6 major problems with a flat earth

I’m going to do something I thought I never would and hoped I’d never have to. I’m going to talk about the concept of a flat earth and explain a few of the many lines of evidence that clearly indicate that the earth is not flat. There are several reasons why I am doing this. First, I want to use the flat earth movement as a case-study in the types of flawed reasoning employed by science-deniers. As I have previously explained, most (if not all) forms of science-denial rely on the same logically-flawed tactics. Climate change deniers, anti-vaccers, flat earthers, etc. all commit the same suite of logical fallacies. Therefore, even if you think that the flat earth movement is ridiculous, hopefully you will benefit from this post by gaining a better understanding of the flawed lines of reasoning that lead to such positions.

The second reason for writing this is that I fear that the skeptic community has not done a good job of dealing with the apparent increase in the flat earth movement. With some noteworthy exceptions, we have tended to either ignore it or simply mock and deride those who believe in a flat earth, and I do not think that those are particularly helpful approaches. People are easily influenced by those around them, and in the modern technology age, finding misinformation is absurdly easy. Indeed, the internet is full of articles, videos, etc. claiming to have “proof” that the earth is flat. In such an environment, it should hardly be surprising that flat earthers seem to be growing in numbers, and I think it is important to make it as easy as possible for people to find explanations for why the flat earth arguments fail. To that end, this post will not contain any mocking, name-calling, etc. I have attempted to write it as a dispassionate explanation of the facts and logic, and although I occasionally deviated from that for dramatic effect, I want to make it clear that I am calling particular arguments stupid, rather than making any judgements about the people who use those arguments (even an intelligent person can use really insane arguments).

I’ve grouped this post into six major problems with a flat earth, but most of those groups actually include multiple different lines of evidence that preclude a flat earth (in one case, I broke the category up into sub problems, but each one builds on the others).

 

Ad hoc fallacies and the nature of science

Before I begin going over arguments about the shape of the earth, I need to spend a few minutes explaining an extremely common logical fallacy among flat earthers (and creationists, anti-vaccers, etc.). This is what is known as an ad hoc fallacy. Unlike most fallacies, this does not occur as part of an argument, but rather as part of a counterargument. It arises when someone is faced with evidence that contradicts their view, and they respond by inventing a solution for which there is no evidence. In other words, they invent a response that you would never accept unless you were already convinced of their view. It also often has the property of being unfalsifiable. In other words, it is something that cannot actually be tested and must be accepted on faith.

Let me give you an example. Imagine that I was talking to a self-proclaimed psychic, and I presented them with a test of their powers which they failed. Then, rather than accepting that I had exposed them as a fraud, they simply retorted with, “my powers don’t work in the presence of skeptics.” That would be an ad hoc fallacy. There is absolutely no evidence for that statement, and, indeed, I would never accept that response unless I was already convinced that they were a psychic. Further, it is not a falsifiable claim. If their magical powers conveniently stop working any time that they are tested, then there would, by definition, be no way to test that claim. I’d have to take it on faith.

Because they rely on self-reinforcing assumptions rather than evidence, ad hoc fallacies are not allowed in rational discussions, and they are diametrically opposed to how science works. Science, by its very nature, requires evidence. If you test a hypothesis and the test does not support it, you can’t simply make up some nonsensical “solution” and insist that your solution is correct. You’d have to accept that your hypothesis has been discredited (at least for the time being). To be clear, if you think that there may be something else occurring, you can propose that as a possible answer and subsequently test it, but your answer has to be falsifiable, and you cannot state it as a fact or even as a high probability until you have actually tested it.

All of this comes back to two important concepts of logical thought: Occam’s razor and the burden of proof. Occam’s razor is often incorrectly stated as “the simplest solution is usually the correct one,” but it actually has nothing to do with simplicity. It actually states that the solution with the fewest assumptions is more likely to be correct, and it dictates that we should not make any more assumptions than are strictly necessary to explain our observations. The burden of proof is simply the concept that the person making a claim is responsible for providing evidence to support it. In other words, it is not acceptable to make a claim like, “my powers don’t work in the presence of skeptics” unless you can provide actual evidence to support that claim. Further, the other party is not required to discredit the claim until that evidence has been provided (i.e., I am under no obligation to disprove the “psychic’s” claim).

With those concepts in mind, let’s take a look at some evidence.

Note: There is no one set of universally held views for flat earthers, so I have done my best throughout this to discuss the views that seem to dominate flat earther conversations and are endorsed on pages such as the flat earth wiki. Also, in situations where no one view seemed to dominate, I have tried to discuss all of the most common views I found.

 

1). The sun and the moon

This is a typical flat earth map, with the sun and moon circling overhead.

Many of the most obvious problems with flat earth views revolve around the sun and the moon, so let’s start there. For a flat earth to work, the earth clearly cannot be orbiting the sun, nor can the moon be orbiting the earth, and neither of them can be very far from the earth. To solve this problem, flat earthers argue that the sun and the moon are actually very small (only about 32 miles in diameter), they are very close to the earth (2,000–3,000 miles depending on which flat earther you ask), and they simply move in a giant circle over the earth, rather than orbiting anything.

1.1 Assumptions

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s begin with a simple question, “how did they get those numbers?” Quite simply, they got them by assuming that the earth was flat, then working out the math to try to make it possible to have a sun and moon on a flat earth. They even admit that to get those numbers you have to start with the assumption that the earth is flat. To put that another way, I would never think that those numbers are correct unless I was already convinced that the earth was flat. This is, already, an ad hoc fallacy. There is no evidence to support the claim that the sun is only 3,000 miles from the earth or that the sun is impossibly small. Rather, it is a cop-out that requires you to first believe that the earth is flat (thus it fails to meet the burden of proof). Further, we can use things like radar and lasers to calculate the distance of the moon, planets, etc. Flat earthers, of course, simply ignore all of those measurements and claim that they are part of a vast conspiracy (more on that later).

1.2 Impossible movements

Next, we have the problem of how the earth and moon are running around in circles above the earth. According to flat earthers, this is because all of the celestial bodies we see are moving around like a giant binary star system on steroids with the center of gravity conveniently above the north pole of the earth. This is, once again, ad hoc. It’s also mathematically absurd, but the math is too complex to take the time to explain, so instead, I will simply point out a huge inconsistency in flat earther’ views. This view requires gravity. That is the only way for such a system to even be hypothetically possible, but, as I’ll explain more later, flat earthers reject gravity and say it isn’t real (they have to do this, because otherwise, the earth’s gravity would pull the sun and moon crashing down into it).

This diagram (viewing a flat earth from the side) illustrates the absurdity of flat earther’s “spotlight” argument. Panel A shows how things would need to be for their model to be correct, but that is clearly not how light works. As panel B illustrates, if the sun acted as a spotlight, then no light would reach the moon. Panel C shows how light actually works. It radiates out from all points of a sphere. In reality, it would continue radiating out well past the moon, but for this figure I stopped it at the moon to illustrate that for light from the sun to reach the moon, it also has to, at the very least, constantly reach essentially the entire northern hemisphere (in reality it would constantly reach the entire earth).

1.3 Why can’t we see the sun all the time?

The next problem comes from the sun illuminating planet earth. If the sun is a mere 3,000 miles above the earth and is constantly hovering above the earth, we should see it all the time. There should never be a point in the day during which we cannot see it way off in the distance. To “solve” this, flat earthers propose that the sun acts like a spotlight that magically directs its light downward, rather than allowing the light to radiate outward. Thus, you only see it when it is close to overhead. This, of course, is pure madness (it’s also another ad hoc fallacy). That’s not how light works. A ball of light (such as a sun) radiates light in all directions, not just down. Further, if the sun was a spotlight, then it shouldn’t be able to illuminate the moon. I have sometimes seen flat earthers try to explain this away by proposing that the atmosphere (which they amusingly call the “atmoplane”) is so dense that the sun can’t pass through it at a shallow angle (i.e., when the sun is distant on the horizon, it has more atmosphere to pass through). That is, however, just more ad hoc speculation. Further, if it was true that our atmosphere was that thick and that good at blocking light, then how is it possible for us to see the stars? Surely their exceedingly dim light wouldn’t penetrate that atmosphere. Or, at the very least, they should only be visible from directly above, and we shouldn’t be able to see them on the horizon. The fact that we can see stars on the horizon, but not the sun clearly indicates that the thickness of the atmosphere is not the issue here.

This diagram (viewing a flat earth from the side) illustrates the fact that, on a flat earth, people in the northern hemisphere would see a different side of the moon than people in the southern hemisphere (the pink and blue triangles show the angle of view form a person in each hemisphere. Panels A and B show the same problem, but they demonstrate that the problem becomes worse as you move away from the equator. The size of the sun and the moon is not to scale with the earth based on flat earther views (but that is irrelevant since we are talking about spheres, and making them large was necessary or else they wouldn’t be visible), but their position above the earth is approximately correct for flat earth views, and even if the scale was way, way off from their claims, the same problem would remain.

1.4 Why do both hemispheres see the same surface of the moon?

There are other issues with this view of the sun as well, but let’s move on to the moon, because it creates a whole new set of problems for flat earthers. First, if the moon was circling 3,000 miles above us, then people in the northern hemisphere and people in the southern hemisphere should see very different faces of the moon. In reality, however, everyone sees them same face, it is just flipped upside down in one hemisphere. That alone clearly demonstrates that the moon is not circling overhead, but wait, there’s more.

This diagram (viewing a flat earth from the side) illustrates the fact that, on a flat earth, people in the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere would experience different lunar cycles. For simplicity, I showed the sun casting a single beam, but it obviously actually radiates out in all directions. The dotted triangles show the points of view from people in the northern and southern hemispheres. Panels A and B show the same problem, but they demonstrate that the problem becomes worse as you move away from the equator, with people in the far south rarely seeing more than a sliver of lit moon. Panel C shows that even if we drastically alter the altitudes of the sun and the moon (as some flat earthers propose) the problem still remains. The size of the sun and the moon is not to scale with the earth based on flat earther views (but that is irrelevant since we are talking about spheres, and making them large was necessary or else they wouldn’t be visible). Their position above the earth is approximately correct for flat earth views, and even the scale was way off from their claims, the same problem would remain.

1.5 Why does everyone experience the same lunar cycles at the same time?

The lunar cycles also present a huge problem for flat earthers. They generally explain them by saying that the moon circles at a different rate than the sun, thus the cycles are caused by the sun’s light hitting the moon at different angles. That’s highly problematic though. First, as stated above, it conflicts with their “the sun is a spotlight” claim. Further, if that were true, then the entire earth wouldn’t experience the same lunar cycles simultaneously. In fact, it’s worse than that. According to this model, people in the southern hemisphere should never have a full moon, or, at best, a full moon should only occur in the middle of the day. Some flat earthers have tried to get around this by saying that the moon is sometimes at a higher altitude than the sun, but this still would not let someone in New Zealand (for example) see a full moon, and people in New Zealand do see full moons. Ergo, this position must be bogus. Just to prove that I am not making things up, here is a video by flat earthers showing what the lunar phases would look like on a flat earth. Notice that according to this video, different parts of the world should experience different lunar cycles (in reality we all experience the same cycles) and the southern hemisphere only gets a full moon in the middle of the day (again, that’s not what we actually see).

1.6 Flat earther responses to moon problems

Flat earthers have some imaginative ways to try to solve these problems with the moon. One popular view is that the moon is actually a flat disk, like a Frisbee. This is, once again, an ad hoc fallacy. They are just making things up to solve problems with their world view. Also, we know the moon isn’t a disk, because if it was, it would start to look like an oval as it descended over the horizon, ultimately looking like a sliver before disappearing on the horizon. The type of circular moonrise and moonset we observe is simply not possible with a Frisbee (it would have to turn so that it was facing us, rather than being a disk that is parallel to us). Additionally, if you look at the moon with a telescope or high-powered camera, you’ll notice that its craters are round in the middle, and gradually become ovals towards the edges. That makes perfect sense if we are looking at a sphere, but makes no sense whatsoever if it is a disk.

