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Do you ever see a crazy-sounding claim on Facebook, and think to yourself “there’s no way that’s right?”

When you look closer, they often have some credible-seeming sources for their ideas. Sometimes, those sources are legitimate, and you actually need to change your opinion. Other times, though, those sources are pseudoscience, or are intentionally misinterpreted. These incorrect claims can go on to become persistent myths 4 Common Myths You'll Be Surprised to Know Are False 4 Common Myths You'll Be Surprised to Know Are False Throughout human history, rumors and stories started and spread like wildfire. The Internet has only magnified this strange phenomenon. Read More .

Today, we’re going to take a look at three such claims that cropped up on social media, and show how they’ve artfully manipulated the truth to achieve the result they want.

Do Vaccines Contain Toxic Levels of Aluminum?

vaccinealuminumbullshit

Maybe you’ve seen this one floating around social media lately. Basically, the claim goes that the aluminum content found in vaccines is much higher than the level considered safe for a baby. Sounds scary! Is it true? Not so much.

First off, let’s look at their numbers, since they were kind enough to provide specific ones. They claim that vaccines supply 4925 mcg in the first eighteen months, while the level of safe exposure is only 25 mcg. Right off the bat, you should immediately be skeptical of the 25 mcg figure. Mcg stands for ‘microgram,’ or one-millionth of a gram. That’s 1000 times less than a milligram. The symbols look similar, but the amounts are very different.

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25 mcg is an incredibly low rate of exposure. For a point of reference, cyanide is considered safe by the CDC until you’re consuming at least 50 mcg of it every single day – nevermind over eighteen months. In order for this to be an accurate figure, aluminum would have to be about 1000 times as dangerous as cyanide. As the saying goes, the dose makes the poison. This kind of disregard for dosage is one of the key “tells” of health-related pseudoscience What to Take Away from the Food Babe's Meltdown What to Take Away from the Food Babe's Meltdown Vani Hari, "The Food Babe", is not having a good month. Here's why, what you can learn from this whole mess, and what the web needs to replace misinformation. Read More .

So where did they get this figure? The figure comes from an FDA advisory about premature infants and patients with failing kidneys, and sets the safe rate of aluminum exposure for a single injection (not for a year and a half). Right off the bat, if you aren’t a preemie or flirting with dialysis, this limit doesn’t apply to you at all. Even if it did, it’s over the wrong span of time – a single injection is very different than many injections spaced out over a year and a half.

Finally, just to drive the point home, I should be emphasized that this limit applies to intravenous injections (vaccines are intra-muscular).  Intravenous injections deliver their contents directly into the blood. Intra-muscular injections are released into the blood much more slowly, which is easier on the kidneys. Even ignoring all the other stuff wrong with it, it’s still comparing apples to oranges.

antivaccinememe

So what’s the real safe limit? According to the FDA study on the subject, the safe limit for aluminum exposure through vaccines is about 4.2 mg (4200 mcg) over the first year of life. Even assuming newborns don’t get heavier or heartier after their first birthday (they do), the limit for eighteen months would be 6.3 mg, or 6300 mcg – quite a bit more than the 4925 mcg quoted by the post.

To make a long story short, the math on toxic aluminum in vaccines just doesn’t add up.

Is the UK More Violent than the US?

UKMoreViolentThanUS

This is an old claim, but I’ve heard it being recirculated again recently, so it’s worth taking a minute to refute it. The claim goes, simply, that the UK is more violent than the United States. Generally, this is brought up in opposition to the idea that gun control makes the world safer.

I’m sympathetic to this way of thinking – unfortunately, the math doesn’t bear out on this example. The specific claim here is that the UK has 2034 violent crimes per 100,000 people, while the US has only 466. If true, that would make the UK almost 5 times as dangerous. However, the math starts to fall apart pretty much immediately when you start to look into it. The big problem with these figures is that the US and the UK define violent crimes very differently for statistical purposes, which makes this sort of direct comparison impossible.

Specifically, the US counts only murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault as violent crimes. That’s five fairly specific categories of crime. The British Home Office, in contrast, where the other half of the numbers come from, counts violent crime as “all crimes against the person,” including all sexual offenses and simple assaults. This also includes things like ‘possession of a knife’ and “harassment.” Less than half of all these crimes produced injuries, and only about a quarter of all of the sex crime categorized was rape. That’s a pretty good indication that comparing these figures is misleading.

There’s also the point that if we look at homicide specifically, the US rate in 2010 was 4.8, to the UK’s 1.2 – the opposite of the trend this meme purports to show. This is not to say that the US is more violent overall – there are other metrics on which the UK is worse – just that these statistics are complex, and you need to be very careful about exactly which metrics you’re comparing.

Does Broccoli Contain More Protein Than Steak?

steakvsbrocolli1

I’m going to be honest, I feel a little bad about this one. Vegans have hard lives, and need all the good news they can get. But sympathy doesn’t change anything: this claim is wrong. It’s wrong a lot. It’s wrong in three totally separate ways.

First off, it’s outright factually wrong. The meme claims that beef has 6.4 grams of protein per 100 calories, and broccoli has 11.1 grams per 100 calories. Other versions of the meme use even more extreme values. In reality, according to the USDA, 100 calories of the sirloin steak pictured has 11.08 grams of protein, and 100 calories of broccoli has 8.29. So, right off the bat, no, broccoli does not have more protein than steak.

