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.

Who Ya Gonna Call – The Skeptics!

What red-blooded skeptic could turn up an invitation to stay in a haunted house and meet the inhabitants — certainly not your intrepid chair-entity….

You get a lot of interesting invitations when you head the Skeptics, but this one was more interesting than the usual Rotary talk request. Film-maker Rachel Davies was touring the country putting together a documentary about the existence of ghosts, tentatively titled Adventures Beyond The Material World. Would the Skeptics be prepared to provide a representative in amongst the priests, psychics and clairvoyants? You betcha!

So that was how I found myself driving madly over the mountains through teeming rain on Holy Thursday to spend a night in a haunted house with the ghost team and a local ghost-friendly person. Sadly the latter, possibly scared off by the thought of meeting a real skeptic in the flesh, was there more in spirit than in flesh — she pulled out at the last minute.

That left the two doco people and me, knocking around in the haunted house. Actually it was a run-down journalist union holiday home in Akaroa, looking much like a rather disreputable flat I lived in during my student days. A dead seagull in the front yard was solemnly filmed (would have been more interesting if it was a raven — seabirds aren’t exactly uncommon in this harbour township…). We stomped around the old house, inspecting the saggy beds and testing the doors for creaking (they performed beautifully in this regard), and settled down for a chat.

Rachel and her off-sider seemed to have had a great time touring around the place, chatting up people in bars and casually waving around their minimal video gear (courtesy of Nayland College) in true “real TV” fashion. They had heard some “amazing” stories which “rocked”, and were very hopeful of trapping more than the local bar-prop on tape.

One “spooky” experience had been with a psychic up north who had done what sounded like a very professional cold-reading on Rachel. I made a modest attempt myself, rounding up the usual phrases, which she seemed to find equally intriguing. The thing I found intriguing was the contradiction between their hopes for their film and their acknowledgement that they were unlikely to get anything useful on tape. It didn’t seem to worry them any — these girls just wanted to have fun.

They seemed a bit disheartened by the no-show of the person who had claimed to hear “heaps” of ghosts in our Akaroa hideaway, so I did my best to cheer them up. They enthusiastically taped me unpacking my “ghosthunter’s kit” – Peter’s black leather pilot case looked nicely authoritative, and they oohed and aahed at the digital still camera, the digital video camera, the tripod, the reference texts How to Test Your Psychic Powers and Great Scams from the Beyond and, last but not least, the Elizabethan chemise I had brought along to ensure I was in the spirit of the place, so to speak.

I had intended taking along our large spotlight, imagining the line “that’s not a torch, THIS is a torch”. I had toyed briefly with secreting some dry ice in a cupboard and “discovering” it, but thought that that was really a bit too theatrical. (Besides, years of experience would suggest that the discovery would be filmed but not the explanation for the phenomenon…)

Over our fish and chips — this was a budget production after all — we had a long talk about ghosts, why they might exist, what sort of evidence one should look for and what alternative explanations abounded. I had mentioned to them early on that Skeptics tend to be a bit wary about participating in such efforts. After all, we’re well aware that, in many cases, skeptical input can end up being very brief compared to those believing in their particular phenomenon (it’s far more interesting to hear about someone’s UFO abduction than any possible reasons why it mightn’t have happened!)

The girls were interested to learn that I had been contacted the previous year regarding a poltergeist claim, and a little crestfallen when I had to add that a small amount of preliminary investigation suggested the individual concerned had a more tenuous grasp of reality than first indicated, to put it delicately.

I talked about the difficulty of actually investigating traditional ghostly phenomena. They are so subjective — “did you feel that cold patch?”, “I saw a shape” — and hence difficult to test in any sensible fashion. The human mind is such a wonderfully inventive, imaginative thing and few people credit just how strong the powers of suggestion can be. And I warned them that I had a very well-developed imagination…

We drew lots for who would sleep in which of the upstairs rooms where whatever it was supposed to be supposedly happened. (They wouldn’t tell me what the actual ghost claim was; I had suggested each participant be told a different story to see if that had any significant effect on our experiences.)

