Conspiracy theories and snake oil, the perfect pair

Why on earth would people rely on a conspiracy theorist, someone with only a high school education, for medical or health advice? And yet, some people do.

Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist who runs the Infowars radio program and website, was temporarily suspended by Twitter this week, following bans by Apple, YouTube, and Facebook. These social media companies banned him for repeatedly violating their rules about hate speech and inciting violence. Among other notorious claims, Jones has falsely claimed that children murdered in the mass shooting in Sandy Hook were just actors and that their parents faked their deaths.

What many people don't know, though, is that Jones also runs a dietary supplement business from his Infowars site. Despite reports that Jones' supplements are little more than "overpriced, mundane vitamins," his supplement sales seem to be quite profitable–so much so, in fact, that Buzzfeed reported that the supplement business "largely funds Jones' highly controversial Infowars media empire."

I was curious to see what Jones was selling, so I looked at his Infowars web store. It features an array of products with names like:

Each of these products is marketed with breathless claims for what it can do, including testimonials from Jones himself. For example, Brain Force Plus claims to "supercharge your state of mind," and Jones plugs it with this quote:
"This is what I take before a hard-hitting show. I absolutely love it, and the crew does too. This stuff is over the top powerful!"
Well then. Never mind that Brain Force is really just a collection of herbal extracts and vitamin B-12, none of them proven to "supercharge" your mind or any other body part.

In a similar vein, Jones hypes Super Male Vitality with this claim:
"This product works so well for me that I actually had to stop taking it before I go on air or else I would want to do hours and hours of overdrive with complete focus on the topics at hand."
From the name, you might guess that Super Male Vitality has something to do with testosterone, and the website does state that it "may help support normal testosterone levels in men." What's in it? A collection of plant extracts, none of them proven to maintain or increase testosterone or to have any actual medical benefit.

Of course, if you follow the asterisks on both of these pages and read further down, you'll see that
"These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease."
This statement is the standard disclaimer that supplement manufacturers make in order to avoid FDA oversight. There's no actual scientific evidence (and Jones's Infowars pages don't attempt to cite any) that these products do what the text on the very same page says they do. You just have to take Jones' word for it.

This is pure snake oil. That shouldn't be surprising, not coming from a man who has accused grieving parents of faking their children's deaths, and who claims the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks. It's hard to understand why anyone believes any of the outrageous claims this guy makes, and especially bewildering that people who trust him to advise them on health and diet. His supplements aren't even a good buy, as Buzzfeed reported a year ago. All I can say is, caveat emptor.

You Think It's Hot Now? Just Wait.

Figure from Steffen et al.: a global map of potential
tipping cascades. The individual tipping elements are
color-coded according to estimated thresholds in global
average surface temperature (tipping points).
It's getting hotter all over the planet.

This week the temperature in Bar Harbor, Maine, reached 91° F (32.8° C). In my 20 years vacationing here, this is easily the hottest weather I've ever experienced.

Up and down the U.S. east coast, cities are sweltering, and temperatures out west are even hotter, with California seeing all-time high temperatures, including the hottest July on record in some areas, which has fed damaging fires across the state. Death Valley is always hot, but this week has been crazy, with temperatures on August 7 reaching 122° F (50° C).

At the same time, Europe is baking under a "heat dome" that has brought unprecedented high temperatures, including 45° C (113° F.) in Portugal. It's so hot that people aren't even going to the beach.

Global warming is here, folks. I know we're supposed to call it "climate change," because it's much more complex than simply warming, but warming is one of the most obvious consequences.

And yes, a single heat wave doesn't prove anything, and weather is not the same as climate. I know. But a just-released study from Oxford University found that climate change made this summer's heat wave in Europe twice as likely.

And now, a new study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says it could get much, much hotter if we don't do something about it. In this paper, an international team of climate scientists led by Will Steffen and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber explain that, thanks to human activities, the planet is well on its way to a "Hothouse Earth" scenario.

In a Hothouse Earth, global average temperatures would rise 4–5° C (7–9° F) and sea levels will rise 10–60 meters (33–200 feet) above today's levels. This would be catastrophic for many aspects of modern civilization. Many agricultural regions would become too hot and arid to sustain crops, making it impossible to feed large swaths of humanity. Low-lying coastal areas would disappear or become uninhabitable without massive engineering efforts, displacing hundreds of millions of people. As Steffen et al. put it:
"The impacts of a Hothouse Earth pathway on human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive."
That's putting it mildly.

One reason this scenario is happening, as the study explains, is that we are very close to "tipping points" beyond which certain changes cannot be stopped. (We may have already passed some of them.) These include losing the Arctic ice cap in the summer, and losing the Greenland ice sheet permanently: because they are basically white, these massive expanses of ice serve as giant reflectors to send much of the sun's heat back into space. Without the ice, the darker planet surface absorbs far more heat, creating a positive feedback effect. Another example is the melting of the permafrost, land that has been frozen for thousands of years and that contains a great deal of carbon in the form of methane. Once that methane is released, it will create further warming.

We are also likely to lose the Amazon rainforest, all of our coral reefs, and huge swaths of boreal forests. (See here for a global map of these tipping points.)

If this seems grim, Steffen and colleagues point out that we still have time to avoid it. They propose that societies must act collectively to create a "Stabilized Earth" at no more than 2° C above pre-industrial levels, which is possible but not easy:
"Stabilized Earth will require deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, protection and enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, efforts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, possibly solar radiation management, and adaptation to unavoidable impacts of the warming already occurring."
None of this is beyond our abilities. We know what we need to do, but it requires large-scale, coordinated action that many governments must agree on if it's to have an impact. Unfortunately, humans (and our governments) tend to do nothing until faced with an emergency, and the tipping points leading to a Hothouse Earth may not look like emergencies, not at first. For example, Arctic sea ice has been declining steadily for 25 years or more, but because few people are aware of this (and even fewer experience it first hand), it doesn't seem urgent. Yet it is.

So perhaps this summer's heat wave can serve as a wake-up call that we need to pay more attention to our planet's health. Otherwise it's going to get a lot hotter.