When Do You Just Keep Your Mouth Shut?

My mother is currently renting a small holiday apartment in a nearby town here in Germany, so that she can both escape the Italian summer heat, and do some much needed exercises in the thermal baths in the area. When I was visiting her this weekend, her landlord stopped by for a chat. He almost immediately informed us that he has metastatic cancer, with a tumor in his brain, as well as many small masses in his lungs, lymph nodes, and other places throughout his body. I was, of course, devastated to hear this. I doubt he has much longer to live, and it was really sad to find out that such a nice (albeit quite odd) man was going through something so terrible.

But then the conversation took a turn that made me very uncomfortable indeed. My mother asked him if he was doing any treatments, and he informed us that he was doing Gerson Therapy. “Oh! I’ve heard of that! It’s supposed to be really good!” my mother exclaimed. “There’s a Gerson clinic in Hungary right? And in Mexico! Maybe you should think about staying some time at the clinic!” Uh-oh. A cancer treatment my mother has heard of, is enthusiastic about, and is only done in Hungary and Mexico? Quackery alert. He then proceeded to tell us that the bulk of the therapy consisted of drinking gallons of juice made from nettles, dandelion leaves, apples and carrots. Oh dear.

Well, a quick internet search a few hours later confirmed my suspicions that this is, of course, yet another woo-based “naturalistic” cancer quackery, and my heart sank for the man. However, it got me thinking, at what point do you keep trying to dissuade people from falling into pits of alternative medicine garbage, and at what point do you keep your mouth shut?

I have posted before about the potential harm of perpetuating the placebo effect. If I were a doctor, and a patient of mine asked me about Gerson therapy, I definitely would not encourage them to do it. However, when it comes to casual conversation between acquaintances, or even between friends and family, it can get far harder to draw the line.

This man was clearly not forgoing science-based medicine completely. He had regular visits to the oncologist, and had already had at least three operations to remove some of his lymph nodes. What most likely happened was that his doctors explained that there was little more they could do, and so he decided to buy Gerson’s books and try this diet in parallel with his medical visits. He said he felt better, he has lost a lot of weight and has more energy, so the placebo effect does seem to be working on him, as he is also full of hope that this therapy will at least prolong his life. On the other hand, he told us about all the food he is not allowed to eat which he misses, but that giving up cake and alcohol and such things are a small price to pay if this treatment actually does save his life.

This is the sticky part for me. On the one hand, I don’t want to shit all over this man’s hope. Maybe living the last year or two of his life with hope and promise is the happiest way he could be spending this time. On the other hand, how much are his sacrifices costing him, when they will do nothing to save him from cancer? Would he be happier not denying himself the cakes he loves so much, or the holidays he’s not taking, rather than living his last days within a ten minute radius of a toilet for fear of wetting or soiling himself?

At what point do you just shut up and smile? At what point do you stop arguing, stop fighting for reason and science?

For me, there is a hard line when it comes to doing harm. If he were not seeking real treatment at all, I would have said something, even if he thought me interfering and arrogant in doing so. I simply can’t have a clean conscience if I don’t at least try to inform someone who is forgoing medicine for nettle juice. However, if there is nothing that person can do, if all possible medical treatment has been exhausted, and there is nothing left but to wait out the inevitable?

In this case, I did not say anything. I do not know this man at all, and it is not up to me to decide how happy he will be living a lie, or not. I think that, if he were a close friend or family member, I would try to convince them not to go for woo, but I wouldn’t insist if they had their mind set on it. When it comes right down to it, everyone has the right to decide how they want to live out their last days. Of course, in an ideal situation, they would make that decision fully informed, rather than based on lies and empty promises. However, there is a great wide world of information on the internet, and I really do think that some people are simply chasing a happy delusion. Some people really do prefer the feeling of hope to the harsh reality of truth. As I have mentioned before, I am not one of those people, but it really is not up to me to judge how other people find comfort.

