Episode 100: Silly Pseudoscience Special!

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem discusses silly pseudosciences and conspiracy theories with Ashlyn, Laura, Ian, and Lauren, then caps off the episode by interviewing panelists past and present about their favourite episodes, the future technologies they’re most excited about, and whether they’d rather live next door to Ray Comfort or Deepak Chopra.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism that is produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics.

Links: List of topics characterized as pseudoscience (Wikipedia) | Biodynamic agriculture (Wikipedia) | Pyramid power (Wikipedia) | SECRET POWER of PYRAMIDS | Pyramid Power | Organic/Biodynamic (Summerhill Pyramid Winery) | The Pyramid (Summerhill Pyramid Winery) | Paul is dead (Wikipedia) | Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison (IMDb) | Nazi UFOs (Wikipedia) | Space Nazis (Wikipedia) | Did the middle ages not really happen? (The Straight Dope) | Phantom time hypothesis (Wikipedia) | New Chronology (Wikipedia) | Dietitian at Home

Favourite Episodes: Episode 29: Zombies, Part 1 | Episode 32: Zombies, Part 2 | Episode 40: Skepticon 5, Part 1 | Episode 42: Skepticon 5, Part 2 | Episode 59: Organic Agriculture | Episode 60: “Frankenfoods” | Episode 72: The War on Christmas: A Brief History | Episode 74: Nutritional Supplements | Episode 77: Coffee & Tea | Episode 79: The Historicity of Jesus | Episode 88: Experimenting on Your Thoughts | Episode 90: “Resonance: Beings of Frequency” | Episode 91: Straight, White Christmas | Episode 97: Labels

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Irish Company Solves World Hunger, Climate Change, Small Chickens

Cross-posted from Skeptic North.

Peer Review, or It Didn't Happen
Image Credit:
Andrew Balfour and the good folks over at Boing Boing

A news article from the Irish Independent has been making the rounds these last few days. With the cheery title of “Wave goodbye to global warming, GM and pesticides” this (almost) unbelievably credulous bit of reportage claims that a new technology developed in Ireland will solve pretty well every modern-day agricultural woe.

“But how?” you ask. “Easy,” the researchers reply: “Radio waves!”

This bit o’ tech, marketed under the name Vi-Aqua, involves “energising” water by exposing it to a radio signal. Attach this small device to your garden hose, and you can (apparently) expect bigger fruits and vegetables that are resistant to pests and disease! It’s a solution to every problem! Water treated with this simple technology repels insects! Crops resist blight! Yields are increased! It even sequesters carbon! Who knows? Maybe it will also reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles!

Most skeptics recognize that panaceas are (generally speaking) not to be trusted. As Irish blogger “Unshaved Mouse” pointed out, this article is found not in the newspaper’s Science section (it doesn’t seem to have one), but in its Business section, which for the Irish Independent apparently means the “we’ll provide credulous free advertising for you without asking any tough questions” section.

Red Flags

This article displays several of the typical warning signs that we may be dealing with pseudoscientific crankery. It’s important to note that none of these red flags serve to prove that this is a scam. In fact, if I’d just read a simple summary of the research, my response might have been, “Huh. That’s strange. I wonder if other researchers will be able to replicate this.” However, there are a few items of concern that should be addressed.

“Groundbreaking” Research and “Miraculous” Results

Cries that the research is “groundbreaking”, “paradigm-shifting”, “miraculous”, or any other hyperbolic nonsense tends to make me nervous. Not because groundbreaking research doesn’t happen, but because most scientists try very hard to communicate the limits of their research, while it’s hucksters who tend to make grandiose claims.

A GROUNDBREAKING new Irish technology which could be the greatest breakthrough in agriculture since the plough is set to change the face of modern farming forever.

Since the plough? Admittedly, I didn’t grow up on a farm, but the claim that this “could be” the most important agricultural technology in the last four to eight thousand years strikes me as… well, extraordinary. Especially given, you know, that whole Green Revolution thing.

It also produces the miracle of rejuvenating the soil by invigorating soil-based micro-organisms. … [T]he technology is being hailed as a modern day miracle.

Oh! It’s a miracle! Well, I suppose that explains it, then.

The Chopra Effect

I’m also worried by claims that mix scientific (or sciencey-sounding) language liberally with folksy details. Deepak Chopra is the go-to example for this sort of nonsense, but he hardly has a monopoly.

Vi-Aqua makes water wetter and introduces atmospheric nitrogen into the water in the form of nitrates – so it is free fertiliser.

