Category: Skepticism

I’m not sure I believe you

(Storm by Tim Minchin – Transcript at end of post – thanks to Wandering Primate)

I’m not much of a skeptic.  I don’t spend a lot of time interacting with people who believe that alternative medicine is as affective as real medication, well I don’t spend time discussing it with them because the energy is not worth it, and so they’re tuned out and I don’t engage with their beliefs.  Actual engagement is saved for people who are unlikely to be offended by me pointing out the fallacies in their arguments, and for whom I have an answer, for I am not all that educated in medicine, biology or science.  I have a background in science – specifically chemistry and physics (I was going to be an Engineer).

So although I can point and laugh at some claims made by companies about the properties of their whatsit, I don’t often share my glee with others – I save things like that for many of the excellent skeptics on the interweb.  However, there have been a couple of things recently which have tickled my fancy, so I thought I’d share them here (and I’m bored so blogging is a good option).

The Bamboo Room Deodoriser

Todae is a store that sells eco-products, which is problematic in itself given the high cost of products and how that prices the unemployed, under employed, students and pensioners out from the market – and other environmental issues (mercury in compact fluorescent light globes for example).  But anyway, Todae is selling Bamboo Room Deodorisers.  On their own I don’t think that these products are actually all that much of a con.  In chemistry I remember studying that charcoal – which these bamboo pieces have been turned into – adsorbing stuff – which effectively means that particles will stick to the charcoal.  Wikipedia succinctly states:

Adsorption is the adhesion of atoms, ions, biomolecules or molecules of gas, liquid, or dissolved solids to a surface. This process creates a film of the adsorbate (the molecules or atoms being accumulated) on the surface of the adsorbent. It differs from absorption, in which a fluid permeates or is dissolved by a liquid or solid.

So on the surface, it is possible that charcoal bamboo may remove odours from a space the same way people expect bicarbonate of soda to remove odours from a fridge.  Activated charcoal is used in air purification (thanks Wikipedia), so it will be somewhat useful in removing odours form a room – however, there isn’t any mention in the sales pitch for this product how many per cubic square of air in a room would be a good number, and how you’d place them for the best effect.

The other claims made for this product are:

Bamboo is treasured for its healing powers, beauty and versatility. A special heating process creates bamboo charcoal with billions of porous pockets and powerful ability to absorb odours, moisture, chemicals and electromagnetic waves from the surrounding environment. Bamboo charcoal also purifies drinking water and enriches it with minerals.

Personally I “value” bamboo for being an incredibly useful renewable resource. It’s organic, it grows quickly, composts nicely, and is only a slightly invasive member of the grass family (and elephants like to eat it).  I don’t know what “healing powers” bamboo has, and the ad makes no further claims, nor provides any further evidence to support that.  It’s not a medicinal plant, it’s not a mystical plant, it’s just a plant – no healing powers here.

There are indeed special heating processes to turn organic compounds into activated charcoal.  They typically involve very high heat so that there is little ash creation – which reduces the effectiveness of the charcoal.  Charcoal is porous, regardless of it’s origin, and according to the Wikipedia article above, coconut makes the best porous charcoal.

I’m happy with the “odours, moisture, [and] chemicals” claim made by this product.  There are some chemicals it does not adsorb or absorb very well, but the ones that the average home user would want dealt with should be fine.  The electromagnetic waves claim is a load of crock.  If you want to avoid electromagnetic radiation (which includes light), then go and play in a faraday cage.  As bamboo is not even remotely metallic, it will not absorb electromagnetic waves.

Activated charcoal does purify water, as stated in the Wikipedia article, but there is no evidence that it “enriches it with minerals.”  Which minerals?  In what levels?  Are they safe minerals (arsenic is a mineral)?  How does near pure carbon enrich water with minerals?

The last claim that the sales pitch for this item makes, is that it can be “renewed” by leaving it in sunshine once a month.  Doesn’t say how long it should be in sunshine, nor the conditions (outside versus inside).  This is actually untrue anyway.  Charcoal, once fully laden with things that you wanted removed from whatever it was you were removing them from, can be recycled, but as Wikipedia states:

The most common regeneration technique employed in industrial processes is thermal regeneration. The thermal regeneration process generally follows three steps:

  • Adsorbent drying at approximately 105 °C
  • High temperature desorption and decomposition (500–900°C) under an inert atmosphere
  • Residual organic gasification by an oxidising gas (steam or carbon dioxide) at elevated temperatures (800°C)

Since sunlight doesn’t get to 105C, you’re not going to be able to renew your beautiful, but now ineffective, bamboo charcoal room deodorisers this way.

