Category Archives: Psuedoscience

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.

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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.

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Was Walt Disney a Misogynist ?

9 months ago I wrote a post about the pop culture perception that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic. Since I wrote the original post, the movie Saving Mister Banks (a biopic about Disney) was released. The movie and the promotion brought this topic back into the public eye. On the surface the antisemitic claims sounded convincing. They did not hold up to close scrutiny. Claims made by a former employee lacked supporting evidence. Most of the other evidence is circumstantial and contradictory. There is good evidence showing that Walt Disney wasn’t focally antisemitic. Other ex-employee’s have come out strongly in favor of Disney’s reputation. Disney hired a multitude of Jewish staff and actors.  Disney had more Jewish actors on staff than any other studio, including studies owned by Jewish moguls like Warner. Notably he was the first person to cast a well known Jewish actor to play Santa Claus (Ed Wynn in babes in toyland.)

In my Opinion, the Antisemitism claims about Disney are overblown, post-hoc, and lack convergence in the evidence. You can read a more thorough analysis in the original piece. Was Walt Disney an Anti-Semite?

Saving Mr. Banks is a movie about Walt Disney and the creation of the movie Mary Poppins from a female author’s book. As the movie has been promoted the attention has resurfaced. Actress Meryl Streep in a public discussion about the movie put forth a less known but equally dogmatic rumor. Namely that Walt Disney was a Misogynist. Given my experience with the Anti-Semitic charge, I decided to turn a skeptical eye to this rumor and see what the evidence is.

The recent claims by Actress Meryl Streep give a good overview of claims of misogyny by Walt Disney.

“calling the late animator a “hideous anti-Semite” who “formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby”.

“And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot,” she added, before quoting a letter he wrote to an aspiring female animator in 1938.

“Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men,” it read.

She went on to quote Disney’s colleague Walter Kimball, who apparently said that his boss “didn’t trust women or cats” Variety reports.

Streep did, however, throw a little water on the fire by adding: “There is a piece of received wisdom that says that the most creative people are often odd, or irritating, eccentric, damaged, difficult. That along with enormous creativity comes certain deficits in humanity or decency.”

Here is a copy of that letter.

The Letter

The origin of the letter is unique. It was part of the estate of Mrs Ford. Found by the family and made public after her death. I will take it on face value as genuine. It was not written by Walt personally, as was claimed by Streep.

Secondly Streep claimed that Ward Kimball, one of Disney’s original animators, was quoted as saying Disney didn’t trust women.

I will start with the second claim first. Did Ward Kimball make the statement “didn’t trust women or cats.” Yes he did. Although it took me a lot of searching to find out if it was an actual quote. I had to go to Ward’s biographer  to get the answer.

“As the family-approved biographer of Ward Kimball, I’m tickled to see Ward quoted in a public venue. But it also pains me to see Ward’s words taken out of context to serve someone else’s personal agenda. I’ve read thousands of pages of Ward’s writings, including his personal diaries, and I can say unequivocally that Ward never felt Walt Disney ‘didn’t really like women.’ In the quote, Ward claims that Walt was suspicious of women, but I don’t know the context of that statement. And guess what, Meryl doesn’t know the context either. That’s the entirety of the quote published in Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney, stripped of all its original nuance and meaning. We can only assume that there was something that Kimball said that preceded and followed his soundbite-worthy statement. The fact that Kimball listed both women and cats in the same sentence suggests that he was being playful and facetious, a reflection of his personality. He would have likely cringed to see someone misappropriating his comments to attack a man whom he deeply respected and admired.”

Another Kimball Quote:”We thought we were always going to be 21 years old. We thought we would always be putting goldfish in the bottled drinking water, balancing cups of water on the light fixtures, changing the labels on cans of sauerkraut juice. We were 21 years old, Walt was 30, leading the pack. Working there was more fun than any job I could ever imagine.”

In my opinion the woman and cats quote is probably meaningless as evidence of misogyny. Given the cat reference it was probably tongue in cheek humor. A humorous comment about his boss. Someone that he had a long, productive, and playful relationship with.

The letter is fairly compelling evidence that Walt Disney’s studio had discriminatory practices related to  hiring women in the creative department. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the letter. It is inconsequential that the letter came from a woman’s office.

Did Disney studios have misogynistic hiring practices in the 1930’s?

Answer: in my opinion, Yes. Even without the letter I would have said, yes.

