Student Questions: Orbo, EVPs, and Shakespeare

Skeptoid answers another round of questions sent in by students all around the world.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #243
February 1, 2011
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Note: There was a bad audio file containing gaps when this was first released. It was corrected, but a lot of people got it. If you have gaps in your file, delete it and download the current version.

Today's topics come from students in three different countries. We're going to learn about Electronic Voice Phenomena, the martial arts practice of semen retention, the authenticity of Shakespeare's plays, and the benefits of foods said to be high in antioxidants. But first we're going to get started with a quick look at one the world's favorite perpetual motion machines, the infamous Steorn Orbo:

Hi Brian, this is Ubbo from Hamburg, Germany. I was wondering is the Steorn Orbo for real? It's supposed to be a machine that runs with producing excess energy, more than it consumes. The website is Thank you.

Sadly, no. The Orbo is one of many, many, many perpetual motion machines with which inventors have tinkered in vain over the years. This particular one is a magnetic motor, wherein magnets are arranged around the outside of a rotor in such an arrangement that, to an inexperienced layperson, it looks like the rotor should be pushed around. My brother spent a decade obsessing over the exact same idea, convinced it would work; and if you search the Internet you'll find that lots of other people have built similar devices.

Steorn gained great notoriety several years ago when they announced their device in a media stunt, and created a buzz by not saying anything about their Orbo device. They assembled a board of scientists who were to verify that it worked, but not surprisingly, they came back with the unanimous verdict that it did not. But the media loves magical solutions, so their public failures have done little to diminish their notoriety.

Steorn has given two public demonstrations of their motor. In the first, it didn't work. In the second, they powered a variant of it using a battery; and then asserted that it had charged the battery more than it drained it, but did not permit this to be verified.

Generally it is not necessary to assess such claims for their validity. The laws of physics prohibit the creation of kinetic energy from nothing, which is a pretty straightforward explanation for why no such device has ever been successfully demonstrated.

Hi. My name is Jessica, I'm from Tucson, Arizona and I am a sophomore in high school. My question is, how does a person who is a self proclaimed expert in EVP's explain how they work?

EVPs are Electronic Voice Phenomena, supposed to be the voices of ghosts that appear on tape recorders at times when the ghost hunters say nothing was audible. I think you've hit the nail on the head by calling these experts "self-proclaimed". EVPs are not scientific by any definition. There is no plausible theory behind how they might exist, they fail to appear whenever controls are applied, and they're not reproducible by other researchers. Thus, the existence of EVPs remains squarely in the territory of "anecdote".

Usually the explanations given by ghost hunters depend on using one unknown to explain another: The voices appear on the tape recording because the spirits are able to manipulate electromagnetic fields that interact with the recorder's electronics in just such a way as to result in a perfect audio recording, with flux distributed on the magnetic tape at just the right amplitude and frequency. How ghosts acquired this intricate knowledge of recording electronics and an invisible dipole electromagnet is not convincingly argued.

That's not to say EVPs don't exist; if they did, it would be an exciting discovery with broad implications across many sciences. No doubt many ghost hunters have indeed honestly acquired recordings of sounds they're unable to explain; but science does not allow us to make the jump from "unexplained" to "conclusively explained as a ghost". The cause of the recording could be just as reasonably explained as a beam from the planet Neptune, from a shipwrecked spacefarer named Frank who crashed there in the year 1642 after a journey from Regulus. There are an infinite number of possibilities if your only criteria is "it must be conceiveable" rather than "there must be at least some evidence".

So, Jessica, according to what's known today, there is no such thing as an expert in EVPs.

Hi. I'm Jon Peder from the University of Bergen in Norway My question is: Is there anything to semen retention? Any positive or negative effects?

Semen retention is a practice recommended by some martial arts experts and practioners of traditional Chinese medicine. It refers to the control or prevention of ejaculation by applying pressure to block the ejaculatory duct. It has its basis in jing, which is one of the life force energies that the prescientific Chinese believed to exist, like qi. From a review of the published literature, it seems that different advocates have different takes on it. Some say you should always practice semen retention in order to keep yourself powerful by retaining jing; others say that a carefully followed regimen of ejaculation and retention is best to assure the proper management of jing.

Since jing exists only as a traditional belief and does not exist in the literal sense, there is little actual reason to practice semen retention. So far as I was able to find, there is little or no discussion of it outside of martial arts circles. Some martial artists speak of potential capillary damage from repeated practice, but I did not find this echoed in medical literature.

