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Frequencies and Their Kindred Delusions

The word “frequency” ranks right up there with “quantum” and “energy” as a pseudoscientific buzzword. It is increasingly prevalent in product advertisements and in CAM claims about human biofields and energy medicine. It doesn’t mean what they think it means.

I have written about Power Balance products, the wristbands and cards that allegedly improve sports performance through frequencies embedded in a hologram. They amount to nothing but a new version of the old rabbit’s foot carried for superstition and their sales demonstrations fool people with simple musculoskeletal tricks. I addressed their ridiculous claims (including “We are a frequency”). I pointed out that

The definition of frequency is “the number of repetitions of a periodic process in a unit of time.” A frequency can’t exist in isolation. There has to be a periodic process, like a sound wave, a radio wave, a clock pendulum, or a train passing by at the rate of x boxcars per minute. The phrase “33⅓ per minute” is meaningless: you can’t have an rpm without an r. A periodic process can have a frequency, but an armadillo and a tomato can’t. Neither a periodic process nor a person can “be” a frequency.

There are a number of similar embedded frequency products with different names. I got an e-mail from a man who thought he had found the best one yet: Ancestor Bands that promised to put him in contact with his forebears and allow him to benefit from their wisdom.

The "Ancestor Band"

I thought he was pulling my leg, but he insisted he wasn’t. I asked him to wonder how they might have determined which frequencies the ancestors use. I asked him to question how he would know that any messages he got were really from his ancestors rather than from Pol Pot, from Hitler, from Jeffrey Dahmer, from an ignorant Stone Age caveman, or from some random village idiot. He said I had given him some things to think about, but he was trying to keep an open mind and really wanted to believe they worked. The website says

We are all uniquely connected to our ancestors genetically. The bands you see here will help you tap into the proper frequencies that your Ancestors transmit throughout the Cosmos. They are desperately trying to connect with you and impart their Newfound Universal knowledge of the Universe. The bands are designed to increase your mental power, physical strength, and reverse the effects of aging. Try it today, feel the difference tomorrow.

They start with the idea that all living things are interconnected and produce energy waves that we can tap into, apparently even after they have stopped living! The Ancestor Band uses “energetic therapy and informational balancing” to

directly address the energetic level using light, sound, electricity and magnetism as carriers of client- and condition-specific information… to remove tiredness, weakness, reduce pain, and eliminate stress… a group of spiritual advisors have transformed each piece into a Unique Genetic Communications link to the Past, Present, future, and beyond.

That’s about as silly a piece of gobbledygook as I have ever read. It would be impossible to test their claims because you can’t even figure out what they are claiming. For starters, I can’t begin to guess what “beyond the future” means.

Recently I’ve been getting e-mails advertising Philip Stein watches. They use “natural frequency technology” to embed frequencies in watches. This provides improved sleep. And they even have a published double blind randomized placebo controlled study that proves it. Only it doesn’t. It did not give statistically significant results, but they interpreted it as positive because 96% of subjects reported improvement on at least one variable. That is not a meaningful scientific finding. In fact, it reminds me of a clever ploy that is taught to chiropractors: instead of asking whether the patient’s back pain got better after the last spinal adjustment, they are supposed to ask “What’s better?” until the patient admits that something is better (he slept better last night, or his appetite has improved, or his ingrown toenail hasn’t been hurting as much, or whatever). Then they can say “See, the treatment is helping you.”

The frequencies they are talking about are electromagnetic frequencies, and several of these were somehow embedded in a disc in the watch. It is a metal disk that has been “infused with key frequencies.” One of the key frequencies is 7.83 Hz, the Schumann Resonant Frequency. (Actually, there are several Schumann frequencies, which are observed peaks in the Earth’s electromagnetic spectrum.)  It doesn’t make sense that they could embed electromagnetic frequencies without embedding something that produced those frequencies, with a power source. Or do they mean they are embedding something that will vibrate in resonance with those frequencies? It’s far from clear, and of course they won’t try to explain because of proprietary secrets.

They’re really proud of these watches. They charge anywhere from $1400 to $23,000 for them. Soon the company will launch a new product that, when combined with the frequencies found in Philip Stein watches, delivers even greater benefits in improved sleep. I can’t wait.

I’d love to see these products taken apart by engineers who are competent to analyze what is in them. Even if these products did contain something that generates electromagnetic frequencies or that resonates in response to certain outside frequencies, it would take a big leap of faith to imagine that process would have specific beneficial effects on health. You would first have to accept the concept of a human “bioenergy” field that can’t be measured. Then you would have to accept that the field changes in response to a specific frequency and that those field changes somehow produce a specific physiologic effect. Not only is there no plausible mechanism, but there are no studies showing evidence of benefit. It might work; but in the absence of evidence, believing it does work would require you to have such an open mind that your brain would be in grave danger of falling out.

Perhaps we should monitor the frequency of pseudoscientific claims about frequencies: it might serve to track the degree of idiocy in public misunderstanding of science.