I think I made them a little nervous by cackling when I discovered the door handle on my bedroom came off. I tested it to be sure I could use it from the inside, and then carefully laid it next to the bed. I figured if anything was going to come through my door that night, it would have to materialise through the panelling. Then, with the camera set up to cover the small room, I went cheerfully to sleep.

My counterparts had a more difficult night. For film purposes they left the lights on, with a red filter over them – not particularly conducive to sleeping. Maybe after a week or two of this, sleep deprivation will provide the hallucinatory experience they are seeking!

Then the really horrific thing happened! It was dawn and there was movement in the house….

Now my experience of media people is that they are not usually early risers, but these girls were up and ready to hit the road at 7am on Easter Friday – a truly frightening thing to behold.

Why did I bother driving on a bad road in bad weather on a holiday to sleep in something not much better than a doss-house with two strangers? Well, I like to think it gave me a chance to demonstrate that the Skeptics are prepared to be thoughtful and imaginative, and demonstrate curiosity and humour when dealing with the wonders of the human condition. Take that, Casper!

Can Sharks Save the Human Race?

A RELATIVELY recent development in Western society has been the increased popularity of health foods and dietary supplements. While initially these health foods could only be purchased through a sparse number of “alternative retail outlets” manned by the converted, as sales have grown and the realisation of the potential profit has become obvious to more people, availability has become easier. There has been a mushrooming of “Health Food Shops”, an increasing number of supermarkets have established “Health Food Bars” and many conventional pharmacies have made the sale of these products a feature of their business.

Continue reading

The Joys of Cold Reading – You Win Some and Lose Some

When Brian Edwards interviewed Uri Geller some years ago, Dr David Marks of Otago University used the printed transcript to demonstrate that Brian had been the victim of highly skilled “cold reading”, rather than the witness to remarkable extra-sensory powers as he appeared to believe at the time.

Brian has obviously learned the lesson. When Ms Rosemary Altea, the famous seer and spiritual healer, tried her techniques on a recent Top of the Morning show, he simply refused to be drawn and our world-famous connection to the spiritual world was left floundering.

Ms Altea claims to see dead relatives standing beside the living who then reveal remarkable truths and pass on meaningful communications. In this case, Dr Edwards’ father was standing by and telling her some remarkable truths about Brian’s current life so that she could pass them on — even though he would presumably know them already. (As it turns out, no one can be certain that Brian’s father is dead. One wonders how Ms Altea will explain her visions should he turn up alive and well.)

The revelations from the other world began with suggestions of “moving” or “relocating”. Given that most people in New Zealand move house once every four years this was a reasonable shot. When Brian said he hadn’t moved, the “moving” visions were replaced with messages regarding sloping land with some steps to a garden. Which is also a fair stab in the semi-dark, given that it is common knowledge that Brian lives in the country on a 13 acre lot — and in Auckland it would be near impossible to find 13 acres of flat land. When this also appeared to be a dead end Brian appeared to put her out of her misery by telling her that they were building a water garden at the bottom of a slope in their property. “Fish?” she “saw” — “No fish”, said Brian.

Maybe Brian’s father was moving from cell to cell — the connection seemed less than satisfactory.

Later in the interview Ms Altea claimed that she could always establish her veracity by giving people some information she could not possibly know without information from the other side — like the fact that the Edwards were building a water-garden. “No — I told you that” said Brian, closing the trap.

She moved on, while Brian continued to keep his lip quite firmly buttoned — except to set further traps. She rambled on about his father, passing on the normal platitudinous messages — such as the fact that he had receding hair — until Brian pointed out that he never knew his father and knew little about him except that he had spent six months in prison for bigamy. Brian wanted to know where his father had been for the last 57 years, but Ms Altea refused to discuss this, except to say that there was something unpleasant involved. (Death maybe?)

This session was not going too well. Finally Ms Altea explained, with a measure of exasperation “Of course I don’t have to prove anything. I know that what I experience is true, and I just tell people what I see.” Well, so do five year olds making up their own fantasies. But they don’t go on the Oprah show, write books, tour the world and make large sums of money. Maybe there is a case for different standards of evidence.

