Vegan Cheese Update, Eden Foods, Hero Bees, & Elephant Artists

July 2, 2014

Real Vegan Cheese:

A quick update on the Real Vegan Cheese project that I have previously written about, technical work on the project is also coming along nicely but the team really needs your support so they have launched a new crowd funding campaign. Check out the video below,

You can also check out this article in the Eastbay Express called Inside The Ethical Cheese Lab by Sam Levin. Please support this project if you can. Not only could it make a really awesome, and yummy, product but it offers a great model for getting people more interested in and knowledgeable about science. One of the great things about DIYbio groups is the opportunity for students and the general public to learn and get involved, I even got to do a little cloning work myself.

Eden Foods and Birth Control:

The christian-owned craft store Hobby Lobby has been in the news recently due to their opposition to paying for birth control under health care law. A decision which was recently supported by the Supreme Court, despite much public outcry. But what is your favorite soymilk tainted by religious irrationality? To find out have a look at Organic Eden Foods’ quiet right-wing agenda & Eden Foods doubles down in birth control flap by Irin Carmon. And for what it is worth you can also read the response from the president of Eden Foods.

I do also wonder how this will affect the argument by some vegans that they should be exempt from vaccine mandates for “religious” reasons. Is it possible we could see other vegan owned companies denying coverage for the yearly flu shot? I am far from a legal scholar so I would love for someone to school me in the comment section.

Hero Bees:

I find that many people are very quick to uncritically accept stories of amazing or surprising animal abilities and behaviors and tend to ascribe human characteristics and motivation to such behavior. I get it, it, for lack of a better word, “humanizes” the other. While I certainly believe that the gulf between “human” and “animal” is an artificial one of semantics, I think that taking a skeptical look at anthropomorphism is important (especially since it is anthropocentric) and that we should examine individual cases critically. Animals need not be “like us” in order to matter.

Recently a video of bumblebee “rescuing” another bee from a spider web in a swift and bold move has been making the rounds.

But Professor of Biology Dave Goulson explains that what the video actually shows is

“a second bee…comes crashing in, falls on its back and thrashes around a bit. As the second bee flails around on its back, it looks in one frame as if it stings the spider.

In fact, what one can see is the rear leg of the bee which happens to line up with the tip of the abdomen for a moment. It is too long and thick for a bee sting. The spider runs away, and the bees break free (as bumblebees usually do from spider’s webs).

So, sorry, this is not a noble, brave act, much as I might like it to be. This is just two clumsy bees trying to find their way home.”

Painting Elephants:

Every now and then I will see a post about Elephants that can paint, sometimes it is even touted as a way to raise money to protect elephants. But upon closer examination this practice is generally one of tremendous exploitation and  abuse. So it was nice to hear this myth addressed in a recent presentation from Scot Bastian for the Seattle Skeptics. You can listen to the presentation here and find the companion post here.

The Fear Babe, Part 6: Castoreum

June 28, 2014

Yesterday I wrapped up a five part series on veggie burgers and just when I thought I was finished with the Fear Food Babe (Vani Hari) and her nonsense, up pops this gem, “Do You Eat Beaver Butt?“. In this video Hari informs viewers that “tons” of strawberry or vanilla flavored foods in the grocery store are flavored with a substance from a “beaver’s butt”, hidden under the name “Natural Flavors”, because it is cheaper than using the real ingredients. This substance, called castoreum, is an aromatic secretion from glands at the base of the beavers tail and is a cruel product of the fur trapping industry. Castoreum is indeed approved as a food ingredient, but is all the hype over “beaver butt” in your vanilla soymilk really justified? Not really, as Michaeleen Doucleff reports for NPR,

In 2004, the food industry used only about 300 pounds of the beaver extract, according to according to the fifth edition of Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, an industry bible of sorts. That’s a mere drop in the bucket compared with the amount of vanilla extract used. And in 2011, the Vegetarian Resource Group asked five companies that make vanilla flavoring if they used any beaver extract. All of them said no.

The average consumer is unlikely to encounter much, if any, castoreum at the grocery store. Where it is more likely to be encounter is at the perfume counter. A desire to avoid castoreum is perhaps one point of agreement between the Food Babe and I. But contrary to what she would have us believe, castoreum simply isn’t commonly used in food anymore. So it makes little sense to be telling people, as Hari does, to avoid all products that contain “Natural Flavors”. If in doubt about a particular product or ingredient simply contact the manufacturer. Be informed and empowered, not fearful.

