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Welcome back listeners to the Mad Scientist podcast! Man, it has been an insane week huh? The president has pretty much completely screwed up Science and the future of Science in the United States already, what with the freezing of the EPA which is the source for a huge amount of green energy and fundamental science funding, as well as beginning the process of scaring away the immigrant students who come here to get their PhD’s and hope to stay in the United States. Things in many ways have never been worse for science, and for that reason I really hope that if you are listening to this, and you are a scientist or an engineer or someone who believes that scientific and technological advancement is the best course to continue to be a leader in world affairs, then I hope you are seriously considering attending the upcoming March for Science, either in DC or around the world in your local city. I know many of you aren’t listening to this for political views, and I understand that of course, but these actions of the president are having real and likely lasting effects on Science and Technology in the US, and how scientists and engineers from other countries view coming to the United States for work and advancement.
Before we get into the cool stuff this week, we do have some house keeping. First and foremost, I GOT MY FIRST PATREON SUPPORTER! Robert, whoever you are and wherever you are, thank you so much for the support. We also have stickers featuring the podcasts logo! This first round of stickers will go out to those who join up on Patreon and pledge $1 dollar a month, along with a hand drawn doodle by yours truly and a letter of thanks.
At the same time, you will receive access to monthly chats with me and others working on this show, as well as first access to upcoming rewards and the opportunity to help direct future episode topics. Other big news is that this podcast has a second member, Marie Mayhew, a fellow ARC member and good friend of the show. She will be providing help with research, as well as joining me for a new series of episodes that will come out every other week, bringing the total of episodes to 4 a month. Marie and I will be basically doing a roundtable, discussing scientific and paranormal things that aren’t long enough for their own episodes at this point, and taking a less serious approach then on this show. I think we’ll call these the Mad Science Roundtable or something, but we will see.
Alright, last week we talked about how science actually gets done, and some of the cases where science has been an imperfect process. This week, lets start looking at how pseudoscientific and particularly pseudo-medical views come to the forefront, how they spread, and how they are different than science proper. I think one of the biggest red flags for what is or isn’t real science is the lack of scientific rigor, and what I mean by that is not following of the scientific method, that thing we all learned about in like 4th grade but which we assumed wasn’t really a part of science in the real world. We discussed the scientific method in previous episodes, but lets just go through the basic steps again. The scientific method breaks up studies and investigations into a number of basic parts. First, you have to think of a question you want to find the answer too. You then would propose a hypothesis, your idea of what the answer to that question might be. You then figure out a method or number of tests with which to determine if that hypothesis is correct, you determine what materials and techniques you will need, and you try and suss out what the variables or controls for those experiments will be. Variables are things that you will change to observe their affect on your system, while controls are things that you will keep the same between tests. This allows you to separate out individual variables hopefully, in order to see exactly what affect they have on a tests particular outcome. And finally, you will actually observe your experiments and collect the data, at which time you will come up with a conclusion on whether or not your hypothesis was correct based on that data.
Interestingly, if you apply this sort of logic to pseudoscience claims, you can often find exactly where they fall apart, or rather where it is that they are not scientifically rigorous. At the same time last episode we discussed how science is then reviewed by others, through peer review in journals, through testing of results to replicate them, or through discussion of methods and tests at conferences. This is another big way that these pseudoscientific claims just absolutely fall apart. There are often no standards for things like health supplement testing, for youth serums sold on TV shopping networks, or for the claims made by TV doctors and “not really that sort of doctors but still use that title in front of their name” people. In this episode, we will look at the evolution of sort of, kind of medical claims in the modern age, where they may come from at their roots, and how or why it is that we can claim they aren’t really science. And how the hell do we combat these sorts of issues in the first place?
EPISODE 15: Polygraphs, TV doctors, and Magical Berries
Pseudoscience is prevalent in the modern world, as my previous episodes and a cursory look at the History channel or Animal Planet should prove. But it’s sort of been prevalent throughout history, or at least views that we would consider to be non-scientific or outside of what we consider the natural world to really look like have been pretty commonplace. Part of this is because for the vast majority of human history science as we know it today didn’t really exist. People observed thenatural world of course, and came up with ideas or concepts that we still use to this point in time in our science, but the idea of there existing a real natural world, one which exists outside of personal experience, with objective and rigid rules about what could and could not occur is a pretty recent idea. In many ways this conforms to the philosophical idea of materialism, the belief that everything in the natural world must conform to the rules and observations obtained in the physical sciences. But not everyone takes this to be absolutely true, and in some ways its in this sort of uncomfortable space between absolute materialism and the subjective experiences of people living in the world that pseudoscience thrives.