What about you? Where do you stand on the fight against woo? Would you have spoken up, in this case?

This Week In Zoology: They Be Into Some Kinky Shit

And I mean that quite literally, actually.

By they, I am referring to a carnivorous pitcher plant found in Borneo, called Nepenthes hemsleyana. And how can a plant possibly fit the above description?

Well because, according to a group of German scientists, This particular carnivorous plant has evolved to entice bats to shit in their mouths. Mmm mmm, yummy.

Most pitcher plants survive by using slippery nectar to attract ants, termites and other insects onto the rim of their bucket-shaped leaf, where they slip into a pit of deadly digestive acids. Some species can devour up to 6,000 insects an hour.

But Schöner and his team noticed that one particular species in the Borneo jungle was living on nothing but bat droppings, and started wondering what the plant was doing differently to attract so many bats to roost nearby.

Publishing in Current Biology, they found that the plant has uniquely shaped back walls that perfectly reflect a bat’s own call back to it. The team then confirmed this by showing that the mammals were more likely to roost on pitcher plants with their reflector structures intact – even when they were hidden – than plants without them.

These plants seem to have become highly specialized in their preference for – literally – eating shit, as by evolving these traits they have also lost many that other species of carnivorous pitcher plants normally use to attract insects. But hey, who are we to judge, right? If batshit is what you want to eat, then more power to you.

I hereby submit Nepenthes hemsleyana as kinkiest plant on the planet.

Well, They Were Trailblazers Before…

I never really new much about Colorado before, but I have to say, it is leaving me overall favorably impressed of late. They were one of the first states in the US to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and the rest of the country looked to them and Washington to realize what a smart move that actually was.

This year, they might trailblaze again, as in November they will be voting on the introduction of a single-payer health care system, similar to the Canadian and European models.

A group of more than 2,000 physicians is calling for the establishment of a universal government-run health system in the US, in a paper in the American Journal of Public Health.

According to the proposal released Thursday, the Affordable Care Act did not go far enough in removing barriers to healthcare access. The physicians’ bold plan calls for implementing a single-payer system similar to Canada’s, called the National Health Program, that would guarantee all residents healthcare. 

If the vote passes in November, it will be the first state in the US to finally, finally accept the Universal Health Care model. As I said, they trailblazed once before, and maybe this is their chance to do it again, to demonstrate to the rest of the country that this model simply makes sense.

I’m excited for Colorado. Let’s see what happens

This Week In Zoology: A Possum Plea

If you live in the United States, this plea is made of you



While possums are invasive species in other countries, like Canada and New Zealand, the North American possum means you no harm if you’re living in the US.

However, if they still scare you, this little fact might make you feel better.

Most people know that possums, well, “play possum”, meaning they “pretend” to be dead if they are frightened. However, characterizing it as playing or pretending might make it seem as though it is a conscious and devious trick. In reality possums do not have conscious control over this behavior, so it would be better characterized as going into a dead faint. This means that the possum won’t spring back to life and bite you if you approach it while it is “playing” dead. Rather, you can move it somewhere else and it will eventually wake up, a couple hours later. If it’s in your house you’ll probably want to do this sharpish, because part of their playing dead routine is leaking a nasty smell from their butt to mimic the smell of a rotting corpse. Once you see them twitch go ahead and leave them alone, and they’ll wake up and wander off.

I wouldn’t mind having a possum in my garden, if only to make a dent in the ridiculous number of slugs I’ve got taking over the place. There’s no reason to fear it just because it has an ugly little face. Still, if you’re not convinced of it’s trustworthiness given it’s freaky grin, always remember that it is the cousin of these furry little cutie pies

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That second one is actually called the “little wooly mouse opossum”. That’s just too cute.



Bad Science Reporting BullShit-O-Meter… Activated!

