Student Questions: Dancing Plague and the Cinnamon Challenge

Skeptoid answers another round of student questions sent in from all around the world.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #333
October 23, 2012
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Today we're going to do something a bit different. Rather than focus on a single subject like most episodes, occasionally I'll answer some questions sent in by students all around the world. Today we have questions on the medieval dancing plague, ketogenic diets, colony collapse disorder among honey bees, the potential devolution of humanity, death from cinnamon, and how we know that the Egyptians are the ones who built the pyramids. Let's get started:

Hello there, I'm Andrew from Canada College in the San Francisco Bay Area. A while back I came across an article about "dancing mania", an event in medieval Europe characterized by frantic mass dancing, with no clear cause. Did this actually happen, and what was its cause?

It was certainly real, and it's unsolved. The Dancing Mania, the Dancing Plague; stories say a whole series of these happened in Europe throughout the Middle Ages until the 17th century. Enough reports survive to tell us that many such episodes occurred. Several modern authors have studied it and written about it, but here is what I think is an important point that these accounts almost never mention: episodes of dancing mania had very little in common with one another.

Some cases are described as taking place at religious gatherings, where people acted not too differently from they do at some churches today. Some are reported as sicknesses where the sufferers seemed to quiver uncontrollably. Some involved a single person, some a few gathered together, some described as widespread epidemics. And all of these over different centuries and in different countries. From my read of the literature, I find no reason to conclude that there was "a" dancing plague.

Moreover, the most significant case, the Dancing Plague of 1518 in Strasbourg, smacks of exaggeration. Dozens of people came into the streets and danced nonstop for weeks, and some eventually died of exhaustion — according to John Waller and Robert Bartholomew, two of the few authors who seem to be the only sources from which these cases are widely known. How reliable were the third, fourth, tenth, twentieth hand accounts upon which they drew? Who were these people who are said to have died? One problem is that medieval doctors didn't have the medical knowledge to describe the condition in terms specific enough for today's neurologists to make a definitive diagnosis, and I find it telling that there are precious few cases of Dancing Plague on the books since the development of modern neurology. Another problem is that medieval reporting was almost never first hand and was usually reinterpreted to fit within the beliefs of the day, thus stories of knights fighting dragons and witches casting spells.

Waller and Bartholomew have offered a few candidate explanations: a kind of mass psychogenic illness, a neurological condition possibly transmissible, a religious fervor, or something drug induced. My read is that probably all of these have happened over the centuries. Whether any of two of these cases were at all related, or whether any were as dramatic as they're now described, will probably always remain unsolved.

Hi Brian. This is Brandon Bodnar, a student at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York. I wanted to know do ketogenic diets provide any benefits to healthy adults other than those benefits provided by any strictly monitored diet regime.

A ketogenic diet is when you starve your body of carbohydrates, forcing it to burn fats. It's much more severe than popular low-carb diets like Atkins. The ketogenic diet is a medical intervention used primarily in the treatment of pediatric epilepsy, and it's quite effective on between 1/3 and 1/2 of patients. The most common version of it is the Johns Hopkins protocol, which is pretty strict and very difficult to maintain outside of a hospital setting.

Although some small studies (and consequent promoters) have suggested various benefits for healthy adults such as anti-aging, the preponderance of evidence shows that so far it's only been proven effective for pediatric epilepsy. I've not found any dietitians who would recommend it for normal healthy living; that's not at all what it's for.

Hi there, Brian. Daniel Heeren here. I'm living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, earning a Bachelors of Science at Grand Valley State University. I'm wondering if you would talk about Colony Collapse Disorder in honey bees. Specifically whether pesticides are the cause and if so, which ones? Additionally, what about pesticides would or could cause something like this? I've been hearing some appalling figures, but I'm dubious about them. Especially the claim that one third of honey bees within the U.S. have been dying off each year since 2006. That would mean, if my math is correct, that populations are down to about 8.79% of what they were in 2005, not counting those that would've died so far this year in 2012. Is there any truth to that as well? Thanks.

