Over the last few days, I have been embroiled in a bewildering debate about distilled water. I knew that there existed something of a distillation cult, but I had underestimated how deep the rabbit hole went. This blog post is an adaptation of a (very long) Facebook comment I posted as a response to a friend of a friend. He sells water distillation equipment, and seems utterly convinced that drinking distilled water (one gallon a day) will change your life in just one week by “cleaning out” all the terrible minerals in your body. I posted a link to Randy Johnson’s great website, which is the most detailed and comprehensive resource I’ve found on the subject of distilled water and the various opposing health claims that are made for and against it. Check out the section on distilled water, which unfortunately, my debating opponent didn’t find impressive enough to read.
In response, he directed me towards a character called Andrew Norton Webber, whom he cited as the reason why he got started with distilled water. Since then, I’ve been doing some delving into the swirling vortex of pseudoscience that is Andrew Norton Webber’s brain. The majority of what follows is based on the first third of a three-hour interview he did – you can find it here or, alternatively, just search for him on YouTube – he’s quite prolific. I want to make this clear before I begin: as I unpick the arguments laid out by him in the making of his case for distilled water (remember I listened to him for a whole hour), you may begin to think – why are you wasting your time on this?
Well, for one thing, he has garnered a non-trivial following. His videos have been seen by tens of thousands, and his name appears all over the “alternative” web. He presents himself as an expert, and speaks with such confidence that many will have been, and continue to be, tempted to use his existence as confirmation of false ideas that they’d like to be true (who wouldn’t be glad if distilled water were a cure-all), on the basis of a few clicks around his website, or a couple of minutes on YouTube. I think Facebook makes it clear just how gullible some people are, and just how seducable people are by names with a few thousand followers (we know, we get it all the time 😉 ).
It is my belief (and sincere hope) that most of the people who cite him and follow his advice won’t have actually realised how mind-frazzlingly incoherent and weird it all gets when you scratch beneath the surface. The over-all purpose of this note is not to berate or mock Andrew Norton Webber. As I wrote it I deleted and re-phrased things continuously in an active effort to soften the tone. But, as you will see, it turns out to be impossible to unpick his claims without automatically exposing the (I’m afraid) dumb-founding absurdities that constitute them. The main purpose of this note is to provide a reality-check for people like the person to whom it, in its original form, it was written to. For people who aren’t “retards” (as much as this word is thrown about as a means to dismiss people as not worth engaging with) and, whom, in any case, if indeed they were, wouldn’t therefore somehow “deserve” to just be left alone to fester in their own stupidity. If one of my friends came out with the kind of stuff we’re about to discuss (I do have some quite bizarre friends), I’d be just as blunt and forthright as I am in this article. I’d reckon that was a darn-sight more respectful than just looking the other way and letting them get on with it. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the highest possible respect I could pay to Andrew Norton Webber is the time and effort I have spent critically appraising his ideas, as an Oxford-educated English lass. Right, glad that’s out of the way.
Before we begin on the topic of distilled water pseudoscience and its (I now know) intimately related companion, urine pseudoscience (which is more common than you think, by the way), let it be known that in the third of the three-hour interview I’ve so far had the stomach to listen to, Norton Webber reveals himself to be a shining example of crank magnetism, proudly buying into chemtrail woo and antivaccionationism, believing that chemotherapy is purely a money-making ploy that does not save or prolong lives, trading in erroneous chemotherapy treatment statistics and painting all “mainstream” doctors and academics as deceitful and money-grabbing. He is under the impression that GMOs are akin to poison, reels off unfounded notions about the pineal gland (a pseudoscience favourite), is a germ-theory denialist, anti-fluoride conspiracy theorist, homeopathy-enthusiast and all-round conspiracy sponge. He also argues that cooked food has “lost its fuel” – that putting cooked food in your body is like burning gasoline before putting it in the car. (This audacious false analogy is topped off with the labelling of all cooked food as “pure death”.) He states as a given that cataracts, artery plaques, arthritis (and disease in general) are just “mineral deposits”. This is one of the (incorrect) assumptions upon which he bases his assertion that drinking distilled water (or urine) can free humans of disease. He also thinks that the kidneys filter 1000 litres of water. Wiki says 180. And with full certainty, he asserts that a combination of bathing your tongue in urine after suffering allergic reactions (but not using any drugs) and drinking your own urine on a daily will “completely erase” all allergies (ie. Nut allergy-sufferers: throw away your epi-pens), and provide a full-proof antidote to *any* poison. Yes, that’s right, ANY poison.