Recently, a post about the anti-cancer effects of ginger was cropping up on my feed quite a bit, and it caught my attention. I was immediately inclined to call bullshit on the whole thing, not only because the source was Earth, We Are One, but the all-caps title STUDY SHOWS GINGER IS 10,000X STRONGER THAN CHEMO (ONLY KILLS CANCER CELLS) was telling of an alt-medicine crapfest in itself.

However, not all alternative medicine ideas are equal. Sometimes they spawn from complete garbage (homeopathy, I’m looking at you), while other times they are simply exaggerating and twisting a small grain of truth into something it’s not, and sometimes that small grain of truth can be interesting. So, where does this article fall in the scale of bad science reporting, I asked myself? I am nothing but diligent in these matters, so I looked into it.

Of course, unsurprisingly, the so called studies were not linked in the post, but rather they quoted davidwolfe.com as their source. Sigh, OK, let’s take a look at it. Before my screen was overcome by popups asking me to subscribe to this and that, I managed to glimpse a few titles on the homepage, including 6 Things You Need To Know If You’re Friends With A Leo, and Press THIS Point on Your Belly to Remove Pounds of Toxins From Your Colon. Oh dear, it’s one of those sites. This might be an interesting fountain of silliness for future posts, but for now I’m on a mission to find the article in question.After using the search engine to find the article, I can immediately see that EWAO blatantly plagiarized the entire thing, from the title to the images and the text, except this version of the article actually links to the studies! And they’re real papers! Score one for David Wolfe! Color me impressed.So, what do the studies actually say? [Read more…]

I’m Loving Environmental Inventions

It seems as though, every day, I come across another invention aimed to ease the strain on the environment that we are pressing upon it. As I mentioned in my post about edible cutlery, it is unfeasible to expect that one solution will cure all ills, but this piecing together of many different ideas aimed to alleviate one problem at a time will, I think, be the best way to confront the situation.

Here, we have another take on an idea that has already been floating around for a while. The concept of building houses from plastic waste, like old soda bottles, has been around for a while. However, this also involves filling the bottles with sand, and you are limited to whole, intact plastic bottles.

This new, relatively portable invention supposedly collects all forms of plastic waste and compresses it into bricks which can be used to build homes.


If you combine this invention with the recent, various inventions designed to clean the oceans of plastic waste, and you’ve got yourself a very good way to chip away at a very serious problem.

I’m a little sad I was never any good at engineering now. This kind of stuff is so very cool.

Another Important Aspect of Consent

I recently came across this post entitled Celebrity Is Not Consent, which deals with the unfortunate cultural supposition that celebrities are the public’s property, and thus can be jumped on at will.

Everyday we hear about how being drunk isn’t consent, how women dress doesn’t mean consent. It is one of those unforgiving things that society must understand and get better at recognizing. It’s no different in geek culture, too. The “Cosplay Is Not Consent” motto has popped up at conventions all over in response to the ongoing problem of convention-goers grabbing, groping, or otherwise putting their hands on cosplayers, believing it’s okay as they’re in costume. We now know – or should, at least – that it’s not okay, and simply because someone is in costume doesn’t mean they’re free to be touched without their consent.

However, it goes both ways and fans too often forget that. Being a celebrity is not automatic consent, either. It does not give fans a free pass to do what they want simply because they see a celebrity they love before them. Celebrities put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. They are not their characters and they are not our toys. They do not “owe” their fans anything except entertainment, which they gladly give in whatever field they happen to be in. It’s why we become their fans in the first place.

The post includes many examples, including one of the most awkward gifs I have ever seen of Jensen Ackles being mobbed and kissed by a fan at a convention.

