May 01 2012

Earthing

Have you heard of earthing? This is just one of many pseudosciences that fits into the “just make shit up” category. From the earthing website, we learn this about its history:

In 1998, a retired cable TV executive named Clint Ober sat on a park bench in Sedona, Arizona. As he watched the passing parade of tourists, it occurred to him that almost everybody—him included—wore synthetic plastic or rubber soled shoes. He wondered if such footwear, which had increasingly replaced leather since the 1960s, could impact health.

This follows the typical guru narrative – an individual makes a single observation or hits upon an idea, which is then presented as if it’s a breakthrough scientific discovery. From this one notion that rubber soles have replaced leather soles in recent years, Ober makes up his pseudoscience of earthing. Science-babble gobbledygook follows:

The research that followed has produced fascinating evidence demonstrating that Earthing generates a powerful and positive shift in the electrical state of the body and restores natural self-healing and self-regulating mechanisms.

We know that Earthing allows a transfer of electrons (the Earth’s natural, subtle energy) into the body. We know that inflammation is caused by free radicals and that free radicals are neutralized with electrons from any source. Electrons are the source of the neutralizing power of antioxidants.

Ober is taking a very simplistic view of the whole concept of grounding. The term has several specific meanings, but the one Ober is going for is the connection of a system to the earth to provide a low resistance path for the flow of electrical charge (either positive or negative). The earth essentially serves as an infinite reservoir, which can be either a source of electrons or a bottomless pit for them.

Grounding is used as a safety precaution for electrical equipment and working with metal or other conductive material that might come into contact with electricity (from lightning or power lines, for example). The low resistance path to the ground means that any static electrical build up or any short circuit or lightning strike can be dumped harmlessly into the earth, rather than cause damage to the equipment or an operator.

Ober distorts this concept, claiming that the earth is a source of electrons that gently flow into the body curing whatever ails you. A further premise is that simply by wearing shoes with rubber soles we are so thoroughly isolated electrically that our bodies cannot reach their natural electrical homeostasis. Our bodies, according to Ober, must be craving electrons, but simply cannot get them from the environment without a special connection to the ground. I guess sitting, lying down, and touching objects in our environment are not enough. Those rubber soles are just too efficient at isolating us (according to Ober).

The fact that electrons flow to and from us through everyday contact is made apparent by static electricity. If you ever got a shock from touching a door nob, then you experienced the transfer of electrons.

Completely blowing the physics aside, Ober and his accomplices then go on to butcher biology. The earthing site claims, as in the quote above, that inflammation is caused by free radicals. This is simply not true. The relationship between free radicals and inflammation is a complex one. It is probably more true to say that inflammation (which is caused by specific cells and proteins produced in an inflammatory response) causes the production of free radicals, which are used to cause cell damage. Free radicals are part of the weapons the immune system uses to damage invading organisms, for example. This also causes damage to host tissue as a necessary byproduct. Abnormal inflammation, of course, can primarily cause tissue damage.

Further, reducing free radicals is not a panacea. Free radicals are part of normal physiology and are used not only as part of the necessary function of the immune system but in many regulatory systems. Suppressing free radicals may therefore cause more harm than good.

Finally, in order to neutralize free radicals you need specific chemicals (anti-oxidants), not just free electrons. Free radicals, in fact, cause their damage because they have an unpaired electron. Electrons want to be paired, so free radicals are highly chemically reactive, stealing electrons from other chemicals and causing damage. Those chemicals then lack an electron and will steal it from another chemical in a chain reaction.  Anti-oxidants are able to provide an extra electron without becoming a free radical themselves, so they break the chain reaction. Their extra electron, however, is part of their chemical structure. It is not dependent upon being connected to an external source of electrons. That makes as much sense as saying that water is essential for life, and hydrogen is part of water, so hydrogen gas is healthy for you.

Every link in the earthing chain of argument is therefore wrong. It is little more than free associating with sciencey terms (i.e., making shit up).

Earthing is a true pseudoscience in that it claims to be scientific. Here is a list of allegedly supporting research from the earthing institute. The studies are typical of the kind of worthless studies designed to generate false positives – the kind of “in house” studies that companies sometimes use so that they can claim their products are “clinically proven.” Reading through the individual studies (summarized here) you can see that they are all small pilot or preliminary studies with atrocious methodology. They are little more than documenting placebo effects, subjective findings, and anomaly hunting.

What is lacking are rigorous studies that are designed to establish the basic claims of earthing or to show convincing evidence of a positive clinical effect.  Once study reports:

Most grounded subjects described symptomatic improvement while most in the control group did not. Some subjects reported significant relief from asthmatic and respiratory conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, PMS, sleep apnea, and hypertension while sleeping grounded. These results indicated that the effects of earthing go beyond reduction of pain and improvements in sleep.

This is actually not evidence for wide ranging effects from grounding, but for poor study design. When a treatment appears to treat everything that is evidence for poor controls and blinding. It is likely evidence that it treats nothing. Obstructive sleep apnea is an anatomical problem – closing off of the airway during sleep. It is not treatable physiologically. There is no plausibility to the notion that anything like earthing (even if it did something in the body) could relieve sleep apnea. The inclusion of sleep apnea in the list of ailments that earthing seems to treat simply invalidates the entire list.

Conclusion

The pattern of pseudoscience displayed by the claims for earthing is endlessly repeated, but tends to contain the same elements. One person is typically portrayed as a scientific visionary, who hits upon something the rest of the scientific community has missed, often based on a single observation (a eureka narrative). The basic claim is then connected to a series of claims that distort and misrepresent our current understanding of science. The claims are sometimes supported by terrible scientific studies designed to produce false positive results. All of this leads to marketing claims for some product or products. A cynical person might suspect that the entire thing was invented out of whole cloth in order to sell dubious products at inflated prices because of their astounding health claims.

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