Yet another reader leads me somewhere I’d rather not go:
Science Illustrated magazine is running an ad for the John Ellis water machine which I’m pretty sure is a big pile of steaming crapola. This ad is billed as a medical discovery, and contains testimonials from people who supposedly recovered from incurable diseases in just days. I’ve attached a scanned copy of the offending ad:
Normal I’d just scoff at such ads, but this was in a science magazine, so I wrote the email below to the magazine. Could you confirm that I’m correct when I say this product is nothing but snake oil and voodoo science?
Hello Science Illustrated Magazine Staff,
Your magazine was recently included as a bonus gift with Popular Science magazine here in Australia. Your magazine was a good read but I cannot take it seriously as a science magazine because you carry a full page advertisement for the John Ellis water machine which is obviously nothing but snake oil.
You insult your readers by running such ads. Worse, by taking money to run such ads, you are complicit in offering false hope to terminally ill people with discredited voodoo science.
Any magazine should be ashamed to run such an advertisement, especially a science magazine. Your legitimate advertisers should be appalled to be seen in the company of John Ellis.
There’s a long tradition of ads for questionable devices in the backs of magazines like Popular Science. “Build Your Own Flying Saucer”, et cetera. I agree, however, that outright full-page quackery is not at all the same thing as the usual “Make Big Bucks By Raising Minks” sort of ad.
And yes, this is, so far as I and the entirety of the world’s evidence-based scientists and medical practitioners can tell, bollocks.
There’s a surprisingly large number of other “clustered” or “energised” or “oxygenated” water products out there. I’ve written about them myself from time to time (see also, The Wine Clip), as have others. See, for instance Penta Water, a classic clustered-water product sold by classic clustered-water salesmen.
The John Ellis “Electron Water Machine” is a bit unusual, because it is a machine, essentially a still, with which you can convert the lethal product of your kitchen cold tap into a transcendental substance alleged to have the usual long list of peculiar qualities.
The Electron Water Machine is, for instance, alleged to create “a water freed of diseased memory plus extra electrons and oxygen, lowered surface tension and enhanced hydration”. The “extra electrons” are classic water quackery; a Nobel Prize in physics - or accidental destruction of the planet, whichever comes first - could be yours if you actually managed to make “extra electrons” just sit there in bulk water. And the “lowered surface tension” part is the sort of thing that a young child could measure, were it true.
The thing that really makes people selling the Ellis machines different from every other water nut is that “diseased memory” thing. Apparently the fact that any given water molecule on this planet is rather likely to have passed through a lot of human and animal kidneys before it makes it to your glass is very, very bad, and this terrible ju-ju must be exorcised to make the water not actively injurious to health. (Take that, you eight-glasses-a-day fools!)
Like almost all other water woo-woo, though, the output of an Ellis machine is likely to be harmless, which is more than can be said for a lot of quackery. People selling magic water, and people selling devices that shine coloured light on you to treat every disease under the sun-through-a-stained-glass-window, and people who’re just practising homeopathy for that matter, usually get to do their thing without interference from the government. That’s because the regulatory bodies are usually understaffed and overworked, and are flat out just trying to deal with the really monstrous quacks.
I would also venture the opinion that if a given person can’t figure out that there’s something fishy about John Ellis from the 5000 words of large-text ranting that currently comprises the johnellis.com front page, then that person is likely to hand their money over to some other quack soon enough.
And the Ellis distilling machine probably does make perfectly good distilled water, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see a less-floridly-advertised still that does the same thing for half, or less, of the $US1500 price of the base-model Ellis device.
If you’re interested in the burgeoning field of water woo-woo, allow me to recommend Stephen Lower’s “Water-related pseudoscience, fantasy and quackery“. He breaks the various varieties of H2O scammery down into categories - there’s “ionized” and alkaline water, for instance, a category which includes Australia’s own “Unique Water“. (That stuff was going to revolutionise medicine some years ago, but never quite managed it, for some reason.)
