Why are crazy and dangerous fads so appealing to some?

On The Daily Show, Desi Lydic explores the ‘raw water’ fad.

This is a classic ‘first world’ issue. Many millions of people around the world suffer terribly from the lack of easy availability of clean water and yet people in the US, fortunate to have water freely and plentifully available at the turn of a faucet, are willing to spend good money to spurn this luxury and buy water from springs in which all manner of disease-causing parasites may lurk. I was already astounded that people actually buy bottled water but this takes that absurdity to a whole new level.

It seems like all you have to do is throw around words like ‘natural’ to make people think it is better and words like ‘probiotics’ to make them think you have science on your side. And a big bonus is if you wear robes and act like some mystic guru because we all know that such people have access to divine truths, right?

You can read more about the raw water fad where you will learn that Mukhande Singh’s birth name is Christopher Sanborn.


  1. says

    Before Europeans invaded North America, you could (for the most part) safely drink the water directly out of most lakes and rivers, since they were all flowing bodies. Now you can’t. Giardia is rampant.

    “Raw water”? Raw sewage is more like it.

  2. xohjoh2n says

    I was already astounded that people actually buy bottled water

    …unless they’re residents of Flint…

  3. John Morales says

  4. tuatara says

    Just to clarify, I spent my childhood in Kiribati. Specifically on Bonriki at South Tarawa. As a child in Kiribati we had no running water, no regular electricity etc. I used to help my mother draw water from the well (as much as a child can do), which we would then carry home and boil to make it safe to drink.
    My brothers and I would also tap the coconut trees for toddy which was safe to drink. The adults would let some of the toddy ferment into a kind of coconut wine.
    We would have loved a safe and secure water supply, but thanks to lingering pollution from WWII (and Christian burials) it was not safe to drink water from the wells before boiling due to diseases such as cholera and typhus. Fresh water was also imported, but limited in supply. These days tidal inundations have contaminated much of the underground water supply with salt water, making imported water or desalination the only options.
    So yes, I do know what it is like to not have a safe and secure water supply. I like tap water.

    And John Morales, I believe that you have to rely on your own water collection where you are, as do many Australian properties. It may be delivered by a tap between your tanks and your drinking vessel, but it needs to be filtered on the way.

  5. Matt G says

    I live -- and drink -- in NYC. Some of the best tap water in the world. And free. And still people buy bottled water….

  6. John Morales says

    tuatara, nah. I’ve always lived somewhere with mains reticulation.

    But yes, outside such areas, rainwater tanks are necessary.

    (Mind you, when I first came to Oz in 1971 the Adelaide tap water was disgusting. Safe(ish), because well-chlorinated, but turbid and stinky. Things improved over the years)

  7. anat says

    We do drink tap water, but we filter it first to get rid of the chlorine -- originally due to flavor, but I also saw it claimed that chlorine reduces microbiome diversity. And recently I have seen a hypothesis that lithium in drinking water may have something to do with obesity rates (a common side effect of taking lithium for treating bipolar disorder is weight gain).

    And then there is this guy: https://prevent-alzheimers-autism-stroke.com/blog/ -- his hypothesis is that environmental alumin(i)um is a main cause for autism and Alzheimer’s disease, and that one can reduce one’s alumin(i)um levels by drinking silica-enriched water -- either imported from Fiji(!) or home-made according to his formula.

  8. John Morales says

    anat, hm.

    Point being, tap water (from civilised places, Flint USA obviously excepted) is far better than the sort of water humans drank in days of yore. And no worse than bottled water.

    (Also, a lot of bottled water comes from… a tap)

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    @8 … to get rid of the chlorine — originally due to flavor, but I also saw it claimed that chlorine reduces microbiome diversity.

    Yes, that is the purpose of chlorine, to kill germs.

  10. garnetstar says

    anat @8, I don’t know if you meant to state the lithium theory seriously, or were pointing out another silly theory. Anyway, it seems unlikely. Not that many people take lithium, not enough to produce a level in drinking water that would be active. And, lithium is fatal at a level not much higher than the therapeutic level, so even if the therapeutic level is attained in drinking water, it seems that there would be a lot of accidental deaths when the level rises slightly.

  11. Rob Curtis says

    Some friends of my parents were camping in the BWCA in northern Minnesota. while hiking, they came across a clear flowing stream. They drank the water. Then continued the hike. About 100 m upstream, they came across a dead moose in the middle of the stream.

    are dead moose considered probiotic?

  12. anat says

    Reginald Selkirk @10: You want to kill the potentially harmful bacteria that might grow in your water source, but preserve the bacteria that are living symbiotically with your body in your gut. So keep the chlorine in the water while it is being stored, remove it before drinking (or cooking).