Note: My spell checker didn’t like the word bioenergy any better than I do. (There is a legitimate use for the word, but this is not it.) The spell checker suggested I might want to substitute “beanery” or “baboonery.” I confess to being sorely tempted by the latter.

Another note: my title is a reference to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ classic 1842 article“Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions.”

Posted in: Energy Medicine

Leave a Comment (59) ↓

59 thoughts on “Frequencies and Their Kindred Delusions

  1. merrilegs says:

    if frequencies are so good for me, shouldn’t i be walking around with a mobile ‘phone strapped to either side of my head? or just one to my wrist. and do i wear an aluminium hat during solar flares, or a collector to gather the power to me?
    so ahrd to get it all right, but i know there is one simple answer to all the issues in my life. the infomercial told me so.
    why can’t we have the sham-wow guy writing a column here?

  2. Nescio says:

    The Amega Wand is one that particularly irritates me. It’s essentially a modern version of Perkins Tractors.

    Here’s a typical description of how they work:
    “the ‘magic’ that takes place, is our body’s ability while resonating in a zero point field, to re-evaluate, update, shift and re-determine what is appropriate based on new information it did not have before, to return to homeostasis and better function. We are the only solution we are looking for because of our unlimited potential to self-heal, given new and useful information.”

    They are sold using MLM, and all the tests that have been done on them are either subjective (e.g. muscle testing, skin resistance), or pseudoscientific (e.g. Kirlian photography, live blood analysis).

  3. windriven says:

    “[b]ut he was trying to keep an open mind and really wanted to believe they worked.”

    An open mind without the gatekeeper of critical thinking is just a meme dump. There is no virtue in an open mind of this sort, only confusion, fear and error.

  4. Ed Whitney says:

    You know what they say: “Just because they’re dead, doesn’t mean they’re smart.”

    Of course, you told him that your great-grandfather told you this was a load of crap.

  5. ConspicuousCarl says:

    I can’t decide which is worse… paying $23,000 for a watch which is supposed to have magic powers, or paying $23,000 for a watch which ISN’T supposed to have magic powers.

  6. Panthera spelaea says:

    You know what they say about a fool and his money… There are certainly scams of this type all over the internet. My woo link collection is quite extensive.

  7. Anthro says:

    Why do you call Stone Age “cavemen” ignorant”? This is ethnocentrism at its worst–and perhaps some unintended ignorance.

    Paleolithic people (men and women) were very very good at being stone age people and especially at surviving in a very harsh environment. What is it they were so “ignorant” about? Are they to blame for living in the era their life spans were relegated to?

    What’s ignorant is living in an age that has an understanding of how the universe actually works and then willfully ignoring those facts. Paleolithic people did not have those facts to be “ignorant” of in the first place.

    I admire your work a great deal and realize that this was probably an unintended (and common misconception) of our ancestors, who by paleolithic times, had brains just as large as ours. If you gave a “caveman” a cell phone, he’d probably figure out how to use it very quickly

  8. cervantes says:

    Oh come on Anthro. If I were expecting the wisdom of my grandfather and actually getting the insights of a guy who died 50,000 years ago considerable confusion would likely result. Since the idea was presented as an absurd hypothetical in the first place it seems rather bizarre to take umbrage.

    Personally, I don’t have any need for paleolithic survival strategies — at least not this year, but we’ll see where the Tea Party takes us.

  9. I think it would be relatively easy to test the claims of anyone selling a band that supposedly enables your ancestors to contact you.

    I’m pretty sure that if people could maintain some consciousness past death and I was wearing a band that enabled those people to contact me, I would be hearing my mom remind me to write that thank-you note that I keep forgetting and lock the doors when I leave the house to run errands. And of course my dad would be offering up criticisms on all the factual errors in the picture books I’m reading the kids…

    On the other hand, my dad being the skeptic that he was, might refuse to say anything on the grounds that “ghosts are physically impossible.” and communicating with me as a ghost would prove him wrong…

    But my mom would have no such compunction. The only remaining question then would be, do they have wallpaper in heaven? And how long do the batteries on that ancestor band last? Cause my mom could compare and contrast the nuances of wallpaper for hours.

  10. anthro “I admire your work a great deal and realize that this was probably an unintended (and common misconception) of our ancestors, who by paleolithic times, had brains just as large as ours. If you gave a “caveman” a cell phone, he’d probably figure out how to use it very quickly”

    I think their brain may have been larger.

    http://www.npr.org/2011/01/02/132591244/our-brains-are-shrinking-are-we-getting-dumber

    It’s the being dead part that causes real communication issues.

  11. S.C. former shruggie says:

    Apparently when you die, you get your own private radio broadcast, just for your descendents, your beliefs get continuously updated to the latest enlightened progressive thought, and you earn multiple PhD’s.

    That’s quite a feat.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say, based on what I know about them, the only things my ancestors would’ve known and wished to impart would’ve been British racism, nautical military strategy, and how to shoot an unarmed mostly-naked man in the back. Not exactly stellar stuff.