Biodynamic farming

I bought some tea the other day from Oxfam.  It’s biodynamic and is really good (which I actually think has nothing to do with it being biodynamic).  There is this great quote on the back of the tea.

The Demeter logo is the symbol for biodynamic products.  Biodynamic farming is a very special form of organic farming, founded in the 1920’s and practised worldwide.  It is often described as “organic plus” as each farm is unique and self-sustaining, in balance with soil, plant, animal and cosmic processes.  Biodynamic farmers use specially formulated energising herbal compost preparations and a lunar calendar to help them determine when to sow and harvest.

I can pick apart this little paragraph without even delving into some of the very odd practices of biodynamic farming found on Wikipedia.  Let’s take the “self-sustaining” part.  In what ways are the farms self-sustaining?  Does that mean that they don’t need any seed/fertilisers/water from outside the farm?  Does this mean that a typical biodynamic farm needs no input from the outside world?  Somehow I doubt that is the case.  Even if the farm had livestock to provide fertiliser for fields, you’d need to bring in new livestock so you avoid interbreeding, and to cover replacements needed by illness that the livestock may develop.

Let’s wonder about “cosmic processes”.  What cosmic processes is the farm in balance with?  Does each field/plant/animal have a star chart developed for it?  How can any cosmic process (apart from the sun, wind, rain and snow) have an impact on the success of a farm?

Now the “energising herbal compost”.  I do wonder about what they mean here.  If they mean it literally – as in the soil gets energised by the herbal compost (and what herbs?  What herbs are good for soils?), then I wonder what the originator of biodynamic farming was smoking when he came up with that one.  If they mean that it renews the soil – well it’s compost, you’d certainly hope so.

Sowing and harvesting on a lunar calendar – I don’t know enough about botany as to whether plants respond to the moon in the same way that some animals (moths and coral as examples) do.

Ok, so Wikipedia has a detailed page on Biodynamic farming for those who want more information.  Basically there are some really weird practices in field which makes me think more of homoeopathy (thanks Cha) than appropriate farming.  Claims that ground quartz left in a cow’s horn during winter will ferment – because you know, rock ferments ALL THE TIME.  Claims that to make appropriate field preparations (things dissolved/suspended in liquid – like the aforementioned quartz), you should mix “one teaspoon of the contents of a horn in 40–60 liters of water for an hour and whirling it in different directions every second minute.”  This next quote (from the Wikipedia article) speaks for itself:

Treatment of pests and weeds

Biodynamic agriculture sees the basis of pest and disease control arising from a strong healthy balanced farm organism. Where this is not yet achieved it uses techniques analogous to fertilization for pest control and weed control. Most of these techniques include using the ashes of a pest or weed that has been trapped or picked from the fields and burnt. A biodynamic farmer perceives weeds and plant vulnerability to pests as a result of imbalances in the soil.

  • Pests such as insects or field mice (Apodemus) have more complex processes associated with them, depending on what pest is to be targeted. For example field mice are to be countered by deploying ashes prepared from field mice skin when Venus is in the Scorpius constellation.
  • Weeds are combated (besides the usual mechanical methods) by collecting seeds from the weeds and burning them above a wooden flame that was kindled by the weeds. The ashes from the seeds are then spread on the fields, then lightly sprayed with the clear urine of a sterile cow (the urine should be exposed to the full moon for six hours), this is intended to block the influence from the full moon on the particular weed and make it infertile.

Astrology and homoeopathy all rolled into one farm collective.

In the end, the Wikipedia article states that studies have found that biodynamic farming showed:

Studies have compared biodynamic farming methods to both other organic methods and to conventional methods. Most studies have found that biodynamic farms have soil quality significantly better than conventionally farmed soils but comparable to the soil quality achieved by other organic methods; the decisive factor is likely to be the use of compost. Studies of yields differ in their conclusions.