  13. says

    Regarding the idea that “natural” means “good for you”, many years ago while in college, my brother went to a party and witnessed a young woman gobbling magic mushrooms like they were appetizers. He told her to be careful and she replied that there was nothing to worry about because the mushrooms “are natural and can’t hurt you”. His reply was “Toadstools are natural too, and they’ll kill you”.

    Regarding bottled water, around here there are many people who rely on wells and have “sulfur water”. They can either use filters or buy bottled water (or live with the smell/taste). Also, bottled alkaline water is popular among people who have reflux (it has nothing to do with “alkaline diets”). The idea is to sip it continuously through the day, helping to limit the damage to the esophagus caused by the reflux. There are also any number of locales that have less-than-pure water, due to our inability to address and maintain our infrastructure, instead favoring the distraction-of-the-day. You might think that guaranteeing that the community water supply is safe would be a major win for politicians, but apparently it’s not “sexy” enough for them.

    A friend of mine once said that bottled water was the most ingenious thing that soda industry ever devised. It’s soda minus the sugar, flavors, and CO2 that make it soda. The only way they could make it more profitable would be to just sell you the bottle. Of course, they could also fill it with “tropical air” and sell it for a premium.

  14. mnb0 says

    “It seems like all you have to do is throw around words like ‘natural’ to make people think it is better”
    Arsenic is natural.
    Since a German book about popular mistakes pointed this out I distrust every advertisement that call a product “natural”. As soon I realized this it became easy to think up all kind of examples. Clothes are not natural. Still walking outside in the winter of Alaska without clothes is not better.

  15. anat says

    garnetstar @12: Sorry for the delayed response. Obviously the main causes for the rise in obesity rates in most of the first world (and now in developing countries as well) has to do with the increase in sedentary lifestyles and in reliance on ultra-processed foods (together with increased portion sizes). Bit there are some bits of evidence that may imply involvement of environmental contaminants of some kind as an additional factor. The geographic pattern of obesity rates in several countries (definitely the US, and I think also Spain, Iran, maybe China… there may be more examples I no longer remember) is one where obesity levels, after adjustment for income and education, tend to be lower in high altitude communities and higher in communities on lower ends of rivers -- suggesting increased exposure as the hypothetical contaminant increases in concentration. And humans are not the only species experiencing bodyweight increase. This also applies to pet cats and dogs (OK, they eat more obesogenic leftovers?), urban rats (our trash has become more obesogenic?) but also rats in the wild, horses, even if they mostly rely on grazing, primates in zoos and research primate colonies, and rodents raised for research.

    And among humans, obesity levels are higher in certain professions, including firefighters, truck drivers, a subset of construction-related work, healthcare support professionals, cooks, food processing workers (not sure how well these workers were compared with workers of similar income and education in other professions).

    In the US one of the earliest groups to experience a sharp increase in obesity and diabetes rates were the Pima of the Gila Valley. This population had to change its water supply due to a dam built in 1924 (the dam reduced the flow of the river on which the Pima depended previously). There was also explorative search for oil in the area in the early 20th century. Improperly sealed abandoned boreholes caused contamination of water with salt brines that are high in lithium. A government report from 1975 found high levels of lithium in wolfberry plants growing in the region.

    One likely mode of exposure to lithium is through lubricating grease -- this might explain some of the occupational differences in obesity.

    Again, I don’t think lithium or some other contaminant is the sole explanation for the rise in obesity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to play some role.

  16. anat says

    John Morales, for many people eating less consistently over time is very difficult. For any diet plan proposed, from ‘eat smaller portions, fewer times a day’ to plans that require a complete revolution of one’s eating pattern, only a small percent of participants manage to adhere for a year. And weight-loss success does correlate well with adherence, so you are right that this is the general direction, but how do we get people to use lifestyles they can maintain long term?

    We do know some things. We know several hormones regulate the sensation of satiety and the desire to eat, and they act in the brain. We know of genetic variants that are correlated with fatness, and they tend to be in genes that are expressed in the brain. We also know that a big driver of human feeding behavior is hedonic eating, and it seems as though ultra-processed foods in particular encourage this behavior.

    Achieving and/or maintaining a healthy weight is hard work for most people in the current food environment.

  17. John Morales says

    anat, sure.

    But blaming, say, lithium in the food chain or water supply is just wishful thinking. Whatever role it plays, it’s nothing compared to behavioural causes.

  18. John Morales says

    … which is why fad food products exist, in my estimation. People want easy answers.

  19. anat says

    The idea is that lithium influences behavior. It makes some people crave food more. So if an obesogenic contaminant exists in our environment it makes direct behavioral interventions that are ignorant of such factors less effective.

  20. says

    @anat — Lithium is a mood-stabilizer. Looking at the population of America, I can say for sure that there isn’t a lithium contamination problem based simply on observing people’s behavior.

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