    The only frequencies in frequency woo are the frequency of unsupported claims (always exceeds 1 per sentence) and the frequency of people being cheated out of their money.

  12. Anthro says:

    @michelleinmichigan

    Neanderthals (home sapiens neandertalensis) brains were larger than ours, but were wired a bit differently and its not settled whether or not they were more “intelligent” They apparently lacked the ability to innovate as well as homo sapiens sapiens.

    @ cervantes

    It isn’t umbrage, its simply pointing out a scientific inaccuracy that admittedly lies outside the area of expertise of the author. I have no problem with any other part of the article or with Dr. Hall. I happen to be an anthropologist. I realize my point may seem pedantic outside the field, but feel it is important to point out these types of stereotypes.

  13. Zetetic says:

    That watch wouldn’t work for me… I always take my watch off before bedtime!

  14. icewings27 says:

    @Anthro

    He said “an ignorant caveman”. He didn’t say all cavemen were ignorant. There were ignorant cavemen, just like there are ignorant people in any era.

    And there’s no guarantee that the Ancestor Band is going to connect you with Caveman Einstein.

  15. Mojo says:

    @ S.C. former shruggie:

    The only frequencies in frequency woo are the frequency of unsupported claims (always exceeds 1 per sentence) and the frequency of people being cheated out of their money.

    You’re forgetting the most important frequency in woo: there’s one born every minute.

  16. S.C. former shruggie “your beliefs get continuously updated to the latest enlightened progressive thought, and you earn multiple PhD’s.”

    Well, they have a lot of time on their hands.

    Apparently, one of my ancestors is Giles Corey (well, not a direct ancestor, something like a second cousin, 17 times removed.) the last person to be pressed as a witch in the U.S.

    He was known for his stubbornness in refusing to confess to witchcraft. His famous quote is “More Weight” Not really sure if I need a wrist band to tell me how to be stubborn.

  17. Harriet Hall says:

    anthro asked “Why do you call Stone Age “cavemen” ignorant”?”

    I did not intend any disrespect and I was not implying they were unintelligent and I don’t have a misconception of our ancestors. I simply meant they were necessarily “ignorant” of the knowledge that is available to modern humans. Check your dictionary. Ignorant does not mean knowing and willfully ignoring; it does not mean stupid. It means uninformed. I am ignorant of how to track animals and start fires without matches, despite my high IQ and extensive education.

    Of all the things I wrote, that was probably the thing I was least expecting to be criticized for. Before anyone else picks on me, my mention of “the village idiot” was not intended as disrespect to the mentally handicapped, either.

    Sheesh, sometimes you can’t even breathe without someone finding fault with the way you inhale!

  18. # Anthro “Neanderthals (home sapiens neandertalensis) brains were larger than ours, but were wired a bit differently and its not settled whether or not they were more “intelligent” They apparently lacked the ability to innovate as well as homo sapiens”

    I really don’t have a good grasp of the anthropology. I believe the article I read in Discovery said that our brains have been shrinking over the last 20,000 years. As I remember it, they also couldn’t give a proven reason. There was some speculation that brain shrinkage correlated with higher temperatures (bulkier bodies in colder weather, demanded larger brains) as well as higher density populations (domestication).

    Feeling a little stream of conscious, so I thought I would insert the info when it came up, cause it’s interesting.

  19. Harriet Hall “I am ignorant of how to track animals and start fires without matches, despite my high IQ and extensive education. ”

    Clearly you need that ancestor band for the next time you go into the wilderness, then. Just remember, tattoos are for a lifetime.

  20. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    Interestingly all those dead ancestors seem to speak English, even if they are Egyptian, Roman, German or French. I guess this is caused by watching too many movies in which the Egyptians, Romans, Germans and French all speak English, just like all the extraterrestrials do.

  21. Jan Willem Nienhuys – Since the communication is mental or spiritual, the spirits can communicate in their own language, but we “hear” the communication in our own language. It’s a proven neurological process call, um… spiritual contiguous communication….fields. Don’t cha know. It’s all very scientific and documented, like.

  22. Josie says:

    Communication across millenia, language barriers, brain-wiring differences and even death…so easy a caveman can do it

  23. “Ignorant does not mean knowing and willfully ignoring; it does not mean stupid. It means uninformed.”

    This is a concept I wish more people would understand. Though it is often used in a derogatory manner, ignorant is not an inherently derogatory term.

    It is OK to be ignorant about many different things that aren’t relevant to you, and it is OK to be ignorant about important things, as long as you are willing to be educated out of ignorance. Blind ignorance (no desire to be informed) and willful ignorance (ignorant in the face of evidence) are problems. Lack of ability to comprehend and lack of ability to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge and comprehension are problematic also.

    I was listening to part of an interview on NPR this morning where the interviewee bristled at the fact that parents who fear vaccination are labeled as ignorant by the pro-vaccine crowd. He said that they’re not ignorant. It may be a generally unfavorable term, but that’s what they are, ignorant of the facts regarding the risks and benefits of vaccines. Some are willfully or blindly ignorant, some are merely uninformed or misinformed, but they are all ignorant of the facts.

