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The Danger of Advocacy Masquerading as Science
Increasingly, scientific research is being done in ways that seem to advocate the scientists' point of view, more than to objectively and dispassionately represent "the facts." Society is at risk when science is hijacked by advocacy-masquerading-as-objective-science, whether such distortion is done by researchers working for companies, governments, environmental groups, or just by scientists who allow their personal views to color the questions they ask and the way they describe and promote their findings.
We think of science as a process that can reveal truth. Tested, proven, objective, certain truth. Sadly, science is also a process of proving whatever truth the scientist wants to prove. Ask the right questions, get the right answers. The tobacco companies did it. Chemical companies have done it. And more and more, scientists researching a range of environmental issues are doing it, constructing their experiments and distorting their findings in order to prosecute their battle against what they see as threats to human and environmental health.
A recent paper offers a sobering example of how science can be twisted to say what the researchers want it to say. Holding Thermal Receipt Paper and Eating Food After Using a Hand Sanitizer Results in High Serum Bioactive and Urine Total Levels of Bisphenol A (BPA) is the latest in a flood of studies by researchers campaigning passionately against BPA and other endocrine disrupting (EDs) chemicals. EDs have been associated with a wide range of health risks, most significantly the impairment of healthy sexual and cognitive development in the unborn fetus.
Like many of those papers, this one makes things look pretty bad. BPA is used to coat thermal receipt paper, that sort-of-shiny paper used to print receipts for purchases and ATM transactions. Just touching such paper might not seem like much of a risk though, since studies suggesting BPA might be a problem say it’s only a risk when we ingest it, mostly by eating or drinking products from containers lined with BPA. Just getting BPA on the skin is not believed to be a risk.
But given how ubiquitous thermal receipt paper is, BPA might be a more serious threat if touching it turns out to be risky too. Which is what this paper suggests. Researchers found that if someone first uses hand sanitizer, and then holds the receipt paper, up to 100 times more BPA can soak off the paper and into our skin and then into our blood, because many hand sanitizers contain chemicals that penetrate the skin, which lets the BPA in too. The study found that people who used hand sanitizers, then held receipts, and then ate French fries, ended up ingesting more BPA, and had levels of BPA in their blood and urine associated with “an increased risk for a wide range of developmental abnormalities as well as diseases in adults.”
Sounds pretty bad. But dig into the study’s methods and you find some things that call the objectivity of the researchers into question. they did various experiments, but in the one that determined blood and urine levels, they had their subjects wet their hands with sanitizer, and then immediately hold receipt paper, while their hands were still wet with the sanitizer, for four minutes. Ever hold any receipt for that long, immediately after thoroughly wetting your hands with sanitizer and before you even dry them off? Of course not. Mostly we wipe our hands dry after using sanitizer, and we hold receipts for a few seconds and either stuff them in our pockets or toss them away. It is hardly a realistic test to have the subjects hold the paper for that long.
And the headline of the paper, that warns of “High” levels? Well, that’s alarmist language worthy of CNN. According to Ian Musgrave, Senior lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, the average maximum level of BPA in the subjects’ blood was two thirds lower than the lowest level of BPA thought to be biologically active. Even the restaurant and bar and retail workers who handle such receipts more frequently, and, as the EPA notes are at higher risk of exposure, are not necessarily at higher risk of actual harm. Risk is a matter of exposure TIMES hazard. So just being exposed more, on the skin, doesn't mean levels not on the skin but in the blood get high enough to be dangerous.
And the basic claim the paper makes that BPA and other endocrine disrupting chemicals “have been related to an increased risk for a wide range of developmental abnormalities as well as diseases in adults.”? Many mainstream toxicologists say that such an interpretation of the evidence about BPA goes way too far. Governments around the world have researched BPA and concluded that the risk to people, at the low levels to which we’re exposed, is so low that banning it is not necessary to protect public health. (The U.S. government did some additional research recently that confirms that position.)
Everyone agrees BPA is an endocrine disruptor, but it’s a really weak one. A majority of the experts on this issue believe that, at the levels to which we’re exposed, BPA is not nearly the risk the advocates of a ban forcefully claim.