Another popular view is that the moon is actually self-luminous. In other words, it produces its own light (I wish I was making this up, but I’m not). Can you spot the logical fallacy there? Now, how or why it lights up is a mystery that flat earthers can’t explain. Similarly, the phases of the moon are hard to explain with this view, but that doesn’t stop flat earthers from trying. I have seen some propose that it is bioluminescent (so there is life on the moon apparently), and for unknown reasons these organisms light themselves up in massive groups that vary on a predictable pattern thus creating the illusion of lunar phases. Others propose that parts of the moon are simply “turned off” at various times (one wonders by whom, how, and for what purpose). Regardless of the mechanism, a self-illuminous moon still doesn’t solve the problem that people in the north and south should see different faces of the moon. Also, we know that the moon is illuminated by the sun, not itself, because its craters cast shadows, and those shadows are always consistent with the position of the sun.

1. 7 Lunar eclipses are impossible on a flat earth

One final problem that I want to talk about is the lunar eclipse. This happens when the earth passes between the moon and the sun, thus blocking the sun’s light. This is 100% impossible in a flat earth model (they even admit that). Therefore, they have invented what they call the “shadow object.” This is an object that orbits the sun, and is usually so close to the sun that you can’t see it, but occasionally it passes between the sun and the moon causing the eclipse. That’s right, they just completely invented a celestial object for which we have 0 evidence, and the only reason to ever think that such an object exists is because doing so is necessary for a flat earth view. That is a textbook ad hoc fallacy. You can’t simply invent celestial objects to save your pet view. That violates fundamental principles of logical reasoning and maintaining an evidence-based view of reality.

1.8 Other forms of science denial commit the same logical blunders

Now, at this point, it would be easy to laugh at flat earthers for constantly inventing solutions that they have no evidence for, but the reality is that most (if not all) groups of science-deniers do this. Creationists, for example, do this all the time. Just to give two quick examples, they arbitrarily claim that the radiometric decay was faster in the past, and they invent magical mechanisms for sorting fossils during Noah’s flood. Similarly, when faced with the fact that we have carefully tested the natural drivers of climate change and found that they cannot explain the current warming, climate change deniers often insist that there must be some other driver that we don’t know about. That response is, however, ad hoc. Inventing and unknown driver of climate change is no different from a flat earther inventing a shadow object. Anti-vaccers and the anti-GMO crowd are no better. They invent fanciful mechanisms through which vaccines and GMOs supposedly cause harm and they invent conspiracies and conflicts of interest anytime that a paper disagrees with them. All of these groups (and many others) commit the exact same logical flaw: they make massive assumptions to solve problems in their views, and that is not logically valid. You must have evidence to support your claim. It’s that simple.

 

2). Gravity

Gravity is another huge thorn in the side of flat earthers. You see, gravity should preclude a flat earth, because gravity would pull the earth into a sphere (you know, like it actually does). Further, even if the earth was solid adamantium and could resist gravity’s pull, a big problem would still remain. Namely, anytime that you weren’t on the North Pole, gravity would pull you sideways as well as down, because there would be more mass to one side of you. This would become exaggerated the further you moved from the North Pole. Most flat earthers admit this and acknowledge that gravity is fatal to their view, but don’t worry, they have a solution.

According to flat earthers, gravity is an illusion, and actually the earth is accelerating upwards at a rate of 9.8m/s^2, thus creating the appearance of gravity. So, when you drop an object, it doesn’t fall, rather the earth accelerates up towards it. This is, of course, yet another ad hoc fallacy. Also, there is no explanation for why the earth is accelerating. Flat earthers usually just cop out with, “dark energy is causing it,” or some other claim for which there is clearly have no evidence or logical reasoning.

Additionally, it is clearly not enough for the earth to be accelerating, because if it was just the earth, then we would crash into the sun and the moon and shoot past the stars. Therefore, according to flat earthers, the entire universe is accelerating via unknown mechanisms (because reasons). Somehow, though, the earth shields the objects close to it (thus they can still fall) but doesn’t shield the sun and the moon, even though they are only a few thousand miles directly above the earth. How this happens is anyone’s guess.

Having the universe accelerate at a constant rate of acceleration raises the obvious problem that the earth would soon be going faster than the speed of light, which is impossible. To get out of this one, flat earthers invoke special relativity and claim that it allows an object to accelerate infinitely at a constant rate of acceleration without ever reaching the speed of light because of differences in reference frames. Invoking special relativity and other complex physics concepts is a common and irritating tactic by science-deniers. It is irritating because these concepts are so complicated that it takes an immense level of knowledge before you can even assess them. Thus, someone with no real knowledge of relativity can invoke it, and even if they are dead wrong, their opponent can’t explain why they are wrong without first earning a PhD in theoretical physics. So, having said that, from what I understand of special relativity (which admittedly could be incorrect), they are wrong. My understanding is that relativity does allow an object to accelerate infinitely without reaching the speed of light, but the rate of acceleration has to decline asymptotically. Thus, if you accelerate at a constant rate of 9.8m/s^2 you will, by the simple laws of addition, eventually reach the speed of light. Further, their reference frames argument doesn’t seem to help, because they say that the entire universe is accelerating, so some how they need a reference frame outside of the universe. Again, I am not a physicist, and could be wrong (they, of course, aren’t physicist either). The one thing I am sure of is that as you approach the speed of light, the energy needed for further acceleration increases to the point of infinity. So, they not only need a mechanism to explain the acceleration, but they need to explain how it is consistently infinitely increasing its energy output (good luck).

One final note about gravity is that their views on it are self-contradictory. As explained earlier, they invoke it to explain the movements of the sun and moon. They also need it for their mythical shadow object to orbit the sun. Further, we can very clearly see that celestial bodies move according to the laws of gravity, and we have used gravity to predict the existence of objects before they were directly observed (e.g., Neptune). Flat earthers seem to accept all of this. Thus, they have to argue that gravity is true, except for planet earth. Everything else produces gravity and acts according to the laws of gravity, but not earth (makes perfect sense, right?).

 

3). Coriolis effect

Flat earthers also struggle to explain the movement patterns of storm systems in the northern hemisphere vs the southern. You see, the spinning of the earth results in a phenomenon known as the Coriolis effect, and that causes storm systems in the northern hemisphere to spin counter-clockwise, while storm systems in the southern hemisphere spin clockwise (this video illustrates and explains why this happens). This is a huge problem for flat earthers, because they have no way to explain why storm systems spin in opposite directions in the north compared to the south.

I have yet to see a flat earther give a well-reasoned response to this problem, but here are the three responses that I have encountered on various videos, forums, and blogs. The first is to simply cop out by saying, “because of wind patterns.” That is clearly a non-answer, however. What causes the wind patterns? Yes, the storms circulate because of the wind patterns, but those wind patterns only move that way because the earth is spinning. There is no reason for them to move that way on a flat earth, that’s the point.

The second response is to attribute it to gravitational pull from the “celestial gears.” This is another baffling concept that flat earthers have invented. It proposes that different star systems form “celestial gears” and their rotation somehow has an impact on earth. This is, once again, ad hoc, but it is also inconsistent with their other views. Remember again that flat earthers reject gravity, yet here they are invoking it. Further, how could the stars (which according to them are tiny) create that type of gravitational pull? It just doesn’t make sense.

The final option is to simply claim that the Coriolis effect isn’t a real thing. On several forums, I have seen flat earthers assert that the differential movement of storm systems is just a myth invented as part of the “round earth conspiracy.” Thus, all those photos of storm systems are fake, and all the people (like me) who have experience both hurricanes in the northern hemisphere and cyclones in the southern hemisphere are liars. That is, of course, patently absurd, but the there is an entire section is on conspiracy theories, so I’ll simply direct you there.

Note: it is a myth that toilets in the southern hemisphere flush in a different direction than ones in the north. The Coriolis effect is not powerful enough to act on such a small scale. The direction of flush for toilets is determined by their plumbing, not the Coriolis effect.

 

4). Impossible flights

Flat earthers also struggle to explain many airline flights. You see, if you look at a flat earth map, continents in the southern hemisphere are very far apart, whereas ones in the northern hemisphere are quite close. This should cause impossibly long flights in the southern hemisphere, but very short flights in the northern hemisphere. Reality, however, is quite different.

This is the path that Flight 28 would have to take on a flat earth. It is impossibly long. There is no way to make this flight with a 747 on a flat earth.

Let’s take Qantas Flight 28 that goes between Sydney Australia and Santiago Chile as an example (there are multiple others that could be used, and you can find plenty of other websites that have worked out this math for other flights). This is a non-stop flight that travels over 11,000 km and takes 14 hours and 20 minutes. That is all well and good on a round earth, but if you look at a flat earth map, the distance becomes substantially larger. In fact, it should be around 25,000 km. This is a huge problem because 747s simply cannot fly fast enough to make that flight in that time. In fact, given that 747s fly at 920 km per hour, it would take over 27 hours to make the flight!

As you might expect, flat earthers have some entertaining ways to “solve” this problem. My favorite is probably the argument that people on the plane get drunk or fall asleep and lose track of time (yes, they do make this claim). I have seen others claim that airlines drug their passengers. These are clearly absurd suggestions. Obviously not everyone on the plane is drunk. Further, many people watch movies the whole time, and they’d notice if their flight took 10 hours longer than advertised. Further, many people (including me) don’t reset their watches until they land. So even if I got waisted, I’d know something was up when I looked at my watch and it was 10 hours off of what it should be, not to mention that most people coordinate pick up times at their destination, which will be seriously off if the airline lied by a full 10 hours.

Others, perhaps slightly more logically, propose that airlines have simply upgraded the engines on the planes so they go much faster than the airlines report. This is also insane. For one thing, why wouldn’t they use these fast engines on all their planes. Why keep it a secret? Further, the planes would have to go ludicrously faster than their reported speeds to make flights like this. A 747 would need to go over 1,700 km per hour to make that flight. That’s nearly twice its actual speed, and is 1.4 times the speed of sound. A 747 is not a supersonic plane. I shouldn’t have to say that.

Oh, and one other thing I failed to mention, 747s only have a range of 13,450 km. So, on a 25,000 km flight, they’d make it about half way before running out of fuel and crashing.

Given all these problems, many (possibly most) flat earthers take yet another route: they deny the existence of these flights. According to them, these flights only show up on the websites to further the “round earth illusion,” but they can’t actually be booked and no one has ever actually flown on one. Everyone who claims to have been on one of these flights is either lying or (according to some flat earthers) actually got off in a different country than the one advertised (you’d think they would have noticed that when going through immigrations).

Regardless of which answer you choose, the end result is that you have to believe in ludicrously impossible physics and a vast conspiracy involving every airline in the world. There is absolutely no way that commercial airline pilots wouldn’t know if the earth was flat. Their routes would make no sense if they were flying round earth routes on a flat earth. Further, although I used a long-distance flight as an illustration, these problems exist on a smaller scale for shorter flights as well, and pilots would notice the discrepancies. This conspiracy would be on an utterly absurd scale. Tons of people at Boeing would have to know about it, every airline company would know about, numerous officials at every airport would know about, every airline pilot would know about it, military pilots would know about it, etc. Also, the same problems would occur for sea travel. So, we have to add cruise companies, international shipping companies, every navy in the world, etc. to that list. It is a completely ludicrous conspiracy.

Note 1: Some flat earthers try to get out of problems like this by arguing that the actual flat earth map is unknown, thus the miles reported by the airlines (and seen on real maps) may actually be correct. The problem is that constructing a flat map where those miles are correct is utterly impossible. The geometry simply doesn’t work on a flat map. To put that another way, no flat earth map can explain these discrepancies in airline times/routes.