I’ll admit that I did a bit of a double-take when I read that (perhaps it was more of a quadruple-take). It makes water wetter? What does that even mean? (The science behind wetting, incidentally, is quite interesting.)

While the article didn’t go into much detail here, the Vi-Aqua website claims that their product makes water “wetter” by “altering the configuration of hydrogen in water” (although their brochure claims that Vi-Aqua “alters the hydrogen content“, which doesn’t at all strike me as the same thing).

Unfortunately, according to Stephen Lower, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University, “These claims are bunk; there is no scientific evidence that water can be ‘energized’, re-structured, or otherwise altered by filters or external forces.” He specifically calls out Vi-Aqua for claiming that their device is “proven” without offering any scientific evidence to support the claim.

Vague Claims Supported by Anecdote

Claims that are vague are consequently difficult to verify, and we are provided with scant evidence for efficacy.

Not only are the plants much bigger but they are largely disease-resistant, meaning huge savings in expensive fertilisers and harmful pesticides. … Extensively tested in Ireland and several other countries, the inexpensive water treatment technology is now being rolled out across the world.

Although the number “30 per cent” is thrown around several times (this technology will at once increase yield by 30% and decrease water consumption by 30%), the article is very light on the details.

The Vi-Aqua website (and as a software developer, I have to say that the website is a travesty top to bottom) lists many of the benefits of this technology, but nowhere does it link to any published research (not even in its “Test Results” section). Instead, it mentions that a two month test was carried out in 2001 (that’s twelve years ago, but reportedly trials are “still ongoing”), and then offers a series of testimonials. There is no way to evaluate the scientific rigour of the trials, the statistical significance of the findings, or any potential abuse of multiple comparisons or other researcher degrees of freedom. In fact, the file drawer effect here seems to be absolute.

Or so it looked at first.

Ray Peterson of the Winnipeg Skeptics managed to find a PDF copy of a document titled “Scientific Information Dossier: ‘Vi-Aqua’ Vitalized Water” (although the file name reads “Full Scientific Doc Proof”). This document begins with some general background information, and then describes a series of trials undertaken in 1998 to “prove” the efficacy of the Vi-Aqua product.

Despite being described as “proof”, it doesn’t look good. The majority of tests performed showed no statistically significant difference between the control group and the treatment groups. Two tests showed improvements in one of the three treatment groups that barely met statistical significance, but there did not seem to be any attempt made to control for multiple comparisons. The results are preliminary at best, and seem indistinguishable from noise.

Perhaps its most endearing feature is that the dossier invokes “water memory”, stating that “electromagnetic modification is imprinted in the water for several hours, slowly decaying with time”. Note that this is after admitting that “[t]he magnetic water memory effect is a controversial and exciting issue that is not explained by any current theory,” and that water loses any complex structure within picoseconds. But I guess if “water memory” is good enough for homeopaths like Jacques Benveniste, it’s good enough for these guys.

So far as I can determine, despite the sciencey language, there’s no plausible mechanism of action here, which does not bode well for Vi-Aqua. The trials described also make it clear that no blinding was employed to control researcher bias: the test and control groups were clearly labeled. This is the same level of evidence we see from those selling homeopathy or Power Balance bands.

If it weren’t for the implausibility of it all, and the fact that they’re selling to consumers, I’d say, “Hey, this is some neat preliminary research! I hope this passes replication!” But, despite the claims of “miraculous” results, after seventeen years there doesn’t seem to be any peer reviewed literature evaluating the claims, and these claims don’t seem to have gained traction in the field. I’m not a scientist (not really, and this certainly isn’t my area of expertise)—but you know who are scientists, and who do specialise in this field? Those who perform peer review in the relevant academic journals.

Currently, I’m having trouble seeing the difference between this research and the “independent” studies commissioned by the charlatans at Power Balance.

Conflicts of Interest

While not a smoking gun, it’s always worrying to see the same people who conduct the research profiting directly by selling the product they’re studying to consumers (especially prior to publication of results).

The two researchers involved in this project, according to the article, are Professor Austin Darragh and Dr. J.J. Leahy, both of the University of Limerick. Although the Vi-Aqua website does not make it clear exactly who is profiting from the sale of the devices, a simple Whois lookup discloses that the site is registered to Anna Darragh. If she is not related to Professor Darragh, I will be very surprised indeed. I’m concerned that this may be an example of researchers who, instead of engaging with their peers in the scientific community via the literature, are largely ignoring the scientific process in favour of going directly to the consumer (and consumer’s wallet).

