Saturday, 30 June 2018

Let's do the time-warp... (AGAIN?). Examining the 'Vegas Interstate Time Anomaly'

The past few days have seen a number of news reports regarding a 'time-warp' allegedly discovered by paranormal investigator Joshua P Warren on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Are we really looking at the 'Vegas Interstate Time Anomaly' or could there be a more rational explanation? 

I'm a bit late to the party on this one so I know by the time I publish this a few skeptics will have commented on it and Joshua has already responded to his critics in his podcast. Maybe I can add something else to the discourse. Maybe not...

I'm going to split my examination of this story into three parts. First, the story as it was published. Then we'll look at the equipment that Warren used which is central to his claim. Finally, we'll examine Joshua's ideas about science and what I believe are the fundamental mistakes he made in handling the situation.

The story

Joshua's claims were first reported by Las Vegas Fox affiliate, Fox5 KVVU-TV(1). The text version of the story begins:
"LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -A paranormal researcher said he's the first person to ever discover a time warp, and that he found it on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Joshua Warren has been measuring the rate of time all over Southern Nevada, and he said, last week he found that time had slowed down. 
He said he measured multiple places between Las Vegas and Area 51, but the only place he got a reading was in the desert just north of the city between I-15 and Route 93."
“The weird thing, the real holy grail here, was what we picked up with this brand-new piece of technology,” Warren said."
"The technology he’s referring to was the DT Meter, which stands for differential time rate meter. It was recently invented by a Silicon Valley engineer, Ron Heath. It's connected to a 100-foot cable with a sensor on the end that sends back a signal."

Above is the piece of equipment that Joshua is referring to, the DT or Differential Time meter which retails for $219 on Bay, it proudly proclaims that it will help owners detect UFOs in their vicinity (the promotional material cheekily suggests that for optimal results customers should buy two and place them at right-angles). The meter sends a signal from one end of the system to the other and then back. It measures the time it takes for the signal to complete its journey and then compares the expected time it takes for the signal to complete its journey to the actual time. If there is a difference between the expected time and the received time the monitor displays it.
“That signal is always supposed to travel at the same rate of time at any particular place. The only way that could change is if a black hole approached earth or something like that, which is never supposed to happen,” Warren said. “At this spot, on June 18 of 2018, I actually measured for the first and only time, time itself slowing down for 20 microseconds.”
The claim that the equipment would only display a variation in signal speed as the result of a black hole approaching Earth is something that is taken directly from the website which sells the DT meter. But Joshua doesn't go into the factors which can also cause a discrepancy.
"Warren said that should not happen, according to the laws of physics."
This claim interests me particularly as it simply isn't true. In fact, Warren himself refers to events in spacetime that can affect time. The reason an approaching black hole would affect time is a result of a phenomenon known as time dilation. It's an established facet of general relativity that proximity to gravitational sources can cause time to 'run slow'. This means that time would slower at the bottom of a tall tower rather than the top. As the cable is only 100 meters long and it seems Joshua placed it horizontally this wouldn't be a factor in this case though.

What is most interesting here though is Joshua is, in my opinion, focusing on the wrong aspect of his experiment. The device he is using doesn't actually measure time, it measures how long it takes for an electromagnetic signal to travel from one end of the system to the other. It's really measuring speed of the signal and cross-referencing it against the distance travelled. That could be splitting hairs a little I know, but bear with me.

 In the case of this device, the signal is travelling through a cable. It's pretty safe to assume that the speed of the signal doesn't change too much, probably remaining about 2c/3, but that doesn't necessarily mean that if we see a variation between expected travel time and measured travel time of the signal, spacetime itself has changed.

A quick recollection of the speed/distance/time triangle you were probably taught in your first year of high school science probably gives you an indication of the answer to this conundrum. What if it wasn't the speed of the signal that altered, but the distance the signal had to travel?

I think the abnormal reading that Joshua received in the desert that day was a result of the thermal expansion of the cable that is carrying the signal. The signal is confined to the cable. If the cable expands the signal obviously has to travel further. A warping of spacetime really isn't needed. The hot Nevada desert will do just fine.

