Rats, Scientists and Experimental Design

John Riddell learns about some dangerous chemicals

From the TV3 News website:


The World Health Organisation has begun a three-day emergency meeting in Geneva to evaluate the danger of some popular foods. They’re concerned about a recent discovery that certain starchy foods, from deep fried chips to potato chips and bread, contain a chemical called acrylamide. It can cause cancer in rats, but there is no evidence it does the same in people.

There are lots of chemicals in food. Even organic food. Are the chemicals in our food dangerous? Is food safe?

For example many foods contain a chemical called cellulose. How much do we really know about cellulose?

If I want to know if cellulose is dangerous I need to design an experiment. Experimental design can be tricky.

I have limited resources. The best thing to do would be to look at a large sample of individuals. See what happens when they are exposed to small amounts of cellulose over a long period of time. Unfortunately I don’t have the resources to study this way. So I choose to use a high dose of cellulose over a short time period.

I get a rat and put it in a cage. I place the cage about five metres from the base of a 25 metre tall tree. Using a chainsaw, I chop down the tree so that it falls on to the cage containing the rat.

Then I have to repeat the experiment a few times to make sure the first result wasn’t a fluke.

Every single time I have carried out this experiment the rat has died. The conclusion is obvious. Cellulose is dangerous.

Next I must publish the results of this experiment in a “peer reviewed journal”.

This is in the unlikely event I have made a mistake somewhere. If there is something wrong with my experiment, hopefully someone will spot it.

Somebody did. They raised the point that it might not have been the cellulose that killed the rat. Trees also contain other chemicals such as lignin or even water. Maybe it was one of the other chemicals?

Good point. I have to consider the criticism and design a new experiment to answer this question.

Since a tree is mostly water I design another experiment to test if it could have been the water that killed the rat. I put a new rat, in a cage, into 100 litres of water.

And the rat dies.

So I conclude that water is harmful to rats. But this does not necessarily mean that cellulose is not also harmful.

After all, I noticed that while the tree killed the rat instantly, the water took a few minutes. Perhaps there was something in the combination of cellulose and water that made the tree more harmful than merely water alone.

But before I look at the synergistic effects I want to extrapolate these data to look at how dangerous small doses of water might be.

If 100 litres of water causes death in three minutes this suggests 50 litres would cause death in six minutes. Continuing this extrapolation shows that even a small amount of water will significantly reduce the rat’s life expectancy.

Also, what are the implications for humans?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many humans who have been in large amounts of water have also died. As yet I haven’t yet been able to obtain funding to test this myself. However if water really is dangerous, can we risk even the smallest exposure?

Okay, some scientists have raised doubts about the validity of high dose trials. Just because a high dose of a chemical is harmful, they say this doesn’t necessarily mean that smaller doses are also harmful. And just because it is harmful to rats doesn’t necessarily mean it is harmful to humans.

But can we afford to take the risk? Do we really know the dangers? The results so far are inconclusive. Obviously more research is needed. I just need a bit more funding. However there is one conclusion we can draw.
Scientists don’t like rats, but I suspect the feeling is mutual.
No rats were harmed in the preparation of this article.

Fish but no Chips

John Riddell learns to his cost that fishermen can be as easy to catch as the creatures they pursue

I have a confession to make. I’ve been taken in by a scam. Normally this shouldn’t be cause for embarrassment, but I like to think of myself as a skeptic. I mean if anyone should be able to see these things coming it should be a skeptic. It’s only gullible people get taken in by scams right? It all comes from liking fishing too much. Salt water fishing in my case.

In our corner of the globe the target species is a fish commonly called a snapper. Fantastic eating and fun to catch. The world record is a bit over 30 pounds but a 2 or 3 pound fish is a good fish and much better eating. At least according to those of us who never catch the big ones. On a good day we catch the legal limit of nine per person (minimum size 27cm). But to have a good day you have to get everything right. Bait, berley, location, tide, tackle and weather all have to be right. Get one wrong and you catch fewer fish. Get two wrong and you catch none.

So like all fishaholics, between those rare occasions when I actually make it out on to the water, I spend a good deal of time thinking about fishing, reading the fishing magazines, listening to the weather reports, and thinking of ways of catching more fish, bigger fish, or let’s face it, some fish.