While the testimonials page features prominently a glowing endorsement for the product from Dr. Leahy, I was not able to determine whether he stands to benefit from Vi-Aqua sales.

Additional Research

According to their University of Limerick faculty pages (which, to be fair, may be out of date), neither Austin Darragh nor J.J. Leahy have published any research evaluating the benefits of “radio-energised” water in agriculture.

I reached out via email to both Professor Darragh and Dr. Leahy, asking if they could provide links or references to any peer reviewed scientific literature on the subject and to clarify their involvement in direct-to-consumer sales of the Vi-Aqua device.

Dr. Leahy was kind enough to provide me with a brief response. He noted that his field is physical chemistry, not agriculture, and that the work that he conducted on the project was many years ago. He provided me with a PDF copy of “The Effects of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Radiation on the Adhesion Behavior of Aqueous Suspensions”, published in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science in 2000.

In essence, the goal of the experiment is to determine whether a radiofrequency signal can serve to reduce buildup of scale on the interior surface of pipes used to transport water or aqueous solutions by preventing disolved particles (in this case, copper and zinc) from precipitating and adhering to the pipe wall. While the results of this investigation are interesting, they do not relate directly to the question of whether using water exposed to radiofrequency EMF results in increased agricultural yield, decreased pesticide use, or improved carbon sequestration—or even whether we should expect it to.

Dr. Leahy did not comment on the sales or marketing of the Vi-Aqua device. I did not receive a response from Professor Darragh, but I will provide an update if I do.

The Unabashedly Absurd

They truly save the best for last. This is the second-to-last paragraph of the article, in its entirety:

Intriguingly, chickens and sheep fed the energised water turned into giants. . . but that’s another story!

Small Chicken
Artist’s Impression

That’s another story? Maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste, but this device creates giant farm animals and you choose to report on pesticide use and carbon sequestration instead?

The Bottom Line

Hey, anything’s possible I guess, but these claims are extraordinary. If they’re legitimate: great! But why not actually link to reputable scientific literature to back up the claims, rather than presenting the claims exactly the way we would expect them to be presented if they were a scam?

Let’s review: The claims of the product are extraordinarily implausible. The researchers are associated with the company selling the product. I was unable to find independent corroboration of the claims, or any peer reviewed research at all that evaluates the efficacy of the Vi-Aqua device. The language used by the researchers to describe the technology is hyperbolic and contradictory. This stuff makes water wetter and turns chickens into giants.

This article was so bad that I briefly wondered if it were satire. Unfortunately, it wasn’t posted in April, the Irish Independent is an actual news organization, and there’s a website dedicated to selling the stuff. Although we might all hope that it’s simply a hoax meant to expose bad science journalism (sorry, business journalism), I think this is more likely an example of hucksters managing to get mainstream coverage. If it does all turn out to be a joke, however, I will be thoroughly relieved.

In the meantime, be careful: the radio waves employed by the Vi-Aqua device may trigger your electromagnetic hypersensitivity.* Or they could turn you into a giant.

(My friend and fellow Skeptic North writer Richelle McCullough pointed out that Professor Darragh apparently also believes that antibiotics are responsible for chronic fatigue syndrome. So… there’s that.)

Hat tip to Ray Peterson who sent several relevant links my way, and to Brendan Curran-Johnson for reminding me about Norman Borlaug. I’ll give Ray the last word: “The joke could be on us and it’s all real. A simple textbook electronic circuit sitting under our noses all this time making water wetter.”

* Note: Not actually a thing that will happen.

Note: Probably also not a thing that’s going to happen.

Episode 60: “Frankenfoods”

Episode 60: “Frankenfoods”

In the second part of Life, the Universe & Everything Else‘s two-part series examining organic farming and genetically engineered foods, Mark Forkheim, Leslie Saunders, Gem Newman, and Laura Creek Newman discuss the science of genetic engineering and some of the very real problems with Monsanto.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Background Information: Genetically Modified Organism | Genetically Modified Food | Genetically Modified Food Controversies | Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser | WHO: 20 Questions on Genetically Modified Foods

Scientific Papers: Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review | Zambia and Genetically Modified Food Aid | A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health | Impact of GM Crops on Biodiversity

News Articles: Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce | Corporate Control Main Problem with GMOs | Monsanto Wins U.S. Supreme Court Fight Over Genetically Engineered Soybeans