The heat wouldn't just expand in one direction but in three, meaning that any change would be cubed. That's how even a small change in temperature could lead to a large error in the reading.

Experimental error and Noise

You'll notice from the display that the device doesn't sit at a reading of 0.000000000. There is, as should be expected, a little bit of 'noise' an expected amount of interference that causes the clock not to be perfectly synchronised. Noise is defined as anything that alters the sensitivity of a piece of measuring equipment. 

The creator of the DT meter, Ron Heath, states that the average noise should be +/- 4 or 5 milliseconds (2). Displayed on the meter screen as 0.000005 s/s. Joshua recorded an abnormal reading of 20 milliseconds, way above the noise under normal conditions. That would appear on the meter as 0.00002 s/s.

The catch comes when we consider what the sources of the noise are considered to be by the DT meter's creator. He states on the device's promotional website and in its instruction manual (3)

"A 1:1 time rate where the two rates of time are the same will read 0.00000XXX where the XXX is noise and temperature drift that defines the limits of the meter sensitivity."

Interesting he'd mention temperature as a cause of noise. When we consider that Joshua is using the device in the desert, where it's presumably extremely hot, shouldn't we expect the thermal contribution to the noise to be much greater?
Heath seems to aware of this potential fault in the system. His website advises that the system is used away from direct sunlight and extreme heat. He also advises that the cable element should be buried. As was pointed out to me by Nick Stone, it would also seem from this recommendation that, aside from the effect of temperature and direct sunlight, the system isn't designed to be carried around harsh terrain.

It probably hasn't escaped your attention that this entire claim can be debunked by reading the instruction manual of the device that was used to collect the data. 
Another thing that we have to consider is that the difference in time that is displayed is an average of the differences measured over a period of five seconds. This is significant because if the system fails to send a signal or fails to register a received signal then this would presumably cause an extremely large difference in the average travel times. The anomaly Joshua recorded could simply be a result of a system failure. Perhaps a momentary drop in power, or exposure to an unusually strong magnetic field. 

How science works

Of course, these kinds of faults are present with all forms of scientific equipment, so how do scientists account for this kind of anomaly?

The answer is they take lots of measurements. Then they see if other people can get the same measurements. Then they try to control for other factors which could have caused the measurements. These are things that Joshua has failed to do. He's registered one anomalous result and based his belief in a time-warp on the basis of this. As we've mentioned on this blog several times, this is what investigator Kenny Biddle calls 'Anomaly hunting'. I'm not sure that the term has ever fit better than in this case. In fact, Joshua even tells us he was in the desert to "hunt for anomalies" it would seem he found one and immediately called the local news! 

Sharon Hill of Doubtful News left the above comment on the Fox5 news report that alludes to this point. It was one of many comments on the story that highlights the idea to Joshua that his results shouldn't be singular and should be reproducible by others. Joshua could've responded to this criticism by releasing his results and showing his methodology. He didn't.

He responded by producing a 17-minute podcast (4) telling others how to 'handle criticism'. On the show, he suggests his critics don't understand science and refers to the anomalous measurements that led to the discovery of the gulf stream. The problem is, those measurements were reproduced. If reproduction had failed the idea would have never been developed.

Warren needs to realise that if he wants his findings to be considered 'science' he has to follow the strictures of that discipline and that means you show your findings and you submit to peer review. If you're found to have made a mistake, you accept it and move on. Most importantly, you don't present your work based on one result.

In his podcast, Joshua also makes reference to a fellow investigator who he seems to hold in some esteem. He talks about his person being 'driven from the field' by negativity and haters. I think I know who he is talking about. This is a man who was forced to leave the field because he couldn't handle peer-review. When the mistakes he had made were exposed he doubled down on them and retreated to an echo-chamber. He attacked his critics and extremely personal and unfair ways.

