Truth Considered Harmful

Look at me.

Now look at this:

Now look at me.

Now stand back — I’m going to try Science. (And semantics. And logic. And sentence fragments.)

(Hang on — I need to turn off the cliché switch. Okay — got it.)

Next step: review the definition of truth:

Follow-up step: review the definition of fact:

(Honestly, I found all that a bit circular, and you probably did too, but let’s roll with it because it’s all we’ve got.)

Modest diversion: in court you’re enjoined to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Joe Friday (the cop on Dragnet, for those of you born after 1972), on the other hand, asks for “just the facts, ma’am.” Could it be they’re not the same thing?

I’m here to assert that truth and fact are different things, and show how that gets us into trouble.

Here’s a fact: the acceleration due to gravity on Earth is 9.80665 meters per second squared. With only a token effort you can measure this value yourself. It’s verifiable.

Here’s a true statement: gravity causes masses to attract each other. Well, maybe. That’s true so far as we know because it’s all we’ve ever seen, but there are solutions to the equations of General Relativity that say gravity may become a repulsive force at seriously large distances. We’ve not seen it happen, but the probability exists — so we can’t say that the statement is a fact. We can only say that it’s probably true.

I’ve already separated “truth” from “fact.” (Okay, okay — I’ve separated something that’s “true” from something that’s “factual.”)

Now, back to that almond thing from the link. I accept as a given that polyethylene oxide (PPO) has carcinogenic, mutagenic, and toxic properties. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) says so, and I’m good with that. It’s been measured in laboratories, and those measurements are presumed to be repeatable, so that assertion gets to be a factual.

Here’s another fact: the National Hot Rod Association banned the use of PPO as fuel in its races. You and I can seek independent verification of that and find out that the ban does indeed exist. I understand why the NHRA banned PPO as a fuel — you wouldn’t want to get it on you, and you definitely don’t want to breath the vapors. That stuff will kill you. (That’s what the MSDS says.) Breathing gasoline vapors is bad for you, too. The gasoline MSDS says

IARC has determined that gasoline and gasoline exhaust are possibly carcinogenic in humans. Inhalation exposure to completely vaporized unleaded gasoline caused kidney cancers in male rats and liver tumors in female mice.

Oopsie. You’re exposed to a lot more gasoline during your life than you are PPO.

Meanwhile, chlorine will do exactly the same thing as PPO — it’s pretty bad stuff as toxic chemicals go. Nevertheless we use it to purify drinking water, to keep our pools clean, and to brighten our clothes. I just stated two facts. No one, so far as has ever been recorded (or was recorded where I could find the information), has died because of chlorine in drinking water. One dies two ways (that come to mind immediately) from water — over-consumption (leading to hyponatremia), and drowning. The chlorine, even that left over in the water, has nothing to do with it.

Now, for those that didn’t go look up hyponatremia, that’s low sodium concentration in the blood. Sodium is also pretty bad stuff in raw form. It’s corrosive and water-reactive. It causes respiratory tract burns. The moisture on your hand could cause it to catch on fire if you were holding a piece of sodium. (Pro tip: don’t hold a piece of sodium.) Ditto phosphorus — and you have that in your bones.

We’ve been using bio-toxic substances to protect our water and food supplies for decades and perhaps centuries. This is nothing new. What is new is that, unlike centuries ago, we actually test the substances to determine how much should be used and what an acceptable amount of residue should be. Then we create regulations to enforce those findings. (Some of those regulations are even reasonable.)

So, back to the “truth” about PPO: What that page fails to point out about the PPO exposure is the amount of residue found on the almonds after treatment. The requirement is that the amount of PPO remaining be less than 300 ppm (parts per million) of PPO. That’s pretty low. A 2010 paper by S. Fukushima suggests that low doses of carcinogenic substances appear not to induce tumors, and in fact may produce physiological adaptations that inhibit tumors. A 1989 statement from the CDC (specifically the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) says

“The potential for propylene oxide to produce cancer in humans has not been determined.”

If that statement has been superseded I was unable to locate the document that did so. (You should note that while the standard asserts a number less 300 ppm, it doesn’t say that all products treated with that process will have 299 ppm. You can’t automatically assume that these things work like speed limits, where everyone goes 70 miles per hour because the sign says 70, as if 67 miles per hour isn’t perfectly acceptable.) What we’re left with is that no one can say definitively that PPO causes cancer in humans. One might fall back to “but why take the risk?” as a position, to which I can only say: it’s great that we have the World Wide Web so that people can demonstrate their pathological paranoia for the rest of us to see.