Prior to WWII the country was suffering from crushing depression a large percentage of men were out of work. Women only made up about 26% of the workforce at the time. That workforce grew to 50% during WWII and immediately fell when the soldiers returned home. Fairly clear evidence of generalized sexist hiring practices in the US at that time (Misogynistic that it is). Cultural mores in the US placed women out of the workforce. Men were considered the bread winner. The letter is an indictment of Disney Studios. Evidence that Disney studios, like many companies at the time, were sexist. Culturally it fits the problems of the time. What this says about Walt Disney personally is murky. He had the power to treat women with an equal rights/equal pay agenda. It would have made him unbelievably progressive for his time. The fact that the studio sent a misogynistic letter to a female applicant does not say anything about Disney’s personal beliefs. It is emotionally provoking and suggestive, but not really good evidence of Disney’s attitude towards women? I am not ignoring the letter. There is some very good evidence to the contrary.

In 1938 Retta Scott was hired by the Story Department at Disney studios. She was assigned to the Bambi project. When Walt Disney saw her sketches he  personally assigned her to animate scenes in the movie. She was the first female animator at the studio. She was the first because Disney personally put here there. That is the same period that the letter arrived at Mrs. Fords house.

Retta Scott wasn’t the only female animator for long. Disney moved her onto other movies and he added another iconic female Disney animator, Mary Blair. Mary became a instrumental artist at Disney studio’s. She toured the world for FDR’s Good Neighbor policy. She traveled on this tour with Walt, his family, as well as several members of Disney’s staff.  After that tour she worked several package films, and on two partially animated features — Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. The early 1950s were a busy time for the Disney studios, with an animated feature released nearly every year. She was art supervisor on several Disney films. Even after she retired from Disney studios he asked her back to do iconic art work at Disney theme parks. Tomorrowland, and it’s a small world where her designs can still be found.

Hardly the actions of a Misogynist with negative attitudes about female artists.

So very much like claims of antisemitism I see a lot of show, but no go. Little or no direct evidence to support claims of Misogyny. Facts that will not stop the misogyny claims from being circulated and certified as Disney dogma.

I always recommend getting your history from historians, not movies, and certainly not from celebrities. If you see something from either of those two sources you have good reason to be skeptical.


Killer Commercial Airlines

Chemtrails are all over the internet, and purported to be part of a government conspiracy to poison or control populations. This is complete psuedoscience and fear mongering debunked in skeptoid episode 27. Major news outlets are reporting today that science has produced a link with jet aircraft and heart attacks. No it is not a chemtrail story, it is another example of thrill science publishing and reporting.

 “Exposure to Aircraft noise may increase the risk of hospitalizations for heart problems“. When I first read the story, I immediately assumed reporter error and twisted exaggeration. Not at all. It is the BMJ that is at fault here.

I am dismayed by the conclusions of the actual study. I have to give the media a partial pass because analyzing the complicated double speak is difficult. The conclusions of this study are on such shaky ground that my initial impression is that this is one of the well known BMJ “Joke” studies that it publishes annually in the Christmas holiday edition. As far as I can tell the paper seems serious and not a spoof.

The title of the paper is”Aircraft noise and cardiovascular disease near Heathrow airport in London: small area study“. It proposes that having controlled for the confounding factors as best they can, the authors see a statistically significant link between exposure to aircraft noise; coronary artery disease, stroke and mortality.

My Opinion, I am stunned that this pile of tripe got published. It is a very nice statistical exercise but what it really says about anything is unclear. There is so much wrong methodologically that I hope the conclusions from this data cannot be serious. It may have been done on purpose. Either to expose poor science reporting, study poor science reporting, or to try to drum up public support financially for their research. That can explain the author’s fail. It completely escapes me why the BMJ would publish it as a serious paper.

Here are a few of the major methodological error highlights making the stated conclusion impossible to determine.

  1. They retroactively took chart data from hospital admissions and compared it to airline noise plots based on time of day and location. The data controlled for air pollution, and some patient demographics. It did not remove exclude or analyze any other noise sources for the patients.  Meaning that the authors in metropolitan London assumed that all other noise sources were irrelevant compared to airline noise.
  2. They included no data on the following confounding cardiovascular risk factors: Body mass index, serum lipid profile, family history, exercise tolerance or frequency, employment, interior personal environment(IE:smoke filled lounge), driving or not, traffic or not, amount of sleep, psychiatric stressors, caffeine intake, alcohol or illicit drug use(there is more for brevity I will stop). What they did they control for? “adjusted for age, sex, ethnicity, deprivation, and a smoking proxy (lung cancer mortality) using a Poisson regression model”
  3. They used a statistical expansion model increase actual data points to more than they collected. It is a statistically valid technique but not for this type of study.
  4. They even noted that their population was heavily laden with biases, loading a group of distinct ethnic groups into one group “south Asian”
  5. For the premier fail of the study “We were able to adjust at small area level for ethnicity, deprivation, and a smoking proxy (and additionally for particulate air pollution and road traffic noise for a subset of 2.6 million people), but we did not have access to individual level information on confounders such as smoking; therefore results at the area level may not be applicable to individuals (ecological fallacy). ” Meaning they did not know if they were smokers or not. They averaged it out based on population grouping. I would term that a major confounding factor. How can you possible consider cardiovascular mortality factors without knowing if the patient is an active smoker? Answer: YOU CAN’T!

