Respectful Insolence

It works every time, doesn’t it?

Every so often I come across a news story relevant to the subject matter usually encompassed by this blog that makes me shake my head in disbelief at the sheer stupidity. OK, every day, if you count the antivaccine movement and its attacks on papers like the one I wrote about Monday and yesterday. True, the constant barrage of pseudoscience, quackery, and generalized scientific ignorance that the antivaccine movement floods me with constantly threatens to drown out everything else, even from other areas of medicine. This one, however, caught my attention. It was about a joke done by two Florida DJs on April Fools Day earlier this week:

Two long-time deejays at Gator Country 101.9 FM who perpetrated a hoax on Monday morning involving Lee County water quality have been suspended indefinitely, a station official said.

Tony Renda, general manager at the Bonita Springs country music station, said he immediately pulled Val St. John and Scott Fish off the air when he heard about the April Fools’ Day joke they had been playing on their 5 to 9 a.m. morning show and then started having the joke recanted and an apology aired during station breaks.

“Every break we have we’re telling listeners it was a goof, a bad joke,” he said.

OK, we’ve heard this story before. Radio personalities or DJs pull a prank or broadcast fiction as though it were reality. People believe it. DJ gets in trouble. Sometimes DJ is fired. This sort of thing arguably goes back to Orson Welles doing H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds back in 1938 and earlier. So the question is: What was the April Fools’ Day prank? What was it that these two DJs were saying that freaked out their listeners so much and landed them in real hot water.

Ironically enough, it’s all about water. Really. That’s all it was about, nothing more than water. In fact, it was about dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), and the reaction to the prank these DJs pulled is an utter embarrassment. The radio station’s joke said, basically, “There’s water in your water!” It ended up getting the pair suspended:

The radio station’s joke involved that “dihydrogen monoxide” was coming out of county resident’s taps. Renda said that “dihydrogen monoxide” is water. Despite that, he said, “We have a responsibility to our listeners.”

A search on the internet showed that “dihydrogen monoxide” is an alternative way — and popular hoax term — to describe water.

The station’s news immediately got the attention of Patty DiPiero from Lee County Utilities. She said Lee County residents began calling the utility this morning saying they heard on the station that county water was unsafe and should not be used for drinking, showering or for any use.

Alright. We’re talking some serious scientific ignorance here. It’s also an old joke that’s been used many times before by people as varied as Penn & Teller to Internet skeptics like me. I think I’ve used the joke myself. If the listeners of that radio station are too stupid or ignorant to know that dihydrogen monoxide is water, is it the fault of the DJs? On the other hand, I can sort of see how the joke wouldn’t work if everyone knew that DHMO is water; so there has to be an assumption by whoever uses the DHMO joke that a significant number of people won’t know that DHMO is water. In fact, things escalated to the point that for a while there was real speculation that the DJs might be facing felony charges, as the water department was really pissed:

“They were joking that ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ was coming out of Lee County residents’ taps,” reports Florida’s WPTV, though it also remains unclear just how much the two hosts stoked the joke, and whether they actually told people to stop drinking the “dihydrogen monoxide” coming out of their taps. The WWGR station’s manager did have to issue a retraction — or at least a constant on-air admission that the gag was, in fact, a joke — even though St. John and Fish were technically correct that dihydrogen monoxide was, indeed, coming out of their taps.

“Every break we have we’re telling listeners it was a goof, a bad joke,” Tony Renda, general manager at WWGR radio told WTSP-TV. And apparently, the station, the water works, and perhaps the authorities are still trying to figure out if the two hosts could face felony charges for, again, reporting that the scientific name of water was coming out of the pipes. “My understanding is it is a felony to call in a false water quality issue,” Diane Holm, a public information officer for Lee County, told WTSP, while Renda stood firm about his deejays: “They will have to deal with the circumstances.”

I can sort of see the problem if the DJs had actually said that the water was unsafe to drink. However, if they only said that DHMO is coming out of your taps and said nothing about not drinking it or using it, I have a bit more of a problem understanding it.

Fortunately, the story appears to have a happy ending. The hosts, Val St. John and Scott Fish, were back on the air yesterday morning, and apparently the water department is not going to pursue the matter further:

Meanwhile, Diane Holm, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Lee County, told The Atlantic Wire that the department is “not pursuing any other charges.” Monday, Holm had said that it was her “understanding is it is a felony to call in a false water quality issue.” However, she told us today that “we were satisfied with the speed and the action that the station management took in all aspects.” She added: “They handled appropriately and expeditiously the discipline of the the DJs as well as the public notification. They immediately retracted indicated that the joke had been in poor taste and it was inaccurate, inappropriate and every break that day they aired that there were no problems with the water.”

The DJs’ joke was totally immature—think grade-school level—and yet remarkably successful. They warned listeners that dihydrogen monoxide was coming out of the taps in the Fort Myers area. Of course, dihydrogen monoxide is water, but people were so freaked that Lee County Utilities had to make a statement saying that their water is safe to drink.

I suppose that this is a grade school level prank in that many grade school level students probably know that water is dihydrogen monoxide because they learned it in their science class. Sadly, it would appear, most adults have no clue about something this simple, to the point that they freak out.

One wonders what other science-related pranks one could pull. Maybe we could warn people that their epidermis is showing. Or that photons are hitting their skin and entering their eyes. Or maybe that we’re all being bathed in neutrinos. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Of course, the reason that Penn & Teller and DJs like Val St. John and Scott Fish use the DHMO gambit is because it works. Sadly, it’s not just Florida. Our goal should be to improve science literacy to the point that the DHMO joke is never used any more because everybody knows that DHMO is water.

