Archives for posts with tag: woo

Last week, the Sunday Independent published a curious article about a new water technology that purported to be the “greatest breakthrough in agriculture since the plough”. This alone set my baloney detector into overdrive, and I quickly tweeted about it on our Cork Skeptics account. The story quickly went viral, catching the attention of the sceptical community in the UK and Ireland, appearing on various blogs, forums and news aggregators and getting some media attention too.

The article outlines a “groundbreaking technology” that, when applied to plants, increases their size and output, making them largely disease resistant too. What is this technology, you might ask? Water. Or more specifically, water energised by radio waves. Like, who’d have thought of that?

The article fails to convince on a number of levels. First of all, there are the exaggerated claims. Not only does the writer refer to the technology as the greatest thing since the plough, but he mentions huge savings in fertilisers, believes it can combat global warming and alludes to gigantic chickens and sheep. Then, there are the swipes at the standard bête noirs of the alternative community: pesticides and GM foods. Then there’s the muddled science that adds radio waves to water to create a miracle substance: as if nobody has tried that one before. In addition, there were the appeals to authority – the “foremost agricultural specialist”, the Kew references, the University of Limerick and Indian Government associations.

Overall, it was a badly written article that read like a rushed press-release.  It all sounded too good, too amazing, too miraculous, to be true.

I took a quick look at Vi-Aqua’s website and immediately I came across another red-flag: its lack of any side-effects. Vi-Aqua was quickly looking more like the agricultural equivalent of Homeopathy, the long discredited alternative medical treatment that has no side effects precisely because it doesn’t actually do anything. And what did I find in the “Full Scientific Proof” Report on Page 8? Yep. “Magnetic Water Memory”. In other words, Homeopathy.

Then, on Page 8: “To date no supporting scientific papers have been published”. Then why make such outlandish claims in the national newspapers? It seemed to me that we were seeing another Steorn, another Cold Fusion, another Arsenic Life, where the normal peer review process was being bypassed in order to generate media interest.

Andrew Jackson of TCD got on the case. He had a few commentaries to add: the paper cast a wide net in order to identify apparent statistical correlations, it referred to pig studies that were unblinded and inadequately controlled. None of the studies adequately supported the wild claims the article was making.

Broadsheet.ie picked it up. In the comments there was a link to a “Gallery of Water Related Pseudo-science”, in which Vi-Aqua got a mention. We also learned that the technology had been around since 2004. There was also a Reddit link with a commenter claiming that they had tested this stuff in 2007 with no discernible effect.

Then there was the Kew connection. The Sunday Independent article said the following:

In recognition of the groundbreaking technology, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London, recently took the hitherto unheard-of step of granting Professor Austin Darragh and his team the right to use their official centuries-old coat of arms on the new technology – the first time ever that Kew Gardens has afforded anyone such an honour.

A friend contacted Kew Gardens, and although initially the response was that they endorsed Vi-Aqua, I received a tweet later which said “Thank you your interest. Kew has not endorsed these products since 2006. The article in the Irish Independent was inaccurate.”

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This pretty much brings us up to date. It would be good to hear more from Kew Gardens and from the Warrenstown people, with a review of their controls from a scientific perspective. It would also be interesting how comfortable the University of Limerick is about this, given that they appear to be associated with these claims.

Many thanks to Donncha (for alerting me to the story in the first place) and Andrew, John & Christian for the further insights.

Also worth a read is my previous blog entry on Austin Darragh, where, on national radio, he associated Chronic Fatigue Syndrome to antibiotics.

I think I was around fifteen years old. The elderly Christian Brother teaching us Religious Studies brought us all downstairs to the video room. The lesson for the day would be a documentary on Our Lady of Garabandal, a supposed “apparition” of Mary somewhere in Spain. The key message from the programme was the Blessed Virgin’s unhappiness with the world. Unless we started saying the Rosary pretty darn quick, terrible unspecified things would happen. No discussion, no criticism. We were expected to accept all of the programme’s premises at face value.

This was a major downside of an Irish Catholic education in the 1980’s. Alongside fairly solid subjects such as maths, science and the foreign languages, we were schooled in rank superstition. This was not educational, it was anti-educational. We left school in possession of a rather toxic mindset: that if a person was wearing the right clothes or had the right prefix before his name, or the right suffix after his name, then you were expected to accept that he was telling the truth, no matter what rubbish he was uttering from his mouth.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when friends of mine were discussing alternative medicine cures for various ailments. There was no analysis, no criticism. The proof was in the anecdote and the anecdote was the gold-standard.

Then there was the hubbub at Knock a few months ago, attracting thousands to witness Joe Coleman muttering nonsense into the middle distance. Many of us might laugh, but it served as a reminder that the Ireland of the moving statues hadn’t gone away, you know.

Pick up any local paper and you will find ads for peddlers of the most outrageous woo, from Chinese medicine to homeopathic treatments to new age crystal remedies. And how could we forget the pyramid schemes and the property bubbles that hit the country over the past few years? It all points a vulnerability common to us all. You might not beat the Irish, but fool us you can, and fool us you do. Every single day.

It’s all quite depressing stuff. If you want to make make a fast buck using nothing but smoke and mirrors, Ireland is as good a place as any to try your hand.

Now, I know that belief in the miraculous, the supernatural and the magical is a worldwide phenomenon. Most societies are steeped in it and it will be with us as long as our species breathe on this planet. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be good for all of us if our kids were better prepared to accept things more on evidence than on hearsay? Wouldn’t it be better if we were taught how our brains can play tricks on us and how to avoid the more common mistakes? Wouldn’t it benefit us to quickly recognise manipulation by others? Our education system somehow avoided this aspect of our schooling and the results are everywhere to be seen.

The Irish education system, or should I say, the Catholic education system of Ireland (sadly these expressions are synonymous), didn’t dwell too much on such questions, lest we peered too closely at the shaky foundations of Catholicism’s own dogmas and diktats. We were, of course, taught to think critically, but critical thinking had its limits.

I would love to say that the system has improved greatly since I left school and that we are turning out school-leavers who have a much better handle on reality, but I fear that change has been glacially slow. I stand to be corrected in this regard.

It’s another reason why a Catholic education is not necessarily the best education for our schoolchildren. We deserve better. It’s time we got better.

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