I gotta start hawking a supplement of my own

Did you know we’re in the midst of a vitamin D deficiency epidemic? By the standards of the Endocrine Society, 80% of Americans have inadequate vitamin D levels. You better go buy some pills! You better buy Michael Holick’s books! He’s the guy who is obsessed with warning everyone about their dangerously low vitamin D, and he’s not kooky at all.

The Boston University endocrinologist, who perhaps more than anyone else is responsible for creating a billion-dollar vitamin D sales and testing juggernaut, elevates his own levels of the stuff with supplements and fortified milk. When he bikes outdoors, he won’t put sunscreen on his limbs. He has written book-length odes to vitamin D, and has warned in multiple scholarly articles about a “vitamin D deficiency pandemic” that explains disease and suboptimal health across the world.

His fixation is so intense that it extends to the dinosaurs. What if the real problem with that asteroid 65 million years ago wasn’t a lack of food, but the weak bones that follow a lack of sunlight? “I sometimes wonder,” Holick has written, “did the dinosaurs die of rickets and osteomalacia?”

I’ve seen this phenomenon in educated people before: they latch onto one explanation for something, and suddenly they apply it to everything, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof, and insist that it is the One True Theory, and all must bow before it. For other examples, see the Aquatic Ape Absurdity and Brian Ford’s Bullshit. It’s the lure of the Umbrella Hypothesis, braced by a little factlet of truth.

So yes, you can be deficient in vitamin D, and it can lead to real diseases. It’s just that here in developed countries with actual policies that lead to reasonable monitoring and addition of supplements to key foods (milk has been supplemented with vitamin D for over a hundred years to prevent rickets), we’re fine. You don’t need to go to extremes to correct an imaginary deficiency.

Except that inventing imaginary problems and selling the cure is extremely profitable.

Since 2011, Holick’s advocacy has been embraced by the wellness-industrial complex. Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, Goop, cites his writing. Dr. Mehmet Oz has described vitamin D as “the No. 1 thing you need more of,” telling his audience that it can help them avoid heart disease, depression, weight gain, memory loss and cancer. And Oprah Winfrey’s website tells readers that “knowing your vitamin D levels might save your life.” Mainstream doctors have pushed the hormone, including Dr. Walter Willett, a widely respected professor at Harvard Medical School.

He’s been getting paid a thousand dollars every month for his vitamin D promotion! He’s received hundreds of thousands of dollars from pharmaceutical companies! The tanning bed industry donated $150,000 to his research!

I’ve been missing out on the gravy train, and I’ve got to start hawking my own supplement. I thought of one. You know, I bet you’ve eaten hardly any spiders lately. It’s true, isn’t it — they aren’t part of our usual cuisine, and no one spices their food with ground-up spider bits, except for those wierdos in Cambodia, so I can argue without being gainsaid that almost all of us have a spider deficiency. I can even make up statistics, like that 99.7% of Americans haven’t eaten any spider at all lately, and trust that no one will say I’m wrong.

Now I just need a common disease that I can blame entirely on arachnoinsufficiency, and before you know it, Gwyneth Paltrow will be knocking on my door.

History is hard

One of the more horrible things I can imagine is listening to a debate between Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro, two awful people. It happened. In my vast wisdom, I have simply refused to listen to it. Apparently, they swapped historical arguments back and forth, though, and someone with historical training felt obligated to listen, and ripped them both apart for their ignorance of history.

Contrary to Harris’ silly “bridges” analogy, all of these early scientific thinkers came from a tradition that saw “the Book of Nature” as complimentary to “the Book of Scripture” (i.e. the Bible). This tradition stretched back to the earliest Christian thinkers. This is why Galileo (who was not particularly devout) could quote Tertullian (who was not especially scientifically-minded) as saying “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.” (Adversus Marcionem, I.18). The two elements were intricately and essentially interlinked.

