pseudoscience

The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich and Orgone Energy Theory

What do Sigmund Freud, English space rock group Hawkwind, and metal filaments encased in resin pyramids have in common?

They’re all connected to Wilhelm Reich and his pet theory of Orgone Energy.

I first became fascinated with Orgone energy when I was sitting at my laptop looking for websites which made false claims about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation, and came across somebody who was selling interesting looking coloured translucent pyramids and stones which were speckled with metallic filaments, called orgonites. They looked like gemstones or polished crystals of some sort, and I thought that perhaps they’d make amusing paperweights.

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… shiny? Orgonite pyramid made by etsy seller VioletFlameOrgoneLA.

Unfortunately, when I looked into orgonites a little further, I was disappointed to find that they’re made of resin and not at all heavy enough to make effective paperweights. I continued to read, and fell down a rabbit hole of strangeness… of orgone energy and the man who devised its existence, Wilhelm Reich.

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Wilhelm Reich in his mid-twenties. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1897 and graduating in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1922, Wilhelm Reich rose to prominence as an influential second wave psychoanalyst with some rather radical ideas.

As an undergraduate, he met Sigmund Freud and the two became close, with Freud being so impressed with Reich that he allowed him to see patients while still an undergraduate. Unfortunately, this confidence was misplaced – Reich began an affair with a nineteen year old patient, a habit he continued throughout his career.

Freud and Reich did not see eye to eye for long – while Freud was concerned with what a patient said, Reich became much more focused on inflection, body language and facial expression, and reportedly subjected his patients to harrowing sessions to break down what he percieved as being their resistance and inhibition.

One of the ideas that Reich developed was that of “body armour”, or “Charakterpanzer” in which he contended that a there was a strong link between the character, emotional blocks and tension in the body. He suggested that repression of memories and emotion was the cause of physical illness, this being a theory which pops up with alarming regularity in the world of alternative therapies even today.

In 1930, Reich moved beyond psychoanalytic technique, onto touch therapy, sometimes painful, aimed to retrieve a repressed memory from his patients’ childhood. His goal became to trigger a whole body response with this touching, free from repression and inhibition, which he referred to as “orgasm reflex” – a full body convulsion, distinct from regular climax.

That said, Reich was a great proponent of regular climax also. His promotion of underage sex, emphasis on the importance of orgasm, and his sexual involvement with his patients saw the International Psychoanalytical Association request his resignation, to which Reich responded by camping in a tent outside their conference, while wearing a large knife on his belt.

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Sometimes a large knife on your belt is just a large knife on your belt. Photo via Wilhelm Reich Trust.

From there on, his ideas became even more unorthodox – he became convinced that there must be an additional element beyond the physiological which contributes to human orgasm… and this is where orgone energy was born – orgone taking its name from the word ‘orgasm’.

Orgone energy, Reich felt, was everywhere – a biological and cosmic energy which was linked to libido and potency, cancer, frogs, the aurora borealis. He began building contraptions to harness orgone energy… faraday cages made with plywood lined with rock wool and sheet iron, which he referred to as orgone accumulators. He believed that different materials – organic and inorganic, concentrated and reflected orgone energy, and that his orgone accumulators concentrated orgone energy to levels which could be used to treat cancer, experimenting with animals, then using them to treat humans.

Living in the US by this time, in 1940, Reich wrote to Albert Einstein, explaining the hope he had for his orgone accumulators in curing disease and outlining a claim that he could use his accumulators to raise temperature without a heat source. Amazingly, Einstein spent ten days examining an orgone accumulator for evidence of its temperature raising capacity, before dismissing it as the result of ambient temperature gradients. Demonstrating increasing paranoia over the years, Reich believed that Einstein’s dismissal was part of a conspiracy against him.

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Woman demonstrating Orgone Accumulator. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Reich continued his persual of orgone theory, applying it further in his therapy, creating more machines – notably, the ‘cloudbuster’ – a series of metal pipes grounded in water and pointed at the sky, which he believed could unblock orgone energy in the atmosphere and cause rain.

His claims about curing cancer were investigated by the FDA, who put an injunction on his literature and orgone machines, which reportedly triggered a further deterioration in his mental health. By the mid 1950s, he was convinced that UFOs were attacking earth with deadly orgone radiation, and would spend nights scanning the skies with binoculars, convinced he was fighting an interplanetary battle, shooting down UFOs with his cloudbusters.

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Reich with Cloudbuster. Photo via “New Illuminati“, a fine example of writing by modern Reich believers.

In 1956, an FDA inspector posing as a customer requested an orgone accumulator part be sent over state lines. The part was sent and Reich and an associate were charged with contempt of court. Reich was sentenced to two years imprisonment, his literature ordered to be burnt, and his machines destroyed. Psychiatric assessments were unfavourable, but he served eight months in prison, where he experienced sudden heart failure and died. He was sixty years of age.

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Wilhelm Reich, 1897 – 1957. Image via versobooks.

Orgone theory has made its way into popular culture over the years… or at least, popular counterculture. William S Burroughs was convinced that a home built orgone accumulator box greatly assisted him during times of withdrawal from heroin.

