The ecology of woo is a rich one, and whatever niche of silly you can think of is probably filled, unimpeded by science, evidence or fact. The idea of earthing, for instance, is a relatively obvious one once you let your creativity be unconstrained by reality, plausibility or reason. According to the Earthing Institute, earthing is “connecting to the Earth’s natural, negative surface charge by being barefoot,” and has, according to its advocates, a wide range of positive health effects. Apparently, going barefoot allows your feet to pick up free electrons that then allegedly course through the human body to detoxify, cleanse, balance and harmonize: “Connection with the Earth restores a lost electrical signal to the body that seems to stabilize the complicated circuitry of our essentially-electrical body. Our built-in self-regulating and self-healing mechanisms become more effective. There are head-to-toe improvements. Better blood flow. Less pain and inflammation. More energy. Deeper sleep.” None of that is, of course, even remotely meaningful. But they’ve got evidence, don’t they? “The research [ah, that]indicates that Earthing transfers negatively charged free electrons into the body that are present in a virtually limitless and continuously renewed supply on the surface of the Earth. […] Maintaining contact with the ground allows your body to naturally receive and become charged with these electrons. When thus ‘grounded,’ any electron deficiencies and free radical excesses in the body are corrected. A natural electrical state is restored.” You’ll look in vain the research establishing those claims in real scientific journals, though. It’s probably a conspiracy. More here and here.
But research is of course secondary to tapping into the commercial potential of the idea. Retired cable TV executive Clint Ober, for instance, who seems to be the originator of what he calls “the science of earthing” (complete with his “Earthing Axiom: The earth’s infinite supply of free electrons will neutralize free radicals in your body and will thus help to stave off disease and aging. YOUR BODY WAS DESIGNED TO BE IN CONTACT WITH THE EARTH FOR MANY HOURS PER DAY” – allcaps in the original; Ober is fond of allcaps), is also the inventor of earthing beds, which do what “no other mattress on the planet can … (reconnect) you to the Earth’s gentle, natural healing energy while you sleep.” The prototype, at least, used metallic duct tape connected by wire to a ground rod planted in the soil outside, which Ober “discovered” improved his sleep and reduced chronic pain. The current version of the “barefoot pad”, put in your bed and connected to the ground outside, will (as of 2007!) set you back the measly sum of $ 289.
Like any other crackpot, Ober is fond of using loose associations of sciency-sounding terms to produce technobabble that people with no background in physics, biochemistry, biology or medicine may confuse for something actually informative (e.g. claiming that a “continuous flow of elections” from the earth does anything to eliminate free radicals in your body). He is also fond of referring to the good old times when everybody went barefoot and no-one got sick. And like all pseudoscience advocates, earthing advocates also have their own “studies”, strikingly typical of the kind of (in-house company) “studies” specifically designed to generate false positives: all small pilot studies or preliminary studies with strikingly hopeless methodology (“strikingly”, because in most cases it would have been so bloody easy to do it better). Some of them have graphs, though, so it must be science, mustn’t it? There are good discussions of the “scientific support” of earthing here and here. In comment sections on the Internet, the favorite study cited by earthing advocates still seems to be the one discussed here, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, no less.
The idea, though, has actually become pretty popular, and is vigorously pushed by crackpot luminaries like Joe Mercola (who has promoted Ober’s claims specifically; discussed here), Dr. Oz and – not least – Gwyneth Paltrow.
Diagnosis: So dumb it beggars belief. But like all incredulously stupid health claims, earthing has a lot of fans providing personal anecdotes while criticizing those who tend to find evidence more convincing than anecdotes, and claiming that the treatment is free while blowing hundred of dollars on books and equipment. It does, admittedly, shake one’s belief in the future of humanity.
Hat-tip: Skepdic ()