Student Questions: Dancing Plague and the Cinnamon Challenge
Skeptoid answers another round of student questions sent in from all around the world.
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:
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.
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.
Bee Colony Collapse Disorder
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.
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.
The Cinnamon Challenge
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.
Who Built the Pyramids?
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.
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