The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer


published January 2004
Broad-mindedness is a virtue when investigating extraordinary claims, but often they turn out to be pure bunk
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Those of us who practice skepticism for a living often find ourselves tiptoeing politely around the PC police, who think that all beliefs and opinions are equal. Thus, when asked, “Are you a debunker?” my initial instinct is to dissemble and mutter something about being an investigator, as if that will soften the blow.

But what need, really, is there to assuage? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to debunk is to “remove the nonsense from; to expose false claims or pretensions.” Bunk is slang for “humbug,” and bunkum is “empty claptrap oratory.” Here is some bunk that merits no brook.

Ear coning cleans your ears and mind. The idea is to lie down on your side with your head on a pillow. Then place a long, narrow, cylindrical cone of wax into your ear canal until a tight seal forms. Light the open end of the cone on fire. The negative pressure created will not only remove undesirable earwax, according to Coning Works in Sedona, Ariz., but also provide “spiritual opening and emotional clearing, realignment and cleansing of subtle energy flows, sharpening of mental functioning, vision, hearing, smell, taste and color perception.” The technique “acts as a catalyst to clear out debris from nerve endings allowing for clear vibrational flow to corresponding areas of mind, body and spirit.” Why pay $25 to $75 to have your ears cleaned by your doctor, asks another ear-cone seller, Wholistic Health Solutions, “when you can easily do it at home?”

Well, for starters, according to a 1996 study conducted by physicians at the Spokane [Wash.] Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic and published in the journal Laryngoscope, “Tympanometric measurements in an ear canal model demonstrated that ear candles do not produce negative pressure,” and thus there was no removal of wax in the eight ears tested. Worse, a survey of 122 otolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat docs) identified 21 ear injuries from ear coning. If one is inclined toward such self-mutilation (or a good chortle), however, I recommend a quick stop at the satirical, which touts a “gentler alternative to laxatives, enemas and anti-flatulence pills” in the form of a carefully (and gently) placed hollow candle that when burning creates a vacuum that draws out impurities. Best of all, it’s “100% soluble and septic-safe.”

Laundry balls clean clothes. These spherical, toroidal or spiked balls contain no chemicals and yet are purportedly reusable indefinitely in the washing machine to clean, deodorize, sterilize, bleach and soften clothes. But they do not “ionize,” “structure,” “cluster” or “magnetize” water, as various manufacturers claim. They all work on the same principle: washing clothes in soapless warm water does have some cleansing effect, particularly for nongreasy garments mainly soiled by dust, dirt and sweat. But with laundry balls costing from $25 to $75, golf
balls are just as effective and a lot cheaper.

A counterfeit pen can detect counterfeit bills. Containing tincture of iodine that reacts with the starch in recycled paper to create a black streak, the pen only works to catch counterfeiters who are brainless enough to use cheap paper, thus creating a false sense of security. Meanwhile clever counterfeiters who use high-quality fiber or linen paper containing no starch or whitening agents continue to fleece their marks. Merchants beware: after warning law-enforcement agencies — who ignored him — fellow skeptic James Randi periodically applies commercial spray starch on $50 and $100 bills for recirculation into the economy in the hopes that false pen positives will force the bunkum squads into action.

To “buncomize” is to “talk bunkum,” and no one does this with a better vocabulary than pseudoscientists, who lace their hokum narratives with scientistic jargon. (One laundry ball manufacturer claims that it “works on ‘Quantum Mechanics’ (Physics), not chemistry, with a method called ‘Structured Water Technology.’” Another uses “infra-red waves that change the molecular structure of the water.”) To “do a bunk” is to “make an escape” or “to depart hurriedly,” a wise move when skeptics arrive on the scene fully armed with steel-jacketed science and armor-piercing reason.

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