Colony collapse disorder is potentially disastrous to agriculture, so governments and industry have taken it very seriously. The most recent of the US Department of Agriculture's annual progress reports to Congress paints a fairly grim picture. The most significant finding is that there's no single cause. Colony collapse has been happening all around the world since 2006, and there's no one potential cause that's found everywhere bees are dying. Different pesticides are used, different natural diseases are found, different weather patterns, and anything else that might affect colony health.

Pesticides almost certainly do play some role. Pesticides get onto the pollen, then get onto the bees, and are then transported back to the hive and to the queen. A new area of research concerns sublethal exposure, in which bees are not killed outright by the pesticides; but there's almost certainly some deleterious effect on either health, pollination behavior, increased susceptibility to natural disease, or all three. But no pattern of exposure to pesticides has yet been correlated with the disorder. Nosema, a parasitic infection that affects bees, is another cause. Researchers are working hard to solve it and to treat the bees for the afflictions we've been able to identify, but the crisis is not yet over.

The numbers you give are about right, but a bit misleading. About a third of bees have been dying off each winter since 2006, but of those, only about a third have been attributed to colony collapse disorder; the rest to other known causes.

Hey Brian, Dustin here from the Salt Lake Community College in Utah. I'm wondering about some things I've heard about the de-evolution of humanity. With longer life spans, medical advances and government programs reversing the normal process of evolution it would be counteracting "survival of the fittest" resulting in a smaller population of educated strong healthy people, and a growing population of dumb sick and genetically inferior people. The inevitable result would be something like the scenario put forward in the movie Idiocracy. Is this something we really have to worry about and is humanity as a whole actually becoming weaker and dumber?

Are we reversing evolution by eliminating the factor of natural selection? No, mainly because evolution does not happen in a specific direction. That's a common misconception of how evolution works. Throughout history, as the environment has changed, species have adapted, in whatever way arose. Sometimes it was optimal, often it was merely adequate. Sometimes species went out of business when they could no longer compete. Sometimes continents separated a species and it developed on divergent paths. As humans do evolve over the distant future, the likelihood of it going back exactly the way it came is as mathematically unlikely as any other specific direction you might care to predict.

The human environment is different now than it was 10,000 years ago, and 10,000 years in the future it will be unimaginably different still. But such time spans as those are blinks of an eye in evolutionary terms. The programs you mention have only existed for little more than a few generations. Cultural change will always outpace physiological change by factors of thousands or millions. The scenario you describe might make for intriguing fiction, but it does not remotely represent the real evolutionary process.

Hello, this is Julian Ramirez from Heidelberg Germany, and I have recently heard about the cinnamon challenge, where you eat a spoonful of cinnamon, which is supposed to taste awful, some people say you can die from this because large quantities of cinnamon is toxic, is there any truth to this?

There are two parts to your question: first, is there any danger in taking the Cinnamon Challenge (consuming a spoonful of cinnamon in under 60 seconds); and second, are large amounts of cinnamon toxic. The answer to both parts is "Possibly".

A mouthful of cinnamon quickly absorbs saliva and dries out your mouth, making it extremely difficult to swallow. Choking is a hazard. Many people attempting the stunt have coughed cinnamon into their sinuses or inhaled it into their lungs, both of which are painful. Getting it into your lungs where it can block airways is absolutely dangerous. Infections and even collapsed lungs have resulted from this.

Consuming too much of anything is toxic. You can die from drinking too much water or breathing too much oxygen. Cinnamon contains a compound called coumarin which is pretty hard on your liver. A single spoonful of cinnamon — assuming you can get it down — will pass right through your system and not do you any harm. But consuming a lot of cinnamon over a long period of time can gradually cause liver damage, and if unchecked, liver damage can certainly be fatal.

The good news is that I couldn't find any records of anyone actually dying from either practice. Most likely, the worst the Cinnamon Challenge is going to do is to make you cough cinnamon all over your computer while recording your YouTube video.

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

My name is Matt Sully, I'm a 25 year old majoring in Literature studies at the University of Victoria in Victoria, BC Canada. My question is: What evidence do we have that Egyptians built the pyramids? It's obvious to me that it was not ancient aliens or the Jewish people - but I am having trouble finding proper evidence regarding who really built them. When you Google it, you find a lot of woo and hearsay. Thank you for your time.