Comments

  1. #1 Khani
    Flame Retardant
    April 4, 2013

    Warnings about the terrors of brominated vegetable oil in Mountain Dew have been cropping up on Facebook a lot lately, and every time, I post Snopes.com’s takedown of the post.

    Many of the warnings attempt to spread terror by asking “WOULD YOU DRINK A FLAME RETARDANT?”

    Isn’t water pretty good at putting out fires? And tasty, too.

  2. #2 Julian Frost
    Gauteng East Rand
    April 4, 2013

    Another chemical name for water is Hydrogen hydroxide. A similar prank was pulled in South Africa.
    Sadly, Saffers are also a poorly informed bunch.

  3. #3 elburto
    April 4, 2013

    Wow. I wonder if any of these people even thought to google DHMO?

    Anyway, listening to the radio in the first place means they deserve what they get.

    Don’t they know how dangerous radios are? I heard that they’re constantly throwing out radiation, so I’m building a foil-lined bunker to protect my little family from the dangers of BigRadio.

  4. #4 herr doktor bimler
    April 4, 2013

    Maybe we could warn people that their epidermis is showing.

    You could accuse Ray Comfort of bibliophilia…

  5. #5 Bob G
    Los Angeles
    April 4, 2013

    Wow, that one’s been around a while. I first saw it around 1996, when the DHMO warning was slipped into all the mailboxes of the chem/biochem faculty at the U. I found it amusing not so much for the play on words for the structure of water, but because the text was such a beautiful parody of health and environmental extremism of the day. There were warnings that DHMO has been found in essentially all malignant tumors and is used in the cores of nuclear reactors and can be fatal upon inhalation etc.

    Curiously, I once got an email forwarded to me that was meant to be taken seriously, and was about the dangers of sodium dodecyl sulfate. I sent back a reply wondering why I was supposed to be concerned about using soap and water. I got a rather sheepish response.

  6. #6 Julian Frost
    April 4, 2013

    I can haz cookie?

  7. #7 flip
    April 4, 2013

    Primary school chemistry fails again… seriously, WTF were people doing in class that they could forget this oh-so-bleeding-obvious chemical name?

    It takes two brain cells to remember di = two, hydrogen, monoxide… oh wait, H2O!

    More importantly, why are people not extra suspicious of what they read/hear on April Fools? Practically everything on that day is written as a joke.

    As for the water company, they could have rolled with it and made hay by pointing out that their dihydrogen monoxide was purer than any other company’s … or some such silliness.

    My understanding is it is a felony to call in a false water quality issue,” Diane Holm, a public information officer for Lee County, told WTSP

    Is the act of ‘calling in’ the joke, or is the ‘calling in’ the thing worried people did with phone numbers of the water company? It’s not clear who is supposedly at fault…

    @HDB

    Did you also do a face palm at Comfort’s comments? I did when I saw them.

  8. #8 Broken Link
    April 4, 2013

    On the April Fool anti-vax front, The Refusers have a sense of humor.

    http://therefusers.com/refusers-newsroom/queen-knights-andrew-wakefield-at-surprise-birthday-party/

    snip:
    “Andrew Wakefield, scapegoated former British physician now living in Austin, Texas, was knighted last night by Queen Elizabeth at a gala event celebrating his 56th birthday. The festivities were held at Four Seasons Austin, a 5-star hotel with views of Lady Bird Lake.

    The joyous occasion, culmination of over a year of planning, was especially remarkable in the Queen’s journey being kept secret. Wakefield believed he was simply going on a weekend getaway with his wife Carmel.”

    But the faithful are not amused ;)

    “I was very happy when I first read this and posted the news on Facebook which I have now removed or retracted. If this is an April Fools joke it isn’t funny in the least..We have a hard enough time fighting the vested interests whose only weapon is the big lie. Even as a joke credibility is lost on our side. If this is confirmed I’ll re-post the information. We gain nothing by doing the same thing – lie – as the other side.”

  9. #9 Dangerous Bacon
    April 4, 2013

    “There were warnings that DHMO has been found in essentially all malignant tumors”

    And did you know that 97% of all terminal cancer patients have had a root canal???!?!?!?

    “http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/02/18/dangers-of-root-canaled-teeth.aspx”

  10. #10 Ren
    April 4, 2013

    “Don’t they know how dangerous radios are? I heard that they’re constantly throwing out radiation, so I’m building a foil-lined bunker to protect my little family from the dangers of BigRadio.”

    I thought radios, in the traditional, at-home sense only received the radiation. It’s the radio stations throwing out the radiation. I could be wrong, though… I’ve been up since 3am again.

  11. #11 Todd W.
    http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com
    April 4, 2013

    @Ren

    Well, they use electricity, and electricity induces radiation by way of magnetic fields. While they may not be broadcasting radio waves, they are, nonetheless, producing radiation. And if they have baby monitors? Those broadcast EMF radiation, as well. Then there are all those pesky light bulbs.

  12. #12 Physicalist
    April 4, 2013

    The proper target for this joke (IMHO) is people who are afraid if anything that sounds “unnatural” and like a “chemical”. So the proper way to run the joke is to say nothing false (so saying “You shouldn’t drink dihydrogen monoxide,” is a foul), and your account shouldn’t sound too alarming to someone who’s doesn’t have a phobia of chemicals.

