Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

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Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

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I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

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Is New York tap water really as good as bottled?

This morning (Aug 1 Mon) the science editor of the Economist, Tom Standage, holds forth on the Op-Ed page on the common theme that a blindfold test by a group of the author’s friends proves that a more expensive, supposedly better tasting product in fact is no more appealing than the lower cost variety.

In this case it is bottled water that is reckoned to taste no better than tap water, but the same kind of semi-scientific experiments have been used from time to time to torture wine dealers and connoisseurs with supposed proof that the finest and more expensive wines from France, say, do no better than Californian or Australian in similar blindfold taste tests.

One would think that the scientific editor of the Economist would be more intelligent and less naive than to take such things at face value. The whole point of science is to get away from subjective measurement, and to check human perception as much and as often as possible with physical and mechanical instrumentation.

Of course, there is nothing more subjective than the taste of a liquid, and any scientific measurement can merely tell us the constituents and chemistry involved, and not all of that. But still, most people will go along with Mr Standage in crediting the results of blindfold tests.

After all, the ultimate arbiter of the taste of good wine wine or bottled water is the well heeled connoisseur or consumer, and here they are being proved to be foolishly imaginative and inconsistent in their perceptions. What idiots they are proved to be! They cannot actually tell the taste very well at all, for once they are blindfolded, they lose track.

What this overlooks is the obvious, a fairly well known phenomenon. The human perception of taste and smell or even what is seen depends on the mental framework in which the sensation is placed. the perception of any sense input or data into the mind is entirely dependent on what is there already.

One of the rather dramatic ways this in shown is when those who have always been blind somehow have their sight restored. Such patients find that they are completely disoriented and have no idea how to make sense of the world of sight. It takes considerable time before they are able to achieve any competence.

Evidently, what happens in blindfold testing is that some of the mental framework is removed and thus the perception of taste is partially crippled. The connoisseur is reduced to a primitive, because the relational structure against which the taste is compared and evaluated is removed. In the case of the bottled water, that would be the label, the bottle, and the store where it was bought, and so on. (Ever noticed how much better things can seem in the well appointed store or gourmet emporium than when they are taken home?)

This phenomenon has also often been seen in the audiophile world, where the engineering types laugh at the Absolute Sound reviewers who claim that $5000 speaker cables sound different from Radio Shack wire at $3 a yard. The physical characteristics that might account for any audible superiority cannot be detected by an engineering analysis, according to the critics on both sides. And blindfold tests reliably make fools out of the reviewers who praise the more expensive product.

Here of course it is impossible to tell who is right. For the imagination that must play a part is clearly going to be strongly influenced by a hefty difference in price. Perhaps the audiophile believers do hear a difference, just for that reason. From what we know scientifically, the users of Radio Shack wire are getting the better bargain, but it is always possible that the well heeled audiophiles are getting the money’ worth also.

20/20’s John Stossel also ran an item recently of the same kind demonstrating that yuppies who are willing to pay $30 a bottle for Grey Goose vodka or other premium vodkas, which are making a huge splash in trendy bars these days, failed to pick it out in a blind taste test evcen when it was served neat. In fact, they often rejected it as unsatisfactory or one of the worst tested. Smirnoff’s vodka, on the other hand, which costs nearly two thirds less at $13 a bottle, was often picked as the best tasting.

Not to know that peceptions are inevitably altered in this functional manner by blindfold tests is to ignore the brain research of the last twenty years, and we are surprised that the Economist science editor hasn’t read it. He should start with the books of Anthony Damasio.

Of course, this doesn’t affect Tom Standage’s overall theme that much. Even if bottled water does taste better, its constituents are very often no better or even less desirable than tap water’s in New York City. And so yes, we agree with Tom that the money paid for bottled water might be more decently spent on helping the human race in the rest of the world enjoy clean tap water too.

(show)

The New York Times

August 1, 2005

Bad to the Last Drop

By TOM STANDAGE

London

IT’S summertime, and odds are that at some point during your day you’ll reach for a nice cold bottle of water. But before you do, you might want to consider the results of an experiment I conducted with some friends one summer evening last year. On the table were 10 bottles of water, several rows of glasses and some paper for recording our impressions. We were to evaluate samples from each bottle for appearance, odor, flavor, mouth, feel and aftertaste – and our aim was to identify the interloper among the famous names. One of our bottles had been filled from the tap. Would we spot it?

