great chemophobia article in Slate

February 11, 2013 at 10:02 am | | pseudoscience, science and the public

I’ve argued in the past that the Precautionary Principle is logically flawed, even dangerous. A recent article on Slate gives a great job giving an example of when the Precautionary Principle goes bad. In response to a NYT article on alternative medicine, the Slate article compares the FDA-approved drugs to the alternative medicine that a mother is more comfortable giving her son. (Surprise! the alternative medicine also contains chemicals.)

The reality is this. [The NYT author] has been tricked by the language, maliciously or not, into considering switching her child from a carefully measured weekly dose of this molecule:

Chemical structure of four marvels.

To four doses a day of an unknown amount of this chemical:

Chemical structure of a drug.


I want to be absolutely clear. Neither of these chemicals is benign or nontoxic. The LD-50 (the “lethal dose” amount that kills 50 percent of mice fed the chemical) is about the same for quercetin as it is for methotrexate, roughly 150 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.

Berberine, one of the drugs found in four-marvels powder, has been documented to cause brain damage in infants. Hello? Exactly how much of this have you been giving your son?

[The NYT author’s] “better the molecule I don’t know, than the molecule I do” stance may help her sleep better, but it is ignorance nonetheless. The chemicals are still there, even when you squint your eyes closed so you can’t see them.

This is really scary to me, that parents are giving their children unknown doses of potentially dangerous drugs. This is exactly the danger of the Precautionary Principle: people seem more comfortable with unknown dangers than known and carefully quantified risks. That’s a silly approach to risk, but I think it might just be how our brains work. And knowing that, we should be careful to guard against it.

Another concern not mentioned in either the Slate or NYT article is the drug interactions when taking a prescribed medicine with unknown alternative drugs: because they aren’t tested, alternative medicines have the potential for devastating interactions. The FDA should require at least safety testing (if not efficacy) of all medicines, both modern-medicine and alternative. NIH has an alternative medicines institute, but I wonder how quickly they can test all the options out there.

I want to also add that I completely understand the NYT mother’s concern about giving her son drugs every day. And I completely agree with the mom’s effort to find diet changes that help: the body is a complicated network, and diet can have a huge effect on health. And the immune system is in some senses a black box that we’re only beginning to understand. A variety of alternative treatments and diet changes should be tried, but eating a bunch of unknown chemicals because they have prettier names is really concerning.

I really feel for the boy and his mom, and I wish there was a magic wand to take away his pain. But even if there were, we should probably ask about the side effects of the wand.

yes, but i’m the expert

September 14, 2008 at 11:33 pm | | pseudoscience, science and the public

I’ve been getting comments on my post about how crazy an idea it is to run your car on water. I thought that I was more than fair: pointing out that the thermodynamics is obviously against the idea (splitting water in order to burn it is stupid), but I left some room for the possibility that adding lighter gases might change the combustion efficiency. Still, I was skeptical. I was made more skeptical by the deceptive advertising (e.g. water4gas scam revealed). Remember the seven warning signs of bogus science.

But, despite my requests for non-anecdotal references, I just received long, rambling, confusing, and criticizing comments. For instance:

I wish to correct part of your story, Obviously you must have race through when reading and watching the videos on youtube and elsewhere.

1st of all many people err and state that water is split into H2 and O2. Water is H20. Peroxide is H2O2, Water is actually split into H2 and O. When using the term HHO it is denoting two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule.

So here, I am accused of not studying the concept carefully enough. Huh? I am an expert on this: I am a chemist. I know what water splits into. I know stoichiometry. Monatomic oxygen is not bubbling out of water.

Then there’s the comment:

Your comments remind me of a story; As the first steamboat was readying for it’s maiden voyage, there was a man telling everyone who would listen: “That thing will never work”!

As the steamboat pulled out into the river, he started telling everyone: “They’ll never get that thing to stop”!!

Or, how about this expert: “Man won’t be able to breath at speeds greater than 20mph”!!

Why don’t you take your “Expert” B.S. and tell it to my 25+ very happy customers.

Again, disregarding my expert understanding of thermodynamics, replacing it with fantom customers with their anecdotal evidence.

I also had some attacks from military men:

Water can be used as a safe and powerful fuel, if it is done properly. I guess none of you were in the Navy. In boot camp we were warned not to use water on a jet fuel fire because it burns at the higher temperatures of those fires. That’s why they use foam on fires at airports.


Something I think you should know is that the AV8 Harrier jet utilizes this. Water is injected into the engine where it instataniously seperates and burns. As you surely have read, hydrogen puts out 3 time the energy as gasoline (jet fuel). The Harrier hovers many hundreds of feet in the air becuse of the hydrogen burning.