    The fault of the listener shouldn’t be a failure to recognize a chemical term (I consider myself fairly scientifically literate, but You could describe many common compounds in a way I wouldn’t recognize them). The fault should be a knee-jerk fear if something that sounds like a “chemical.”. Thus the joke serves to teach the fact that everything is a chemical, and that the listener needs better standards if what is healthy.

  13. #13 Beamup
    April 4, 2013

    What really depressed me during college was the time a group of chemical engineering seniors fell for it. Completely.

  14. #14 Skeptico
    April 4, 2013

    It’s a good job they didn’t report that DNA has been found in food.

  15. #15 Pris
    The Dark Side of the Force
    April 4, 2013

    Skeptico, I overheard a few chemistry students in the subway once. One of them saw a poster about DNA free food at a health food store. They started musing about how this could be achieved. The methods they thought up were quite extreme.

  16. #16 janerella
    April 4, 2013

    I freaked out an antivaxxer once with the dihydrogen monoxide spiel – he was spouting the usual utter ignorance of vaccine ingredients when I sent him to the DHMO website to check out the unspoken evil ingredient Big Pharma was hiding from us.
    http://www.dhmo.org/

  17. #17 Edith Prickly
    April 4, 2013

    @flip

    . My understanding is it is a felony to call in a false water quality issue,” Diane Holm, a public information officer for Lee County, told WTSP

    Is the act of ‘calling in’ the joke, or is the ‘calling in’ the thing worried people did with phone numbers of the water company? It’s not clear who is supposedly at fault…

    As a communications professional who deals with inquiries from the public as part of my job, I am continually amazed by the myriad of ways people misinterpret information, or just get misled by their own prejudices. I’m guessing that the people who phoned the water utility probably did not use the term “dihydrogen monoxide” when they called, so the staff there wouldn’t have known what was actually said on the radio before they investigated.

    Here’s how it probably unfolded: credulous listener heard on the radio that something with a sciencey-sounding name is coming out of their taps, slotted that info into a well-established mental narrative, such as: OMG chemicals are EEVEEEEL!! and/or The government is HIDING THINGS FROM US!!. Then their internal panic button tripped and they rushed to the phone to gibber that they heard the water is unsafe but couldn’t tell the utility what was making it unsafe (because science words are hard to remember).

    I’m not even sure education level has a lot to do with this sort of reaction. Some people seem to be hard-wired to panic before they think and it makes them impenetrable to reasonable explanations. Denice Walter could probably offer some insight into this cognitive process.

  18. #18 Denice Walter
    April 4, 2013

    Unfortunately, literacy doesn’t necessarily lead to scientific literacy- or else web woo would be out of business.

    Also unfortunately, alt media has its own educational programming- I ran into a few choice examples today:

    MIke Adams presents 3 articles: “Ten top ways humanity is being murdered in the name of ‘evidence based science’” GMOs/ vaccines/ fluoride.
    from vaccines- “145 000 children murdered by vaccines in the past two decades”..” no science whatsoever to demonstrate that vaccines improve health outcomes”… “vaccine pushers are terrified of comparing vaccinated children against unvaccinated children because they know that unvaccinated children are far healthier”

    Natural news also creates posters, videos and e-books.

    Ms Sunshine (TMR) promotes “Each One, Teach One” based upon traditions amongst African-Americans denied education who, upon learning to read, would “spread the wealth” to others. Sounds like a great idea.

    However, Ms Sunshine has another of her own: ” the greatest source of knowledge and information are”…… ( drum roll)… “OTHER PARENTS”. Even her doctor admitted,” You probably know more about this than I do”. Sure.

    TMR has its book out and shilled about. They also feature web ‘memes”- short flash card-like sayings, quotes and mottos that can be easily shared amongst friends.

    Recently, the Null-meister has again been presenting his infamous “classrooms on the air” ( @ PRN) about nutrition, curing diseases and avoiding reasonableness at all costs.
    Usually, he puts the complicated, dry scientific papers into “lay language”, so all might benefit.

    His various websites are rife with “research” papers, documentaries, investigative reports, “news” , “answers” and interviews with “remarkable minds”.

    So….
    there’s the competition, brothers and sisters sceptics: we have our job cut out for us.

    I think it apropo to now provide the sickeningly sweet icing on the nauseatingly dense, disastrously unhealthy cake:

    according to ZoomInfo.com-
    Jake Crosby works at the Autism Research Institute, Calvert NW, Washington. Employment history is included.
    Watchout, World!

  19. #19 palindrom
    April 4, 2013

    Skeptico @14 — Apparently, the DNA in food has alarmed some organization called “Greenpiece”.

    To be fair, they’re actually concerned about genetically modified crops, which is at least marginally saner than being concerned with “DNA in food”.

    I myself am more concerned that I’m eating whole cells that once were part of another living organism. I mean, how can that possibly be safe? [I kid, I kid.]

  20. #20 LibrarianSarah
    April 4, 2013

    Seriously? That prank is one notch above “your epidermis is showing.” Excuse me as a weep for humanity.

  21. #21 Denice Walter
    April 4, 2013

    Edith, I could write endlessly but here is a snippet:

    there is something called ‘implusivity’-
    we react to threat however we may percieve it but our long evolution and education has enabled us ( well, most of us) to often be able to hang back a while and reflect;
    the development of this capacity takes many years but starts early on when kids learn to ‘wait’ for something they want. Then all sorts of interesting things go on in mindspace ( or whatever you want to call it).

    Obviously, woo providers want people to jump first and think later:
    they want to stir up strong emotions to interfere with listeners/ readers ‘turning over” material in their thoughts and relating it to other, more realistic information.

