Much to the delight of his unashamedly geeky parents, my son Oscar is rather enthusiastic about science. While at five years of age he’s fairly certain that he’s settled on a career in paleontology, he hasn’t yet ruled out other sciences – so we’re more than happy to give him access to microscopes, telescopes, do kitchen based chemistry experiments and physics at bath time (alongside the occasional trip to hunt for fossils or visit a natural history museum).
Geeky parenting is an absolute joy – indulging the kids’ curiosity about the world around them, seeing what hypotheses they come up with to explain their experiences, suggesting ways that they can find out information. In addition to plenty of hands-on exploring and experimenting, we view YouTube videos, do image searches (SafeSearch ON!) and look through books for information and ideas.
So for Christmas, alongside Lego and Minecraft toys, Oscar received a few books – a couple of them science-related. One, “Magnet Science”, seemed rather nifty and engaging. It contained a selection of magnets, a (mercifully sealed) container of iron filings, and a series of experiments to perform, reminiscent of the sorts of projects I grew up with on The Curiosity Show. “Make a fishing game”, “make a compass”, “construct an electromagnet (under parental supervision)” – all with brief explanations of the science behind what was occurring. Fantastic.
Until I spotted the last page, titled “Facts and Feats”.
Magnetic therapy is an alternative medicine practice using magnetic fields. No one knows for definite how it works, but supporters of the therapy believe it helps to restore health by improving circulation, as the magnets attract the iron in the blood, increasing the supply of oxygen to the source of the pain. Others say the magnets reduce the ‘negative energy’ in the body.
“No one knows for definite how it works?”
Nobody has proven that it works, nor shown a mechanism by which it can work, other than the placebo effect.
The supporters of the therapy who believe that magnets attract the iron in the blood? They’re wrong. Iron bound to haemoglobin is no longer ferromagnetic. Which is a good thing, else we’d be hemorrhaging frequently as we walked around our homes and we would literally explode when undergoing an MRI scan.
As for others saying that magnets reduce the negative energy in the body… you can’t get much more meaningless than that. ‘Negative energy’ is a vague concept, supported by the anecdotal ‘others say’. These are empty words.
Why is this in my child’s book on science? This is not scientific at all – the claim is pseudoscientific and its presentation is incredibly uncritical. Furthermore, merely Googling “Magnet therapy” returns several pages explaining that magnet therapy is a pseudoscience. I am utterly dumbfounded as to how on earth an author who did so well designing and explaining experiments over the previous forty seven pages of this book – and they managed to write about electromagnetism in a manner appropriate for children – could get it so very wrong on the last page.
And it isn’t as though there is a short supply of legitimate “Facts and Feats” relating to magnets. The second paragraph on the page is an excellent example, it discusses the speeds reached by a Maglev train. Fascinating – and real!
The third paragraph, though…
Aurel Raileanu from Romania set the world record for being the strongest human magnet. Magnetic objects, including televisions, spoons and irons stick to his skin! He doesn’t know how he does it, but says he focuses his mind and releases the feeling of magnetic attraction, which makes even the heaviest objects stick to him.
… Human Magnets!
Have you ever seen a child stick a spoon to their nose? It’s a cute little parlour trick, utilising the angle of the nose, the hairlessness and smoothness of the skin and some moisture from breath or a little naturally occurring sebum to reduce friction, to make it appear that the spoon is stuck to the nose.
People practicing Human Magnetism – oftentimes claimed to be a mystical or mysterious power – are very likely using the same tricks as the child with a spoon on their nose to balance objects on their faces and bodies. Objects – always with a smooth surface – are often placed against the upper chest, upper arms, upper back, at the top of a slightly protruding belly or on the face; all body surfaces which are not quite perpendicular to the ground. Human Magnets tend to have hairless smooth skin, which, combined with everyday skin secretions, create a surface which is non-slippery. Skin elasticity also plays a part; our skin tends to conform somewhat to surfaces against which it is pressed, particularly when force is applied.
Out of vanity I’m hesitant to describe the ideal skin for Human Magnetism tricks as being ‘oily’, but I do seem to be able to attach more pieces of cutlery to myself when I haven’t showered for a few hours.
There are some simple tests to check whether magnetism – rather than balance, smoothness and skin secretions – is causing objects to apparently stick to somebody who claims to be a Human Magnet. Suggested by our friend James Randi: a sprinkling of talcum powder over the skin. This reduces the friction and stickiness of skin, generally causing items to slip. Benjamin Radford suggests a light coat of oil. Thin clothing or a thin layer of plastic should also show that magnetism isn’t the cause of the objects sticking, as surely magnetic force ought to be able to penetrate these materials.
No human magnet has ever been tested and shown to emit a magnetic field which has produced significant readings from a gaussmeter, nor has the more simple test involving holding a compass near a Human Magnet shown evidence of a magnetic field. Given that some Human Magnets claim to also be able to attract glass and ceramic objects (with smooth surfaces, unsurprisingly), it is possible that the claimed ‘magnetism’ is some force of attraction other than the magnetism we’re familiar with – in which case, ‘magnetism’ as a term is rendered as vague as the word ‘energy’ used in similar circumstances and the story of Aurel Răileanu has even less reason to appear in the Magnet Science book.
And yet, despite how simple it is to debunk their claims, Human Magnets still make the news every few years – a boy covered in spoons, a woman with coins stuck to her face, and Aurel Răileanu – purported world record holder, with his irons and television. I can only guess that the media who report on Human Magnets feel that a fantastic sounding story is more interesting than the simple trick that’s being performed. They may well be right.
I’m quite a fan of parlour tricks, stage magic and illusions; they’re a fun way to encourage critical thought. I love the combination of awe, delight, laughs and wonder that they can evoke. If I don’t know how a trick is performed, I have a rather enjoyable puzzle to try and work out. When I do, I can enjoy the skill of the performer – be it their sleight of hand, their take on presentation or whatever twist they’ve put on an old trick to make it their own.
What I don’t enjoy, however, is when a trick is presented as the truth. Especially when it’s in a kids’ book purporting to be educational and scientific.
As for telling kids that magnetic therapy is anything but pseudoscience… I can only hope that people who buy sciencey books for children also have an inclination to introduce them to and encourage critical thought and skepticism.
Incidentally, the phrase from which the title for this post is derived is a slightly different phenomena. “Crank Magnetism” is a phrase to describe the tendency of people who are invested in one form of pseudoscience or conspiracy to be rather likely to also subscribe to others. The folk over at RationalWiki have put together a comprehensive explainer over here, which may come in handy in your travels.