You may want to know that I was with the Marine fighter squadron VMFA-513 when it was at Beaufort, SC. and it was still manufacture by the British, before McDonnell Douglas joint up to partner in building the plane.

I presently work at Boeing in St Louis, MO. The facts I state about the Harrier is common knowledge by those of us who work for Boeing St Louis.

Weird. Kendall kindly debunked both these silly ideas (the Harrier jet uses water injection to cool the engine, and water can’t burn on a diesel fire). But where are these references to the military coming from? I think it is further anti-expert and anti-elite: If you had a little real-world experience, you’d know that … is true. All you schooling can’t help you here.

You know, I’d agree if we were talking about fixing a tank or welding an I-beam or leading groups of people or one of the many other important things in this world that require real-world experience. But this is not the case when it comes to thermodynamics! I’m sorry, but in this case, an expert’s opinion is important.

People hate experts and the “elite” until they actually need their expertise. What would the world be like if people who think free power comes from splitting water and reburning it ran automobile companies? Or where good folks who didn’t believe in the germ theory of disease were our surgeons? Or people with no interest in ever learning about international relations became President of the United States of America?

I don’t think everyone should get a PhD. (On the contrary.) I don’t think one needs an academic education to be intelligent or successful or respected. I think the “real world” gives lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom or lab. However, I also believe that experts have a place in this world, too.

This all reminds me of Richard Feynman’s story about the painter. Let’s all just throw in a little yellow…

more HHO

August 8, 2008 at 10:46 am | | pseudoscience, science and the public, science@home, stupid technology, wild web

We just love writing about water hoaxes at EDS (here and here). And what about running your car on water?

On the big truck that is the internets, there are several kits for splitting water from electricity from the car’s battery and burning the H2 and O2 gases with gasoline (e.g. Water4Gas). The idea is as follows:

  1. harness any wasted electricity from the alternator (or use a solar panel)
  2. use that electricity to splitting water into H2 and O2
  3. pipe the gases into the air inlet of the internal-combustion engine
  4. by burning the H2 and O2, you produce water and some energy
  5. allegedly, the hydrogen and oxygen gases also make the gasoline combustion more efficient by somehow optimizing the air/fuel mixture
  6. the combination of (4) and (5) increase your car’s MPG 

So does it work?

Well, the thermodynamics of the scheme is simple: it is impossible to generate more energy by creating water (by burning hydrogen and oxygen) than it took to split the water in the first place. So it is ridiculous to take energy from the engine to split water and burn water. But it is possible to harness external energy (i.e. via solar cells or by taking “extra” electricity from the alternator, if there is any) and convert it to chemical—then mechanical—energy. So, conceivably, you could increase your MPG by converting solar or “excess” electrical energy to hydrogen and oxygen gases, then burning them.

And then the kinetics. Fluid dynamics is very complex, and there’s no way I can guess how different gasses will affect the way the air/fuel mixture flows and explodes. I am very skeptical of the idea that the air/fuel mixture in modern internal-combustion engines is dramatically inefficient, and that throwing in a little hydrogen and oxygen gases to the mixture fixes the problem. That said, the densities of H2 and O2 gases are different than that of air, so it is conceivable that adding these molecules to the combustion mixture changes the efficiency with which the engine burns gasoline. But I would guess that those changes would be for the worse (based on Murphy’s law).

So, although I am very very doubtful that Water4Gas could work in principle, the only way to really be sure would be to test this. (That is, before Big Oil and Detroit kill all the inventors and bury their breakthrough!) But I can’t find a site that gives any real evidence of one of these “HHO” devices working. The closest to an honest test I have found is this—and these guys never saw an increase in MPG, even after a lot of tweaking!

HHO for fuel has all the warning signs of bogus science. Seriously. All of them. For instance, there is tons of marketing; such as the fake debunking sites that actually tell you to buy the product in the end: “water4gas scam revealed.” Googling will give you many more hits like this. Smart marketing!

I think Water4Gas and other HHO fuels are bunk with a lot of misleading marketing. What they’re really selling is a huge confusing book, a glass Ball jar, and a lot of tubing.


I would love to see a comparison between a well-tuned car and a well-tuned car with an “HHO” thingie. I bet there’d be no change in MPG. Anyone want to test on their car?

more burning water

April 2, 2008 at 10:58 am | | literature, pseudoscience, science and the public, science@home, stupid technology

We here at EDS always love a good ol’ combustible-water story. I don’t know if you remember a while back, but there was a great YouTube video about running boats and cars on salt water. All you need is salt water (oh, and a huge RF energy source).