We worked our way through the samples, writing scores for each one. None of us could detect any odor, even when swilling water around in large wine glasses, but other differences between the waters were instantly apparent. Between sips, we cleansed our palates with wine. (It seemed only fair, since water serves the same function at a wine tasting.)

The variation between waters was wide, yet the water from the tap did not stand out: only one of us correctly identified it. This simple experiment seemed to confirm that most people cannot tell the difference between tap water and bottled water. Yet they buy it anyway – and in enormous quantities.

In 2004, Americans, on average, drank 24 gallons of bottled water, making it second only to carbonated soft drinks in popularity. Furthermore, consumption of bottled water is growing more quickly than that of soft drinks and has more than doubled in the past decade. This year, Americans will spend around $9.8 billion on bottled water, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.

Ounce for ounce, it costs more than gasoline, even at today’s high gasoline prices; depending on the brand, it costs 250 to 10,000 times more than tap water. Globally, bottled water is now a $46 billion industry. Why has it become so popular?

It cannot be the taste, since most people cannot tell the difference in a blind tasting. Much bottled water is, in any case, derived from municipal water supplies, though it is sometimes filtered, or has additional minerals added to it.

Nor is there any health or nutritional benefit to drinking bottled water over tap water. In one study, published in The Archives of Family Medicine, researchers compared bottled water with tap water from Cleveland, and found that nearly a quarter of the samples of bottled water had significantly higher levels of bacteria. The scientists concluded that “use of bottled water on the assumption of purity can be misguided.” Another study carried out at the University of Geneva found that bottled water was no better from a nutritional point of view than ordinary tap water.

Admittedly, both kinds of water suffer from occasional contamination problems, but tap water is more stringently monitored and tightly regulated than bottled water. New York City tap water, for example, was tested 430,600 times during 2004 alone.

What of the idea that drinking bottled water allows you to avoid the chemicals that are sometimes added to tap water? Alas, some bottled waters contain the same chemicals anyway – and they are, in any case, unavoidable.

Researchers at the University of Texas found that showers and dishwashers liberate trace amounts of chemicals from municipal water supplies into the air. Squirting hot water through a nozzle, to produce a fine spray, increases the surface area of water in contact with the air, liberating dissolved substances in a process known as “stripping.” So if you want to avoid those chemicals for some reason, drinking bottled water is not enough. You will also have to wear a gas mask in the shower, and when unloading the dishwasher.

Bottled water is undeniably more fashionable and portable than tap water. The practice of carrying a small bottle, pioneered by supermodels, has become commonplace. But despite its association with purity and cleanliness, bottled water is bad for the environment. It is shipped at vast expense from one part of the world to another, is then kept refrigerated before sale, and causes huge numbers of plastic bottles to go into landfills.

Of course, tap water is not so abundant in the developing world. And that is ultimately why I find the illogical enthusiasm for bottled water not simply peculiar, but distasteful. For those of us in the developed world, safe water is now so abundant that we can afford to shun the tap water under our noses, and drink bottled water instead: our choice of water has become a lifestyle option. For many people in the developing world, however, access to water remains a matter of life or death.

More than 2.6 billion people, or more than 40 percent of the world’s population, lack basic sanitation, and more than one billion people lack reliable access to safe drinking water. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of all illness in the world is due to water-borne diseases, and that at any given time, around half of the people in the developing world are suffering from diseases associated with inadequate water or sanitation, which kill around five million people a year.

Widespread illness also makes countries less productive, more dependent on outside aid, and less able to lift themselves out of poverty. One of the main reasons girls do not go to school in many parts of the developing world is that they have to spend so much time fetching water from distant wells.

Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year. This is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water.

I have no objections to people drinking bottled water in the developing world; it is often the only safe supply. But it would surely be better if they had access to safe tap water instead. The logical response, for those of us in the developed world, is to stop spending money on bottled water and to give the money to water charities.

If you don’t believe me about the taste, then set up a tasting, and see if you really can tell the difference. A water tasting is fun, and you may be surprised by the results. There is no danger of a hangover. But you may well conclude, as I have, that bottled water has an unacceptably bitter taste.

Tom Standage, author of “A History of the World in Six Glasses,” is the technology editor of The Economist.

* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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