    They constantly stir up hatred and emnity- “us” vs “them”.
    They mis-represent their own abilities as instructors and as trustworthy individuals. They create short, catch-phrases that people can recall easily and ( by prior entry) try to get to their followers FIRST to creat bias against other reasonable information provided by others ( “Liars! All of them! Government, professionals, the media! Don’t trust them, truste ME!”) They use stereotypes in order to create a shortcut so followers don’t have to think as much- they would have us and our information be automatically labelled suspect.

    “Oh what a tangled web we weave…”

  22. #22 Chris Hickie
    April 4, 2013

    What can you expect from a bunch of people who cohabitate on arguably the world’s most ginormous peninsula?

  23. #23 palindrom
    April 4, 2013

    For some reason this reminds me of the classic political non-smear speech, in which the speaker accuses his opponent of having a sister who’s a “thespian” and a mother who “proselytizes, right outside the cathedral!”.

  24. #24 Bob G
    Los Angeles
    April 4, 2013

    A traditional radio receiver takes in the signal and amplifies it, which by itself creates some EMF waves, some of which escape and can be detected. It also generates a separate set of waves at a frequency a few hundred thousand cycles per second (Hz) different from the incoming frequency, mixes the two signals in a circuit called, not surprisingly, a mixer, and extracts the difference frequency for further amplification, filtration, and presentation to your automobile’s speaker. Perhaps amateur (“ham”) radio operators, who construct these things, are in the employ of the lizard people.

    By the way, the term dihydrogen monoxide is a contrivance of its own. It’s crafted to include the scary term monoxide, which obviously involves fearful imagery. In addition, I suspect that if you were to look at my stack of chemistry, biochemistry, physical chemistry, and biology textbooks, you would not find the term there, because it is not used in general practice to describe water. In the research lab, we use the technical term “water,’ and often append the level of purification, as in “ddH2O” to refer to water that has been deionized and then distilled using a glass distillation apparatus. If I need to label a tube or bottle containing water, I will use the rough shorthand H2O. On the other hand, if I were to label a bottle DHMO or dihydrogen monoxide and the safety inspector saw it, I would get a sternly worded warning. Some kits for purifying RNA will contain a vial of what is called “depc water” which simply refers to the chemical method used to get rid of contaminating substances which could damage RNA.

    In other words, the term DHMO or dihydrogen monoxide or hydrogen hydroxide (a better description, to be sure) are attempts at humor, will not have been used even in a high school chemistry class, and would legitimately scare people who don’t happen to be in a business which involves remembering chemical structures and symbols.

  25. #25 Denice Walter
    April 4, 2013

    @ Bob G:

    re amateur radio operators in the employ of the lizards.

    Sure, we’ve got one!

  26. #26 Edith Prickly
    April 4, 2013

    What can you expect from a bunch of people who cohabitate on arguably the world’s most ginormous peninsula?

    Or as Homer Simpson memorably called it, “America’s w*ng.” (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Simpsons/Season_11#Kill_the_Alligator_and_Run)

  27. #27 Karl Withakay
    Http://blog.cordialdeconstruction.com
    April 4, 2013

    Skeptico, hamburgers even have BOVINE DNA in them!

  28. #28 Todd W.
    http://www.harpocratesspeaks.com
    April 4, 2013

    @Denice Walter

    “145 000 children murdered by vaccines in the past two decades”

    I can see it now…

    The setting: A court room. The jury is seated to one side. On the stand rests a syringe and vial. The prosecutor rises slowly from his chair.

    Prosecutor (P): Please state your name for the record.

    P: I see. Let it be known that the defendant has refused to identify itself. (turning back to the stand) When you planned this, this vicious attack, where were you?

    P: Your honor, would you please direct the defendant to answer the question?

    Judge (J): It’s a vaccine. It cannot talk. It has no mind. It cannot plan. Tell me, again, why you’re wasting my time with this?

    P: Well, this guy online said the vaccine murdered 145,000 children.

    J: Bailiff, please escort him out of my courtroom.

    The gavel echoes through the courtroom as the lights fade to black.

  29. #29 novalox
    April 4, 2013

    I remember working in a summer camp, and once each week, the counselors would put up a mock radio broadcast during the dinner at the dining hall.

    Among the skits that we did was a PSA on the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), and would rail on about the potential dangers it could present to people.

    Of course, it would freak out some of the campers, but what surprised me was how many of the adult campers would also be freaked out by the PSA. I always had to talk to the campers and adults afterwards, explaining what DHMO was and teaching them some basic nomenclature and chemistry.

    So, no I am not surprised that people would fall for this trick, and yes, this speaks of how much more science education is needed in the classroom.

  30. #30 Mike
    United States
    April 4, 2013

    Wow . . .

    Scary thing is I actually used “Di-Hydrogen Oxide!” as a part of a “sales pitch” in a snake oil skit in a junior high school Theater Arts class.

    In around 1976…

  31. #31 Eric Lund
    April 4, 2013

    palindrom @23: That would be the one where the candidate is accused of matriculating in college, as well as (imagine the horror of the conservative Christian audience) being a practicing homo sapiens who practiced celibacy before marriage, right? One version of the urban legend claims that Claude Pepper, then a congressman from north Florida (and later elected to a House seat in heavily Cuban Miami), was the victim of that speech.