Note 2: Some flat earthers try to counter this by presenting multi-flight trips that seem unintuitive for a round earth (for example, a flight from Africa landing in Europe before going to South America). These flights are, however, completely possible on a round earth, they just aren’t the straightest routes (as opposed to the flight I presented which is impossible on a flat earth). Further, the reason for these non-direct routes is pretty obvious: demand. If Airlines have very little demand for flights from A to C but plenty of demand for A to B and B to C, then they simply won’t run a direct flight from A to C and will route passengers through B instead.

A screen shot of Flight 28 on a booking site.

 

5). Impossible coordinates

GPS coordinates provide another proof that we are not on a flat earth. I’ll use the decimal degree system to illustrate, but you can do the same thing with any coordinate system. This system splits the earth up into a grid with 360 degrees running east-west (longitude) and 360 degrees running north-south (latitude). The system can seem a bit confusing at first, because latitude is scored as 0 to +/- 180 degrees, whereas longitude is scored from 0 to +/- 90 degrees, but if you look at the figures below, it should make sense. You’ll notice on the lower image (which is a projection of a globe onto 2-dimensional space) that the distance between the longitude lines (i.e., the lines running north and south) decreases as you move away from the equator, but the decrease is consistent both north and south of the equator. In other words, the distance covered by 1 degree of longitude changes as you move away from the equator (i.e., change in latitude). This should make sense if you think about a ball. Any line around a ball can be broken into 360 degrees, with each degree comprising the same distance along that line. Where you draw the line determines what that distance is, however. If you draw it around the center of the ball, it will be a long line that runs along the circumference with each degree measuring 1/360th of the circumference; whereas, if you draw the circle near the top of the ball, the line will be small, as will the distance contained in each degree.

This is really important because it indicates two things. First, a formula to calculate distances between two points on this coordinate system must take the curvature of the earth into account, or else the distance will be wrong. Second, for each degree of change in latitude, the change in the distance covered by a degree of longitude must be consistent when moving north or south from the equator. In other words, 1 degree of longitude (i.e., distance east to west) at a latitude of 15 (i.e., 15 degrees north of the equator) must cover the same distance as 1 degree of longitude at a latitude of -15 (i.e., 15 degrees south of the equator).

A flat earth model inherently requires a different relationship. The distance covered by a degree of longitude has to decrease above the equator and increase below it. In other words, on a flat earth, 1 degree of longitude at a latitude of 15 would cover far less distance than 1 degree of longitude at a latitude of -15.

As you can see, our coordinates systems shouldn’t work on a flat earth. On a flat earth, the distance between two points of longitude would decrease as you moved away from the equator heading north, and increase as you moved south. In reality, they decrease both north and south of the equator. That can only happen on a round earth (see the text for details).

You can clearly see how this plays out if you look at the dots on the maps I drew. The purple dots are at the following positions: lat 30 long 15, lat 30 long 30, lat -30 long 15, lat -30, long 30. The red dots are at: lat 75 long -60, lat 75 long -75, lat -75 long -60, lat -75 long -75. Now, we have a simple test of the shape of the earth. If it is round, then when we calculate the distances (east to west) of those points, we should find that both sets of purple dots have the same distance, and both sets of red dots have the same distance, but the distance between the red dots is smaller than the distance between the purple dots, even though all four sets of dots are separated by 15 degrees of longitude. In contrast, on a flat earth, that distance must be different for each set of points, with the distance decreasing as you move north.

So, which prediction is correct? You guessed it, we’re on a globe. At both 30 and -30 degrees latitude, 15 degrees longitude equals 1,442 km, and at both 75 and -75 degrees latitude, 15 degrees of longitude is only 430 km. That result is 100% impossible on a flat earth.

Think about it. The coordinate positions really are where things are. There’s no way to fake it. Every map, every GPS, etc. agrees. Further, we know that the distances between those points are correct. Just watch your odometer as you drive on a straight line and you can easily test this. In other words, we know that the calculations work. They have been ground-tested countless thousands of times, and you can easily test them yourself. Field biologists like me use them constantly, and if they didn’t work, we’d constantly be getting lost in the field, because nothing would be where we had calculated that it should be. The fact that the trigonometry accounts for the earth’s curvature and produces accurate results is proof that the earth is round. The math simply could not work on a flat earth.

If you are tempted by the flat earth position, then really think about this. Think about degrees around a circle, then try explain how it is possible that degrees of longitude have matching distances in the northern and southern hemispheres (as I have illustrated). Coordinates and distances that we know are correct simply cannot fit on a flat earth map. It is not mathematically possible. The math that people like me use daily cannot work on a flat earth.

 

6). We’ve been to space/everything is a conspiracy

I’ve talked briefly about the insane conspiracy theory that must accompany flat earth views at several points in this post, but I want to really focus on it here, because it is far more ridiculous than I had previously stated. You see, we have been to space. We have seen that the earth is round. Astronauts are orbiting it right now. We have countless hours of video and tens of thousands of photos. According to flat earthers, however, those are all fake. Every last one of them. According to them, we have never been to space (according to some of them, space doesn’t even exist). Thus, every single space agency in the world is conspiring together to fake space programs and create the illusion of a round earth. Also, the International Space Station doesn’t exist (even though you can see it with a telescope and photograph it with about $2,000 worth of camera gear). Additionally, satellites aren’t real either. Every company that claims to be using them is actually using a complex series of weather balloons. If all of this sounds insane, good, because it is. NASA alone employs thousands of people every year. That’s an awful lot of people to be keeping quiet, not to mention everyone who works with satellites, other countries’ space agencies, etc.

Now, you may be wondering why so many countries would do this. What benefit do they get from fooling all of us? Why, for example, during the Cold War would the Soviet Union and the USA both conspire together while simultaneously competing with each other? These are good questions, and flat earthers don’t have good answers.

Often, they make some claim about how these programs actually just exist for the militarization of space, and so they just fake their own accomplishments as propaganda to keep the public interested and keep the money flowing in. That explanation makes no sense though. For one thing, how are they militarizing space if we have never even been to space!? Further, why would all of today’s space agencies conspire together. Do you honestly expect me to believe the US and Russia are in a joint conspiracy to help each other build their militaries?

Additionally, the military argument makes utterly no sense when you start looking at the numbers. NASA gets around 20 billion dollars annually. In contrast, the US military gets around 600 billion a year. Further, funding for the US military is one thing that is never in question. Why on earth does the military need to invent this utterly insane conspiracy theory just to get an extra 20 billion!? That’s only 3.3% of their annual budget. It’s nothing for them. Further, by the time that you buy off everyone involved (thousands of NASA employees, thousands of airline pilots, thousands of ship captains, etc.), launch rockets into the ocean (which is where flat earthers think the rockets go), and fake all the videos and photos (which would involve hiring actors, building sets, special effects, tons of computer animation, etc.), there is hardly going to be anything left. Honestly, 20 billion a year is probably not enough to even attempt a conspiracy like this. Nothing about this makes any sense.

Nevertheless, regardless of the sheer lunacy of this conspiracy theory, it presents a more fundamental problem. Namely, conspiratorial thinking like this is inherently irrational because it makes it possible to explain away any evidence against the conspiracy theory. In other words, no matter what evidence anyone presents that the earth is round, flat earthers will simply write it off as part of the conspiracy. The airline situation is a perfect example of this. Rather than accepting that these long-distance flights discredit their view, flat earthers simply write them off as part of the conspiracy. That type of reasoning is inherently illogical, and if you care about rational thought, then that alone should be enough to make you reject the flat earth movement (to be clear, that isn’t a fallacy fallacy, because the flat earth position requires this conspiracy, but the conspiracy itself has no evidence to support it and is irrational).

Here again, I want to pause and point out that lots of people are quick to laugh at flat earthers for this type of thing, then immediately make identical arguments themselves. Anti-vaccers, for example, propose that there is a vast conspiracy involving all of the world’s medical agencies, governments, and the vast majority of the world’s scientists and doctors. Similarly, both anti-GMO activists and climate change deniers imagine a conspiracy involving numerous governments, every major scientific body, and thousands of scientists. All of these conspiracies theories are irrational for the same reasons. Namely, they don’t have any solid evidence to support them (i.e., they are ad hoc assumptions), and are used to blindly write off any contrary evidence.

Summary

In short, to believe in a flat earth, you have to believe that the sun and moon both defy physics to run in continuous circles overhead, and you have to overlook the fact that this would prevent people in the southern hemisphere from ever seeing a full moon, and you have to overlook the fact that this would result in people in different hemispheres seeing different faces of the moon, and you have to ignore the fact that this would result in different lunar cycles in different parts of the world. You also have to believe that the sun somehow acts as a spotlight (which makes no sense). You also have to either believe that this spotlight somehow also illuminates the moon even though the moon should not be in the direction of the spotlight or you have to believe that the moon is self-illuminating. You also have to believe in a “shadow object” for which there is zero evidence, but the existence of which is required to explain a lunar eclipse on a flat earth. Further, you have to ignore the fact that a flat earth model can’t explain the fact that storm systems spin in different directions in different hemispheres. You also have to believe that gravity is a myth and via unknown means, the entire universe is accelerating upward at a constant rate of acceleration of 9.8m/s^2, but the earth somehow shields objects on it from the force causing this acceleration, yet somehow the sun and moon aren’t shielded. Also, you have to simultaneously believe that gravity does exist for every celestial body other than earth. Additionally, you have to either believe that certain airline flights don’t exist and everyone who claims to have been on them is lying, or you have to invent fictional technology that lets 747s fly faster than the speed of sound and greatly exceed their fuel limitations. On top of all of this, you have to ignore the fact that it is impossible to consistently plot known geographic coordinates onto a flat earth map. The math simply doesn’t work. Finally, you have to invent an insanely massive conspiracy involving every government, every space agency, every airline company (and their pilots), every international shipping company (and their ships’ crews), every company that is involved with satellites, etc. None of this makes any sense whatsoever.

As absurd as all of this may seem (and, indeed, as absurd as it actually is), flat-earthers are not alone in constructing this type of lunacy. The logical fallacies, conspiracy theories, etc. that pervade the flat earth movement are also prevalent among anti-vaccers, climate change deniers, etc. Indeed, essentially all forms of science denial suffer the same suite of logical blunders. So, before you mock flat earthers, take a good look at your own views, and make sure that you aren’t suffering the same errors in reasoning.

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No one is hiding a cure for cancer

A cure for cancer is something of a holy grail in medicine, and many people would have you believe that we’ve already found it, but it’s existence is being hidden and suppressed by greedy companies who only care about profit. These people are, however, wrong, and a cure for cancer is just as mythical as the holy grail itself. Indeed, as I will explain, this conspiracy theory fails at every level. It has no supporting evidence, it is entirely an assumption, and it makes no sense scientifically, logically, or economically.

A single cure is scientifically implausible

First, it is absolutely crucial to realize the cancer is not a single disease. Rather, there are many different types of cancer, each of which behaves differently, and each of which will require a unique treatment/cure. Once you actually understand what cancer is and how it behaves, it quickly becomes clear that the very notion of a single cure for cancer is absurd. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a single solution to all cancers. Rather, there will be different solutions for the different types of cancer. So, right off the bat, we can see that this conspiracy theory is bunk, because it completely ignores the complexity of cancer and proposes the existence of an implausible solution.

Why wouldn’t a cure be profitable?

This conspiracy theory postulates that companies are hiding a cure for cancer because a cure isn’t profitable. That premise has, however, never made the slightest bit of sense to me. How on earth would a cure not be immensely profitable? Purveyors of “natural remedies” already make a fortune off of “cures” that don’t even work, so why wouldn’t pharmaceutical companies be able to profit from an actual cure?

