Student Questions: the Mozart Effect, Quantum Theory, and AIDS

Skeptoid answers some questions sent in by students.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #128
November 18, 2008
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Once again, a giant round of thanks to the students who have sent in this week's questions. If you're a student and are wondering about some pseudoscience or other skeptical question you've heard, send it in and I'll answer it in a future episode. Just come to and click on Answering Student Questions. Let's get started today with Jerome from the Philippines:

Hey Brian, this is Jerome Clemente from Manila, Philippines, I want to hear your take on the Mozart Effect. Can music really affect the intelligence of an individual, like they say that rock music can make you dumber and classical music can make you more intelligent. Like me, I listen to heavy metal but I don't feel stupid. Thank you.

I'm glad you asked. It just so happens that my wife Lisa was one of the test administrators when this research was originally conducted in the early 1990's at UC Irvine by Dr. Gordon Shaw, a physicist, and Dr. Frances Rauscher, an experimental psychologist. The idea was to test whether young children's spatial-temporal IQ scores could be improved by listening to various types of music. Although they had some promising preliminary results from a particular Mozart piece which made immediate worldwide headlines, the full study eventually showed no significant result. I once spent half an hour with Gordon Shaw in his office, batting a crumpled-up ball of paper back and forth and discussing his theories on dark matter. I asked him straight out what the research showed so far and he said something like "Basically bupkiss," even though, strictly speaking, that violated the blinding on a couple of levels; but I think by then they were just about done with it, and had zilch.

Nevertheless, as you probably know, the headline "Mozart Makes You Smarter" was such a great one that whole industries exist around it, more than 15 years after it was conclusively falsified, selling Mozart CDs to pregnant mothers and claims that music therapy cures all sorts of diseases, and everything else a snake-oil salesman can invent. In short, the testing found the claim to be pure pseudoscience. The most significant effect of buying a Mozart CD in hopes of making your child smarter is to transfer a sum of money from your pocket into that of a company exploiting sensationalism.

Hello, My name is John and I go to Westchester Community college in New York. I often hear the terms quantum physics and quantum theory used by people pushing pseudoscience. Can you give me a brief introduction to what quantum is and why it is so useful to bad science. Thanks.

This is a great question. It is so tiring to hear peddlers of supernatural nonsense supporting their claims by citing quantum physics. The word quantum refers to the smallest discrete unit possible. For example, a quantum of light is a photon. You can't have half a photon of light. Max Planck discovered around 1900 that energy is always transmitted and absorbed in discrete units, which are called quanta.

Quantum theory is the study of matter and physics at a very small, subatomic scale. Classical physics deals with the large scale world: Where I drop a rock and it lands on my foot, or a planet orbits the sun and is held in place by gravity. In the quantum world, these physics no longer apply, in part because that world is driven by different fundamental forces, and we have weird things like particle-wave duality and singularities and spin and entanglement, for which there are no analogs in classical physics. Our brains evolved in a different world, so it's really hard for us to wrap our heads around quantum theory. Thus, it's the perfect reference to support a meaningless pseudoscience: Nobody understands it, nobody's qualified to falsify its relevance to the claim, everybody's impressed by the term.

When Rhonda Byrne wrote The Secret and claimed that quantum physics explains how you can wish for things and they'll magically appear, she didn't know anything more about quantum physics than the average person on the street. She's just a smart enough marketer to know that when people hear the term, they're impressed. Ask a theoretical physicist who has read her chapter on quantum theory: Not a single word of it makes any sense; it's just childish technobabble to impress the masses. Real quantum theory has no conceivable relevance to paranormal claims like The Secret or What the Bleep Do We Know, thus its frequent employ is almost always without any scientific meaning.

Hi, I’m Bailey from William Smith College and I’d like to know if there is legitimate science behind using an alkaline diet to treat GERD.

GERD, basically gastric reflux disease, is a chronic condition where stomach acids come up into your esophagus, causing heartburn discomfort and also tissue damage. When this happens a lot, your esophageal sphincter can be damaged which makes the situation even worse. An effective symptomatic treatment is to take an antacid, like Tums, which quickly neutralizes the acids in the esophagus and eases the discomfort. Effective long-term treatments include drugs that block acid production, changes to your sleeping position like elevating the head, and weight loss. What doesn't work so well is making your diet more alkaline, i.e. less acidic. According to a number of studies, eating less acidic foods and even consuming antacids stimulates additional acid production in the stomach to digest it. Now that's OK — your stomach is designed to hold highly acidic contents — but it means your reflux is probably going to continue. Most research does not support an alkaline diet to treat GERD. Your best bet is to eat a lower calorie diet to help you lose weight, watch your sleeping position, treat the symptoms with antacids only as needed; and if it continues, consider drugs to reduce acid production and give your esophageal sphincter a chance to heal.