During her introduction to us all, Ms Altea had promised to conclude the interview with a final “pearl of wisdom” but, knowing that she had picked up so little, she suddenly prepared to leave. The cruel Brian reminded her that she had promised him some special and truly meaningful message from his long lost father. “He loves you!” came the stunning revelation as she escaped from the studio. Given that his father didn’t want him, and had pressured his mother to have him placed in an orphanage, this (as Brian put it to me, when I checked facts with him), seems to run against the evidence.

This interview revealed how cold-reading really works by demonstrating how dreadfully it fails if the subject simply refuses to respond with the normal enthusiastic response to any hint of a “hit”. At the end of the session, listeners must have been wondering how this “famous spiritualist” had become so famous, and how she had ever managed to get on to the Oprah Winfrey show. On the other hand it may have confirmed what many of us believe it takes to get on to the Opray Winfrey show…

One thing — we can be sure that this particular interview will never appear in Rosemary Altea’s CV.

Is Counselling Useful?

Surprising results from a US study of the effectiveness of counselling on reducing juvenile crime.

In the March NZ Skeptic, Dr John Welch’s excellent column mentioned an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) about a social experiment which started in 1939. I have not seen the BMJ article but it can only refer to the Cambridge-Somerville experiment. Not just because this was the only such study started in 1939, but it is still (to the best of my knowledge) the only large-scale, long-term study on the effects of counselling which can reasonably be regarded as good science.

It is worth looking at this famous experiment in a little more detail. The instigator was the Harvard Professor of Medicine and Social Ethics. The subjects were boys between the age of five and 13 thought to be “at risk” of juvenile delinquency. It was proposed that a programme be started to prevent these boys becoming delinquent. It would involve “all the aid that a resourceful counsellor could possibly give, backed by the school and community agencies”.

In fact it eventually involved churches, scouts, YMCA, and summer camps plus, where necessary, medical and psychiatric treatment. The counsellors were particularly concerned to involve the families of the boys and this was done whenever possible. The treatment programme was intensive and lengthy; on average it lasted five years — a considerable time in the life of a child.

Professor Cabot (who died in the year the project started), while convinced the programme would be valuable, was concerned that it should be properly assessed. Thus the boys were grouped into 325 matched pairs, each pair being similar in age, background, etc. One of each pair was randomly assigned to the treatment group, the other to the control. It is because of this that it was possible to decide “Did the treatment help?”.

Major papers on this study were published in 1949 and 1951 and the final paper, by Dr Joan McCord, was published in 1978. Some 253 of the matched pairs had completed the programme and 30 years after the project started, Dr McCord was able to locate 480 of the men involved.

About half of these were from the treatment group, and about two thirds of them felt the project had been helpful and improved their lives. Most had fond memories of their counsellors.

Dr Welch writes that the BMJ article found the treatment group to be “sicker, drunker, poorer and more criminal”. This is true but I think it important to note the individual differences were very small.

The project was started to prevent juvenile crime. Of the treatment group, 72 had a juvenile criminal record, compared with 67 from the control group. This is a very slight difference, but clearly the project failed in its main aim which was to prevent juvenile delinquency.

Similarly, 49 of the treatment group had been involved in serious adult crime, compared with 42 of the control group. Again a very slight difference. For factors such as recidivism, alcoholism, stress-related illness, and job satisfaction the pattern was similar. That is, the control group did better than those who were treated — but only by a very small amount.

In only one important way was the treatment group better — minor adult crime. But again the difference was very slight: 119 of the treatment group had minor criminal records, compared with 126 for the control group.

It is true, however, that taken together the differences between the two groups were found to be statistically significant. The treated group had been harmed by the treatment, although the harm was minimal and would not have been revealed by a small-scale study.

There are several major lessons for skeptics here. Firstly, all treatments should be properly assessed and that means using a control group (obviously in this kind of treatment “blind” studies are not possible). How much money (taxpayers’ money) is being spent in New Zealand on counselling? Is the money well spent? Is any attempt being made to assess the value of the treatment?