If you’ve seen the video to Kate Bush’s 1985 song Cloudbusting, you may remember Donald Sutherland playing a character who created a large metal vaguely steampunky machine with four long tubes, which he wheeled up onto a hill to point at the sky and create rain. Donald Sutherland was portraying Wilhelm Reich, and Kate Bush his son, the song based on a view of Wilhelm Reich through the eyes of his son Peter.

Then there’s American New Wave band Devo’s Energy Domes – the iconic terraced round ziggeraut style plastic hats worn by band members! One of the stories that has been told about the origin of the energy dome.. and there are several… is that the energy domes recycle the wasted orgone energy lost from the top of the head.

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Are they not men to be taken seriously? Photo: Jay Spencer

Space Rock group Hawkwind wrote a ten minute long song titled “Orgone Accumulator”, Dr Durand Durand in Barbarella was loosely based on Wilhelm Reich, orgone energy was mentioned in the BBC comedy Peep Show when Jez and Super Hans joined a cult, the orgone accumulator box was parodied in the Woody Allen film Sleeper… but what is the relevance of orgone theory today?


(I dare you to listen to the whole thing)

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Doctor Durand Durand’s Excessive Machine

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Close enough, automatic subtitles. Video here.

Well, there are still the true believers out there, who pen missives defending Wilhelm Reich, claim he was assassinated as part of a grand conspiracy to suppress the truth… and there are also people selling products based on orgone theory. In 2000, a couple in America who had been studying Reich’s work, decided that layering metal filaments and quartz crystal in catalyzed organic fiberglass resin created an item which harnessed the power of orgone energy, much the way Reich’s accumulators were meant to, with their layers of plywood, rock wool and sheet iron.

Orgonites are quite the cottage industry.

Orgonites: quite the cottage industry.

At the last Mind, Body, Wallet Festival we went to, I came across two seperate groups selling orgone related paraphenalia – and one was selling a variety of orgonites! They weren’t directly referring to Reich’s theories, but were going down the electromagnetic radiation fearmongering path, claiming that their orgonites could protect against damaging negative energies.

With a pang of regret as I handed money over to a Mind, Body, Wallet vendor who wasn’t located in the cafeteria area, I bought myself a souvenir.

Protected from weird energy!

Protected from weird energy!

Online, there are also many orgonite selling businesses, including those who’ve gone further and sell cloudbusting machines, which would make perfectly serviceable but expensive trellises for growing beans on, if you’re into that kind of thing. There are orgonites made specifically for using to protect against energy emitted by computers, phones, and mobile phone towers, against nuclear energy, against bad vibes from neighbours.

It’s a little strange though – that the people I’ve encountered selling items based on orgone energy don’t tend to mention Wilhelm Reich and the kinda sexy roots of his theory. I haven’t quite had the audacity to ask an orgonite salesperson where orgone energy theory came from, but perhaps one day.

This post is an adapted version of a report I gave on The Skeptic Zone Live Show, episode #355 {permalink}.

On Taking Health Advice from Gandhi… World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015

World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW) is approaching once again, to take place from the 10th to the 16th of April 2015.

Last year’s WHAW took place just as the NHMRC’s draft information paper examining evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating health conditions had been made public, which led to a substantial amount of awareness raising via the media that homeopathy is not an effective modality. Similarly, this year WHAW is taking place the month following the release of the NHMRC’s completed review on homeopathy. This review has lead to headlines stating the findings that homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo, which makes for some fine public awareness of homeopathy from an evidence based perspective.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week’s theme for 2015 is, “Homeopathy For Infectious Diseases’.

There is no evidence for, nor plausible mechanism by which, homeopathy can be of any use in treating infectious disease; and I feel that it is highly unethical and very dangerous to mislead people by claiming such, particularly in the midst of the US’ current measles outbreak, and the ongoing ebola epidemic in West Africa.

The belief that ‘homeoprophylaxis’ (also referred to as ‘homeopathic vaccination’) provides any protection from diseases which ought to be prevented with immunisation leads to parents falsely assuming that they have adequately addressed preventative healthcare. This false sense of safety is both incredibly dangerous and cruel – ‘homeoprophylaxis’ (and homeopathy in general) cheats consumers into believing that they are looking after their own and their childrens’ health.

Speaking of unreliable and non-credible health advice, the organisers of WHAW have uploaded the image below as their cover photo on the Facebook page for World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015, featuring a pro-homeopathy quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.

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Source: WHAW Facebook

Mahatma Gandhi is a widely influential and highly esteemed man; a peace activist, civil rights pioneer and the preeminent leader of Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. His philosophies regarding human rights, non-violent civil disobedience and the nature of humanity are valued by many people worldwide.

Did this qualify him to speak on matters of medicine and health with any authority though? He had no medical training or expertise (he was educated in law), but nonetheless penned a treatise on health matters, in which he noted, “I have arrived at certain definite conclusions from that experience, and I now set them down for the benefit of my readers.”

