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Learning from reddit

by Josh DeWald

August 16, 2013

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The Internet is chock full of sources of information, some better than others. I happen to think that a particular area of the site Reddit is quite good. So I've decided to write an article discussing some cool stuff learned from reddit /r/askscience. For those unaware, reddit is a very popular site where people can post links (or text) and comment on them in a threaded manner (replies to replies). Both links and comments can be voted up such that, in theory, the cream floats to the top. It is broken into topics known as sub(reddit)s which have varying levels of moderation.

One of the heavily moderated sub-reddits is known as AskScience. The idea is you post a simple science-related question for which you are hoping for a well-sourced and explained answer from a fellow "redditor" who is also an expert in the field. Mere educated guesses are frequently deleted by the moderators and complete explanations (with sources!) tend to float to the top such that one can reasonably, I think, expect to be able to look at the top comment (answer) and learn something accurate.

What I want to do here is discuss some of what I learned from three of the top 10 "posts" for this week. I've chosen ones which I think are of interest to readers of this, and other, blogs in the Skeptical realm. They are also ones that I have genuinely learned something from.

What I learned: Yes, but no. It seems that if you have acute sleep deprivation (stayed up all night for one reason or another) you can get caught up within a couple of days of full sleep. But for the rest of us who are chronically sleep deprived -- defined as getting 6 hours or less sleep a night -- we feel less sleepy on a day to day basis but apparently have the reaction time of someone who has been up all night and/or has a blood alcohol of 0.10%. Basically we get used to it and think we feel normal but are apparently impaired and it might take weeks, if not months, to catch up.

This certainly puts some perspective on my plans to take Polyphasic sleep back up following my brief one-week experiment with it. That would get about 4 hours of sleep within a 24-hour period. I have not found any studies that specifically study polphasic schedules of this kind. Most instead look at biphasic sleep or getting all of the 4 or 5 hours in a single night.

What I learned: No, we are most likely not. The cell walls get oxidized by the chlorine solution (sodium hypochlorite), which is not survivable at the levels normally contained in a swimming pool. Paraphrasing an awesome analogy from /u/TheBulch: The chlorine levels in a pool are analogous to dropping people into lava… nobody is going to randomly have a gene that protects them from lava. There are some organisms that are chlorine-resistant, but maintaining the proper low pH (acidic) with the solution combat that resistance.

Following a CDC link from one of the comments, it turns out that fecal matter, from "formed or diarrheal fecal incident[s]", are relatively common in pools. Also, that there is an actual good reason not to urinate in the pool: nitrogen contained in the urine can combine with the chlorine to form an "ocular irritant".

What I learned: If you're worried about losing the nutrients, you can just consume the water (in this case, via the rice) and still get the water soluble nutrients that may have leached out. Vitamin C would be less available this way as the heat will have broken it down. Minerals (potassium, sodium, calcium,zinc, iron) tend to remain more whole than some of the more fragile micronutrient vitamins (C, B-12). Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) will likely remain in the vegetable and not leach out.

If you aren't cooking your food (e.g. doing a "raw" food diet), it may be more difficult to extract some nutrients and calories as the heat helps break down cell walls and proteins to make those nutrients more bioavailable. Even though more of the nutrients remain in the food when it enters the body, the "timer" on digestion is fixed and your body can spend a higher percentage of time getting to the nutrients than digesting them. Essentially, "raw" is perhaps a good way to lose weight, not a great way to efficiently get all of your nutrients. Multiple references to Richard Wrangham's book How Cooking Made Us Human. Following the trail of the book actually takes us to a 2007 Skeptoid episode discussing raw foodism. Brian cites a 2004 study which found that cooking cherry tomatoes makes some of their protective nutrients much more available.


The Internet has truly redefined “popular” when it comes to information gathering and it can be difficult to locate reliable information. I have found that the particular corner of /r/AskScience to be a worthwhile place to check on. It is a good idea to read both the top comments and their responses, as those add additional clarifications and corrections, which tend to get edited back into the original comment. If anything, it provides a very good jumping off place, similar to Wikipedia, to identify peer-reviewed and other scholarly sources for deeper information.

by Josh DeWald

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