    It’s really shouldn’t be an insult to be called ignorant. If you don’t like it, get properly informed.

  24. Jan Willem Nienhuys,

    Maybe they all just have a Bebelfish or TARDIS telepathic link to translate for them.

  25. windriven says:

    @Karl Withakay

    Well said. Ignorance ebbs and flows, stupidity comes with a lifetime warranty.

  26. I agree with everything that’s been said about “ignorant” being a value-neutral statement that can be used with derogatory intent. I’m completely ignorant about a lot of things, and supplied only with a dangerous “little learning” about others.

    I do think that Harriet Hall’s list was odd, though: “I asked him to question how he would know that any messages he got were really from his ancestors rather than from Pol Pot, from Hitler, from Jeffrey Dahmer, from an ignorant Stone Age caveman, or from some random village idiot.”

    The first three individuals on the list are definitely people one doesn’t want to be receiving guidance from. This establishes the list as being an extremely bad list to be on.

    A “Stone Age caveman” (without modifiers) would be ignorant of many things I take for granted and knowledgeable about many other things essential for sustaining life, including a detailed understanding of the local ecology. An “ignorant Stone Age caveman” presumably doesn’t know the basic things that someone in their society needs to know; unable to manage on their own, they must live a parasitic existence. Definitely morally bad, because to be ignorant of the local ecology in a hunter/ gatherer society implies blind ignorance, refusal to learn what one is immersed in all the time.

    A random village idiot? Possibly a cretin whose mother was iodine-deprived during pregnancy; a person with Down syndrome; an individual with CP following a difficult or premature birth; or someone with congenital rubella syndrome. Or maybe simply someone who survived a brain injury of some type.

    In some cultures disabled people have been considered to be signs of their parents’ sins. Igor the Hunchback, the easily manipulated tool of the evildoer, has not yet completely faded from popular culture. However, it would never occur to me to give my colleague with Down syndrome equal status with Hitler or social parasites on a list of terrible, immoral people to seek wisdom from. (If having an intellectual disability is not immoral, it’s a little odd for “random village idiots” to be the only people on that list for reasons other than immorality and it would make sense to clarify their exceptional status.)

    I don’t think this is finding fault with inhaling. I think this is finding fault with careless writing.

    People who write for print use editors who will catch things like this and provide feedback to help make the writing stronger. When one exposes one’s writing to many people with open comments, one has the chance to learn and benefit from many points of view — which is presumably part (if a small one) of the point of the exercise.

  27. Harriet Hall says:

    @ Alison,

    “The first three individuals on the list are definitely people one doesn’t want to be receiving guidance from.” How do you know? They might have had a lot of good qualities that would enable them to advise on some aspects of life. Maybe they loved their mothers and treated their pets well. If you are a serial killer, maybe Dahmer could provide some insights to help you accomplish your goals without getting caught. Maybe all evil is eradicated by death and these bad guys are now good guys. My real point was not whether the advice would be good or bad, but how you could know who the advice was coming from.

    Mountain, molehill. Picky, picky.

    And believe it or not, I used two editors. Neither of them found fault with my list.

  28. I didn’t say it was a mountain. I said it existed.

    Anthro brought up a point that mattered to them because of their specialized field of expertise. I thought about it for a bit because it was interesting, then decided I concurred. And said so.

    You don’t concur. You said so.

  29. Scott says:

    It occurs to me that the most interesting thing to talk to a caveman about would be essentially the same as the most interesting thing to talk to Hitler about.

    Not asking them for some sort of wisdom or advice, but asking them to recount and discuss the events of their lives. Very interesting (pre)historical significance, if it were only possible to ask.

  30. Harriet Hall says:

    @ Scott,

    Apparently you don’t get to ask them anything, just listen to their Newfound Universal knowledge of the Universe.
    You do get to ask Ramtha questions, but so far no one has gotten anything of historical value from him.

  31. Dr.Jon says:

    If you have ever taken QM in college you will come across de Broglie wave and will have, for sure, calculated your frequency/wavelength for yourself while in motion, either running or walking. However, it has never been feasible to be shown for “particles” heavier than a Planck mass.

    nice overview –> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave–particle_duality
    and here –> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matter_wave

    In short, classic scam for sure with just the smallest nugget of “truth”

  32. weatherwax says:

    On the one hand, I would love to hear the wisdom of my ancestors.

    On the other hand, what I will hear is: “We fought in the worst battles of the Revolution and the Civil War. We slept in the mud. Get off your a@$ and finish college. And don’t complain abot your lunch being late. Try Valley Forge…”

  33. weatherwax,

    “On the other hand, what I will hear is: “We fought in the worst battles of the Revolution and the Civil War. We slept in the mud. Get off your a@$ and finish college. And don’t complain abot your lunch being late. Try Valley Forge…””

    LOL – too true.