Now they’ve published a paper about the burning salt water: Roy, R.; Rao, M. L.; Kanzius, J. Mat. Res. Innov. 2008, 12, 3. There are some “real” scientists who wrote this: Rustum Roy is an emeritus professor at Penn State! But why Roy chose to publish in MRI, his own journal that uses “super peer review” (if you’ve been published in a peer-review journal, you can publish in MRI), is the big mystery: if he wanted people to take this seriously, why didn’t they publish in a peer-reviewed journal?


Go Figure. I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to see here. There’s no discussion in the paper, just a claim that the figure demonstrates a change in the water structure. But it’s just an intensity change!

And there’s this great footnote on the first page of the paper:

It was perhaps this distortion [by the media] that may have misled Philip Ball … in his rather unwarranted critique in Nature (published online Sept. 14, 2007.) No claims have ever been made by Kanzius of getting out more energy than was put in, etc. He only reported a unexpected observation, a forgotten art in modern laboratory practice, which could be pursued for a variety of possible applications. His observations, fortunately for science, unfortunately for his ‘unscientific’critics who did not delve into the facts first, as in normal science, appear to be correct.

Man, go watch the YouTube video and then try to take this guy seriously. A reasonable scientist would have denounced the media analysis, not the skepicism of the scientific community.

And, unfortunately for Kanzius and Roy, this “unexpected” result has been published before: Roychowdhury et al. Plasma Chem. Plasma Process. 1982, 2, 157. In 1982, this paper reports using the same frequency to split water, producing H2O2 + H2. Of course, Roy et al. fail to cite this in their “scienfitific” paper on the Kanzius effect.

Here are links to Phillip Ball’s excellent original analysis of the claim and his response to the recent paper. And here’s a C&EN article about it.

think gum

March 11, 2008 at 8:32 am | | lab safety, pseudoscience, software, stupid technology

Finally, a gum that will clean my teeth and my synapses! My PI found this wonderful product:


This gum must have brain-boosting powe, with all its “proven” ingredients (including rosemary and peppermint). It does have 20 mg of caffeine (which is a little less than a cup of green tea of a Coke), which I’ve found does help concentration; but coffee makes my breath smell so much better! This caffeine is “natural,” which is nice because I’m sick of getting my caffeine the only other way possible: via that intravenous injections of SynthCaffTM eight times a day.

You know, at first, I was just going to make fun of this product. But then I read the story. Hey! This kid went to Cal and now he’s a PhD student here at Stanford. I’m quite impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit. I’m really happy that this gum isn’t secretly made by Clorox or ExxonMobil or something.1

OK, back to making fun of it. I still think the gum is bunk: it uses the label “science” to sell a product to the gullible public, like my mom. (Just kidding, Mom.) But I’ll try it…

Well, the flavor is really good: a nice mixture of herbs and it has a green taste that transforms to an almost spicy pleasant-bitter, with a hint of spruce; the flavor lasts longer than some brand-name gums. Is my writing getting any better? I can see the fourth dimension and smell “yellow.” Is that normal? I feel like taking the rest of the day off and watch each blade of grass discover its little world. Seriously, though, I do feel a little light-headed.2

Well, I guess this product is no worse than all the other “mind-boosting” drinks and pills out there; and it tastes good! I did feel a little different after chewing it for 15 minutes, but no different than after half a cup of coffee, wondrous coffee.

Jeez, I almost recommend it. (That’s embarrassing.) But I recommend it if you want a nice flavored gum with some caffeine that will make you light-headed and feel happy … and your French press is broken.


1 Great stocks to own, terrible companies to make you gum.
2 My spelling got a lost wose [that was supposed to be “worse,” for instance] after chewing the gum, for some strange reason. And my HTML editing just got an order of magnitude more destructive

Combustible water

August 19, 2006 at 4:38 pm | | pseudoscience, stupid technology

This linked article was originally sent to the Stanford Electrocatalysis mailing list by Chris Chidsey.

The author, who claims to be a physicist, reports preliminary evidence on the formation of “HHO gas” by the electrolysis of water. The author claims that while this HHO gas is similar to a mixture of O2 and H2, it is in fact a different substance. The analyses are a joke (i. e. IR spectra of H2 and O2) and the interpretations are equally funny. The fact that this paper made it past the editor and through peer review is mind boggling. Can anyone seriously publish in the “International Journal of Hydrogen Energy” again?

Free samples of HHO gas (Aquygen) and instructions for its detection can be requested at From this website, you can watch the “inventor,” Danny Klein, brush his hand through the HHO flame to show that it is “safe” and does not burn the hand, and then miraculously cut through various materials (nevermind that he turns up the oxygen flow into the torch in between). Can this guy possibly believe that his HHO gas is real?

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