Why take the risk, indeed? As my wife (who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry) put it: “I’d rather have the cancer than the salmonella.“ One of those will take you out right quick (or at least make you stupidly miserable almost immediately), and the other won’t. Your mileage may vary, but fear is a pretty lousy motivator in my book.

Here’s another example of “truth,” from :

[Disclaimer: I’m in no way associated with the Kirkland company that’s been mentioned. I don’t know anyone who works for Kirkland currently, or has ever worked for them. I’m neither here to bury nor praise Kirkland — it just happened to be mentioned on the web page in regards to almonds.]

Both the Kirkland Signature chocolate-covered and whole almonds are fumigated with PPO, which a spokesman said he was told doesn’t remain in the nuts, despite the fact that almonds containing residues of up to 300 parts per million of this chemical, which California regards as a “known carcinogen,” can be legally sold.

Did you spot the semantic flaw there? Let’s try that a different way:

Colonel Fribbish was found with eight thousand dollars in cash on his person, despite the fact that bank robbery is illegal.

The amount of cash Colonel Fribbish happened to have on his person has nothing to do with statutes regarding bank robbery; likewise, what regulations allow regarding the amount of residual PPO in almonds has nothing to do with what the Kirkland spokesman was told, nor with the actual amount of PPO residue in their product, beyond establishing an upper limit. My wife (the Ph.D. chemist, remember?) says it’s physically impossible to determine that the residual amount is 0 ppm (my science training leads me to that conclusion as well), but my point is that the value of the upper limit in no way says that Kirkland is violating that limit, or that the residue in their almonds wouldn’t be lower — perhaps substantially lower. Two facts were given, but taken together, they don’t constitute a truth. They certainly don’t combine to constitute a single fact.

(For those that worry about such things, the fictional Colonel Fribbish hadn’t robbed a bank. It turns out he’s a hobbyist who raises rare orchid varieties, which are often sold for cash, and he had just sold one to a fellow orchidist for eight thousand dollars.)

Here’s a more subtle point: if the legal limit on PPO residue in processed almonds is 300 ppm, that doesn’t mean that one jar with 301 ppm is going to cause cancer overnight — or at all. You’ll be fine. Eat up. Biology is remarkably resilient like that.

The news media loves to spin something into catastrophically bad news as often as possible. You might have heard or read this sort of lead before:

“Individuals engaging in activity X were found to have twice the incidence of condition Z.”

Activity X might be something like eating grilled meats, eating bacon, or taking a certain medication. Condition Z might be developing some sort of cancer, having a heart attack, or wearing white after Labor Day. What the news stories usually fail to provide is the actual incidence of condition Z as a percentage of the population or incidence per group size. If the ordinary incidence of condition Z turns out to be one per million in the population (a verifiable statistic), doubling the incidence kicks it up to two per million, so go ahead and eat that grilled meat. Put some bacon on it, too. (I shouldn’t be surprised that people who spend five dollars a week to get five chances out of one hundred forty-nine million to win the lottery — completely convinced that this is their week — would take the idea of two out of a million odds to develop a rare condition at an unspecified point in the future quite seriously. The fact that they still haven’t won the lottery years later seems to hold no special meaning for them.)

We’re asked to infer truth from facts all the time. A particular store in the county south of where I live sells cookies, and there’s a sign on the cookie case that reads “cookies are baked fresh daily.” From that fact (it’s verifiable), we’re asked to infer a truth that those cookies are also delivered to the store daily, which they aren’t. I’m sorry to report that you run the risk of getting a day-old cookie. I’m sure you can see that

Cookies are baked daily, but delivered here twice a week.

wouldn’t sell as many cookies. You’re told what works for the baker and the store, and not told what doesn’t. (That’s marketing — which is a form of propaganda.)

So it is with many people who want to make an argument on a particular topic — they supply what supports their particular position and leave out what doesn’t. That’s not science, that’s not semantically or logically correct, and it’s certainly not ethical. It is, in short, propaganda. (In my dictionary, propagandists are long on “truth” and short on facts.)

Here’s another fact that doesn’t imply a useful truth:

We use the freshest ingredients available to prepare our recipes.

Sometimes the freshest ingredients available come from a freezer. Unless you think about what the statement actually says, you might miss that point.

When you look at all the “truth” sites on the Web, whether they be about

  • Holistic or alternative medicine
  • UFOs and alien visitation on Earth
  • We never went to the Moon
  • “Chemtrails”
  • Proof that Albert Einstein was wrong
  • One-world government conspiracies
  • The Earth is flat
  • Life after death
  • Atlantis
  • Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster
  • Perpetual motion or “over unity” mechanical motors

you find that, in general, they’re about as scientifically literate as a Roadrunner cartoon. (But nowhere near as funny.)

