5X5 Episode 96

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5X5 Episode 96
11th November 2010

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5X5 95 5X5 97
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about magnets and magnet therapy; all sorts of claims made for magnets. Now this is an interesting topic because magnets have been around for quite a long time. They were known about by the ancients; they knew that there were rocks that had some kind of mystical energy in them. And for as long as we have known about the existence of magnets, and certainly increasing as our knowledge of electromagnetism increased, there have been claims that there is a healing property to magnets. Essentially, the thought was that if there are rocks that have energy in them, they can transfer that energy to living things and that will support the life energy. This was very much a vitalistic notion and will therefore result in a healing or improve symptoms, et cetera.

Also very interesting is for hundreds of years, the medical establishment has been essentially at odds with a lot of the popular claims being made for magnets and magnetic devices; debunking popular claims and fraudulent magnetic devices. However at the same time, magnetism is a real force and magnets are increasingly being used in modern medicine for purposes of diagnosis and even treatment. So there's a certain amount of plausibility to using magnets in certain ways. However at the same time, there still remains a large number of pseudo-scientific and unproven claims made for them.

E: Yeah, that's true, Steve. If you go back in history though, you'll also see that there has been sort of this healthy skepticism concerning healing powers of magnets that accompany those that truly believed in their powers. For example, in the 16th century, Paracelsus, who was a medical academic, investigated the claims made by the purveyors of magnetic devices and treatments and he found that they were nothing but quackery. And in 1600, William Gilbert wrote De Magnete, in which he actually described detailed experiments with magnets and electricity and he systematically debunked hundreds of popular health claims for such treatments. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Franz Mesmer dramatically increased the popularity of magnetic healing with his concept of animal magnetism. He thought that animal magnetism was a unique force of nature that flowed like a fluid through living things. He also thought he could manipulate it through a combination of hypnotism and laying on hands. But after a high-profile debunking by a commission led by none other than Benjamin Franklin, Mesmer's fame faded and Mesmer died poor and forgotten. But his legacy survived and magnetic healing remains very popular to this day.

R: Extraordinarily popular. You can get pretty much anything with a magnet in it that's supposed to heal just about any illness. You can get bracelets, necklaces; any kind of jewelry. You can get things to wrap around your knee for healing bad knees, bad joints, back pain. They have wraps you can wrap around you. You can get an entire magnetic bed mattress. They claim that it will help you lose weight and just have more energy. You can even get a magnetic dog collar that will apparently, I dunno, make your dog healthier. It's funny, because when companies are selling these sort of things, they can't really claim that it cures a lot of things. And so it's all in very flowery, generic language, like "common uses: dog joint and muscle problems, dog aging problems". They can't really come out and say it's going to cure your, you know, whatever, because they'll get sued for it. But they claim that people can use this to give them more energy and blah blah blah. Even though there's really no proof that it works.

B: There's a whole host of reasons to explain why healing magnets can seem to be real. A lot of the problems magnets claim to address are very subjective, like pain and minor ailments. It's very easy for the placebo effect to come into play for these types of things. People also find anecdotes and testimonials to be inordinately compelling when it comes to this kind of thing. Having a friend tell you something worked for him can often be more convincing than a host of rigorous studies that come to the opposite conclusion. Even studies themselves can seem to support magnet therapy, or anything, really, if they're improperly set up or if only a subset of them are cherry-picked and published. The bottom line is that our propensity to fool ourselves is so great, and especially when it comes to our health. We really owe it ourselves to really take a sober look at these things and find out what the consensus really is and not just look at what these fringe groups believe.

J: A lot of claims are made by people who sell magnets and here are a few of the claims and I'll get into a couple of details about why they don't work. One of the big things that they say is that there's an increased blood flow, which they claim brings more oxygen and nutrients to wherever area that the magnet is, in flushing away waste products and whatnot. The fact of the matter is that first of all, the iron in blood is not attracted to magnets, because it's not a ferrous metal. So that whole premises is wrong. Another thing that they say is that it alters the acidity or alkalinity of the body fluids, which brings balance—chemical balance or whatnot. That's false. Another effect that they claim is that it increases hormone production, which has been proven to be false. Another claim that they make is that it alters enzyme activity and alters other biochemical processes, such as the production of ATP, which is where humans get their energy from. That's part of the claims they make that it increases energy. That's been proven to be false. And another claim they make is that it stimulates electromagnetic energy flow through acupuncture meridians—I'm not going to even go there. And then finally, they say that it alters cell chromosome alignment. I don't even know what that means. So. There you go.

S: Yeah, I mean, I'm sure you know what chromosomes are, but how they could affect the alignment of the chromosomes—a magnetic field, is uh... is a mystery, of course. So yeah; every putative mechanism of action for these popular magnetic devices has been shown to, in fact, not be true and when really well-designed studies look to see they have any efficacy are done, it's shown that they're basically worthless. But such devices have been around, again, for 100s of years and I doubt they're going to go anytime soon.

Meanwhile, there are legitimate uses for magnets in medicine. One thing magnetic fields do affect is brain function because the brain is an electromagnetic organ. Neurons communicate with each other through electrical currents and of course that can be affected by electromagnetic fields. We can measure the magnetic field of the brain. There's a technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, which can actually be used to either increase or decrease the activity of certain parts of the brain. So there are legitimate applications to magnetic fields. One critical difference, though, is that all of the legitimate applications use a dynamic magnetic field—a magnetic field that's actually changing. Because it's a changing magnetic field that actually induces electrical current. But most of the products are static magnetic fields, like a refrigerator magnet. There just is no plausibility to the notion that a small static magnetic field like the kind of refrigerator magnets that most of these products have would have any physiological effect. So, no plausibility, but sexy pseudo-scientific-sounding jargon makes for a very compelling product that has been around for a long time and probably will continue to be.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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