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02 September 2013

Irish Company Solves World Hunger, Climate Change, Small Chickens

Cross-posted from Skeptic North.

Image Credit:
Andrew Balfour and the good folks over at Boing Boing

A news article from the Irish Independent has been making the rounds these last few days. With the cheery title of "Wave goodbye to global warming, GM and pesticides" this (almost) unbelievably credulous bit of reportage claims that a new technology developed in Ireland will solve pretty well every modern-day agricultural woe.

"But how?" you ask. "Easy," the researchers reply: "Radio waves!"

This bit o' tech, marketed under the name Vi-Aqua, involves "energising" water by exposing it to a radio signal. Attach this small device to your garden hose, and you can (apparently) expect bigger fruits and vegetables that are resistant to pests and disease! It's a solution to every problem! Water treated with this simple technology repels insects! Crops resist blight! Yields are increased! It even sequesters carbon! Who knows? Maybe it will also reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles!

Most skeptics recognize that panaceas are (generally speaking) not to be trusted. As Irish blogger "Unshaved Mouse" pointed out, this article is found not in the newspaper's Science section (it doesn't seem to have one), but in its Business section, which for the Irish Independent apparently means the "we'll provide credulous free advertising for you without asking any tough questions" section.

Red Flags

This article displays several of the typical warning signs that we may be dealing with pseudoscientific crankery. It's important to note that none of these red flags serve to prove that this is a scam. In fact, if I'd just read a simple summary of the research, my response might have been, "Huh. That's strange. I wonder if other researchers will be able to replicate this." However, there are a few items of concern that should be addressed.

"Groundbreaking" Research and "Miraculous" Results

Cries that the research is "groundbreaking", "paradigm-shifting", "miraculous", or any other hyperbolic nonsense tends to make me nervous. Not because groundbreaking research doesn't happen, but because most scientists try very hard to communicate the limits of their research, while it's hucksters who tend to make grandiose claims.

A GROUNDBREAKING new Irish technology which could be the greatest breakthrough in agriculture since the plough is set to change the face of modern farming forever.

Since the plough? Admittedly, I didn't grow up on a farm, but the claim that this "could be" the most important agricultural technology in the last four to eight thousand years strikes me as... well, extraordinary. Especially given, you know, that whole Green Revolution thing.

It also produces the miracle of rejuvenating the soil by invigorating soil-based micro-organisms. ... [T]he technology is being hailed as a modern day miracle.

Oh! It's a miracle! Well, I suppose that explains it, then.

The Chopra Effect

I'm also worried by claims that mix scientific (or sciencey-sounding) language liberally with folksy details. Deepak Chopra is the go-to example for this sort of nonsense, but he hardly has a monopoly.

Vi-Aqua makes water wetter and introduces atmospheric nitrogen into the water in the form of nitrates – so it is free fertiliser.

I'll admit that I did a bit of a double-take when I read that (perhaps it was more of a quadruple-take). It makes water wetter? What does that even mean? (The science behind wetting, incidentally, is quite interesting.)

While the article didn't go into much detail here, the Vi-Aqua website claims that their product makes water "wetter" by "altering the configuration of hydrogen in water" (although their brochure claims that Vi-Aqua "alters the hydrogen content", which doesn't at all strike me as the same thing).

Unfortunately, according to Stephen Lower, Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University, "These claims are bunk; there is no scientific evidence that water can be 'energized', re-structured, or otherwise altered by filters or external forces." He specifically calls out Vi-Aqua for claiming that their device is "proven" without offering any scientific evidence to support the claim.

Vague Claims Supported by Anecdote

Claims that are vague are consequently difficult to verify, and we are provided with scant evidence for efficacy.

Not only are the plants much bigger but they are largely disease-resistant, meaning huge savings in expensive fertilisers and harmful pesticides. ... Extensively tested in Ireland and several other countries, the inexpensive water treatment technology is now being rolled out across the world.

Although the number "30 per cent" is thrown around several times (this technology will at once increase yield by 30% and decrease water consumption by 30%), the article is very light on the details.

The Vi-Aqua website (and as a software developer, I have to say that the website is a travesty top to bottom) lists many of the benefits of this technology, but nowhere does it link to any published research (not even in its "Test Results" section). Instead, it mentions that a two month test was carried out in 2001 (that's twelve years ago, but reportedly trials are "still ongoing"), and then offers a series of testimonials. There is no way to evaluate the scientific rigour of the trials, the statistical significance of the findings, or any potential abuse of multiple comparisons or other researcher degrees of freedom. In fact, the file drawer effect here seems to be absolute.

Or so it looked at first.

Ray Peterson of the Winnipeg Skeptics managed to find a PDF copy of a document titled "Scientific Information Dossier: 'Vi-Aqua' Vitalized Water" (although the file name reads "Full Scientific Doc Proof"). This document begins with some general background information, and then describes a series of trials undertaken in 1998 to "prove" the efficacy of the Vi-Aqua product.

Despite being described as "proof", it doesn't look good. The majority of tests performed showed no statistically significant difference between the control group and the treatment groups. Two tests showed improvements in one of the three treatment groups that barely met statistical significance, but there did not seem to be any attempt made to control for multiple comparisons. The results are preliminary at best, and seem indistinguishable from noise.