Joshua. Don't be the same. Accept your mistakes or work to prove they weren't mistakes. That's the only way you'll grow. And it's the only way you'll ever be considered to be 'doing science'.

I reached out to Joshua P Warren for more complete data rom his investigations. When I receive it I will post an update.


Sunday, 10 June 2018

Responding to the Flat Earth '£100 Street Challenge'

I'm sure if you have a passing interest in skepticism and the intersection of pseudo-science and actual science you won't have failed to notice the rise in popularity of belief in a flat-earth. April this year saw the largest gathering of flat-earthers ever held in Great Britain and similar meetings have been held across the Atlantic. As such, it's important that science communicators don't ignore the claims made by flat-earthers. 

With that I mind I decided to take a look at a specific claim made by a Youtube group known as Beyond the imaginary curve posed in what they call "the £100 street challenge". The claim specifically relates to the idea that water "doesn't bend". Flat-earthers argue that because water cannot be made to curve to a surface on a small scale, this must imply that water would simply "run off the sides" of a globe earth. This is often demonstrated by flat-earthers pouring water over the surface of a ball or balloon.

Yes, I know. It's stupid. But lots of people take flat-earth rhetoric very seriously, so let's do the same and unpack the claim in detail.

In the Street challenge, we see Del of  Beyond the imaginary curve approaching members of the general public with a bottle half-filled with water. He offers them £100 if they can bend the bottle in such a way that surface of the water follows the curve of the bottle rather than remaining flat. Of course, water won't do this. This means, argues Del, that water will never curve in such a way and thus the Earth is not globe-shaped.

It's a pretty easy claim to debunk. Let's do so in the form of a video.





Tuesday, 5 June 2018

No. Sunscreen will not give you cancer!

The sun is shining again, summer is here, and that means with some certainty posts will start appearing on social media espousing the benefits of forgoing sunscreen and suncream or alternatively warning that such measures can damage health. That includes irresponsibly warning that sunscreens themselves can cause cancer. And indeed pose more of a cancer risk than the sun itself. 

This week brought one such article to my attention. Published in February of 2017 on the site Collective Evolution, a well-spring for awful science reporting, the article 'HOW SUNSCREEN COULD BE CAUSING SKIN CANCER, NOT THE SUN'  (1) proposes to show evidence from 'peer-reviewed' studies to prove sunscreens could be doing more harm than good. Let's examine the veracity of the claims made in the article.

The piece begins with a troubling picture of a severely sunburned back. It's an odd image choice to head an article that suggests avoiding sunscreen and promotes the natural benefits of the sun. This lady's back clearly wouldn't have been so badly damaged had she avoided sun-exposure or used sunscreen!

Ouch! An odd image to choose to front your article about avoiding suncream! 

The first paragraph strongly highlights the severe lack of knowledge the author is going to display and the propensity to drop scientific claims without citing supportive literature. It begins:

"Yet, while we do indeed need protection to prevent sunburns, blocking out the sun entirely is not ideal. Rich in vitamin D, it offers a number of other health benefits, including, oddly enough, cancer prevention." 
Firstly, a minor gripe. Sunlight is not "rich in vitamin D" as the article laughably suggests. There are no chemicals in sunlight. The connection between sunlight and vitamin D as ultraviolet B light on the skin triggers its production in the body. Even articles such as the one provided by the NHS which I read (3) whilst advising on the benefits of vitamin D also advise the use of at least a spf15 sunscreen and exposure to the sun for short periods only.

There is some evidence that vitamin D deficiency is linked to some cancers but it's an extremely relationship to quantify, as an estimated 40% of the population in the US and UK are vitamin D deficient (4). Studies conducted thus far, like the one I've referenced, have struggled from the fact that they are simply observational, with subjects continuing with established cancer-causing behaviours such as smoking, the eating of fatty foods and drinking alcohol... and exposure to the sun.

The Classic Bait and Switch

"We’ve been made to fear the sun, and, as a result, adults and children are choosing to drench themselves in a bath of toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals."