  34. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    so easy a caveman can do it

    Hohoho! only when he is dead and his brains has rotted away. The corrollary is: having a brain makes you stupid. Isn’t that the main part of the New Age message?

  35. Jann Bellamy says:

    @ merrilegs:
    “why can’t we have the sham-wow guy writing a column here?”

    We would have to pick up his frequency on an Ancestor Band. The sham-wow guy passed away a couple of years ago.

  36. Watcher says:

    Good lord. Someone seriously took offense to a caveman being called “ignorant?” Anthro takes political correctness to a whole new level …

  37. Watcher “Anthro takes political correctness to a whole new level”…”

    Anthro took a few moments to point out that the idea of cavemen being below average intelligence is a common misconception. Since it is her field of study, it is probably a more glaring misconception than it is to many of us non-anthropologists.

    Sure, it’s a bit geeky. But it’s not more geeky than other commentors who point out misconceptions about statistics, microbes or immunology.

    Why is it that trying to be scientifically accurate about people is “making mountains out of molehills” or “politically correct” but trying to be scientifically accurate about objects, systems or one celled life is perfectly okay?

    People are funny.

  38. Anthro says:

    @Michelleinmichigan

    Thank you! That is a point I often want to make at this and a couple other related blogs. People here with particular expertise write long, detailed clarifications of all kinds of scientific minutae, but I make a small point that is very important in my field and I get attacked every time. I don’t see clarifying something in my field of knowledge as “geeky” or “nitpicky”, and I really think it is time for me to leave this blog permanently. This happens almost every time a leave a comment and I’m getting a bit thin-skinned about it. Apparently, I am a terrible comment writer, because this simply does not happen in any other area of my life!

    I was careful to note that I admire Dr. Hall a great deal and was not directly criticizing her, just making a generalized clarification. I am well aware of the difference between ignorance and stupidity, but that is exactly why I made my point. I may have failed to be clear about why I was making my clarification, but I think I was clear that I was not directly criticizing Dr. Hall, but I apologize profusely if she sees it as such. I meant to say that such a phrase is often used in a way that assumes that prehistoric people were brutish and “savage”; obviously, I know that Dr. Hall was only using a figure of speech, just as she was with “village idiot”.

    ——–

    Dr. Gorski

    Thank you for the link. The friend does not have a computer, but I will print your article and pass it on. I am concerned for her as she has lost four family members (parents and siblings) to cancer. Unfortunately, this has driven her to woo instead of to good science-based monitoring.

  39. What micheleinmichigan said.

    Anthro, it would be nice for me if you’d stay. I like what you bring.

  40. I also enjoy your comments Anthro. Sadly, it is the nature of online discussions that people tend to speak up more when they disagree, than when they agree. But I wish you’d continue to contribute.

    Regarding geeky. In my social circle you have “cool” as in kick a$& roller derby stars
    http://www.detroitrollerderby.com/teams.html

    and you have geeky, as in someone like kick a&$ industrial designer Jonathan Ive of Apple (sigh). http://images.businessweek.com/ss/06/06/in_25/source/11.htm

    You could contemplate a kick a$& roller derby star/industrial designer…but that would be more awesome that I can bear (considering my advanced years.)

    Visual artists of all types are required by law to speak of “geeky” as if it’s a bad thing while maintaining a look of shamefaced admiration in their eyes. It doesn’t communicate well online.

    But, yes, when you blithely place cave men in the paleolithic era and compare brain sizes, your definitely getting “geeky”, by my definition. :)

  41. Harriet Hall “Sheesh, sometimes you can’t even breathe without someone finding fault with the way you inhale!”

    Just you wait until the Buteyko breathing spam guy comes through. He’ll teach us all how to breath.

  42. Josie says:

    “We would have to pick up his frequency on an Ancestor Band. The sham-wow guy passed away a couple of years ago.”

    Actually, I think you have the Shamwow guy aka Vince Offer confused with Billy Mays aka the oxyclean guy.

    Billy passed away in 2009.

    Vince is very much alive and would like you to “Watch this, you’re gonna love my nuts!”

  43. Harriet Hall says:

    @ Anthro,

    You started out by saying “Why do you call Stone Age “cavemen” ignorant”? This is ethnocentrism at its worst–and perhaps some unintended ignorance.”

    It sure sounded like you were calling me ethnocentric and ignorant.

    You could have said “While Dr. Hall is probably using this as a figure of speech, I’d like to point out that there is a common misconception that Stone Age people were less intelligent or inferior to modern humans. I’d like to correct that ethnocentric misconception by explaining…”

    I accept your apology, and I am glad you brought the subject up so I could clarify what I meant by ignorant.

  44. CLK says:

    Anyone remember those “purple magnets” from the late 1980′s/ early 90″s? My friends mom was really into them- they were flat, purple and she believed they cured her of lifelong migraines. She also put them in the fridge and claimed it prolonged the life of the produce. I’m sure the list of cures encompassed- well everything. I remember something about frequencies being the active ingredient, but perhaps it was magnetism alone. I wonder what happened to those.
    I think it would be illustrative to catalogue the woo gone by the wayside, to demonstrate to the public how every one of these scams comes in, and then just dies out. As much time has gone by, purple magnets would be Pfizer’s top seller by now if they actually worked.