In the end, biodynamic farming would appear to be no better than organic farming – which has it’s own issues as reported recently in The Age (here and here).

Critical thinking

In an age when we have so much information at our finger tips, accepting claims blindly without investigating and weighing validity is annoying and frustrating to those who have done the research.  I’m always happy to look at more evidence and weigh it against what I know, and to change my mind if the new evidence is compelling.

It is not the media’s responsibility to educate you (as a nephew of mine recently told my husband).  It is your job to learn, to read, to think and to get educated.


by Tim Minchin

In a North London top floor flat,
All white walls, white carpet, white cat.
Rice paper partition, Modern art And Ambition

The host’s a physician,
Lovely bloke,
Has his own practice,
His girlfriend’s an actress –
An old mate of ours from home,
And they’re always great fun,
So to dinner we’ve come –

The fifth guest is an unknown,
The hosts have just thrown us
together for a favour.
The girl’s just arrived from Australia,
And she’s moved to North London,
And she’s a sister of someone.
Or has – some connection.

As we make introductions,
I’m struck by her beauty,
She’s irrefutably fair,
With dark eyes and dark hair.
But as she sits, I admit:
I’m a little bit wary,
As I notice the tip,
Of the wing of a fairy,
Tattooed on that popular area,
Just above the derrière,
And when she says “I’m Sagittarius!”

I confess, a pigeonhole starts to form,
And is immediately filled with pigeon,
When she says her name is *Storm*

Conversation is initially bright and light-hearted,
But it’s not long before Storm gets started.

“You can’t know anything.
Knowledge is merely opinion.”

She opines over her Cabernet Sauvignon
Some unhappily empirical comment made by me.
Not a good start I think,
We’re only on pre-dinner drinks,
And across the room my wife widens her eyes,
Silently begging me “Be nice!”

A matrimonial warning,
Not worth ignoring.

I resist the urge to ask Storm,
Whether knowledge is so loose weave,
Of a morning, when deciding whether to leave,
Her apartment by the front door,
Or the window on the second floor.

The food is delicious,
And Storm whilst avoiding all meat,
Happily sits and eats,
As the good doctor slightly pissedly holds court on some anachronistic aspect of medical history.

When Storm suddenly insists:
“But the human body is a mystery
Science just falls in a hole
When it tries to explain the nature of the soul.”

My hostess throws me a glance,
She, like my wife, knows there’s a chance,
I’ll be off on one of my rare, but fun, rants.
But I shan’t, My lips are sealed,
I just want to enjoy the meal.

And although Storm is starting to get my goat,
I have no intention of rocking the boat,
Although it’s becoming a bit of a wrestle,
Because, like her meteorological namesake,
Storm has no such concerns for our vessel.

Pharmaceutical companies are the enemy,
They promote drug dependency,
At the cost of the natural remedies,
That are all our bodies need,
They’re immoral and driven by greed,
Why take drugs when herbs can solve it?
Why do chemicals when
Homeopathic solvents can resolve it?
I think it’s time we all return to live,
With natural medical alternatives.

And try as I like,
A small crack appears in my diplomacy dyke.

By definition, (I begin)
Alternative medicine, (I continue)
Is either not been proved to work,
Or been proved, not to work.
Do you know what they call
‘Alternative Medicine’
That’s been proved to work?

— Medicine

So you don’t believe in any natural remedies?
On the contrary, Storm, actually,
Before we came to tea,
I took a natural remedy,
Derived from the bark of a willow tree.
It’s a painkiller, virtually side-effect free.
It’s got a, a weird name,
Darling, what was it again?
Baspirin? Oh, yeah –
Which I paid about a buck for,
Down at the local drugstore.

The debate briefly abates,
As my hosts collect plates.
But as they return with dessert,
Storm pertly asserts,
Shakespeare said it first:
There are more things in
Heaven and Earth,
Than exist in your philosophy
Science is just how we’re trained, to look at reality,
It doesn’t explain, Love or spirituality.
How does Science explain
Psychics, auras, the afterlife,
The power of prayer?

I’m becoming aware,
That I’m staring,
I’m like a rabbit suddenly trapped,
In the blinding headlights of vacuous crap.
Maybe it’s the Hamlet,
She just misquoted,
Or the fifth glass of wine I just quaffed.
But my diplomacy dyke groans,
And the arsehole held back by its stones.
Could be held back no more.

