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, October 9, 2012

Shielding yourself from nonsense

A regular reader and frequent contributor to Skeptophilia commented recently, "Having done this blog for as long as you have...  I am surprised you have not yet thrown up your hands and said: 'Fine. Everything's true!  Aliens, Vampires, Yeti, Roswell, Nibiru, Atlantis...  Whatever!  All of it!  Blargh!'  ...and gone to live in a cave of solitude.  I do appreciate your resolve, good sir."

Notwithstanding that his comment gave me a good laugh, I have to admit that sometimes it's tempting.  As has been shown over and over again, people will believe what they want to believe.  But I have to believe myself that if exposed to rationalism, if taught a little science, most people will (as it were) see the light.

Because, after all, that's what scientific thinking does, isn't it?  It casts light on a previously shadowed bit of reality, and allows you to see it clearly for what it is.  Science takes fuzzy thinking and makes it sharp, hard-edged, accurate.

By way of example, let's look at this bit of woo-woo I ran across just yesterday: an advertisement for a "Total Shield EMF Protection Device."  Here's the sales pitch:
This popular multipurpose unit neutralizes electromagnetic fields and geopathic stress in your home or office. For EMF protection, the Total Shield produces a 7.83 Hz field (the Earth’s natural field, also called the Schumann Resonance), which blankets a 20,000-square-foot area (or more, depending on the model) and overcomes negative EMF fields. It protects you from all electrical and electronic devices, including computers, TVs, microwaves, even power lines outside your house. For geopathic stress, the unit detects and then amplifies the waves, reversing them by 180 degrees and retransmitting them. This counteracts the harmful waves, similar to how noise cancellation technology uses a low hum to cancel sounds. You can use the Total Shield in one of three ways: EMF protection only, geopathic stress only or a combination of both. Colored lights blink at the Schumann resonance and can be used for stress relief or to help with biofeedback. Operates on AC adapter (included). The units are available in four coil strengths, with each additional coil adding 50% more intensity. Stronger units are appropriate for people who are very sensitive to EMFs; who have a large number of electronic devices in their home or office; or who live very close to power lines or stations.
Sounds pretty cool, no?  No more nasty negative EMF fields (whatever those are); counteracting "geopathic stress" (whatever that is); and aligning your house to the "Schumann Resonance" (whatever that is).  Not to mention colored lights blinking, and noise cancellation, and all sorts of other special offers.

Well, looked at through the lens of science, the whole thing kind of falls apart, as you probably predicted it would.

First, the sales pitch is correct that electronic devices produce EMF (electromagnetic fields).  That is, after all, how they work.  However, a great many peer-reviewed and controlled experiments have failed to establish any connection between exposure to EMF and human disease.  The funniest part of this claim is that if the device really did what it claims to -- neutralizing EMF in all forms, over a 20,000 square foot area -- this would block all radiation that is carried by fluctuations in the electromagnetic field, presumably including light.  This would mean that once you turned on the machine, you would immediately vanish from sight, which would be kind of cool.  (You also wouldn't be able to see out of it, which would be less cool but still pretty striking.)

Well, what about "geopathic stress?"  Sounds bad, no?  Well, I did a little bit of digging, and found the site, wherein we find out that "geopathic stress" occurs when a place is sick because of a "bad emotional imprint:"
When a building appears to be causing ill health or 'non wellness' in people, most common conclusion is that the building may be subject to geopathic stress. However there are in fact at least three distinct areas to be addressed in house clearing work and for satisfactory results we must attend to them all.

One of the problem areas we investigate when dealing with 'sickness of place' is indeed the debilitating effects related to geological anomalies and underground water courses in or about buildings. The other two categories however, relate to strong emotional imprints in a place, and what can loosely be called 'spirit' presence. When working in houses we search for all three of these factors and build up an overall picture by taking them together.

Difficulties in dwellings are seldom straightforward. They tend more often to derive from various combinations of influence rather than neatly fitting into one category or another. Moreover, there is usually a natural sequence by which we should proceed. For instance, it is strongly recommended in situations where 'spirit presence' is encountered, that this aspect be attended to first, before moving on to apply any corrective measures indicated for geopathic stress anomalies found.
We are then told that the appropriate response, once you find out that your house is exhibiting "geopathic stress," is to consult a shaman.  No, I'm not making this up.

So, okay, I think we can move on to #3, the "Schumann Resonance."  What, you might ask, is this?  A thirty-second consultation of the Wikipedia article about the Schumann Resonance allowed me to learn the following:
The Schumann resonances (SR) are a set of spectrum peaks in the extremely low frequency (ELF) portion of the Earth's electromagnetic field spectrum. Schumann resonances are global electromagnetic resonances, excited by lightning discharges in the cavity formed by the Earth's surface and the ionosphere.
So, if you're not an atmospheric scientist, the Schumann resonance would only be interesting to you as a curiosity.  It's not "the Earth's natural field," and a light blinking at that rate might be pretty, but otherwise won't accomplish much.

