Student Questions: Drinking Urine and Studying to Music
Welcome to another Student Questions episode of Skeptoid, where we give short skeptical answers to whatever it is that student listeners all around the world want to know. Today we're going to talk about drinking urine (which is a thing for some reason), a civil rights conspiracy theory, grounding, time travel, whether you should listen to music when you study, mercury in fish, global warming, and whether we can tell if a distant star that we can see is still there.
Nope, none whatsoever; drinking urine carries plenty of risks and no benefits. Although naturopaths and other alternative medicine practitioners have been recommending it throughout history (in some cases even claiming that it cures all diseases), there are neither empirical nor theoretical benefits. Urine consists of unwanted compounds your body already tried to get rid of once. It also contains potentially hazardous bacteria, contrary to the old folk wisdom belief that urine is sterile. It's not. Drinking urine would not even be a useful way to hydrate yourself, since it contains enough salt and other minerals to actually make it dehydrating. But let's be honest: the main reason not to drink urine is that it's unspeakably foul, to say nothing of the fact that nobody will ever kiss you again.
Civil Rights Conspiracy
Conspiracy theories that depend on very large groups of people (such as the many individuals who work in the federal government) acting as a single monolithic entity, performing some immoral or illegal act, with everyone in lockstep and nobody objecting or calling a newspaper reporter — are on shaky ground indeed. We as people don't tend to work that way, especially people in congress who want nothing more than to publicly find fault with their opponents in the other party. This is illustrated in stark detail by the history of the civil rights movement, which clearly never had monolithic support in either government or the general public. This was a battle that took decades to win and still hasn't completely settled. So before looking for a conspiratorial cause for the success of the civil rights movement, you should first look again and see if it was actually won in a manner so unexpected as to require such an extraordinary explanation. But it wasn't. It was won the way most tides change in society: a long, slow, painful transition, punctuated with setbacks and conflict at every step of the way.
Grounding is the pseudoscientific belief that all disease can be cured by walking barefoot on the Earth — an idea that has neither any theoretical support nor evidence. Clinton Ober was one of the early proponents. He observed that animals don't ever get sick — which is of course totally untrue; disease is the leading cause of mortality among animals just as it is among humans. Nevertheless, in an equally bizarre leap of logic, Ober concluded the most likely reason for his observation was that animals don't wear shoes like we do and are thus electrically grounded. Medically, of course, there is no known disease that traces its cause to a slight difference in electrical charge between our bodies and the ground, so the whole idea is irrational. But perhaps the biggest error made by the grounding believers is not knowing that we are, all of us, already grounded to the Earth, all day every day. Our clothing and shoes are decent electrical insulators, but not perfect. More than enough static electricity passes through your shoes to keep you neutrally charged — and we still get every disease that our bodies are susceptible to. For more about grounding, please see Skeptoid #611, "All About Grounding".
The answer to this remains "no", at least as far as the science fiction version of time travel where you can travel backwards or forwards at will. It is, of course, well proven that relativity effects caused by high gravity or high speed can dilate time, causing one party to experience time at a faster or slower rate than outside observers; we've measured this in Earth's orbit, and some technologies like GPS actually have to correct for it. About the closest thing to what you're talking about would be theoretical concepts like wormholes which could shortcut curved space and allow faster-than-light travel, but this would work (even theoretically) only for the tiniest of particles and never for something as big as a person; and really isn't time travel at all. So you're not likely to get that chance to go back and kill Hitler.
Studying to Music
This is something I'd never looked into before, so I'll be honest, I spent half a day reading all the available research I could find. The result? Rarely have I found a subject upon which there is so much disagreement, so little consensus. You'll find both positive and negative research no matter what aspect of this question you look at. However, I will give my own personal synthesis of everything I read. First, listening to music (or whatever other content you enjoy) before doing your work is pretty universally agreed to help. It relaxes you, reduces stress, puts you in a good mood, and those are all helpful for learning. Listening to music while doing busywork, whether you're solving math problems or pulling weeds, keeps up that positive mood, but neither improves nor reduces the quality of your work. Finally, listening while you study — meaning memorizing or otherwise processing new information — generally hurts, and it makes no difference whether you're listening to something you like or dislike. There's a small interesting footnote to this final finding: some have found that recall performance improves when listening to the same music you were playing when you learned that information. Might be worth an experiment on your own.
Stars and the Speed of Light
No, there is no way to know. Light is not the only thing limited by light speed. Gravity is as well. Even if a star really close to us, like the sun, suddenly disappeared somehow, we would still feel its gravitational pull for another eight minutes (as the sun is eight light minutes away). One implication of Special Relativity is that no information of any kind — no matter what clever way you could think to transmit it — can ever travel faster than the speed of light. Thus there is no possible way to learn that a star has disappeared, or to learn about anything else that might have happened, in less time than it takes the visible light to reach you.
Mercury in Fish
This is a plausible concern, but not one you need to worry too much about. Methylmercury does bioaccumulate in fish, especially bigger fish and especially those at the top of the food chain, in an effect we call biomagnification. But although the majority of the information you'll find online trumpets the dangers of mercury in fish, levels typically found are far below safety levels, and to date there has never been a known or published case of mercury poisoning in a human from eating fish. Commercial fish is also tested all the time, and so far none has ever had to be pulled from markets due to high mercury levels. So although it's certainly a concern, and we should continue striving to reduce industrial mercury reaching the oceans, you can probably continue to enjoy as much seafood as you want — its benefits still outweigh its risks.
Update: While normal environmental levels of mercury worldwide do not pose any significant risk from eating fish, it should be noted that there have been isolated cases of extreme mercury toxicity from specific industrial waste incidents. Most notably "Minimata disease" in Japan resulted from the local population eating shellfish from mud highly contaminated with mercury-laden industrial waste from 1932 to 1968, and two smaller incidents in Ontario in 1970. In both cases the levels were so high that it was possible to reprocess the contaminated mud and recover useful mercury. In neither case was there ever evidence that risk spread further than the immediately affected area. –BD
Reality of Global Warming
That's not what I was saying. In that episode I focused on the problems of trying to communicate a science idea that has such heavily charged political and ideological implications. The debate that exists is in the general public that doesn't understand the science; within the scientific community, there is no debate. There is no question that the warming since the dawn of the industrial revolution is 100% caused by humans burning fossil fuels, and not by any other cause; and we are already past the point at which there's any hope of reversing that without grave consequences to the environment and to world economies. For a great brief on the undisputed science, see Skeptoid #549, "The Simple Proof of Man-Made Global Warming".
So listeners, keep those questions coming. You don't really have to be a student — so long as you're a student of life or the scientific method or something, as we all are — just come to skeptoid.com/questions to see how it easy it is to record and send in your question, you can do it all in less than a minute. We'll tackle it on the next Student Questions episode of Skeptoid. And remember, if you want to learn more about anything we've talked about today, you'll find complete bibliographic references and further reading suggestions at the bottom of this page.
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