Some people try to counter this by claiming that companies make more from treating cancer than they would from curing it, but couldn’t a company simply charge the same amount for a cure that they currently charge for a full course of treatment? This argument seems to assume that cures would be sold for reasonable prices, but given that pharmaceutical companies have a long history of charging exorbitant prices for products that are relatively cheap for them to make, that assumption is clearly ridiculous. Further, never forget that there are multiple pharmaceutical companies that compete with each other. So, if one of them came out with a cure, they would have a monopoly on the market. How could that possibly be anything other than immensely profitable? Additionally, even beyond the direct profits from the monopoly on the cure, just think about how much good publicity that company would get, and think about investors. Who wouldn’t want to invest in a company that just announced a cure for cancer?

At this point, I usually find that people invoke planned obsolescence and the concept that a cure would be such a great product, that it would quickly put the company out of business. The idea of planned obsolescence is basically this, if you make a product that is really good and lasts forever, you’ll quickly saturate the market and have no one left to sell to. If, for example, you make a microwave that lasts forever, then once everyone has one, you have no one left to sell to. Thus, some companies design their products to eventually fail, that way there are always people who need the product.

I don’t deny that planned obsolescence is a real thing that companies do, but it has absolutely no bearing on the topic of cancer cures, because there will always be new cases of cancer. In other words, this isn’t a situation where once you’ve cured everyone’s cancer, there will never be more cases of cancer. Rather, there will always be new cancer cases. Indeed, over 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer annually in the US alone. Worldwide, that number is closer to 15 million. That’s a pretty steady income stream if you have a cure. Further, having a cure gives you repeat customers, not only for cancer, but also for countless other medicines that pharmaceutical companies produce. After all, who are you going to sell Viagra to if everyone is dying of cancer before they need it?

Cures and preventions already exist for many conditions

The next critical flaw in this conspiracy theory is the fact that many cures already exist for various conditions. Take antibiotics, for example. According to the argument that a treatment is worth more than a cure, a prolonged hospital stay from an out-of-control infection is surely worth more to pharmaceutical companies than a simple course of antibiotics, so why do they sell antibiotics? Similarly, the HPV vaccine actually prevents some types of cancer and costs only a tiny fraction of the cost of treating cancer! So if this conspiracy was true, then why on earth do pharmaceutical companies produce that vaccine?

Why do companies invest in cancer research?

In my opinion, this is one of the best pieces of evidence against this conspiracy. Pharmaceutical companies invest billions of dollars in studying cancer. Why would they do that if they already have a cure that they have no intention of ever using? How is it profitable to spend billions of dollars looking for something that you already have and will never use?

I’ve yet to have someone give me a reasonable answer to this, but I want to briefly talk about a response that I’ve heard that always amuses me. This response suggests that companies do this to keep their competitors from getting the cure, but if you think about that for five seconds, an obvious problem emerges. Keeping your competitor from having the cure only makes sense if your competitor can profit from it, so if they can profit from it, why can’t you? In other words, this response acknowledges that a cure would actually be profitable.

There are lots of independent scientists studying cancer

I don’t understand why conspiracy theorists never seem to realize that there are thousands of independent scientists who aren’t beholden to companies and who have absolutely no reason not to go public with a discovery like a cure for cancer. Do these people know about the cure? If so, why aren’t they telling anyone? Further, if the cure is as simple and obvious as most proponents of this conspiracy theory seem to think, then if these scientists don’t know of the existence of the cure, why haven’t they discovered it themselves?

Cancer affects everyone

Nearly 40% of people will develop cancer at some point in their lives, and almost everyone has lost a friend or relative to cancer. This is important, because it means that everyone involved in this conspiracy would not only have to be willing to let millions of people die annually from cancer, but they would also have to be willing to let their loved ones or even themselves die rather than letting the cure become public knowledge. That’s not likely. It’s easy to forget that big corporations are run by people, and they may be greedy, but when their spouse, child, etc. is dying of cancer, they are going to want that cure just as badly as anyone else, and they’d pay anything for it. Further, keep in mind that if a cure existed, tons of people would know about it. An entire research team consisting of numerous scientists, lab techs, interns, etc. would be aware of it. Countless people involved in budgeting and finances would be aware of it, numerous CEOs would know about it, etc. All it takes is for one of them to grow a conscience and the whole thing is shot. Yes, there would be consequences for breaching a contract, but history is full of people who sacrificed far more for far less than a cure for cancer.

Fortune and glory

indiana jones fortune and glory kidAnother thing that people often overlook is that fact that if a team of scientists found a true cure for cancer, they would win immeasurable fortune and glory. A cure for cancer is a guaranteed Nobel prize. It would give you a spot on any talk show you wanted to be a guest on, multiple book deals, your face on the cover of Time Magazine, etc. Further, beyond the public fame, you would be known professionally as one of the best in your field, and every university in the world would be begging for you to give guest lectures, be the head of a department, etc. Indeed, you would go down in medical history alongside the greats like Jonas Salk and Louis Pasteur. Your name would be taught to elementary school children for generations to come. Who in their right mind would turn that down? No scientist would sit on a discovery like that.

Now, you may try to counter this by saying that these scientists are under contractual obligation with the companies not to make their results public. I would respond to that by directing you to the previous sections on independent scientists and the fact that cancer affects everyone. Further, given the immense rewards for this discovery, I have a hard time accepting that most scientists wouldn’t be willing to face the consequences of breaching their contract.

Cancer treatments have been improving

In addition to everything else I’ve said, I want to point out that all of those billions of dollars we’ve spent on cancer research haven’t been wasted. Our knowledge of cancer and our ability to treat it has increased greatly. Indeed, over the past 30 years, the survival rate for cancer has increased 20–23% (depending on which ethnic group we are talking about)! That’s a huge increase. It has been particularly pronounced for certain cancers like lymphocytic leukemia, for which the survival rate went from 41% to 70%. Similarly, chronic myeloid leukemia went from a 31% survival rate to a 63% survival rate. Why are the survival rates for cancer going up? Because scientists are doing real research, and companies are marketing the results of that research. Also, let’s be clear here that many of these people were cured of their cancer. Most of them aren’t receiving life-long treatments. So we do already cure many cases of cancer. So if Big Pharma had not interest in curing people, then why are the rates of cancer survival going up? (stats are from the American Cancer Society’s 2016 Cancer Statistics report)

Look, science is slow, steady process of accumulating knowledge, and the idea that it is even possible to suddenly find a magical cure for all cancer is naïve and childish. It completely ignores the incredible complexity of cancer. Remember, there are lots of different types of cancer, each of which has to be treated differently. Further, cancer is more challenging than many diseases because we have to fight our own cells. Making a cure for something like a bacterial infection is comparatively simple, because bacterial cells are chemically quite different from our cells, so we just need a drug that targets bacterial chemistry, but doesn’t interact with our cells. Cancer is more complicated because the differences between a cancer cell and a healthy cell are far more subtle. Healthy cells and cancerous cells share the vast majority of their chemistry. So figuring out a way to target cancer cells without affecting healthy cells is extraordinarily difficult. As a result, scientists have never expected to find a single simple solution. No one writes a grant application that says, “I’m going to cure cancer.” Rather, we chip away at the puzzle one little piece at a time, with each piece of evidence building on the last. We gradually accumulate knowledge and improved treatments. That is how research actually works, and that is what has been taking place.

There’s no evidence of a conspiracy

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is absolutely no evidence that a cure exists and is being hidden, and you have to have that evidence before you can claim otherwise. In other words, even if everything that I had said thus far was incorrect, even if a single cure for cancer was scientifically plausible, and even if it really wouldn’t be worth butt-loads of money, and even if scientists would be willing to pass up a Nobel Prize, and even if companies weren’t already making cures for various conditions, and even if companies were willing to waste billions on irrelevant research, and even if every single person involved with cancer research was a greedy SOB, that still wouldn’t make it rational to conclude that a cure exists. In other words, even if you came up with a compelling argument that demonstrated that a cure would be suppressed if it was ever found, that wouldn’t automatically mean that one has been found. This entire conspiracy is 100% an assumption. It is a belief that is based on people’s gut feelings, rather than evidence. It is no different than believing in alien abductions, Big Foot, or the Loch Ness Monster, and just like all of those things, it is a belief that is not rational unless you can provide compelling evidence that the object of your belief is real. You have to have evidence. That is how the burden of proof works.

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Occam’s razor is about assumptions, not simplicity

occam's razor meme peope complex answers simple

Image via The Questionist

Occam’s razor is an important tool for critical thinking, and it is employed constantly in science. Nevertheless, it is often misunderstood and is frequently (and erroneously) stated as, “the simplest solution is usually the correct one.” This is an unfortunate and misleading way to phrase the razor, because it leads people to conclude that conceptually simpler hypotheses are more likely to be correct, and that isn’t actually true. I have, for example, shared images like the one above multiple times on my blog’s Facebook page, and almost without fail, someone responds to them with something to the effect of, “Occam would have something to say about this.” The reality is, however, that Occam’s razor is actually about making assumptions, not conceptual simplicity. In other words, a “simple” hypothesis is one that doesn’t make unnecessary assumptions, not one that is conceptually simple.

I will elaborate on what I mean by unnecessary assumptions in a moment, but first I want to talk a bit more about conceptual simplicity. If you have ever really studied science, then it should be obvious to you that reality isn’t simple. Indeed, the history of science is largely the history of replacing a conceptually simple understanding of nature with an increasingly complicated understanding. In the pre-science era, many people had a very simple understanding of nature. There were only four elements, the earth was the center of the universe, etc. Those ideas were all replaced with far more complex scientific explanations, but those complex explanations are correct.

This accumulation of complexity also happens within science. Gravity provides a good example of this. Newton’s understanding of gravity was far simpler than the more complicated general relativity model proposed by Einstein, but that doesn’t make Einstein wrong nor does it mean that he violated any guidelines of logical thought by proposing it. Indeed, science has repeatedly confirmed that Einstein was right, and we need his conceptually complex model to account for how nature works. Biology has gone through similar revisions. Our modern understanding of evolution, for example, is far more complicated and nuanced than what Darwin proposed. There are many additional (and very correct) layers of complexity that have been added to our understanding over the years (e.g., neutral evolution, punctuated equilibrium, etc.). Indeed, most, if not all, branches of science have experienced similar increases in complexity, and that’s fine. It doesn’t violate Occam’s razor.

Note: In the examples above (and many examples for core scientific topics), the original idea was not wrong so much as incomplete. Darwin and Newton were mostly right, there were just some special circumstances that they weren’t aware of.

Having said that, you should never make a model, hypothesis, etc. more complicated than it needs to be, but simply saying, “hypothesis X is complex and hypothesis Y is simple” doesn’t really tell you much about which one is more likely to be correct. Assumptions, in contrast, tell you a great deal about which hypothesis is more likely to be correct.

Assumptions are the heart of what Occam’s razor is actually about, and the correct way to state the razor is that you should never make more assumptions than are strictly necessary. This concept, sometimes referred to as parsimony, is a guiding principle of science. Everything should be based on evidence and known facts, and the further outside of the known you have to step, the more likely you are to be wrong.

If you think about this for a second, it should make good, intuitive sense. Assumptions are, by definition, things that may or may not be true. Thus, the more potentially untrue components your hypothesis has, the higher the probability that it will be wrong. We can describe this mathematically. Let’s say, for sake of example, that you have a hypothesis that makes one assumption and there is a 90% chance that your assumption is correct (pretend we know that somehow). Watson also has a hypothesis, but his hypothesis makes three assumptions, each of which has a 90% chance of being correct. Your hypothesis only has a 10% chance that its assumption is wrong; whereas for Watson’s hypothesis, there is a 27% chance that at least one of the assumptions is wrong. Thus, it is obvious that his hypothesis is less likely to be correct (see this post for probability calculations).