Does Beaver Tush Flavor Your Strawberry Shortcake? We Go Myth Busting by Michaeleen Doucleff
Social Media and Isolation + Monsanto + Castoreum on The Reality Check podcast

The Fear Babe, Part 5: GMOs

June 27, 2014

Today I am going to wrap-up my five part series on an article called Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari.


Lastly Hari warns her readers that “if the burger contains anything derived from corn or soy, you can almost guarantee it comes from genetically modified seeds unless it is certified 100% organic.” The problem with this, she states, is that such foods, “have been linked to toxicity, allergic reactions and fertility issues and have not been studied for their long term effects on our health.” Wow, that sure is an eye opener…except that it isn’t true. In reality genetically modified foods have been the subject of thousands of studies attesting to their safety and do not pose a risk beyond that posed by other more publicly accepted breeding methods.

Infographic On 4 Ways To Breed Crops By Scrambling Genes

Frankenfood Fears by SkepticalVegan
GMO Labeling by SkepticalVegan
The Food Babe is anything but an expert on GMOs by Joe Schwarcz

The Fear Babe, Part 4: MSG

June 26, 2014

Today I shall continue my 5-part series on Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari.


Next up on the list of things that scare The Food Babe is monosodium glutamate (MSG), a food additive that gives dishes a deep and savory, or umami, taste. The belief that MSG is a harmful food additive is so pervasive that it is often taken for granted that it is something to be avoided. The list of symptoms attributed to MSG are diverse and range from flushing and headaches to heart problems to cancer and everything inbetween. But, “decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of these conditions.” At most researchers have uncovered a small segment of the population with might be sensitive to MSG, but even this is based on limited, and not very consistent, evidence. Regardless of the evidence, public fears have driven many food manufactures, particularly of products marketed to both the vegan and “natural foods” communities, to avoid the use of straight MSG and to often proudly label their food as having “No MSG.”

But if few veggie burger manufacturers actually add MSG what is all the fuss about? Hari informs us that, “there are several hidden sources of MSG found in vegetarian meat substitutes.” For once Hari is actually somewhat right, though it would be more correct to say free glutamate. While the natural food industry generally eschews crystalline MSG they have found many natural sources of glutamate, such as yeast extract and fermented soy, to serve the same flavor enhancing function as MSG. But just as with MSG these sources pose no real danger. In fact having sources rich in glutamate in your diet can be a good thing. Soy sauce, miso, tomato sauce, mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar are all relatively common glutamate-rich foods. Do you sprinkle nutritional yeast on everything? There might be a reason for that…glutamate. Americans aversion to MSG could even be negativity impacting public health efforts in some cases. Studies have shown that sodium levels in foods can be significantly reduced without an accompanying loss of flavor if MSG is used. It could be potentially useful to replace some of the salt in certain dishes with MSG.

The Safety of MSG by Jack Norris
Is Umami a Secret Ingredient of Vegan Activism? By Ginny Messina
The Secret, ‘Vaguely Racist’ History Of MSG Fear-Mongering By Dan Nosowitz
The Monosodium Glutamate Story – Cornell College

The Fear Babe, Part 3: TVP & Nitrite

June 25, 2014

On Monday I wrote about an article called Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari, which is basically a case study in chemophobia. Today I continue my 5-part series on this article...

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) & Nitrite:

Hari’s next problem is with textured vegetable protein (TVP), a high protein soy product that is used in various foods including some veggie burgers. According to Hari TVP is filled with, “artificial and natural flavors, MSG, colorings, emulsifiers and thickening agents, including nitrosamine, which is a carcinogen no one should be consuming.” In reality this is just a blanket appeal to chemophobia. One issue mentioned that may be a concern is that of nitrosamines, a class of compounds which are created from added of naturally occurring nitrite during the processing, cooking, and digestion of certain foods that have been implicated in certain cancers. This actually forms part of the basis for anti-hot dog/bacon/processed meat campaigns by vegan organizations such as the PCRM. But little nitrite is converted to nitrosamines under normal conditions and the evidence for harm from consuming high nitrite foods is not conclusive while at the same time there is growing evidence of the positive physiological roles of nitrite. According to a more recent report from the European Food Safety Authority, “Epidemiological studies do not suggest that nitrate intake from diet or drinking water is associated with increased cancer risk. Evidence that high intake of nitrite might be associated with increased cancer risk is equivocal.