There's no medical reason to either ejaculate often or to prevent it. Spermatozoa, which are produced constantly, live for about three days, and once they die, they are disposed of by your body just like any other waste. The seminal fluid is also constantly being secreted and reabsorbed. These processes continue independently of whether or not you ejaculate. So if your sensei tells you to retain your semen to increase your life essence, it's probably not going to hurt you to do so; but neither is there any plausible benefit. It's just one more weird thing you can do with your body if it gives you jollies.

Hello Brian Dunning, this is Stephen from California. I would like to hear your take on the opinion that Shakespeare was not the real author of Shakespearean literature.

This is an interesting question, and one that may be worthy of its own complete Skeptoid episode. But we can summarize a quick answer here.

There is indeed a subculture of Shakespeare skeptics, who believe that Shakespeare (if he existed at all) was not the author of the many great plays with that byline. Many alternate candidates have been put forward, with the most common nominee being the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Although such suspicions are interesting, it's important to keep in mind that they are in the severe minority, with nearly all serious historians and Shakespearian scholars dismissing the claims as nonsense. Fringe ideas are almost certainly wrong; when they turn out to be right, they move into the mainstream and are no longer on the fringe. Shakespeare skepticism has so far failed to make that transition.

The Shakespeare skeptics are principally motivated by an absence of evidence that Shakespeare lived. He left no diaries, letters, or original manuscripts. But it turns out that this was not unusual for authors of the time. We have no such documents for Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe either.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to accept Shakespeare as the real author is his unique and recognizable writing style, which does not match that of the authors to which his works have been attributed by doubters. And this is not merely an unreliable, subjective opinion: It's backed by hard science. There is a branch of computer science called computational stylistics which can analyze a given author's writings to form what we call a literary fingerprint. Shakespeare has a unique literary fingerprint, as does every author, that differentiates his writing from others with very high probability. Work done at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has shown not only that Shakespeare was the author of his own works, they've also determined conclusively that he had co-authored or revised works by others that had long been suspected but never proven. They were also able to show which authors had influenced Shakespeare's plays, and which other playwrights had been influenced by him.

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None of this is absolutely infallible, of course, but the fact remains that all available evidence supports Shakespeare as a real living author, and the only support for the opposing viewpoint is supposition.

Hi Brian. My name is Thomas Gebert from Florida State University. I was wondering: What are the documented medical benefits from anti-oxidants that a lot of foods are claiming to have?

We went into this in some detail in Skeptoid #86 about so-called "superfruit" juices. In summary, it's probably not something that the average healthy person needs to worry about. People selling miracle diet plans and miracle supplements are likely to tell you differently, but the management of free radical oxidation is something your body handles pretty well on its own.

Here's how it works. Oxidation happens when a free radical, which is a molecule with an unpaired electron, forms a covalent bond with another molecule in your body, thus oxidizing it and changing its ability to interact chemically. Antioxidants inhibit this action. The fact is that the human body is extremely complex, and it maintains complicated systems of different types of antioxidants in various self-regulating supplies. Oxidation is essential for life. It's how the body converts fat into energy, it fights bacteria, and it does lots of other things. Antioxidants regulate this activity. This is necessary because oxidation also does bad things that you don't want. Managing this constant balancing act is something that the body does very well.

Products are easily sold with oversimplified scare pitches: Oxidation is bad, antioxidants prevent it, our product has antioxidants. Each of these statements is an incomplete truth, and the facts are far more complex than that. If you eat anything close to three squares a day, you're already getting more antioxidants than your body will make use of. But every claim is worth testing. And what we've found by testing antioxidant supplements is that they do not provide any of the claimed benefits, such as preventing cancers or heart disease. Yes they're good, and your body needs them, but there is no reason to supplement with them. In fact, one large 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that supplementation does more harm than good. So continue eating a normal healthy diet, and don't spin your wheels seeking out miracle foods that claim to be high in antioxidants.

Students, keep those questions coming in. Just go to and click on Student Questions to get your answer right here.

Note: There was a bad audio file containing gaps when this was first released. It was corrected, but a lot of people got it. If you have gaps in your file, delete it and download the current version.

Brian Dunning

© 2011 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Ash, E. "The perpetual myth of free energy." BBC News: Technology. British Broadcasting Company, 9 Jul. 2007. Web. 10 Jan. 2011. <>

Bjelakovic, G., Nikolova, D., Gluud, L., Simonetti, R., Gluud, C. "Mortality in randomized trials of antioxidant supplements for primary and secondary prevention: Systematic review and meta-analysis." Journal of the American Medical Association. 1 Jan. 2007, Volume 297, Number 8: 842-857.

