[Author’s note: I made a couple of edits to clarify a couple of the science points. I want to acknowledge the changes, but I am removing or changing a couple of phrases. I would normally just use strike-through text, but it looks messy in this post so I am just making the edits instead.]
I feel pretty famous today. Apparently, my blog post regarding the pseudoscience of grounding did indeed make it into the documentary film The Grounded 2 (warning: woo found at this site). Steve Kroschel, the filmmaker, did have a conversation with me in the comments section of the blog in which he defended grounding. He did so mostly by moving the goalposts. Each time I refuted one of his claims, he would either change the claim or move on to the next. Eventually, the same claims I refuted would come back, and I would reference my previous comments. We went around for a long time, until Steve stopped commenting after accusing me of lying. [Note: the video in the link above is dead, but it can be found on YouTube if you are interested.]
Before I discuss the science, I want to rebut the specific claim made by Dr. Gaetan Chevalier in the clip available on the website linked above. His claim is “this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” I’d like to point out here a couple of differences between science and scientific skepticism and pseudoscience. If you notice, it is rare to see in my blogs for me to make a general comment on someone’s intelligence or knowledge. It is very easy to be wrong or misled. I certainly can be wrong, misspeak, or incorrectly read the data and results of a study. It is important to have scientific discussion because it does help correct those errors. In regards to grounding, I said Mercola, Ober, and Chevalier are over-interpreting their results, and that the studies are not well controlled. I attacked the information, not them. Questioning my intelligence is a classic ad hominem attack, and one clue towards concluding Chevalier is peddling pseudoscience.
The other part is questioning my credentials. While one’s education and experience certainly is a component of evaluating a source, it shouldn’t be the only evidence. I’m not sure what he wants to know about me, but right at the bottom of my blog I talk about how I (at the time) had just finished my master’s degree in physics and I was working as a college instructor. If they wanted more, they could have contacted me. I will admit: electricity and magnetism (E&M) was the hardest subject for me. I much preferred fluid dynamics and thermodynamics. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a good solid foundation in the subject, and I am always working to improve my knowledge. It seems to me they wanted to discredit me personally, because it is the only way to defend their position. It does appear Chevalier’s credentials are like mine—he taught electrical engineering. I have taught physics, as well as some of the basic introductory electricity classes for engineers. I guess his teaching counts for much more than mine?
Moving on to the science, I am going to try to summarize what happened in the video, as well as clarify a couple of points from my previous blog, one of which they bring up in the video. I want to start by reminding everyone, this is a blog. This is not a textbook on E&M. This is not even a general physics textbook. I am not going to be able to teach someone the basics of electricity in a single blog post. If I wanted to write a textbook, I would do so and make some money because it requires an extensive amount of work. Because I am just trying to impart a small bit of knowledge to my readers, I can occasionally over-simplify which can lead to misunderstanding. As I clarify, this will make sense.
Let’s start with a very basic lesson in the electric and magnetic fields. These fields are mathematical representations of what forces would be put on a charged particle within each respective field. Because these fields are vectors, multiple particle scenarios can increase the strength of the field or cancel it depending on the position of the particles. I will demonstrate this with the electric field. The electric field has a 1/r² relationship. What this means is that the field quickly decreases as one moves away from a charged particle. If one measures the field at one point, doubling the distance away from the charge will decrease the field strength four times. See the picture below to see what this looks like.
In this illustration, the orange dots are electric field sensors. The electric field strength is represented by the length of the arrow. It is apparent the electric field drops away pretty quickly.
The next two diagrams above show a single charge and the electric field at some point in space. Adding a second charge on the opposite side of the sensor actually eliminates the electric field at the sensor; the fields are of equal strength, but opposite direction, so the vectors cancel. This means if another charge were placed at the point of the sensor, it would experience no net force due to the other charges.
This brings me to my first clarification. In the previous grounding blog post I made the following statement:
Another claim is that “alternating electric fields are present everywhere in the environment – they are radiated from wires, even when no current is flowing through them.” I can’t even begin to imagine how they came up with such a claim. Well, I guess I can come up with some far-fetched explanations and maybe find a way to make this true. Even in those cases, the effect would be so small that it would take some pretty sensitive measurements to do so, far smaller than the background radiation naturally produced by the sun (something Dr. Mercola constantly touts as being healthy).
Without going into details about the position of charges in the wire and doing a bunch of math, let me just say I should have clarified my point better in that paragraph. When I heard in the video the word “everywhere,” it indicated to me they are saying the effects can be measured or felt everywhere. My point here is that a wire, when at a potential relative to ground, has a very small field extending out radially from the wire. In a wire carrying electric energy, the field is along the direction of the wire, which is why the charges move along the wire. There is a small net outward field because, well, math. And that field diminishes quickly with distance. A small field can also be induced on a wire (like an antenna) when exposed to electromagnetic waves. In either case, because the field is small, its effect is essentially limited to a couple of centimeters. This is both due to the decrease in strength with an increase in distance as well as a cancelling of the field due to other fields that are present.