Now obviously there are subjective experiences that we cannot explain currently with science, no matter how hard some of us may want. But what about those cases where subjective reality or how people feel about things shouldn’t really matter. I mean, there is a truth to whether or not vaccines cause autism right, there are ways to reliably test if eating ginko biloba will help improve your memory, and there are ways to attempt to prove that a new disease causing threads to form in your skin is actually occurring. I think in many ways, there are commonalities to all of these beliefs that go against what are ultimately testable and material questions. Just from a cursory standpoint, there are a number of usual and reliable pseudoscientific views that crop up in different flavors every couple of years, but which ultimately are of the same kind. This episode we will look at the first two of these in a series of upcoming episodes. First, we have cases where a super food is discovered, usually from the mountains of some South American or Asian country, that can do all sorts of magical things if you eat them. Second is the question of lie detector tests, one of those favorites of daytime TV shows that I think has a longer history if we include all methods of attempting to determine the ultimate guilt or innocence of a certain party.
The first of these ideas falls into the category of panaceas, singularly wholesome or perfect foods or items that upon ingestion can cure a whole host of problems from removal of toxins, curing of spiritual ills, curing cancer, or making you less likely to take on fat. This clearly has a lot to do with folk cures and herbal remedies right, but also quite a bit borrowed from the ideas of Alchemy. These ideas in many ways point to our desire to go back against modern medicine, to a time and a world that thought was more pure or perfect for its lack of technological advancement and knowledge. It’s a perfect example of a common fallacy, known as the naturalist fallacy, that we’ve talked about already in this show, but which basically goes says that the idea that because something seems natural or like it must happen biologically or something that it should or ought to happen. Basically placing a normative moral claim on an observation of the natural world. A whole lot of cult or non-standard religious views fall into this fallacy all the time, right? I mean the Amish, Mennonites, loads of communist or commune style cults, or anarchist thinking believes that, well, since we didn’t have thing A back when we were just starting out, then it must be causing us to have all the new problems we observe in the modern world. And for a lot of things this argument might seem to hold merit, right? I mean, we weren’t stressed out about Facebook or Instagram back in the Renaissance, but we also of course didn’t have the knowledge to cure ourselves of basically any medical ailment. Another sort of inverted idea of this is the opposite, that technology will cure EVERY problem we have, the favorite view of UFO or space cults. So this idea that a certain natural thing, a fruit or vegetable or root or herb or something, has some sort of magical way to cure us, fits right into this age old idea.
This argument also has blushes of the argument that the ancients must have known something that we don’t now, that sort of ancient alien style thinking that because maybe you can’t imagine the Sphinx being built with wooden boards and copper tools that it must not have been possible without advanced technology. And even though we like to think that this thinking isn’t all that common, you just need to look at modern politics or your personal religious experience to find examples of it. I mean the whole idea behind many religions is that these people who existed thousands of years ago had special knowledge or teachings that we should still heed today. At the same time, the reliance or absolute reading of the constitution has versions of this thinking in it as well. Although we don’t deify the American founding fathers really, we do assume that the system they created for their given time period and way of life should and absolutely will fit to our way of life today, at least on certain issues.
So we’ve already talked about my mothers absolute love of persimmons, and her belief that her persimmon in particular magically healed itself up. But did you know that persimmons are one of a host of magical fruits and vegetables, thought to be a super food or item that can magically cure a wide variety of ills? I found a particularly interesting use of persimmons on the tumblr of the witch Bree Landwalker, who I hope isn’t going to be upset that I am quoting from her page here. This info is from the Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs (2nd Ed.), Scott Cunningham, Llewellyn, 1984. Anyways, it is said that Persimmons could be used for healing, luck, and water magic, but in particular was thought by practitioners of folk magic in Alabama that if a girl wanted to become a boy all she had to do was eat nine unripe persimmons. Now persimmons are healthy, I don’t want to act like they are’t, and they are my favorite fruit probably. They are a good source of fiber, vitamin C and A, and a good source of manganese. Persimmons also contain a lot of other compounds like antioxidatns and flavonoids, compounds that are thought to be healthy generally by medical science but which there is frankly not a lot of evidence for in terms of their efficacy to treat specific diseases or chronic conditions. There are also a huge variety of compounds that fit into these two broad categories, some of which are considered to be required for healthy nutrition but others which are not thought to have any health benefits at all. Antioxidants are a particularly interesting version of this sort of magical or panacea style healing with a single type of food.