But, you might be saying, 75% of the protein of steak isn’t bad, right? You just have to eat a little more! Unfortunately, this is where we get to the second place this claim is wrong. You see, “per calorie” is a really dumb way to measure nutrition information in this case. What’s actually going on here is that broccoli is mostly made of cellulose and water. Since humans don’t have rumens (the organs cows use to break down cellulose into a digestible form), the entire thing is pretty much a wash nutritionally. So, it’s not so much that broccoli has a lot of protein – it’s that it has very few calories.

100 calories of steak is a bit more than one-tenth of one pound. It’s really not very much food. In contrast, 100 calories of broccoli (at ~31 calories per cup), is more than three cups of food: about 0.66 pounds of food. To bring the point home, the Dietary Reference Intake guidelines suggest a daily protein intake of 0.36 grams per pound, even for a sedentary adult. A 160 pound adult like myself needs about 58 grams of protein a day to be healthy. Using the 8.29 figure above, that’s 700 calories worth of broccoli every day. That’s just short of 23 cups of broccoli a day (about five pounds), which is a lot of broccoli – and I’d need even more to maintain an active lifestyle. In contrast, I’d only need about half a pound of steak to achieve the same effect.

steakvsbrocolli2

But, you might be saying, “That’s only about seven cups of broccoli with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I think I can do that.” Unfortunately, you’re still out of luck, because we haven’t even touched on the third reason this is wrong. This gets into some nutritional technicalities about what protein actually is. “Protein” is sort of a blanket term for a collection of essential amino acids that your body needs to synthesize the proteins that make up your, well, you.

You need all of these amino acids in order to be able to successfully make the proteins you need to grow, put on muscle, and replace dying cells. Steak has a lot of all of them, which makes sense – steak is made of pretty much the same stuff you are. In contrast, broccoli is short on the branch-chained proteinogenic amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These account for 35% of the essential amino acids in muscle, and 40% of all required amino acids in mammals. Even the massive portion of broccoli described above would leave you short on all three.

None of this is to say that it isn’t possible to be healthy on a vegetarian diet. It is possible, but it requires that you take special care – or use specially formulated nutritional products My Week With Soylent: Why Nerds Are Forgoing Food My Week With Soylent: Why Nerds Are Forgoing Food As I write this, I'm sipping from a glass of beige ooze which is, theoretically, lunch. Here's what Soylent is, and why you might be interested. Read More . Memes like this one spread false information that make people complacent about their health, which is extremely dangerous. People come away from stuff like this thinking that eating a plate of broccoli every day is all it takes to stay healthy, which simply isn’t the case.

How to Catch Facebook BS

In many cases, these deceptions aren’t difficult to debunk. They’re relying on the fact that most of the people seeing them already agree with them – and most of the rest don’t care enough to check their math. For the most part, it’s not worth spending hours debunking every dumb claim you come across.

However, it is good intellectual practice, from time to time, to pick a fishy-looking claim (especially one you wish were true!) and really pick it apart. Often, these sort of frauds can be detected with only a cursory analysis. Check the units, check the sources, and check that they’re actually comparing the same quantities. It’s also worth checking Snopes Snopes: Urban Legends and Myths Snopes: Urban Legends and Myths Read More and other fact checking websites Is It Really True? The 5 Best Fact-Checking Websites Is It Really True? The 5 Best Fact-Checking Websites Fact checking has its origin in the early 20th century, when magazines began to verify statements made in non-fictional texts prior to publication. This practice increases credibility and trustworthiness of articles and documents. Today, fact... Read More to see if anyone’s done the legwork for you.

We’re considering making this post a weekly column, so please post in the comments if you see any really egregious stinkers, and I’ll look into fully debunking it in the future!

  1. marcus
    June 26, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    just got off fb wall................. lol.... again 6-26-16
    It's official Signed at 10:3. It's even passed on TV. Facebook will start charging this summer. If you copy this to your wall your icon will turn blue and your Facebook will be free for you. Please pass this message, if not your icon will be deleted.
    Huh... It turned blue.
    P.S. this is serious, the icon will turn blue
    (Copy and Paste to your wall)

  2. Logan Bris
    June 26, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    Wow, this is the first well written article I've seen on this site.

  3. Robin
    June 26, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Thousands of people experiencing sudden changes in their children's health after vaccines does cause some alarm. Go watch the movie VAXXED. And why are you putting much stock in the FDA? Do you have any idea of the conflict of interest they have? Revolving door between their people and those of the multi-billion dollar companies that profit from their advice. And please stop suggesting Snopes. They are just a husband and wife that Google stuff.

  4. martin whitaker
    June 26, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Definitely make this a weekly column. I love debunking these sort of claims and trying to show up the fake statistics, uncorroberated pseudo science and the logical fallacies. At best, much of this bullshit is simply annoying nonsense, at worst its life threatening. Great article, good read and straight forward easy to understand reasoning. Looking forward to the next piece.

  5. Cat Martin-Nickelsen
    September 15, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    can you check this one? Snopes did not have anything on this yet.
    been seeing this go around FB right now. I think it is very bogus as the story has no real facts. it just gives he said, he claims....no real facts...

    http://conservativetribune.com/will-smith-makes-donation/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=TPNNPages&utm_content=2015-09-14

  6. Slashee the Cow
    September 15, 2015 at 8:29 am

    Also, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_misconceptions should be required reading before being allowed to use the internet.

  7. Bela Lubkin
    September 15, 2015 at 7:22 am

    I'd like to contribute https://facebook.com/bela.lubkin/posts/1045836615435556 (first three comments contain my rant against the "meme").

  8. Sir-Oreo Masoodz
    September 15, 2015 at 5:11 am

    My turban off to thee!

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