Now that we’ve broken the urinary ice, I’ll be frank: Norton Webber is obsessed with drinking pee, which he says can cure any disease. He says one can (and seems convinced that indeed one really ought to) continuously cycle one’s urine, forever – “never taking water or food”. Within 3-5 days, Norton Webber claims, your urine, when cycled through you like this, will become “rainwater-clear”. I’ll just give you a moment to consider that. Now, to truly believe this necessitates one of two things: EITHER a complete and utter lack of understanding of elementary physiology, anatomy, chemistry or evolutionary theory, OR an astronomically bold rejection of science in its entirety – because the idea that we can sustain ourselves with our own urine (and be better off for it) is squarely at odds with each of them, on so many levels. If you keep drinking your urine, the water content will get ever-lower, as it is used by your body for metabolism, and evaporated in the form of perspiration. The pee will get further and further from “rainwater-clear”, and this behaviour will pretty quickly kill you.
No doubt Norton Webber would claim the latter of these two things – that he rejects, rather than fails to understand, science. Indeed, he does, superficially, reject science. His package is ostensibly anti-science. No doubt he would retort to scientific objection to the factual basis of his claims by saying that he doesn’t trust science anyway: his explanations and theory wouldn’t be accepted by doctors and those from “institutions”, because these people want to hide the truth and feed us misinformation. In fact, he advises that everyone cast all subtlety of thought out of the window and resolve to always look in exactly the opposite way to the one in which a given “institution” is directing you, because that’s where the truth will be. He refers to “collegitis”, which he says,
But in actual fact, though he might like to reply that he rejects science, this retort is off-limits to him. His whole arsenal of assertions and claims revolves around ‘sciency-ness’ – a continual bastardisation of actual science – ie. science that comes from a vast lineage of… institutions and… colleges. He discusses concepts such as “vaccines”, “blood pressure”, “cholesterol”, “hydrogen bonding” etc, etc, all of which came to be understood and labelled and explained by science.
Science is not some collection of answers from which we can select the ones we like and leave the rest. Science is a method of inquiry, and it is the method – the way we get to the answers – that makes something scientific. Not the jargon. Science does not demand unconditional trust (unlike Norton Webber and chums do) – indeed, science can only progress because people keep on questioning – but if you want to disagree with it, you must disagree using more science. That means you must disagree with the method, rather than simply reject the answers. If Andrew Norton Webber disagrees with the methods used to establish pretty much everything we know about the human body, including all the physics and chemistry that this entails, then what the bleedin’eck is he doing basing his “truth” on the very concepts established via these very methods? Add to this the fact that he fails to provide even one demonstration of his understanding of any of science’s methods (something he would have to possess in order to reject them – you’d expect him to be showing it off, not hiding it), and it starts to look verrrrrrry close to 100% certain that Andrew Norton Webber is… frontin’, girl. Derision of doctors, scientists and the “mainstream”, along with a sleazy, pseudo-maverick narrative, are used as a decoy and quasi-justification for his lack of knowledge (of the kind that one would acquire through long, hard hours of genuine study, usually via institutions).
As I asked about Ty Bollinger in a previous blog post, if Norton Webber doesn’t trust science and its chronic sufferers of collegitis, why on earth does he enjoin his readers to trust that these scientific concepts he keeps referring to and using to build his case, from science’s institutions, aren’t just deep layers of conspiracy construction, designed to function as a believable framework for all the lies “they” tell us, and that he so valiantly challenges? Perhaps it’s because, in reality, these science terms and concepts function as a convenient conceptual framework for readers to slot his lies (or delusions, or both, depending on your interpretation) neatly into. It makes them easily remembered and spreadable. One thing’s for sure: whenever we see such selective inconsistency, we know the motivation is something other than truth.