This is one of those aspects of consent in which our culture makes it far more difficult for men than women when it comes to establishing boundaries. Our culture expects men to love being hugged and kissed by any young hot woman they come across, and any male celebrity who might complain about it, or try to address it, would most likely be met by a chorus of other men calling for the cue to the world’s tiniest violin. While being mobbed by fans also undoubtedly happens to female celebrities, women are culturally expected to rebuff advances, and to try to establish boundaries with male fans. However, it is an important topic to address regardless of the gender of the celebrity, or the gender of the fan. As the writer points out, celebrities are normal people, and deserve the same respect as you would give any other you meet. While planting a kiss on Jensen Ackles would make many women’s year (mine included), it’s still not O.K. to dehumanize our favorite celebrities into pretty play things, nor to prop them up to demi-god status.

And to those of you who are planning to fill the comments with laments about their fame and wealth and who cares if this is the price they pay, please stop. Celebrities become famous, and sometimes they become rich, because they are good at what they do and people are willing to pay for the entertainment they provide. That does not mean that they should have to choose between their personal space, or their right to not be groped by complete strangers, and a career in entertainment. It is also not OK to grope a random person on the street whom you find attractive, regardless of how much money they are actually making, nor is it OK to jump on stage at a strip club and dry hump the dancers just because they are performing in a sexually suggestive way. It’s a matter of simple respect towards our fellow human beings, not petty jealousy towards their fortune or fame.

Well, There’s A Thought

I am a confessed and unabashed meat-eater. However, I do go to great lengths to ensure that the animal products I consume are not from battery farms, and I appreciate that the meat industry takes a heavy toll on the environment. This video puts forth a very interesting proposition as to how to confront these issues going forward, with science, of course.


It may be a little hyperbolic for the sake of comedy, but the gist of the video does provide some interesting (ahem) food for thought.

I’m sorry to break it to you vegans of the world, but it is simply not feasible to expect the entire globe to go vegan and organic. It is not going to happen. It’s time to think outside the box a little bit, and if this technology becomes solid and affordable, by dang I think we’ve got it.

Many meat-eaters, on the other hand, will see this and moan that lab-grown meat could not possibly taste as good as the “real thing”. However, I will counter that the vast majority of meat produced at the moment is, by no stretch of the imagination, high quality meat. Even if we were to take the lab-grown stuff to make all of the burgers, the sausages, the chicken nuggets and the supermarket-grade cuts, that would still be an enormous relief on our environment, and we can still keep the occasional Kobe beef, Chianina or milk and honey fed chicken farm out there.

If this takes off, I’m all for it. What do you think?

This Week In Zoology, What Can Fly and Swim?

And no, the answer is not flying fish, which sort of jump out of the water and glide for a bit in an attempt to escape from predators. The answer is Pteropus giganteus, also known as the flying fox, or fruit bat, as reddit and facebook have recently found out.


While this behavior is quite impressive on its face, finding a flying fox in a lake, or in your pool, is actually a sign that it is in distress. Just because they can swim does not mean that this is normal behavior for them.

While the data on why (and, for that matter, how many species of) bats swim is still quite thin on the ground, Zoologists who have observed this behavior hypothesize that it is something they do when stressed, or when they are not particularly successful in finding food. Often flying foxes have to fly great distances to find food, and so they might, under certain circumstances, drop into the water to grab some fallen fruit. So, if you find a flying fox paddling around in your swimming pool, try to help it out by giving it something to latch on to, and throw it a peach while you’re at it. It will be most grateful!

One Small Step For Taiwan

And let’s hope that it is the first of many, many more.

The President of Taiwan has, for the first time in history, apologized for the government’s treatment of their aboriginal people.


Of course, after centuries of oppression and marginalization, it’s going to take a Hell of a lot more than an apology to fix the systemic racism that the Taiwanese aboriginal people face on a day to day basis. However, that does not mean that this is not at least, a first small step in the right direction, as well as a historic moment for Taiwan. Stories like these make me hope that, despite the ever-growing gloom that is the news nowadays, perhaps on the whole this world is still moving towards progress. I’m starting to see progress across history as a sort of global warming chart: you have small-scale dips in temperature due to certain events, but the overall trend is irrevocably up. Of course, in the case of progress, this trend is a good thing, rather than disastrous.