  45. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I just finished Sick Societies (http://books.google.ca/books?id=QX7fd3O-SGAC&dq). It discussed life in a “primitive”, “Stone-age”, hunter-gatherer, small scale, folk or whatever name you want to apply to people who live in small groups without any substantive contact with the scientific world. The basic, take home point was that these societies are rife with harmful beliefs, unhealthy food taboos, rampant violence, large amounts of rape, murder, incest, disease and misery. Even the people living some of the societies complained about it. Despite some living along a coastline surrounded by plentiful fish, some would starve because of nonsense taboos. Despite living surrounded by close kin they would hide food or eat in the dark to avoid having to share. Despite living in cold, wind-swept shores they wore no clothes and made no fire. Despite having no effective medical treatment, they would engage in war. Speaking of medical treatment, one group of Bolivian tribespeople (the Siriono) would “treat” an arrow wound by cutting a hole in the wounded person’s side, break a rib, jam two fingers into the thorax to collapse the lung, fill the wound with water and shake the person to “wash out the poison”.

    Societies may indeed be able to survive in a variety of conditions, but they are rarely optimally adapted to their environment. The same cognitive biases that exist in humans that make science difficult and arriving at the wrong conclusions common, also exist in cave men. Humans are flexible omnivores, able to adapt to many conditions – but being a caveman doesn’t make you wise, any more than it makes you stupid. It also doesn’t make you right. Again, science is a boon, nearly a miracle. The very insistence on settling disputes with reference to empirical test (rather than sacred knowledge, customs, cultures or ancestors) is responsible for far more objective good than all the religions in the world. When you add to that the other tools of science (active experimentation, control groups, public sharing of information, expertise, replication, extension, theory-building, etc.) you’ve got something far better than any cave man.

    Everyone is better-adapted to the environment they are acultured to than a foreign one, yet can still learn. But science transcends culture.

    Science. It works, bitches.

    (http://xkcd.com/54/)

    That’s be a lot more impressive if I knew how to code for an embedded link.

  46. Chris says:

    I have decided that if someone tries to convince me that something works on “frequencies”, I am going to have to ask them for the eigenvalues with the corresponding eigenvectors (former structural dynamics engineer). It is the fabulous baffle them with bovine excrement tactic.

    WilliamLawrenceUtridge , thanks for the interesting perspectives.

    By the way… To code for an embedded link use the following, but substitute greater or lesser signs for the square brackets:

    [a href="http://xkcd.com/54/"] Science. It works, bitches.[/a]

    I found a primer on it here. Other useful ones are:
    [blockquote]put quoted text here[/blockquote]
    [b]put bolded text here[/b]
    [i]put italicized text here[/i]

    What you can use is dependent on the blog software. This blog software does not allow for the superscript or subscript tags, other blog software does not allow blockquotes.

  47. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    The picture is of course the shape of the curve that shows how the energy of thermal radiation is distributed over different frequencies. Interestingly the shape is the same for all temperatures (except the horizontal and vertical scale are different). The location of the top indicates that this is a very special temperature, namely that of Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR 2.7… K). So this curve symbolizes two things: firstly the onset of modern physics, namely the formula that Max Plank presented on 14 December 1900, with a constant in it that we now call the Planck constant, which in constituted an important link between electromagnetism and thermodynamics, and secondly the discovery of the large scale structure of the universe. This CBR was formed when the universe had decreased to a temperature so low that atoms could not be ionised any more by thermal radiation, at a temperature of about 2400 K. What we are seeing, corresponds now to 2.7 K because the universe has expanded by a factor 2400/2.7 = about 900 since then. So this formula also reminds you of (part of) the discovery that the universe started out as a uniform hot gas, that space has expanded since then and that obviously the gas must have clumped.

    So not only science works, it is also one single connected whole. One cannot say that Avogadro’s number doesn’t count in the office of the homeopractic practitioner. And one cannot extrapolate discoveries about how quantum systems of a few particles behave (when carefully prepared and isolated from the rest of the world in the lab) to assertions about cosmic interconnectedness of our spirits with everything else (that’s Deepak Chopra nonsense). And trying to make quantum mechanics explain homeopathy by postulating an entanglement between healer, healee and drug solvent is also not the right way to go about unification of science.

  48. @ WilliamLawrenceUtridge

    me and my soapbox…

    Science is a house of cards which requires a reasonably stable political and economic situation as a foundation. Unfortunately, the current uses of science seem to hold the seeds of their own destruction. They have enabled those of us who are most technologically advanced to live beyond our means economically, environmentally, medically, politically, etc.