Perhaps its most endearing feature is that the dossier invokes "water memory", stating that "electromagnetic modification is imprinted in the water for several hours, slowly decaying with time". Note that this is after admitting that "[t]he magnetic water memory effect is a controversial and exciting issue that is not explained by any current theory," and that water loses any complex structure within picoseconds. But I guess if "water memory" is good enough for homeopaths like Jacques Benveniste, it's good enough for these guys.

So far as I can determine, despite the sciencey language, there's no plausible mechanism of action here, which does not bode well for Vi-Aqua. The trials described also make it clear that no blinding was employed to control researcher bias: the test and control groups were clearly labeled. This is the same level of evidence we see from those selling homeopathy or Power Balance bands.

If it weren't for the implausibility of it all, and the fact that they're selling to consumers, I'd say, "Hey, this is some neat preliminary research! I hope this passes replication!" But, despite the claims of "miraculous" results, after seventeen years there doesn't seem to be any peer reviewed literature evaluating the claims, and these claims don't seem to have gained traction in the field. I'm not a scientist (not really, and this certainly isn't my area of expertise)—but you know who are scientists, and who do specialise in this field? Those who perform peer review in the relevant academic journals.

Currently, I'm having trouble seeing the difference between this research and the "independent" studies commissioned by the charlatans at Power Balance.

Conflicts of Interest

While not a smoking gun, it's always worrying to see the same people who conduct the research profiting directly by selling the product they're studying to consumers (especially prior to publication of results).

The two researchers involved in this project, according to the article, are Professor Austin Darragh and Dr. J.J. Leahy, both of the University of Limerick. Although the Vi-Aqua website does not make it clear exactly who is profiting from the sale of the devices, a simple Whois lookup discloses that the site is registered to Anna Darragh. If she is not related to Professor Darragh, I will be very surprised indeed. I'm concerned that this may be an example of researchers who, instead of engaging with their peers in the scientific community via the literature, are largely ignoring the scientific process in favour of going directly to the consumer (and consumer's wallet).

While the testimonials page features prominently a glowing endorsement for the product from Dr. Leahy, I was not able to determine whether he stands to benefit from Vi-Aqua sales.

Additional Research

According to their University of Limerick faculty pages (which, to be fair, may be out of date), neither Austin Darragh nor J.J. Leahy have published any research evaluating the benefits of "radio-energised" water in agriculture.

I reached out via email to both Professor Darragh and Dr. Leahy, asking if they could provide links or references to any peer reviewed scientific literature on the subject and to clarify their involvement in direct-to-consumer sales of the Vi-Aqua device.

Dr. Leahy was kind enough to provide me with a brief response. He noted that his field is physical chemistry, not agriculture, and that the work that he conducted on the project was many years ago. He provided me with a PDF copy of "The Effects of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Radiation on the Adhesion Behavior of Aqueous Suspensions", published in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science in 2000.

In essence, the goal of the experiment is to determine whether a radiofrequency signal can serve to reduce buildup of scale on the interior surface of pipes used to transport water or aqueous solutions by preventing disolved particles (in this case, copper and zinc) from precipitating and adhering to the pipe wall. While the results of this investigation are interesting, they do not relate directly to the question of whether using water exposed to radiofrequency EMF results in increased agricultural yield, decreased pesticide use, or improved carbon sequestration—or even whether we should expect it to.

Dr. Leahy did not comment on the sales or marketing of the Vi-Aqua device. I did not receive a response from Professor Darragh, but I will provide an update if I do.

The Unabashedly Absurd

They truly save the best for last. This is the second-to-last paragraph of the article, in its entirety:

Intriguingly, chickens and sheep fed the energised water turned into giants. . . but that's another story!

Artist's Impression

That's another story? Maybe it's just a matter of personal taste, but this device creates giant farm animals and you choose to report on pesticide use and carbon sequestration instead?

The Bottom Line

Hey, anything's possible I guess, but these claims are extraordinary. If they're legitimate: great! But why not actually link to reputable scientific literature to back up the claims, rather than presenting the claims exactly the way we would expect them to be presented if they were a scam?

Let's review: The claims of the product are extraordinarily implausible. The researchers are associated with the company selling the product. I was unable to find independent corroboration of the claims, or any peer reviewed research at all that evaluates the efficacy of the Vi-Aqua device. The language used by the researchers to describe the technology is hyperbolic and contradictory. This stuff makes water wetter and turns chickens into giants.

This article was so bad that I briefly wondered if it were satire. Unfortunately, it wasn't posted in April, the Irish Independent is an actual news organization, and there's a website dedicated to selling the stuff. Although we might all hope that it's simply a hoax meant to expose bad science journalism (sorry, business journalism), I think this is more likely an example of hucksters managing to get mainstream coverage. If it does all turn out to be a joke, however, I will be thoroughly relieved.

In the meantime, be careful: the radio waves employed by the Vi-Aqua device may trigger your electromagnetic hypersensitivity.* Or they could turn you into a giant.

(My friend and fellow Skeptic North writer Richelle McCullough pointed out that Professor Darragh apparently also believes that antibiotics are responsible for chronic fatigue syndrome. So... there's that.)

Hat tip to Ray Peterson who sent several relevant links my way, and to Brendan Curran-Johnson for reminding me about Norman Borlaug. I'll give Ray the last word: "The joke could be on us and it's all real. A simple textbook electronic circuit sitting under our noses all this time making water wetter."

* Note: Not actually a thing that will happen.

Note: Probably also not a thing that's going to happen.

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