The John Ellis Electron Water Machine gets its own page on Lower’s site, here. Lower addresses the bizarre advertising claims that Ellis made until recently - like, for instance, that “Fifty years ago the hydrogen bond angle in water was 108° and you rarely heard of
anyone with cancer. Today, it’s only 104° and, as a result, cancer is an epidemic!!”
Had the angle of any hydrogen bonds actually changed, the fundamental chemical and/or physical properties of water would have changed with them and there’s a good chance life on earth would have died out, Vonnegut style. And note that the Science Illustrated ad talks about breaking hydrogen bonds in water, not changing their angle.
In a trivial sense, of course the Ellis device breaks hydrogen bonds; the plethora of hydrogen bonds in water is what gives the tiny water molecule such a high boiling point compared to other small molecules like, for instance, carbon dioxide (boiling point -78.5° Celsius) or methane (b.p. -161.6°C). So to boil water, you have to break the hydrogen bonds, and all normal distillation gear does boil whatever it’s distilling, so duh, his thing does too. But so would a kettle, or an appropriately-modified cat-food tin. Presenting the breaking of hydrogen bonds as being something special and unique is like saying “Only the ‘09 Datsubishi Grapefruit reduces exhaust nitrogen oxide to nitrogen and oxygen, and oxidises carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, at the same time!”
(Oh, and just for the sake of completeness: Overall cancer rates have indeed, generally speaking, increased over the last century - but, one: Cancer incidence neatly tracks increases in life expectancy, on account of most cancer being a disease of the elderly; would you rather live to 87 and then die of cancer, or die at 12 of smallpox? And, two: Cancer treatment today is far better than it was in the 1950s. We don’t have a cure for all cancers, but we certainly do have cures for a lot of them.)
As Stephen Lower’s article points out, Ellis has now changed his selling strategy, no longer mentioning impossible quantum physics and switching to impossible biology instead. Ellis now alleges that ordinary stills let through all sorts of dreadful substances - drug residue, germs, those mysterious things he calls “disease markers” - which his special machines block.
These claims are not hard to test. It is easy to prove that various off-the-shelf benchtop water distillers do in fact give you distilled water with tiny-to-zero content of undesirable substances. Well, except for “disease markers”, which I suspect do not mean the same thing to Ellis as they mean to everyone else.
Ellis’s old nutty quantum-physics claims survive here and there on his site, too. Just look at the order form (PDF). It informs you that different models of “LWM Electron” machine can be had for between $US1500 and $US2800 (all apparently big discounts on the retail price!), but it also babbles on about “clusters of water molecules” that “pick up more electrons”. And on he goes with the bizarre statements about air oxygen levels “as low as 10% near the traffic in major cities!”, which is what us professionals refer to as “not true”.
(Ellis is, however, amazingly enough actually right when he says that atmospheric oxygen levels, as measured from air trapped in prehistoric amber, were much higher in the distant past. That was well before even the first mammals evolved, though; the air’s current 21% oxygen content has been nicely steady for a very great deal longer than humans have existed. This is a detail that Ellis, like the numerous carpetbaggers who base their business on oxygen rather than H2O, does not feel the need to mention.)
And then there’s a document on Ellis’ site called “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words…” (PDF). The “picture” in this case is a rather hideous scan, talking about how the Ellis “Electron Machines” are the only ones that remove “disease markers”, modify the bond angle of water, et cetera et cetera as per his previous front-page selling points.
The exact wording (minus the painful ALL-CAPS) of what seem to be the critical part of this rather confusing document is:
“NOTE: By breaking down the hydrogen bonds in water, the CEA marker went down the water went into the blood stream (94% water)!! No other water can do this and it can be seen under a microscope that the red blood cells are nice and round with plenty of movement caused by electron energy!”
This seems to be saying that red blood cells, among other things, are chronically dehydrated, or something, in people who drink ordinary water. One or another version of this is a frequent claim among water weirdos, and so far as I can see, it’s yet another quivering hairy sack of bollocks.