Carroll, R. "Electronic Voice Phenomenon." The Skeptic's Dictionary. Robert T. Carroll, 19 Apr. 1999. Web. 25 Jan. 2011. <>

Editors. "Computerized Analysis Helps Researchers Define Shakespeare's Work Using 'Literary Fingerprint'.", 27 Sep. 2006. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <>

Godson, S. "Sex advice: Is semen retention harmful?" The Times. 11 Oct. 2008, Newspaper.

Novella, S. "Have You Had Your Antioxidants Today?" The Science of Medicine. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, 1 Nov. 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <>

Shermer, M. "Shakespeare Interrupted." Scientific American. 31 Jul. 2009, Volume 301, Number 1.

Siebert, E. "Shakespeare and Skeptoid." Skeptical Humanities. Bob Blaskiewicz and Eve Siebert, 8 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Feb. 2011. <>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Orbo, EVPs, and Shakespeare." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 1 Feb 2011. Web. 26 Nov 2014. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 48 comments

So exactly what questions is Brian 'qualified' to answer? True he (and most of us) are not an English BA/MA/PhD etc, but it is a bit dispiriting to hear a teacher (of all people) telling somebody off for trying to answer questions. Isn't the whole purpose of this website the promotion of learning and getting people off their backsides and trying to find out stuff, even when they don't have any academic qualifications in a subject?

Andrew Ball, Sheffield
March 7, 2011 11:12am

I have academic qualifications. I went to Thunderwood College.

Brian Dunning, Laguna Niguel, CA
March 8, 2011 3:06pm

The problem with the antioxidant situation (at least, from my point of view) is that certain components of our modern food supply provide too many free radicals - refined and hydrogenated oils would be particularly guilty of this. Claims along the lines of "oxidation is bad, you need more antioxidants" fudge the truth quite badly, but can still be useful in some cases.

It's clear that taking in too many antioxidants is bad, but if there are also too many free radicals being taken in then it should roughly balance out. Still, I feel that the best strategy is to, instead of adding antioxidants to the diet, remove the sources of free radicals.

Jonathan S., Toronto
October 27, 2011 3:00pm

you be parrotting old claims there... have you tried a survey?

Mud, Sin City, Oz
October 27, 2011 7:41pm

Do you disagree with the idea that oxidative stress is a major factor in a significant number of diseases? Or the idea that excessive free radicals can increase oxidative stress?

Or are you just pointing out that the ideas are old in the hopes that I'll realize facts can suddenly become invalid if they're too old. Or are you again misinterpreting me?

Jonathan S., Toronto
October 27, 2011 8:44pm

have you tried a survey?

Mud, Sin City, Oz
October 27, 2011 9:26pm

A survey of what in what, exactly? Be specific.

Jonathan S., Toronto
October 28, 2011 1:45pm

While there is a whole class of diseases that claim the somewhat ambiguous term "oxidative stress" as a factor. It's pretty clear from Bjelakovic's review that there is no strong correlation between a number of anti-oxidants (like vitamin A,C and E, beta-carotene) and longevity which at the very least calls into question the idea that there is some benefit.

So before any intelligent discussion may be had it's probably best if you refine your position and say the specific diseases and the specific anti-oxidants you are postulating as beneficial.

Also a jonathan, Also toronto
November 14, 2011 11:29am

Also a jonathan, Also toronto, may I call you Also^2 ?

What you wrote has been retold many times. Brian has even had an entire skeptoid about it.

Its just a little bit more than a buzz word after all this time. Its ingrained in our lexicon.

There are a few more words that folk use that seem to justify what they repeat. It appears by the mere utterance of these words, the following garble is blessed by "truth".

Natural, energy and organic are so corrupted that its legal to use them in advertising for food and self administered drugs.

I am sitting here wondering how to praise you for that great post.

Try this;

I wouldnt get through the day without my organic and natural anti oxidant energy drink

of course that is no where near as romantic as, I just love a cup of tea.

I think Brian can work out exctly how beneficial that is without looking up the tables used for woo foods and supplements.

The brief "I just love" describes all the benefit it gives me.

Yes its cheap tea!

Mud, on the road, nsw, Oz
November 14, 2011 2:13pm

Pity JS left around this time..His being a school kid exposed by a simple google challenge.

Look if you are going to elicit detail about yourself;

A clincher is your time zone.

All of skeptoid can check what folk cut and paste but most of us arent that quick off the mark when checking "personal fantasy information" against the time zones.

This person was the first I have time stamped.. Ive only done it once since..

Methodology to spot false claim..

Otherwise..the hang themselves method (Brian's or the tightening noose.. mine) are great ways of catching bunnies large or small

Manky Drapes, sin city, Oz
July 18, 2013 5:37am

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