“A Guide to Health” by Mahatman Gandhi is available as a free ebook, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. It contains some quite fantastic claims and philosophies about the human body and the nature of disease, which I will gently describe as “ill informed”. For example,

The world is compounded of the five elements,—earth, water, air, fire, and ether. So too is our body. It is a sort of miniature world. Hence the body stands in need of all the elements in due proportion,—pure earth, pure water, pure fire or sunlight, pure air, and open space. When any one of these falls short of its due proportion, illness is caused in the body. – p12

On the cause of fever:

As most fevers are caused by disorders of the bowels, the very first thing to do is to starve the patient. It is a mere superstition that a weak man will get weaker by starving. As we have already seen, only that portion of our food is really useful which is assimilated into the blood, and the remainder only clogs the bowels. In fever the digestive organs are very weak, the tongue gets coated, and the lips are hard and dry. If any food is given to the patient in this condition, it will remain undigested and aid the fever. Starving the patient gives his digestive organs time to perform their work; hence the need to starve him for a day or two. – p100

On smallpox:

In fact it is caused, just like other diseases, by the blood getting impure owing to some disorder of the bowels; and the poison that accumulates in the system is expelled in the form of small-pox. If this view is correct, then there is absolutely no need to be afraid of small-pox. If it were really a contagious disease, everyone should catch it by merely touching the patient; but this is not always the case. – p105

Incidentally, Gandhi is highly quotable by anti-vaccination campaigners:

Vaccination is a barbarous practice, and it is one of the most fatal of all the delusions current in our time, not to be found even among the so-called savage races of the world. – p107

On first aid for burns:

If the skin has simply got red by the burn, there is no more effective remedy than the application of a mud poultice. If the fingers have been burnt, care should be taken, when the poultice is applied, that they do not touch against one another. This same treatment may be applied in cases of acid-burns, and scalds of every description. -p132

(Incidentally, for evidence-based guidelines on treating burns and some unfortunate quackery regarding burns, here is an excellent report by another of the Skeptic Zone reporters, Heidi Robertson.)

Gandhi himself ruminated on whether indeed he was qualified or correct in writing on health matters:

One question which I have asked myself again and again, in the course of writing this book, is why I of all persons should write it. Is there any justification at all for one like me, who am no doctor, and whose knowledge of the matters dealt with in these pages must be necessarily imperfect, attempting to write a book of this kind?

My defence is this. The “science” of medicine is itself based upon imperfect knowledge, most of it being mere quackery. But this book, at any rate, has been prompted by the purest of motives. The attempt is here made not so much to show how to cure diseases as to point out the means of preventing them. And a little reflection will show that the prevention of disease is a comparatively simple matter, not requiring much specialist knowledge, although it is by no means an easy thing to put these principles into practice. Our object has been to show the unity of origin and treatment of all diseases, so that all people may learn to treat their diseases themselves when they do arise, as they often do, in spite of great care in the observance of the laws of health. -p143

Unfortunately, pure motives are not enough when it comes to dispensing health advice, nor was Gandhi’s necessarily qualified to pass judgement that most science based medicine is ‘mere quackery’. It is also pertinent to remember that Gandhi wrote this treatise in 1921 – our body of knowledge in the field of medicine has grown immensely over the past century.

I invite you to have a fossick around “A Guide to Health” (his thoughts on chastity and childbirth were too long to include in this post, but they’re quite amazing) and come to your own conclusions as to whether you think he is a reputable source of health advice.

I ask you to then consider whether the endorsement of homeopathy cited by WHAW holds much gravitas when you’re aware of Gandhi’s ideas on health and medicine in general.

Finally, please take into account what is possibly the icing on the cake here… I have not been able to find any evidence that the quote used by WHAW can reasonably be attributed to Gandhi. Neither have these skeptics on stackexchange, or commenters on this post of Orac’s. Likewise, @zeno001 has been searching for an original source for the quote, to no avail (but he has listed some examples of Gandhi mentioning homeopathy, seemingly not in a favourable light)*.

The only place I’ve found the Gandhi quote “Homeopathy… cures a larger percentage of cases than any other method of treatment and is beyond doubt a safe, economical and a most complete medical science” (or any variations thereof), has been on pro-homeopathy sites – not in any independent archives of Gandhi’s writings or speeches. As such, I think that it’s a fair call to label the quote as unverified.

So to summarise, the WHAW organisers have used an unverified quote from a source whose health advice is highly questionable, to promote awareness of a modality for which there is no evidence of efficacy in treating disease greater than that of a placebo.

World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2015. Once again helping to raise public awareness that homeopathy is bulldust.

* Updated 24/03/2015, thanks to zeno001 for the additional information.

Sherri Tenpenny’s Australian Tour Cancelled #StopTenpenny

The following can also be heard on The Skeptic Zone #328 {Permalink}

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on anti-vaccine advocate Sherri Tenpenny’s planned speaking tour of Australia and the #StopTenpenny campaign. Well, there have been some developments… and at the risk of breaking continuity (and potentially the space-time continuum, who knows?), the big news first… on the 28th of January 2015, Sherri Tenpenny and tour organiser Stephanie Messenger announced that they had canceled their series of Australian seminars.

