Student Questions: A Few Good Myths
These episodes where we answer student questions are among my favorites, because after all, schools are our best opportunity to promote the value of scientific and critical thinking. The best prepared student is the one with the best tools to make good life decisions. Today's questions are a great batch; half of these I'd never even heard of, and I have a pretty good handle on what pseudoscientific woo is currently being promoted out there in the world. What's really great about them is that while they all sound like woo at first, some of them turn out to be legit. You can never let your critical thinking filter get lazy. You don't want your filter catching false positives just because they raise all the red flags at first. So let's begin with a controversial belief that's currently riding a pretty good wave of popular consciousness:
The Paleo Diet
The "paleolithic diet" is a fad diet based on excluding from the diet any foods developed in recorded history. Like most restrictive diets, it's generally perfectly healthy and low calorie. And, like most other diets, if adhered to it should indeed result in weight loss and generally better health. Those are the facts.
Unfortunately, many promoters of the paleo diet go well beyond the facts and make untrue and irresponsible health claims, such as their diet will prevent all sorts of diseases. That's just an unscientific sales pitch. If you want to be in great shape, exercise a lot and eat well. That's the most basic health advice of all. There is no one magical fad diet that's needed, certainly not one as arbitrarily defined as this one. If you were to survey the world's top athletes, I think you'd find very few who owe the credit to a fad diet and not to hard work and healthy living.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a type of psychotherapy intended to help an individual cope with a traumatic memory. The theory is that extremely distressing memories are too hard to process, and that guided bilateral stimulation of the brain while focusing on the memories may help them to be fully processed and become less traumatic. In the case of one acquaintance who witnessed a very horrible death, her trick is to wave a finger from left to right in front of her face, keeping her eyes on it, and it calms her right down. She can do this on her own, and it gives her a link back to the original therapy.
EMDR not nearly as fringey as it sounds. The main controversy about it is not whether it works, but rather what the true mechanism is. Some argue that the bilateral eye movements don't actually contribute, and that the mechanism is actually the repeated exposure and resulting desensitization similar to what you get from more traditional therapy.
Stainless Steel as a Deodorizer?
I have only been able to find anecdotal evidence that washing with stainless steel and cold water actually does work better than water alone to remove the smell of garlic and onions from your hands — a huge amount of such evidence. Many stores sell pieces of stainless steel specifically for this purpose, but as many reports agree, any piece of stainless steel will work (such as cutlery or even the sides of a stainless steel sink). It's interesting that you mention egg as another smell for which this works; the infamous "rotten egg" smell is caused by hydrogen sulfide in the egg, and sulfides and related thiols are also the odor causing agents in garlic and onions.
I couldn't find any good research that I'd put forth as an authoritative explanation, but a leading consensus is that the stainless steel itself is not a reactant but a catalyst. Breaking down those thiols and sulfides is the idea, and ions either from the stainless steel itself or from oxides that bond to it are a potential key. Some say this reaction breaks the bonds holding the molecules to your hands, allowing them to be washed away; others say the molecules themselves are broken down and rendered odorless.
Another possibility that has not been discounted is simple acclimation and confirmation bias. Smell the garlic once and it will smell less the second time, because you're more acclimated. If you've washed your hands with stainless steel in the interim (or a magic crystal or anything else), you're likely to attribute the reduced smell to the use of the object. Chemistry is cool, and so is psychology.
Monophasic sleeping is what most of us do; you sleep once a day. In polyphasic sleeping, you take short naps throughout the day, like many animals do; with the idea being that, in total, you'll need less sleep. As infants we were all polyphasic sleepers, but as we develop, we settle into a biphasic state. According to EEG data that is backed up by cortisol and melatonin levels, blood pressure, and other measurements, our bodies want to sleep through the night and take a mid-day siesta. Most of us push through that mid-day drop in alertness and creativity, and remain monophasic.
A lot of famous people are said to have been polyphasic sleepers, like Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, or Benjamin Franklin, but these are all urban legends that don't stand up to biographical scrutiny. Some have been "free runners", working whenever they want and sleeping whenever they have to. Buckminster Fuller gave this up because of the conflicts with normal peoples' schedules, and Nikola Tesla would often binge work through the night but needed to crash afterwards for a full day or more. Very few people who attempt a polyphasic lifestyle are successful at it, and almost nobody reports having six extra hours of ready-to-rock wakefulness. Probably your best bet is to do what your body wants: Sleep through the night until you wake up on your own, with no alarm clock; then take a short mid-day nap. This is what most of our bodies are asking us for.
Burning-In of Electronics
No, burn-in of headphones and other audio equipment is just one more dimension of the snake-oil world of high end audio, akin to super-duper speaker wire. Burn-in is the process of turning on new equipment, sometimes under extreme conditions, to reveal defects. It's a common, and almost always worthless, tacked-on optional extra by some retailers of electronic equipment. Once in a while burn-in will reveal a defective component, thus saving the customer the trouble of taking the device home to discover it on his own; but as far as burn-in actually improving the performance of consumer electronics, then no, there is no evidence or plausible reasoning behind this.
The Planned Obsolescence Conspiracy
The theory that Microsoft conspires with PC manufacturers to make performance degrade over time, thus requiring upgrades to new PCs, makes little sense. Microsoft would have to write this gradual decline into their operating system, presumably in exchange for some kickback from the PC makers. Is Microsoft really so desperate for cash that they'd risk losing customers to competing operating systems like Mac and Chrome and Linux? Giving your customers a deliberately crippled product is certainly an established way to get them to upgrade in the future; but these days, Microsoft also has to worry about keeping them from defecting today.
Gradual performance degradation is what we'd expect to see from any PC even without the existence of a conspiracy. Bloat is a real, non-spectral culprit. Software gets bigger and more demanding of system resources, random downloads and extensions install themselves and consume processor cycles, hard disks get fragmented, free space available for swap files shrinks. Computers twenty years ago were just as snappy as computers today, because their simpler software required much less of the hardware.
I have no doubt that some conspiracy theorist can point to some existing licensing deal that Microsoft has with PC manufacturers and describe it as consistent with the existence of the conspiracy. I say, prove the conspiracy. Show me the code written into Windows that executes the gradual performance decline. Until they do, tell your aunt that her computer is not the only one that needs to keep up.
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