One day, while I was chatting to my cousin Don about fish, he mentioned that a friend of his swore by an electronic fish attractor. It is called “FishMAXTM“, and it’s a little box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. A sealed unit. Two wires come out of it. These wires are put in the water as far apart as possible. Once the electrodes are in the water, a little red light (LED) starts flashing on the box. That means it is working. It supposedly puts out a signal that attracts fish from up to three miles away.

Now I should have known better than to accept anecdotal evidence but we are talking about fishing. Rational thought gave way to greed. My ears perked up. “An electronic fish attractor? What a brilliant idea,” I thought. That was the first mistake. Allowing my enthusiasm to override logic. Here comes the next mistake. “Heck. If it really works, think of the money I could save on berley.” (Berley is what we call groundbait/chum, ie chemical fish attractor).

The phrase “If it really works” goes through the mind of everyone ever taken in by a scam.

I found an ad in the fishing magazine. Only $149.00 On the internet, $65.00

My next mistake. A little bit of knowledge. As opposed to enough. Fish have a thing called a lateral line. It is a line of receptors along the side of a fish that picks up small electrical signals in the water. Since fish can detect electric signals, it’s possible that an electronic fish attractor could work.

Next mistake. Do a little bit of research. As opposed to enough. I checked out the net. That’s inter, not fishing. There are lots of sites on the net about electric fishing. The thing is, it does actually work. There is a phenomenon called electrotaxis. If you get a fish in a certain type of electric field the fish will swim towards one of the electrodes. Once the fish gets really close it conveniently falls asleep (electronarcosis) and floats to the surface. Now this sounds too good to be true, but it is true. Fishologists and conservation types use these electric fishing things to study endangered species and also to catch pest species such as carp. When the electric field is switched off, the fish wakes up and swims away unharmed.

So I rang the toll free number in the fishing mag and told the “FishMAXTM” guy at the other end that they were only $65.00 on the net. “No problem.” he said and matched the price. Now I normally spend $8.00 on berley every time I go fishing so I was thinking “if it really works, think of the money I would save.”

I gave him my credit card details and he couriered it to me the next day.

So did it work? As soon as I got it I put the electrodes at opposite ends of my 3 foot tropical fish tank. The little red light began to flash. This means it is working. The fish in the tank carried on, blissfully unaware that they were being attracted to anything.

A guppy did swim up to examine one of the electrodes but then he swam away. The rest of the fish continued to distribute themselves randomly through-out the tank.

I confess to being disappointed. But not surprised. By now I had done a little more research. It turns out real electric fish attractors use high voltages (600V) and also a fair amount of power. They are also only effective in fresh water, and over very short ranges, a few metres at most. My fish attractor was supposed to work for thousands of hours without a battery replacement. Something began to smell fishy.

Since then I have been fishing four times. I used the FishMAXTM electronic fish attractor on two of those occasions. I caught fish. I usually do. But I caught more fish when I didn’t use it. On one of the occasions I used the FishMAXTM the berley I had been using fell off without my noticing. Even though the FishMAXTM was still flashing the fish stopped biting. When I realized the berley had fallen off, I put more berley out and we began to catch fish again.

By now I had decided that if it wasn’t a scam, it should be.

The thing is, fisherpersons are very superstitious. I try not to be. I usually catch a limit on days the Maori fishing calendar says are bad for fishing. And I always take bananas even though they are supposed to be bad luck.

The problem with fishing is the outcome can be so variable. This variability is the stuff that superstitions are made of. Most of the time you can’t see what is happening under the water. Sometimes the reasons people use to explain why they do or do not catch fish don’t have much to do with the real reasons. From the point of view of a scam artist, fishermen have got to be an ideal target species.

Ok, so lets think of a way of getting fishermen to give us money for a worthless and therefore cheap to make, product. What we need is a small sealed box that has a flashing light (LED) to show that something is happening. It needs to be sealed so you can’t look inside and see there isn’t much there. Inside the box we need batteries to power the light. We also need to have some wires that come out of the box. These wires can be put into the water. Once the wires are in the water the circuit is complete and the light begins to flash. We tell the fishermen that when the wires are in the water and the light is flashing that fish will be attracted.

