of a person getting cancer without it being divine retribution.

  7. says

    Davidnangle:

    I had a friend diagnosed with cancer, after which a married couple unfriended her IRL. They explained, “We just can’t figure out what you must have done wrong to deserve this.”

    Their tiny minds couldn’t handle the idea of a person getting cancer without it being divine retribution.

    Unfortunately, that’s not in the least uncommon. Cancer is a christian god soaked business, and even those who aren’t in the least bit religious fall prey to the worst nonsense. This is something I’ve talked about in the cancer chronicles, the reactions you get from various people. Every person who has been diagnosed with cancer has experienced at least one person in their life who turns their head and walks away, never saying one word, and it’s usually someone the cancer patient considered a true friend. Cancer does weird things to people.

    The pickled in Jesus Juice people are the worst of the worst though – they will find a way to blame you for your cancer no matter what, you must be responsible somehow or “god” wouldn’t have done this to you, get on your knees and pray!

    The no radiation person I mentioned in #4, yeah, seriously god soaked too, along with an irrational fear of radiation treatment. I don’t mind if a person depends on faith to help them through, treatment is a rough business, but there are always asshole christians stalking about, looking to point the finger of judgment at you and everyone else.

  8. ChainRing says

    Caine @4, very true. “Shit happens” is something many people cannot deal with (hence the popularity of religion).

    When my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour, my dad insisted it was because she’d had a small superficial skull injury some years before. It wasn’t even on the same side the brain, for heaven’s sake! But nothing we kids could say was able to make him accept that it was just one of those damn things.

    My mom never used a cellphone in her life. That’s my anecdotal contribution.

  9. microraptor says

    I’m curious about what the reaction would be if the Shroud was eaten by moths or otherwise destroyed by a natural act (preferably one that didn’t hurt or kill people).

  10. raven says

    There is a whole cult of rabid Catholics around the Shroud of Turin.
    They even have a name, “Shroudies”.

    Like all religionists, they are Presuppositionalists.
    The Shroud is the burial cloth of jesus and that is it.
    No evidence to the contrary can change that belief.

    Fortunately there aren’t very many of them and they aren’t important.

  11. blf says

    The “Grauniad” article was in the Observer’s “‘Lifestyle’ section alongside articles about ‘the 6 best summer cheeses’ and whether dinner parties are snobbish or not” (Electrosmog Redux). As one of the commentators there observed, “it’s telling that it is in ‘Lifestyle’ — the science editor either didn’t want it published in the science section or didn’t get the chance to prevent it being published.”

    The Observer has form in uncritically publishing woo-woo. For instance, in 2007(-ish) they published a “specularly misleading” article on MMR, which has subsequently been removed from the archives. They also publish an absurd article on Omega 3 fish oil in 2010(-ish), and were taken down by none other than The Grauniad’s own Ben Goldacre, Omega-3 lesson: Not so much brain boost as fishy research.

    The Grauniad has owned the Observer since 1993, so they are not innocent in all of this. At the time of the 2007 Omega 3 fish-oil woo-woo, the two papers still had fairly independent editors and oversight, albeit I have no idea what the situation was in 2010 or now (2018).

  12. sirbedevere says

    We’re never going to be rid of the Shroud of Turin. Know when it was first exposed as a fake? 1356. The Bishop of the area where it first surfaced in France, Henry of Poitiers, even claimed to have tracked down the artist who painted it and got a confession. The whole story is detailed in “False Impressions”, a book about faked art works (written by Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977 and a famous fake buster).

  13. says

    I know a folk singer who says that even the most skeptical person can’t deny “something” is going on with the shroud of Turin. He also says the X-Files is onto something and likes to sneer at “fundamentalist materialists” who, according to him, are just as bad as religious fundies.

  14. Akira MacKenzie says

    I know a folk singer who says that even the most skeptical person can’t deny “something” is going on with the shroud of Turin.

    That all depends what that “something” is. Taking up space? Sure, I can’t deny that claim. Magically summoning gremlins to Toronto? That I can certainly deny.

    He also says the X-Files is onto something…

    You have explained to him that it’s just a TV show?

    …and likes to sneer at “fundamentalist materialists” who, according to him, are just as bad as religious fundies.

    Yes, because accepting reality is “just as bad as” being a being a superstitious savage who doesn’t belong in the modern age.

  15. Zmidponk says

    My god, people, there is no brain cancer epidemic. Practically everyone in the country has a mobile phone now, they’re using them constantly to the point where it’s a standard comedic trope about teenagers and housewives and pedestrians and commuters going through their day with phones clamped to their faces, a gigantic shift in human behavior and reliance on these devices that occurred in only about a decade, and you’d think that if they were causally linked to any kind of cancer there’d be a corresponding surge readily detectable in the epidemiological data. There isn’t. This is a causal agent with people casting about absurdly looking for a problem it might be causing, and not finding one. So they invent an epidemic.