    The first version I heard was in the mid 1990s, crediting the idea to a (possibly apocryphal) 8th grade science fair project. The student in question circulated a petition calling for a ban on DHMO, pointing out various dangers. In addition to the dangers other posters pointed out upthread, DHMO impairs the function of automobile brakes, and its gaseous form causes severe burns. The student reportedly got 43 of the 50 people he asked to sign the petition. Only one of the 50 correctly identified DHMO as water. The science fair project was called, “How Gullible Are We?”

  32. #32 Stephan Brun
    April 4, 2013

    Other amusing names for water are hydroxyl acid and μ-oxido dihydrogen. (From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dihydrogen_monoxide_hoax ). Pity that they are not so easily penetrable by basic knowledge.

  33. #33 Stephan Brun
    April 4, 2013

    Apparently, according to a couple of chemists on reddit, that first one should be hydroxilic acid, since the hydroxyl (OH-) is a base.

  34. #34 ConspicuousCarl
    April 4, 2013

    This response from Lee County doesn’t seize the opportunity to educate people:
    http://www.leegov.com/NewsReleases/Documents/Lee%20County%20Utilities%20Water%20Safe%20to%20Drink.pdf

  35. #35 elburto
    April 4, 2013

    @Karl -

    Skeptico, hamburgers even have BOVINE DNA in them!

    Pah! There’s more than just boring old bovine DNA in burgers here in the UK. Neiiigh, it’s supplemented with equine DNA at no extra charge.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21335872

  36. #36 lilady
    April 4, 2013

    Denice Walter’s link to Jake’s *employment* at the Autism Research Institute…

    http://www.zoominfo.com/#!search/profile/person?personId=1327790124&targetid=profile

    That zoominfo page was lasted updated, April, 2012. Is he still *employed* there? That’s Jake’s gainful employment as an epidemiologist?

  37. #37 JGC
    April 4, 2013

    I remember reading a tongue in cheek article proposing experiments to determine the LD50 of dihydrogen monoxide. The study design involved placing mice in deeper and deeper containers of water for 24 hours, and recording deaths (due to drowning, of course) to calculate a mg/kg value.

    The reason I remember it was the author’s passing mention of “our previous studies determining the LD50 of concrete (see ‘Throwing Small Animals Out of the Window’, J Irr Res., 1989).”

  38. #38 conspicuousCarl
    April 4, 2013

    The LD50 for water is 90g/kg:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_intoxication#cite_note-3

    According to a rat study, anyway. Perhaps either the NCCAM or Ray Greek would prefer a randomized controlled human trial.

  39. #39 JGC
    April 4, 2013

    What would the control be, I wonder?

    “The experimental group wil be administered 15 liters of water. The control group will drink 15 liters of a liquid with the same isotonicity, electrolyte concentration, pH, etc. as water.

    Just as soon as we figure out what that might be.”

  40. #40 Alain
    April 4, 2013

    Offtopic: new post http://www.securivm.ca/2013/04/it-takes-alcoholic-to-help-another-one.html

    more related to EtOH which have plenty of adverse effect when we’re intoxicated by it.

    Enjoy
    Alain

  41. #41 dreamer
    April 4, 2013

    OT: at Scientifc American, behind paywall, this summary of an article “When Pretending is the Remedy”
    Something behind Nothing

    Dummy treatments can be surprisingly powerful. Placebos for depression can reproduce more than 80 percent of the positive effects of antidepressants.
    In the brain, placebos tap circuits governing expectation, attention and emotion.
    Doctors may someday routinely use placebos to augment and, in some cases, replace approved drugs and therapies.
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=scientists-decipher-the-healing-powers-placebos

  42. #42 Bob G
    Los Angeles
    April 4, 2013

    True story from a few years ago: A Sacramento radio station had a contest which required people to drink the most water without urinating, the winner receiving a video game system:

    http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/jury-rules-radio-station-jennifer-strange-water-drinking/story?id=8970712#.UV3d1xysFZc

    The second place finisher drank a couple of gallons, went home, and died. If I understand correctly, the expanded fluid volume ultimately caused her brain to herniate downward, causing her death. During the course of the contest, a caller warned of the dangers, but the hosts went on with the show. A jury awarded a substantial verdict for the wrongful death.

    One other thing: Please don’t get me wrong for the remarks I make above, and for this story. I think that the news media are abysmally ignorant of math and science. I wrote a large number of internet columns on that subject a few years ago, and if anything, the decline in newspaper journalism has made the situation even worse. When it comes to the lowest level entertainment media such as popular radio, there is not even a pretense of knowledge, but a kind of willful ignorance that is analogous, in a way, to some of the anti-vaccine nonsense talked about here.

  43. #43 Darwy
    Røde grøde med fløde
    April 4, 2013

    I had a conversation on Facebook with a crunchy friend. It went something like this:

    Her: “I prefer to clean my house without the use of chemicals!”

    Me: “What do you clean it with, then? Boiling water/steam?”

    Her: “Oh, I use lemon juice, baking powder and vinegar!”

    Me: “Oh, you mean citric acid, sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid – those are all chemicals.”

    Her: “They’re not chemicals. They’re baking ingredients!”

    Me: “Do you want me to write out in chemical equation form how baking soda causes your cake to rise?”

    …she defriended me. I assume that’s a, “No, thank you.”

  44. #44 Calli Arcale
    April 4, 2013

    Darwy — I’ve had a few conversations like that, where the person glares at me and says “Oh, you know what I mean. *Artificial* chemicals!” At which point, prudence has taught me to shut up as there is nothing more to be gained with the conversation.