In case math isn’t your thing, we can use some every-day examples to illustrate this as well. Imagine that you get in your car and try to start it, but when you turn the key, the engine won’t start. It won’t even turn over. Now, there are several possible hypotheses. The most obvious three are that it is the battery, starter, or alternator, but let’s say that you have an additional piece of information. Let’s say that yesterday you had your alternator and battery tested, and they both checked out as fine. Now, which of those three hypotheses is more likely to be correct based on the information you have? It’s obviously the starter, right? You just had the other two tested, so it’s reasonable to conclude that they likely aren’t the problem. This is a perfectly rational and intuitive conclusion, but when we break it down, it’s really just an application of Occam’s razor. Consider, the starter hypothesis proposes only one unknown: there is something wrong with the starter. In contrast, both the battery and alternator hypotheses require additional assumptions, because not only must there be something wrong with one of those car parts, but you also have to assume that the test equipment you used yesterday was faulty, or that a problem happened to develop right after being tested, etc. You have to make an assumption that is not required for the starter hypothesis.

To further illustrate this, we can construct hypotheses with additional assumptions. I could, for example, propose that the starter, battery, and alternator all died simultaneously. Now I have multiple assumptions running, and I trust that it is clear that it is unlikely for all of those things to have gone bad at the same time. We can make it even more ridiculous though by also assuming that in addition to those three parts, the ignition coil, spark plugs, and spark plug wires are also dead (see note). Do you see my point? Every time that we add another unnecessary assumption, the odds of the hypothesis being correct go down. We don’t need to be making assumptions about spark plugs, ignition coils, etc., and therefore we shouldn’t. We should work with what we know and add other assumptions only if they become strictly necessary.

Note: Yes, I know that bad spark plugs, spark plug wires, and the ignition coil(s) would not prevent the engine from turning over, but that only further illustrates the absurdity of assuming that they also stopped working. 

I want to segue here briefly into a related topic: ad hoc fallacies. These fallacies are prevalent in anti-science arguments, and they are fundamentally failures to apply Occam’s razor. They occur when, after being faced with evidence that defeats your position, you invent a solution (i.e., make an assumption) that serves no function other than attempting to patch the hole in your argument.

Let me give an example. Suppose that a friend is with you when your car won’t start, and suppose that you have bragged to him repeatedly about how your car is impervious to faults and can’t break-down. Thus, upon seeing your car’s failure to start, he snidely says, “so much for your car never breaking down.” You are, however, unwilling to acknowledge that your car is capable of having flaws, so instead, you claim that someone must have sabotaged it. That is an hoc fallacy. You arbitrarily assumed that someone sabotaged your car even though you have no evidence to support that claim and even though it breaks Occam’s razor by making unnecessary assumptions.

That example may seem absurd and obviously silly, but people do this all the time. For example, anytime that you see someone in an internet debate blindly accuse their opponent of being a “shill,” they are committing this fallacy. They are assuming that their opponent has a conflict of interest rather than accepting contrary evidence. Similarly, when people blindly reject scientific studies based on assumptions that the studies were funded by major companies, they are committing this fallacy. Indeed, anytime that someone resorts to a conspiracy theory to dismiss a contrary piece of evidence, they are committing this fallacy and are being irrational.

This brings me to my final point. Namely, the quality of the assumptions matters as well as the quantity. In other words, some assumptions are more justified than others. Someone could, for example be pedantic about my car example and argue that saying that the starter died and saying that the starter and spark plugs died both make the same number of assumptions because the first one implicitly assumes that the spark plugs did not die. It should be obvious, however, that (unless you have been having perpetual problems with your car) the default position should be to assume that things work. Every time that you get in your car, you’re implicitly assuming that all of its necessary parts work. Technically, you could argue that the opposite hypothesis (i.e., that none of the parts work) makes the same number of assumptions, but one set of assumptions is clearly more justified than the other (the reasons behind that get into inductive logic and the burden of proof and other concepts that I don’t have time to go into here). The same is true in science and debates. It is not valid to, for example, assume that the entire scientific community is involved in a massive conspiracy, and you can’t try to validate that assumption by saying that everyone else is assuming that the conspiracy doesn’t exist. Those two assumptions are not equal, and you need some concrete evidence before you can claim that there is a conspiracy.

In short, Occam’s razor does not state that the simplest solution is more likely to be correct. Rather, it says that the solution that makes the fewest assumptions is more likely to be correct; therefore, you should restrict your assumptions to only the ones that are absolutely necessary to explain the phenomena in question. A solution can be very complicated and still likely be correct if it is based on facts, not assumptions. Indeed, the answers science produces tend to be conceptually complex, and the history of science is a graveyard of simple ideas that were replaced with more complex ones.

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Vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe,” but that doesn’t mean they are dangerous

vaccineI have increasingly seen anti-vaccers citing the fact that vaccines are considered “unavoidably unsafe,” as proof that vaccines are dangerous and should be avoided. In reality, however, the term “unavoidably unsafe” is just legal jargon that does not mean what anti-vaccers think it means. So let’s talk about what it actually means

The first thing to realize is that this is a legal term, not a scientific one. This is not a term that scientists use when doing risk assessments or testing the safety of drugs. So right off the bat, we have a huge problem because this argument is conflating legal terms with scientific ones (I’ll return to that at the end). So what does this legal term actually mean?

Basically, it means that there is nothing that can be done to make the product safer without compromising the function of the product. The term comes from the legal document, “Restatement (Second) of Torts, Section 402A,” and it is about protecting manufacturers from frivolous law suits, not about providing consumers with health information. The basic idea is simply that companies cannot be held accountable for an injury that arises from unavoidably unsafe products because there was nothing that the company could have done to prevent that injury (inherent in this term is the requirement that the product was manufactured correctly, labelled correctly with adequate instructions for how to administer it, etc.).

Let me give you an example of what that means. The term is generally not applied to food, but if it was, peanut butter could be considered unavoidably unsafe, because some people have allergic reactions to peanut butter, and there is nothing that a peanut butter company can do to prevent that. In other words, there is no way to manufacture peanut butter without that risk being present. Thus (assuming that the product was manufactured and labelled correctly), a peanut butter company would not be liable if someone had an allergic reaction to the peanut butter, because that reaction was not the result of manufacture negligence. Now, does that mean that peanut butter is dangerous? No, obviously not. For the majority of us it is perfectly fine. “Unavoidably unsafe” does not mean that a product is dangerous and should be avoided. Rather, it simply means that are risks that cannot be removed.

When we apply that to vaccines, we see the same thing. Vaccines have side effects. No one has ever denied that, but serious side effects are rare, and the benefits far outweigh the risks. Indeed, Section 402A specified that “unavoidably unsafe” products should have benefits that outweigh their risks. So labeling vaccines as unavoidably unsafe absolutely does not mean that they are dangerous and should be avoided. It simply means that there are risks that are not manufacture’s fault. Also, just to be 100% clear here, everything has risks, including the decision not to vaccinate. People often focus on the risk of taking an action and ignore the risk from not taking that action, but a correct risk assessment has to consider both, and for vaccines, the risk from not vaccinating is much higher than the risk from vaccinating.

Finally, I want to return to me previous comment about this being a legal term not a scientific term. Those who deny science frequently like to cite courts, legal documents, etc. as evidence of their position, but that is simply not how science works. Even if a legal body like the Supreme Court had said that vaccines are dangerous, that would not be evidence that vaccines are dangerous. Lawyers and judges are not scientists. When they make a statement about science, they are stepping outside of their area of expertise. Further, even if they were scientists, that wouldn’t turn what they say into a fact. In other words, when they say something it doesn’t automatically become true. Whether or not something is a fact has to be determined by conducting studies. That is where scientific evidence comes from, and scientific studies overwhelmingly support the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Trying to use a legal ruling as evidence against scientific studies is foolhardy. It is also pretty ironic and hypocritical for anti-vaccers (a group that is notorious for distrusting the government) to cite a government ruling as if it gives them a checkmate.

In short, “unavoidably unsafe” is simply a legal term that means the manufacture is not liable because they cannot do anything to make the product safer. It does not mean that the product is dangerous and should be avoided.

Note: Some pedants may take issue with the way that I have been using the term “dangerous” and, admittedly, even some documents about “unavoidably unsafe” products use it in a way that is inconsistent with how we usually use the term. So, when I say “dangerous” I mean a product or activity with a high enough chance of causing harm and low enough benefits that it should be avoided. That does not mean, however, that there is no chance of something “safe” causing harm. Swimming, for example, is not something that I would usually consider “dangerous” even though death is possible. Swimming during a thunder storm, however, I would consider dangerous. See the difference?

Recommended further reading

Schwartz. 1985. Unavoidably unsafe products: Clarifying the meaning and policy behind comment K. Washington and Lee Law Review 42: 1139–1148.

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Bt GMOs reduce pesticides, increase yields, and benefit farmers (including organic farmers)

Few technologies have been demonized to the same extent as genetic engineering. According to countless websites, GMOs are an evil scourge on the earth that destroy biodiversity, use exorbitant levels of pesticides, and hybridize rampantly with wild crops, and all of that is before we even get to the (largely false) claims about Monsanto. Reality, however, shows a rather different picture, especially when it comes to Bt GMOs, which are what I want to focus on for this post. You see, one of the problems with GMO debates is that people on both sides tend to lump all GMOs together, but there are actually lots of different types of GMOs with different properties and different pros and cons. Of these different types, Bt GMOs are arguably one of the best, and as I will show, they actually reduce pesticide use, increase crop yields (thus reducing land use), increase profits for farmers, and are safer for the environment than their conventional counterparts (including organic farming). Further, they actually benefit farmers who don’t grow GMOs by providing a protective “halo” around their farms that protect them from insect pests. As a result, non-GMO farms that are near Bt GMO farms actually use less pesticides and enjoy higher profits than they would without the GMO farms.

Note: Most Bt GMOs are not herbicide resistant (i.e., aren’t designed for use with glyphosate [aka roundup]), so if your issue with GMOs is that you don’t like glyphosate, you should be fine with many Bt GMO crops (also you should read the actual scientific literature on glyphosate).

Bt pesticides and Bt GMOs

Before we can talk about the benefits of Bt GMOs, we need to talk about the alternatives and history of Bt. Bt toxin is actually a crystalline protein produced by the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and decades ago, scientists discovered that it was a very effective pesticide against certain groups of insects, while being safe for most other organisms. There are three reasons for this. First, the acidic stomachs of mammals (and many other animals) breaks the protein down. Second, only part of the protein is potentially dangerous, and it has to be broken down in a highly alkaline environment (which is present in insect guts, but not most animals) to release the potentially dangerous part. Third, it operates by binding to specific receptors that are found on certain insect guts, but not the guts of other animals. Thus, its mode of action simply doesn’t work on humans and most other animals (for more details about mode of action, see Kumar and Chandra 2008 and this page from Harvard). As a result, it is safe for humans and most animals at anything but an extremely high dose (Mendelsohn et al. 2003; remember, even water is fatally toxic at a high dose [Garigan and Ristedt 1999]).

All of these properties make Bt toxin an ideal pesticide, and it was widely adopted, particularly for organic farming (yes, organic farming uses pesticides as well, just not “synthetic” pesticides). As far as pesticides go, it is a pretty safe one, but it is still not without problems. First, the spraying process takes time and money, uses water, burns fossil fuels, has to be done multiple times a year, etc. Additionally, when it is sprayed on crops, it kills a wide range of insects that were on the crops, not just the ones that actually eat the crops. Further, spraying has to be timed correctly, it doesn’t provide continuous protection, etc. Also, it is far from the only insecticide being used, and many are far worse for the environment. This is where GMOs come in.

Clever scientists figured out a way to genetically engineer plants to produce Bt toxin themselves. As a result, minimal spraying is needed, because the plant produces its own pesticide (keep in mind, this pesticide is very safe for humans). This saves farmers time and money, provides continuous protection (resulting in higher crop yields), and has fewer effects on non-target species. I’ll elaborate on all of these points below.

Note 1: Pesticides are simply chemicals used to kill pest species. Insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. are all types of pesticides that target specific groups (insects, plants, and fungi, respectively).