Number one is what is an anti oxidant? So, an oxidant is a compound that oxidizes something chemically, which means that it becomes oxidized or takes in an electron. At the same time, an antioxidant is a compound that instead donates an electron. Donating and taking in electrons is how molecules react and interact with one another, but in the body it is thought to be especially important because of the ability of antioxidants to stop the spread of free radicals. Now, a free radical is a compound that is extremely reactive, specifically taking in even strongly held electrons from other compounds. So when a free radical is formed in the body, which occurs due to natural processes such as digestion as well as things such as taking in sunlight on your skin. Free radicals basically move from their source and will interact with some other molecule, for instance a strand of DNA or a cell membrane. This disrupts these biological molecules, and causes them in some cases to become decayed, to lose function, or to even change function. So this is stuff we do want to limit occurring in the body, and scientists believed that antioxidants could be the cure to this issue. I don’t want to make these radical systems sound simple though, radical release in the skin will be completely different than radical release inside a cell or release outside a cell. This means that radicals can have different effects and different outcomes depending on their source, so for instance radicals released in the skin may cause sun burn or skin cancer, while radicals that interact with LDL chloestoral may make it more likely to get trapped in an artery wall.
The problem is that antioxidants haven’t really been proven to fix many of the problems that free radical release in the body can cause. I think the following quote from the Harvard School of Public Health article called Antioxidants: beyond the hype gives a really good background on these cases:
Antioxidants came to public attention in the 1990s, when scientists began to understand that free radical damage was involved in the early stages of artery-clogging atherosclerosis and may contribute to cancer, vision loss, and a host of other chronic conditions. Some studies showed that people with low intakes of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables were at greater risk for developing these chronic conditions than were people who ate plenty of these fruits and vegetables. Clinical trials began testing the impact of single substances, especially beta-carotene and vitamin E, as weapons against heart disease, cancer, and the like.
Even before the results of these trials were in, the media, and the supplement and food industries began to hype the benefits of “antioxidants.” Frozen berries, green tea, and other foods labeled as being rich in antioxidants began popping up in stores. Supplement makers touted the disease-fighting properties of all sorts of antioxidants.
The trials were mixed, but most have not found the hoped-for benefits. Most research teams reported that vitamin E and other antioxidant supplements didn’t protect against heart disease or cancer (18) One study even showed that taking beta-carotene may actually increase the chances of developing lung cancer in smokers. On the other hand, some trials reported benefits; for example, after 18 years of follow-up, the Physicians’ Health Study found that taking beta-carotene was associated with a modest reduction in the rate of cognitive decline. (1)
These mostly disappointing results haven’t stopped food companies and supplement sellers from banking on antioxidants. Indeed, antioxidant supplements represent a $500 million dollar industry that continues to grow. Antioxidants are still added to breakfast cereals, sports bars, energy drinks, and other processed foods, and they are promoted as additives that can prevent heart disease, cancer, cataracts, memory loss, and a host of other conditions.”