And, what’s more, even if we ignore the seemingly overstated nature of these concerns, highlighting soy as a dangerous source of nitrosamines is misleading. The precursor to nitrosamines, nitrite, can be found in many foods particularly in certain meats, grains, and leafy vegetables in particular, often at significantly higher levels. And while some surveys do show vegetarian diets having above average intakes of nitrite, their source, as with the general-non-vegetarian population, is mostly from vegetables (where the presence of vitamin C might mitigate the formation of nitrosamines) and the calculated amounts generally do not exceed the conservative EU acceptable daily intake (ADI). The FDA, for their part, does not believe that meat analogs pose a risk to consumers either,

The SCOGS report estimated the maximum daily nitrite consumption for a vegetarian eating meat alternatives prepared from soy protein to be 0.04 mg/kilogram (kg) body weight (or 2.8 mg for a 70-kg person). The report estimated daily per capita intake of nitrite from other foods of plant origin and cured meats to be about 2.4 mg and daily exposure to nitrite from saliva to be 15 mg. The report estimated that nitrite formed in the intestine from reduction of ammonia or organic nitrogen compounds contributed about 90 mg/day. Given the relatively minor potential contribution of soy protein to total nitrite exposure, and the fact that no data were submitted to document the current levels of nitrites or nitrosamines in soy protein isolates, FDA is not persuaded of the necessity for establishing specifications for acceptable levels of these compounds.

So you can probably enjoy your veggie burger in peace. Any nitrite in soy should not present a problem for the average vegan consumer and testing of soy protein isolate found no detectable nitrosamines. Additionally when researchers in Taiwan looked at nitrite exposure from soy they found an inverse relationship with the type of cancer under investigation due to an inhibitory agent in soy. All in all, I remain unconvinced that avoiding soy is warranted on the basis of nitrite concerns.

Nitrate in vegetables from the European Food Safety Authority
TVP and MSG by Jack Norris

The Fear Babe, Part 2: Canola Oil

June 24, 2014

Yesterday I wrote about an article called Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari, which is basically a case study in chemophobia. Today I continue my 5-part series on this article. Let’s seem what we have next…


The second issue with veggie burgers pinpointed by The Food Babe is the use of “cheap” oils. Along with soy oil, corn oil, sunflower, and safflower oil, Hari illustrates this point with canola oil. But once again Hari plays the chemophobia card by invoking the specter of hexane. Like with soy, hexane is used sometimes in the processing of canola and some other oils. And also as with soy protein, hexane is present only in trace amounts in the finished product, if at all, and is likely of little concern. Beyond the repeat of hexane fears Hari further informs us that, “overconsumption of these cheap oils are causing an abundance of Omega 6 fatty acids in our diets“, which, “increases the risk of inflammation, heart disease, obesity, and prostate and bone cancer.

While Omega 3/6 balance is important for vegans, canola actually has a decent 3 to 6 ratio when compared to other common cooking oils and is a healthy source of ALA. In general you should try to choose oils with a healthier Omega 3/6 balance such as flax, hemp, canola, or even soy, and it may be a good idea to supplement DHA. But, unless your diet consists primarily of veggie burgers, I feel the oil in a typical patty is not the greatest of concerns.
Check out the links below for more information on dietary fats.

Why Canola Oil Is a Safe and Healthy Choice by Shereen Lehman
Omega-3s in Vegetarian Diets by Jack Norris
Omega-3 Fats in Vegan Diets: A Quick Primer by Ginny Messina

The Fear Babe, Part 1: Hexane & Soy Protein

June 23, 2014

An article called Think Twice Before You Buy This Type of Burger by The Food Babe, aka Vani Hari, who you may remember from the Subway-yoga mat “scandal”, detailing the supposedly scary ingredients in a typical veggie burger has been making the rounds in the run up to BBQ season. But like pretty much everything The Food Babe has written, this article is simply pseudoscientific nonsense that plays on the public’s fears and misunderstanding of food chemistry. Over the next five days I hope to break down each claim, one by one. Let’s go…


The first issue The Food Babe raises is that of “neurotoxins & carcinogens”, particularly in the form of hexane. During the processing of some soy for veggie burgers and other soy protein products a solvent called hexane is used to extract the oil. Over the years a number of groups such as the Weston A Price Foundation and The Cornucopia Institute have sought to exploit public fears of this issue for their anti-soy and pro-organic agendas. Fortunately though for those that enjoy a good veggie burger this is probably not a big concern, most if not all hexane is removed during processing but sometimes a small amount in the parts per million range remains behind. While the US has yet to set limits for hexane residues in soyfoods the levels of hexane residue claimed by folks such as the The Cornucopia Institute are below limits set by the generally cautious and conservative EU. To reach a reasonable level of concern one would have to consume many thousands of veggie burgers or drink dozens of gallons of vegetable oil.