The claim that sunscreens contain "toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals" is unsupported by any evidence in any form. This claim is subject to an interesting bait and switch which underpins the deceptive nature of the article. Whilst not supporting this claim, the author does provide support for the claim that chemicals in sunscreens have been found to penetrate the skin and enter the body to some extent. 

"Multiple studies from across the world have examined sunscreen in particular, evaluating its ingredients and how it penetrates and absorbs into the skin after application... Results demonstrated a significant penetration of all sunscreen agents into the skin, meaning all of these chemicals are entering multiple tissues within the body,"
Checking the study cited (5) in support of this reveals that chemicals from sunscreens do indeed penetrate the skin, and research has been suggested to limit his absorption. But what the study liked does not state is that these chemicals are responsible for the type of tissue damage associated with causing cancers. Further studies have established that despite these chemicals leaching across the skin, there is no sign of associated tissue damage (6).

Another thing that should be noted about the study cited in support of the claim above is that it's badly dated. The study cited is now 14 years old and thus won't take into account changes in sunscreen ingredients in this intervening time. Later research involving sunscreens has shown no skin penetration of constituent nanoparticles (7). The article doesn't mention any of these more recent findings.

So as many articles of this type do, we have seen two distinct claims made:

1. Chemicals in sunscreens are toxic and harmful, potentially cancer-causing.

2. Chemicals in sunscreens penetrate the skin.

The author provides evidence, albeit extremely flawed, of the second claim and hopes the reader will not notice (or bother to check) that the first claim is also supported. Classic bait and switch.

Poisoning the Well; Corporations are evil!

Another common theme with articles of this nature are the claims that big-businesses are corrupt and will quite willingly harm their customers and clients. In this article that extends to not trusting the results of studies that have been funded by corporate bodies.

"The science given to us by the corporations who profit from the sale of sunscreen says no, but I think by now we have established how trustworthy such corporately-funded ‘science’ is."
How has this been established exactly? I'm no fan of big business and I too am suspicious of results from corporate-funded studies. That's why it's important to go over these studies with a fine-tooth comb. The source of funding shouldn't immediately invalidate research. To say otherwise is simply throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Of course, the author of this article is choosy in how they apply their suspicion of corporations. If they weren't they may well have questioned the veracity of the study they cited to support their earlier claim.  Hill Top Research Inc, who part-funded the study, is a company which works closely with the pharmaceutical, food and cosmetics industry. Exactly the kind of company that Collective Evolution would likely warn its readership not to trust!

The article then makes a specific claim about company Johnson & Johnson intentionally marketing a baby powder it allegedly knew to be "cancer-causing"

"It wasn’t long ago that Johnson & Johnson, for example, was found guilty of knowingly putting a cancer-causing baby powder on the market. You can read more about that here."
The link leads to another article on Collective Evolution written by the same author as this one (8). The article is well-worth exploring in more detail, but in short, it documents a successful legal challenge against Johnson and Johnson in regards to a case of ovarian cancer which was allegedly brought about by use of baby powder. The decision was made by a judge and does not reflect the current scientific understanding of baby powder ingredients as being carcinogenic. There is no strong evidence that baby powders lead to ovarian cancer, so to suggest that a company 'knew' that this was the case is completely untrue. Scientific consensus is not reached in courtrooms. Judges are not scientists, opinion is not evidence and trials are not clinical trials. Whilst the author mentions this successful case, they omit the cases against Johnson & Johnson that have been dismissed or overturned (9).

And in any case... even if Johnson & Johnson are as guilty as the author suggests, what does this tell us about their sunscreens? What does it tell us about other company's sunscreens?

If you said 'nothing' give yourself a biscuit.