At this point, I feel I should stress again that tragic though his position is, and deserving of our sympathy though he surely is, Norton Webber is setting himself up in a position that squarely demands criticism. He is giving out not just medical advice but extreme medical advice which, given that it’s also the wrong advice, is dangerous. To give you a particularly good example of why he needs to be firmly challenged:
“We all have the most terrible times trying to quit our addictions, and I don’t care whether it’s smoking, drinking, eating lobsters every night or whatever your fancy is. Don’t try to quit those. That’s too hard. Just…add a NEW addiction. Add the gallon a day. Everything else from there will follow. You see, misery loves company. And when you’re full of garbage, there’s three layers of trash that happen inside the body, if you exist without cleaning it on a regular basis, which is basically the degradation we’re witnessing in society… is human bodies, or machines, that have never been cleaned. First a layer of dirt forms, and then there’s bugs, that start to live in the dirt, and then there’s parasites that start to live off the bugs. So, if you don’t clean those out, people just become totally wasted. They just become broken down machines. It’s like buying a car, and driving it out of the lot, without ever giving it oil. Oil is the lubricant to an engine – to a mechanical engine. Water is the lubricant, and the cleaner, to a human engine. The body.”
I’ll leave you to ruminate on that. I don’t know about you, but I find the undertones of religious purity, and guilty shame at our filth-accumulating bodies, particularly unsavoury.
Now seems a good moment to ask: whence cometh Norton Webber’s penchant for piss?
The, Bible, of course! He quotes this bit: “Drink water from your own cistern, fresh* water from your own well”, as is the custom for “urine therapy” proponents. He believes that the Bible is the infallible word of God. Do you, friend-of-a-friend? He is on record as saying “Don’t take the stories from the Bible as allegories. The Bible is truth”. Are you a Young Earth Creationist, like him? Surely not. [I never come across YECs in England.]
Incidentally, it seems more likely that “god” is recommending fidelity here, not piss-drinking, as those words are immediately followed by these ones: “Should your springs be dispersed abroad, /Streams of water in the streets? /Let them be yours alone /And not for strangers with you./Let your fountain be blessed /And rejoice in the wife of your youth. /As a loving hind and a graceful doe,/Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;/Be intoxicated always with her love.”
*In the King James bible, it’s “running water from your own well”, not “fresh water from your own well.”
So, how does drinking pee relate to drinking distilled water? Well, Norton Webber asserts that “the effects (of drinking urine and distilled water) are exactly the same. “It’s not just urine that is the miracle cleanser for the body” – the very reason urine is able to cleanse and heal and allow you live for hundreds of years like Moses and other Biblical characters is because of its distilled water content. In other words, “it’s not urine per se, it’s the pure water within it”. Let’s just be clear that (leaving aside that this contradicts one of his earlier assertions that the reason urine is good for you is probably because of its ammonia content), this makes … no sense. The defining feature of distilled water is that it contains no solutes. Urine is full of solutes – urea, chloride, sodium, potassium, creatinine and others. If we can temporarily suspend stringency just enough to entertain the idea that the “distilled water content” of urine is what constitutes the “vital force” that allows it to de-age you, there’s still the problem that continuously looping it directly would be like the opposite of the distilling process – your urine would contain less and less of this “vitality”, and more and more solutes.
Still on the same outbreath, Norton Webber seems to extend the argument another step – from urine to fruit , implying that you can get the same benefits from drinking fresh (NEVER pasteurised) juice. He seems to be implying, in his own, curiously jumbled way, that it’s the distilled water content of fruit juice that makes it good for you, just like it’s this that makes urine good for you. (Why not just stick with the fruit juice, then?) In this strange moment, he seems to imply that the “vital force” that is destroyed through cooking is in fact the distilled water content. I find it hard to think of a comment to include at this point.
His jumbled misunderstanding of water potential and osmosis (along with other vague bits and bobs) is what seems to lead him (and others) to the conclusion that distilled water can “clean” the body. Theoretically, the extra osmotic pressure applied by distilled water to a solute-containing solution the other side of a semi-permeable membrane allows it to absorb more particles from this solution via a type of diffusion process called osmosis and, in Webber’s world, thus “clean the body” when ingested. But the extra ‘sucking power’, (referred to as water potential) imparted to distilled water is only proportional to the quantity of particles removed from the water in the first place by distillation. Comparing distilled water to tap water becomes a pointless affair when you then compare how either will look when mixed with the contents of your stomach, which contains comparatively enormous quantities of solutes even when empty. It’s a drop-in-the-ocean scenario. Furthermore, even if distilled water were able to absorb significant quantities of substances from your body through the stomach walls (perhaps if one drank huge quantities and stopped eating), this absorption wouldn’t be specific to “bad” chemicals – it would absorb a proportionate quantity of important solutes – ones that are there as a result of millions of years of evolution, and ones that are pushed in pill-form by supplement marketers. (In fact, this flipside is the idea onto which our old friend Dr. Mercola has latched, and from which he constructs his fear-mongering about drinking distilled water, that, according to him “leaches” your body of important minerals. EARLY DEATH FROM DRINKING DISTILLED WATER is the way one character from the anti-distilled-water lobby puts it. See Randy’s page on distilled water for reasons not to take the fear-mongers’ bate on this.)