And finally, consider that the second author of the new paper warning about BPA, Frederick vom Saal, is one of the leaders of those advocates. vom Saal has spent most of his career passionately advocating for a ban of endocrine disruptors. He and his colleagues regularly charge than any research that finds that BPA is not a risk, whether it was done by government or by industry, is biased in order to produce a pre-determined result. Many mainstream toxicologists make the same charge about some of vom Saal’s work, including this new study.
I can’t judge whether BPA is a risk. As I have said when writing about this in the past, that is beyond my expertise. (As a former environmental journalist who reported on this issue a lot, I do think the overall evidence on EDs warrants serious concern.) Nor is this to pick on vom Saal or his colleagues, who are fighting to have EDs banned out of sincere concern for public health. I support the idea that scientists should participate in public debates about policy where their knowledge and expert opinion can help us make smarter choices.
But any critical thinker ought to smell the distinct possibility of bias when research, by known advocates, goes out of the way to pose questions that produce the ‘right’ answers, answers that support their advocacy. We should - and do - detect that smell from research done by companies. We should smell that smell, and be equally wary of, the research of environmental advocates who are also promoting a point of view. Bias is bias, even if what it says favors your position.
Humans are saddled with an innately affective risk perception system that relies heavily on feelings, and not just the facts, for figuring out risks. That system worked fine back when risks were simpler. But the threats of the modern world are more complex and require more careful and objective analysis. The scientific process can help society with that work, but only if it remains scrupulously objective. When the scientists we depend on to help us understand the complicated risks we face let subjective views interfere with a fair and honest search for the truth, it only makes it harder for society to make smart, healthy choices about the complex threats posed by our modern world.
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Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
What are DMT beings?<p>Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?<br></p><p>The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once <a href="https://www.ranker.com/list/dmt-machine-elves-facts/inigo-gonzalez" target="_blank">described</a> one of his DMT experiences:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"</p><p>McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "<a href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/old-favourites-the-archaic-revival-1991-by-terence-mckenna-1.3924887" target="_blank">raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.</a>" But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.</p><p>Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to <a href="https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/17902/RichardsonG_202004_HonThesis.pdf?sequence=3" target="_blank">speak directly to the gods</a>. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.</p><p>In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">"at least half"</a> of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".</p>
Manuel Medir / Getty<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."</p><p>It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">nothing like elves or aliens</a>. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.</p><p>In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves? </p><p>You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.</p><p>Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point. </p><p>In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."</p><p>DMT beings may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.</p>
President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.
A new coronavirus vaccine on display at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Russian Direct Investment Fund via AP
Medical workers draw blood from volunteers participating in a trial of a coronavirus vaccine at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
A report from the New York Times raises questions over how the teletherapy startup Talkspace handles user data.
- In the report, several former employees said that "individual users' anonymized conversations were routinely reviewed and mined for insights."
- Talkspace denied using user data for marketing purposes, though it acknowledged that it looks at client transcripts to improve its services.
- It's still unclear whether teletherapy is as effective as traditional therapy.
Talkspace.com<p>Former employees also questioned the legitimacy of certain interventions by the company into client-therapist interactions. For example, after one therapist sent a client a link to an online anxiety worksheet, a company representative instructed her to try to keep clients inside the app.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was like, 'How do you know I did that?'" Karissa Brennan, a therapist who worked with Talkspace from 2015 to 2017, told the Times. "They said it was private, but it wasn't."</p><p>Other former employees said the company would pay special attention to its "enterprise partner" clients, who worked at companies like Google. One therapist said Talkspace contacted her for taking too long to respond to Google clients.</p><p>Talkspace responded to the Times with a Medium <a href="https://medium.com/@founders_22883/talkspace-founders-respond-to-a-new-york-times-article-78d6f5c45c59" target="_blank">post</a>, which claimed the Times report contained false and "uninformed assertions."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Talkspace is a HIPAA/HITECH and SOC2 approved platform, audited annually by external vendors, and has deployed additional technologies to keep its data safe, exceeding all existing regulatory requirements," the post states.</p>