Anti-Science

Urban Legend of the Day

I wrote before about the perils of working in an office. Particularly, the annoyance of receiving factually incorrect e-mail forwards. On second thought, the term “factually incorrect” isn’t the best choice of wording when we have much better phrases like “stupidly absurd.”

In that previous post, I wrote about the e-mail I received about intricately carved eggs. The forward showed egg shells that had been cut into artistic patterns and scenes. The e-mail read in part:

These egg shells below were cut with a high intensity precision Laser Beam. This gives a very good idea of what can be achieved with a Laser Beam. From this can be surmised what laser surgery performed on one’s eye is all about.

A small amount of Googling revealed to me that egg carving is a relatively common (yet technically challenging) hobby. Artists actually achieve such amazing results using a steady hand and a small drill — no where could I find any mention of an artist using a laser beam.

“Tim” commented on that post just a little while ago, writing that he received the same e-mail and found this site, a dentist’s office that posts the exact same egg photos as the e-mail, captioned:

These egg shells were cut with a high intensity precision Laser Beam. This gives a very good idea of what can be achieved with this tool and what laser surgery is all about.

Tim’s comment seems to suggest that this verifies the e-mail’s veracity (though maybe he didn’t mean to sound that way). In fact, it appears to verify the bullshittiness of it — note that on the dentists’ site the wording is slightly changed to shill for their dental laser, offering a very plausible answer to my original question: why would someone make up the story about the laser beams, when knowing that artists did such delicate work using normal drills is just as — if not more — compelling? Why, to drum up business by “proving” the safety of using a laser as a cutting device, of course.

Today I was met with new office silliness. A coworker locked her keys in the car, and the same girl who sent around the egg e-mail (and just about every other e-mail forward I’ve received), suggested she simply call her mother on her cell phone and have her operate the spare remote keyless entry through the phone. I was . . . suspicious. She was adamant that her best friend had accomplished this very task while the car was separated from the remote by literally thousands of miles, from Boston to Chicago.

“I guess you’re going to look it up on the Internet, huh?” she said. “Well it doesn’t matter what Snopes [I nearly spat out my tea at the realization that she has learned the name. Small victory.] says, I know for a fact that it’s true because my friend did it.”

I find this lack of intellectual curiosity a little sad, but I’m starting to grow accustomed to it.

So when I did, in fact, look it up on the Internet, I didn’t bother to tell her that it appears to be a load of crap.

Oh, and the keys are still locked in the car.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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17 Comments

  1. Does this mean that, instead of lasers, doctors should be working on our eyes with those little drills? Your vision wouldn't be any better, but you could look at the world through a lovely woodland scene.

  2. Did no one suggest (and I'm hoping it was the office skeptic, hint hint) that someone phone up the mother and try the "signal down the phone" test? Wouldn't that give her something to think about when it failed?

    Well, I'm being very optimistic here that she would employ a "seeing is believing" approach, as in the alleged situation with the friend…

  3. Hehe… shockingly hopeful. Seeing is hardly beleiveing for most folks. Most people have zero clue about how even the most simple of electronic devices function.

    It's all magic to the vast majorioty of folks. I think Arthur C. Clark said it best: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.". We've hit that technological point for most folks. I think the fact that most people have no clue how almost everything they use everyday actually works is part of the reason we are seeing such an upsurge in the embrace of "paranormal" crap. For many people that stuff is no more mystifying than the computer they use at work. Sad really… and only getting worse as science is slowly choked to death in our schools.

    Ah well, back on topic – I don't find it surprising that people would buy into the idea that a vhicle remote would work over a cell phone. They have no understanding of the underlying technology – either of the remote or the phone. Cell phones work (as far as most people seem to understand) over hundreds of miles and use that "radio stuff" and so they must be able to send the signal to my car from far away because it uses that "radio stuff" too. Best we can do is try to explain why it won't work…. but that is often like trying to teach a pig to sing: it only wastes your time and pisses off the pig. Still, you gotta try!

    Remember, only YOU can prevent ignorance!

  4. You are absolutely right Stark. Lots of people just don't have that curiosity to try to understand the technology they are using. As long as it works, that's enough for them. No wonder they will believe in energized miracle water and homepathy… My father in law doesn't even believe that we can send probe on mars… For him, it's just impossible. I tried many times to convince him but, he just doesn't listen…Aww well, still lots of work to do on earth for us, sceptics and believers in science…

    Awwww…Snopes. I love to surf on it once in a while, checking the new hoaxes and other stuff like that. I tend to receive the kind of silly emails you receive but, contrary to everyone else at work, I usually go on Snopes or similar sites to verify the info before forwarding it. And, I can tell you, I don't forward stuff very often sadly, most of the time, they are complete bullsh*t. It always amazes me to see how fast people are at forwarding ridicule claims and believing them, without ever checking if they're true or not. That is just depressing…

  5. There are two proper responses to your coworker (at least, there are two that don't open the door to organ donation.) The first is "Who's your friend. I want to know more about how this happened. Can I have her email?"