Reduced pests, reduced pesticides, increased yields, and increased profits

I sometimes hear those who oppose GMOs claim that GMOs haven’t delivered on their promises, but when it comes to Bt GMOs, that is demonstrably false. Numerous studies have consistently confirmed that Bt GMOs greatly reduce pest populations, which results in less damage to the crops (Hutchison et al. 2010; Lu and Desneux 2012; Dively et al. 2018). Further, all of this is accomplished while using less pesticides (Shelton et al. 2002; Cattaneo 2006; Lu and Desneux 2012). This, of course, also translates to higher yields and higher profits for farmers (Shelton et al. 2002; Cattaneo 2006; Vitale et al. 2010). Indeed, one study estimated that over a 14 year period, Bt maize (aka corn) saved farmers in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin $3.2 billion, and saved farmers in Iowa and Nebraska $3.6 billion (Hutchison et al. 2010). So, don’t believe the anti-GMO horror story that GMOs are somehow bad for farmers. They aren’t. Farmers choose to use them because they benefit the farmers.

Note: The studies cited in this post came from a wide range of countries, not just developing countries. Australia, the USA, China, European countries, and African countries are all represented in the studies I cited throughout.

Environmental benefits

As explained in the previous section, Bt GMOs use significantly less pesticides than their conventional/organic counterparts. That reduction stems from the fact that non-GMO crops are frequently sprayed with insecticides; whereas the Bt GMOs produce their own insecticides, which greatly reduces the need for spraying pesticides. So, if your biggest concern with GMOs is that they use too many pesticides, then you should support Bt GMOs, because they use substantially less than other agriculture methods (including organic).

Because of the targeted nature of GMOs, this reduction in pesticide use translates directly to improved biodiversity, while still effectively killing pests. When a field is sprayed with an insecticide (even a fairly safe one like the Bt spray used in organic farming), a large range of insects in the field are affected, even if they aren’t pest species. In other words, things like bees and monarch butterflies (particularly their caterpillars) can be killed by the pesticide, even though they aren’t pest species and don’t eat the crops (depending on the pesticide, there can also be negative effects for other wildlife, aquatic ecosystems, etc). This is inevitable collateral damage from spraying pesticides. The Bt GMOs, however, are very targeted. Insects need to actually eat the plant to get the toxin. As a result, innocent, non-pest species that just happen to be in the field are largely unaffected. Plus, there are no pesticides running into waterways and the other negative effects of pesticides are eliminated.

To be clear, this isn’t speculative, dozens of studies have confirmed this. Indeed, several meta-analyses of the literature have found that Bt GMOs do not adversely affect non-target species, and, compared to crops that are sprayed with Bt, they have significantly better insect diversity (Marvier et al. 2007; Wolfenbarger et al. 2008; Comas et al. 2014). Additionally, one study found that by reducing the use of pesticides, Bt GMOs actually increased populations of insect predators, such as birds (Lu and Desneux 2012). So, if your concern with GMOs is biodiversity, then, once again, you should be supporting Bt GMOs, because they are demonstrably better than the alternatives.

Having said that, there are reports of some non-target insects being affected by Bt GMOs, but these are usually insects that specialize on eating or parasitising pest species (Wolfenbarger et al. 2008). So, in many cases, it’s not that the GMO itself harms them, but rather that the GMO kills their prey. Also, to be 100% clear, studies comparing Bt GMOs to conventional crops that are not sprayed at all have found that there is a slight difference in diversity levels (likely at least partially from the type of ecological interactions I just described; Whitehouse et al. 2005), but the expectation that most crops shouldn’t be sprayed at all is unrealistic (it is a nirvana fallacy) and would result in other environmental problems (e.g., increased land area, tilling methods that damage the soil, etc.).

It’s also worth explicitly stating that the safety of Bt GMOs still holds true even if we look at specific groups that people care greatly about, like bees and butterflies. There was initial concern that the pollen from Bt crops could adversely affect these groups, but that suggestion was based on unrealistic exposure levels, it ignored the fact that they are affected by sprays, and subsequent studies have failed to find evidence that these crops harm bees (Duan et al. 2008) and non-pest butterflies (Mendelsohn et al. 2003). Further, Bt GMOs have one final benefit: reduced habitat loss.

Habitat loss and fragmentation is the single biggest threat to biodiversity (Newbold et al. 2015; Wilson et al. 2016; Young et al. 2016). Further, conversion of natural lands to agriculture is the biggest cause of habitat loss (Foley et al. 2005; Phalan et al. 2016) and is well known to be a serious threat to conservation (Martinuzzi et al. 2015; Tilman et al. 2017). This is one of the key reasons why, as a conservation biologist, I support GMOs. They have a higher yield than conventional crops, which means that they need less land to grow the same amount of food. Therefore, from an environmental standpoint, they are tremendously beneficial. Indeed, increasing crop yields is often argued as a key strategy for preserving biodiversity (Phalan et al. 2016; Tilman et al. 2017).

Let me try to explain it this way. All agriculture is bad for biodiversity. When you take a natural forest or grassland, clear it, and plant crops, you will inevitably lose a large number of species that used to live there. People often seem to have this idyllic view of farms (particularly organic farms) as if all the animals and plants that lived in the forest before it was cleared will somehow continue to live in the organic farm field. This is a fairy tale. Even if you rotate your crops, never till the soil, and never use any pesticides, the biodiversity of that farm field will still be substantially lower than what it was before you turned it into a farm field, because the field doesn’t contain the various habitat types that many animals need (e.g., a forest species is not going to live in a field). People seem to have no trouble realizing this when it comes to things like clearing rainforests to grow palm oil, but for some reason, when it comes to crops in countries like the USA and European countries, people suddenly don’t seem to realize how harmful clearing land for agriculture actually is, but its negative effects on biodiversity are well-documented (Krauss et al. 2010; Martinuzzi et al. 2015).

Benefits to non-GMO farmers

If you listen to the anti-GMO crowd, they often operate under the pretense of protecting farmers who don’t grow GMOs, but as usual, reality is quite different. Indeed, several studies have confirmed that non-GMO farmers benefit tremendously from having Bt GMO farms near them. This is the case because the Bt GMO farms protect the non-GMO farms via what has been called the “halo effect.” You see, the Bt GMOs do such a good job of killing pest species, that the populations for those species decline in the areas where Bt GMOs are grown (Carrière 2003; Wu et al. 2008; Dively et al. 2018). Additionally, as mentioned earlier, Bt GMOs result in increased populations of generalist predators (such as birds) compared to non-GMO crops, and these predators act as biological control agents on the fields in their area (Lu and Desneux 2012). As a result of both of these factors, in the areas around Bt GMO farms, there are fewer pest insects to attack the non-GMO crops, and non-GMO farmers enjoy less crop damage, higher yields, and higher profits than they would if there were no GMO farms around (Hutchison et al. 2010; Wan et al. 2012; Dively et al. 2018). Remember that study that I mentioned earlier that found that Bt corn saved farmers billions of dollars? In Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin $2.4 billion of those savings were by non-GMO farmers, and in Iowa and Nebraska $1.9 billion were by non-GMO farmers. Further, this protective halo effect allows non-GMO farmers to use fewer pesticide applications than they would need to otherwise (Wu et al. 2008; Hutchison et al. 2010; Dively et al. 2018). So, both the environmental and economic benefits of Bt GMOs spill over into the non-GMO farms.

Benefits to human health

In addition to the benefits to the environment and farmers, Bt GMOs have also been demonstrated to be safer for humans because of reduced mycotoxins (Pellegrino et al. 2018). These are chemicals produced by fungi, and can end up in our food when fungi are growing on the crops. The Bt crops don’t actually kill the fungi, but they do kill the pest-insects that make habitats for the fungi. You see, the fungi like to grow in the holes created by pest insects chewing on the plants. So, fewer pest insects means fewer holes, which means less fungi and less mycotoxins (Pellegrino et al. 2018). I don’t want to oversell this, because, at least in first world countries, food is usually checked for mycotoxin contamination, so food with it usually gets thrown out. Nevertheless, the filtering process is not 100% effective, and they are still a concern. So, the Bt GMOs do in fact reduce your risk of this.

What about pesticide resistance?

At this point, people usually bring up pesticide resistance. This is the evolved resistance to Bt toxin that ultimately causes Bt to be ineffective at controlling insect populations (it is analogous to antibiotic resistance). This certainly is a problem, but it is not a problem that is limited to GMOs. Indeed, insects were documented evolving resistance to Bt long before GMOs were available (remember, Bt is used as a spray in many non-GMO farms, including organic farms; McGaughey 1985; Tabashnik et al. 1990). So even if all the Bt GMO fields were replaced with organic fields (as some would like to see happen) we would still be having this problem because resistance to a widely used pesticide is an inevitable outcome of natural selection (at least inevitable without careful management).

The second problem with this argument is that resistance to Bt simply means that we can’t use Bt anymore. So, saying that we shouldn’t use Bt because it will create Bt resistant insects makes absolutely no sense. It is literally saying, “we shouldn’t use Bt, because if we use Bt we won’t be able to use Bt.”

Third, although resistance is a problem, it is not an insurmountable one. One current strategy that is widely used is to have “refuge’ fields that are not Bt GMOs and are not treated with Bt (Siegfried and Hellmich 2012). Indeed, in the USA, the EPA requires farmers who use Bt corn to have at least 20% of their fields as refuge fields. This is a good strategy because of how natural selection works. I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details here, but in short, Bt GMOs (or Bt sprays) kill the majority of pest insects in the field, and only a handful that have alleles that are resistant to Bt will survive. If those insects mate with each other, we will quickly get a resistant population where all the insects have resistant alleles. By having a nearby refuge, however, we have a large population that is not resistant, making it more likely that the resistant insects will mate with the non-resistant insects, and the alleles for being resistant will be diluted. Indeed, it is well known that gene flow can swamp adaptation in this way (Kawecki and Ebert 2004; Foster et al. 2007; Funk et al. 2012; read this series for more about how evolutionary mechanisms work). Other strategies are also being developed and tested, so this is very much a situation where we should take the necessary precautions to prevent insect resistant, but there is no reason to use insect resistance as a general argument against the crops. As the old saying goes, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Conclusion

In short, Bt GMOs have tremendous benefits and are actually the opposite of most anti-GMO claims. For example, GMO opponents claim that GMOs increase pesticide use, but Bt GMOs greatly reduce it. Similarly, you may have heard the claim that GMOs are bad for biodiversity, but Bt GMOs are actually far better for it than non-GMO crops (including organic crops) because they are more targeted and have fewer effects on non-target species. Further, habitat loss is the dominant threat to biodiversity, but because Bt GMOs increase yields, they reduce the need for clearing habitat for agriculture. Additionally, they benefit farmers by increasing yields and profits, and they even benefit non-GMO farmers by providing a protective “halo” that increases the non-GMO farmers’ yields and profits and reduces their need for pesticides. So, from both an environmental and economic standpoint, Bt GMOs are better than the conventional and organic alternatives.

Related posts

Literature Cited

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Life constantly arises from “nonliving matter”

Creationists often argue that scientists’ lack of knowledge about how the first cell arose is evidence that life could not have arisen “spontaneously from nonliving matter.” There are numerous problems with this argument, some of which I have dealt with before. For example, it is entirely an argument from ignorance fallacy (details here). Further, although it is often used as an argument “against evolution” it is actually an entirely separate concept from the theory of evolution, and the two theories do not rely on each other (details here). In this post, however, I want to focus on a different aspect of this argument. Namely, the fact that it isn’t actually true. Life arises spontaneously from “nonliving matter” all the time. Creationists simply frame the argument in a deceptive way that ignores the chemical nature of living organisms. Every time an organism reproduces, life is arising from nonliving matter. Now, creationists will, of course, object to that claim because that new life came from the reproduction of another living organism, but that is actually entirely irrelevant. As I will explain in detail, life itself is simply a product of highly complex chemistry, and the process of reproduction consists entirely of chemical reactions among nonliving atoms. The living organism simply provides the environment in which that chemistry can take place.

