Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sketchy science and magic rocks

A recurring problem with trying to sift through and evaluate claims, and sort the science from the pseudoscience, is the tendency of people to use scientific terms loosely (or incorrectly).  Throwing around fancy-sounding terminology gives an argument an unwarranted veneer of credibility, especially given that many of the people targeted in these claims lack the scientific background to discern when technical vocabulary is being used in a specious fashion.

The problem becomes even worse when the profit motive is involved, because the stakes become higher.  There often seems to be a deliberate intent on the part of the seller not to clarify matters, but to obfuscate further.  A confused buyer, apparently, is a confident buyer.

I was sent an especially good example of this yesterday, when a friend emailed me a link with the message, "Could there be any truth to any of this?"  On clicking the link, I was brought to the site "Shungite in a Nutshell," which explains the amazing properties of a rock found in Russia.

Shungite, we are told, is a carbonaceous deposit found near the village of Shung'a in the province of Karelia.  It contains large quantities of fullerenes, molecules made up of latticelike arrays of carbon atoms (buckyballs and carbon nanotubes are two types of fullerenes you might be familiar with).  Because of its high concentration of fullerenes, shungite has (according to the authors of the website) a variety of amazing properties:
  • it can purify water and air
  • it is a natural antioxidant
  • it is an antibacterial
  • it speeds up healing
  • it stimulates the immune system
  • it suppresses allergies
  • it can act as a carrier for biologically-active molecules
  • it can neutralize the negative effects of electromagnetic fields, including "anthropogenic high-frequency, solar, geopathogenic, (and) biofields"
Sounds like pretty amazing stuff, no?  Well, alarm bells went off immediately for me; any time someone says that one substance can cure all ills, it sets off my skepti-senses.  But here's where it gets interesting, because to support his/her claims, the writer starts throwing around some scientific terminology -- and gets a bunch of it wrong:
  • "Shungite contains almost the entire periodic table" -- actually, if their first claim (that it's composed of fullerenes) is correct, this is about as wrong as you can get, because fullerenes are pure carbon, and therefore are made of only one element on the periodic table.  So the only way you could have less of the periodic table is if shungite was imaginary.  On the other hand, it's not necessarily a good thing to have lots of elements -- I'm rather happy, for example, that the vitamin tablets I take in the morning contain no arsenic or plutonium.
  • Shungite is "a catalyst, which ensures decomposition of organic substances sorbed and restoration of the sorption properties" -- honestly, I'm not even sure what this is supposed to mean.  Catalysts are chemicals that alter the rates of chemical reactions, usually by changing the activation energy; and if shungite really does trigger the decomposition of organic substances, it would be a little on the dangerous side to consume, because our bodies are basically big blobs of organic substances.
  • Shungite is an "electroconductive rock."  Well, lots of stuff is electroconductive, including the wiring in my house.  I'm not sure why this is relevant, but the writer sure seems to be impressed by it.
  • The "presence of shungite materials close to the source of cellular frequency radiation significantly weakens their effect on the human body."  Once again, what the hell is this supposed to mean?  What is "cellular frequency radiation?"  I dunno, but it sure sounds bad, doesn't it?
And so on.  I tried to substantiate a few of these claims -- a couple of articles I found about shungite that seem reliable (if you're curious, here and here) support its use in water purification, but neither of them say the least thing about taking the stuff internally.  This article describes research into a novel cancer therapy using fullerenes and light to trigger cancer cell apoptosis (self-destruction), but as far as I can find the effect has only been observed in cell cultures, not in living organisms.  Otherwise, the best I could find regarding the biological effects of fullerenes is that the Wikipedia article says that they are "found in soot" and are "essentially non-toxic" -- not exactly a ringing endorsement of their health benefits.

So it sounds like what we have here is another example of someone trying to sell something useless to the credulous, and throwing around science-y terms to convince the layperson that what they have will cure damn near everything.  Once again, the best way to insulate yourself, and your pocketbook, against spurious claims is to learn a little science and apply the tools of critical thinking.  So, sad to say, but magic rocks that heal every illness known to man remain exactly what they sound like -- fiction.