Health Effects of GE Food: Huffington Post: Monsanto’s GMO Corn Linked to Organ Failure | Forbes: Scientists Savage Study Purportedly Showing Health Dangers of Monsanto’s Genetically Modified Corn | New Scientist: Study Linking GM Crops and Cancer Questioned | Dot Earth: Single-Study Syndrome and the GMO Food Fight | Discovery News: GM Corn-Tumor Link Based on Poor Science | Respectful Insolence: Bad Science About GMOs: It Reminds Me of the Antivaccine Movement

Insects and Colony Collapse Disorder: Forbes: Science Collapse Disorder: The Real Story Behind Neonics and Mass Bee Deaths | Dr. Doug Yanega: Honey Bees, CCD, and the Elephant in the Room | Bug Girl: Bees, Pesticides, and CCD: What’s the Evidence? | Bug Girl: Bees and Pesticides (Again) | Genetic Literacy Project: Monsanto v. Monarch Butterflies

Other Links: Mark Lynas: Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference | Mark Lynas: Time to Call Out the Anti-GMO Conspiracy Theory | Skeptoid: Organic Food Myths | Skeptoid: Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture | Pharyngula: Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad GMO? | Neurologica: Organic Food, Pesticides, and Cancer | Kevin Folta: More Frankenfood Paradox | Michael Eisen: The Anti-GMO Campaign’s Dangerous War on Science | Growing Resistance: Canadian Farmers and the Politics of Genetically Modified Wheat, by Emily Eaton | Seeds of Death | “Monsanto Protection Act” is Bullshit | Oxfam: There is Enough Food to Feed the World | Nature: Case Studies: A Hard Look at GM Crops | GreenBiz: Organic Food is Not the Answer | NPR’s The Salt: Top Five Myths of Genetically Modified Seeds, Busted | Skepchick: Babies and Bathwater: Monsanto

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Update (3 December 2013): Séralini et al.’s controversial study claiming to demonstrate that GE corn causes cancer in rats has been retracted. We discussed a few of the (many) problems with the study on this episode, but if you need a refresher, Steven Novella has more at Neurologica.

Episode 59: Organic Agriculture

Episode 59: Organic Agriculture

In the first part of Life, the Universe & Everything Else‘s two-part series examining organic farming and genetically engineered foods, Mark Forkheim, Leslie Saunders, Gem Newman, and Laura Creek Newman discuss the science, politics, and ideology of organic agriculture.

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Background Information: Organic | Organic Compound | Organic Model | Organic Farming | Organic Food | Green Revolution | Groundwater | Aquifer | Topsoil | Haber-Bosch Process

Scientific Papers: Glenlea Long-Term Crop Rotation: Historical Research Results | Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review

News Articles: Pesticides Found in Canadian Organic Produce | Battling Foreign Farm Subsidies | Canada’s Organic Food Certification ‘Little More Than an Extortion Racket’ | Less Fertile Crescent: The Waters of Babylon Are Running Dry | Land Rush Leaves Liberia’s Farmers in the Dust | Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce

Other Links: Mark Lynas: Lecture to Oxford Farming Conference | Mark Lynas: Time to Call Out the Anti-GMO Conspiracy Theory | Skeptoid: Organic Food Myths | Skeptoid: Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture | Worldwatch: Can Organic Farming Feed Us All? | Health Canada: Pesticides and Food | We Love Chemicals | 2013 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics | Neurologica: Organic Food, Pesticides, and Cancer | Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond | Growing Resistance: Canadian Farmers and the Politics of Genetically Modified Wheat, by Emily Eaton | Food, Inc.

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Mark Lynas Examines Junk GMO Anti-science

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

While you wait with breath bated for this weekend’s Life, the Universe & Everything Else episode on Organic Agriculture, I’d recommend giving this article a read.

Here, Mark Lynas (who has rapidly become my favourite environmentalist) takes aim at a junk science paper out of Australia claiming that a diet consisting of only “genetically modified” grain vastly increases the risk of severe stomach inflammation in pigs. Really, it shows nothing of the kind.

15% of non-GM fed pigs had heart abnormalities, while only 6% of GM-fed pigs did so. Similarly, twice as many non-GM pigs as GM ones had liver problems. Why no headlines here? “Pigs fed non-GMO feed 100% more likely to develop heart and liver problems, study finds” – I can just see it in the Daily Mail. But of course negative results were not what Carman et al were looking for.

Table 3 actually shows that many more pigs fed non-GMO feed had stomach inflammations than those with GMO feed. So 31 non-GM pigs had “mild” inflammation, while only 23 GM pigs had it. For “moderate” inflammation, a GMO diet again seemed to be beneficial: 29 non-GM pigs had moderate inflammation of the stomach, while 18 had it. So that’s 40% vs 25%. Do Carman et al perform a test for statistical significance to see if GMO feed has a protective effect on pigs stomachs? Of course not – that’s not the result they are after. These findings are ignored.