One of the boys at the pub happens to have a PhD in physics and conveniently runs an electronics research lab. He very kindly connected my FishMAXTM up to one of his squiggleoscopes. There were a couple of volts DC but not much else. Next came the hacksaw and the Stanley knife. The unit was filled with a resin. It took quite a bit to get into it. Inside were two 1.5V AA batteries and the wire that connected them to the flashing LED. If there were any silicon chips or even resistors and capacitors or electrical components of any kind, the boys in the lab would have recognised them. But they just weren’t there. I admit that even I was surprised. I had assumed there would be some sort of circuit, even if it were just to make the light flash. It turns out the LED does that automatically.

So now I get to play games with the Commerce Commission and the Fair Trading Act.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Myth of Common Sense

John Riddell reckons he’s a sensible bloke. But then, doesn’t everybody?

A while ago I had to take my wife out for our anniversary, so while we were waiting for our burgers and fries I flicked through one of those out of date magazines they leave out. There was an article about keeping your kids safe while surfing the net. It made a few sensible suggestions and then it said something interesting. It said you should use “common sense”.

Do you have common sense? If you don’t, what use is this advice?

I know I have common sense. I’m sure you do too. As far as I can make out, everybody thinks they have common sense. Which is strange, because I know plenty of people who appear to have no common sense at all. Politicians for example.

Which means there is a bit of a problem. If everyone thinks they have common sense, and everyone thinks that some people don’t, then there must be people who think they know what common sense is when in fact they do not.

Surely that cannot be. Because if that is true, then even though I know I have common sense, there may be people who think I do not.

That’s a worry.

But what is common sense? Maybe I don’t have common sense. Could it be that what I think is common sense is different from what you think is common sense?

Does that make sense?

If you look at the words, “common sense”, the meaning seems simple enough. Common sense must be “sense” that is held in “common”. That’s a belief that is held by two or more people. The trouble with this is we use the phrase “common sense” to refer to something that is “obviously true”. But it might not be obvious to me. Or it might not be true. What is obvious to me might not be obvious to you. And believing something to be true doesn’t make it so.

If you and I believe the world is flat then it is “common sense” that the world is flat. Anyone who disagrees with us just doesn’t have common sense.

“I believe it. My friends believe it. If you disagree with us you must be wrong.”

This idea goes back a long way. In 325 AD, Constantine the Great gathered a council of Bishops in Nicea. They were required to come up with a creed for Christianity. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth”, etc. They called it the Nicene Creed. If you accepted the creed, you were an Orthodox Christian. Orthos is Greek for “right”. Doxos means “opinion”. If you believed what they did you were of the “right opinion”. If you didn’t you were a heretic, and we all know what to do with heretics.

We now have Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and for that matter, Ethiopian Orthodox. Each thinking that their version is the “right opinion.”

The political version of the same thing is the “Right Thinking Person”.

As in “The time has come for all right thinking people to come to the aid of the Party.” It doesn’t matter what your political leanings are. So long as you are in our political party, you must be a right thinking person. Not like those wrong thinking people in the other parties.

The phrases “Common Sense”, “Orthodox”, or “Right Thinking Person” are used as substitutes for logic, or evidence. They are a type of Appeal to Authority. Usually, in an appeal to authority, you claim something must be true because someone important believes it.

“Sir Isaac Newton believed it and he was an intelligent person, therefore it must be true.” In reality, this is not necessarily true because even intelligent people believe things that are not true.

The common sense argument is an appeal to the authority of numbers. “It’s common sense. Lots of people believe this. Forty million idiots can’t be wrong.”

So when I read the article about safely surfing the net and they suggested using common sense, I had to stop and think.

Whose common sense was I supposed to use?

Everybody has a collection of experiences that they use to explain the world. Everyone’s experiences are different. These experiences create a person’s beliefs and therefore what they think is common sense. A computer geek may have the right sort of common sense to decide how to control what his kids are viewing. But I might not. And since no two people have identical beliefs, you cannot be sure if you have the same common sense as the author.

So the advice to use common sense is useless. The next time you are told to use common sense, be careful whose common sense you use.