The idea that urine is good for us because of its distilled water content takes the invalidity of Webber’s philosophy/theory/approach (whatever, they all sound far too noble) to new heights. It is a fundamental inconsistency – a most fatal flaw in his theory. And, of course, it betrays, from another angle, the gaping holes in Webber’s grasp of science. To be rainwater-clear about this: the man advocating distilled water doesn’t actually know what constitutes distilled water.
Leaving all this aside (which seems a perverse thing to do, but no matter), where is this “evidence” that is said to exist to support the claim that distilled water “cleans” the body? Or, for the even more specific assertion, that the quantity of a gallon must be consumed for it to work? Where does Norton Webber get this information or that figure from? As I hope to have convinced you, there is no scientific plausibility working in his favour here.
My hunch is that of the people who find themselves on the fence about Norton Webber’s theory, those who decide to go and do some “research” on whether distilled water completely rids all humans of disease and is the answer to everything, (instead of just listening on until they’re convinced) tend to get sidetracked by “detox” chit-chat. “Information” on detox is everywhere. They kick themselves as it occurs to them that drinking distilled water or urine must be a cure-all, like Norton Webber says it is, because after all, detox is a thing. But detox is another deeply pseudoscientific idea – an ingenious marketing label though, my word. It is a formidable type of pseudoscience, because it sits atop the extraordinarily symbolically-rich concept of purity. “Cleaning” the body and/or the soul is a motif found deeply embedded in religions and mystical traditions throughout history and cross-culturally. This religious metaphor functions whether consciously or not as another means for Norton Webber to dodge the gaps in his knowledge about the very things he claims to be so clued up on, fogging up the picture with mystical smoke and mirrors.
Extraordinary claims, it must be remembered, require extraordinary evidence, with the burden of proof being, as always, on the claimant. Testimonials and anecdotes, despite incessant proclamations of their existence by subscribers and preachers, can’t count. (Indeed, testimonials are a well-recognised pseudoscience red flag.) There are plenty of explanations (aside from that little thing called “fibbing”) as to why people may perceive a certain behaviour as benefiting them. Regression to the mean, placebo, cognitive dissonance, and confusing correlation with causation are some examples – mix these up and pour over an underlying anti-science clique, and you have a recipe for unreliable testimony.
My debating opponent directs me to a page from Andrew Norton Webber’s website, “aquariusthewaterbearer.com”, that lists “doctors” and “experts” who supposedly have had “the courage to tell the truth about distilled water”. As I was fully expecting, it is wholly untrustworthy. I’ve looked up the first 14 entries. They each fall into one of three categories: 1) words of quacks and pseudoexperts who promote distilled water; 2) words that can only be found in copies of the actual document I am trying to verify; (ie, that can’t be independently confirmed and are therefore likely to be made up) and 3) words that are taken out of context and don’t specifically make a case for the health benefits of distilled water. Of course, as we’ve already seen, this is irrelevant because testimonies don’t count as evidence. The fact that someone is a doctor does not absolve them of burden of proof – they should face the same scrutiny as Norton Webber.
Furthermore, a few hundred testimonials is actually fairly unimpressive. Norton Webber has a downloadable .pdf which apparently contains “500+ testimonials. Full book in progress”. There are billions of people in the world. If someone really had found a free, miracle cure for… everything; something that could “reverse the ageing process” and cure all disease, my best bet says that more people would be on board – news would have spread farer and wider, quicker. (Also, I’d wager that Norton Webber would look in far better shape – he cites Annette Larkins, who is apparently 70 years old but looks very young, as “living proof” that following a raw food diet and drinking distilled water reverses ageing. What about all the living disproof then? Why are there not many more like Larkins? This ability to ignore the misses and take note only of the hits is yet another signature of pseudoscience – known as “selective thinking”, or “confirmation bias”.