Secondly, the natural and powerful objections to such assessments must be resisted. The idea of using a control group horrifies many people — “But these people are being used in an experiment! They are not being treated!” Such objections assume we already know the treatment works. But we do not know this and our intuition may be completely wrong.

Thirdly, people are incapable of objectively assessing their own treatment. That is why testimonials to the healing power of any treatment are completely worthless.

Fourthly, non-intervention may be the best treatment. The problem is that it is the hardest to apply because there are powerful forces mobilised against it. The patient welcomes treatment (just how neglected did those boys in the control group feel?) and the professional wants to help.

Counselling is getting to be a major industry in New Zealand but its value should be questioned. All such professionals should adopt the motto “First do no harm”, but until proper assessments are made, how do they know whether they are doing harm or good?

Skeptical Books

Guidelines For Testing Psychic Claimants by Richard Wiseman and Robert L. Morris, 1995, 72pp., University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, UK, (pound)7.00.

Reviewed by Bernard Howard

When author Arthur Koestler and his wife died, they left money to found a university Chair in Parapsychology. Edinburgh University accepted this gift after some hesitation, and Robert L. Morris has occupied the Chair since 1985. In a university hundreds of kilometres to the south, and some hundreds of years younger, Dr Richard Wiseman has also turned a scholarly eye on the subject. This book is a result of their collaboration.

It starts, ominously, with “The Problem of Fraud”, and continues with chapters on initial meetings with claimants, research policies, pilot studies and formal research, and reporting, with an extra chapter on “Working with tricksters”. The book concludes with two reading lists (one of specific references, the other of books, articles and journals of general interest), names and addresses of relevant organisations (including the Magic Circle and the like), and even advice, with addresses, on how to make your experiments and results “secure”.

After reading all this detailed advice and the warnings about fraud, my feeling is that, if I saw a psychic claimant approaching me in the street, I should hastily cross to the other side.

Magic Minds Miraculous Moments by Harry Edwards. 231 pp., 1994. Harry Edwards Publications, 3 Nullaburra Road, Newport, NSW 2106, Australia. NZ$17.00.

Reviewed by Bernard Howard

The author is secretary of the Australian Skeptics; his book contains brief biographies in alphabetical order of just over 100 “psychics”, an average of two pages each. As well as background information on the lives of the subjects, he details the paranormal phenomena for which they were, or are, famous. Most entries finish with a “Comment” and a few references for further reading.

Many of the subjects are well known (Geller, The Fox sisters, Nostradamus, W.A. Mozart(!) for example), but most were unknown to me (who can name 100 psychics offhand?). This collection is a tribute to the author’s erudition and his thoroughness in searching the more obscure corners of the paranormal world.

Delightful browsing, and a very useful reference book.

Greenhouse — The Biggest Rort in Christendom by Peter Toynbee, published by Peter Toynbee Associates.

Reviewed by Owen McShane

Peter Toynbee is one of the few New Zealanders who has consistently stood up against the pseudo-science currently driving so much (not all) of New Zealand’s public policy on climate change and CO2 emissions.

Needless to say he has suffered from attacks on his personal integrity while his scientific arguments, like those of visiting Professor Lindzen of MIT, have been rebutted only by reference to the supposed consensus among those civil service scientists around the world who have found that a policy of promoting “scares and frights” is the best way to unlock the strings to Government funds.

Toynbee’s argument is simple. Man remains a trivial player in the planetary game. Nature rules on all but the local scale. He deserves support, if only because of his healthy scepticism, and his book contains a host of facts and reports with which to arm yourself against the next doomcaster you meet. And unlike so many recent publications, the book has an index. I cannot understand why so many books today have no index when word processing systems have made the task easier than ever before.

Even if you do not agree with Toynbee’s arguments or conclusions, the book is disturbing because, no matter which side of the argument prevails, governments have surely rushed to make a judgement on only one of the alternatives posed by the evidence of increased atmospheric CO2.

The costs of restraining fossil fuel consumption will be massive, especially for the third world, and there appears to have been no attempt to compare these costs against presumed benefits. Current studies indicate that the costs of adaptation to warming would be much lower, and of course would only need to be incurred if the warming actually eventuates. And the jury is definitely still out.