August 6, 2019
By Dr. Jason Chan, Department of Chemistry, HKUST
Science is hailed by modern society as an academic discipline of strict moral grounding and high integrity. Almost every person would place some degree of trust into scientific studies, as they are deemed to represent knowledge derived from empirical evidence gathered through meticulous experiments.
Given its high social status, there is no doubt that people would feel inclined to trust a product or service backed up by scientific studies or claims. Unlike medical products and services which are tightly regulated by civil authorities, commercial use of scientific claims is less severely vetted. This has created a grey area for the pseudoscientists, who device clever scams that would have scientific appearance, but full of errors and lies.
One can learn well from a few recent (and still ongoing) examples - alkaline diet and alkaline water scam. The hypes about the “alkaline diet” began with a book called The pH Miracle written by Robert Young. In this book, Young claimed that ailments of the body, including cancers, resulted from an imbalance of pH. He proposed that an alkaline diet could provide cures for these conditions. However, his acid-base theory applied to food was only referring to foods rich in acid-forming elements (such as carbon, nitrogen and sulfur) or alkali-forming elements (such as potassium, calcium and magnesium).
In other words, Young was promoting a plant-based diet over a calorie-laden greasy meaty diet. A scientist would understand such health benefits had nothing to do with the pH level in the body whatsoever. Young was later charged with practicing medicine without a license and charges of frauds on cancer patients.
Alkaline water machines also follow from this line of pseudoscience quackery. Sold HK$30,000 to HK$50,000 per unit, these are water filter units fitted with an alkalizing core commonly filled with lime (calcium hydroxide), a dirt cheap mineral that is sparingly soluble in water, and produce a form of lime water with pH 11-12. Water at these pHs are considered highly alkaline and unsafe for drinking, but alkaline water advocates would shamelessly sell their units to you with complete disregard for the necessity to maintain gastric acidity in our stomachs, the pH regulatory functions of our kidneys and lungs and the highly controlled homeostasis maintained in our bodies.
Another example concerns false claims made by anti-vaccine and alternative medicine promoters and how they have managed to deceive so many that led to the recent resurgence of some highly alarming infectious diseases.
The lesson to be learned by the general public is to be vigilant of pseudoscience information spreading on social media sites. It can sometimes be hard to discern fake news from true science for those without a science background. Do some research on the internet for any suspicious topic by adding to the search term keywords such as “fake science” or “pseudoscience” to probe for its antithesis. If the claim is faulty, it is likely that someone would have debunked it somewhere using credible sources of information.
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