Hello Brian, I am Javier from FSU at Tallahassee, Florida. I read online that there is no scientific evidence showing the relationship between HIV and AIDS. I would like to know what do you think about this and the HIV conspiracy theory. Thanks.

First of all, it's important to understand that the fact that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus is thoroughly established and is beyond any reasonable medical question. The best article I've seen that explains how we know this is by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is reprinted on Dr. Stephen Barrett's excellent Quackwatch web site. The article also goes through many of the specific claims made by the people who doubt the relationship, and explains the facts behind each question. The medical questions are raised and answered, and also a few of the crazy conspiracy questions are outlined. For example, "AZT and other antiretroviral drugs, not HIV, cause AIDS." You know, the whole thing where American Big Pharma conspires to spread death and disease throughout the world in order to maximize profits. Well, that's goofy of course, but you can banter the goofiness back and forth all day long; whereas this article describes clinical trials that have proven AIDS is not caused by AZT or any other drugs. The scientific evidence showing that HIV causes AIDS is vast. There's a link to the article, titled The Evidence That HIV Causes AIDS, on the online transcript for this episode.

Hi Brian, this is Kevin Determann from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and my question is: Is recycling really environmentally or economically friendly?

Exceptions abound, but generally the answer is yes, recycling does often have limited environmental benefits, and no, recycling rarely makes economic sense.

Here's an oversimplified example. Let's say you're a manufacturer who buys aluminum. You can buy it from the mining company, who finds it profitable to employ miners to dig it out of the ground, refine it, and sell it to you; or you can buy it from the recycler at a similar price. Is it profitable for the recycler to employ drivers to go around collecting recycle bins and selling it to your factory? No, which is why they don't pay the owners of those bins the way the mining company pays its miners. The recycling company has to charge the owners of those bins. That's why all of our monthly utility bills cost extra to have a recycling bin collected.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Aluminum is also a great example because it's the most recyclable of materials. It can be recycled over and over again forever, and is the only recyclable material that pays for itself. Aluminum is also rare in that it takes less energy to make a recycled can than it takes to make a can from natural ore (Previous version of this episode erroneously cited a source that got this backwards - BD). But for most other compounds, manufacturing from raw materials enjoys an economy of scale unmatched by the tedious inefficiency of driving trucks around to everyone's house, hand sorting every piece of garbage, and driving more trucks around.

Paper is among the worst materials to recycle, making neither economic nor environmental sense. Paper manufacturers plant trees, which are a renewable resource, and they suck carbon dioxide out of the air. Paper recyclers drive trucks around, hand sort, and drive more trucks, emitting carbon dioxide into the air.

But it's not a simple question. What do we do with our trash when we're done with it: Bury it in a landfill, or pay the costs of recycling? Neither solution is desirable. The important lesson to learn here is that improvement is needed throughout the process, and all existing solutions have downsides crying out to be addressed. So don't oversimplify it and conclude that recycling is either good or bad.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Graham, L.R. "Quantum Mechanics and Dialectical Materialism." Slavic Review. 1 Sep. 1966, Volume 25, Number 3: 381-410.

Marks, J.W. "Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)." MedicineNet. WebMD, 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 19 Jan. 2010. <>

NIH. "The Evidence That HIV Causes AIDS." Health and Research Topics. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 14 Jan. 2010. Web. 4 Sep. 2015. <>

Shaw, J. "Recycling." The Concise Economic Encyclopedia. Library of Economics and Liberty, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 17 Jan. 2010. <>

Steele, K.M., Bass, K.E. Crook, M.D. "The Mystery of the Mozart Effect: Failure to Replicate." Psychological Science. 1 Jul. 1999, Volume 10, Number 4: 366-369.

Wiggins, A.W., Wynn, C.M. Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends...And Pseudoscience Begins. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2001.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: the Mozart Effect, Quantum Theory, and AIDS." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 18 Nov 2008. Web. 4 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 36 comments


At the extreme end of treatment is corrective surgery. I was to the point of aspirating stomach acid that was damaging my lungs. A quick, laparoscopic, Nissen's fundoplication, turned off the reflux like a switch. Haven't touched a Tums in over fifteen years.

