Can Your DNA Tell You Your Ancestry?

For those of us living in the United States there’s a cottage industry for ancestry determination. For a fee, websites like or claim to research your family history. I have long been fascinated by these advertisements. I always thought it unlikely that a website could accurately track down my family tree without physically researching it. Still, it is possible that they could have a vast database of computerized immigration records. Recently, there have been advertisements purporting the use of DNA testing to tell you your “true” ancestry. DNA testing, unlike a family tree, is a well developed science. Is this feasible? Can your DNA tell you your ancestry? If so how? Since DNA is in the realm of science, I think taking a look at it skeptically is worthwhile.

America is almost exclusively a nation of immigrants. And from an even broader skeptical viewpoint, ties to any real estate are really just a question of squatters’ semantics, meaning that if you go back far enough we all originated from the same area of the world.We are pretty sure that at some point in the distant past there was less than 18,000 humans in Europe, Africa and Asia. That “bottleneck” in history probably means that we are all more closely related than anyone really realizes. Our genetics is a road map that extends back through time to the earliest forms of life. It is arbitrary to select one time out of that genetic history and mark that as your heritage.

Nonetheless, people like to have a sense of continuity about their past, and share a cultural heritage. Because the US is relatively young as a nation, I think we have an overdeveloped sense of heritage. While heritage for Americans is just as important as it to other nationalities, the average US citizen has a relatively short family history, and they tend to identify with the families country of origin, using hyphenated labels like Irish-American, African-American, Italian-American, etc.

As perplexing as it is to some visitors to the United States, Americans’ tendency to hyphenate their nationality is typically a way of talking about their cultural heritage. Yet the term nationality is often used. A good example of this is my own foolish thinking when I was a young man, and some amusement I probably provided to a customs official in Great Britain 20 years ago, when I was 18 years old, on a class trip to London. The security measures for customs and the airlines were very different at the time. On final approach we were handed applications for a tourist visa to Great Britain. One of the card’s questions concerned nationality and I put “Portuguese” as my response. It sounds ridiculous to someone outside of the US, but when my family talked about nationality we were Portuguese. Both sides of my family immigrated to the US about 70 years ago, from the Azores, and some of my family members only spoke Portuguese. So it seemed reasonable to me at the time to give that answer. As you may have guessed the customs agent in Heathrow airport sighed, looked at me, and asked some questions that confused me at first, then soon made me feel silly. He asked “What language do you speak?” to which I answered “English.” Then he asked “Where is your passport from?” My answer (becoming more confused) was “The United States.” He then proceeded to say “Just so you know, you’re an Amer-ri-can, not Portuguese.” I was very embarrassed. Today I find the whole episode amusing, and a good example of how insular thinking can affect your perception. For those of you outside the US, it is a good example of how confusing ancestry and heritage can be in American culture.

Can a DNA test clear up questions you may have about your heritage? If so how? In television advertisements, these companies show a person who talks about his family’s German ancestry, how devout he was towards his family traditions including lederhosen dancing (Schuhplattler). But when he learns that his DNA indicates his ancestry is Scottish rather than German, he eagerly replaces his lederhosen with a Scottish tartan kilt.

There are many problems here for me. I am certain that this is a stylized advertisement—not an actual person. But family traditions like lederhosen dancing exist apart from a DNA test. Culture is learned and has nothing to do with your genetics. The whole idea that someone can learn who they really are through genetics is, in my opinion, nonsense. I find the whole idea that DNA markers are a superior method to determine ancestry slightly racist, similar to the idea that “blood” is paramount. Furthermore, I agree with a 2007 article in the journal Scienceabout ancestry DNA testing, in which the authors write:

“Because race has such profound social, political and economic consequences, we should be wary of allowing the concept to be redefined in a way that obscures its historical roots and disconnects from its cultural and socioeconomic context. The article recommends that the American Society of Human Genetics and other genetic and anthropological associations develop policy statements that make clear the limitations and potential dangers of genetic ancestry testing. Among the potentially problematic byproducts of widespread genetic ancestry testing: questionable claims of membership to Native American tribes for financial or other benefits; patients asking doctors to take ancestry tests into consideration when making medical decisions; and skewed census data due to people changing ethnicity on government forms. Moreover, many Americans are emotionally invested in finding an ancestral homeland, and thus vulnerable to a test that can produce mixed results at best and false leads at worse. ‘This search for a homeland is particularly poignant for African Americans, who hope to recapture a history stolen by slavery.'”

All of the major companies advertising this form of ancestry-related DNA testing use autosomal DNA tests. The companies don’t exactly promote the accuracy of the test, but tend to give the impression that it is the path to your true heritage. It takes a little searching, but you can find a disclosure that accurately shows the companies’ beliefs about the usefulness of their tests. For example, writes:

“Your AncestryDNA� results include information about your ethnicity across 26 regions/ethnicities and identifies potential relatives through DNA matching to others who have taken the AncestryDNA test. Your results are a great starting point for more family history research, ?and it can also be a way to dig even deeper into the research you’ve already done.”