If you really are still concerned, not to worry, there are many brands of veggie burger on the market that do not use hexane. Finding them is just a Google search away. As for me, I’m not too worried so make my burger a double.

Hexane in Soy Food on Berkeley Wellness
Hexane in veggie burgers: little science behind the claims by Virginia Messina
Is Your Veggie Burger Killing You? The risks of hexane in soy products.
by Brian Palmer
Do Veggie Burgers Contain Hexane? by Shereen Lehman
Vani Hari (a.k.a. The Food Babe): The Jenny McCarthy of food by David Gorski
Useful Idiot Alert: The Food Babe by Julie Gunlock
Chemicals in Food: Who cares about Science? by Amy Hawthorne

Fluoride & Neurotoxicity in The Lancet

June 20, 2014

Not this again! Lately anti-fluoridationists have been touting a recent study, Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity, published in the Lancet,

Who would have thought that it ever would have happened? Someone in mainstream medicine and peer reviewed literature and journals would publish the ‘unthinkable’: fluoride, the stuff they put into municipal water supplies supposedly to ‘protect’ teeth from cavities, is a neurotoxin. Wow! And congratulations to doctors Philippe Grandjean, MD, and Philip J Landrigan, MD, two researchers who published their findings in The Lancet Neurology, Volume 13, Issue 3, Pages 330 to 338, March 2014. [source]

But how significant is this finding? Not very. This is simply a rehashing* of the same Chinese studies from the so called “Harvard study” and adds nothing new to the discussion. Dentist and pro-fluoridationist Steven D. Slott writes,

The “Harvard Study” was simply a review of 27 Chinese studies found in obscure Chinese scientific journals, of the effects of high levels of naturally occurring fluoride in the well water of various Chinese, Mongolian, and Iranian village. The concentration of fluoride in these studies was as high as 11.5 ppm. By the admission of the Harvard researchers, these studies had key information missing, used questionable methodologies, and had inadequate controls for confounding factors.

The Chinese studies have been addressed to death already (you can see my break down of the studies here), but anti-fluoridationists just don’t seem to care. They will continue to parrot anything that casts fluoridation in a sinister or scary light. For them this is not an issue of science, this is fear and ideology.

As I’ve written before fluoride is a social justice issue. Endemic fluorosis disproportionately affects the poor in developing nations, while fear-based efforts to stop community fluoridation programs disproportionately affect the poor in developed nations. When anti-fluoridationists cite such evidence what they are essentially doing is exploiting a very real problem of mostly poor and non-white folks (endemic fluorosis) in order to drum up attention and donations for a *made-up* problem of mostly privileged white folks in the West. The Fluoride Action Network in particularly is fond of citing Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and African data on endemic fluorosis, yet to my knowledge they have not lifted a finger to help people in these areas. Instead they focus entirely on blockading or dismantling public health programs.

Thankfully however there are some organizations on the ground in India addressing the issue of endemic fluorosis in a science-based manner, the Fluoride Knowledge & Action Network (not to be confused with the anti-science Fluoride Action Network) is one such organization. Hopefully this organization will grow and make some headway however I do share one concern expressed by science-blogger Ken Perrott,

I wish the Fluoride Knowledge and Action Network well in their future activity. They are dealing with an important problem in their area and hopefully won’t get diverted by Connett’s organisation. I think that is a possibility because the fluoride free groups, and the “scientific” journal Fluoride they love to quote, does try to make capital out of these real problems by arguing that they are also a problem with fluoridation in countries like New Zealand [and the US]. They aren’t.

Another organization doing some good in India is Frank Water which helps to provide “safe drinking water for the world’s poorest communities” by setting up sustainable filtration programs in areas with bacteriological and fluoride contamination. Their work in India, a fluorosis hotspot, has resulted in safe drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people who now have a brighter future. It is projects like this that are doing the real good, spreading fear and misinformation, however, helps no one.

*in that spirit you may find some that some of the text here is rehashed from previous posts on the subject.