Clearly antioxidants are big business, so it isn’t likely that they are going anywhere anytime soon. But it isn’t all bad news. Antioxidants are useful for the development of some age related diseases, but again it depends on the specific antioxidant. Again from the Harvard school of public health,
“This is the one bright spot for antioxidant vitamins. A six-year trial, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), found that a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc offered some protection against the development of advanced age-related macular degeneration, but not cataract, in people who were at high risk of the disease. (10, 11) Lutein, a naturally occurring carotenoid found in green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, may also protect vision. However, relatively short trials of lutein supplementation for age-related macular degeneration have yielded conflicting findings. (12, 13) A new trial of the AREDS supplement regimen plus lutein, zeaxanthin, and fish oil is underway. This trial could yield more definitive information about antioxidants and macular degeneration. (14)”
Alright, well what about some other famous magical foods? One of my favorites, due to its similarity to the name of my families number one fake food cure proponent, Nonna, is the Nonni berry. The Noni berry, spelled N O N I, is the fruit of the Morinda Citrifolia or tropical evergreen tree found in the Polynesian islands. Noni berries came to my attention when my Nonna asked us to buy them for her from the internet, a thing she has never used but which she knows is available for her to buy all kinds of weird crap on. I can only assume that a TV doctor told her to buy this stuff. Noni juice is though to help you lose weight, cure your headaches, act as an antidepressant, boost your immune system, help with high blood pressure, and cure cancers. And of course, like all magical fruits it is thought o boost memory, help with bad cholesterol, and act as an anti bacterial, anti fungal, and anti viral cure. The following is from healthy eating.sfgate.com
“Noni contains about 160 natural plant compounds called phytochemicals. These include chemicals called glycosides, organic acids, terpenes and alkaloids. Some of these compounds may inhibit growth of bacteria, including those that cause tuberculosis and salmonella infections. Noni components may also have anti-cancer properties and might boost the immune system, helping suppress the growth of cancer. A study published in "Cancer Research" found that two compounds from noni fruit suppressed growth of cultured cancer cells in the laboratory. Another study in "Phytotherapy Research" concluded that the anti-tumor activity of noni juice in laboratory animals was due to improved performance of the animals' immune systems. These are promising results that need confirmation in studies on human subjects.”
So lets unpack this one here. First off phytochemicals are any chemical made specifically in a plant, so Nicotine is a phytochemical. The ones that they talk about have are pretty much present in most plants we use. Alkoloids are in fact looked at for their medicinal uses, but again they are not some magical super drug or something that we don’t commonly use now. Alkoloids you may have heard of, and which those taking Noni berries would likely look down on, include Caffeine, Morphine, Codeine, and Nicotine. So you know, just cause it comes from a plant doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good for you all the time. Alright lets look for these articles in the scientific literature. Cancer Research is a good journal, with a pretty high impact factor, which basically is a way to see how many people read and use that journal for their work. It has an impact factor of around 8.5, which is like a mid to low high journal. There are actually two articles in Cancer Research on Noni, one titled “Morinda Citrifolia (Noni) induces apoptosis via the TLR4 pathway in breast cancer cells” by Parker et al. and another titled “Two Novel Glycosides from the fruits of Morina Citrifolia inhiity AP-1 transactive and cell transofmration in the mouse epidermal JB6 cell line” by Liu et et al. So like, really complicated titles. I only have access to the second article which was published in 2001. Basically what they did was look at the effect of some alkaloids created in the Noni plant on AP-1 activity in mouse epidermal cells. From the article, “ Increased Ap-1 activity is associated with malignant transformation and cancer promoting agents, such as UV radiation, growth factors, phorbol ester, and transformation oncogenes.” So, they basically induced AP-1 activity, and saw what affect the alkaloids from the Noni plant had on this compounds release. And what they found was that the alkaloids did show a decrease in the transformation of these particular sorts of mouse epidermal cells. But this does not indicate pure cancer deactivation or cure, or some way to treat cancers in humans, or some of the other crazy stuff Noni juice is thought to help with. It simply shows that this one particular mechanism, which may be implicated in causing this particular kind of cancer, can be disrupted or stopped by the use of a compound found in Nonni berries.
So how about this second paper? It is published in Phytotherapy Research, which is again a pretty alright journal. This one has an impact factor of around 2.6, which places it in the middle range for pharmacological plant based journals. As far as I can tell, this journal has had 13 papers published in their papers on the fruit of the Tropical Evergreen, which is so lovingly sold online as Nonni berries. Interestingly there is a review paper out there on this magical fruit as well. The abstract to said review is as follows:
This review investigated the relationship of noni juice, or its extract (fruit, leaves or root), to anticancer and/or immunostimulant properties. A Medline search was conducted using the key search words Morinda citrifolia and Morinda citrifolia and cancer (1964 to October, 2011) along with cross-referencing. Botanical and chemical indexes were not included. A total of 304 and 29 (10%) articles, respectively, were found under these key terms. Of the 19 studies actually related to cancer, seven publications were in vitro cancer studies, nine were in vivo animal cancer studies, and three were in vivo human cancer studies. Among the in vitro studies, a concentrated component in noni juice and not pure noni juice may (1) stimulate the immune system to possibly assist the body fight the cancer, and (2) kill a small percentage (0-36%) of cancer cells depending on the type. The nine animal studies suggest that a concentrated component in noni juice may stimulate the immune system; but only slightly increases the number (about 1/3; 25-45%) of surviving mice. Other than two case studies, only two human clinical studies existed. The first consisted of testing freeze-dried noni fruit, which reduced pain perception, but did not reverse advanced cancer. The second was on smokers ingesting an unknown concentration of noni juice who experienced decreased aromatic DNA adducts, and decreased levels of plasma superoxide anion radicals and lipid hydroperoxide. Factors to consider in the future are clearly defining the substance being tested, and whether or not the juice is pasteurized. Some reports of hepatotoxicity exist, although there were confounding factors in most of the case reports. More importantly, noni juice is high in potassium and needs to be monitored by patients with kidney, liver or heart problems. In conclusion, a few in vitro and in vivo animal studies suggest a possible unidentified substance in unpasteurized noni fruit juice that may have a small degree of anticancer activity. The isolation of the active component warrants further research.