So, the "Total Shield EMF Protection Device" seems like a bit of a bust, scientifically.  And how much do they want for it?

$325.  $500, if you want the more powerful four-coil model.

See?  Skepticism is good for you.  Especially for your pocketbook.

So, dear readers, no worries that I'll be giving up any time soon.  Frankly, it's kind of fun poking holes in woo-woo ideas.  And if I've saved even one person from wasting his or her money on something like the "Total Shield," the whole thing has been worth it.


  1. Not sure why this comes to mind, as it doesn't directly correlate:

    There was an episode of South Park where the mother of one of the boys gets stuck in the toilet because he left the seat up. She dies due to her injuries from being stuck in the toilet and uses her dieing breathe to blame her son for her death.

    So the boys decide they want to contact the inventor of the toilet to find out why he built it the way he did. They end up contacting a "psychic lawyer" who tells the boys that the inventor of the toilet is long since dead, but that they can get retribution on the inventor by performing a "sue-ance." Of course, the ritual is powered by money and the boys get strung along all the way into the courts (which aren't the least bit incredulous over all of this). The real inventor's ghost (John Harrington) enters the court room (along with the dead mother) and it is revealed that we have all been sitting on our toilets the wrong way (supposed to face the bowl).

    Hilarious! Levity is a great way to steer the social consciousness away from woo-woo nonsense.

    Also illustrates that even though there is a sucker born every minute, the optimistic flip-side of that idiom is that there is a discerning pragmatist born every minute as well.

    1. All I can say is: brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Thanks for sharing that... you gotta love it when South Park informs our rational view of the world!

  2. The earth is flat and the universe revolves around it. Oh, and it was created in 7 days and evolution is a myth. There will always be people unwilling to challenge what has always been known, especially if it contradicts their religious beliefs or makes them feel better somehow.

    Besides, what if all the woo-woo's were cured? Who would we laugh at? The comic genius of the future Trey Parkers, Matt Stones and Gordon Bonnets of the world might never been known.

    I think if you turned your Total Shield EMF Protection Device off long enough to have a seance to contact the spirit of Galileo and you could ask his advice, he'd probably say something like "So, let me get this straight; The majority of people believe you and no one is going to kill you for speaking your mind? Am I missing something?"

    I look forward to continuing to discover woo-woo beliefs and how to best make fun of them in your posts.

  3. EMF certainly has impacts on human health, which has been scientifically documented in many cases. See the book written by Samual Milham, MD "Dirty electricity" as well as books written by Steven Magee "Toxic Electricity" and "Electrical Forensics"

    Here is some other food for thought:

  4. First - to James Biehl - thank-you for the input of reason.

    Now.. Gordon,
    “Sarcasm” is a reasonably excusable form of humour, since it does make people laugh--in spite of the ludicrous stupidity uttered. But to say there are no scientific connections between EMFs and problems with human health is a patently UNEDUCATED perspective that completely lacks any plausible or pragmatic inkling whatsoever.

    While I find it pitiful that there is little likelihood there is any point in listing the dozens of Scientific Journal and professionally composed URLs which you could check in on to open up your blinded eyes, I’ve enclosed one such reference in case you actually do have any thread of concern for your health – but I rather suspect you won't bother looking into them simply because of the truth in what one commenter to this thread already mentioned, being so true... "People are going to believe what they're going to believe". Regretfully, this aphorism more commonly applies to the simply na├»ve, and even more so.. to the truly *stupid ones (*those who are unwilling to give truth a chance via actually going about doing the due diligence of learning before they open their festering mouths).

    There's a saying that goes: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt". Evidently, this would be a highly recommended place for you to begin the topic of ‘research’ should you ever pull your head out of the sand and question the reason Life kicks you in the ass when you’re not looking.

    Clearly Gordon, you 'believe' you know more than anyone who has actually spent the time studying this topic or anything peripherally related – such as the resonance of the Earth… Your follow-up sentences of “Whatever those are/ that is” referencing EMF fields, "geopathic stress" and the "Schumann Resonance", simply locks down how ridiculous the level of your under-educated ass-inine-ness is. That statement isn’t funny! Hell, it’s not even a ‘qualified’ source of sarcastic humour. And much more significantly, it reflects how little you took the totality of your so-called research effort. But to quote you, I do believe you stated one thing accurately… where you stated “I did a LITTLE bit of digging.” Obviously, you’re a person whose ‘normal’ pursuit of understanding is content with the most minimalistic of research—done only to the point of substantiating or verifying the thing you THINK you should believe—rather than actually getting into the topic deep enough to discover the real truth.

    So in closing I’ll leave you with a doorway of prayer to enabling a bit of mind-altering evidence – which of course is only worth looking into if you aren't actually afraid of learning what EMFs are actually doing to the planet, and what we are all immersed in. So.. if you’re not AFRAID of the truth.. then be dared to go to YouTube and look up "Cell Phone Tower Radiation Pollution" -- parts 1-through-6. Documented within that series is a video recording of a conference involving the most higly educated minds on the planet surrounding this topic.