I left off my report on the 11th of January with news that all but two of the venues scheduled to host Tenpenny’s events had canceled their bookings. On January the 14th, Michael’s Oriental Restaurant in Brisbane made the announcement that they would no longer be hosting Sherri Tenpenny. Then on January 19th, an announcement appeared on the event page for the seminar to be held at Rydges Southpark Adelaide saying that the venue had cancelled the booking.

From the Eventbrite page:

“IMPORTANT NOTE:

The venue has cancelled our booking due to bullying by vested interests who do not believe in informed consent, free speech and respect for other’s rights, and who appear to support censorship of thought and science.

A new venue is being sought now so please book your ticket

You will be notified of the new venue in due time.

Thank you”

Indeed, the organisers of the event were still encouraging people to buy tickets, despite the fact that every venue had pulled out.

Meanwhile, those who had already bought tickets to the seminars were left with little information as to what was going on… no emails were sent, nor announcements made beyond the one I just read, which was placed on each Eventbrite event page.

The media coverage was equally as ambiguous. Tenpenny herself appeared on The Today Show, in which she referred to those who have campaigned against her seminars in Australia as “extremists” and mentioned that “bomb threats” have been recieved.

In fact, Sherri Tenpenny has mentioned “bomb threats” repeatedly to the media. Bomb threats are rather serious and ought to be treated as such – and of course, reported to the authorities for investigation.

The bomb threat that I have witnessed, and several people have made screen shots of, was left in a comment on the Facebook Page of Michael’s Oriental Restaurant.

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That’s not an okay thing to say.

Unfortunately, when Tenpenny has referred to the bomb threat, she has omitted mentioning who it came from… one of her supporters. The gentleman in question has a rather substantial history of making threats to vaccination advocates. Presumably he was angry at the prospect of Michael’s Oriental Restaurant potentially cancelling Tenpenny’s booking.

Now, I’m not willing to judge all of Tenpenny’s supporters by the actions of one person – all sorts of people take up causes without necessarily behaving in ways that are approved of by others who they campaign alongside. However, I am incredibly disappointed that Sherri Tenpenny has decided it acceptable to tell the media that bomb threats have been made without disclosing that they were made by one of her supporters. This omission, alongside claims that those who have campaigned against her seminars are “extremists” and “terrorists”, suggest to the public that one of her critics made the bomb threat, and I find this disingenuous to the extreme.

Some media outlets have, unfortunately, run with the “bomb threat” story without diligent investigation. I’m heartened though that others have looked into the issue further, witnessed the threat itself and its context, and have reported accurately.

The “bomb threat” was featured in a press release made by Sherri Tenpenny on the 28th of January, titled, “DR. SHERRI TENPENNY’S SPEAKING TOUR CANCELLED FOR REASONS OF SAFETY AND SECURITY

You know… I’ve been watching the #StopTenpenny campaign fairly closely and I have not witnessed any threats of violence coming from vaccination advocates. If I ever do witness such, I will condemn it incredibly strongly – threats and intimidation are utterly unacceptable. Any such behaviour should be reported to the authorities.

What I have witnessed are community members coming together to campaign against anti-vaccination seminars, which would have misinformed parents and parents to be on how to best protect the health of their children. They have done so via social media, petitions, letter writing to venues and MPs, collating publicly available information and blogging it, and engaging with the media.

To then have that characterised as a hateful campaign involving terrorism and extremism, to be compared with the Charlie Hebdo killers in Paris and the gunman behind the Sydney seige… well, how else are those who’ve had to back down going to frame their decision to do so. Claiming persecution perhaps fits their self and public images better than having to admit that an overwhelming number of Australians are willing to stand up and say no to the spread of misinformation that harms children.

I’d like to finish off with a few exerpts from Stephanie Messenger’s public announcement that the tour has been cancelled. To be frank, I find some of it a little bizarre… and I’m glad that she posted it, as perhaps a few people who came to hear of Sherri Tenpenny and Stephanie Messenger via the media coverage of the now cancelled tour, will have a look at where Stephanie Messenger is coming from and find it… a little less likely to be evidence-based.

From Stephanie Messenger.

“With the pro-vaccine extremists running their campaign of hate, intimidation, bullying, sabotage of businesses and threats of violence, we could not in good conscience put the attendees, speakers and new venue owners at risk of violence and harassment. We are mindful that at each seminar there were already people booked in who were bringing babies and children along and as we are all about protecting babies and children, we are not willing to go ahead and risk their safety.
When you are dealing with extremists, you just never know what they are capable of doing as we have recently seen with the Sydney siege, and also, the Paris violence against free speech.
These pro-vaccine extremists are actually:
terrorists against free speech – they are against people accessing all information to make an informed decision regarding this medical procedure,
they are in favour of human sacrifice as they know some babies are injured and killed by vaccines, but think this is OK ‘for the ‘perceived’ good of the community”,
they are against people sharing whatever information they want and therefore they are in favour of censorship,
they believe bullying is acceptable when they do it. Venue owners were threatened, harassed and intimidated to cancel the contracts we had in place. This is bullying.
Of course they deny all this, but please look to their actions – these speak louder than the words that they speak with their forked tongues. What you do and say in this world is a declaration of who you really are, and these people certainly made plenty of statements about themselves. Basically they are low vibrating souls who have behaved in rude, arrogant, vile, intolerant, controlling, abusive, manipulative and ignorant ways and so, have declared this is who they really are. They are so far away from truth that they are trying to hold on to their ignorant and fearful position not matter what. Just know, as higher vibrating souls who have learnt the truth, you can do much more to advance the truth for all to learn by speaking out whenever you have an opportunity.”