But Harris knows nothing of all this. Just as Harris knows nothing of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. Or the place of science in the Islamic world. Or the complexities and nuances of the Galileo Affair. Or medieval universities. Or … anything much about history. And this is why, as with Sagan or Hawking or Tyson or Dawkins, when a scientist speaks about their field of science, they are worth listening to. But when they opine about history they usually have little idea what they are talking about, and that is even if they are not labouring under Harris’ clear ideological biases. His near total ignorance coupled with those crippling biases means what he has to say on these and most other historical subjects is mostly complete garbage.

Well, but, Harris has negligible understanding of science, so there’s not much he has the qualifications to talk about, and Ben Shapiro has even less, so what else can they do but babble ignorantly on topics in which they have no expertise? History is just one among many subjects they can only mangle. But hey, Travis Pangburn will charge $500/head to people who want to listen to them. By libertarian standards of truth, they must be right.

Seriously, though, Tim O’Neill is making an important point. Most of us have expertise in something, but we should be careful about assuming our knowledge of one thing means we have knowledge of all things. Some epistemic humility is always warranted. I’ve inflicted this quote from Augustine on my students many times:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

I’ve noticed two kinds of Christians: those who insist that the Bible is absolutely true, and therefore evidence that contradicts it must be reinterpreted to conform, and those who recognize that the Bible is not a full description of the world, and therefore if evidence is found that contradicts it, their understanding of the Bible must be reinterpreted. Personally, I detest both, the first for obvious reasons and the second because they’ve ‘mended’ a flawed document to the point where it’s ridiculously threadbare, but at least one can have a rational discussion with the latter.

I had to dig further into this guy’s writings, and came across his criticisms of the Jesus mythicists, in particular his rebuttal to the “argument from silence”, which claims that Jesus should have been mentioned in many historical sources if he had existed, but he isn’t, so he didn’t. Most telling was his listing of the feeble number of brief mentions of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in classical records — if the Romans didn’t leave us many documents of this colossal disaster in their backyard, why should we expect them to have mentioned some minor Jewish preacher off in some provincial backwater? He also points out how rare it was for any writings to have survived from 2000 years ago, which lit up a lightbulb floating above my head.

This is exactly the same as the common creationist argument that if evolution were true, we ought to be neck deep in tyrannosaur and stegosaur and diplodocid bones, and because the fossil record is so spotty and incomplete, evolution is false. Never mind that taphonomy shows that finding the bones of a dead animal surviving for even a decade is rare and requires unusual conditions.

OK, I have no problem accepting O’Neill’s argument. But now I’m left with confusion; I’ve never delved deeply into the mythicist literature, and now I don’t understand what the “historical Jesus” means. I don’t believe in the existence of a water-walking, fig-tree-killing, fish-cloning resurrection man who died and came back to life and then whooshed up into the sky. My version of Jesus mythicism is that he was, at best, a radical Jewish preacher who was executed and then inspired decades of fan-fiction that got built up into the New Testament.

O’Neill’s explanation for the absence of Jesus in contemporary documents is in part that he was a minor figure in a small, out-of-the-way region who was understandably ignored by the authorities of the time, and lists alternative explanations for the silence about him.

Fitzgerald finds it significant that Gallio did not mention “this amazing Jesus character” to his brother and concludes this means Jesus did not exist. He does not bother to consider alternatives, such as (i) Jesus existed but was not so “amazing” as Fitzgerald keeps assuming he has to have been if he existed, (ii) Jesus existed but a learned Roman official did not regard people like him as very interesting or important, (iii) Jesus existed and Gallio did mention him to his brother but Seneca did not regard people like him as very interesting or important or even (iv) the whole Gallio-Paul trial scene is a piece of fiction reported or even created by the writer of Acts to emphasise Paul’s credibility. Fitzgerald skips over all these quite plausible alternatives and leaps gymnastically straight to the conclusion Jesus did not exist.

Now I have to recalibrate. What does “Jesus mythicist” mean? Apparently, rejecting the idea of the Son of God wandering about Galilee, and thinking that many of the tales that sprang up around him were confabulations, does not make one a Jesus mythicist. I also don’t know what the “historical Jesus” means. If I die, and a hundred years later the actual events of my life are forgotten and all that survives are legends of my astonishing sexual prowess and my ability to breathe underwater, what does the “historical PZ” refer to? Does it matter if my birth certificate is unearthed (and framed and mounted in a shrine, of course)? Would people point to it and gasp that it proves the stories were all true <swoon>?