  45. #45 Old Rockin' Dave
    Back of beyond
    April 4, 2013

    Orac, don’t disparage the neutrinos.
    Neutrino beam irradiation is a powerful tool in the treatment of non-reality based diseases.
    It is supremely cheap and without significant side effects. It appeals to many because it is clearly part of the energy of the Universe and pervades all things. The dosimetry is easy to calculate. It requires no special precautions.
    Remember, though, to suggest to patients that to get the fullest effect they can they probably should stand fully clothed under the daytime sky, or in light clothing under the night sky.

  46. #46 JustaTech
    April 4, 2013

    The worst have to be drunk chemistry students. I was trying to convince a very drunk student to drink some water (so I wouldn’t have to deal with him having a hangover and whining all day) when he suddenly decided that because water is H2O, then it has an -OH in it, and -OH is alcohol, and I was trying to get him drunker.

    I did not duct-tape him to the ceiling, but I seriously considered it. (He would have been safe from himself up there and wouldn’t choke if he threw up.)

    Chemical nominclature is easily abused.

  47. #47 herr doktor bimler
    April 4, 2013

    Neutrino beam irradiation is a powerful tool in the treatment of non-reality based diseases.

    Zactly. Homeopathy and radiotherapy combined!

  48. #48 Nick Theodorakis
    April 4, 2013

    Re: neutrinos:

    Cosmic Gall
    by John Updike

    Neutrinos they are very small.
    They have no charge and have no mass
    And do not interact at all.
    The earth is just a silly ball
    To them, through which they simply pass,
    Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
    Or photons through a sheet of glass.

    Read the rest here:

    http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1995/illpres/cosmic-call.html

    [although somewhat dated in details]

  49. #49 palindrom
    April 4, 2013

    Nick @48 — Thanks. I love that poem!

  50. #50 flip
    April 4, 2013

    @Edith

    As a communications professional who deals with inquiries from the public as part of my job, I am continually amazed by the myriad of ways people misinterpret information, or just get misled by their own prejudices. I’m guessing that the people who phoned the water utility probably did not use the term “dihydrogen monoxide” when they called, so the staff there wouldn’t have known what was actually said on the radio before they investigated.

    I agree with you – they probably would have mentioned something vague about hearing it on the radio, but not really known what it was they were complaining about. Hence the over-the-top reaction: the water company would have taken it seriously, investigated, then been annoyed at the wasted time over nothing being actually wrong.

    What I’m wondering though is if they were planning on punishing the right people: if ‘calling in’ a false concern is the act of ringing the water company, then the DJs are not really the felons, but the ones who panicked after listening to the radio are.

    I’m confused as to why exactly the water company would consider the DJs the felon based on the quote.

    @Dreamer

    Placebos for depression can reproduce more than 80 percent of the positive effects of antidepressants.

    The citations for that article are probably not good science, and I call bulldust on the above quote.

    Placebos and Painkillers: Is Mind as Real as Matter? Luana Colloca and Fabrizio Benedetti in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Vol. 6, pages 545–552; July 2005.

    The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth. Irving Kirsch. Basic Books, 2010.

    Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Ted J. Kaptchuk et al. in PLOS One, Vol. 5, No. 12, Article No. e15591; December 2010.

    How Placebos Change the Patient’s Brain. Fabrizio Benedetti, Elisa Carlino and Antonella Pollo in Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews, Vol. 36, pages 339–354; 2011.

    How Expectations Shape Pain. Lauren Y. Atlas and Tor D. Wager in Neuroscience Letters, Vol. 520, Vol. 2, pages 140–148; June 29, 2012.

  51. #51 Denice Walter
    April 4, 2013

    @ Todd W.:

    Alas, your hilarious scenario might perhaps be a harbinger of the next wave:
    according to SBM’s official *persona non grata*, Mr Null- and his own “crack legal team” ( or legal team on crack)- ll of his papers that reveal the “truth” about vaccines ( see his various websites) will be made available to anyone who wishes to sue anyone over vaccines. This material will win in court, they maintain.

    Right and I’m Queen of the elves.
    Here, have some lembas, they’re fresh today.

  52. #52 LW
    April 4, 2013

    I call shenanigans. The *real* Queen of elves knows that lembas bread is *always* fresh.

  53. #53 Denice Walter
    April 4, 2013

    @ LW:

    Don’t be a scoffer! You don’t think that we actually still make them ourselves?
    check out wasa.com for our source.

  54. #54 Narad
    April 4, 2013

    OT: at Scientifc American, behind paywall

    This is pretty amusing in and of itself.

  55. #55 Dan Andrews
    April 4, 2013

    #4
    herr doktor bimler

    Lol! I saw that screen capture from Facebook. I shouldn’t laugh, but it was so typical of his level of ignorance in general.

  56. #56 Khani
    April 5, 2013

    #42 which just goes to show: Dose makes the poison.

    Which is why an infinitesimal amount of formaldehyde in a vaccine isn’t going to do much, but a sufficient quantity as something as necessary as water will still kill you.

  57. #57 meg
    April 5, 2013

    I’m with flip @ #7

    I’m no scientist – in fact, didn’t even study it the last two years of school. I am an English teacher. So when I first saw the phrase, parsed the words and thought – oh, 2 hydrogen 1 oxygen. I know that one. Again, another lost talent. When I have students who know the meaning of ‘bicycle’ and ‘bicentenary’, but can’t use that to logical figure out what ‘bilingual’ might mean, it’s depressing.