That is a far less rosy answer than the advertising leads you to believe. Admixture DNA testing is a valid test—not a sham—but the results are complicated and very limited. It examines non-sex chromosomes inherited from both parents and identifies chromosomes that contain DNA segments from all ancestors. To a limited extent, this test can track the geographical movements of ancestors by examining single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), some of which influence traits such as skin color and resistance to regional diseases. Using that information there are patterns of human genetic diversity which could be weakly correlated with racial and ethnic categories. Those are, in turn, partially correlated with geography. However the same SNPs may be found among several populations around the world, and thus can produce false leads. The companies use the ancestry markers to show genetic differences between what are assumed to be four biologically distinct populations: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and Native Americans.

Even the language shows some major flaws for this type of test—i.e. weakly correlated, partially correlated, and assumed-distinct populations. And this isn’t the only problem in using these tests for discovering ancestry. The results rely on a database of samples to correlate these findings. You need a comparison to a known DNA marker to know that your genetic markers are associated with a certain region. Genetic matching depends largely on the number of samples in a company’s database. The researchers published in Science wrote:

“Even databases with 10,000 to 20,000 samples may fail to capture the full array of human genetic diversity in a particular population or region.

The team also pointed out that research into this type of testing has shown inherent flaws, with the writers noting:

“Dark-skinned East Africans might be omitted from the AIMS reference panel of ‘Africans’ because they exhibit different gene variants.”

This means that a certain sizable African populations (the most genetically diverse region on the planet) may not fit in the African marker group, despite being from Africa, appearing to share the same outward traits as other Africans in the database, and having a shared cultural heritage. Such a risk of failure makes this test dubious.

Others have have rolled out mitochondrial DNA testing, which is more problematic. Because such tests analyze less than 1 percent of a person’s genome, they will miss most of a person’s relatives. If you take a mitochondrial DNA test, you learn something about your mother’s ancestry. It leaves out completely your father’s ancestry. Plus, if you go back as little as 10 generations, that test is telling you something about only one ancestor out of more than a thousand from that part of your family tree.

Overall DNA tests fail because they cannot account for recent migrations of peoples from their ancient homelands. Present-day patterns of residence are rarely identical to what existed in the past, and social groups have changed over time, in both name and composition. The relation between genetic and cultural heritage is unbelievably murky given current world wide mixing of populations. And, as noted before, these tests don’t actually tell you anything about who you are. If you’re adopted by an Italian family, raised from birth as Italian, and will die believing you’re Italian, how does a DNA test change that? What right does a DNA test have to steal your legacy and tell your great, great, great grandchildren that they are in fact Swedish? None at all. Ancestry is a legacy, not a bloodline.

Disclaimer: This post is my personal opinion, it is not a substitute for medical care. It is for informational purposes only. The information on Skeptoid blog is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. This post does not reflect the opinion of my partners, professional affiliates, or academic affiliations. I have no financial conflicts of interest to disclose.

by Stephen Propatier


Thinking Clearly About Medical Marijuana

Medical cannabis (aka medical marijuana) is currently being used as a medical treatment. It has many concerning similarities to many types of alternative medicine. Unlike most alternative medicine good research does show promise as a reliable medical treatment. This is a fascinating dichotomy to me as a medical professional and the use of medical cannabis is an interesting thought exercise for the critical thinker. There is good evidence for some uses and myriad of poorly supported treatment modalities. Advocates both for and against demonstrate a disdain of scientific exploration. As a skeptic I think this is fertile ground for flexing our critical-thinking muscles.

Recently, David Noonan at Scientific American wrote a relatively uncritical essay about medical marijuana, called “How Medical Marijuana’s Chemicals May Protect Cells.” The title is accurate but the operative word for this research is may, yet that is not how he presents the findings. Like most of the positive puff pieces on this drug it lacks a sound scientific critique of the research. Additionally, he expounds medical marijuana’s innumerable purported treatments and benefits. He fails to be critical of the research and instead he substitutes a lot of generalized marijuana promotion—a common failing for both sides of the medical cannabis issue. Both the opponents and the advocates rush to judgment and both sides tend to cling to individual research rather than an overall assessment. The liberal application of isolated research and ideological rhetoric produces a muddy picture. As a skeptic it is always good to take a critical look at controversial medical topics even if you lack the training and the expertise to analyse all the details. Good critical thinking can help you parse the facts from the rhetoric.

Medical marijuana is not like homeopathy or Reiki; it has reasonable plausibility and reasonable evidence to back up some claims. Like those two useless treatments there are reams of in-vitro, unreplicated, or poorly structured research. There is, in my opinion, a “quick-to-judge factor” that surrounds interpretation of all marijuana research by both the pro and con camps. Overall, the research surrounding cannabis is interesting: some promising and some so obviously biased it should be thrown out. But a tiny fraction of the research conducted on the drug has been well structured and replicated. Marijuana as a medical treatment is interesting, complicated, and promising. Let’s take a close look and apply our critical thinking skills.

