Tag Archives: Science

"Science – it works, bitch." #213

I feel a lot better about my indiscriminate wine palate after reading this.

You’d think it would be a bad idea to make grand claims about your skills if a simple blind experiment could show you up. Looks like these guys make a living at it, but no one has applied the simple science to see if they are just wankers or not.

Will the wine industry be thrown into turmoil by this? Will there be soul searching and a new approach to rating wine?

Don’t bet on it. Nobody wants to hear this so it will be quietly ignored and the “experts” will continue pontificating without even a hiccup.

Well, maybe a hiccup or two.


Wine-tasting: it’s junk science
Experiments have shown that people can’t tell plonk from grand cru. Now one US winemaker claims that even experts can’t judge wine accurately. What’s the science behind the taste?

Sunscreen in a Pill? Really?

Sigh. I know there is a lot of this kind of woo out there and, yes the rule is “Buyer beware”, but, seriously you have to wonder how these bastards can sleep at night peddling this kind of crap.

The claim is that:

During a decade of clinical trials, FernBlock® has shown remarkable effectiveness in shielding skin against dangerous ultraviolet exposure [source]

And it’s true;  if you take this product and follow their guidelines:

Use with high SPF sunscreen (SPF 30+)

you won’t get sunburnt. It’s roughly $1.00 per hit and you should take two or more per day…. but don’t forget the sunscreen.

Science Based Medicine‘s examination of the claims indicates that, even with the most generous assessment, this stuff could only add SPF 3 to your protection – in other words bugger all. So for your $29.95 you get to swallow some horse pills and risk a stomach upset (one of the common side effects). Oh, and you will still get sunburnt unless you apply 30+ sunscreen.

I’m struggling to picture the thought process that leads to a sale:

“Hmmm this looks good…. ‘natural extract derived from the fern plant‘, ‘used by Ayurvedic practitioners in its native India for thousands of years’, lots of sciencey words on the label. This has to be better than the evil chemicals some pharmaceutical company is trying to sell me!”.

If I hear one more person tell me “it’s ok because it’s natural” I’m going to scream. It’s a completely meaningless label.  Some of our worst social problems arise from the use of “natural products derived from plants” – alcohol, tobacco, opiates.

I met someone over lunch recently who fervently insisted that a major source of our ills is the dreadful toxins in our water supply and that the only way to get healthy was to buy filtered water or a filtration unit. A friend of mine takes vitamins because his wife insists he “needs” them even though he has a good diet and appears as fit as a Mallee bull.

Even in a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world, there’s an undercurrent of unease that the minor discomforts of life might be symptoms of a conspiracy to make us unwell, and that cynical pharmaceutical corporations are exploiting us for huge profits. The irony is that the companies peddling stuff like Fernblock (such a nice, friendly, woody sounding name) are some of the biggest earners (to the tune of A$1.5 billion per annum in Australia alone) yet they somehow avoid the taint of greedy commercialism in the eyes of the consumer. They also get a special bonus by not having to show that their product actually does anything, unlike the highly regulated pharmaceutical market where extensive clinical trials are required.

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the complexities of life. We are bombarded by conflicting advice, arguments about the pros and cons of health alternatives and  a stream of medical horror stories by the press so there’s always going to be a niche for someone willing to exploit that confusion.

Dispatches From Another Universe – the Breatharians

Every now and then my wandering on the web turns up a world view that is so far from reality it’s… well… breathtaking.

Take the Breatharians for example.

This page looks like yet another attempt to skim some cash from the gullible, in this case by the aptly named Wiley Brooks. The page that describes his “Immortality Workshop” reads like a clumsy spoof:

The workshop includes a visit to Earth Prime in the 5th Dimension in your physical body if you are ready.
The cost is $1,000,000.00 USD
The process starts with a $10,000 USD deposit by BANK WIRE TRANFER.
No Refunds

But no, a few Google searches turned up a legion of followers who believe that their Fearless Leader really can live without food and absorb energy from the sun like a solar panel. Apparently this is more an example of Poe’s Law than a deliberate scam.

What’s going on here?  Can these people really be occupying the same universe that I am? What is driving them to cling to such a Bizzaro World view?

It’s not as though it’s hard to test these claims. Just stick them in a room with no food, no water, all the sunlight they want and start the stopwatch. In fact, this is exactly what happened in the case of one of our local exponents when 60 Minutes asked her to demonstrate her abilities. To no one’s surprise she was almost dead from dehydration in 48 hours.

You would think that would be the end of it, but of course that’s not the way the world works. She’s still at it ten years later despite the fact that more than one of her followers have died from these bizarre practices.

To quote Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“. Unfortunately the press, with its constant craving for new fodder, is less than skeptical when a catchy item like this comes along, and before you know it the fruitcakes have some free credibility – “as seen on Today Tonight!!!.

Take this poor soul for example. His story was splashed across the headlines last year when a “Facilitated Communicator” claimed she’d broken through his comatose state and could communicate with him via a keyboard. This kind of communication was discredited years ago but somehow she was given the benefit of the doubt. Eventually they called in the big guns:

“I believe that he is sentient. They’ve shown that with MRI scans,” said James Randi, a prominent skeptic who during the 1990s investigated the use of facilitated communication for autistic children. But in the video, “You see this woman who’s not only holding his hand, but what she’s doing is directing his fingers and looking directly at the keyboard. She’s pressing down on the keyboard, pressing messages for him. He has nothing to do with it.”

Well, no shit.

The story went cold when somebody thought to ask him some questions without the “facilitator” in the room. Yes, that’s right; it was a worldwide news story before someone actually though to do that. Too late anyway. The press had already moved on to the next piece of credulous fluff, and the more interesting story – the possibility that this man was conscious – was trampled in the rush.

It would be nice to think that these kind of fantasies would never get traction because people would ask the obvious questions. It seems that once you decide to dispense with reason life gets a lot simpler and the Dunning Kruger effect kicks in: the less you know, the more likely you are to exclaim that you do, and the less likely you are to listen to evidence to the contrary.

I fear The Endarkenment is upon us.