Right about now more than a few readers are about to spout the number one counter-argument to what I’m saying, which is


Let me help you out with that.

The claim that “science knows everything” has never been made. In fact, scientists will be the first to tell you that humans haven’t discovered everything there is to know about the Universe we live in — that’s why there are still scientists. (Or, to paraphrase comedian Dara O’Briain —if “science” knew everything, it would have stopped doing science.)

Science is a process — a way of approaching the acquisition and analysis of knowledge. It’s a way of converting observations into accurate predictions (if at all possible; otherwise, it’s about systematic characterization). It’s not a person. It can’t “know” anything in any semantically valid way. But okay, if you insist, let’s assume that Science does know things. If you believe in any of the things in my bullet list up there, then while Science may not know everything, it sure knows a hell of a lot more than you do.

Here’s another classic response:


I’m going to let Isaac Asimov that answer for me:

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Consider this from Carl Sagan (who may have been quoting Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Virginia Gildersleeve, and a few others):

“It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

Scientists are open-minded. Most spend their entire careers looking for new data to contradict current hypotheses [which are sometimes their own hypotheses], and to confirm or refine existing theories. Scientists publish in order to invite inspection, critical review, and additional experimentation to confirm or deny findings. Scientists deal in facts, and extrapolation from facts based on rigorous principles of logic and mathematics. Sometimes they’re wrong. Not only do they get that, they actively seek opportunities to show that the direction in which they’re going isn’t correct.

Propagandists, on the other hand, wish you wouldn’t question them, or seek independent confirmation of claims, or point out contradictions. They certainly don’t ally themselves with facts. Propagandists deal in “truths.” Propagandists are about intellectual tyranny. If you don’t follow the party line, you’re catcalled, denigrated, and shouted down. (I note, with absolutely no sense of irony at all, that a certain movie is titled “An Inconvenient Truth,” not “An Inconvenient Collection of Facts.” This is not an invitation to a debate regarding “global warming” or “climate change” or whatever the heck it’s called this year. There will be plenty of time to discuss that some other day.)

Here’s another one:


Without a doubt some scientists are also propagandists, having decided to use their skills and knowledge purely for self-aggrandizement and the presumed prestige of having ones own syndicated afternoon television show sponsored by an “anti-aging” cream and air fresheners. There are scientists making claims that are outside their area of expertise — Linus Pauling was one of these, I’m sad to say; getting a Nobel Prize for one thing does not guarantee competency in outside areas. Finally, there are also those self-styled and self-nominated “scientists” with web pages created purely out of anger or disillusionment by individuals with absolutely no credibility whatsoever, scientific or otherwise. They don’t realize that their overall lack of education keeps them from being able to sort real data from noise. They want to help, they don’t know squat, and they don’t know that they don’t know squat. There’s a rule: if you can’t do the math, you can’t do the science.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, the cranks get equal access alongside those that can do the math.

The next thing you know, actress/models with no known scientific or medical education — and absolutely no university degrees — are telling you that autism comes from vaccinations. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. I’ve read the data, my wife (she of the Ph.D.) has read the data, and it’s unconvincing. The one “study” that all the vaccine naysayers quote was discredited years ago. The author of the study had an ulterior motive for faking the data. (What he doesn’t have anymore is a medical license.) Our child is autistic — we have more than 20 years of up-close, personal experience with it. (For the record, while we don’t know the cause, we can prove beyond all doubt that his condition didn’t come from vaccines.) What I’ve never been able to fathom is the sheer numbers of people that are willing to believe an actress/model before they’re willing to believe someone with training relevant to the topic.



Yes, “science” has been wrong before. It’s a fact — scientists (and doctors) are also people, and fall prey to the same foibles as the rest of us. Sometimes one forgets to copy a negative sign to the next step, or accidentally ends up dividing by zero. Sometimes one just miscopies the numbers. The great thing about science (as opposed to propaganda) is that one isn’t supposed to just rely on one source of data or interpretation of data when attempting to draw conclusions on a topic of interest. As I indicated earlier, scientists with anomalous results seek the counsel of other scientists in order to determine if errors were made when deriving or interpreting a result.

I understand that not everyone is equipped to understand the daily barrage of science and “science” news that floods the Web. The recent advent of “fake news” doesn’t confine itself to politics. (It’s not really that recent, if you stop to think about it — those tabloid racks in the supermarket aren’t a 21st century invention.) Fake science and medical news goes all the way back to medicine shows in the Old West at the least; I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it goes back to the days of alchemy or even further. The alchemists were never able to convert lead into gold. There’s a lot of lead out there on the Web every day, and a lot of fool’s gold, as well.

Don’t buy any of it. Demand facts, from more than one source. Leave “truth” to the philosophers.

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