Definition of “spontaneous”

The first thing that we need to talk about in this discussion is the definition of “spontaneous.” In chemistry, spontaneous has a specific meaning. It gets a bit technical with concepts like entropy, but the easiest way to understand it is that a spontaneous reaction is exothermic (meaning that it releases energy into the environment), whereas a nonspontaneous reaction is endothermic (meaning that it requires energy from the environment). This is an oversimplification, but that is not really important for this post.

The definition used by chemists is not, however, generally what creationists mean when they talk about a “spontaneous” formation of life. Rather, they seem to mean simply an event that could happen naturally without conscious intervention. Although not technical, we can use this definition, but I think we need to carefully clarify it at the outset. By this definition, given the right environmental conditions (including temperature, enzymes, etc.) any chemical reaction is spontaneous. Imagine, for example, that I take a small salt crystal, and drop it into water. The salt will dissolve because the positive sodium ions will be attracted to the negative part of water molecules, while the negative chloride ions will be attracted to the positive part of water molecules (water is a polar molecule). That reaction is (by creationists’ definition) spontaneous. It is an inevitable outcome of the chemistry. No one has to sit there and will the molecules to interact with each other. They just do so automatically because of the way that charges, electrons, etc. behave. You might try to quibble over this example because it involved me (a conscious entity) dropping the salt into the water, but we can easily think of situations where the chemicals would meet without intervention (e.g., a cliff eroding into a lake).

This may seem straightforward so far, but it is critical to clarify that this definition of spontaneous must still apply even when we are talking about reactions that occur inside a living organism. Take photosynthesis, for example. Plants take in water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and through a complex series of chemical reactions, they produce oxygen (O2) and glucose (C6H12O6). Various enzymes are involved, and the reaction is endothermic and requires energy from the sun. Thus, it is not spontaneous by the technical chemical definition, but it is spontaneous by the definition that creationists use when they say things like, “life can’t spontaneously arise.” In other words, it is an inevitable outcome of the chemistry in that environment. When you have those chemicals (including the various enzymes, etc.) plus an input of energy from the sun, the reaction will happen. No one has to force the individual atoms to interact.

Note: I will use this definition of spontaneous throughout.

Everything is nonliving matter

There is no such thing as living matter. The dichotomy between “living’ and “nonliving” matter is a completely false one that is perpetuated by the way that all of us (including scientists) talk, but it is a critical topic when it comes to abiogenesis, because creationists entire argument hinges on this false distinction between living and nonliving matter.

The problem here is that matter is never alive, but when it is arranged in certain ways, it results in chemical reactions that produce the property known as life. In other words, living organism are composed entirely of nonliving matter. You are, for example, predominantly composed of the elements oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. These are nonliving atoms that come together to form nonliving molecules. When those molecules are arranged in a certain way, they chemically react and produce a living cell, and those living cells collectively from a living organism (you). You are alive, and your cells are alive, but the matter that makes those cells is not alive. It’s just a specific arrangement of nonliving atoms.

This may seem like an entirely pointless semantic quibble, but it is actual vital for this discussion, because, since matter itself is not alive, all life, by definition, arises from nonliving matter. When you make a sperm or an egg cell, for example, nonliving matter is simply being arranged into a living cell. Yes, that arrangement is being performed by living cells, but they are themselves just arrangements of nonliving matter, and they are simply providing the chemicals (aka nonliving matter) and environment necessary for spontaneous chemical reactions to arrange the chemicals into a living cell. The matter is never alive at any point in the process.

Now, I can already hear the objection that a living cell is required for that to happen. In other words, this argument states that even though the matter itself is not alive, a living organism is required to arrange the nonliving matter into a living cell. As I will explain in subsequent sections, however, there is absolutely no reason to think that assertion is true.

This is about chemistry, not consciousness

Before I go any further, I need to make a brief comment about consciousness, because someone will inevitably respond to my assertion that life is simply a product of complex chemistry by arguing that “chemistry can’t explain consciousness.”

I want to respond to that in several ways. First, prove it. You are a biochemical machine. You breathe in oxygen, which is transported to your cells thanks to haemoglobin in your blood. That oxygen, as well as glucose from your food, is then used for a complex chemical reaction known as cellular respiration. This produces the molecule ATP which can be reduced to ADP, resulting in a release of energy. That degradation of ATP to ADP powers your body. Every function of your body is controlled by chemistry and reducible to chemistry. Even when you are thinking, that is a result of chemistry in your brain (neurotransmitters, sodium ion channels, etc.). Given all of that, there is no good reason to think that consciousness is not also just a product of complex chemistry.

Having said that, however, this topic is actually completely irrelevant to the argument about abiogenesis, and I would really rather just drop it altogether. So, to that end, I will focus on bacteria from here on out. I don’t know anyone who thinks that bacteria are conscious, so we can talk about them from an entirely chemical perspective, even if you think that consciousness is more than chemistry. Further, the first cell is thought to have been something similar to a cyanobacteria, so talking about bacteria is rational path.

Bacterial reproduction

Diagram of a bacterium. Image credit: Ali Zifan via Wikimedia

Now that we have agreed to focus on bacteria, let’s talk about how bacteria reproduce. Bacteria are very simple organisms and really only consist of a few major parts: a cell wall (made of the chemical peptidoglycan), DNA, proteins known as ribosomes, cytoplasm (the gooey fluid inside), and a few other bits and pieces. Again, all of those parts are made of nonliving matter, and are themselves nonliving, but when they are arranged correctly, and the correct chemical reactions occur, the cell as a whole exhibits the properties that we use to define life. In other words, ribosomes are not alive, the cell wall is not alive, DNA is not alive, etc., but when all of those things are put together and the correct chemical reactions occur, we describe the entire cell as being alive. Further, we would describe it as “dead” only if those chemical reactions ceased. Thus, biological life is defined by the occurrence of specific chemical reactions.

When a bacterium detects that the environment and resources are good for reproducing, a series of chemical reactions are triggered. Most importantly, the contents of the cell (DNA, ribosomes, enzymes, etc.) are duplicated. The DNA duplication involves a series of enzymes and chemical reactions that read the DNA strands and make identical copies. Again, this is a spontaneous chemical reaction that will occur anytime that the right chemicals are supplied under the right conditions.

Unlike the DNA, the proteins are duplicated by the ribosomes (which are themselves made of proteins). The ribosomes are protein factories. They receive blueprints from the DNA (in the form of mRNA) and building materials from the rest of the cell (in the form of tRNA), and they arrange those building materials according to the blue prints. Here again, this all happens because of inevitable chemical reactions (given the reactants and environment; see note at the end for more details on how proteins are made).

Diagram of protein synthesis. Image credit: Kelvinsong via Wikimedia

Hopefully at this point the picture is becoming clear. The entire process of forming a new cell is just a long string of chemical reactions. It is true that in nature, we have only observed this entire chain of reactions occurring in living cells, but that is just because the cell provides the right environment, conditions, and reactants for those reactions to take place. If the right conditions occurred outside of a cell those reactions would still happen. Imagine, for example, that we figured out how to artificially produce ribosomes, then put them in a beaker with the correct reactants, mRNA templates, enzymes, tRNA, energy input, etc. Would they form proteins? Yes. In fact, we have done essentially that. We have developed methods known as cell-free protein synthesis that allow you to produce the proteins for a given strand of DNA in a test tube without needing a living cell!

The significance of PCR

For most of the history of life on planet earth, DNA replication only happened in one place: a living cell. During human history, DNA didn’t spontaneously replicate in nonliving environments. Just like the production of proteins and the other steps involved in making a new cell, DNA replication required a living cell. DNA replication is, however, just chemistry (just like the other steps of making a new cell), and scientists saw no reason why it shouldn’t be possible to replicate DNA if the right conditions were created outside of a cell. So, they began studying the chemistry, and after years of work, they figured it out, ultimately resulting in the polymerase change reaction (PCR).

If you ever take even an introductory course on genetics, you’ll almost certainly have to do a PCR reaction, because it is one of the most common tools in laboratories around the world (a substantial amount of my life has been spent running these reactions). To do PCR, you take a strand of DNA that you want to replicate, add the necessary chemicals (enzymes, bases, primers, etc.), put the mixture into a thermocycler that creates the correct temperature profile for the reaction to occur (i.e., the environment), and lo and behold, you replicate DNA without needing a living cell.

Why is that possible? Why is it possible to take a process that, in nature, requires a living cell, and do it without a living cell? Because the process is entirely chemical! Again, the cell just provides the environment necessary for that reaction to occur, but if you can replicate a suitable environment outside of a cell, then you can do the same reaction. Further, there is absolutely no reason to think that this only applies to DNA replication. Every step involved in making a cell is just a series of chemical reactions, and there is absolutely no reason why a living cell should be the only environment in which those reactions are possible.

Additionally, it is important to remember that the series of reactions that occur in living cells today are more complicated than would be necessary to form a rudimentary cell. Indeed, scientists are actively studying chemical reactions that can produce primitive versions of various cellular components without requiring a living cell.

Bringing it all together

Let’s recap, shall we? Matter itself is not living. Rather, when nonliving chemicals are arranged together and react in certain ways, they produce living organisms that consist of nonliving matter. Further, the processes and actions of these living organisms are simply the result of complex chemical reactions. Additionally, these chemical reactions occur “spontaneously” in that they will occur on their own given the right chemicals in the right environment. Indeed, all living organisms are accurately described as biochemical machines, with these “spontaneous” reactions driving their functions.

As a result of all of this, it is completely fair to say that life constantly arises from nonliving matter, because each new cell is formed by arranging nonliving matter into a configuration that will result in the chemical reactions that produce the properties that we describe as life. It is true that currently these reactions do not occur in nature outside of a cell. In other words, each new cell is formed by existing cells; however, because that formation process is entirely chemical, there is no reason to think that those chemical reactions could not occur elsewhere. To put that another way, living cells simply provide the right environment and resources for those reactions to occur, but if the right environment occurred outside of a cell, those reactions would still occur even in the absence of a cell. Indeed, we have clearly demonstrated this by replicating a key component of cellular reproduction (i.e., DNA replication) in the lab. Further, it is likely that the environment on planet earth billions of years ago would have also been conducive to these types of reactions.

In short, there is absolutely no reason to think that life couldn’t form “spontaneously from nonliving matter,” because matter is never alive, and the formation of life is nothing more than a complex series of chemical reactions.

Note: Someone is probably getting ready to point out that although PCR replicates DNA, it is not exactly the same reaction used by living cells. That is true, but completely irrelevant. There are lots of different variants of the DNA replication process found in nature, and it is entirely possible the first cells used mechanisms that were different from those of current cells. So, all that matters is that we were able to replicate DNA in the lab. In other words, the point is simply that a living cell is not required for that task to be accomplished. The end product is what matters, not the mechanism through which it happened.

More details on protein synthesis: The process here is complicated, but the simplest way to explain it is like this. DNA is a chemical molecule, and the four bases of DNA (ATCG) are four different chemical molecules. When the cell sends blue prints to the ribosome, it translates the DNA into mRNA, which also consists of four bases (AUCG; mRNA is a single-stranded complimentary copy of the DNA strand with T replaced with U). The bases on mRNA are arranged into sets of three, known as codons, and each codon codes for a specific amino acid. Once this strand of mRNA is in the ribosome, it will react with tRNA, which consists of anticodons attached to an amino acid. The anticodon is the compliment of the codon, and, because of the chemistry, anticodons (and, as a result, the amino acids they carry) are specific to specific codons. Thus, each anticodon reacts with a specific codon, ultimately resulting in its amino acid getting added to the amino acid from the previous anticodon. In other words, the ribosome matches the codons with the correct amino acid, resulting in reactions that bind the amino acids together into chains, and those chains fold to form proteins. I realize that may sound like the ribosome is a conscious entity that is consciously deciding how to do this, but it is not. All of this is 100% chemistry. In the presence of the right enzymes, chemical reactions will occur with the codons, anticodons, ribosome, amino acids, etc., ultimately causing the amino acids to string together in a certain order that is dictated by the chemistry of the RNA, which is in turn dictated by the chemistry of the DNA.