Whisky Galore

In which John Riddell conducts an entirely unscientific experiment and saves himself quite a bit of money

The first weekend of May each year is the opening of the New Zealand duck shooting season. It is a time when rednecks and yokels gather to harvest the surplus of the duck population. Like their cave dwelling ancestors before them, the males of the tribe gather on the night before the Great Hunt and tell tales of previous years. The youngsters listen in awe to the lies of their elders. There is enough male bonding to excite even the most boring anthropologist.

Being both a redneck and a yokel, I was invited by my mate Tony to one such event. On the Friday night we met up at an abandoned house by a swamp. As part of my contribution to the affair I took a couple of half filled whisky bottles. Now before anyone gets excited about how you shouldn’t mix guns and alcohol, it has to be said that serious shooters know that even a small hangover affects your ability to shoot straight. While some shooters might be too macho to admit that they are safety conscious, none of them want their mates to laugh at them when they miss. Even so it is usual to consume small amounts of high quality hooch.

Now I am getting to the bit that might be interesting to skeptics. I had one bottle of Glenfiddich and one of Wilson’s. For those who don’t know much about whisky, Glenfiddich is a single malt scotch of excellent quality. Wilson’s is a locally distilled drop, also of excellent quality. Just not made in Scotland. Glenfiddich is expensive. Wilson’s is not. The reason is a combination of good marketing and snobbery.

Tony thought it might be fun to switch the contents of the bottles and see if anyone noticed. Now Glenfiddich is much lighter in colour than Wilson’s but it comes in a green bottle and we didn’t think anyone would pick up on it. But when poured into a glass the difference is obvious.

But they didn’t notice.. The bottles passed the evening getting lighter and lighter. Tony and I were drinking Glenfiddich out of the Wilson’s bottle. The rest drank Wilson’s out of the Glenfiddich bottle.

We never did tell them.

This story is not only true, it’s an anecdote. People tell anecdotes not only to entertain but also to make a point. In this case I am trying to make the point that people’s expectations affect their experience. Our friends believed they were drinking Glenfiddich, so they enjoyed

the whisky more than if they thought they were drinking Wilson’s. But there is another possible explanation. It might also be that my mates don’t know squat about whisky.

In this case I think both are true.

Even though anecdotes should be printed on perforated paper, people use them as if they were good

evidence. In fact, they should only be used as a starting point.

After you have heard an anecdote, the next thing you do is form an hypothesis.

Hypo meaning under. Thesis meaning Theory. An hypothesis is less than a Theory. My hypothesis is that people’s expectations affect their experience.

Next I have to look for more evidence. More anecdotes. Off the top of my head, people who expect organic food to be tastier, think they can taste a difference. People who believe in the healing power of prayer, feel better after visiting a faith healer.

Now the fans of organic food can find loads of anecdotes that indicate how wonderful it is.

The problem with an anecdote is that it doesn’t eliminate those other explanations.

It may be true that “organic” food does taste better than conventional produce. Or it might be that people’s expectations affect their experience. After the anecdote, you have to perform an experiment.

Our local newspaper, a few years ago, got three “experts” to try and tell the difference between some organic and conventional produce. They gave them three different foods.

They fared no better than guessing. The difference between a controlled experiment and an anecdote is the experiment eliminates the other explanations.

You can try it yourself. Next time you are at the supermarket, get some organic orange juice, and also some not organic orange juice. Make sure both are juice, not cordial.

Get 10 glasses and label them 1 to 10. In half of them put the organic juice and in the rest out the other.

Write down which juice is in which glass. Now this is the important bit. Get someone else who doesn’t know which is in which glass to do the tasting.

If there is a difference they should get it right nearly every time. If they cannot tell, they will still get it right half the time.

This is the second important bit. Getting it right half the time means they are just guessing.

This type of test has been done often enough for me to be confident there isn’t any difference except for the expectations of the taster.

Which is a bit of a shame. Because even though I know Wilson’s is just as good, We still drank the “good stuff”.

Ghosts, Mediums and the Argument from Omniscience

In which John Riddell reminisces about happy childhood days and reflects on the stories we tell to grown-ups

When I was just a young skeptic our family used to go to big Christmas family get-togethers at my great aunt’s homestead. There were always lots of fun things for kids to do. There was a swimming pool with water the colour of rotting leaves and a ghost room upstairs in the house. When we thought the grown ups weren’t looking, we would sneak upstairs for a peek into the room. The door was nailed closed, but the big kids knew how to bend the nail back and open the door just a bit. Every year a new group of 8- year-olds would try to scare the bewhatsits out of the 5-year-olds with tales of the ghost. There were also stories that the last kids to enter the room had not left alive through the door. Of course, this was because the room had no floorboards and they had slipped off the rafters and fallen through the ceiling to the dining room below.

