Going with your gut – the apple experiment

March 24, 2010

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…

Randi and arguments from authority

December 17, 2009

My internet’s down, so I’m back hopping between free wifi cafe’s like I was in September. Hopefully when I’m back in the UK on Sunday I’ll have more regular access, and in the meantime I’m going to make the most of not having facebook as a distraction by getting some work done. But there’s some very important stuff going on. Check out the Quackometer for a great summary of what James Randi has foolishly done and a discussion of the same. Basically he’s admitted that he’s not qualified to know whether climate change is happening or not, but at the same time he’s thrown his lot in with a fringe group of denialists rather than with the scientists who’ve been working on this for decades.

Now this is both good and bad. It’s bad because he’s just given a big tasty bone to the denialists and he’s sullied the name of good skepticism by aligning us with climate change skeptics, who generally operate by quite different standards to the rest of us. We’ve been getting enough of that in the media simply because we’re skeptics commenting on climate change, they seem to assume that we’re skeptical of climate change.

But it’s also a good thing. The majority of skeptics do actually use an argument from authority on climate change. We quite happily defer to the scientists who know what they’re talking about on this issue, unlike most other issues, simply because most of us aren’t scientifically literate enough to form an opinion of our own. This is a good opportunity for skeptics to go off and do the research. It’s a good motive to do something which ordinarily might take a lot of time and effort for something which might not bear any fruit anyway. When I’m back online properly I’ll definitely be reading up a bit more and I’ll be sure to get a post up here about it.

Skepticamp 2009

August 7, 2009

We had an excellent night at the Edinburgh Skepticamp 2009. The two Alexes gave presentations on statistical fallacies and paranormal investigations, respectively, whilst someone I’d never met before called Terry spoke about how best to win over the believers, and I concentrated on alternative medicine with homoeopathy being the main focus.

It was the last Q&A section that started the most vigorous debate, where we were speaking about whether it would be easier to win over a fundamentalist or a moderate believer, with all of the speakers up on stage. One man stood up and asked the question “What’s wrong with being a believer?” to which someone on stage replied that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong (depending on what you mean by ‘wrong’), as long as it doesn’t affect other things. The man agreed, but continued with the sentence “it’s wrong for religionists to force their beliefs on others, just as it’s wrong for skepticism to be forced on others”.

This struck me as rather curious because he was comparing two very different things, religion being a set of dogmatic beliefs, and science and skepticism being a method best suited to acquiring the truth. So I said so and he replied that, for example, ‘evolutionism’ was a belief that we were forcing on others. Somehow then we got into a discussion about the evidence for evolution and established that although it’s not a fact, it’s about as close to a fact as we have in science. But this man maintained that since it is not a fact it should not be forced onto others.

I struggle to see what his point was. Was he seriously suggesting that it’s just as morally wrong to teach a child about evolution, with all the evidence in favour of it, as to teach the child about creationism which has no evidence for it whatsoever? It’s obviously more wrong to ‘force’ a lie onto someone than a truth, and although we can’t possibly know for sure whether something is true, that’s not to say that all beliefs are equally valid. We can put them in order of what is more likely to be true, based on the available evidence, and we do know that some claims cannot be true based on the current evidence.

But that’s missing the larger point that skeptics don’t force their beliefs on others! Skepticism is about criticising other people’s beliefs and claims, picking them apart and saying “this is unlikely to be true because A, B, C.” We may then propose another belief that is better supported by the evidence, but skeptics would be more than happy to defend their beliefs from critical argument, if only because at the end of the process we’ll be one step closer to the truth! It’s all about the free interchange of ideas, something that skepticism and science do well, because they are always changing, and something that dogmatic belief systems like religion do very badly, since they don’t change at all.

I’m reminded of this video that PZ Myers posted on Pharyngula this week of Wendy Wright from American Women Concerned for America or something. I only watched the first part because I’m short on time right now, but that’s enough to see that she’s asking for a ridiculously high level of evidence for evolution (her version of evidence is ‘if you can’t put it in my hand, it’s not evidence’), whilst allowing her own beliefs to slip completely under the skepticism radar. Take a look, here’s the first part and I’m sure you can find the rest of them.