We know that the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids because they left us a huge amount of evidence. We have the signatures of architects. We have the markings on stones left by engineers. We have instructions, logs, and even graffiti left by the building crews on stones that have been excavated from places that were never meant to be seen. We have the homes of the workers, we have the written histories of the pharoahs carved into the stone, and we have a staggering wealth of testable artifacts recovered from sealed tombs. Everywhere, from the outer exposed surfaces to the inner hidden surfaces to the contents of sealed rooms, we have the self-referential history of the building of the great works of ancient Egypt. And if all of that is not enough, we have thousands of the Egyptians themselves, thanks to their practice of mummification.

In short, a staggering amount of evidence exists that tells us about ancient Egypt, and not one shred of it has ever contradicted what they've told us their own selves.

Students, keep those questions coming in. Just visit Skeptoid.com and click on Answering Student Questions.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Bartholomew, R. "Rethinking the Dancing Mania." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Aug. 2000, Volume 24, Number 4.

CCD Steering Committee. Colony Collapse Disorder Progress Report. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture, 2012.

Clark, L. "Who Built the Pyramids?" NOVA. PBS Online, 4 Feb. 1997. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/who-built-the-pyramids.html>

Editors. "Ketogenic Diet." About Epilepsy. Epilepsy Foundation of America, 2 Apr. 2006. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. <http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/aboutepilepsy/treatment/ketogenicdiet/>

Frazier, J., Mullin, C., Frazier, M., Ashcraft, S. "Pesticides and Their Involvement in Colony Collapse Disorder." American Bee Journal. 1 Aug. 2011, Volume 151, Number 8: 779-781.

Healy, M. "Teens' Cinnamon Challenge: Dangerous, not Innocent." Booster Shots Blog. Los Angles Times, 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/28/news/la-heb-teen-cinnamon-challenge-20120328>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Dancing Plague and the Cinnamon Challenge." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 23 Oct 2012. Web. 20 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4333>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 22 comments

Jeff Winn says, "I can understand why pesticides might be related to colony collapse disorder. But if so, why didn't we seen this problem decades ago? 2006 seems oddly specific and comparatively recent."

Many sites respond that the specificity of the date and the rapidity of the onset relates to the release and widespread sale of a specific, new, nicotine-like insecticide, sold by a major international chemical company.

Brian indicates that there aren't enough common factors in the various outbreaks of the problem to blame a single culprit. Assuming that he investigated this chemical with many are blaming, then he concludes the story is more complex.

Derek, Santa Fe, NM
October 25, 2012 2:24am

As an aside - i wonder if i could lace something with that new nicotine like insecticide and smoke it...? would cut the cost of cigarettes right down...

Anyway - i second Mike Dax's proposal about looking into Percy Fawcett - I love that stuff too.

Thanks again Brian for another good episode.

Jon, Auckland, NZ
October 27, 2012 2:19am

>>>A ketogenic diet is when you starve your body of carbohydrates

First off, "ketogenic" is an adjective. Many diets are ketogenic diets, including Atkins. Your caller was asking about ketogenic diets, not "The Ketogenic Diet."

Starve means to deprive of something necessary. Dietary carbs are not a necessary food. You need fat; you need protien. You do not need to eat any carbs. Your body will make all the glucose you need from fat and protein.

>>>It's much more severe than popular low-carb diets like Atkins.

In what way is it "more severe?" It restricts carbs just as much. Johns Hopkins even recommends Atkins as an alternative.

>>>Johns Hopkins protocol, which is pretty strict and very difficult to maintain outside of a hospital setting.

No. The diet Johns Hopins diet recommends hospitalization for children only for the first four days. During that time the parents are educated on the diet, but they maintain the diet after discharge from the hospital with very little intervention.

Hospitalization for the first four days is only to get past the body's initial transistion from Carb-burning to fat-burning, but there is no basis to claim that it is "much more severe."

ES

ES, LA, CA
October 29, 2012 2:10pm

I am an epilepsy educator and heard your post on the Ketagenic Diet. I just wanted to emphaise to people that it is considered a medical diet and can have very significant issues for adults as it is incredibly high in fats. These children have regular blood tests and a certain % have to cease the diet due to health issues. If anyone is looking at this diet please use the Atkins or midified Atkins diet.
To answer ES - the reason that it is considered "much more severe" is because the amount of fats/carbs/protien for each meal is carefully worked out and must be adhered to strictly. One extra biscuit can mean the diet will not work. It can be great but is very hard work to follow.