I don’t remember if we believed the story of the ghost, but I do remember not wanting to slip and put a hole in the dining room ceiling. Since then the house has become an historic place and been done up to cater for wedding receptions and garden parties. The “Ghost Room” has had new floorboards installed and the nail has been replaced with a doorknob. But the stories of the ghost still continue. One of the uncles takes groups of visitors through and keeps them entertained with rumours of the ghost.

The story started as a way of keeping children from going into a dangerous room, and has continued as a means of entertaining the tourists, but with plenty of drunken wedding guests passing through, it won’t be long before we have a sighting.

There are people who believe in ghosts. Life after death and all that.

There was a scientist in the paper the other day who thought he had found evidence for life after death. He interviewed a lot of people who had nearly died on the operating table. According to doctors trying to save their lives, these people had no detectable brain function at some point.

The scientist found that they had memories that he thought were of that time when they had no detectable brain function. A lot like the fourth form.

It would be very cool if there really was good evidence of a warm and fuzzy place after death, but unhappily, this guy hasn’t found it. There are some other explanations. It might be the doctors had more important things to worry about than making sure the patient had absolutely no brain function. So maybe the brains hadn’t really stopped. Or it could be the memories of a bright light and feelings of happiness were manufactured either before or after the no-brainer. The patients didn’t die, so we don’t really know.

The world’s leading authority on Near Death Experience (NDE ) is Susan Blackmore. For more information about NDE, see http://www.arthurchappell.clara.net/ndes.htm. I thought it was interesting that “Children who have almost died don’t see dead friends and relatives on the other side, but live ones. They haven’t lived long enough to know too many people who have died”.

However, before we give up on life everlasting, there are also mediums. They think they talk to people who really are dead. There was a bloke on Discovery Channel who sat in the middle of a circle of people and gave them messages from their dearly departed. But the messages were not very impressive.

I mean if he said something like “Now Susan, I have a message from your mother Sarah-May. She says don’t have an affair with Billy-Bob coz he has a social disease, and if ya do, that no-good husband of yours will find out and then there’ll be trouble.”

If that was the sort of message from the other side even I might get interested. Assuming of course that Billy-Bob really did have the disease, but nobody else knew. Instead of providing information that nobody in the room could know without checking, the medium always comes up with something the client/audience already knows. He says “I’m getting something about Susan”. Anyone in the audience who is called Susan, or who knows a dead Susan automatically assumes he is talking to them. “How did he know that?” Well he didn’t. You told him. The medium proceeds by throwing out a word or phrase and seeing if someone picks up on it. The medium creates an illusion that he is telling the client things that only the client could know. In fact, the client tells the medium, not the other way around.

It just isn’t good evidence. But the client thinks it is good evidence.

They use what is usually called the “Argument from Ignorance”. It goes like this. “I don’t know how he could possibly know that. There couldn’t be a natural explanation. It has to be supernatural.”

The ignorance of how “it” happened is used as evidence. I prefer to call this the “Argument from Omniscience” which goes like this.

“I am infinitely intelligent and I know everything and if I can’t think how this could have occurred naturally, then the explanation must be supernatural.” Now this would be a good argument if the speaker really was infinitely wise and all knowing. Unfortunately I don’t know anyone who is. Even so, this argument is used to explain belief in ghosts, Creationism and lots of other subjects that interest Skeptics. In the case of the medium, the client thinks “I can’t figure out how he did it, so he must be psychic.”

The same applies to people who think they see a ghost. “I know everything, and I can’t figure out what it was if it wasn’t a ghost.” People don’t normally say the bit about knowing everything. They assume it though.

The scientist who thinks that memories of a Near Death Experience (NDE) are good evidence for the afterlife is no different.

Sometimes it is better to just say, “I don’t know”.

Next time someone asks you your star sign

Superstitions, Stars and Pigeons

Astronomy is the science of stars and outer space stuff. Not everybody knows this and so astronomers get insulted when they get called astrologers. Astrologers will tell you that astrology is also a science, but is it?