Medical marijuana and the course it has taken on its way to being a medical treatment is to say the least, unusual. Its complicated history, as both an illegal recreational drug and multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise, has tarnished its name. Historically this has thrown up barriers for experimentation and research. Compounding the problems with making this a medical treatment is its advocates’ disdain for the current medical system. Many in the pro-medical-marijuana group have a strong leaning towards anti-medical/anti-scientific thinking. And in my opinion this is partly due to medical establishment eschewing them and partly due to purposeful blindness about the drug’s shortcomings.

Medical marijuana originated from folk remedies and anecdotes shared among recreational users. After a lot of outcry the medical community finally added its voice to push experimentation and research forward. Proposed applications for this drug seem to have far surpassed available research. That’s always problematic for a medical treatment. Although it’s true that the illegal recreational use saved a possibly effective drug from the wastebasket, it is also true that the same recreational use has been an impediment for adopting and researching it as a drug.

Historically there was little advocacy in the medical community due to marijuana’s negative social connotations. There has long been almost unwavering political and moral opposition to the drug. Those opponents have likewise refused to consider evidence scientifically. They usually oppose the drug due to a social concerns: wide acceptance of an intoxicant, concerns about gateway drug use, or vaguely supported concerns about the consequences of regular use. There are many examples of socially accepted drugs both in medical use (opiates) and recreational use (alcohol) that have identical histories and similar shortcomings. The social and safety issues surrounding this drug aren’t significantly different from those drugs.

Both advocates and opponents seem to want to champion research that supports their position and dismiss research that doesn’t. That should be a big red flag: the safety and efficacy of a drug needs to be based on science rather than cultural bias, research rather than supposition.

Medical evaluation to quantify and extract usable elements from cannabis have been blunted by both sides. Proponents often advocate that only the whole plant is beneficial, typically describing it as the so-called entourage effect. They claim that isolated compounds are insufficient because there are supposedly undetectable elements to marijuana that cannot be quantified or measured, that the active ingredients are too synergistic, numerous, or complex to separate and use. However, there are no well-controlled studies for inhaled cannabis. This organism varies species to species and plant to plant. There is no way that you are getting a consistent product from the straight plant—no way that something that is so content-arbitrary then requires a very specific combination to achieve efficacy. You can’t have it both ways and expect predictable, safe results. Consequently, the weak whole-plant argument has become the fall back special pleadingwhenever the plant or its products individually fails in research.

Opponents reject plant use because of the perception that it is a foot in the door for an intoxicant. Opponents also point out that its products don’t provide any new treatment options, and we already have effective drugs that do what this drug does. Although this is a reasonable criticism, if you look at this objectively you will see a paucity of direct evidence in comparative studies. The answer is that we don’t really know if it is superior, equivalent, or worse than existing drugs. Individual elements have been dosed and researched, such as nabiximols in Canada and the United Kingdom. Like most good evidence supporting medical cannabis, the nabiximols study shows modest results on relatively subjective complaints like pain. Combination drugs are being explored, but there are no solid findings yet. To many critical thinkers this is not a strong showing. For any other drug this would be evidence far too weak to promote one treatment over another already proven to be effective.

Medical marijuana offers other pseudoscientific red flags. One typical of many other useless alternative/complementary medicine paradigms is the medical panacea fallacy. Like many other sham treatments, you can name a medical problem and someone will claim that cannabis supposedly treats it. The list of proposed benefits for medical marijuana is ridiculously long, and includes reported maladies such uses as:

all cancers 
Asperger’s syndrome
Crohn’s disease
multiple sclerosis
post traumatic stress disorder
trigeminal neuralgia
reflex sympathetic dystrophy
bipolar disorder
attention deficit disorder
Hashimoto’s encephalopathy
Post-polio paralysis
heroin addiction
Tourette’s syndrome
spastic paraplegia
irritable bowel syndrome

Yes: that list includes both cancer and hiccups. When it comes to medical treatments there are no cure-alls. Frankly, it is impossible for any drug to be a panacea. It is totally implausible that medical marijuana could treat even a tiny fraction of these diseases. Good critical thinking has repeatedly shown us that if something is a treatment for everything, then it probably treats nothing. I think medical marijuana is an exception to that rule insofar as it definitely has potential medical applications. But there is no way that it treats that many different medical problems. Anecdotally it may work, possibly as a dissociative, which is just hiding problems not treating them.

Critically the most concerning thing about medical cannabis is the push to treatment. Forcing research is difficult but you can gin public support for it. Yet advocates seem to have jumped over research using an obtuse backwards kind of tautology: proponents argue that the drug’s illegality is preventing research, so it must be made legal for the sake of research and the best way to achieve that is to call it a medicine, so that we can legalize it and find out if it’s an effective medicine. This basically makes the public a phase II human trial for medical marijuana under the banner of compassionate medical care. That is not a scientific progression for a solid medical treatment. I recognize that it is possible that there is an undercurrent of legalizing recreational marijuana. Or this philosophy may be a result of previous dismissal of marijuana by the medical community. No matter the origin, promoting medical marijuana as a treatment has become almost a belief system.