Further Reading:
Repeating bad science on fluoride by Ken Perrott
The Data Behind the Global Neurotoxicity “Silent Pandemic” Is Kinda Sketchy by Michael Byrne
Upholding its tradition, a new Lancet piece on chemicals aims to scare rather than inform. from the ACSH
Fluoride & the Brain: The China Studies by Skeptical Vegan

Waco: Cock-up or Conspiracy?

June 12, 2014

I was recently interviewed for one of my favorite podcasts, The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast, about the 1993 federal siege and subsequent deaths of the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel Center near Waco, TX. These tragic events were surrounded by conspiracy claims from the very beginning and ultimately formed the basis of a lot of far right-wing paranoia and militancy in the ’90’s.

On February 28th 1993 federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms attempted to serve a search warrant for illegal weapons, including automatic firearms and grenades, on a religious group called the Branch Davidians led by a man named David Koresh (born Vernon Howell) at their Texas ranch/compound. The tragic events that followed launched the relatively small city of Waco, TX into the national spotlight and eventually birthed a plethora of conspiracy theories that live on to this day. The Davdians evolved as a break off of the Seventh Day Adventist church whose main theological focus was the end times and in particular a section in Revelations know as the seven seals that contain prophecies of the end of the world. The Davidians believed that in the end times a messiah, or Lamb, would be sent to reveal and explain the true meaning of the seals. This Lamb, they believed, was David Koresh. Koresh had wrestled control of the group and their property, known as Mount Carmel Center, from the son of of the former prophetess in 1987. But soon Koresh’s apocalyptic rhetoric, questionable firearms purchases, sounds of automatic gunfire coming from the compound, and rumors of polygamy and child abuse involving under age girls began to worry law enforcement and the local community. It was these concerns, especially those about illegal weapons, that resulted in a several month  investigation and eventual raid on the group.

Unfortunately for federal agents on the morning of February 28th Koresh had been tipped off about the coming raid and the element of surprise lost, but too much work had gone into this and the ATF believed that Koresh was valid threat so the agency decided to go ahead with the plan anyways. Arriving to the compound in cattle trailers, agents unloaded and headed to the building. What happened next is a matter of dispute and little evidence appears to exist that could settle the question. The ATF claim that Koresh and several followers answered the door armed and shot first. Koresh claimed that it was the agents who shot first, either intentionally or accidentally. Either way the result was what may still be the longest shoot out in US history. For 2 hours both sides exchanged fire until a ceasefire was negotiated. At the end of that first day six Davidians lay and four ATF agents laid dead, with many more wounded. The ATF retreated and because federal agents had been killed the FBI took over. For the next several weeks the FBI laid siege to the building trying everything they could think of to get the Davidians to come out peacefully. They even facilitated the national broadcast of a one-hour audio tape of a religious message from Koresh. They were successful in negotiating the release of a number of children as well as convincing a several adults to come out initially. But over 70 adults and children remained inside. Communication between the negotiation and tactical teams was poor and Koresh was resistant to more traditional negotiation techniques. The FBI simply didn’t know how to handle a group that devoutly believed that they were living out biblical prophesy. At the end of 51 days the patience of the FBI had worn thin and concerns for the children inside increased. A plan was drawn up to use CS gas to drive the Davidians from the building. Beginning on the morning of April 19th armored vehicles began spraying CS gas into holes created in the walls of the building while loudspeakers announced their intent. The gassing continued to little apparent effect for several hours. Some Davidians sheltered in more protected locations while others fired on the armored vehicles. Then around noon three fires broke out near simultaneously in different parts of the building. Flames quickly engulfed the building and reduced it to ash. 76 adults and children died that day, some of smoke inhalation but others shot themselves/were shot and one child was stabbed to death. Only 9 Davidians escaped the flames that day.

Before the embers of Mount Carmel had even cooled conspiracy theories that the FBI intentionally set fire to the building and murdered the Davidians were already flying. These claims were bandied about of early internet message boards and then popularized by the release of number of documentaries such as Waco, The Big Lie and the award-winning Waco: The Rules of Engagement. I watched these documentaries while growing up and personally found them quite convincing. It wasn’t until a number of years later that I really began to question the story I had come the believe. As I engaged with the skeptical literature more I started to ask myself if there were things that I believed for which I lacked good reason or evidence. Once I chose to set aside my anti-government bias and look at all the available information I quickly found counter arguments to the conspiracy claims, though thoroughly sifting through and comparing the arguments and sources took much longer.