Astrology is about the idea you can make predictions depending on when you were born. But when a baby is born, sometimes it rushes out like a nun from a brothel. Other times it needs surgical removal. Birth can be a few moments or many hours. Now this presents a problem for astrology. Astrologers claim the “moment of birth” is like pushing some cosmic reset button. The position of the planets and stars at that moment is supposed to have a defining effect on our lives. They always ask for the day, the hour and if you know it, the minute of your birth. They plot a chart based on this time and make predictions about your love life or finances.

Getting the time of birth correct is, according to the astrologers, very important. But when exactly is that “moment of birth?” Is it when the head comes out or when the midwife stands back and looks at the clock? Do midwives and doctors do a continuing education paper on astrology so all medical professionals are in agreement as to when birth actually happens? And what about the clocks? Are hospital clocks universally accurate? What about home births? Are all clocks on the right time? A few minutes fast or slow could make a huge difference. You might go through life thinking you were a Gemini when in fact you were a Taurus. And then there is the problem of daylight saving. Do astrological charts make adjustments for summertime hours?

New Zealand has had a permanent half-hour of daylight saving since World War Two, plus the normal one hour we add on in summer. Do they ever take this into account?

Astrologers often tell us that astrology is a very old method of divination. But what did they do in the days before accurate clocks? Or accurate calendars for that matter. Pope Gregory XIII reformed the old Julian calendar in 1582. In 1752, the British parliament eliminated the third to the thirteenth of September to realign the calendar with the position of the Sun. Gregory removed 5-14 October 1582. But since 1582, our calendar has become misaligned by nearly three hours. Inserting an extra day (Feb 29) every four years doesn’t quite correct the error. (The above facts I have carefully misquoted from David Ewing Duncan’s book “The Calendar”, Fourth Estate, 1999, London.)

When astrologers ask for your birth time, do they take these things into account? Could astrology be a superstition? And what is a superstition anyway?

If you put a pigeon in a cage and feed it randomly, you can get him to do the strangest things. A computer can be used to control the feeding so that every now and then, a pellet of food drops into the cage. The pigeon doesn’t know about random number generators so he starts to wonder if there is any way he can make more pellets fall. The pigeon notices he was scratching his wing when a pellet fell out. After eating the pellet, he thinks to himself, “I wonder if scratching my wing made the pellet fall.” The pigeon proceeds to test the hypothesis. It scratches its wing a few times, and another pellet falls out. Well, that proves it.

The pigeon, not being good at experimental design, doesn’t realise this wasn’t a very good test. He spends all day, every day, frantically scratching his wing. If he scratches his wing and a pellet doesn’t fall out, well, it must be because he didn’t do it right.

This is called superstitious behavior. A belief is superstitious if two unrelated events are believed to be related. In this case, the pigeon believes that scratching his wing causes the falling of the pellet.

In the case of astrology, the astrologer thinks there is a relationship between the position of the stars at birth, and the person’s personality. But is there a relationship?

If there is no relationship, then astrology is a superstition.

Scientists have tested astrology by drawing up bogus charts and seeing if anyone could notice a difference. Nobody did. Serious astrologers are very rude about the newspaper astrology predictions. Those “sun sign” predictions are considered too general. For a real chart they prefer an “accurate birth time”. But they never have an accurate birth time.

Remember that stuff about changing from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars. I think the last country to change over was China in 1949. But according to my mate Stu at the pub, the astrologers are still using the Julian calendar. Why would this matter? Well, when an astrologer asks for your birth time it is so he can determine where the stars and planets were at your birth. But because they are still using the Julian calendar they are about 13 days out. In 1482 AD, the calendar was 10 days out. Since then it has diverged another 3.4 days (approx.) This means that nearly half the people who think they are Aries are not.

Astrologers have been drawing up bogus charts for years without realising it. If the birth time is incorrect then the positions of the stars will be different and so the astrological predictions should be different.

Since birth times used by astrologers are never accurate, then modern astrology predictions should never be accurate. The fact that some people are satisfied with their readings must therefore be good evidence that astrology does not work.

It appears there is no real relationship between the position of the stars at birth and our personalities. Or at least none that have been detected by astrologers.