This brings me to the demonstration in the video. Chevalier holds up a wire, and brings a non-contact voltage detector toward the wire and it sets off the detector. At this point he states, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” in reference to me. I see several problems with the demonstration. One, he takes my quote out of context (though again it is admittedly unclear). The non-contact voltage detector doesn’t go off until it is close to the wire (like it should). That isn’t everywhere, but very near the wire. Secondly, the wire is apparently plugged in – which wasn’t what was stated in the original Mercola/Ober video I was commenting on. They stated all wires radiate these fields. If all wires radiated fields that didn’t diminish with distance, non-contact voltage detectors would be pretty useless as tools to check if a wire is live or not. Finally, there are several other possibilities for setting off the detector, such as a static charge built up on the wire or insulator. These detectors can produce a small, but significant number of false positives.
The writer of the article also addresses this in the following statement:
This strikes me as as a patently silly statement, as that’s the whole point of antennas and rabbit ears on your TV: conductive materials placed in a coherent direction, will conduct and/or emit ambient electricity, period.
However, an antenna or rabbit ears are connected to something—your television or radio. So there is a connection which allows the current induced by the incident wave to flow. If the antenna is not connected to anything and the incident wave excites an electron in the wire/antenna, it will likely just be re-emitted when the electron returns to its ground state. That wave would be indistinguishable from any of the other waves in the environment. There would be nothing special about it. These 60 Hz waves are not what is being detected by the non-contact detector anyway—because if it did pick up any random EM wave in the environment it again would be an entirely useless tool.
The idea a wire just sitting there spontaneously emits an electric field of significant strength that it could be felt or detected more than a centimeter or two away is pretty absurd. We could discuss the electric fields emitted and absorbed in the form of heat photons, but that would be just as absurd. When we are close enough to anything, we can feel the effect of the electric field. The only reason I don’t fall through this chair I am sitting on, or that the chair doesn’t just pass through the floor is due to the electric repulsion between my butt and the chair and the repulsion of the chair legs and the floor respectively. I am always amazed at how powerful those fields (and the accompanying forces) can be when the charges are very near each other. However, I don’t feel the chair pushing me up as I rise from my seat—because the force drops off very quickly with distance.
As for the magnetic field, that does require a current. A magnetic field is produced when a charge moves. In a permanent magnet, the outer charges are all spinning in the same direction, each one producing a tiny magnetic field that add up to form a magnet. Wires are not made out of materials that like to stay magnetized, thus in order to produce a strong net magnetic field they require a current.
One other thing addressed in the video clip is what I nickname The Capitalistic Fallacy. The interviewer in the video leads Chevalier down the road to basically say because this would cure all disease, it would put the pharmaceutical industry out of business. What they are hinting is that the only reason they can’t get this information out there and get more money to study it is the pharmaceutical industry won’t let it happen. This is complete nonsense. Even if we assume for a moment this would cure some of the conditions they claim, there would still be bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. There will still be genetic conditions. Because the body is complex, not everyone would get the right dose of grounding, thus some of the conditions it could cure would still exist, though in lower numbers. The drug companies would still have plenty of business. Setting it up as an “us versus them” scenario is a football-field-sized red flag with the word pseudoscience printed across it.
I also love the part of the clip where I see Kroschel, the filmmaker, sitting behind Chevalier with a look of glee. He really seemed to have something personal against me in both the tone of his comments on the previous blog. Making this an entire section of his documentary was a bit surprising. I guess he really felt threatened by the science and needed some reassurance that I was “wrong.”
Chevalier’s demonstration in the video clip actually helps to strengthen my argument. The detector needed to be pretty close to the wire to detect a field of significance. Yes, we are exposed to electric and magnetic fields all the time. Light and heat are two good examples of this. All photons, including radio and TV signals, radar signals, microwaves, cell phone signals, infrared (heat and remote controls), visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays are all the same type of oscillating electric and magnetic field. It is basically a transfer of energy. The reason we feel warmth next to a fire is in part because some of the infrared wavelengths interact with water really well. I don’t feel my hand get warm if I put it in front of a remote however. These 60 Hz waves caused by wires carrying current have a very low likelihood of interacting with our body. It is because the wavelength (related to the frequency) isn’t of the right length to interact with most of the chemicals present on our body.
Chevalier didn’t really prove anything, and their attempt to discredit me was misguided. While I wasn’t perfectly clear on every point in my previous blog, I cannot write an entire E&M textbook on the blog in order to ensure everything I type is not misconstrued. Chevalier is overstating the effects of the electric fields caused by wires. As my previous blog and comments also state, Chevalier and company grossly overstates the effects of grounding and the studies do not have good controls or blinding.
I do wish Chevalier or Kroschel would have contacted me and we could have discussed this before it appeared in the film. I think it would have been more compelling to have either had me change my mind and issue a correction or at least have been able to say they presented me with proof and I was unwilling to change my mind. However, they haven’t provided any proof. The video clip is not proof. It is not a controlled experiment. The test in the clip doesn’t even appear to match the conditions they are claiming are in place.
The hypothesis of grounding still does not have evidence supporting its use. While I wouldn’t pursue it because of its limited plausibility, they are welcome to continue studying it. However, I hope they improve their experimental methods, and at some point can be willing to share their results and whether their data supports their hypothesis or not. While it is technically possible their hypothesis could turn out to be valid, it is looking more and more unlikely.
One other note: I don’t normally like to pick on typos because I make several myself on a regular basis in this blog, but the date on the article on the Forbidden Knowledge TV website is August 15, 2014. Maybe they are writing from the future—I would love to see that science! I decided to add it as a footnote here just so if anyone notices the date discrepancy between my post and theirs, it is already addressed here.