That’s about half of it – you can read the rest at your own leisure on the GanKinMan Foundation’s Facebook Page.

And for anyone wondering, this ‘low vibrating soul’ received an automatic refund for the full purchase price of the ticket, $79.92, from Stephanie Messenger, via Eventbrite and Paypal yesterday.

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Crank Magnetism

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.

His girlfriend is Charlene the Human Skull Model, they sing lovely duets.

“Magnet Science” with our lovely model, Scott the Visible Australian Soap Star

 

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”.

Click to Embiggen

Click to Embiggen

Magnet Medicine

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.

Oh boy.

“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…

Human magnet

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.

Jojo the Human Magnet is available for your next function at competitive rates!

Every skeptic needs a spoon trick!

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.

Chemtrails, Chemtrails, Everywhere!

In day to day conversation, I am utterly guilty of discussing chemtrails without a great deal of seriousness.

I make terrible jokes – blaming them for any transient minor illness, taking photographs of contrails and posting them with faux-alarmist captions, setting up a satirical pro-chemtrail Facebook page. Many of my skeptical friends do this too; we use chemtrails as a punchlines in banter about conspiracy theorists and bizarre beliefs. They are up there with reptilians and the Illuminati.

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa with Chemtrail. Katsushika Hokusai, 1831.

However, today I’m going to take a few moments to approach the subject a little more seriously… what is the conspiracy theory about, what are its ramifications, what is the simple and evidence-based explanation for the white trails across the sky left by aircraft?

Consistent with the bizarro world I’m writing from, last thing first – what are contrails?

Contrails: What Even Are They?

Contrails, a portmanteau of condensation and trail, are the white streaks left behind planes given favourable atmospheric conditions.

Aircraft fuel is composed primarily of hydrocarbons, these give off carbon dioxide and water vapour as their main combustion products. When these hot exhaust gases mix with rarefied cool air, the water in the gas freezes quickly and forms microscopic ice crystals, leaving trails of white haze. This haze is similar in look and chemical composition to cloud.

Dependent on the condensation in the atmosphere, contrails may dissipate quickly, or linger. The atmospheric conditions which support cirrus cloud formation – and the very moist atmosphere that results – can allow contrails to persist for hours.

For a more in-depth explanation of contrail formation and persistence, NASA have an excellent site devoted to the topic, the Contrail Education Project.

Chemtrail Conspiracy Theory, The Basics

conandoylechemtrails

Cover illustration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Big Book of Victorian Chemtrails.

Contrails have been around for as long as modern aviation has.. but in the mid-1990s, the chemtrail conspiracy theory began to develop and spread.

The chemtrail (chemtrail being a portmanteau of “chemical” and “trail”) conspiracy theory takes many forms, but generally it is a belief that an authority – be it governmental, military, scientific or other (yes, the Illuminati, Zionists, “Elite” and reptilians all get a look in here) are using aircraft (often commercial aviation aircraft for greater concealment, sometimes miliatary aircraft) to conduct spraying of our skies.

The composition of the chemicals varies with different claims – aluminium, barium, strontium and silver feature highly.. occasionally biological agents are said to be involved. The purpose of the spraying varies widely also… the most popular belief seems to be that it is the facilitation of a geoengineering project to alter weather, reflect the sun’s rays or combat climate change. Other theories include spraying to control the population, to cause illness, to control minds, to vaccinate people without their consent. Some believers claim that chemtrail spraying is a form of military weapons testing.

Occasionally, chemtrail conspiracy theorists produce images of commercial passenger aircraft containing large connected barrels in place of seats as evidence that the aviation industry is involved in the spraying of chemicals, claiming that these are an aerosol dispersion system. In fact, they’re full of water – they are used by airlines to simulate the weight of passengers and cargo, to test different centers of gravity while the aircraft is in flight.

As with explanations of how contrails are formed however, the explanation of the purpose of the ballast barrels are often countered with claims of cover-ups and disinformation by those invested in chemtrail conspiracy theories. This is often a trouble with conspiracy theories; any debunking or rational explanation for phenomena is met by the true believer with distrust and often an expansion of the original theory to account for new information. To demonstrate this, an interesting exercise for skeptics can be to create a theory, then expand it to incorporate further conspiracies as information counter to the theory is encountered.