 Related post
Abiogenesis: An unsolved mystery is not evidence of a creator

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Methodolatry: An over-reliance on placebo-controlled trials

vial of homeopathic medicineRandomized placebo-controlled trials (RCTs) are often referred to as the “gold standard” for clinical research, and they certainly are useful and powerful tools. They aren’t, however, the only reliable tools, nor are they always the best tools. Indeed, there are many situations where other methods are actually superior. Nevertheless, among the general public, there is a common misconception that RCTs are the only reliable method and nothing else counts as valid science. For example, anti-vaccers often demand RCTs showing that vaccines are safe and effective (see note), and they routinely dismiss other methods, such as cohort studies, even when those methods are more suitable to answering the question at hand. At an even further extreme, I have encountered climate change deniers who say that climate science isn’t real science because it doesn’t use RCTs (i.e., we don’t take multiple earths and burn fossil fuels on half of them while using clean energy on the other half). This is, of course, nonsense and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. Indeed, most fields of science don’t rely on RCTs. Given how common these misconceptions are, I want to spend a few minutes talking about some of the pitfalls and problems with RCTs and explain why, in some cases, other methods are superior (there is actually a term for an over-reliance on RCTs: methodolatry).

Note: There are actually lots of RCTs for vaccines, anti-vaccers just ignore them. These studies usually come from the development of new vaccines, and they are quite good at showing that vaccines are effective; however, while they do support the safety of vaccines, for many safety concerns, other methods are actually superior (see the rest of the post)

Sample size

The biggest problem with RCTs is that they are only powerful when they have a large enough sample size, but getting the sample size necessary to test for rare effects is often impossible. To conduct an RCT on people, you need a large group of people who are eligible for the trial, are willing to come to your clinic/lab, are willing to risk taking an experimental treatment, are willing to risk being in the placebo group, will reliably follow the rules of your study, and will reliably return at the appropriate times for follow-ups. All of that is difficult and expensive to achieve, and, as a result, RCTs often only have a few dozen participants, and an RCT with a few hundred participants would be considered a large study.

Having a few dozen participants is fine if you are testing something with a large effect, but it is problematic if you are testing a rare effect. Imagine, for example, that you were testing a drug that caused the desired effect in 80% of test subjects and the background rate of that effect (i.e., its rate in the placebo group) was only 10%. In that case, if you had 60 participants (30 in each group) you’d expect to have 3 “successes” in the placebo group and 24 or more in the experimental group. That is a large difference that the RCT could easily detect (it would be statistically significant with a P value <0.0001).

Now imagine that you are testing something much more rare. Let’s say that you are testing an adverse event that has a background rate of 1% (i.e., 1% of people will have it even if they didn’t take the drug being tested). Further, let’s assume that the drug being tested does actually cause the side effect in an additional 1% of people (i.e., it causes it in 1 in 100 people, plus a background rate of 1 in 100). Now, we expect 1% of the control group to have the adverse event, and 2% of the experimental group to have it. That’s a problem if we only have 30 people in each group in our RCT. Mathematically, we’d only expect 0–1 people in each group to have the event, and we can’t distinguish that statistically. Further, even if we had a full 100 people in each group, we’d only get 1 event in the control group and 2 in the experimental group, which is far from being statistically significant even though the drug did actually have an effect (P = 1.0). Even at an enormous sample size of 1,000 people per group, we would not be able to detect the effect of the drug (P = 0.0978).  Indeed, would need a sample size of nearly 1,400 people per group before we would be able to detect a significant difference, and even then, we could just barely detect it.

hierarchy of evidence

This is the standard hierarchy of science, and in many cases it is correct, but it is not absolute, and other factors, such as sample size, have to be considered when comparing certain methods.

This sample size issue is a huge problem that severely limits RCTs. Fortunately, other methods like case-controlled trials and cohort studies are available. I talked about both of these methods in detail here, but briefly, case-control studies basically work backwards from RCTs. Rather than taking a group of people, giving half of them a treatment, then measuring an outcome of interest, case-controlled studies start by identifying a group of people who have an outcome of interest (the cases) then matching them to people who are as similar as possible in age, sex, race, etc. but lack the outcome of interest (the controls). Then, they look for differences in potential causes of interest. If you were interested in vaccines and autism, for example, you could take a group of people with autism, match them with a group of people without autism, then see if the vaccination rates differed among groups (this has been done, and the vaccination rates don’t differ; Destefano et al. 2004; Smeeth et al. 2004; Price et al. 2010; DeStefano et al. 2013; Uno et al. 2015).

Cohort studies are similar in that they are observational, rather than actually administering a treatment; however, they follow more of a traditional approach (as opposed to the backwards approach of case-controlled studies). They select a group of people who do not currently have an outcome of interest, some of which are expected to receive a treatment of interest. Then, they follow the patients to see whether the treatment causes the outcome. For example, you could take a large group of children who have yet to be vaccinated, follow them, and, presumably, some of them will have parents who vaccinate, and others won’t. So, you can then compare things like autism rates among the vaccinated and unvaccinated without having to actually be the one who administers the vaccine. These types of studies can also be done retrospectively by using medical records (here again, this has been done for vaccines and autism with no evidence that vaccines cause autism; Anders et al. 2004; Madsen et al. 2002; Jain et al. 2015; Verstraeten et al. 2003).

Cohort studies and case-controlled studies do make it more difficult to control confounding factors, but when they are done well, it is possible to account for many of them and, at times, even randomize. Further, they make it much easier to have very large sample sizes because of their observational nature. Studies with hundreds, thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of samples are common for these types of studies. Indeed, for the topic of vaccines and autism, a meta-analysis of these studies had a sample size of over 1.2 million children (Taylor et al. 2014), which is far more power than we could hope for from an RCT. Think of it this way, if an RCT, case-controlled study, and cohort study all had the same sample sizes, the RCT would be more powerful, but if the RCT has a small sample size, the outcome being tested is rare, and the case-controlled and cohort studies have substantially larger sample sizes, then the case-controlled and cohort studies will often yield more meaningful results (assuming that all the studies were set up correctly with adequate case-matching, controls, etc.).

All of this is very important for concerns over vaccine safety, because the known side-effects of vaccines are quite rate, often only occurring at rates of 1 in 1,000 or fewer. As a result, examining them with RCTs isn’t feasible, and would actually make vaccines look better than they are. So when anti-vaccers demand RCTs, they are actually demanding an unsuitable method that almost guarantees the opposite result from what anti-vaccers are hoping for.

This is also true for the adverse-events that anti-vaccers erroneously attribute to vaccines. Take autism and vaccines as an example. The CDC currently puts autism rates at 1 in 68. Further, we know that autism has a genetic component and that children without vaccines can still develop it. So, even if we assume that 50% of autism cases are caused by vaccines (they aren’t), we would need an enormous sample size with over 1,000 children in each group before an RCT could detect a significant effect, and getting that sample size for an RCT just isn’t feasible in most cases. Case-controlled and, especially, cohort studies, however, can achieve those sample sizes, and they have. Madsen et al. 2002, for example, was a cohort study on vaccines and autism that had a total sample size of over 400,000 children, which is far, far larger than could be achieved for an RCT (like all of the others, it failed to find a significant association between vaccines and autism).

You don’t always need a placebo

Some people might try to object to everything that I said above by insisting that, because of the nature of placebo effects, the control has to be a placebo, not simply a lack of treatment. That line of reasoning is, however, nearly always based on a misunderstanding of how placebo effects work. They aren’t magical and they aren’t going to do something like protect you from an infectious disease. Conversely nocebo effects (which occur when people respond negatively to a placebo) aren’t going to give you autism or anything like that. Thus, whether or not the control needs to be a placebo depends entirely on the type of outcome being researched. When the outcome is something subjective, like pain, placebos are critical. They are also important for things that can be subject to regression to the mean, such as the treatment of an existing ailment; however, when the outcome is something like getting an infectious disease or a developmental problem like autism, placebos are far less important.

For more on placebo effects, I recommend this post by Science-Based Medicine.

Ethical issues

Another problem with RCTs is that, at times, they are unethical. This is the case when either there is compelling evidence from other sources to suggest that the treatment is likely dangerous or there is compelling evidence from other sources to suggest that withholding the treatment is likely dangerous. Consider, for example, an experimental drug which, during animal testing, kills half the test subjects. Even though RCTs in humans rank far higher than animal studies on the hierarchy of evidence, in that case, we would have to be content with the animal trials, because it would clearly be unethical to administer that treatment to humans. The inverse is also true. When a treatment is already known to be highly beneficial, it would be unethical to withhold it.

Indeed, this is the reason why RCTs for vaccines are often limited to the development of new vaccines. We know from population-based studies, cohort studies, case-controlled studies, etc. that vaccines are exceedingly beneficial and save millions of lives. Therefore, it would be unethical to give a child a placebo and expose them to potentially deadly diseases.

Most fields of science don’t use RCTs

Finally, I want to address the notion that fields like climate science aren’t real science because they don’t use RCTs. First, as should be obvious by now, even in fields like clinical research, RCTs aren’t the only option. Second, and more importantly, science is simply a systematic process of making and testing falsifiable predictions, and for many fields, those predictions do not require RCTs to test. Consider evolutionary biology, for example. If you have a hypothesis that two species share a common ancestor, you can make predictions about what genetic and fossil patterns you should see if those species share a common ancestor, then you can examine the fossils and genetics and see if those predictions are correct. Testing that hypothesis does not require an RCT and an RCT wouldn’t even be useful for testing it. The same is true for fields like climatology. RCTs are neither necessary nor possible for studying past climates or our current climate, and that’s fine. The definition of science is not, “randomized placebo controlled trials.” Rather, it is a systematic process of making and testing predictions, and the exact methods used to test those predictions vary greatly from one field to the next.

Conclusion

In summary, placebo controlled trials are extremely useful and powerful tools, but they are not the only ones available, nor are they always the best ones. They are often limited by sample size, and in many cases, other methods are actually superior. Further, it is unethical to use them when substantial benefits or serious harms have been established by other methods. Therefore, the necessity and utility of RCTs has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. For some questions, using RCTs is extremely important, even vital, but in other cases, methods other than RCTs may suffice or even be superior.

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Literature cited

  • Anders et al. 2004. Thimerosal exposure in infants and developmental disorders: a retrospective cohort study in the United Kingdom does not support a causal association. Pediatrics 114:584–591
  • DeStefano et al. 2004. Age at first measles-mumps-rubella vaccination in children with autism and school-matched control subjects: a population-based study in metropolitan Atlanta. Pediatrics 113:259–266
  • DeStefano et al. 2013. Increasing exposure to antibody-stimulating proteins and polysaccharides in vaccines is not associated with risk of autism. J Ped 163:561–567
  • Jain et al. 2015. Autism occurrence by MMR vaccine status among US children with older siblings with and without autism. JAMA 313:1534–1540
  • Madsen et al. 2002. A population-based study of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and autism. New England Journal of Medicine 347:1477–1482
  • Price et al. 2010. Prenatal and infant exposure to thimerosal from vaccines and immunoglobulins and risk of autism. Pediatrics 16:656–64
  • Smeeth et al. 2004. MMR vaccination and pervasive developmental disorders: a case-control study. Lancet 364:963–969
  • Taylor et al. 2014. Vaccines are not associated with autism: and evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies. Elsevier 32:3623-3629
  • Uno et al. 2015. Early exposure to the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and thimerosal-containing vaccines and risk of autism spectrum disorder. Vaccine 33:2511–2516
  • Verstraeten et al. 2003. Safety of Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines: A two-phased study of computerized health maintenance organization databases. Pediatrics 112:1039–1048
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