    Nuclear disasters, oil spills, global warming, large regions experiencing economic and political instability, vast divides in wealth and income…it all hardly seems sustainable. Yet those of us with the most ability to do something about the problems seems to have the least motivation to change. Because we have made ourselves so very comfortable with science.

    Science is a lovely tool, it can be good for healing. It is also good for blowing stuff up. Deciding how to use science responsibly takes more than science.

  49. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    @micheleinmichigan

    Yes, none of which invalidates science as the best method of knowing anything. We all have our soapboxes :)

    And even politics and stability are only necessary for more complex or detailed knowledge. Anyone can use science as a method to solve nearly any problem in the world. If all civilization collapses, careful observation and a willingness to let empirical evidence rather than preconception determine decisions about what is “true” (or likely to be true) will still enable more success than hoping for the best or thinking nasty thoughts (i.e. religion and magic). Oligarchies, concentration of power into the hands of the few, exist everywhere. Sick Societies talked about folk societies with almost no difference between people in material culture (i.e. everyone was naked and a pointed stick was the height of technology) but there still existed chiefs and slaves. And for that matter, oligarchies can be great things given the right ruler – compare Caesar Augustus to Nero. Though naturally, Augustus’ rule was based on the massive exploitation of colonies and conquered provinces.

  50. @ WilliamLawrenceUtridge – “Yes, none of which invalidates science as the best method of knowing anything.”

    Do you think science is the best way know what is good or ethically right?

  51. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I think it’s a hell of a lot better than most of the alternatives; at minimum, it can eliminate actively harmful practices. I read The Moral Landscape and found it about a convincing as Harris’ The End of Faith (i.e. not very) but did like the idea of dispensing with what is traditionally considered “good” in favour of what actually helps people – tolerance, fair laws, adequate nutrition, public health care (for any Americans out there – take it from a Canadian, pay higher taxes and get a national health care system), etc. Harris may be wrong about a “science” of morality being possible, but even if we can’t define what is morally good scientifically, I think we have a very good chance of being able to define what is actively harmful. And I think we’re better off thinking about it and challenging preconception than we are throwing up our hands and going with what we’ve done in the past.

    Worked well for slavery, women, children, animals, and even war. We can kill more people now in a much shorter time – but we’re actively trying not to.

  52. WLU – Sometime I think science is a crutch. It is a way of putting off making the hard or uncomfortable decisions, because we like to believe we’ll be able to invent our way out of our problems.

    So often the problem is not that we don’t know something is harmful, we just don’t care enough to do anything about it.

    I think science is a good thing. But in some regards, I think previous generations have done a much better job rolling up their sleeves, working and making hard decisions. I mostly respect my predecessors (that I’ve heard of) because I think they had a heck of a lot more grit than I do.

    To me, the question that I might ask are not all about science. They are about how to be kinder than you feel. How to do the right thing, even when it means you’ll be going against the conventions of your friends and neighbors. How to set aside hopelessness and carry on. How to be happy being frugal, so that more people can get by with limited resources.* Sure, I don’t think that those predecessor’s views should be accepted unquestioningly (if I had me a fantastical ancestor band thingamabob), but I’d listen. I’d be curious.

    The funny thing is, I suspect that some of our ancestor’s would be much more into science than some of our contemporaries are. I know, I never hear my parents complain about the “toxins” in the polio vaccine.

    *How to completely disregard appropriate punctuations, (oh wait, I’m pretty good at that.)

  53. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Decisions were probably easier, populations more homogeneous, technology less effective and less available (global warming is, in part, due to the democratization of more efficient transportation), lives shorter and disesases more serious. Decisions may have been easier in the past, but only because the world was quite literally simpler. Science made those decisions possible because it enabled so many technologies to be cheap, quickly and easily produced, shared and taken up. It may also allow us to invent our way out of a problem – for instance, if we can develop technologies that rely on renewable resources (ideally sunlight) to replace fossil fuels, we’ve essentailly solved global warming and peak oil.

    Regarding whether science can answer questions about how to make people act kinder than they feel, or how to do the right thing – have you ever read Walden Two by BF Skinner? The entire book was dedicated to that concept. Behaviourism essentially devotes itself to questions like these. Psychology looks at cognitive errors and how to correct for them (or worsen them, it’s a method whose goal can be “good” or “bad”). Cognitive psychology is filled with experiments that reveal profound truths about people, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgrams’ obedience studies, etc. A lot of this could be built into society if we were willing to explicitly engage in social engineering, but that’s more than a little scary to most people. Were I my druthers, I’d put expert committees in charge of essentially everything. No single person can know everything about a topic, but a group of experts keeps each other honest and collectively have much more information available. They’re also informed enough to know what they don’t know, and thus be more humble (the Dunning–Kruger effect (thanks Chris).

    I think we’d be a lot better if people were more educated in general, and if people relied more on science and experts and less on common sense.