Now one particular researcher piqued my interest here, that being Dr. Amy C Brown, who is a professor in the department of medicine, and particularly in the department of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of Hawaii At Manoa John A Burns school of medicine. This school is fully accredited by the American Medical Association, and is a pretty damn good medical school. So it is very interesting to me that they have a complementary or alternative medicine program. It’s not often you get some serious information on parascientific or weird topics, so this is pretty surprising and very exciting! If anyone from that program listens to this show, hit me up! Anyways, she is the writer of the review paper with the above abstract, and has a number of highly cited papers on alternative medicines. I think its important to note her carefulness in defining terms, although it appears that something in Nonni juice may potentially have, as she states, a small degree of anti cancer activity.
So we’ve only brushed the surface when it comes to magical fruits in this episode, but I think it’s a really interesting topic, and so if you would like to hear more about it in the future let me know. I find this one particularly interesting because of my relative closeness to this topic. During my PhD, I had the privilege to get a look into the world of plant pharmaceuticals through seeing the work of a fellow student and friend, Sydney Shaw. Her project was on trying to find a way to help a certain tropical rose produce more of two very useful anti-cancer drugs, specifically vincristine and vinblastine, which are produced naturally in the plant. So this is the same sort of pathway or thing that people imagine Nonni juice could be used for some day, it is an alkaloid that is produced by this plant naturally. But the drug itself is produced in ratios of something like 1 gram of useful drug to every 500 kg of plant leaves! It is comically inefficient this natural process, and so to get this really useful cancer drug, researchers like Sydney performed work on trying to make the plant produce more of this drug per gram of leaves. This usually involves metabolic and genetic engineering of the plants themselves, so in the case of Sydneys work they found that the plant produced the drug when it was forced to defend itself from predators trying to eat the leaves. They therefore used this metabolic pathway to find things to tune in the genetics of the plant itself, so in her case they used a method to implant new DNA into the plant itself to tell it to produce more or less of this drug given a certain impulse. Honestly, it is way over my head, and I hope I’m not sounding too stupid for Sydney and other genetic engineers at home. But the part of this story that I find the most interesting is the fact that it sort of kills the whole natural and pure idea in the first place right?
Like, people like the idea of using drugs from plants, but they don’t necessarily like the idea of genetically engineering this plant to make more of this natural drug. At the same time, if we as a society spent the time basically using natural genetic engineering, or in other words breeding of these plants, in some way to up the production of this drug there would be absolutely no problem, although it is pretty much the same exact thing in terms of chemistry, it just takes about a few hundred less years to genetically introduce these beneficial properties to this plant then it would be to wait for a random genetic mutation to allow us to breed for increased vincristine or vinblastine production. I mean all plants we consider natural today have been genetically engineering through selective breeding right, like corn doesn’t grow so large naturally, strawberries are actually really small and tart, bananas are naturally weird and small, and carrots are actually the bitter and gross roots of a weed you might find growing in your grandma’s garden. It all goes back to this magical way of thinking. If we find something in the “natural” world a certain way, we rationalize that this way must be the way it is supposed to be, even if it hasn’t been that way for 99.999% of the lifetime of that plant on the planet Earth, let alone the species of that plant. So what is natural, really, when we think of things in those terms?
Alright, so maybe we didn’t get to the lie detector tests this episode exactly, but I am going to move it to one of the roundtable discussions for this month. Thank you again for joining me on the Mad Scientist Podcast. I am your host Chris Cogswell, and my logo was designed by Kerry Sheheen.