    The other, and probably more your style, is "I've got $20 that says calling mom to use the remote won't work. Are you that sure?"

  6. Very good points about not only misunderstanding technology, but the lack of interest in how it works… I have a friend with a degree in electrical engineering; he has often (bless him) corrected my misconceptions about various electronic and mechanical systems.

  7. Never posted before, but this one's got me thinking…

    Can the audio components in a cellphone pick up or emit ultrasonics? Are those frquencies inside the transmission band?

    Before anyone comments, I am fully aware that car remotes function via RF. It would be cool, though, if you could send an ultrasonic code over a cellphone. Some TV remotes used to work that way (ultrasonics), I think. Talk about something appearing to work by magic!

    Excellent blog, Rebecca. Count me as a new fan.

  8. Steve, no ultrasonics won't work over a mobile. Most telephony only uses a very narrow bandwidth of about 3kilohertz, that is the telephone filters out any frequencies above about 3kHz. This is so you can back more voice channels into a given piece of spectrum.

    This frequency limiting is fine for voice, but also why music on hold can sound a bit tinny over the phone, as bass below about 300Hz and treble over 3kHz is filtered out. So the upshot is you can't even remote control you dog by having someone hold a cellphone to his ear while you blow on one of those ultrasonic whistles that only dogs can hear into a cellphone beyond the range of the whistle!!

  9. You KNow I'd almost forgotten about the whole "laser egg carving" thing. I did laser shows for 15 years and it's amazing the things people think they can do. Sure there are a lot of great applications, including laser etching, but if you've ever seen any of those wood thingys that have been carved with a laser, you would notice that the image is essentially burned in to the wood. I can't see this working too well on an eggshell since it's too thin and…it's white. White reflects more light energy than it absorbs so you would need a higher amount of power to make any mark. And don't even get me started on the radiation=radioactivity conumdrum. Besides, I have enough physical proof of what lasers can really do…tiny little scars on my hands from being burned by an Argon laser while adjusting it.

  10. Wright: Speaking of curiosity, I have a question that has not as yet been answered– I notice that on the power lines and high tension wires carrying electrical power for the trains, or the city, &tc. there are these– ceramic place-holders, or summat. I'm not sure what they're called. I assume that they are ceramic, cos it's a good combination of weather-resistance and non-conductivity.

    But what precisely are they for, really?

    And why are they always shaped like nested bowls, or rotilli pasta?

  11. davep: Thanks for the info on mobile phone bandwidth. I suspected as much, given the waste of bandwidth that transmitting ultrasonics would suggest. With how amazingly cheap the things are, they have to have tuned all the excess cost out of them. Too bad, it could have led to some interesting experiments!

    On a more general note, it is terribly sad how ignorant and credulous most of the population is about things related to science. As people's lives get filled up with more and more technology they don't (or refuse to) understand, like lasers and cell phones, they become more and more filled with fear. Demagogues love to use that fear to gain power. As I try to raise my bright, scientifically literate, and skeptical daughters, I worry about the world they are going to inherit.

    Here's a toast to people like Rebecca, trying to beat back the darkness one blog entry at a time!

  12. Cell phones don't even transmit a very hefty range of audible sound frequences. It's what makes it harder to talk to someone on a cell phone than to talk to them on a regular phone. The sound perception areas of your brain have to make up for all the "missing bits", so you have to concentrate more. It is one hypothesis for the major reason why people are so much more prone to car accidents when talking on cell phones.

  13. The ceramic dealies on HV lines are insulators. The reason they are shaped like nested cones is so that rain can't form a continuous path over them. A continuous water path is undesirable because dirty water is a poor insulator.

  14. I think the most obvious thing everyone is overlooking is that a mobile phone (in fact any phone) is simply converting sound (which is basically pressure differences in the air) into an electrical signal in case of a land line, or an electromagnetic (i.e. radio signal) in case of a mobile phone.

    Since the car's remote doesn't use any sound, the phone wouldn't be of any use at all.

    Although theoretically, it would be possible to boost the remote's radio signal up to a point where it can reach your car several miles away, but that would not require a cell phone but rather a lot more energy and a big transmitter.

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