More Water Woo

The past week has been one of the hottest early-spring weeks I can remember. The highveld is so dry and dusty that there is a layer of brown muck covering everything. While those of us living in Gauteng are desperately looking towards the skies for the first rains, my baloney detector has been flooded by a huge downpour of water woo.

A few days ago I read about a water science documentary which has recently been released in South Africa. Water: The Great Mystery is brought to us by the same people who produced What the Bleep do We Know?. Water is a controversial “documentary” which addresses the theme of “water memory”, that is the theory that water somehow responds to our thoughts and through this strange telepathy can have a profound impact on our health.

I have not yet been lucky enough to watch Water but I will as soon as I get the chance. However, I did run across a review on health24.com which deals with some of the theories proposed in the film. The author of this article, Carine van Rooyen,  seems at first to have taken the typically sloppy approach of presenting a platter of nonsense and then “letting you decide for yourself”. This may seem like a reasonable proposition, unfortunately however, most people are terrible at deciding for themselves and tend to accept what they are told (unless it contradicts something they already believe).

In the second section of the article Carine does present a well balanced criticism of water memory. She also invites feedback in the comments section. My feedback is a little too long for the few lines provided, so what follows is my rational response to Carine’s article. I hope that you will take this opportunity to study a different viewpoint, do a little research of your own, then you decide for yourself.

The “facts” which are supposedly established in the introduction to the movie are patently ridiculous. The assertion that Scientists (you know, those fellows in lab coats) agree that life on Earth could not survive without water may seem obvious if you do not keep up with scientific research. However in an article entitled Sharing the Secrets of Water, published in the journal Intergrative & Comparative Biology, Peter Alpert (University of Massachusetts–Amherst) describes in some detail how some forms of life can survive on earth without water.

Interestingly, Alpert notes that “a very few animals, a few plants, and an unknown proportion of microbes can be separated from water for a time. They can dry without dying, survive for hours to decades in a desiccated, ametabolic state, and then recover full function after rewetting”.

Furthermore the Tardigrade (Waterbear) has been shown to survive the vacuum of space for an entire year. These invertebrates are certainly remarkable, they can survive the harshest environment conceivable. Jonsson et al published their findings regarding this Tardigrade experiment in the journal Current Biology, 9 September 2008.

If earth-life can survive without water, surely life can evolve without water. It may not be any kind of  life of which we could conceive, but that does not mean that it is impossible.

The claim that water is the only “substance” which can exist on earth in all three states really causes me some cognitive dissonance. A substance is “that which has mass and occupies space” according to the free dictionary. That is a very broad definition and the preceeding claim seems highly unlikely. In Popular Mechanics, October 2008, there is a short article about researchers at the University of Maryland who have developed a device to generate magnetic fields like that of the Earth. It is a gigantic spinning ball of, amongst other things, sodium. When this device is at rest the sodium is in a solid state. When the Maryland researchers need to fire that baby up they must first heat the sodium to 97,7 degrees celsius; melting point. Well, that is only two states, to complete the trio one need only note that sodium gas is commonly used in sodium lights.

The claim that water defies gravity in order to rise up through the trunks of mighty trees actually made me laugh out loud. Have these people not heard of osmosis? I did not study biology after selection in high school, but what I did learn is that water enters a tree through it’s roots and is transported up through the xylem and into the leaves by means of capilliary action. The water does not rise through the tree independently, it is propelled upwards by mechanical action.

As this post is getting rather long, I will write two follow up pieces. In part two I will take a closer look at the scientific claims made in Water and in part three we will explore why you should not believe everything Rustum Roy tells you.

Stay tuned

SD

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11 responses to “More Water Woo

  1. I have only one issue with your article or reply:
    “If earth-life can survive without water, surely life can evolve without water. ”

    Now that kind of onelines is the same taking a leap of faith as parts of this documentary do… Its highly improbable and most likely totally untrue. Survive and evolve are two vastly different things.

    For the rest the documentary does indeed suffer from wildly exagerations to outright lies. But curious if your next reply is actually gonna disprove or addres some of the more controversial topics in the documentary.

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  6. Thank you for the positive feedback. I really apreciate it and it gives me great motivation to carry on writing.

    I do disagree with Marcus’ sentiment that we should not give attention to these kinds of issues. Ignoring them will not make them go away. The only way to teach people that this kind of nonsense is pseudoscience is if we are vocal about the errors which are presented as science.

  7. I think this film is so obviously nonsense that it is probably not a good idea to give it too much attention.

    As for things water/homeopathy, the bottomline is that what research there is does not back up homeopathic claims and all of this nonsense about water. If they can present proper placebo-controlled double-blind research to back up their claims, the scientific world would certainly be interested. Instead, we get wishy washy nonsense like this film.

    I think the defining text on this for lay readers is Ben Goldacre’s article on homeopathy at http://www.badscience.net/2007/11/a-kind-of-magic/

  8. Great post, and it’s about time people started to expose water woo. Our good old friends at Carte Blanche once aired a piece on Masaru Emoto, the Japanese author who claims that human thoughts and emotions can alter the shape of ice crystals.

    I recently had a discussion about homeopathy with my boss, and after explaining to him that the final diluted ‘products’ can’t have a single molecule of the active ingredient, he countered with a “but I’ve seen Emoto’s evidence that water can be altered by thoughts, so why not by homeopathic shaking?” When you’ve completed your series, I will point him in this direction.

  9. Hi there,
    Thanks for posting your comments. I’m extremely skeptical about the whole theory, and would love to hear more about why you think we should be. I wonder if the scientists quoted in the movie realised in which context their comments would be used? They must have, but it’s hard to believe that a Nobel Laureate would put his reputation on the line through something like this. Let me know what you think!

  10. Fascinating. I haven’t heard of this documentary and I’m glad that you’re educating me on this.

    About the triple point of substances; almost all substances have a point at which they can exist in stable state as a solid, a liquid and a gas. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_point . It is a very slim margin for most substances and happens when the temperature and the pressure are just right. I would have assumed that they meant that water is the only substance that has such a triple point is within the normal temperature range and pressure range of Earth, but this too is fallacious. The temperature is fine (0,01C) but the pressure must be 6 millibars which would only happen naturally in the very very high atmosphere (where the temperature is far below 0,01C).

    Other substances on the wiki page show that they are better candidates for occuring naturally (perhaps at low pressure and temperature of the upper atmosphere). Still, I think there are too many problems with the sensitivity of triple point to deduce that it could happen naturally for any of these substances – local pressure and temperature variances would trow-off the balance very easily.

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