If we approach this medication critically what do we know?

  1. There is evidence that medical cannabis may help with psychiatric complaints and with subjective complaints like insomnia, pain.
  2. There is a mountain of poor-quality evidence claiming support for other uses for cannabis, but without good data to back up those assertions.
  3. Both proponents and opponents lack a good scientific methodology; they propose ideological, unsupported, and implausible claims.
  4. The actual efficacy and safety of medical cannabis is very murky.
  5. Its benefit as a medical treatment is unclear.

In my opinion, widespread adoption of medical marijuana is premature. Marijuana needs to be removed from US Schedule I so that research is possible. More research is needed. It may be an effective, safe pain medication. Currently the jury is out on that. Finding out the answer to that question is only possible if both the proponents and the opponents of medical marijuana can find some common ground around scientific inquiry.

I cannot in all good conscience recommend medical cannabis except in palliative terminal cases. It just has too many unknowns. Given the evidence I am just as likely to be prescribing a big fat placebo with a dissociative element as an effective medical treatment. It needs more research… period, the end. Currently it is not a treatment—it is a guess. It needs well-controlled duplicated studies; it needs the active ingredients and their interactions to be identified. We need to know what is an effective dose and what’s a toxic one. It needs all of this before you can call this a treatment. I demand that level of knowledge before I give anything to patients. You can’t cut corners because you believe something is effective. You can’t base success of a treatment on patient satisfaction when you are dealing with medications that have recreational uses. Getting drunk may help you deal with pain, but it won’t fix anything. I won’t offer my patients a bottle of Jack Daniels anymore than I will offer them a bag of cannabis. It is just not a medical treatment. I demand more of my medical treatments and so should you.

by Stephen Propatier

Alternative Medicine and the Post-Hoc Rationalization.

If you follow me on the Skeptoid blog you’ll find that I take a dim view of complementary and alternative medicine. My opinion is based primarily on a rational evaluation of the research. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), as a whole, is chock full of poor studies, index studies and weak correlational studies. There is a minority of well done positive research that subsequently fails to show any benefits and goes unreplicated. Alternative medicine as a whole has all the failings of an old west medicine show plagued by scam artists and ideologues. Scammers and ideologues use the freedom that discarding the scientific method offers to reinforce an emotional response. This summer, BioMed Central, a peer-reviewed open-access journal, published an overview of alternative medicine treatments and the benefit in getting injured or sick people back to work, undertaken by researchers at Columbia University. This study, titled “Complementary and alternative medicine use and absenteeism among individuals with chronic disease,” was a retrospective correlational review of data collected from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey data. Continue reading →

Truth And Consequences For Rhode Island Leaders

RI Statehouse Via Wikimedia

Like most Rhode Island Residents I am consistently frustrated by our states’ government. We have leaders who treat us as if we are short sighted simpletons.  All governments do this to some extent, but RI is special because they simply look you in the eye and say “too bad mother Fffrs.” You see evidence of this attitude coming out of the State House is apparent everyday if you are paying attention. Sometimes the evidence of their disdain is so egregious and obvious I just want to stand on the State House lawn and start throwing rocks at the building. The road works project is the most recent and frustrating example of this behavior. Continue reading →

When I Lost My Respect for Tom Brady

Tom Brady New England Patriot Quarterback Dec 4th 2007 Via Wikimedia

In the US, American-style football is big, both as an entertainment medium, and as a business. Worldwide, people are aware of the sport’s premier contest, the Super Bowl, even if they don’t watch it. Last year the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in dramatic fashion. Their quarterback Tom Brady was embroiled in accusations that he changed the air pressure in the footballs to gain a distinct advantage in the an earlier tournament’s championship game, which they won to get to the Super Bowl. Personally I found the whole discussion to be puerile and arbitrary. I don’t hold any professional athletes in very high regard, but Brady is transcendent of his sport in the public eye for a host of reasons. He is a success story at a premier position in the National Football League, the sport’s governing body, having risen from relative insignificance to become a Hall of Fame player. Similar to David Beckham retired UK footballer, he is married to his wealthier international super model wife, and he has name recognition and fame status that supersedes his sports status.

Continue reading →

Post-Holiday Cleansing Diets

Every year the holidays put stress on our health sensibilities. We indulge ourselves, we overeat, drink alcohol and generally take liberty with our bodies. Invariably we can develop a sense of guilt over our excesses. Then there are the traditional New Year’s resolutions and the attempt to negate the past month’s indiscretions. I have noted personally and professionally an increase in health-conscious people using cleansing diets. Friends, students, and even colleagues are using them as a recovery method for this extended period of less-than-healthful behaviors. I decided to take a skeptical look at the so-called cleansing diets. What are cleansing diets and are they a good method to get yourself back into shape? Does a cleanse actually do anything and could it be a health panacea or is it another in a long line of marginal health claims?

Simplifast detox diet beverages. Via Wikimedia.