Gary A. Crowell Sr., PE, Boise, ID
July 20, 2010 12:13pm

Regarding aluminum recycling, my high school chemistry teacher illustrated the energy difference between processing aluminum ore and recycling used cans with a very simple but very memorable experiment: he made thermite. He measured out powdered aluminum equal to the mass of a soda can, mixed it with powdered iron oxide, placed the mixture in a sandbox and ignited it with a magnesium fuse. The result was a very large and HOT plume of flame that left a bead of molten iron in the sandbox surrounded by traces of white powder. He then explained that the white powder was aluminum oxide, and to get the aluminum back away from the oxygen would require as much energy as was just released. By comparision, reprocessing aluminum cans takes a fraction of that.

Mark J. Mayhew, Indianapolis, IN
November 5, 2010 5:55am

"all existing solutions have downsides crying out to be addressed"
well, i have to strongly oppose this generalisation :)
for example the cradle to cradle design approach i first heared about on ted:

abductee, germany
January 20, 2011 1:37pm

Mark, your chemistry teacher forgot a few things about thermodynamics. The display was great tho.

The best we ever got was a teacher throwing sodium in nitric acid. The teacher had to go to hospital.

Henk v, sin city NSW, Oz
August 12, 2011 5:31am

Ever since I saw the Penn and Teller episode on recycling, I've understood that paper recycling is horrible, and Skeptoid #128 supported my view. But I recently decided to examine the issue further and look for actual data, so I went to the link provided in the show notes, to the Library of Economics and Liberty. In that link, they site a study done by the EPA in 2000 that they say shows a negative environmental impact, but though I couldn't decipher it. And anyway, there's newer, better data.

I found this out by contacting the EPA. The rep sent me a bunch of compelling info, including this link:

I also went looking for sources on the Penn and Teller episode, and I found this article on their main source, Daniel Benjamin:

It's starting to look like we may have been wrong about this issue. What do you all think of this stuff?

Jake, Pacific Grove, CA
August 12, 2012 9:50pm

I listen to all kinds of music to help me study and improve concentration. Music blocks out the noise coming from the other rooms in the hostel so it is a great experience. At night I prefer no music at all. I am also ADD so I listen to music I got from here

I also listen to some free samples of music here

OliveEyes7, Islamabad
August 30, 2012 3:23pm

I was in the recycling business for 5 years.

I think recycling needs to be broken down by the different collection methods to really understand what you choose to recycle. The primary methods are drop off & curbside.

I believe curbside rarely makes a lot of sense. It adds a big carbon load for its pickup. The trucks run the route & pick up your bin whether you have 2 cans or bottles or 200.

Drop off recycling has some advantages. It shifts the timing to the consumer & you drop off when you have enough to make the trip worth it to you, more toward the 200 can end of the spectrum.

The chart on page 2 of this pdf on web page, is another great tool that show energy saved by recycling over raw material. It is pretty clear that aluminum is good to recycle & you often get paid to drop off cans.

Steel is often forgotten as recycling. It has been successfully recycled by scrap yards for decades. They also recycle the yellow metals like brass & copper. You should get paid to drop off all metals.

Plastic has some decent energy savings if it can be baled as close to its source as possible.

Paper makes more sense to recycle than glass. It compacts well & has several markets.

Interestingly, glass is what everyone wants to recycle & it has the least energy savings & is the heaviest to ship, hence increased fuel load.

That's my hierarchy of recycling. You can decide for yourself how far down you want to go.

Bill Crane, Helena, MT
September 13, 2012 2:58pm

Considering the fact that AIDS and HIV were around before AZT...that's a pretty odd argument.

You also forgot to mention that GERD is genetically inherited. My grandfather lived off of baking soda. My dad lived off of tums. I take prilosec, and don't eat near bedtime. It sucks. But I don't want to end up like a friend of mine, who lost 2/3 of a lung because of aspirated acid.

For those of us who have inherited GERD, it isn't all about losing weight, though maintaining a healthy weight is essential to helping to keep it under control. For us "lucky" people, it's about treating the symptoms in time to prevent the damage. But at least I have priolosec, if I must suffer.

Sara, Salt lake City
January 21, 2013 3:41pm

Can you please post a good argument to the above statements?

Inherited gerd is a new concept.

Midrash Delinquent, Gerringong NSW Oz
July 12, 2013 11:44pm

Recycling: it's not just about using resources. Recycling any kind of material keeps it out of the landfill.

Swampwitch7, Gainesville Fl
August 19, 2014 12:14pm

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