The “Evidence” for Chemtrails

In order to compile this report, I sat myself down to watch documentaries produced by chemtrail believers, “Why in the World are they Spraying?” and “What in the World are they Spraying?“.

Dear readers, I have made it through documentaries on Deepak Chopra, I’ve heard the stories of 9-11 Truthers, watched anti-vaccination propaganda, I’ve gotten through the entirety of Charlene Werner explaining the her understanding of the physics behind how homeopathy. I’ve sung along to Mike Adams’ raps about GMOs and the flu vaccination. Heck, I’ve watched all of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Vampyros Lesbos – I think that I have a fairly high tolerance for painful viewing.

I’ve attended Paranormal and Spiritual Expos and walked around the Mind Body Wallet Festival – I can generally cope with wacky ideas and claims. But the chemtrail documentaries… they had me beat. I got through perhaps half an hour of gish galloping before I just couldn’t take it anymore… so many claims with such flimsy evidence, where any was provided at all. Both documentaries are available in full on YouTube and if you can make it through even one, I salute you.

One thing that I’ll note – a scene in one of these documentaries showed a man walking about some bushland, pointing out trees which were dead or not thriving, attributing their state to chemtrail spraying. While I’m more familiar with rural Australia than I am the US, their evidence of chemtrails looked very much consistent to me with the effects of country going through drought conditions.

People interviewed on the documentary also attributed weather conditions consistent with what we’ve been experiencing worldwide over the past few years to chemtrail spraying. They claimed that geoengineering was taking place in an effort from the military and government to reflect the sun’s rays and reduce warming. This does make me wonder what the documentary makers’ position on anthropomorphic climate change is.

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail - much easier viewing!

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail – much easier viewing!

So, aside from exposing your faithful reporter to some incredibly difficult viewing – what’s the harm in believing in chemtrail conspiracy theories? Overall, it can seem like a bit of relatively harmless kookiness, all things considered.

What’s the Harm to Society?

Anti-chemtrail activists are surprisingly active and visible – affixing corflute signs to trees and signposts around their neighbourhoods, writing letters to and petitioning MPs (one anti-chemtrail activist actually made it into the South Australian Parliament), holding protests against geoengineering and chemtrail spraying in cities across Australia. While I wholeheartedly support people becoming involved in political activism, in this case, I suspect that the resources MPs and police put toward responding to the chemtrail activists could be put to some better use.

The largest local chemtrail conspiracy group on Facebook, “Australia & New Zealand Against Chemtrails & Geoengineering”, boasts 8,393 members (as of 04/12/2014), which is almost five hundred more likes than anti-vaccination campaigners the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network currently have. Anti-chemtrail activists are visible and spreading their message.

Two years ago, an article ran in The Australian, reporting on threats being made by anti-chemtrail activists to harm pilots and shoot down commercial aircraft, stating that these threats were becoming more overt, prevalent and alarming. Australian Federal Police have monitored anti-chemtrail activists planning to intercept airline pilots at Sydney airport. Again, more police resources… while pilots in particular and aviation companies in general experience concern for their safety.

What’s the Harm to Believers?

Those were a few points demonstrating anti-chemtrail activism’s effect on the general public, but what about believers?

Aaaaaaaaargh!

Aaaaaaaaargh!

I don’t imagine that it feels wonderful to hold the belief that the government and/or the aviation industry and/or the Illuminati are out there, wielding power and spraying the skies, causing harm to the population.

Similar to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who believe that the medical establishment and government – and we’re talking doctors, nurses, researchers, pharmaceutical company employees, public health officials, journalists – are all out to harm them, anti-chemtrail activists subscribe to a rather far reaching conspiracy too. How far reaching? Off the top of my head, I’d assume that those in on the conspiracy would include the government, the military, the aviation industry (from CEOs to baggage handlers) aeronautical engineers involved in designing, assembling, maintaining and repairing aircraft, everybody employed by an airport, everybody involved in manufacturing and transporting the chemicals that they allege are being sprayed. Then perhaps emergency services workers – in case a plane went down, surely they’d need to know how to cover up evidence of chemical tanks and spraying.

That’s a heck of a lot of people who’d need to be working at keeping a substantially large secret, don’t you think? Therefore, that’s a heck of a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice the health of the general population in order to carry out some grand master plan.

This is a point that really gets me when it comes to those who subscribe to conspiracy theories such as these… the huge number of people that believers are willing to consider to be either malicious or stupid. It seems such a bleak view to hold of your fellow humans.

There’s also the general worry that I assume chemtrail believers experience to varying degrees. Imagine, if you will, watching the skies in fear and genuinely worrying for your health. While we might find the belief in a chemtrail conspiracy theory irrational, people do genuinely believe it nonetheless – and the concern, agitation and nocebo effect generated by this belief can be real.

Occasionally this fear regarding harm to health leads people to wear masks or scarves over their faces or spend time spraying vinegar in the air around them, which allegedly dissipates or neutralises chemtrail chemicals. Others turn to buying products specifically designed to provide protection – orgonite devices and solutions to be ingested (homeopathic or otherwise). In extreme cases, people relocate to so called “safe zones”, where aircraft are said not to be spraying.

