Adventures in pseudoscience — magnetic "therapy"

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Have you ever been watching a movie late at night when you’re interrupted by one of these inane commercials for magnetic bracelets? You know, the ones that show people wearing a magnetized piece of metal on their wrist or as a pendant and somehow their lives are fully in order and all their health problems are magically fixed? Who are the people buying these cheap marketing gimmicks? Have they lost their minds? Did they have functioning minds to begin with? Do these people even know what a magnet is?

Magnets create fields that attract or repel other magnetic objects. Contrary to some people's hazy thoughts, however, they don't impart magical health benefits for living tissue. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Of the numerous kinds of pseudoscientific garbage that exist — most of it invented to fleece ignorant people out of their money — “magnetic therapy” stands out as staggeringly bold. And for good reason: Studies suggest about $1 billion is spent on this quack idea by ill-thinking consumers every year.

OK, I hate doing this, but apparently in this culture we must. Let’s review what a magnet is. It’s an object that produces a magnetic field, an invisible force that pulls on ferromagnetic objects like iron and attracts or repels other magnetic objects. You encounter a magnetic field, for example, every time you step through that metal detector at the airport. That’s what makes the “beep” — the interruption of the field by magnetic objects. (Maybe we should just stand in the metal detector all day and somehow our health would improve.

Magnetic fields are very important and often play key roles in the universe. The Sun, for example, is controlled largely by its magnetic fields. Those are important in creating various solar storms, which the Solar Dynamics Observatory is just now beginning to decipher how they work. Some neutron stars have the strongest known magnetic fields and are known as magnetars. Magnetic fields play important roles in planetary science and in the lives of galaxies, as well.

But they don’t play a role in health therapy for people. If we can just get Americans to think about what they are saying, to stop thinking it’s OK to let their mind freeze up and just “take a blind leap of faith,” then we might get some understanding of this. There’s nothing in the human body that is affected by magnetic fields. Even the iron in our blood hemoglobin is not ferromagnetic — in other words, magnetic fields do not affect blood flow. It’s a good thing for actual medical therapy that our hemoglobin is not ferromagnetic. If it were, then a stop in an MRI machine would explode us and there would be lots of cleaning up to do.

The only effect the magnetic therapy has on its customers is to make them a little poorer, to make conniving marketing companies who prey on ignorance a little wealthier, and to spread a little more tolerance of misunderstanding the way the universe works.

I look forward to a world in which people take the initiative to at least understand the basics of how and why things are the way they are so they cannot be duped by greedy companies or shady entrepreneurs. But I think I’ll have to keep waiting a while longer for this kind of a society to emerge.

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