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Skeptic Radar – Market Place

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 6, 2011

During a previous episode of RFT, I made a comment about the CBC consumer advocacy show Market Place and a segment they did about water purifier scams (“Clean water, Dirty tricks”). I had ‘lost my voice’ at the time I had made these comments and wanted clarify my points more clearly now.

First, I like Market Place in general and thought their segment on the water filter scams informative

Authority can be misguided

and well done. I did want to make the point that as good skeptics we should not fall into complacency even when the source of info is from an authority we respect and thought this episode an opportunity to help illuminate and educate skeptics on what to keep your eyes open for when watching ANY documentary.

To make this point I noted two skeptic weaknesses – precipitates and chlorination.

The water trick in action...looks impressive to the uneducated eye

They showed that purification sellers use a chemical “trick” to make water seem dirtier than it “really” was. Now it was true that the claims of health risks made by the sellers were horribly over stated but… Yes, the skeptic “BUT”…where they completely baseless? Market Place explained that normal water has minerals dissolved into it AND that these minerals are harmless. Now I accept as uncontroversial the first part but the second part MAY have been an over generalization. It is possible, depending on the water source and distribution, that some of the precipitate could have been deleterious to health (such as arsenic or cadmium both of which are harmful). They could have easily been ‘skeptic proof’ by adding the statement akin to “Now unless there is a special reason to suspect these precipitates (such as unexplained health ailments) most people should not worry about them and definitely not the cause for extreme panic the water seller made it sound”

Some deaths prevented thanks to chlorination

Modern municipal filtration processes

The other item that twitched my skeptic radar was the line about chlorination.  Water agents over stated the dangers of chlorine used as a disinfectant by municipal purification plants. This was countered by Market Place stating that chlorine at the municipal level was necessary to kill bacterial agents, which is true. However, I was not convinced that once the water hits your taps the same risks of infection are present; that de-chlorinating my water at the tap posed the same health risks as not chlorinating at the plant. Further, they missed the point that a badly maintained home filtration system can itself be a bastion for “toxic” bacteria.

Again, love Market Place but thought this episode had some good skeptic teaching points.

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