Jeez, I’m glad I’m not a historian. What a mess they have to deal with.

I may have found a mirror universe

In this essay by John Pavlovitz, a liberal Christian, he makes the argument that the path evangelical Christianity has taken is toxic — that the hatred of Muslims, the contempt for the LGBTQ community, and the rise of celebrity preachers and professional Christians is driving good people away. I have to agree with him, and I think most atheists would agree, that much of the institution of Christianity is purest poison to anyone with a social conscience.

In record numbers, the Conservative American Church is consistently and surely making Atheists—or at the very least it is making former Christians; people who no longer consider organized religion an option because the Jesus they recognize is absent. With its sky-is-falling hand-wringing, its political bed-making, and its constant venom toward diversity, it is giving people no alternative but to conclude, that based on the evidence of people professing to be Godly—that God is of little use. In fact, this God may be toxic.

And that’s the irony of it all; that the very Evangelicals who’ve spent that last 50 years in this country demonizing those who reject Jesus—are now the single most compelling reason for them to do so. They are giving people who suspect that all Christians are self-righteous, hateful hypocrites, all the evidence they need. The Church is confirming the outside world’s most dire suspicions about itself.

With every persecution of the LGBTQ community, with every unprovoked attack on Muslims, with every planet-wrecking decision, with every regressive civil rights move—the flight from Christianity continues. Meanwhile the celebrity preachers and professional Christians publicly beat their breasts about the multitudes walking away from God, oblivious to the fact that they are the impetus for the exodus.

I’m reading it and thinking that gosh, this sounds familiar. It was like looking in a mirror. I think that the path the atheist/skeptic movement has taken is toxic — that the hatred of Muslims, the contempt for the LGBTQ community (and women!), and the rise of celebrity atheists and professional skeptics is driving good people away.

So I have some reassuring news for Mr Pavlovitz, if his worry is simply about church membership. If the behavior of the church is making atheists, those shiny new atheists are arriving at the atheist/skeptic community and finding exactly the same behavior and will bounce right back. Or maybe wander about between, in the cynical “pox on both your houses” domain of the nones (which we atheists will eagerly, and unwarrantedly, claim as ours).

Of course, if we’re actually concerned about supporting good people with generous views about diversity and Nature and culture, rather than what building they spend their Sunday visiting and which public speaker they spend their money on, well, both sides are screwed. It’s almost as if we ought to care more about building broader communities with healthy, progressive ideas rather than which god they believe in, or don’t believe in.

Nah, that can’t be it.

Donohue: those Catholic priests didn’t rape anyone, and besides, it’s The Gays’ Fault

Portrait of Bill Donohue

Bill Donohue has come out with his defense of the Catholic Church in the Pennsylvania case (pdf). A couple of things leapt out at me. He often parses the language finely to excuse the problems. For instance, it wasn’t rape.

Most of the alleged victims were not raped: they were groped or otherwise abused, but not penetrated, which is what the word “rape” means. This is not a defense—it is meant to set the record straight and debunk the worst case scenarios attributed to the offenders.

Furthermore, Church officials were not following a “playbook” for using terms such as “inappropriate contact”—they were following the lexicon established by the John Jay professors.

Examples of non-rape sexual abuse found in the John Jay report include “touching under the victim’s clothes” (the most common act alleged); “sexual talk”; “shown pornography”; “touch over cleric’s clothes”; “cleric disrobed”; “victim disrobed”; “photos of victims”; “sexual games”; and “hugging and kissing.” These are the kinds of acts recorded in the grand jury report as well, and as bad as they are, they do not constitute “rape.”

It’s OK if there was no penetration! Is this a new Catholic rule? Priests get to get naked with teenagers while watching porn and grope them, and that’s not a problem?

Then he plays games with the numbers.