  1. I'm having trouble believing this guy is truly a woo-woo. I think misinformed or possibely a crook are more likely.

    Many of his claims are in fact true (with some added flavor, mind you)and are not newly discovered.

    From what I've been able to find out the proprieties hes describing have not a thing to do with Shungite but the carbon content itself and in some claims carbon formed in fullerenes.


    *"it can purify water and air"*

    This appears to be true and makes sense in much the same way sand can be used to filter water.

    *"it is a natural antioxidant"*

    Again this is true, Fullerenes are antioxidents, which simply means the prevent other things from oxidizing by oxidizing themselves. Whether or not it does our body any good by being in it, which is what I think he is suggesting, is being researched, but I cant find anything conclusive to form an opinion.

    *"it is an antibacterial'*

    Carbon is antibacterial and usually used in conjunction with silver, another known antibacterial subtance.

    "it speeds up healing"

    It appear carbon actually does this too;

    "Wound microenvironment presents widespread oxidant stress, inflammation, and onslaught of apoptosis. Carbon monoxide (CO) exerts pleiotropic cellular effects by modulating intracellular signaling pathways which translate into cellular protection against oxidative stress, inflammation, and apoptosis."

    "it can neutralize the negative effects of electromagnetic fields, including "anthropogenic high-frequency, solar, geopathogenic, (and) biofields"

    This is actually half true. Is does have diamagnetic shielding proprieties but im not sure how it could PROTECT you from the things he mentions, especially at the stage of research these ideas are in.

    "3He labeled fullerenes and their derivatives can be studied by NMR spectroscopy.[2][10] The pi electrons around the fullerene molecules cause large diamagnetic shielding and an upfield shift of the 3He line relative to disolved 3He gas. C60 has an upfield shift of 6.4 ppm and C70 28 ppm. Higher fullerenes fall between these limits.[8][25] Adding groups to the outside changes the pi electron structure and the chemical shift of the 3He"

    Now after doing some research on his claims im starting to think he's just a crook.

    Buying Shungite paper weights and balls and any of the other products offered on his site will do nothing for you. All the things the claims it can do are true to some degree, but only by proxy. Other technologies are needed to refine and manipulate fullerenes in order make them useful in these ways.

    In short there is no one stop pure fullerene based product that can do all those things. To think this would be the same as thinking since Sulphur is used in things anti fungal applications to skin disease creme to helping to take toxins out of the body having random things made of it will be of any direct benefit to you.

  2. I found this on Wikipedia.

    "Shungite has been used in medical treatment since the early 18th-century. Peter the Great set up Russia's first spa in Karelia to make use of the water purifying properties of shungite, which he had himself experienced. He also instigated its use in providing purified water for the Russian army. The anti-bacterial properties of shungite has been confirmed by modern testing.”

    Volfson, I.F.; Farrakhov E.G., Pronin A.P., Beiseyev O.B., Beiseyev A.O., Bogdasarov M.A., Oderova A.V., Pechenkin I.G., Khitrov A.E., Pikhur O.L., Plotkina J.V., Frank-Kamanetskya O.V., Rosseeva E.V., Denisova O.A., Chernogoryuk G.E., Baranovskya N., Rikhvanov L.P., Petrov I.M., Saghatelyan A.K., Sahakyan L.V., Menchinskaya O.V., Zangiyeva T.D, Kajtukov M.Z., Uzdenova Z.H. & Dorozhko A,L, (2011). "Medical Geology in Russia and NIS" In Selinus O., Finkelman R.B. & Centeno J.A. Medical Geology: A Regional Synthesis. Springer. p. 223.ISBN 9789048134298. Retrieved 7 July 2012.


  4. thank you for the links and references! lot's of people think it is a scam, this is the evidence to some scientific research.

  5. It seems like only property of this stone is to clearify the water.

  6. Buy yourself an emf/emr reader and do some testing yourself. It's a shame that laziness and/or ignorance so often accompany skepticism.