A-Sunday-Afternoon-on-th-01

Seurat’s “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte, avec Chemtrail”

Finally, there’s the tendency of people who believe in one conspiracy theory to be open to others… and there are others which cause more direct and measurable harm to individuals and society, such as anti-vax conspiracies. It’s difficult to make decisions which will lead to positive social, health and well being outcomes for yourself and your loved ones if you have a strong distrust in scientific consensus and all authority.

Yes, I did mention social outcomes. While I do my utmost not to ridicule individuals – in fact, I have some sympathy for people living with the fear of what is in our skies – I do still think that chemtrails are one of the wackier and more far fetched conspiracy theories out there. Frankly, I can’t see the satire letting up any time soon.

This post an expansion of an Evidence, Please report featured on Episode #314 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast. It was featured in The Skeptic Magazine Vol 35 no 1, March 2015. 

The UK Advertising Standards Authority Rules: Wireless Armour Are Pants – Podcast Report

On The Skeptic Zone Podcast #306 {Permalink}, Evidence, Please provides an update on Wireless Armour.

Below are supplemental links and a transcript of the report, which you should really listen to rather than read, as I said the words “nonpendulous scrotum”. Conversely, you may wish to listen to it in spite of my enunciation of the above words. It is a fine podcast indeed – as is Science on Top, who were kind enough to invite me on to their panel as a guest last week!

sexy-Flexible-Smart-pants-underwear-Silicone-soft-phone-case-universal-home-button-protective-Cover-for-iphone

..!

Previous Evidence, Please report on Wireless Armour: Skeptic Zone, episode #290.

Previous Evidence, Please Blog Post: Wireless Armour: A Pseudoscientific Bunch of Pants

 

ASA Adjudication on Wireless Armour Ltd

Wireless Armour blog entry: Banned Advert

 

The Guardian; Hi-tech underwear advert banned

The Independent; Adverts for Richard Branson-backed ‘radiation-repelling’ underpants banned by ASA

London Loves Business; Branson-backed radiation-repelling underpants hit bum-note

The Drum; ASA bans ad that claims new underwear shields men’s balls from cellphone radiation

 

Report transcript behind the jump.

(more…)

Wireless Armour: A Pseudoscientific Bunch of Pants

An audio version of this post appears on The Skeptic Zone podcast, episode 290 {permalink}.

An article by technology reporter James Billington appeared on news.com.au on the 7th of May 2014, titled, “The Smart Underwear Designed to Shield Against Mobile Phone Radiation“.

“For any man who still feels a bit uneasy about the side effects of carrying around a mobile in their pocket, a new pair of underwear has been developed to protect their packet from any potentially harmful radiation”

Following, was a piece, which could well be read as an unpaid advertorial, for “Wireless Armour”, a UK startup who have developed men’s underwear which incorporates silver into its fabric to allegedly shield the wearer from electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones.

The news.com.au article states,

“With scientific studies on the link between exposure to wireless radiation affecting sperm count, and with most men carrying their mobile phones in pockets or using laptops on a daily basis these boxers costing £24 ($43) when available could be the solution to that worry many males face.”

Interesting language. The news.com.au article mentions that there are “scientific studies on the link between exposure to wireless radiation affecting sperm count”, but does not actually state that any such link has been discovered, nor the outcomes of any studies. A caption beneath a photograph of the underwear similarly avoids making any direct claims, “This pair of hi-tech underwear has been designed to protect men from the potential harmful effects of mobile phone radiation.” (emphasis mine).

That said, the founder of Wireless Armour, Joseph Perkins (who holds a BSc in physics and is a former physics teacher) is quoted in the article as saying,

“Wireless Armour is designed to protect the health of a wireless generation glued to their mobile devices. The fabric has been put through rigorous testing from external electromagnetic consulting company, Wave Scientific. Results indicate that Wireless Armour fabric blocks 99.9% of harmful radiation, making the garments an extremely effective form of protection,”

Joseph Perkins seems to be making the claim that radiation from mobile devices, such as smartphones, causes harm. He’s running an Indiegogo Campaign to fund the first run of Wireless Armour and, by attaining a position as one of the “Top 10 Back of an Envelope Start-Up Ideas“, has courted the support of none other than Sir Richard Branson in his endeavours.

 

 

Well, what’s the evidence?

Fortunately, Wireless Armour are active users of Twitter (@WirelessArmour) and provided a link to “peer reviewed studies” when questioned on their claim. The link, to a page on the Environmental Working Group’s website, cites several studies – a couple which conducted lab based in-vitro analysis of sperm samples exposed to varying levels of electromagnetic radiation (the results of which are interesting, but not necessarily representative of real life situations) and several which used self-selected samples of men who were self-reporting on questionnaires – a form of data collection which is not necessarily reliable. I think it is fair to state that the studies cited are far from conclusive.