  58. #58 Dorothy
    Oz--the other one
    April 5, 2013

    At the risk of being banned I am going to confess that I never heard of this iteration of water and I consider myself science literate. By that I mean that I understand how science works, I don’t believe in magic, fairies, or gods, I seem to have born skeptical, and I have a college education that included biology, geology, earth science, and anthropology, but not chemistry.

    Having said all that, I doubt I would have been taken in by the prank because I am also naturally curious and would have immediately googled it–to say nothing of noting that it was April 1st.

  59. #59 Declan
    Dublin
    April 5, 2013
  60. #60 Krebiozen
    April 5, 2013

    There seem to be more and more articles that fundamentally misunderstand placebos, written by people who should really know better, like the author of that Scientific American (even they should know better, shouldn’t they?) article who has fallen into the trap of thinking that placebos actually do something, writing:

    Incurable conditions, such as chronic pain, asthma and Alzheimer’s disease, may one day yield to placebos, Kaptchuk suggests.

    Why would these conditions, which being incurable haven’t yielded to conventional treatments, yield to a placebo? Why would a placebo have more of a placebo effect than a conventional treatment? No one is going to throw away their opiates, asthma inhaler or start recognizing their loved ones again because of a ?!#%! placebo.

    Most of the time placebo so-called “effects” are things that would have happened anyway, like the homeopathic remedy that gets rid of your cold in 6.9 days instead of a week. The so-called ‘nocebo effect’ makes that clearer; for example a patient is given a placebo for a headache and then gets a rash due to a viral infection or exposure to an allergen. The rash is attributed to a nocebo effect – “Placebos have real objective effects, they cause rashes!” No they don’t!

  61. #61 herr doktor bimler
    April 5, 2013

    Incurable conditions, such as chronic pain, asthma and Alzheimer’s disease, may one day yield to placebos

    There is something hilarious about the suggestion of future advances in placebo technology, such as will result in better placebos than the ones we have today.

  62. #62 Arcanyn
    Adelaide, South Australia
    April 5, 2013

    Indeed. It’s only a matter of time before we develop placebos that can grow back limbs.

  63. #63 palindrom
    April 5, 2013

    The Simpsons quote about placebos I posted a week or so ago comes to mind yet again. It’s in “Marge in Chains”, if you want to look it up.

  64. #64 dreamer
    April 5, 2013

    flip #50 – thanks for the placebo links, I was disappointed the story is in Scientific American, cover story this month.

  65. #65 dreamer
    April 5, 2013

    long article on placebo and nocebo here:
    http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2012/07/16/are-warnings-about-the-side-effects-of-drugs-making-us-sick/
    “A 1993 study of Chinese-Americans who came down with these diseases found that they were more likely to die faster if they were born in an “ill-fated” year associated with the disease — but only if they believed in traditional Chinese astrology.”

  66. #66 Krebiozen
    April 5, 2013

    dreamer,
    I just read the nocebo article you linked to, and feeling suspicious, I tracked down the German paper it refers to here.

    One of the studies discussed is on Parkinson’s disease patients being treated with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), of which the article states:

    But if you tell a DBS patient that the current has been switched off — even though it remains on — their coordination and other motor functions will abruptly decline until you tell them that the juice has been switched on again. Classic nocebo.

    Except what the German paper says is a bit different:

    The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease patients undergoing deep brain stimulation are more pronounced if they know their brain pacemaker is going to be turned off than if they do not know.

    The primary source of this is this study. It looked at clinician-scored motor evaluation and doesn’t mention double-blinding, which immediately raises a red flag. Average score with DBS was 32.55, without DBS 49.15. When DBS was on and the patients knew it was on, the average score was 30.6 vs. 34.5 when they were blinded with barely significant P = 0.049. When the DBS was off the average score was 50.7 when they knew and 47.6 when they did not. I find that singularly unimpressive, and I think the author of the PLOS article has grossly misrepresented the results.

    The rest of the article seems more accurate, the Chinese astrology article was in The Lancet (PMID: 7901476) if anyone’s interested. I don’t have access at present.

  67. #67 flip
    April 6, 2013

    @Dreamer

    Those ‘links’ I posted were the citations found at the end of the article. My point was that whoever wrote the article relied on some citations that are more than likely perfect examples of bad science. The fact that the author (of the article) claims ‘curing’ mental illness and other such things using placebos should have had your BS detector going off, and you should have skipped straight to the end to see where they were getting their ideas from.

    By the way, if you look on this blog or google, you’ll see that many of those cited authors will have been discussed here and on many other skeptical sites. Kirsch in particular has been mentioned here before.

  68. #68 dreamer
    April 6, 2013

    Krebiozen and flip, thank you. A huge difference in wording, and a minor fluctuation in the stats.
    Yes, red flags and BS detectors were up. However, aren’t placebo effects worth studying?

  69. #69 flip
    April 6, 2013

    @Dreamer

    Sure they’re worth studying. But, as Orac would say, prior plausibility suggests that placebos are not going to cure conditions – rather they would help relieve subjective issues, like pain.

    Put it this way: if placebo effects really cured cancer, then we obviously wouldn’t need chemo because cancer would not be life-threatening. All it would take is some nice words from someone and a little pretend pill.

    There’s a difference between studying its effects and making shit up about how it can cure stuff that has no likely chance of being cured that way.

  70. #70 Deice Walter
    April 7, 2013

    @ dreamer:

    Alt med folk often embrace placebo as a means to further their woo-
    I think that they believe that the placebo effect is a means of liberating bound life energy or has some mysterious power itself that encourages natural healing or suchlike.
    Akin to wishing on a star or praying for assistance that somehow leads to desirable outcomes, perhaps?