Continue reading →

Cryotherapy: What Works and What Doesn’t

A recent email from a fan asks, “What is your take on the benefits or consequences of cryotherapy?” That’s a very broad question since the word cryotherapy is a non-descript term, like “oxygen therapy.” Cryotherapy is a type of proven medical treatment, but it’s limited to a very narrow set of applications and there are uses of that term that have a much shakier foundation. The term describes a myriad of questionable practices; some are built upon plausible mechanisms that lack a clear scientific foundation, and some are out-and-out chicanery. As such, the word derives its practical meaning from the methods and the purpose of the treatment. So let’s take a look at some of the common uses of the term and try to tease out the science vs the sham. Continue reading →

Amelia Earhart Mystery Solved?

AmeIf you pay attention to recent media reports you may think that the mystery surrounding Amelia Earhart’s last flight has been solved, and that researchers have in fact found wreckage from her flight. Headlines read: “Mystery of Amelia Earhart Solved? Fragment From Missing Plane Identified,” and “Mystery of Amelia Earhart finally solved,” and “Amelia Earhart mystery – 1937 photograph could be clue to fate of aviator who disappeared on round-the-world flight.”

Those headlines were based on a recent press release and quotes from a particular researcher who has found a metal fragment, and claimed, “It was as unique to her particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an individual,” and the patch “matches that fingerprint in many respects.

What does this mean? Is the mystery solved as it has been widely reported, or is this just another example of researcher enthusiasm? Lets revisit Ms. Earhart’s fateful flight and take a skeptical look at this “new” evidence.

Continue reading →

Vampirism: The New (Old) Fountain Of Youth

If you read the medical reporting online you can become convinced that we will soon be living like the fictional marvel comics character Blade, “Day Walker”. An immortal that needs human blood to keep himself/herself rejuvenated. They give the mostly false impression that recent research is the first step to immortality. Although there is recent research, confirming prior evidence, of a benefit to older mice from younger mice blood. This is by no means the “key” to immortality. That has not prevented any news media outlets from reporting that it is age reversal in mice. Nor has it stopped them from extrapolating the same benefit to humans.

That may sound familiar since this is a common pop culture theme and has some historical precedent as well. There are early documented references to the use of blood, for what can be at best described as ‘medicinal’ purposes. One of the first of these relating to a ‘transfusion’ is contained in the seventh book of the Metamorphoses, by Ovid, who wrote in 43BCE, describing how (the witch) Medea rejuvenated Jason’s aged father Aeson as follows:

Medea took her unsheathed knife and cut the old man’s throat letting
all of his blood out of him. She filled his ancient veins with a rich elixir.
Received through his lips and wound, his beard and hair no longer
white with age, turned quickly to their natural vigour, dark and lustrous;
his wasted form renewed, appeared in all the vigour of bright youth“.

Almost 2000 years of scientific advancement cannot stop current science reporters from falling for the same story.

Here are just a few of the dramatic headlines you can find online…

  • Young Blood Restores Old Mice
  • Swapping Young Blood for Old Reverses Aging
  • (My Personal Favorite) Vampire’ blood transfusions could cure Alzheimer’s and even be the secret to eternal youth

Could this possibly be true? Is there immortality in the blood freezer at the local blood bank? Well the short answer is……aaaaah no!

These articles are an exaggeration of the salient facts, married to a misunderstanding of a complex science. Small exaggerations allow writers to produce an attention grabbing sound bite and/or headline.

Eternal youth from blood is an irresistible story for both the writers and the readers. Realistically, it as a unsupported conclusion based on some recent research. Lack of probablity does not seem to prevent science reporters from promising eternal youth or pop culture fictional imaginings like vampires.

The actual research makes much smaller claims; although the principal investigators have taken full advantage of pop culture imaginings to promote their research (this is becoming more and more common in promoting research and unfortunate in my opinion).

The actual research is actually three separate lines of good evidence.

  1. Young blood reverses age-related impairments in cognitive function and synaptic plasticity in mice.
  2. Vascular and Neurogenic Rejuvenation of the Aging Mouse Brain by Young Systemic Factors
  3. Restoring Systemic GDF11 Levels Reverses Age-Related Dysfunction in Mouse Skeletal Muscle

The most recent paper Number #1 is making the rounds in the news. Injecting old mice with blood from younger mice improved their cognitive abilities along with promoting new neuron growth in their spinal cords. This is a further  line of evidence that some factor in blood keeps regenerative processes going for a time, but then disappears with aging. The older research done by the same group at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., can be found in the journal Nature Medicine. That research involves “heterochronic parabiosis,” which connects the vascular systems of young and old mice so that the young animals’ blood circulates through the older animals. That research had also demonstrated a systemic rejuvenation effect. However, it is still not certain whether GDF11 is the factor underlying these findings.

Multiple lines of convergent evidence in medicine is usually very convincing. As you may have guessed, this evidence is magnitudes removed from being able to make the types of conclusive statements present in the media reports.

The research is duplicating an effect but the conclusions are at best a stretch. There are many factors that are not being controlled for. Even if you assume that the conclusions are 100% accurate there is no guarantee that this effect automatically transfers to humans.