Katherine Parsissons, Hobart, Australia
November 4, 2012 9:54pm

Brian,

I think you've attacked a strawman with your "de-evolution" answer. You're quite right that evolution goes neither backwards nor forwards, but that's not really the question.

Perhaps the most important function of natural selection is to weed out harmful mutations. These are far more common than helpful ones. This is why, for example, species that dwell in caves go blind. Without natural selection to maintain their vision, damage accumulates in their vision genes over time until eventually their eyes are non-functional.

The same holds true for humanity. If genetic damage no longer affects reproductive success, then we will pass that damage to future generations.

The key questions are: What consequences will this have? How quickly will they occur? What can or should be done about them?

Peter, Toronto, Ontario
November 19, 2012 9:26am

Hello Brian
The reason you still have bees even though a third of them die each year is that every year you import millions of bees from Australia. We are one of the few countries left that does not have the mass deaths of bee colonies. We send you healthy bees who pollinate your crops then die of the diseases that kill your bees. If we get a problem with our bees there will be no one else to supply bees to pollinate US crops. Please tell anyone coming here to observe our strict biosecurity laws. Thanks for the great podcasts.

Livia Rushworth, Melbourne Australia
March 5, 2013 4:15pm

If millions of bees were the solution to bee die off, the problem would be solved.

Yes Livia, I agree that our bio-security laws have been of some help but we cant stop contamination of stock from the north.

At present we are doing moderately well and we are extremely active in this regard.

I am not quite sure any slur on the US was intended, but as far as the honey bee is concerned, I doubt the US is at fault as its in trouble in this regard after may countries have reported this over the past.

Telling someone that the bees were in danger a decade ago would have brought on howls of derision.

Mud, Pho\\\'s Brewery NSW, Oz
March 26, 2013 12:13am

I feel you failed to answer the "de-evolution" question, to my satisfaction at least. You instead addressed the misconception that de-evolution is even a thing, which is great, but you didn't go beyond that and discuss how our modern society softens or even eliminates natural selection (as least as we know it in "nature") and what this could mean for our evolutionary future. A good episode otherwise.

Yabeen Sees, Tooleedoo
April 10, 2013 12:14pm

yes, you had some fun and interesting facts about evolution, but i guess i should have framed my question a little better. i wasn't afraid that humanity would turn back into Homo erectus. its obvious still moving along the path of evolution. but are we evolving as a species in to something better or worse? are we simply diagnosing mental illness more often, or is it actually happening more frequently? does disease spread more quickly because we live closer together, or because our immune systems rely on supplementation? is the average intelligence going up, or down? most days it seems like people are discovering new answers, inventing new things, breaking world records, and living through diseases that would have killed us all 100 years ago, so its not really a big concern for me... until i walk in to a walmart, or see a commercial for "honey boo boo"..... then i wonder...

Great podcast! thanks for letting me listen!

dustin, salt lake city utah
April 22, 2013 11:43pm

John G. Fuller's 'The Day of St. Anthony's Fire' documents an outbreak of ergotism in a French village, the symptoms of which include intense over-excitement, inability to sleep, unrestrainable leaps and jerking movements, followed by death from exhaustion in a week to ten days. Many outbreaks of this condition have been documented throughout the Middle Ages. Oliver Sacks ('Awakenings') compares it to one manifestation of encephalitis lethargica (the 'sleepy sickness') which destroys the brain centre responsible for sleep and produces very similar manifestations; there are also well-documented cases of this from Ancient times through to the early 20th century. 'Dancing plague' is a weird description, if you study descriptions it is a condition of intense activity characterised by involuntary leaping, gesticulating and contortions. Ergotism, and perhaps secondarily the hyperactive variant of encephalitis, probably account for most of the well-attested, mortal outbreaks, which have probably been conflated in earlier accounts with examples of religious-extatic 'dancing' like the post-Black Plague 'Flagellants' and similar.

Rob Horne, Colombo, SL
June 21, 2013 6:24am

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