Monday, January 17, 2005

What This Blog Is NOT About: Biorhythms

When I first took a class on Biological Clocks (eleven years ago), the instructor explained why biorhythms are not science. This was done with such fun, and as aside, I did not take it seriously. I did not realize I was supposed to study this exercise in Baloney Detection. I was surprised when I saw the question on the first mid-term exam, asking us to debunk biorhythms point-by-point. I lost several points there. I have learned since then to pay attention to everything a professor says, even if it seems to be a funny story. Since then, I also retain the personal distaste for the whole Fleiss/Freud story, which you can read here (so I don't have to waste my valuable time writing it myself): (also here: and here:

The theory of biorhythms is a pseudoscientific theory that
claims our daily lives are significantly affected by rhythmic cycles overlooked
by scientists who study biological rhythms. Biochronometry is the scientific
study of rhythmicity and biological cycles or "clocks," such as the circadian
(from the Latin circa and dia; literally, "about a day"). Circadian rhythms are
based upon such things as our sensitivity to light and darkness, which is
related to our sleep/wakefulness patterns. Biorhythms is not based upon the
scientific study of biological organisms. The cycles of biorhythm theory did not
originate in scientific study, nor have they been supported by anything
resembling a scientific study. The theory has been around for over one hundred
years and there has yet to be a scientific journal that has published a single
article supporting the theory. There have been some three dozen studies
supporting biorhythm theory but all of them have suffered from methodological
and statistical errors (Hines, 1998). An examination of some 134 biorhythm
studies found that the theory is not valid (Hines, 1998). It is empirically
testable and has been shown to be false. Terence Hines believes that this fact
implies that biorhythm theory "can not properly be termed a pseudoscientific
theory." However, when the advocates of an empirically testable theory refuse to
give up the theory in the face of overwhelming evidence against it, it seems
reasonable to call the theory pseudoscientific. For, in fact, the adherents to
such a theory have declared by their behavior that there is nothing that could
falsify it, yet they continue to claim the theory is scientific.... go and read the whole thing, including the details of studies that tested the biorhytm "hypothesis". Try to understand the logic behind the biorhythms and why that kind of logic makes it (and similar ideas) pseudoscientific. Then follow the links and references for more good stuff. And, by the way, the term "biochronometry" used in the passage above was an early suggestion (by Mike Menaker) for the name of the discipline which is now established under the name of "chronobiology" - the topic of this blog.

Belief in biorhythms is one of the "benign" superstitions. Its believers are not very numerous. They do not, generally, try to "evangelize" their belief and their belief usually does not harm anyone else. A couple of shady businesses peddle "biorhythm calculators" but those are cheap and one needs to purchase only one in a lifetime, so this is not one of those foibles that can easily lead to personal financial devastation. Thus, this is not something that magazines like "Skeptic" and "Skeptical Inquierer" urgently feel needs constant hammering in every issue.

Martin Gardner wrote a beautiful chapter in one of his books telling the whole strange history of biorhythms, including the possible Platonic amorous relationship (followed by a falling out) between Wilhelm Fliess and Sigmund Freud, the fight over primacy with Herman Swoboda, the mystery of stolen files during the WWI, the subsequent addition of the third cycle by Teltcher, and, again, mysterious loss of files during the WWII. John Palmer wrote an excellent article debunking the whole construct from a scientific point of view (I'll try to find my copy somewhere in this mess so I can add the reference later).

As stated in the beginning of the article linked above, this "theory" is testable and has been tested a number of times, thus proven to be wrong. So why do some people still believe it?

Imagine taking a sample of 100 biorhythm believers and giving them a questionnaire or an interview. How many of them are aware that this was tested and proven wrong? One? More likely none? These are not the kind of people who would gravitate towards reading "Skeptic". They do not know the whole thing is bogus. Of course they do not know or use Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit. Of course, their understanding of science is that it is a boring subject they were forced to take in high school and somehow managed to get a D. They are likely to be really nice, sweet people, and probably quite innately smart. So why didn't they figure it out by themselves? Because it never occured to them to ask the question "Is this true or not?" When they first heard of it, they thought it was fun, they started charting their biorhythms and never once stopped to think about what they were doing. The influences of biorhythms are supposed to be "subtle" so no matter what kind of day you really had you can shoehorn it into agreement with your biorhythm state for that day...kinda like a horoscope, you can always imagine a "good fit".

When you are a kid, you believe everything you see, hear or read. When I was a kid I read all the books by Erich von Daniken and believed every word in them. But I grew out of it. Most people do not. They keep believing stuff just because a person who looks like a person with authority said so. Additionally, most people are too focused on their everyday lives, their relationships, job, and leisure, to ever stop and think about big questions or to question their deeply held beliefs. They just live from one day to another in sweet oblivion about life's persistent questions. Can't blame them, really. Except when they use their under-exercised brains to make decisions that affect all of us, like participation in elections. It is easy to swallow Frank Luntz's linguistic constructs if one never doubted anything in one's life. I guess the Social Security must be in crisis - after all, no less an authority than the President himself said so.

Biorhythms are quite benign, they tend not to invoke a terribly emotional response in believers, they are testable and tested negative, so perhaps they may be an ideal test-case for teaching the schoolkids about skepticism, about the difference between science, pseudoscience and nonsense, about historically silly ways some of these hoaxes originated, and about proper application of the Baloney Detection Kit. I don't see any powerful lobby fighting against the inclusion of such a lesson into the curriculum, yet this may provide the spark that triggers a lifelong habit of critical thinking in a substantial proportion of the population - an experiment that may be worth doing for the sake of the country.

Categories: Clock Tutorials


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