Astrology looks like a superstition. It smells like a superstition. It tastes like a superstition.

Try not to step in it.

John Riddell is a Gemini. Possibly.

Plenty of things are better to drink than distilled water

There are plenty of things which are better to drink than distilled water, says John Riddell. But then, most of you probably knew that anyway.

Eight is Enough

Unless you have been tied up in a cave for a few years you will have heard the adverts for water distillation units. These ads are a good example of how you can mislead people with a number of true statements. “It is a proven health fact” we are told, “that we each need up to eight glasses of water a day.” Which, strictly speaking, would mean that drinking more than eight glasses a day could be bad for you. Toxic stuff that dihydrogen monoxide. Although, strictly speaking, it isn’t true. If you have been eating nothing but dog biscuits in Egypt in summertime, you might need more than eight glasses, but as a general rule, eight is enough. The strange thing is not that too much water can be bad for you. The strange thing is that when many people hear this ad, they mistakenly think it is saying we should all drink eight glasses of water a day. It is probably true that, in our climate, the mythical average man needs about 1600 ml of water per day. About eight glasses. But food contains lots of water. Watermelon, mashed potato, peas and even steak all have heaps of water. So do tea, coffee, milk and orange juice. And don’t forget beer. On top of all this, eight glasses is probably too much.

And then the ad goes on to say, “So how can we be sure that the water we drink is pure?” You have to ask, “Hold on, who said it had to be pure?” I actually like my orange juice to contain water. In fact I find it really dusty if it doesn’t.

Put a litre of freshly squeezed organically grown orange juice into a water distiller and turn the machine on. You will end up with nearly a litre of water to drink, and some yucky goo at the bottom of the evaporation chamber. This could then be used in an advert to show the evil contaminants that would have ended up inside you if you hadn’t distilled it first.

Don’t get me wrong. Distillation is wonderful. Some of my favourite things are the product of distillation. And the water distillers made by this company, while more expensive than the ones at the Home Brew shop, are very well made and more suited for the production of drinking water than stills designed for producing vodka.

The problem I have is that distillation is a very expensive way of getting drinking water. Okay, it is cheaper than buying mineral water, but then so is lemonade.

They go on to list the things that distillation can remove from water. But they don’t list the things it doesn’t remove. Ethanol, methanol, propanol, carbon tetrachloride, petrol and diesel, to name a few. Put a teaspoon of petrol into your distiller and tell me what the water tastes like. The things that distillation does remove are either not in tap water, or not harmful, or not there in large enough quantities to be harmful.

For example, it is true that distillation removes “the evil Giardia” but the one time Giardia got into a city water supply it was international news. Everyone in Sydney knew they had to boil the water for a while. Since Giardia is only slightly more likely than elephants to be in the water supply, routine distillation of the water seems a bit excessive.

There are three main reasons why you might want to distil your water. Health, safety, and taste. For the sake of your health, being dehydrated is bad. If you don’t drink enough water, you will die. No question. Even being a little bit dehydrated is bad. And if you drink too much, you can also die. But the water doesn’t have to be pure. Tap water is just as good at rehydrating as distilled water. But when a baby’s life is in danger because of dehydration due to diarrhoea, doctors add salts to the water. Giving the baby pure water can be fatal. Pure water isn’t necessary for good health. Sometimes it is dangerous.

Does water need to be pure to be safe? Of course not. Distillation does remove bacteria, but so does boiling or chlorination. Most of us live in cities or towns where the local council has a water treatment system. They very economically remove everything from bacteria to elephants and sediments, and they make the water safe to drink. Distilling town water to make it safe is simply a waste of money.

That leaves us with taste. I went to Alexandra Park to watch the trots one time, and foolishly bought a cup of coffee. I couldn’t drink it. I took one sip and threw the rest away. I can’t be sure but I think it was just the taste of the treated water that made it undrinkable. Town water. I live in the country and get water from a well. It tastes like water should. I could bottle it and sell it as mineral water. It has a few calcium and magnesium carbonates in it. That’s the mineral bit. We boil it for drinking, in case a cow stands too close to the well, but that’s all. And so when I get to taste town water occasionally, I sometimes don’t like it. But there are plenty of under the bench filtration systems( or on top if you prefer) which are cheaper to set up and cheaper to run, than the cheapest distillation system. Putting a new filter cartridge in every month is much cheaper than using a still.