    QFT

    Out of all the people I know, I am the only one that doesn’t have a mobile phone (not through any fear of cancer, or anything like that – I had a ‘pay as you go’ one, it broke, several months later, I still hadn’t gotten around to getting it fixed or replaced, and I didn’t really miss it, so I never bothered), yet I am not seeing all my friends, family and colleagues dying in droves from brain cancer whilst I smugly outlive them with my tumour-free head.

  16. craftybunny says

    Further to what Caine said back at comment #4, as far as I can recall primary brain cancers have no known lifestyle factors that contribute to their cause – they seem to be the ultimate “shit happens” cancer. Add to the fact that we’re still really bad at treating them, and they’re really fertile ground for the mobile phones fry your brains/turmeric cures everything/if you just cut all sugar out of your diet you’ll be just fine (even though you’re on chemo, having radiotherapy and can barely face food) types.

    As you might guess, I have a teensy bit of a bee in my bonnet about this one…

  17. mattandrews says

    Caine @ #8:

    Every person who has been diagnosed with cancer has experienced at least one person in their life who turns their head and walks away, never saying one word, and it’s usually someone the cancer patient considered a true friend. Cancer does weird things to people.

    As far as I know, no one has abandoned me since my diagnosis, and I’m usually pretty open about it. My big problem is the people who know I’m atheist telling me they’re going to pray for me, whether I like it or not. That’s wearing on my fucking nerves, big time. It’s usually done in a more-passive-than-agressive style, but I’m getting sick of it.

    Off-topic: when did this comment section start using Like buttons? IIRC, that was placed in PZ’s “Stupid Fucking Idea” warehouse.

  18. nomdeplume says

    Worth noting that there was a massive response in the comments sections of both articles, pretty much universally condemning the publication of the first article.

  19. wzrd1 says

    I say that the shroud is invaluable – as an ancient chunk of cloth, with lousy artwork on it. It informs us as to how the threads were made, how the cloth was woven and what pigments and binders were used at the time each were made. As a work of art, it’s rubbish.

    As for the whole cell phone and cancer link thing goes, I can get a higher dose of microwave radiation during the day by walking outside into direct sunlight.
    Cell phones are dangerous in the wrong hands. Abounding are the videos taken of cell phone users stepping into traffic, into obstacles, into holes and even into elevated fountain pools. Indeed, my wife and I were rear ended in our 2000 Toyota Sienna minivan by a Ford Bronco, whose driver was busily texting her attorney. The impact was so great that my wife was unconscious for five minutes and I was stunned long enough to have my foot fall from the brake pedal and the vehicle coast 100 feet. After checking on my wife’s vitals, I exited to see if the idiot driver was OK (she was), which took a bit, as I was so effected by the sudden acceleration and my head striking the headrest so hard, I was staggering as if I was drunk.
    By the time my head cleared enough that I could walk in a controllable fashion, she had admitted to have been busy texting.
    The impact at speed was so forceful, the trailer hitch was bent straight into the spare tire, the rear hatch unopenable, the unibody bent enough that the sliding doors don’t seal. At least my wife, amazingly, didn’t suffer additional injury. She already had six vertebral fractures due to advanced osteoporosis.

    As this vehicle doesn’t have an automatic dinglefloofer that answers the phone via bluetooth, if the hell phone rings, I catch it when I arrive at my destination. Once I’m issued my government issue hell phone, if it rings while I’m driving, my trip just may become extended. ;)
    OK, not really. But, it’ll damned well wait until I arrive at my destination. On call or not, that’s always been my policy.
    A policy that resulted in a company issued Nextel going for a swim in the Delaware river when the boss wanted the day’s numbers while I was driving back to the office. He couldn’t wait ten minutes, well, he waited for ten minutes and the five minutes of merry hell that I gave him for insisting on reports while I was driving. He bought me a new cell phone that evening, dammit.
    But, he waited for me to get to the office to get the day’s report.

  20. JustaTech says

    I had a (generally smart and educated but hippy-inclined) friend express great concern that her brother was putting his phone under his pillow to help analyze his sleep patterns. “I’m just worried about brain cancer” she said.
    “But if phones caused cancer wouldn’t we all have pocket cancer? Or hand cancer?” I asked.
    She didn’t like that, but I’m the one who works at a cancer company (not a cancer associated with cell phones) so we let it drop.

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