Student Questions: the Mozart Effect, Quantum Theory, and AIDS
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 Skeptoid.com and click on Answering Student Questions. Let's get started today with Jerome from the Philippines:
Classical Music Makes You Smarter?
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.
Quantum Physics and Pseudoscience
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.
Alkaline Diets for 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.
Does HIV Cause AIDS?
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 website. 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.
Is Recycling Good for the Environment?
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.
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.
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