Overpriced rocks will stop your brain from frying

Yesterday I went to check out a “mind, body and spirit fair” being held near me. I’m highly skeptical of the kinds of things promoted at these events, but decided to go out of curiosity. I’d never seen a psychic, medium or clairvoyant perform in person, and was hoping to see if I could get one of them to give me a reading which revealed something specific and personal, rather than vague and obvious.

Unfortunately, all of the people giving readings were either booked, busy or away from their table when I was going round. However, I did spot one stall selling pendants to prevent “electro magnetic stress” and reduced “electro sensitivity”. Being a physicist, I know a fair amount about electromagnetism. So this stall caught my attention and I decided to take a closer look. What followed was a very long conversation with the guy running the stall. He just wouldn’t stop talking. He also got very easily distracted from the topics of what is electro magnetic stress, and how do these pendants work. We ended up talking about things as varied as herbal medicines, the Higgs boson, nuclear power and quantum physics.

Almost every ‘fact’ he trotted out on these topics was false, and so I would be forced to correct him and then continue with, “but we’ve wandered off topic again”, and so bring the conversation back on track. I’m going to save these entertaining tangents for future posts (some of them had me struggling to keep a straight face).

Eventually I managed to glean the theory behind his product. Once I thought I’d got it, I repeated it back to him to check I’d understood. He confirmed my explanation as correct, so you can be fairly confident that what follows is what this guy was trying to convince me is true: With the massive uptake of wi-fi and mobile phones, we are being bombarded with more and more electromagnetic (EM) radiation in the microwave range of the EM spectrum. Ionising radiation, (UV, X-rays, gamma rays) are all off to one end of the spectrum. Microwaves are towards the other end. So why are they dangerous? Microwave ovens can be used to cook food. So intense microwaves are dangerous. When the EM radiation from phones or wireless devices passes through our body, some of it becomes “disorganised and chaotic”. This “causes irritation to our bodies”, leading to “electro magnetic stress”. The pendants are embedded with natural chemicals whose resonant frequencies are instantly accepted by the wearer’s energy field, and thus “channel the irritation” out of the body. The pendants also had a metal coil, but I couldn’t get an answer on why that was there. Maybe it’s supposed to work as an antenna.

When talking about the (proven) danger of microwaves, I pointed out that that is mainly because the frequency of the EM waves in a microwave oven is deliberately selected so as to coincide with the resonant frequency of water molecules, and it is by driving this resonance that the water in food is heated. “Yes.” he responded, “And look how close mobile phones and wi-fi are to microwave ovens on the spectrum.” He pointed to a chart of the EM spectrum. “They’re so close, that there’s a good possibility that those waves cause a similar resonance with other molecules in the body.” At this point I felt compelled to point out that his diagram was on a logarithmic scale. So that “short distance” in fact represented a factor of 1000! That’s the difference between this—I gestured a millimetre—and this—spread my arms about a metre apart. The reply? “But compared to the size of the Earth or the solar system, that difference is almost nothing.” Technically true, but irrelevant, and explaining why would have taken too long.

Also the health concerns regarding EM radiation are actually based around whether they are carcinogenic. Last year the World Health Organization classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. However, this has been repeatedly misinterpreted. What it means is that there is very little reliable evidence.

I was also tempted to show the causation/correlation comic. Credit: xkcd.com

Getting back to discussing the pendants… I unfortunately (or perhaps by design) didn’t manage to get onto the topics of “the body’s energy field”, how the pendant changes it or how the “irritation” is “channelled”. The seller was very good at changing the topic and then spouting nonsense. It took me at least half an hour just to get the information above. However, I did get a chance to test one out.

As a demonstration of the power of his pendants, the seller asked me to take out my mobile phone. This was set to one side (within direct line of sight, don’t worry) so it wouldn’t interfere with the first part. I was then asked to extend my stronger arm out to one side. He then pushed down on my arm near the elbow, telling me to try and keep it in place. Then this was repeated with the phone held in my other hand near my chest. The third part involved repeating the second, this time with one of the pendants draped over my shoulder.

A second demonstration was also given. This time with me holding my phone to my ear as if using it, and the left arm down by my side. The seller then formed a fist, placed it into my left palm and tried to push down while I resist. This was performed twice; once with and once without a pendant.

It should be immediately apparent to anyone that these tests were entirely subjective, and can very easily be faked to give the desired result. Any difference that I noticed could easily be explained by the fact that he wasn’t applying the same pressure each time. One time it was a short, strong push, and the next a more prolonged push that gradually built up. In fact, in the second test I could tell, just by watching his face that he was applying more pressure in one part of the test than the other. I reported honestly when I noticed a difference, but expressed my reservations that he might have been (probably unintentionally) applying different amounts of pressure each time, and that the test was entirely subjective.

It was interesting to note that at no point did he state what the results should be if his hypothesis was true. My Machiavellian side is rather disappointed that he didn’t insist that the effects I noticed were evidence for electromagnetic stress and the power of his pendants. If he had, I would have then taken enormous pleasure in showing him that my phone had actually been switched off the entire time!

I’ll end by noting that the guy I was talking to didn’t seem to be the stereotypical quack, deliberately misleading potential customers (unlike psychics). I got the impression he genuinely believed in his product, despite the dodgy premise. He told me quite early on in our conversation that he is currently trying to get together the funding to do a proper study of the pendants’ efficacy, for which I commend him and wish him luck. I just hope that if, as will almost certainly happen, the research shows no effect, he is able to accept those results and not resort to the tricks employed by many proponents of pseudoscience (yes, I’m looking at you, homeopaths).

Further reading:

Electromagnetic fields and cancer:

Electromagnetic stress and electrosensitivity:

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