Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Frequency flim-flam

One of the things that strikes me, both about many purveyors of alt-med bullshit and their customers, is how little effort they exert even to make their arguments sound like legitimate science.

I mean, it's not like the science is inaccessible, or something.  Whatever else you can say about Wikipedia, it's a pretty good resource for quick, substantially accurate information.  (In fact, a 2005 study found that Wikipedia was close to Encyclopedia Brittanica in terms of overall accuracy.)

So finding out how stuff works is, honestly, only a click away.  Which is why the link a loyal reader of Skeptophilia sent me a couple of days ago is appalling on so many levels.

It's called "A Bright Future for Lyme -- AmpCoil."  What it claims is that it can reduce the symptoms of Lyme disease by 84-93% through "non-invasive sound wave vibrations" delivered by a "pulsed electromagnetic field."  I live in an area of the United States where Lyme is common, and have two friends who have struggled dreadfully with it, so naturally, I wanted to know what this was all about.  I clicked the "Science & Technology" link they provided.  Here's what I found:
When parts of your body become stressed or diseased, they no longer produce the correct sound vibrations.  In other words, your body and its organs are not vibrating at its optimal resonant frequency.  By introducing the tones of healthy organs, minerals, nutrients, electrolytes, enzymes, flora, etc. back into your body, you can relax knowing that the rejuvenation and restoration process is underway... 
All matter (everything around us) is a result of a frequency and if you amplify the frequency, the structure of the matter will vibrate and change.  To many, sound vibration is simply something you hear such as music.  The idea that frequency can have an effect on our familiar physical reality seems a far-fetched notion.  But it's not far-fetched at all - it's quantum mechanics! 
It’s hard to argue against the fact that music makes you feel good, but can sound vibration actually shift your body?  Everything in nature owes its existence solely and completely to frequency and sound vibration.  Sound is the basis for form and shape and the component that holds life together.
Well, I think this might be the odds-on favorite for the Most Highly Distilled Bullshit Ever contest.  Amongst the inaccuracies I found:
  1. Disease has nothing to do with "resonant frequencies."  Resonant frequencies (also called natural modes of vibration) are the modes of vibration that an object tends to oscillate at in the absence of a driving or damping force.  A simple example is a child's swingset.  You may have noticed how hard it is to get a swing to oscillate at anything but one frequency -- this is because that is its resonant frequency, the one that requires the least amount of energy input.  It's true that everything has a particular resonant frequency, but it has nothing to do with disease, all it has to do with is mass distribution around the axis of oscillation, which is why you so seldom see sick swingsets.
  2. "Amplifying the frequency" doesn't make things improve, all it does is (if you're talking about light) move it toward the violet end of the spectrum, or (if you're talking about sound) raise the pitch.  High frequencies aren't good and low frequencies bad, or else everyone would instinctively prefer piccolos over cellos.  If anything, I suspect the opposite is true.
  3. Matter is not the "result of a frequency."  Matter, or at least its distinctive property of mass, is apparently the result of the interaction of its constituent fundamental particles with the Higgs field.  "Matter is a result of frequency" comes as close to a meaningless pseudoscience-babble statement as anything I can think of.
  4. Sound vibrations and electromagnetic field vibrations are not the same thing.  At all.  Sound vibrations are compression waves in a medium such as air or water.  EMF vibrations are oscillating changes in the electromagnetic field in space (and do not require a medium to travel through, which mystified the hell out of scientists at the turn of the 20th century, until Einstein came along and said, "Hey, guys, take a look at this.")  Light is an example of an EMF oscillation.
  5. Quantum mechanics has zero to do with the effect of sound waves on matter.
  6. Sound vibrations have zero to do with holding matter together.
And that's just from the bit I posted.  If you'll check out the link, you'll see that it goes on for pages and pages in that fashion.  Along the way, you find out that the AmpCoil -- the thing they're peddling -- is supposed to cure not only Lyme disease, but fibromyalgia, headaches/migraines, chronic back pain, arthritis, and a host of autoimmune diseases.

One other statement from their home page stood out, that I just have to tell you about:
Imagine the possibilities if harmful pathogens could no longer hide from beneficial hertz frequencies by burrowing into cell walls?
From one sentence, I have two further responses:
  1. What the fuck is a "hertz frequency?"  "Hertz" is the unit for measuring frequency.  So "hertz frequency" is a little like saying "inch distance" or "liter volume."
  2. I'm not terribly concerned about Lyme pathogens burrowing into my cell walls, for the very good reason that my cells don't have cell walls, given that I'm not a plant.
Then, at the bottom of the page, in teensy print, is the following:
AmpCoil units have not been evaluated by governments and are Consumer Products for personal use.  Disclaimer: The AmpCoil System is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease, medical condition, physical or psychological disorder.  It should not be considered a replacement for medical advice or treatment.
Say what?  What, exactly, do you call the following statements, taken right from their website?
  • Safe & simple alternative Lyme treatment for everyone.
  • The AmpCoil, powered by the BetterGuide App, can help reshape the form and function of vibrational imbalances in the body by re-tuning each and all parts of one’s physiology and anatomy.  AmpCoil is like a tuning fork for the human body!
  • The AmpCoil is a non-invasive PEMF sound technology that brings the body back in tune, vibrating in its original, pure state faster than you might expect.
So okay, enough for the ranting.  But what appalls me about all of this is how quickly these claims would vanish into a puff of foul-smelling vapor if you just looked up some of this shit on Wikipedia.  That's all you have to do.  You don't need a Ph.D. in physics or biology.  You don't need to be a microbiologist.  You don't have to understand how to build a machine that can deliver a pulsed electromagnetic field.

All you have to be able to do is to go online and read critically for about five minutes.

What's worst is that there's legitimate research out there on the effect of electromagnetic field stimulation on a variety of disorders.  TCMS (trans-cranial magnetic stimulation) has shown promise in treating cases of intractable depression, for example.  But you will get nowhere (1) diagnosing yourself, and (2) buying an electric field generator, and (3) applying it to random body parts.  All that'll happen is either the placebo effect, or worse, you'll avoid getting legitimate medical care for an actual disease.

Amazingly, the scientists actually know what they're doing.  Listen to them.  [Image is in the Public Domain]

So that's today's dip in the deep end.  Bottom line: do some research.  If someone makes a claim, see if you can find independent corroboration.  And remember what Tim Minchin has to say about this kind of stuff: "There's a name for alternative medicine that works.  It's called... medicine."


This week's book recommendation is from one of my favorite writers and documentary producers, Irish science historian James Burke.  Burke became famous for his series Connections, in which he explored the one-thing-leads-to-another phenomenon which led to so many pivotal discoveries -- if you've seen any of the episodes of Connections, you'll know what I mean when I say that it is just mindblowing fun to watch how this man's brain works.  In his book The Pinball Effect, Burke investigates the role of serendipity -- resulting in another tremendously entertaining and illuminating read.

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