For example, there is a list of studies showing successful spinal nerve regeneration with stem cell treatments in rodents. Everyone is trying to find a way to regenerate the spinal cord after an injury. Despite tons of limited success in rodents it just doesn’t work in other animals especially humans. It is well known that rodents have regenerative properties that we just don’t share. The stem cell treatments just don’t seem to translate to humans like they do in rodents. A common flaw in the conclusions “is it the rodent or the treatment”. It is very likely that this research will run into the same “Human Barrier”. We are not rodents and what works for them doesn’t commonly work for us.

The GDF11 factor is significant because we share this factor with rodents. In truth the researchers have failed to properly isolate this factor. So is the effect from the factor or is it something else?

Additionally there are many many confounding factors. Could it be some hormonal factor in the blood, or something specific to mice in general.

Finally plausibility is an issue for this conclusion. Blood transfusion has been around since 17th century, it is not new med. tech. If there was a large effect from youthful blood transfusion it would have been noted. I am sure since this has been a consistent folk legend surrounding blood. I am certain that real or not it would have been noticed given the millions of blood transfusions that have taken place. More damaging to plausibility is the totality of what we know about the aging process. There is no one factor. Aging is multi-factoral and it is far too complicated of a process to be blunted by one particular blood factor.

I think that the research is worth pursuing. That said, when you evaluate this using a Bayesian model you will see that it is highly unlikely that GDF11 will be a panacea for eternal youth, never mind a cure for Alzheimer disease.

Like many science/medicine stories this news cycle is another good example of why science writers need to consult experts before writing stories. Headline editors are good at writing headlines but they are lousy journalists with absolutely zero science chops.



Blackfish: Documentary or Propaganda?

Official Poster from Sundance Film Festival

There are many examples of crafted activism in psuedo-documentaries. The iconic Super Size Me is a premiere example of this covered in skeptoid episode 88. Recently I came across a “documentary” called Blackfish. It is about the famous killer whale named Tilikum. Tilikum’s fame stems from a deadly attack on a trainer at Orlando SeaWorld February 24th 2010. This Orca has been implicated in two other deadly incidents as well, but is best known for the SeaWorld death. I watched this film about the history of attacks by this animal as well as the treatment of all captive orca. It provoked a strong emotional response, making it a good film, but not necessarily a good presentation of the facts. I was bothered by the title “Blackfish” — deceptive and scientifically wrong. Irrelevant for a work of fiction, but a not so subtle alliteration in a documentary. Blackfish is a colloquial name for Orcinus orca. Like the more commonly used term Killer Whale, it is incorrect. Orcas are neither fish nor are they all black. Actually killer whale is equally incorrect; they are not whales, killer or otherwise. Orcas are in fact the largest member of the dolphin family. After watching the movie I had some lasting questions beyond the title and decided to take a close look at the film and see how much was fluff and how much was fact. 

Movie Summary:

The documentary focuses on the captivity of Tilikum, a killer whale involved in the deaths of three individuals, and the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity. The coverage of Tilikum includes his capture in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, purported harassment by fellow captive whales at Sealand of the Pacific, incidents that Cowperthwaite argues contributed to the whale’s aggression and includes testimonial from Lori Marino, Director of Science with Nonhuman Rights Project. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld‘s claims that lifespans of whales in captivity are comparable to those in the wild, typically 30 years for males and 50 years for females,[3] a claim the film argues is false. Interview subjects also include former SeaWorld trainers, such as John Hargrove.

The film it is a very compelling and emotional narrative. It gives you the undeniable impression of a animal that has a pattern of unpredictable aggression. An animal that has caused multiple deaths. The film proposes that the animal was obviously dangerous and SeaWorld has mostly ignored or misunderstood the danger. In addition, SeaWorld failed to have properly warned/prepared animal trainers for this animal. They draw a marginal conclusion that the animal is probably mentally ill in some manner, and that it poses a insurmountable danger that Sea World ignores.

The film is compelling and disturbing. Skeptically watching the film, I found some of the conclusions weak, especially about the behavior of the animal. The movie completely convinced me that Sea World had poorly trained staff that was ignorant of the danger. A disturbing truth the film portrayed was the trainer’s paucity of education. There was a consistent impression of personnel that had absolutely no formal education in marine biology or any formal marine mammal behavioral education. They appeared to be “on the job” trained. Which I found surprising. I had always assumed that the people in the wet suit were marine biologists. In retrospect, slightly naive.

I had other impressions. There was an obvious bias from the interviewed staff and “biologists”. I found their negative testimony about SeaWorld in particular to be less than credulous. I had a strong emotional response to the scenes involving the capture and segregation of the animals and to the “eyewitness” testimony from the Sealand of the Pacific incident.

Orca in the wild

Clearly, others have had a similar reaction. The movie has become a rallying cry for the ethical treatment of these marine mammals and their exploitation by SeaWorld. It is the basis of a boycott/shutdown movement surrounding the SeaWorld amusement parks. Notably, a California politician has introduced a bill that will effectively shut down SeaWorld San Diego.