Ultimately the evidence appears to clear federal agents of murder and does not point to any kind of grand conspiracy. Koresh resisted efforts to end the stand off peacefully at every turn and broke every promise he made to come out. Instead of turn himself over to the authorities he chose to play out his part as a sacrificial Lamb, setting fire to the compound and taking many of his followers with him. This does not mean that there was no wrongdoing on the government’s part. As widely recognized, the initial raid was fatally bungled and subsequent siege poorly managed. To make matters worse a small number of agents were found to be dishonest in the course of the investigation, though not about anything that would implicate the government in starting the fire or murdering the Davidians. Some agents were disciplined, other weren’t, guidelines and protocol were reviewed but the agencies would forever be tarred by their association with the events at Waco.

To me the events at Waco show the importance of being able to direct our skepticism inward as well as outward. Also that one need not naively trust the government (or media) 100% to question conspiracy claims. I still believe that not everything politicians or law enforcement say or do is entirely honest or in the public interest. But in the end grand conspiracies (as opposed to short lived, petty criminal conspiracies) are exceedingly rare. The events at Waco are perhaps best understood by invoking Hanlon’s Razor, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“, though I prefer the more pity, “Cock-up before conspiracy.

To go through every single claim made about the events at Waco would take far too long but below I have at least detailed the major claims made by the most popular Waco conspiracy movies, Waco, The Big Lie and Waco, The Big Lie Continues by Linda Thompson, and Waco: The Rules of Engagement, Waco: A New Revelation, and The FLIR Project by Mike McNulty.

Major Conspiracy Claims:

In Waco, The Big Lie (1993) & Waco, The Big Lie Continues (1994) Linda Thompson claims that:

(1) The ATF agents (Steve Willis, Robert Williams, Todd McKeahan, and Conway LeBleu) killed on the first day were former Clinton bodyguards who were executed by friendly fire and that,

(2) a US tank with a flame thrower set the building on fire.

In reality:

(1) While the agents do appear to have been assigned at one point or another as bodyguards to Clinton, the claim that they were executed in the middle of an intense gun fight is made without any real evidence. It also ignores the wounding of 16 other agents that day. This claim is probably best understood as part of a larger conspiracy theory called The Clinton Body Count. The autopsy reports for the four agents kill at Waco can be viewed here.

(2) Thompson bases this claim on a very short segment of low quality video tape taken out of context. When others, including other prominent conspiracy theorists, have viewed the uncut tape it shows no such thing. What Thompson cites as flames is in reality insulation or building materials which have fallen on the tank as it penetrated the building. There is no evidence that any flamethrowers were in operation at Waco. The evidence points fairly clearly to the Davidians as intentionally setting the fire (also see references under claim number 4 below).

The big lie by John Blanton
Waco: The Big Lie Revealed As Hoax by Dean Speir
Because YouTube said so… by Gary Hunt
The House Report (search the words “flame thrower” and “flamethrower”)

While Thompson’s outlandish documentaries found favor mainly in the far rightwing fringe another set of films about the incident received much more widespread support. In his three main films about Waco, Waco: The Rules of Engagement (1997), Waco: A New Revelation (1999), and The FLIR Project (2001), Mike McNulty claims that:

(1)  FBI agents fired on the Davidians from the ground as their compound went up in flames,

(2) that federal agents fired on the Davidians from helicopters,

(3) that FBI agents placed an explosive charge on top of and blew a hole through the roof of the room in which many of the women & children were (“The Bunker”)

(4) that FBI agents caused the fire intentionally.

In reality:

(1) This claim is based on interpretations of flashes seen on infrared (FLIR) video being taken on April 19th. Under proper examination and testing flashes on the FLIR were determined not to be gunshots but to be reflections.

FLIR by John Blanton
FLIR: Mike McNulty responds by John Blanton
Debunking the Waco FLIR by Ian Williams Goddard
Danforth Report, pages 17-27 & the following appendices:
Expert Report of Mr. C. M. Mills (Video)
Expert Report of Mrs. Lena Klasén and Mr. Sten Madsen (FLIR Systems and Video)
Expert Report of Vector Data Systems (U.K.) Ltd. (Imagery Analysis)

(2) No evidence was found to support this claim. As with the above claim it is based primarily testimony of some of those inside that saw bullets holes in the ceiling as well as references to video/infrared footage. Agents present that day do however have a fairly logical explanation for the presence of bullet holes in the ceiling. Agents who attempted to breach a second story room in the compound reported coming under fire from the central four-story tower (as well as possible shots from below). Additionally agents were on the ground firing at an upward angle. The preponderance of the evidence, including testimonials and video, do not support the idea that any helicopters strafed the compound with machine gun fire. There in fact appears to be no strong evidence that any shots were fired from helicopters at Waco.