The human body, like the bodies of every other form of cellular life, is indeed quite critically dependent upon the water content of its various fluids. Generally speaking, it’s important for many bodily fluids to have neither to little nor - and here’s the important part - too much water in them.
There is not the slightest reason to believe that you need to drink some special kind of water to make osmoregulation work properly. On the contrary, in fact: If someone did manage to make a form of water that “goes through a membrane” more effectively than the ordinary kind, plumping up all of your red blood cells until they were indeed “nice and round”, then you would be suffering from hypotonicity, gravely ill and probably well on the way to death from hyperhydration.
Fortunately, the special water from these Electron Machines is in fact just ordinary distilled water, so I’m pretty sure that drinking it will not plump up your blood cells and kill you dead.
But the plump-blood-cells stuff sounds pretty good to the average punter on the street, who is unlikely to know anything in particular about osmoregulation or atomic bond angles or the difference between polar and non-polar molecules. So it’s easy for water quacks like Ellis to come up with a line of quantum flapdoodle that sounds good enough to sell even very expensive allegedly-therapeutic thingummies.
The same strategy doesn’t work nearly as well when you’re talking about things that ordinary people actually understand, like for instance the basic characteristics of cars. Fuel-additive scammers must carefully restrict their claims to areas where an unscientific investigation can leave the customer thinking there’s been an improvement, like fuel economy. You’re guaranteed a healthy flow of testimonials if you sell mothballs as a guaranteed fuel-economy booster, because customers can’t test them properly. Someone who’s inclined to buy your mothballs in the first place may also, for instance, be inclined to drive more gently after popping the pills into the petrol tank, on account of how he wants to make sure that he doesn’t accidentally drive much faster and thus unfairly erase the pills’ effects. And then hey presto, there’s your testimonial.
If the sellers of potions and gadgets for cars used the same promotional techniques as the sellers of water woo-woo, they’d say stuff like “The ThunderPower WonderPill improves power in V6 and V8 engines by increasing the angle between the cylinder banks!”, or “MegaCam enlarges and multiplies your camshafts!”
And then there’s the medical scammers who toss their scientific word-salad really thoroughly and thus babble on about tightly-wound quantum-entanglement dimension-brane conjugance. The automotive equivalent of that sort of sales spiel would be something like “The Alchemagic Performance MaGNeT makes your car go faster, because it puts an extra carburettor in the semi-boloid luggage manifold!”
(Actually, I’m sure there are some car gadgets that do make claims like this. The “Magic Power System Power Shift Bar“, which plugs into the cigarette-lighter socket, is supposed to not just “tune-up” your car, but also clean it. And I’m honestly not exactly sure what the “Car Drive Power Igniting Ignite Engine Air Power Plus” is supposed to do, but it says something about the “piston pressure”, which suggests a compression-ratio change, which cannot be done without changing the shape of major engine components. There are probably a few more of these sorts of products in the California Environmental Engineering filing cabinet. But the successful magic car gadgets do not make claims that’re so obviously idiotic.)
This sort of self-evident nonsense - self-evident, that is, to anybody who knows what at least some of the “quantum” words actually mean - does, however, remain adequate to get at least some people to buy really expensive magic health gadgets, like the Ellis Electron Machines.
And sure, most of these things are, in themselves, harmless. But every penny someone spends on one of them is a penny they could have spent on something that would actually make them more healthy - or at least more happy. And it all stops being funny rather suddenly when you start making straight-faced claims (oh, I’m sorry, when your happy customers start making straight-faced claims…) that your nutty gadget can, in as many words, cure cancer.
So don’t worry about orthodox therapy, which that evil oncologist told you gives a 90% chance of complete remission for the rest of your life, as long as you act quickly. Don’t you know that guy’s one of the “Cut! Burn! Poison!” crowd? Just get yourself a magic still, and drink your way to perfect health!