  54. WLU – Oy vey – your optimism is impenetrable.

    I have not read Walden Two, I have heard/read a bit about cognitive psychology, since the three time I’ve been in therapy, the therapists have used CBT and most of their recommended reading was CBT based. They are good therapies, although as a patient, I would still put them in the “needs work” phase. I think the struggle is finding the appropriate therapy for the individual patient. Two human’s communicating thoughts and feelings are not an exact science.

    But I am stuck. If we have nothing to learn from people of the past, why take the trouble to read or write a book about them, study them, their philosophies or lifestyles?

    When we study anthropology or history, what are we doing?

  55. GLaDOS says:

    Hey don’t blame science for what the chavs decide to do with their stupid shiny toys.

    Morality, subjectivity, desire –basically all the same stuff. You wanna put Truth underneath that rather than the other way round?

    Friends live in this place called “reality,” which is not inside my head. Because I want friends, I value truth above love.

  56. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Cognitive psychology is a fair bit different from cognitive behavioural therapy. The two are kind of like comparing anatomy and medicine – one links to the other, but the therapeutic approach is changing things while the scientific approach is about figuring out what’s there in the first place. The fact that CBT (and medicine in general) isn’t perfect right now is a common complaint, but a reason to keep investigating rather than a reason to give up and assume we’ll never know how to do/fix/prevent/treat anything. Medicine and mental health may never be perfect or an exact science, but I would trust an empirical approach far more than tradition. Tradition does work within a particular culture, but I still think we’re better off extracting what works and dispensing with what is culture-specific. Of course, that’s hard and many people disagree with me :)

    Why study the past? Because it’s interesting! Just because we’re not willing to base our lives around what people used to believe doesn’t mean it’s not worth learning about. We have a lot to learn about the past, even if we learn nothing from the past. And we can still learn much from the past – don’t deplete your resources, war is hell, on occasion they can be right about medical treatments (just don’t assume a priori they’re always right like so many “ancient wisdom” CAM pushers do). And like all science, just because the people who should know about the lessons of the past don’t listen, doesn’t invalidate the lesson. In fact, chances are if more people knew about the history of war in Afghanistan we would have been less likely to attempt military intervention (after all, one of the key lessons of history is never start a land war in Asia). People spent thousands of years “studying” theology, we’re doing the same but can be fairly sure what we’re studying isn’t completely made up.

  57. Glados and WLU – I am not, nor have I ever been anti-science. I believe science is a good tool, that can be used for good or bad.

    As someone who enjoys having fingers, I am also a big follower of the old saying ‘choose the right tool for the job.’

    Way up thread WLU said “The very insistence on settling disputes with reference to empirical test (rather than sacred knowledge, customs, cultures or ancestors) is responsible for far more objective good than all the religions in the world.”

    It is a great pro-science sentiment, but to me it is based on a reasonable amount of cherry picking of the cases of where religion and science have done good and bad.

    We talk about slavery, but we don’t mention that religious figures were also ones who fought against slavery, racism and colonialism. We talk about war, but we don’t acknowlege that some of the most influential figures of peaceful and passive resistent were deeply influence by religion.

    What exactly has science done to convince people to end slavery? Be kind to our brother? Or pursue peace? It has done a lot to making ending slavery, kindness or peace possible…but has science been a leader in the development of these beliefs/values?

    We talk about the benefits of science in the health industry without addressing the drawbacks that technology as had on chronic health problems (diet, lack of exercise, etc) We don’t mention the threats of scientific development of nuclear, chemical, biological weapons or the impact of scientific, technological advances on the environment.

    I also think, when we suggest that science can settle disputes with empirical evidence, we must either ignore ethical or moral disputes that science is not great at answering, or we must distort how science best works. I don’t believe this makes me anti-science.

    I just don’t think that science is always the right tool for the job.

    And one of my main concerns with science AND religion is that they are both clearly the constructs of man and can be used well or misused, depending upon the whims of individuals or groups.

    So probably if you want to make me anti-something, please make me anti-man.

    ————

    Also WLU – “The fact that CBT (and medicine in general) isn’t perfect right now is a common complaint, but a reason to keep investigating rather than a reason to give up and assume we’ll never know how to do/fix/prevent/treat anything.”

    Sure, that would be why I said, “I would still put them in the “needs work” phase. I think the struggle is finding the appropriate therapy for the individual patient.”

    “Needs work”, is not “give up”. I even suggested a particular aspect that could be “investigated”.

    You know, it’s a little hard to discuss something, with folks assuming I am offering a boiler plate CAM response to science instead of what I’m actually saying. But I will have to take some responsibility, since I am probably not being as clear as I could be.

  58. Way up thread WLU said “The very insistence on settling disputes with reference to empirical test (rather than sacred knowledge, customs, cultures or ancestors) is responsible for far more objective good than all the religions in the world.”

    There isn’t necessarily a choice required between science and religious teachings. For instance, John the Baptist was very keen on empirical validation of outcomes. He didn’t apply this to pharmacognosy that I know of, but to social and community practices.

    16  Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
    17  Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
    18  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
    19  Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
    20  Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

    Enjoy also this statement wrt the difficulty of science:

    13  Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
    14  because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

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