Another thing that is interesting about that advert. They say something like “Some of our customers believe they have had the following health benefits from using the distiller.”

And then they give a list of things that could be explained by the placebo effect. What they don’t do is give a list of scientific articles published in peer reviewed journals on the health benefits of using distilled water.

The advertisers aren’t silly enough to say drinking distilled water actually cures these ailments. They know that would be a false claim. But it is true that some of their customers have fooled themselves into thinking that drinking distilled water has been good for them. And so by repeating the customer’s false beliefs, they can create the impression that there is good evidence that distilled water is good for you.

“It could”, they say, “be the healthiest investment you ever make.” Or it could be a complete waste of money.

You decide.

John Riddell does in fact have a distillation plant at home, but doesn’t use it for water.

A considerable easing of international tensions

There has been a considerable easing of international tensions since the dark days of the mid-twentieth century. John Riddell thinks he knows why.

Take Two Dictators and Call Me in the Morning

AT the end of World War II, a man called Adolf Hitler killed himself. His followers then took his body and burnt it. The water in his corpse was heated and turned to steam. Also, the combustion process itself artificially manufactures water by combining some of the hydrogen in his body with oxygen in the atmosphere. The importance of these grisly facts will of course be obvious to anyone familiar with homeopathy.

The water given off by his cremation must have risen into the air and become increasingly diluted with the mass of the rest of the planet. Now the mass of the earth is about 5.98×1024 kilograms. And the mass of Adolf Hitler, pre cremation, about 100 kilograms (plus or minus 50kg). Now if the mass of Adolf was evenly diluted with the whole earth, that becomes a dilution of 1 part Adolf per 5.98×1022. In homeopathic terms this is extremely potent. This is approximately a potency of 22X, that is a 1:10 dilution repeated 22 times. Of course in reality, some parts of Adolf will be much more concentrated than this, but on average it would be reasonable to expect that each glass of water you drink is going to be a very powerful homeopathic Hitler. Now the exact consequences of drinking small amounts of Adolf over a long period of time have not yet been determined. However, we might make some predictions based on homeopathic theory.

The way homeopathy is supposed to work is that by exposing yourself to very dilute amounts of chemicals that produce certain symptoms, you will stimulate your body’s defences and prevent those symptoms from happening. For example, a chemical that produces chest pains might be diluted to produce a homeopathic remedy that protects you against chest pain.

So we might look at some of the things that were caused by Hitler. The effect of people all over the world taking a highly potentised dose of Adolf should, if homeopathy works, be a reduction of those symptoms for which Hitler was famous.

Now Hitler was intolerant of Jews, Poles and Homosexuals. As predicted by this theory there has been a marked improvement in the treatment of these three groups by people around the globe. Similarly, Adolf was also well known for starting and waging wars. While Hitler was in charge of Germany, there was a world war. Since then, there has not been a world war. More confirmation of the hypothesis that a homeopathic Hitler remedy has been of benefit to the world.

But then my brother has just pointed out that perhaps it is a case of a biodynamic effect, as opposed to homeopathic. Rudolf Steiner, bless his tiny wee brain, thought you could get rid of thistles by wandering round the paddock pulling all the flowers off. Actually, that will work, but it was what he did next that was strange. He took the flowers home and burnt them and then sprinkled the ashes around the farm. He never worked out that the reason there were fewer thistles the next year was because somebody kept pulling the flowers off.

Some followers (why do they always have followers?) of Rudolf thought this might work with possums. They caught a few possums and cut off their testicles. I don’t know if the possums were alive at the time. They then burnt the testicles and sprinkled the ashes around the bush. According to them, the remaining possums moved out of the area. I can’t see possums giving up their genitalia without a fight, so I assume they killed them first. After all, they couldn’t have them go back to the bush saying “Watch out for the guy with the knife” But then again, maybe that’s what made the possums move out.

So when they burnt Adolf, it is fair to assume they didn’t remove his testicles first. Which means Hitler’s cremated testicular dust got blown around Berlin. From that day to this, there hasn’t been another fascist megalomaniac in charge of Germany. Perhaps there is something to this Biodynamics business after all?