It’s really quite strange. As much as the skeptical movement and the scientific method in general has a lot to do with removing human bias, I’m increasingly finding that you can often tell if something’s bollocks or not just by your initial impression. Now this is quite useful for me because I’m not a scientist. Not even anything remotely close to a scientist, like a neuro-linguistic programming practitioner or a psychologist (:P). Now it may well be that after a few years of listening to skeptic podcasts (particularly Skeptics with a K which is pretty freaking awesome if you ask me) and hanging around people who know about this kind of stuff, something’s rubbed off. Or it could be that some claims are just so stupid that anyone can see through them.
Here’s an example from a couple of weeks ago. Nikki Owen reckons that sending love-vibes to apples makes them rot slower, whereas sending hate vibes makes them rot faster:
To prove her point, Nikki has devised a simple experiment using apples, which have a similar water content – 60 per cent – to the human body.
‘Cut an apple in two, put one half in a jar, label it “love” and say kind things to it for a week,’ says Nikki, aware that it sounds completely bonkers. ‘Then place the other half in a jar marked “hate” and be as spiteful as you like to it.
‘At the end of the week, the hated part will be in a considerably worse state of decay than the half that was the subject of your affections.’
Hundreds of women have tried this experiment and the results are consistent. Nikki’s theory is based on the work of Japanese scientist Dr Masaru Emoto. He’s done countless studies that suggest the molecules in water crystals could be affected by our thoughts, words and feelings, thus determining the shape of the crystals.
So in the interest of trying to spread this gut instinct that something’s a bit fishy, here are some of the warning signs that made me suspicious, nothing too sciencey:
- It’s in the Femail section of the Mail. Now you may think this is a rash judgement but look on the right hand side of that article and see what other crap they publish. Do they really think that’s all women are interested in, non-celebrities and beauty treatments?
- Nikki Owen is described as “a practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming and TV commentator who is described as Britain’s leading charisma expert“. Now this is partly because I hang around with skeptics but I happen to know that neurolinguistic programming is a load of old guff. And call me a bit of a cynic but I really don’t think it’s a good idea to stick “and TV commentator” on the end of your job title, particularly if you’re trying to sound authoritative in a scientific field. I’d also like to know how many other people were gunning for the title “Britain’s leading charisma expert”.
- “To prove her point, Nikki has devised a simple experiment using apples, which have a similar water content – 60 per cent – to the human body.” Actually that’s not strictly true, it’s not “apples” but “apple”. One apple cut in two, hardly a good sample size. But unfortunately that’s more or less where the stunning similarity ends between human bodies and apples.
- “Nikki’s theory is based on the work of Japanese scientist Dr Masaru Emoto. He’s done countless studies that suggest the molecules in water crystals could be affected by our thoughts, words and feelings, thus determining the shape of the crystals.” The molecules in water crystals? Now I could be completely barking up the wrong tree here, but I believe water is a molecule and not a crystal, unless you freeze it, but these apples aren’t frozen. Altmed types are always talking about the importance of water and the power of crystals, so they tend to be warning words for bullshit. I’ve just done a bit of a search on this Masaru Emoto (he seems to only refer to himself as ‘Dr’ occasionally), and he seems to be something of a quack selling structured water. He doesn’t double-blind any of his studies so it’s all subject to confirmation bias. James Randi has offered him the million dollar prize if he can prove his hypothesis in a double-blind study, and he hasn’t taken up the offer.
- Look at the experts they bring in. Never mind getting someone who’s an expert in their field, let’s get the guy on TV, the ones with something to gain. Notice they’ve got noone who disagrees. Dr Helen Nightingale has a website all about positive thinking, meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy where she sells podcasts for £15 a pop, and that’s with a £7 discount! Nothing for her to gain by endorsing this and getting her name out there, I’m sure. She also comes out with “you are what you think” which doesn’t sound to me like something many psychologists would claim. And Dr Patrick Bowler seems to be a media whore, boasting of how much he’s been on TV much more than what his credentials are. He also has a lot to gain, being co-owner of the Court House Clinic, a cosmetic clinic.
- Nikki plucks a percentage out of the air to make herself sound a bit sciencey to a lazy reader: “I know this will be difficult for 80 per cent of women“. Really? 80% you say, how did you reach that number? Or were you going to write “many women”, and decided to put a number there instead so it sounds like you know what you’re talking about?
I could be completely wrong about all this and I’m perfectly content to be proven wrong, this is just what my gut tells me. Fortunately there are people who are willing and able to check these things. Rebecca Watson (of Skepchick fame) has set up a facebook group where she’ll be performing Nikki Owen’s apple experiment again but with proper controls, and encouraging others to do the same.
Edit: And now that I’ve gone onto YouTube, Rebecca has also uploaded a video about it. Eugh, apple and peanut butter…