SeaWorld San Diego would have to end its killer whale shows and remove 10 orcas from their tanks under a bill inspired by a documentary blasting the marine park’s animal welfare practices. The California Assembly is holding its first hearing on AB2140 Tuesday morning. The bill’s backers say killer whales are too large and intelligent for captivity, while SeaWorld says the animals are well treated and help conservation through research. The 2013 film “Blackfish” blames attacks and deaths of SeaWorld trainers on the mistreatment of the animals, increasing their aggression. SeaWorld calls the film anti-captivity propaganda. The bill by Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom also bans the import and export of orcas. Under his measure, SeaWorld could keep the animals it has in a larger sea pen until they die.

Is Blackfish an anti-SeaWorld propaganda film or a compelling view of the exploitation of marine mammals? To be fair, my feelings about the orcas in captivity are conflicted, and I may have some bias. In my opinion it is illogical to think that an intelligent, social, apex marine mammal would enjoy living out their life in what amounts to a small pool. I also know that SeaWorld (and others) have profited from forcing these animals to perform tricks for people’s amusement. Yet I have been in those audiences on occasion, and I have been amazed and thrilled by these animals. My feelings about captive orcas are, as I said, conflicted.

So what about the movie? What does it really add to the debate about these animals? As with many of these social documentaries, there are too many factual inconsistencies to feel that this movie is a fair evaluation of the animal, the trainers, or the park.

There is evidence of fabrication of facts, or at least of editing to produce a consistently biased narrative.

  1. The film depicts a killer whale collection in Washington State that occurred 40 years ago.  It leaves viewers with three false impressions:  (1) that SeaWorld continues to collect whales from the wild to this day; (2) that Tilikum himself was collected by SeaWorld; and (3) that the collections done four decades ago were illegal.  None of this is true.  SeaWorld does not collect killer whales in the wild, and has not done so in over 35 years. Tilikum was not collected by SeaWorld.   And the collections four decades ago were conducted in compliance with federal laws, pursuant to federally-issued permits at that time.
  2. The film highlights two separations.  In one instance, involving a whale named Takara, the film leaves you with the impression she was a calf when separated.  In fact, Takara was 12 years old when she was moved.   In the second, involving a whale named Kalina, the film misleadingly shows footage of a calf that is only days old.  Kalina was moved when she was 4 ½ years old because she was disruptive to her mother and other whales.
  3. The Film includes a SeaWorld video of a female trainer riding a killer whale, while one of the cast members, Samantha Berg, talks about her “experience” at Shamu Stadium.  This segment misleadingly implies that Ms. Berg had relevant experience when, in fact, the video used in the film was shot 10 years after Ms. Berg had left SeaWorld.  The trainer depicted in the video is not Ms. Berg but rather is a current SeaWorld employee.   Of just the 3 years Ms. Berg spent working at SeaWorld, she spent only one year working with killer whales and she never conducted direct training with Tilikum.
  4. The film misleadingly cobbles together separate pieces of innocuous training and performance footage, synced with the actual 911 calls, to mislead the audience into believing it is viewing the actual footage of Ms. Brancheau swimming with Tilikum prior to the fatal incident.  In fact, the opening sequence does not depict either Ms. Brancheau or Tilikum, or an attack of any kind.  From the date Tilikum arrived at SeaWorld, no one was allowed to swim in the water with Tilikum, and Ms. Brancheau never did so.
  5. The film includes a recording of an EMT technician, subsequently proved to be mistaken, suggesting that Tilikum swallowed Ms. Brancheau’s arm during the incident. This is false.
  6. The Sealand of the Pacific incident was mischaracterized and several key facts were left out. Keltie Byrne, a 20-year-old marine biology student and competitive swimmer, slipped into the pool containing Tilikum, Haidi II and Nootka IV while working as a part-time Sealand trainer. The three orcas submerged her, dragging her around the pool and preventing her from surfacing. At one point she reached the side and tried to climb out but, as horrified visitors watched from the sidelines, the orcas pulled her screaming back into the pool. Other trainers responded to her screams, throwing her a life-ring, but the orcas kept her away from it. She surfaced three times screaming before drowning, and it was several hours before her body could be recovered from the pool. Both females were pregnant at the time, which was not known to the trainers. Which may have made them aggressive or more dangerous.
  7. SeaWorld does not starve their animals to train them. They are fed the same amount every day performing or not and have a very precise diet. It is true that other parks have used starvation method.

Beyond twisting the facts, I have a problem with the major unstated premise of the film. Namely, that getting in water with any marine mammal can be completely safe. Even well fed apex predators are unpredictable. Trainers know when you get in the water with a 22 ton marine mammal you are at their mercy. The filmmakers make a strong case that lethal orca attacks only occur in captive animals. That is technically true. I would not agree that this is somehow a result of mental disease due to captivity. In almost every case the extremely powerful animal seems to be playing with the people. I don’t mean in a kind, fun way. I mean wild orca often play with their pray; flinging them around, dragging them under the water. The wild orca eventually eat the prey or share it with other orca. In all of the human cases, there was deadly injury and drowning, but no eating. This behavior  could be characterized as normal for a wild orca, or as boredom. Hardly unusual behavior for this animal.