Looking at Wireless Armour’s website, other sources are also linked to support the suggestion that electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones can be harmful, including a website which sells “Laptop Radiation and Heat Shields” and a website, www.best-emf-health.com, which recalls the sad account of an individual who has suffered cancer, personally believes that his cancer was caused by electromagnetic radiation and goes on to attribute many health conditions, from allergies to miscarriages to multiple sclerosis to electromagnetic radiation – a fine example of what Ketan Joshi refers to as “Anything Syndrome”, in which self-reported ailments are attributed to a cause, often a technology, with no proven causal link.

On their website, Wireless Armour seem to bounce back and forth between claiming that electromagnetic radiation is harmful and stating that it is potentially harmful – in the latter case, they strongly question whether people wish to wait for conclusive evidence before taking risk-avoiding measures: “At Wireless Armour we do not want to wait around whilst the government and scientific community confirm 100% whether it is harmful to our health, we would rather protect ourselves now and find out later. Don’t Be A Test Subject!”

In response to tweets stating that radio signals have never been proven to lower sperm count or cause cancer and that the studies cited by the Environmental Working Group were nonsense, Wireless Armour responded, “You are entitled to that opinion, it is the fantastic thing about living in a free world.”

Where opinions count when it comes to making claims that information is factual and scientifically based, I am not sure.

 

wirelessarmourtweet

Storify of conversation can be viewed here.

 

So for those people who feel that the potential for harm from electromagnetic radiation, while never proven, is still something they wish to protect themselves from… how is Wireless Armour purported to work?

From Wireless Armour’s Indiegogo Campaign,

“Wireless Armour’s products have a mesh of pure Silver woven into the fabric of each item. This encases the user in a cage of metal. This is a special type of cage called a Faraday Cage, named after the man who invented it, Michael Faraday. The reason that this cage is special is because any electromagnetic radiation that hits it is distributed evenly around the cage, therefore not allowing it to enter the cage and affect what ever is stored within it”

Uh, no. While the silver weave fabric may have some shielding properties, these underpants are not behaving as a Faraday cage.

A Faraday cage is a fully enclosed container made from a mesh of highly conductive metal – often brass or copper – which blocks external static and non-static electrical fields by channeling electricity around the cage, preventing it from entering the space within. The mesh itself must be thick and contain holes which are significantly smaller than the length of the wave of the electromagnetic radiation it guards against, so that the wave is reflected, rather than allowed to permeate the mesh. Faraday cages are connected to an earth ground, to dissipate any currents induced from external or internal electromagnetic fields.

A pair of mesh underpants on the other hand, has three rather large holes – one for the wearer’s torso and two for their legs – which renders it… not a cage. Additionally, unless the wearer has a copper wire, which is attached to their underpants at one end and to a copper rod driven a metre into the ground at the other, a pair of mesh underpants are not grounded. A pair of mesh underpants are not a Faraday cage.

 

 

Wireless Armour do, however, have a backup claim. In response to questions on the plausibility of their claims regarding electromagnetic radiation’s effect on sperm and the necessity for protective underwear, Wireless Armour have stated on their Reddit thread,

“IF it comes out that EM radiation is not bad for us then people still have very comfortable underwear with all the other beneficial properties of Silver.

“We have a lot more silver in our products (above 20%) than other antimicrobial underwear (~5%) and so ours will be very good at odour resistance and stopping the growth of bacteria.”

Well, yes… but frankly, I would be much more inclined to take my $43, purchase several pairs of cheaper cotton underwear (and perhaps some soap) and maintain clean and dry nether regions. I’d like to note that if you have concerns about unpleasant smells or bacteria, a check in with your GP would perhaps be wise.

 

In summary, Wireless Armour are marketing a product that is extremely unlikely to be necessary and embracing a concern which is not scientifically supported in order to market them – and even if radiation from wireless devices did affect sperm quality, the mechanism by which they claim that their product operates is a physical impossibility. How somebody with a physics degree is unable to realise this, and why news.com.au (and several other media outlets) and indeed, Richard Branson himself, are unwilling to properly investigate such before promoting this underwear, is quite a mystery to me.

One claim I am willing to make with relative certainty however… is that Wireless Armour, are indeed, a bunch of pants.

 

As of the 11th of May 2014, neither Indiegogo, nor Richard Branson have responded to emails (sent 7th of May) explaining the nature of the claims Wireless Armour are making.

I would like to thank @weezmgk from Twitter for his help with this post, in particular for performing fact checking from a broadcast engineer’s perspective and for contacting relevant parties for comment.

 

UPDATE: An email has been received from Indiegogo’s Trust and Safety Team, dated May 13 2014, stating that,

“Indiegogo empowers campaign owners and contributors to raise money for, or support, the things that matter to them. Since Indiegogo is an equal opportunity platform, we let our users decide whether they want to contribute and support the campaign after performing their own due diligence on the company, campaign owner, and its cause.

“That being said, the campaign will stay live on our platform and continue to receiving funding. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Disappointingly, it seems that Indiegogo are comfortable supporting the marketing of sham products via their service, under the guise of “equal opportunity”. As such, I would recommend due diligence before supporting any Indiegogo campaign.