Saturday, July 09, 2011

Magnet boy attracts skepticism

A new "magnet boy" is entertaining Brazilians. Previous "magnet boys" seem to have been concentrated in Serbia and Croatia. The story line rarely varies from a simple formula. The boy is preteen, obese, and things appear to stick to him. Staged video of things sticking to him is provided. Once the demonstrations are made, stories are added telling of radio reception issues and/or healing powers.

I'll include some video links here, but simply Google "magnet boy" for the latest or most popular variants. And don't worry, the narrative won't vary from the formula described above.

Show the videos in class, then move in with some inquiry.

1. The claim is that the boy is magnetic. What evidence was provided to support the claim.
2. In what ways--if any--was the evidence not compelling?
3. Is there an alternate explanation of this phenomenon?
4. How would you test the claim if the "magnet boy" were here in the classroom?

The TV-news items are always wholly credulous. Skepticism and critical thinking don't sell ad slots or keep viewers glued to screens.

Magnets rightly hold a level of fascination among everyone. They act at a distance. You can feel an invisible repulsion force when playing with magnets that you likely don't understand. Magic! Part of the common misunderstanding of magnets is that anything metal is magnetic. People are surprised to find out you can't pick up pennies (or any other US coins) with a magnet.

Many "magnet boy" stories do themselves in (from a purely scientific perspective) when they show copper, nickel, or other nonmagnetic alloy coins sticking to the boy. When plastics and ceramics stick to him, we are invited to question our understanding of what magnetism really is.

And though actual magnetism is little diminished through a thin layer of clothing, "magnet boy" magnetism requires direct contact with skin. A non-vertical surface of skin helps, too.

One might ponder the exploitative nature of such spectacles, or wonder about the health/diet of the obese boys. And given the nature of the demonstrations, it's easy to see why an outbreak of "magnet girl" media darlings is unlikely.

Media fluff like this can and should be mined for as deeply as possible for lessons in skepticism throughout the school year. When students see such fluff in the future, we'll have reason to hope they'll laugh out loud at the offending TV screen.

Hat tip to SkepChick, Rebecca Watson, for the lead.

1 comment:

Stevie Ray Tesla said...

I've got a lot of magnetic storage I need erased - are any one of the Magnetic Marvels available for hire? One way to debunk this is to place these Gaussian Gadabouts in a MRI machine and look for the Solenoid Effect.