House Report: Were shots fired from the helicopters?”.
Danforth Report, pages 24–25 (footnote 26), 33, 42–43, 132, 134.
“Trojan Horse: Inside the ATF Raid at Waco, Texas” by Chuck Hustmyre

(3) This claim is pure speculation based in part on an explosion seen during the fire, attributable to a gas tank, and a hole in the roof of the remaining concrete structure. However actual examinations of the hole and room show no forensic evidence of any high powered explosives.

Danforth Report, pages 32-33 & the following appendices:
Expert Report of Dr. Gerry Murray and Mr. David A. Green (Explosives)
Expert Report of Dr. Jerry Havens (Gas Dispersion and Fire)

(4) many pieces of forensic, audio, video, and eyewitness evidence attest to the fact that the Davidians spread fuel and lit the fire themselves. Davidians were caught on tape discussing starting the fire. Both survivors and agents present that day reported seeing or hearing Davidians pour fuel and starting the fires. Accelerants as well fuel can punctured by knives or hand tools were found at the origin points of the fires (as well as on the clothing of some survivors). Further evidence shows that a number of the Davidians died from close-range, small arms fire consistent with a suicide or murder/suicide.

Danforth Report, pages 6-16 & the following appendices:
Expert Report of Mr. Walter Wetherington (Fire)
Expert Report of Dr. Ulf Wickström (Fire)
Expert Report of Dr. Jerry Havens (Gas Dispersion and Fire)

More General Links on Waco:
A linked list of Government investigations and hearings
A Chronology of Waco from PBS’s Frontline
Waco, The Inside Story from PBS’s Frontline (a documentary presenting the mainstream version of events)
Ashes of Waco (an archive of audio and documents related to Waco, including sermons from Koresh)
The Sinful Messiah By Mark England and Darlene McCormick


Milk Myths: Autism

June 2, 2014

The myth that milk causes or contributes to autism recently has been getting more attention due to a six year old billboard campaign from PETA. The billboard was thankfully taken down rather quickly but the article about the campaign remains on PETA website (as one of their most popular info pages) and they have continued to push it since. But both then and now this claim has been met with a good deal of skepticism and outrage. One of the recent responses came from Steven Novella writing for the Science-Based Medicine blog. In his post titled PETA Embraces Autism Pseudoscience he writes,

The pattern of evidence reveals that the methodologically poor studies, ones that are liable to confirmation bias, show some effect, but the properly blinded studies tend to show no effect. For example, a 2010 study (although small) observed children with autism on a gluten-free and casein-free diet, and then challenged them with either gluten, casein, or placebo in a blinded manner. There was no difference in behavior observed. A recent 2014 study also showed no association between dairy and behavior in autism.

As an aside, when such studies are pointed out, the emotional argument is sometimes made that we are “attacking mothers” or “criticizing parents.” This is a diversion, however. Our only point is that parents are humans and are subject to the same cognitive biases that we are all subject to. Being a parent does not magically render someone immune to bias. We need controlled and blinded observations so that we can differentiate between a real effect and self-deception. When an effect disappears under proper blinding, the most likely conclusion is that the phenomenon is not real but is an artifact of observational bias.

Given current evidence, that is the best conclusion we can come to regarding the effects of gluten and casein on autism. The evidence for any effect on behavior is weak and likely not real. There is also no credible evidence to suggest that casein plays a causal role in autism. The evidence is overwhelming that autism is a genetic disorder. Clinical signs are evident at least by 6 months of age, if not sooner, and there is evidence that the developmental processes leading to autism begin in the womb.

The science simply doesn’t support PETA on this one. Please check out Novella’s full post for more information. For further reading check out some of the following posts:

The Bad Science Behind PETA’s Claim That Milk Might Cause Autism by Arit John
PETA: Milk Linked To Scary Autism And Vegan Is Your Only Hope by  Emily Willingham
PETA Reinvents Science And Medicine, Declares That Milk Causes Autism By Hank Campbell

Also don’t forget to check out my take on other milk myths.



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