Just a stunning pile of research fail. This study is so loose that I am not even sure you can depend on any of the statistical findings. It is absolutely false to say that they can correlate airline noise with heart disease. It would be like publishing a paper about car accidents and drinking water. Primarily concluding in that paper that drinking a glass water in the 72 hours before a car accident causes it.

Utter and complete rubbish, shame on the BMJ. The study is slick and well done I can only fault the reporting to a point. If science reporters just called anyone with medical expertise and asked for a medical opinion on this study it wouldn’t be the lead medical story for the day. That is also probably why media outlets don’t do that.

Anthropogenic Global Warming and CFC’s.

A new paper by Professor Qing-Bin Lu PhD is purporting to demonstrate that chlorofluorocarbons, not carbon dioxide, are behind global warming. Since CFC production has tapered off, he therefore predicts that we’ll see global cooling for the next 50 years or so.

CFC’s or Chlorofluorocarbons were widely used as refrigerants until it was phased out for the ozone friendly R-410A due to the Montreal protocol. CFC’s do in fact have high global warming potential as do all halogenated molecules. As much as 10,000 times the global warming potential of CO2. So this theory has plausibility. I think it is reasonable to turn the colloquial “Skeptical Eye” of Skeptoid toward this claim and the science involved.The findings of Professor Lu’s paper – “Cosmic-Ray-Driven Reaction and Greenhouse Effect of Halogenated Molecules” would be dramatic and ground breaking. Like most extraordinary claims I require extraordinary evidence. Lets review the paper, the claims, it’s author, and the publisher.

The CFC paper (PDF) originated from University of Waterloo Ontario Canada. I am no chemist nor physicist, still on quick evaluation the math appears appropriate. In addition there does appear to be a correlation between CFC’s and global temperature. I quickly find glaring flaws even to a lay person. There does not appear to be any consideration for ocean based warming. The temperature figures are for land based temperatures only. Secondly he makes claims that the global temperatures have been cooling for the last decade. This is not supported by the temperature measurements from multiple lines of evidence. This makes me suspicious that there are more subtle but significant errors in the paper that I lack the expertise to find.

I also have concerns about the author, related to his expertise. He is a physicist not a climatologist. This is a red flag in science for pseudoscience. He is working outside his field. It is unlikely that a physicist can suddenly trump a generation of climatologists research. The Galileo gambit is another red flag for pseudoscience. People from outside a complex field of science suddenly coming up with a simplistic answer to complicated problem is likely bogus.

The publisher International Journal of Modern Physics B is not a peer reviewed climatology journal. Frankly another red flag. Getting your trauma surgery study published in Nature and not in The Journal of trauma and acute care surgery usually means that it has no real basis for surgical publication. Journals are like all publications, sensation sells, and publishing a controversial paper with good physics in it makes a lot of sense. That does not mean that there is any basis for guiding climate science.

For me the final “nail in the coffin” is that the author published a similar paper in 2010 with the same theory and it was roundly criticized then. “Cosmic-ray-driven electron-induced reactions of halogenated molecules adsorbed on ice surfaces: Implications for atmospheric ozone depletion and global climate change. Qing-Bin Lu.” In Physics Review.

So from a non-climatologist perspective. We have a physicist publishing a paper in a physics journal about climate change. Who ignores ocean temperatures, indicates that the planet is cooling when it is not, and bucks what 97% of experts in that field say.

In my opinion implausible and unlikely to pan out. That does not mean I think that CFC’s have no effect on climate. It is part of a global picture of climate change. AGW is multi-factoral. The science and the experts indicate that CO2 is still king. All other factors deforestation, CFC’s, methane, albedo changes, water vapor et al… All play a role but CO2 is still the major player.

It is a pleasant fantasy to think that the problem is already fixed and going away on its own. Unfortunately it is fantasy not science.

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