The idea that “nobody would benefit from funding” studies to show that distilled water has health benefits”, an idea proposed in the debate, is potentially misleading. True, there is no incentive to spend money on such a study because, as I’ve touched on (and on which thousands more words could be written), there is a complete lack of any prior scientific basis upon which to suspect that drinking urine or distilled water could possibly have any of the health benefits that people like Norton Webber say it has. However, if the idea did have any prior scientific plausibility then of course there would be incentive to fund studies on it. From a mercenary perspective, huge savings could be made across the board (speaking as someone with a free national health service) if it turned out that such a simple intervention could improve health and save lives.
The notion that Big Pharma is deliberately keeping us ill is untenable from every angle. It’s also massively insulting to all the thousands of people whose ongoing scientific research is dedicated to understanding the molecular intricacies of individual diseases in the quest to make ill people better. In teaching the New World Order conspiracy as truth, Norton Webber is dismissing the humanity and dedication of huge numbers of people, conveying their intentions to improve and save lives as cold, callous deception – without anything but imagination to back up his dismissal. This is called “slander”.
For the New World Order to be true, necessarily, every student of medicine (and anyone else associated with institutions) would have to be deeply ensconced in a vast web of lies; leading brilliantly well juggled double-lives, all in exchange for dirty Pharma payouts. As someone with many friends in medicine, some of whom I studied with at university, I find the perpetuation of this wild and capricious speculation as THE TRUTH not only absurd but supremely irresponsible, outrageous, and conceited.
And let’s not forget, either, that scientists don’t all work for pharmaceutical companies, and not only that but are fundamentally driven by reputation (associated with making significant contributions to science).The achievement every scientist seeks is the privilege of putting her or his name next to a revolutionary insight, especially if it means humanity benefits directly from such an insight. If distilled water (or urine) were a miracle cure, this would have been shown to be true, and the research group responsible would benefit through reputation – the currency of good science. There are such things as rich scientists. There are also such things as sponsors who want to have revolutionary scientists as their pin-ups. If I am a scientist and I demonstrate, using a well-designed study and good statistics, that distilled water has the benefits that Norton Webber and co. say it does (ie, that it can essentially cure all of mankind’s problems), my reputation as a scientist sky-rockets, and I probably make a fair bit of money in the process and as a result. But there’s no point in investing not just money but time and effort into a project one is confident will not bear fruit. For the record, sure, Pharma companies have a lot to answer for. Ben Goldacre is one of their fiercest critics. His book, “Bad Pharma”, is extremely revealing and unfavourable. I recommend it highly. The reality really is worth talking about and challenging, but it is a far cry from the kind of world that Norton Webber thinks we’re living in. If we want to build a good case against something, as Goldacre does, we need to do it reasonably, with evidence – not with recycled fictions and rumours.
In all, Norton Webber’s profile could function nicely as an illustration of practically every item included in Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit which, if you haven’t read through, I would recommend as well. There are copies of it hosted at various places – here’s one.
Webber flies all the red flags of pseudoscience. His worldview is based on deep and fervently defended disconnectivity between what in reality are inextricably interlocked areas of this human life. He lives in a bubble – he thinks he is open-minded but in fact, he is anything but. His mind has had to contort itself so much to house such a catastrophically illogical construct that he can in a single moment both condemn cooking because “no animals cook their food before eating it”, and endorse “continuously looping your own water”. (Incidentally, the Bible makes what would certainly appear to be references to cooked food, in the form of feasts and bread. Since god’s been (in his interpretation) so explicit about the wonders of drinking urine, you’d expect him to mention somewhere that cooking literally kills your food, turning it into “pure death”.)
Usually, when I say things like this, the comments that follow are along the lines of “science doesn’t have the answers to everything”. So, just to put it out there, I know it doesn’t. In the words of Dara O’Brien, “if it did, it would stop.” But just because it doesn’t have the answers to everything doesn’t mean that one can fill in the gaps with mumbo-jumbo. In any case – on this particular subject, science happens to know an awful lot. Andrew Norton Webber’s videos have been seen by tens of thousands of people.
* * * *
In case you were wondering, my debate opponent called me judgemental and made some personal slurs on my character. He wouldn’t accept that testimonials don’t count, and he said that it was irrelevant whether the quotes from that list were genuine or not.
Finally, he said this: “We all have opinions – until we know. Then we don’t have opinions anymore. I am offering you a chance to have KNOWING and not an opinion”, which was accompanied by the amusing illustration opposite.