Skepticism

The Long History of People Who Think They’re Magnetic

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Two months ago, I received my one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine. I felt a little sleepy the next day, and then I was fine. OR SO I THOUGHT. Because little did I know, my vaccine gave me MAGNETIC SUPERPOWERS. BEHOLD.

Hold on. I thought magnetic superpowers would be way better than this. What the shit is this?

So yeah, there’s this “new” thing going around where anti-vaccination loons are claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines turn you magnetic, and apparently that’s a bad thing, which is ironic because, as a certified ancient skeptical person, I remember a time when kooks claimed that they were magnetic as some kind of brag.

For decades, gurus, prophets, and spiritual healers have shown off their magical magnetic bodies as proof that they are blessed with great powers. For instance, ten years ago the Telegraph published this breathless coverage of a 6-year old Croatian boy named Ivan who could stick spoons, phones, and frying pans to his body. But that’s not all (it never is)! Ivan “is much stronger than other children his age and is able to easily carry bags of cement as heavy as 50lbs,” and “his family say Ivan has also used his ‘healing’ hands to alleviate his grandfather’s stomach pains and take away the pain of a neighbour who hurt his leg in a tractor accident.”

Yep, this is definitely not a new phenomenon, so it’s quite easy for me to help that nurse out when she requests someone explain what’s happening to her, because it’s already been explained many, many times. The explanation is “sebum.”

Sebum is an oily, waxy substance produced by glands under your skin. It’s different from sweat as it’s produced by different glands and it has a different job to do, like keeping your skin healthy and hydrated. It even has antibacterial and antifungal properties! It’s most concentrated on your face and scalp but it’s found all over your body (except for on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet). Excess production of sebum is the reason why some people have acne (sebum production slows down after your teen years) and it causes some other skin conditions, and when you don’t wash yourself properly it’s the reason why things (metal or otherwise) can stick to your skin. I took the time to pause my workout yesterday to show what happens when you produce a bunch of sweat and haven’t washed off last night’s sebum and then stick a bottle cap to your skin. Voila!

For people who are prone to magical thinking, this is the kind of thing they can fool themselves into believing — oh my gosh, I’m magnetic! Or psychic! For other people, they damn well know they aren’t magnetic or psychic but they use this trick to convince people that they have magical powers that are worth paying for, or joining a cult for.

That’s why the late, great James “The Amazing” Randi went on Seoul Broadcasting to do battle with a Chinese man who claimed he could stick irons and mirrors to his chest. Check it out.

That’s right, the best way to disprove the “magnetism” claim, if people aren’t convinced by “that item isn’t ferromagnetic” or “there’s literally no way for your body to become a magnet, that’s not how magnets work,” is baby powder. You see, you can coat a magnet in baby powder (aka talcum powder) and it won’t make it less magnetic — it’s such a thin layer that you can still stick it to the refrigerator. But powder does absorb sebum, which is the reason why I spray it into my hair a few times a week because I’m too lazy to wash it. Honestly if I didn’t use dry shampoo I would have so much sebum on my hair I could probably stick an iron to my head. If I owned an iron. Look, I’ve developed an aesthetic that does not require me to wash my hair or iron wrinkles out of my clothes. Deal with it.

Anyway, I find it very interesting that this carny trick has evolved — not in that it’s any better or more impressive but in that it used to be considered a sign of magical powers, something to be held in awe and respected; a way for people living in dire circumstances might be able to get positive media attention, leave their villages, and become famous or wealthy gurus. And now? Now it’s *bad*, something to be weirded out by. Another reason to avoid getting a free, life-saving vaccine that will stop a deadly pandemic in its tracks. There’s not much new under the sun — we keep recycling the same bullshit over and over, but the reason evolves with the times.

Don’t believe it, and if anyone you know is worried about their burgeoning magnetic powers, I was able to pick up this “cure” for about $2 at the local pharmacy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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3 Comments

  1. Friendly correction: ferromagnetism means it can become a permanent magnet, but there’s also paramagnetism, which means it responds to magnetic field, creating a temporary magnet that will stick to other magnets.

    Great video as always.

  2. Mirrors are not magnetic. Most modern mirrors are plated with aluminum on a glass substrate. Older mirrors are glass plated with silver. (500 years ago, most mirrors were made from polished metal, usually either silver or copper or tin. The mirror in the James Web Space Telescope is made from polished beryllium.) None of these substances are magnetic. So the guy sticking the wall mirror to his chest is either a liar or an idiot (or both).

    Last time you posted something like this (shortly after my second shot of Pfizer), I tried a whole bunch of other things. Pennies and nickles are not magnetic, which can be easily demonstrated by trying to pick them up with an actual magnet. Button batteries (and plastic buttons) are not magnetic (at least the ones I tried.) Paper disks and wooden checkers are not magnetic. Steel washers ARE magnetic. So are refrigerator magnets. ALL of these things stuck to my sweaty, filthy, damp, vaccinated body. I tried both upper arms, my left where I got both shots and my right, unvaccinated bicep. No difference. Then I washed and dried both arms, and tried again. The fact that I didn’t know about the importance of sebum in no way invalidated my experiments. Cleaning and drying my arms removed the sweat, dirt, oil, moisture AND sebum. Nothing stuck to either arm. Science, suckers.

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