Student Questions: Internet Tracking and Plasma Cosmology
Once again we're going to answer some questions sent in by students all around the world. Are you skeptical about something in pop culture? I'll do my best to give you a quick and accurate answer. Today's questions pertain to hCG dietary supplements, the value of web browser extensions that block cookies and browsing history, the value of ear candling and antibacterial cleansers, and a freaky idea called plasma cosmology. Let's get started with:
hCG Dietary Supplements
Hi Brad, and you pretty much answered your own question. If you limit yourself to 500 or 1,000 calories per day, you're going to lose weight, whether you want to or not, and whether you take any sort of supplement or not. Also, that's far too restrictive a number, and is definitely not healthy. Nobody should restrict themselves this much without a doctor's supervision. But let's talk about the hCG.
hCG is Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, a hormone released by the placenta during pregnancy. We measure its level for screening of pregnancies, possible birth defects, and other potential problems. At some point, someone decided to market it as a dietary product. The only possible connection I've been able to find is that women tend to lose weight after giving birth, so someone figured out a way to leverage that into a fad diet. In fact, hCG plays no role in losing weight after birth; a woman's body stops producing it once she's longer pregnant.
The real key here is that you mentioned your friend took "drops". I guarantee you will find these are homeopathic preparations, which, by definition, means that they do not contain a single molecule of hCG; only its "spiritual essence", to use the homeopathic terminology. Even if the drops did contain some hCG, there's no medical reason why they might impact weight loss.
The basic weight loss advice that's truest and costs you nothing: Avoid all diet fads, especially those you have to pay for. Simply eat better, eat less, and exercise.
A few years ago I would have told you such extensions are a waste of your time. The basic structure of the Internet hasn't changed: Cookies don't do anything but store information limited to what a website's server is able to know about you, which isn't much; websites can't access cookies stored on your computer written by other websites; and no website can access your browsing history or your computer's contacts or other documents at all, ever, period. These are fundamental security characteristics built into the nature of Internet protocols.
But things have evolved a lot. These days, virtually every website has widgets from Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Google Ads, and dozens of other advertising companies. Every time you visit such a page, your browser makes a call to those companies to get their widget or their ad, and now Facebook or the others know that you just visited that page. Cookies have become virtually irrelevant, since the companies that track you generally have direct access to you virtually everywhere you go.
Roads exist because we pay road taxes, and the free, useful Internet sites we all enjoy exist because we unknowingly allow these companies to learn about us so they can market targeted products to us. You can install such blockers, like Disconnect, Ghostery or Adblock Plus, and they will generally work well. Companies will no longer know about your browsing habits, they will receive less value from having you as a visitor, the advertisements you see won't be relevant to your interests, and you'll lose some level of convenience. That's basically the proposition.
But a word to the wise: Some of these tracking blockers will themselves track you, which is why they're free. Be very careful when you configure them, and check their settings.
These tracking blocking extensions shouldn't be confused with browser settings that block third-party cookies or delete your browsing history. There is not really any longer a super-compelling justification for doing this, unless you're worried about an expert gaining physical access to your computer to see what websites you've been visiting. Cookies and your locally-stored Internet history are parts of the legitimate Internet infrastructure, and are both helpful and convenient when used properly.
Ear candling is an alternative medicine technique for removing ear wax. It involves laying on your side, placing a thin, hollow candle in your ear, and lighting it, letting it burn almost all the way down. The claim is that the heat inside the candle creates a negative pressure inside the ear, which somehow "vacuums" out your ear wax. The usual supporting evidence offered is that when you cut open the remaining part of the candle, you can see orange residue inside. Thus, it must be working.
But everything is wrong with this. First, one researcher burned a control pair of candles by themselves, without putting them in an ear, and found they contained the same orange residue. This is because the residue found inside used ear candles is from the candles themselves, not from your ear.
Second, candle heat can potentially create a weak convection current, but that's not a vacuum. Hold a burning ear candle near any sort of debris, like dust on a desk or salt on your countertop, and you'll see that nothing is moved at all. Ear candles have no physical potential to perform their only advertised function.
Third, they're quite dangerous. Injuries from hot wax dripping into the ear canal are frequent. Equally common are burns suffered by people trying to hold their own ear candles.
Finally, your ear secretes wax for a reason. It guards against infections in the ear canal and removes dirt and other contaminants as it naturally flows outward. If for some reason you ever do get a problematic blockage of ear wax, it can be easily and safely removed with a bulb syringe or eardrops. There's never any reason to perform ear candling, which is proven to be both dangerous and useless.
Gary, you're right on with this one. There are two basic types of antibacterial cleansers; those that contain biocides like triclosan (the most common), and those that contain alcohol. Both are effective at killing germs on contact, and both are about as effective at removing germs from your hands as a quick wash with soap and water. The difference is that alcohol evaporates, leaving no residue; and triclosan doesn't. This results in the creation of a triclosan-contaminated environment on your hands, in which it's possible for triclosan-resistant germs to reproduce.
Although this has been given a lot of press and is generally true, the downsides of using triclosan are probably overblown. A whole variety of possible side effects has been raised in the media — like endocrine disruption, allergies, and environmental contamination — but these are also exaggerated more often than not.
Nevertheless, there's no compelling reason to choose triclosan cleaners over the equally effective alcohol based cleaners, which lack any of the risks. And to go a step farther, there's also no reason other than convenience to choose either over simply washing your hands.
Plasma cosmology is the name for an alternative model for the universe. In very broad strokes, it proposes that electromagnetic forces in astronomical objects play not just the relatively important role that they actually do play, but that they also account for all the other astronomical structure that we now know are attributed to gravity and relativity. It's complicated and that's not a complete or very accurate description, but suffice it to say that plasma cosmology discards virtually every major astronomical discovery and theory of the past 50 years.
Unlike most crank alternative models, this one was actually proposed by a trio of real theoretical physicists. But they did so in the 1960s, before much of modern astronomy was known. For example, we now know that some of the observations the originators of plasma cosmology were trying to explain are the result of things like dark matter, dark energy, and inflation, concepts that were not yet proven back in those days. But even in those early days, plasma cosmology failed as a theory in too many other ways, and was never taken very seriously. Today, with our much more complete knowledge, it's completely unnecessary. It violates too much of what we know, and it fails to explain anything that's not already explained by proven phenomena. A lot of its themes are nothing more than straw-man arguments against the standard model, such as untrue claims that scientists refuse to acknowledge electromagnetism.
But like every fringe theory, even those that have been disproven, plasma cosmology continues to have its supporters, almost all of whom (today) come from outside of astronomy. It's comparable to ideas like geocentrism or the hollow earth theory. Always remember that it's easy to fool laypeople with scientific-sounding jargon, but there are very good reasons why astronomers abandoned this particular idea decades ago.
Students, keep those questions coming. It's easy to record and send a question if you have a smartphone, just come to Skeptoid.com and click on Student Questions. Until next time, stay away from the ear candles.
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