How many of the 300 were probably guilty? Maybe half. My reasoning? The 2004 report by the John Jay College for Criminal Justice found that 4 percent of priests nationwide had a credible accusation made against them between 1950-2002. That is the figure everyone quotes. But the report also notes that roughly half that number were substantiated. If that is a reliable measure, the 300 figure drops to around 150.

The Pennsylvania reports says that 300 cases of abuse were credibly supported by the evidence — this was a specific analysis of the evidence in Pennsylvania. So Donohue argues that other, national figures say that half of their cases are unsubstantiated…so he evades the specifics and tries to claim that half the Pennsylvania cases are unsubstantiated. You don’t get to do that.

Also, even if he were right (he’s not), it’s 150 child molesters in the Pennsylvania clergy. What number is acceptable? I’m saying zero would be a number to shoot for.

His next excuse: most of the cases can’t be tried, because we’ve past the statute of limitations.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh “Salacious” Shapiro admitted on August 14 that “Almost every instance of child abuse (the grand jury) found was too old to be prosecuted.” He’s right. But he knew that from the get-go, so why did he pursue this dead end?

Because even if the crime can’t be prosecuted, the criminals should be exposed? Because this is an ongoing problem in the Catholic Church, so the church needs to be constantly prodded to make changes? Because the law isn’t always about justice, but justice must be pursued?

And then, most despicably, he doesn’t mince words in one excuse. This isn’t a problem with pedophilia in the church; this is a problem with The Gays.

How do I know that most of the problem is gay-driven? The data are indisputable.

The John Jay study found that 81 percent of the victims were male, 78 percent of whom were postpubescent. Now if 100 percent of the victimizers are male, and most of the victims are postpubescent males, that is a problem called homosexuality. There is no getting around it.

It’s an 80/20 male/female ratio of victims, but priests are 100% male, and priests are mostly going to be in charge of boys and young men. This ratio sounds like a ratio of opportunity.

Did I say he doesn’t play word games with this one excuse? Not quite. You see, Donohue argues that if the victims were post-pubescent, it doesn’t count as pedophilia. I don’t see a difference that matters — they’re all minors under the supposed care of the priest. It’s a vile abnegation of responsibility and decency. But to Bill, it’s just plain The Gay Abomination.

How many were pedophiles? Less than five percent. That is what the John Jay study found. Studies done in subsequent years—I have read them all—report approximately the same ratio. It’s been a homosexual scandal all along.

No, Bill. It’s been a Catholic scandal all along, and you’re not helping.

Friday Cephalopod: Another sign of the Cephalopocalypse

Last week, I reported that a 3-meter long clubhook squid had washed up on an Oregon beach. This week, I must report that it has happened again.

You must understand that if a few have died of natural causes, there must be a legion of them lying in wait off the coast. This can mean only one thing: the Cephalopocalypse is nigh. I must get myself to Oregon soon, so I can stand on the beach to greet the onrushing horde, and praise them, as they devour me first.

Fighting ugly with ugly

As usual, I’m torn. Is the answer to one ugly, pretentious monument to superstition to put up another ugly, pretentious monument to superstition? It’s the strategy we seem to be going with, anyway, because apparently too many people are able to grasp abstract principles. So the Satanists are trying to erect a statue to Baphomet in the Arkansas capitol.

I get it, really I do. They’re highlighting the hypocrisy of government favoring one religion over another. The Satanists understand that, too.

Satanic Arkansas cofounder Ivy Forrester, who helped organize the rally, said “if you’re going to have one religious monument up then it should be open to others, and if you don’t agree with that then let’s just not have any at all.”

It’s especially true when one of the advocates for putting up a Ten Commandments monument, Senator Jason Rapert, says this sort of thing.

In an online statement, Rapert said he respected the protesters’ First Amendment rights, but also called them “extremists” and said “it will be a very cold day in hell before an offensive statue will be forced upon us to be permanently erected on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol.”

OK, fine. I consider Southern Baptists to be extremists, and the Ten Commandments to be a terrible set of laws, and celebrating them with an offensive statue to be a violation of my rights. I guess every day is a cold day in Hell in America.