Look up, Storm, So I don’t need to bore ya,
But there’s no such thing as an aura,
Reading auras is like reading minds,
Or tea leaves, or star-signs,
Or meridian lines.
These people aren’t plying a skill,
They’re either lying, or mentally ill.
Same goes for people who claim
To hear God’s demands,
Spiritual healers who think
They’ve got magic hands.
By the way, why do we think it’s okay,
For people to pretend they can talk to the dead?
Isn’t that totally fucked in the head?
Lying to some crying woman whose child has died,
And telling me you’re in touch with the other side?
I think that’s fundamentally sick.
Do I need to clairify here,
That there’s no such thing as a psychic?

What are we – fucking two?
Do we actually think that
Horton heard a Who?
Do we still believe that Santa brings us gifts,
That Michael Jackson didn’t have facelifts?
Or are you still so stunned
by circus tricks,
That we think the dead would,
Wanna talk to pricks like John Edward?

Storm, to her credit,
Despite my derision
Keeps firing off cliches
With startling precision
Like a sniper using
Bollocks for ammunition.

You’re so sure of your position,
But you’re just close-minded,
I think you’ll find that
Your FAITH in science and tests,
Is just as blind as the
faith of any fundamentalists,

Wow, that’s a good point,
Let me think for a bit.
Oh wait, my mistake,
That’s absolute bullshit.
Science adjusts its views
Based on what’s observed.
Faith is the denial of observation,
so that belief can be preserved.

If you show me that, say,
Homeopathy works,
I will change my mind,
I will spin on a fucking dime.
I’ll be as embarassed as hell,
Yet I will run through the streets yelling,
Take physics and bin it!
Water has memory!
And whilst its memory
Of a long lost drop of onion juice is infinite,
It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it.

You show me that it works,
And how it works,
and when I’ve recovered,
from the shock,
I will take a compass and carve
‘Fancy That’,
On the side of my cock.

Everyone’s just staring now,
But I’m pretty pissed and I’ve dug this far down.
So I figure.. In for a penny, in for a pound!

Life is full of mystery, yeah,
there are answers out there.
And they won’t be found,
By people sitting around,
Looking serious,
And saying: Isn’t life mysterious,
Let’s sit here and hope,
Let’s call up the fucking Pope,
Let’s go on Oprah,
And Interview Deepak Chopra.

If you must watch telly,
you should watch Scooby-Doo,
That show was so cool!
Because every time
There was a church with a ghoul,
Or a ghost in a school,
They looked beneath the mask.
And what was inside?
The fucking janitor,
or the dude who ran the water slide!
throughout history,
every mystery
ever solved,
Has turned out to be –
Not Magic!

Does the idea that
there might be knowledge frighten you?
Does the idea that
one afternoon on Wiki-fucking-pedia
Might enlighten you,
Frighten you?
Does the notion that there might not be a supernatural,
so blow your hippy noodle,
that you’d rather just stand in the fog of your
Inability to google?

Isn’t this enough?
this world?

Just this,
Wonderfully Unfathomable,
Natural World?

How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it
with the invention
of cheap man-made
myths and monsters?
If you’re so into your Shakespeare,
Lend me your ear
To gild refined gold,
To paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet,
Is just fucking silly
Or something like that.
Or what about Satchmo?
I see trees of green,
Red roses too…

And fine, if you wish to,
Glorify Krishna and Vishnu,
In a post-colonial,
kind of way,
Whatever, That’s okay.

But, here’s what gives me a hard-on,
I’m a tiny, insignificant
Ignorant bit of carbon.
I have one life,
And it is short and unimportant,
But thanks to recent scientific advances…

I get to live twice as long,
As my great-great-great-great
uncleses and auntses.

Twice as long!
To live this life of mine,
Twice as long,
To love this wife of mine.
Twice as many years,
Of friends, of wine,
Of sharing curries and getting shitty,
At good looking hippies,
With fairies on their spines,
And butterflies on their titties.

And if perchance, I have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,

We’d as well be ten minutes back in time
For all the chance you’ll change your mind.

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