Instead, it is the next line of data that they play up: for “severe” inflammation 9 non-GM pigs were determined to have it, while 23 GM-fed pigs had it. Shock, horror. You can immediately see how the data is all over the place from the previous results, which also rule out any causal mechanism with GMO feed – if GMO feed is causing the severe inflammation, why is the non-GMO feed causing far more mild to moderate inflammation? It’s clearly just chance, and all the pigs are not doing well and suffering stomach problems: about 60% of both sets had stomach erosion.

Previously: Mark Lynas apologises for his past anti-GE activism and calls out the conspiracy-driven thinking that plagues the environmental movement.

A Brief Summary of my Thoughts on the Subject of Organic Agriculture and Its More Conventional Alternative

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

We’ve been trying to get an episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else on the subject of Organic Agriculture together for quite a while. But, as this is a very complicated topic, and I am very busy, we haven’t recorded it yet.

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) by Bluemoose via Wikipedia

My friend Ali (who you may remember from the LUEE episodes Leaving Faith Behind and Justice and Hate Crimes) asked for my thoughts on the subject, specifically focusing on the question, “Is organic agriculture more environmentally friendly?” And so, here are my thoughts. I’ve tried to keep them brief. But I’m not very good at that. I also tried to stay on topic. But I’m not very good at that, either.

Is “organic” better for the environment? The answer to that seems to be: it depends. Probably, but it’s very complicated.

There have been several large studies that seem to show that the production of organic foodstuffs is no more environmentally friendly than conventional agriculture (and may in some cases be more harmful). See this recent study, for example.

These summaries of the evidence, by Brian Dunning, are pretty good in my opinion:

Organic Food Myths
Is it a revolution in health and the environment, or a counterproductive fad?

Organic vs. Conventional Agriculture
Is organic agriculture truly safer or better for the environment than modern farming?

Amy Davis Roth of Skepchick also did a pretty good job with this Q&A: Ask Surly Amy: Genetically Modified Plants.

My provisional view on the matter is that when it comes to safety or health, there doesn’t seem to be any real difference between organic and conventional agriculture. When it comes to environmental concerns, I tend to lean more toward conventional agriculture, as I am persuaded by the argument that centralized distribution is more efficient, and by the argument that while yields may not be substantially bigger with conventional crops, they tend to be hardier and require fewer “inputs” (fertilizer, etc.). My concerns come in when you have large and aggressively litigious agribusiness companies controlling large swathes of the food supply (which we now do), who have patented certain organisms and who force farmers to be completely dependent on them for seeds year-by-year. This is bad, for a plethora of reasons, most of which should be obvious.

I’ll conclude with a few stray observations about “organic” foodstuffs.

Turning to safety, there was recently a completely terrible study published claiming that GE corn resulted in cancer in rats. For a lengthy discussion (and takedown) from a skeptical oncologist, I recommend reading this. Additionally, a large meta-analysis was recently published, finding no significant nutritional benefits from organic produce.

I am annoyed by the “organic” label, because the term “organic” has a very rigorous and well-defined meaning in chemistry, but not so much when it comes to agriculture. But that’s mostly just me being a linguistic prescriptivist, and I recognise that this position is untenable. (On a side note, the French term, “biologique”, translates as “biological”, which is even worse.)

I am supportive of the “free range” movement. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell “free range” isn’t a regulated term, so there’s no guarantee that the animals involved are actually better treated.

I am concerned that use of antibiotics in livestock may be excessive, and are in some cases used to “enhance productivity” instead of to “target an identified pathogen”. The issue is complicated, however. (This whitepaper has some fairly good summaries, in terms of antibiotic use in agriculture; it does disclose that the conference that generated it was partially funded by Pfizer, etc.)

Also, I advise against using terms like “GMOs” (Genetically Modified Organisms), because every agricultural product is genetically “modified” in some way, via hybridization and/or artificial selection (either intentional or unintential). Instead, I prefer to speak about “GE” foodstuffs (Genetically Engineered).

So, in my mind, there may be good reasons to avoid the products of big agribusiness companies like Monsanto: but these criticisms tend to have more to do with big business and less to do with science.

There remains, of course, much more to be said (about the various things that “organic agriculture” can mean, for example, or the several disparate ideologies that may motivate some people to choose organic), but that incomplete (and probably flawed) analysis of this complex topic will have to stand. For now.