    Similar to this is the woo belief that allleviating stress and/ or having positive emotions wil lead to cures- with or without other intervention – SB or otherwise.

    My own adage:
    ‘if you scratch woo, you’ll find religion’, nicely covers the entire territory, I’ll venture.

    SBM relies on comparisons to placebo in order to determine the effect of whatever is being tested- you can’t test against nothing because just being involved in a study, dealing with researchers, taking pills, reporting etc may all have effects biasing reports in of themselves independent of the substance’s effect. It doesn’t mean that the placebo ( e.g. a sugar pill) has activity itself- it’s the perception about what SURROUNDS the study that leads to “effects”.

  71. #71 Krebiozen
    April 7, 2013

    dreamer,

    However, aren’t placebo effects worth studying?

    I’m no longer sure they are. Here are some thoughts on why.

    Firstly it’s worth taking a look at the 2001 systematic review, ‘Is the Placebo Powerless? — An Analysis of Clinical Trials Comparing Placebo with No Treatment’ by Drs.Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche. Here’s the results section of their abstract in full:

    We identified 130 trials that met our inclusion criteria. After the exclusion of 16 trials without relevant data on outcomes, there were 32 with binary outcomes (involving 3795 patients, with a median of 51 patients per trial) and 82 with continuous outcomes (involving 4730 patients, with a median of 27 patients per trial). As compared with no treatment, placebo had no significant effect on binary outcomes, regardless of whether these outcomes were subjective or objective. For the trials with continuous outcomes, placebo had a beneficial effect, but the effect decreased with increasing sample size, indicating a possible bias related to the effects of small trials. The pooled standardized mean difference was significant for the trials with subjective outcomes but not for those with objective outcomes. In 27 trials involving the treatment of pain, placebo had a beneficial effect, as indicated by a reduction in the intensity of pain of 6.5 mm on a 100-mm visual-analogue scale.

    In short they found no significant effects overall, with perhaps a small effect on subjective, continuously assessed outcomes and on pain.

    What about that effect on pain? Is a 6.5% decrease on a visual-analogue pain scale clinically significant? To answer that I returned to a couple of Cochrane reviews I delved into when discussing the effects of therapeutic touch a few months ago, one on the effects of touch therapies on pain generally (PMID: 18843720 to avoid moderation), the other looking at the effects of methadone on cancer pain.

    The Cochrane review of touch therapies, which I think it is fair to describe as a type of placebo, found that:

    Participants exposed to touch had an average of 0.83 units (on a 0 to ten scale) lower pain intensity than unexposed participants (95% Confidence Interval: -1.16 to -0.50).

    That’s an 8.3% reduction in pain, a similar effect size to the placebos in the systematic review above, with an upper 95% confidence limit of this effect of 16%. Interestingly, “no statistically significant placebo effect was identified” in this review.

    The methadone effects were reported differently, in one study “a clinically relevant pain response was considered to be a 20% reduction in baseline pain score on a zero to ten patient-reported Numerical Rating Scale”, with about 75% of patients achieving this with methadone or morphine after 8 days, though this declined to about 50% over time. In another study all patients reported at least a 50% reduction in pain with methadone. That makes the less than 10% reduction in pain from a placebo look somewhat feeble. Put bluntly, if I ever suffer cancer pain and a doctor tries to fob me off with a placebo, they may require some analgesia themselves.

    So, none of this seems to fit with the tales we read in which saline injections are as effective in treating pain as morphine, or opiate addicts stave off withdrawal symptoms with saline, but for which I have been unable to find primary sources. I think the placebo effects that rival conventional treatments are often a reflection of the inefficacy of the conventional treatment rather than a triumph of placebos, for example the sham knee surgery that did not improve function I mentioned earlier, and the barely measurable effects of SSRIs on mild depression.

    The interesting part of the placebo effect is, to my mind, the effect produced by suggestion. I suppose studying that could lead us to find better ways of delivering healthcare that maximize the patient feeling better which is, after all, a major aim of healthcare in the first place. As for placebos curing anything? I don’t buy it, except in self-limiting conditions, in which placebos are just as effective as doing nothing at all.

  72. #72 Denice Walter
    April 7, 2013

    To follow up on Krebiozen:
    I think of many of these influences as self-talk: you’re telling yourself that something good will occur. Expectation affects outcome.
    It’s a bit like prayer and magic- or an athlete going through superstitious preparations – replete with ‘magic’ socks or undergarments- focusing attention on what needs to be done( in reality) or whipping oneself up or calming oneself down- as necessary.

    I wonder to whom people are REALLY praying when facing a difficult taks ahead- a deity? or perhaps the innermost workings of their own being. Casting a spell on yourself or suggesting outcomes subliminally so that you follow through accordingly. Is it “g-d help me” or yourself alone?

  73. #73 dreamer
    April 10, 2013

    Krebiozen and Denice, thank you again. I bookmarked the page to be sure to read the linked articles in detail. My particular interest in placebo goes towards the next level of idiocy or self-suggestion, when animal owners pay a lot of money to quacks treating their animals with woo. Unfortunately, quacks make fortunes, charging $75/h to talk to your dog, dead or alive, remotely. Homeopathy stuff for animals, now I can see veterinary offices selling it. It’s outrageous, but nothing seems to convince the believers.

  74. #74 Steven St. John
    April 26, 2013

    Or that there are chemicals in our food?

  75. #75 Scottynuke
    April 26, 2013

    Including lots of that dihydrogen monoxide stuff…

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!