There is good scientific evidence showing that orca steer clear of humans for the most part. Obviously daily human exposure in a show is far more often than any wild animal will ever experience. Simple statistics dictate that if you swam daily with wild orcas for years it is likely at some point you would get hurt, possibly killed.

Orcas do not perceive us as prey. We know from wild observation that orca are very selective eaters. Food is based upon the pod society. In the wild, animals seem to have a fairly strict culture involving behavior and food preferences. This behavior is so strong that occasionally it is negative for the animals. While there are about 50,000 orcas worldwide, the Salish Sea’s residents are down to fewer than 90 animals—and social mores appear to prevent them from mating outside their group, creating an inbred population. When some resident orcas’ preferred food, chinook, is scarce, the orcas’ upbringing are reluctant to eat sockeye and pink salmon, which are abundant. It is true that far as we know in the wild, there have been no fatal attacks on humans, probably because humans are not around a lot and we are not on the menu for a predator that sticks to a strict diet.

Humans tend to think of this animal leaving us alone as some type of mammalian kinship. That is just plain false. Orca systematically hunt and kill many intelligent mammals similar to them: whales, dolphins, and sea lions to name a few.

Despite movie statements to the contrary, there is evidence for wild orca on human aggression:

  • In the 1910s, the Terra Nova Expedition recorded that killer whales had attempted to tip ice floes on which an expedition photographer and a sled dog team were standing.[7] In this case the whales may have mistaken the dogs’ barking for seal calls and grown curious.[7]
  • On June 15, 1972, the hull of the 43-foot-long (13 m) wooden schooner Lucette (Lucy) was stove in by a pod of killer whales and sank approximately 200 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. The group of six people aboard escaped to an inflatable life raft and a solid-hull dinghy.[8]
  • On September 9, 1972,[9] a Californian surfer named Hans Kretschmer reported being bitten by a killer whale at Point Sur; most maintain that this remains the only fairly well-documented instance of a wild orca biting a human.[10][11] His wounds required 100 stitches.[11]
  • In August 2005, while swimming in four feet of water in Helm Bay, near Ketchikan, Alaska, a 12-year-old boy named Ellis Miller was “bumped” in the shoulder by a 25-foot transient killer whale.[10][12] The boy was not bitten or injured in any way. The bay is frequented by harbor seals, and it is possible that the whale misidentified him as prey.[12]
  • During the filming of the third episode of the BBC documentary Frozen Planet (2011), a group of orcas were filmed trying to “wave wash”[13] the film crew’s 18-foot zodiac boat as they were filming. The crew had earlier taped the group hunting seals in the same fashion. It was not mentioned if any of the crew were hurt in the encounter.[14] The crew described the orcas as being very tolerant of the film makers’ presence. Over the course of 14 days they filmed over 20 different attacks on seals, many of which the film’s series producer Vanessa Berlowitz describe as training exercises for the young calves in the group.[15][16]
  • On February 10, 2014, a free diver in Horahora Estuary near WhangareiNew Zealand was pulled down for a duration of over 40 seconds by a killer whale that grabbed the catch bag attached to his arm. The bag, which contained crayfish and sea urchins, was attached to the diver’s arm by a rope which eventually came free. He then undid his weight belt and returned to the surface with his last breath. His arm was “dead” and he could no longer swim, but his cousin was nearby and helped him float to some rocks where the feeling in his arm returned.[17][18][19]

Overall I found the film to be a concentrated effort to paint captive orca as slowly going mad. It painted the orca as a captive human with increasing anger and mental illness. Systematical editing and narration portrayed Sea World and captive orcas in the most emotion provoking and detrimental view. It evaded issues to evoke sympathy for captive orca, and anger at a corporate entertainment venue.

Captive orca represent a complicated issue. They are an intelligent social animal that probably shouldn’t be locked up in a tiny marine cell. That said, there are actual positives for the species and possibly for the current captive animals.  The current animals in captivity have either been out of the wild for their adult life or born into captivity. They cannot be released; we are incapable teaching them what they need to know to survive. Removing them from the show would make us feel better, but realistically only decrease the mental and physical stimulus they receive. No tickets, no money. How long would we feed them, give them vet care in their slightly bigger but less interesting new tank?

To the activists, I would say that a small number of captured orca are of tremendous benefit to the race as a whole. We are their only real threat in the world. Generations of kids have seen these animals, love them, have stuffed animals and dream of working with them. There is no better way to humanize these animals. Humanity equals emotional attachment, and emotional attachment means preservation. If you take these animals out of the public consciousness, how much good will is lost for all marine mammals, especially the great whales?

Bottom line: if you follow the evidence you will see a consistent pattern of bias and manipulation. It doesn’t make it a bad film, just a bad documentary.


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