Dismissing bad science – Biorhythms and the U.S. Government

I subscribe to the feed from Online Books from the University of Pennsylvania, a terrific compendium of books that are available for free on the Internet. Many have had their copyright lapse, many are government documents. There are hours, perhaps days of digging and enjoyment to be had browsing these publications.

I came across this new release “Biological Rhythms: Implications for the Worker” by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment. My first thought was that this was perhaps more kooky investigations into biorhythms. With the allegations that the U.S. government spent taxpayer money on remote viewing experiments and other parapsychological phenomena testing in the interests of national security, I feared that they had also bought into the idea of biorhythms. Heck, they have such a hard time getting rid of the lie detectors as a “valuable tool” (Scientific Validity of Polygraph Testing: A Research Review and Evaluation Summary here .PDF Full document.) that perhaps they still long for the easy (but really offbase) explanations and excuses.

It wouldn’t be my first run in with a public office touting the values of baseless theories. Years ago, I noticed a mention of biorhythms and moon phases listed on a Mine Safety page run by a state government agency. This was back in the days when the web was not widely utilitized by the gov’ment to provide public information. I was livid that these unsupported theories would be suggested in an official capacity as a potential contributor to mine accidents. I emailed the webmaster. He basically said: “Well, I feel there is something to it and the latest accident at XXX mine coincided with *guess what a certain lunar/ biorhythm phase. Sorry it offends you but I’m keeping it on.” (Those were also the days when upper level management would pass around urban legends as warnings to employees. Even after I cited valid sources that contradicted their so called “true story”, they refused to recant. Ego and all.)

I was in no position to push the matter further. Later, when web information had more oversight, the site was revamped and this information was, thankfully, removed. (The dude who always fell for the ULs was gone too.)

We may indeed be seeing valid information, healthy skepticism, and reason burn off this attitude of ignorance. Viewing this recent public document, I was pleasantly surprised to see the following:

From: Biological Rhythms: Implications for the Worker [OTA-BA-463]

Box 1-A-Biorhythms Are Not Biological Rhythms
The scientific study of the biological rhythms of the body should not be confused with the theory of biorhythms. No evidence exists to support the concept of biorhythms; in fact, scientific data refute their existence. Based on a theory first proposed by the German scientist Wilhelm Fliess in 1897 and popularized in the 1970s, biorhythm theory postulates that three cycles act in a concerted fashion to guide activity: 23-day cycle that influences physical strength, endurance, energy, and physical confidence; a 28-day cycle that influences feelings, love, cooperation, and irritability; and a 33-day intellectual cycle that influences learning, memory, and creativity. According to biorhythm theory, these three cycles are linked to an individual’s birth date and fluctuate in a constant fashion throughout his or her life. Each cycle has a high and a low point. By mapping the high and low points of the respective cycles and how they coincide or diverge, the theory states, performance can be charted, and critical days when performance can be expected to be highest or lowest can be predicted.

Although a theory that provides a system for predicting human behavior and scheduling activities has appeal, none of the contentions of biorhythm theory can be supported. No biological process with such a relationship to the calendar date of birth has ever been identified, nor have any studies attempting to validate biorhythms been able to do so. Thus, for example, attempts to validate the hypotheses using retrospective airplane crash reports and athletic scores have consistently failed. While there clearly are human biological rhythms with cycles that can be measured in days (the menstrual cycle being an example), there is no evidence for the existence of any of the three biorhythms, let alone any predictive interaction. Given its nonfactual basis, biorhythm theory is relegated to the realm of other popular pastimes, such as numerology, that can serve as a source of entertainment but have no substantive or predictive value.

SOURCE D.C. Hoiley, C.M. Winget, C.M. DeRoshia, et al., Effects of Circadian Rhythm Phase Alteration on Physiologica land Psychlogical Variables: Implications to Pilot Performance (Including a Partially Annotated Bibliography.), NASA technical memorandum TM-81277 (Moffet Field, CA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration March 1981).

I guess there are reasonable people in the government after all. Hope for us all!

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