A complete absence of self-awareness

Prepare yourself for perhaps the most ironic statement ever committed to screen or page, so completely lacking in self-awareness that you yourself may lose your own self-identity after reading it:

"(Referencing a Huffington Post article) Sarah Kallies shares how exhausted she feels trying to navigate today’s world and do the best for her children when everything, everywhere, seems to be killing us. For every purchase she makes for her children, there is science telling her it’s great on the one hand and toxic on the other, and so she highlights how confusing the consumer marketplace has become. We are dished a wealth of information that differs from source to source, on a variety of different topics, making it difficult to make even the simplest of choices without second-guessing ourselves."
But it's this author and this site creating that confusion in this case. By performing a completely disingenuous bait and switch, this piece indicates that sunscreens are unsafe, in complete opposition to the scientific consensus on the same. Articles like this are creating the confusion. It's not science to blame here it's the misrepresentation of science that is the enemy of the general public. To imply that you are adding clarity to the issue after purposefully obscuring the issue is absolutely disgusting.

The author again reiterates:

"Yet we know the various chemicals found within sunscreens are toxic, and we know that our skin absorbs whatever we put onto it."

A statement that is in complete denial of the fact that the author has made no effort to prove the most relevant element claim. They haven't cited a single study that shows the toxicity of sunscreen constituents. But wait... the author ends the article by discussing specific compounds. Could these the scary toxic chemicals they have been discussing in the article.

Scary Chemicals!

As usual with an article of this nature, it eventually descends into a demonstration of chemophobia. 

Are any of the compounds the article mentions as dangerous as it implies:


Collective Evolution says:
"This could in fact be the most troublesome ingredient found in the majority of popular sunscreens. Used because it effectively absorbs ultraviolet light, it’s also believed to cause hormone disruption and cell damage, which could promote cancer... one study done by the Department of Clinical and Experimental Endocrinology at the University of Gottingen in Germany observed regulatory effects on receptor expression for oxybenzone that indicate endocrine (hormone) disruption."
The article doesn't link to the study, so I had to search for it, thus I can only guess that the study referred to is this one (10). The first thing that is abundantly clear is that the study shows the effects of oxybenzone-2 and oxybenzone-3 on ovaries removed from rats. We can't extrapolate this result to humans for a variety of reasons.

Firstly rats have a different morphology to humans, even though there are similarities we cannot assume that a compound that has one effect in rats will have the same effects in humans. Secondly, the compound, in this case, is delivered directly to an organ. It isn't leeched through the skin and diluted in the blood. as such, the dosage delivered is much higher than that expected to be received via sunscreen.

None of this supports the declaration of oxybenzone as 'toxic' in regards to humans. The study doesn't conclusively demonstrate oxybenzone is toxic to rats even!

Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate)
Again with the above compound, the linked 'study' involves animal cohorts and as such should be treated cautiously when extrapolated to humans. The link isn't a study at all but rather a governmental executive report requesting further investigations and human trials.

With regards to the idea that Retinyl Palmitate causes tumours in conjunction with UV radiation, Steven Q Wang, a dermatological surgeon highlighted the problem with studies in this area (11): "It is important to note that the mice in the NTP study are highly susceptible to the effects of UV radiation and can develop skin cancer or other skin abnormalities within weeks of UV exposure, even in the absence of retinyl palmitate," said Dr. Wang. "That is why extreme caution is needed when extrapolating these animal study results to humans."

The hypocrisy at the heart of this article and alternative medicine as a whole

The only other source offered in support of the toxicity of Retinyl Palmitate is one Dr Joseph Mercola, who may be familiar to readers of the Null Hypothesis. 

The link leads, not to a study of any kind, but to Mercola's website where the dangers of sunscreens are reiterated with no evidence what-so-ever (12). At the bottom of this linked page, there is a striking example of the hypocrisy that is inherent in this report and others that support alternative medicine. After a long spiel about the dangers of sunscreen, Mercola's website attempts to sell visitors a vitamin D testing kit for $65 (13).

So the author of this post warns us not to trust companies that simply want our money Their profit-driven attitude implies they don't care about our health. But the sources they trust don't offer their services for free do they? It's somehow acceptable when Mercola wants to make a profit, but other companies are monsters, driven by the almighty dollar.

Don't take health advice from such blatant fucking hypocrites. Exposure to the sun is a well-established cause of cancer. Compounds in sunscreens are not.