Besides, the Christian monument is also ugly. It looks like a damned tombstone.

Let’s just not have any at all, OK?

That’s a swift death on a cellular scale, not a slow one

There’s this article in the popular press titled “Scientists calculate the speed of death in cells, and it’s surprisingly slow”, and the title is backwards. It’s summarizing an article in Science magazine which measured the speed of a wave of apoptotic signaling in dying cells that concludes the exact opposite: cells die fast.

Apoptosis is an evolutionarily conserved form of programmed cell death critical for development and tissue homeostasis in animals. The apoptotic control network includes several positive feedback loops that may allow apoptosis to spread through the cytoplasm in self-regenerating trigger waves. We tested this possibility in cell-free Xenopus laevis egg extracts and observed apoptotic trigger waves with speeds of ~30 micrometers per minute. Fractionation and inhibitor studies implicated multiple feedback loops in generating the waves. Apoptotic oocytes and eggs exhibited surface waves with speeds of ~30 micrometers per minute, which were tightly correlated with caspase activation. Thus, apoptosis spreads through trigger waves in both extracts and intact cells. Our findings show how apoptosis can spread over large distances within a cell and emphasize the general importance of trigger waves in cell signaling.

To put that in context, 30 µm/min is more than 40,000 µm/day, or 40mm/day. Back in the day when I’d stick proteins in one end of a cell and wait for them to get to the other end, we’d estimate that the rate of transport was a couple of millimeters per day — so if you were working with an axon that was a couple of centimeters long, you might have to wait a week or two for a complete traverse. I’m impressed with 30 µm/min.

Another way to look at it is that if your typical cell is about 10µm across, once the apoptotic enzymes in one spot are activated, the whole cell is self-destructing in 20 seconds. The pop sci article uses a different example: “That means, for instance, that a nerve cell, whose body can reach a size of 100 micrometers, could take as long as 3 minutes and 20 seconds to die.” That’s still fast. That’s faster than diffusion. The authors ruled out diffusion as the mechanism, and suggest that it’s a wave of activation.

The unusual size of the Xenopus egg raises the question of how an all-or-none, global process such as apoptosis spreads through the cell. One possibility is that apoptosis spreads through the egg by random walk diffusion, ultimately taking over all of the cytoplasm. A second possibility is suggested by the existence of multiple positive and double-negative feedback loops in the regulatory network that controls apoptosis. These loops may allow apoptosis to propagate through self-regenerating trigger waves. Trigger waves are propagating fronts of chemical activity that maintain a constant speed and amplitude over large distances. They can arise when bistable biochemical reactions are subject to diffusion or, more generally, when bistability or something akin to bistability (e.g., excitability or relaxation oscillation) is combined with a spatial coupling mechanism (e.g., diffusion or cell-cell communication). Familiar examples include action potentials; calcium waves; and the spread of a fire through a field, a favorable allele through a population, or a meme through the internet. Trigger waves are an important general mechanism for long-range biological communication, and apoptotic trigger waves may allow death signals to spread rapidly and without diminishing in amplitude, even through a cell as large as a frog egg.

That makes sense. The apoptotic enzymes are distributed throughout the cell in an inactive state at all times; you don’t have to physically move the proteins around, you just have to switch one on, which then switches on its neighbor, which switches on its neighbor, and so on.

I’ve seen many cells die, as I’m watching them in the microscope. It’s always impressively swift and thorough: one minute, round, plump healthy cell; next minute, membranes are blebbing out all over the place, the cytoplasm goes all granular and curdled, and at the speed of light I’m cussing over yet another failed experiment.

I’m not sure why the editor or whoever slapped that confusing title on the article. There may have been some confusion about scale: a 2 meter tall human doesn’t die by the propagation of a signal from a single point on a cell, spreading at a rate of 40mm/day (if it worked that way, you’d stub your toe, a cell would die, and you’d have to wait a month and a half for the death signal to reach your brain). That would be slow. Multicellular organisms die by systemic failure of a network, not the progressive collapse, cell by cell, of all of its components.