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For a long time, languishing in the backwaters of pseudoscience and the occult, there have been claims about “magnetic” people. On its face, it seems like a preposterous assertion. We have no real reason to believe that people can generate a strong magnetic field which emanates from their bodies. However, when this “power” is demonstrated, it can be convincing, if only for a moment.
What does science make of these claims? What is the properly skeptical position? The people who claim to be magnetic surely go out of their way to show that they are indeed attractive, but is it all a trick?

You can take a look at this terribly uncritical video to familiarize yourself with these claims:

Unfortunately for the supposedly “magnetic” people, the only bizarre thing about them is that they have slightly more elastic and sticky skin.

What the Science Says

The first thing that you will notice about “magnetic” people is that their claims of magnetism are countered simply by the things that adhere to them. Even in the video above, many people who claim to be magnetic can also attach glass, wood, and plastic objects the same way as metal objects. If they were truly producing a strong magnetic field, glass, wood, or plastic (not being ferromagnetic) would not stick to them.

Secondly, science can easily test for magnetic fields and has been doing so for centuries. It would be incredibly simple to test for; you could even walk up to one of these people with a compass and it should go spinning off in all directions if they were intensely magnetic. However, when the magnetic people have been tested, there is no evidence of a magnetic field being produced.

These two points alone conclusively show that no magnetism is involved, so what is producing the incredible adhesion that these people display? The answer is friction.

A Slightly More Sticky Human

It should strike you as odd that whenever you see “magnetic” people performing their techniques, they usually have their shirts off and are always applying their objects to bare skin. If they were actually producing a magnetic field strong enough to hold up a 6-pound (~2.5 kg) iron, that field would easily work through a thin piece of clothing. Strong enough magnets can even be placed on opposite sides of your hand and stay connected. A strong magnetic field would not need such nakedness, so why is it always present?

The “magnetic” ability is based entirely on friction. First, the objects that are placed on the body typically have smooth surfaces (such as metal or glass) which have a good amount of surface area. Second, the people who you see performing their ability are always leaning slightly backwards (whether they consciously know it or not). This decreases the amount of force that the friction from the skin has to counter due to gravity. If these people were really producing a magnetism strong enough to stick an iron to them, they would be able to lean forward and even become horizontal without the object falling off. However, we always see them leaning back, taking advantage of friction.

Even if it was all friction, I imagine that you could not perform these feats yourself. This is where the unique qualities of these “magnetic” people actually come into play. “Magnetic” people have two things going for them: unusually sticky (or clammy) and elastic skin. The stickiness comes from a naturally produced secretion called sebum. Explains the Skeptic’s Dictionary:

All mammals have glands that secrete some oily/waxy stuff called sebum. Some people might secrete a lot of sebum, which might let them stick things to their skin as long as they don’t wash themselves.

It could also just be sweat. The elasticity of “magnetic” people’s skin also helps the objects adhere better. When an object is placed on the skin, the more elastic skin will somewhat conform around the object, helping it stay in place. This is why “magnetic” people always apply objects to their bare skin; to best use these interesting properties.

All of us have probably experienced these two factors when we have tried to get up from a leather seat on a hot day. While our skin seemingly “sticks” to the leather and withstands a surprising amount of force, it is due to stickiness and skin elasticity. None of us would posit that we were suddenly Magneto. I know that I have tried to get spoon to hang on the tip of my nose and that it works better when you breathe hot air (with water vapor) onto the surface of the spoon that you are trying to get to stick. This is another application of the “stickiness” factor, again being a product of frictional forces.

When you combine these factors with the interesting observation that all of the “magnetic” people have almost zero body hair (which would reduce friction), we have a theory which better explains the phenomena that we observe and fits all the other things we know about the world. This is how good science operates.

Are “magnetic” people aware that they aren’t magnetic or do they truly believe that they have powers? My guess is that the results are probably convincing enough to reinforce their own beliefs. Everyone wants to be special and everyone would certainly like super powers. Magnetism is simply the explanation that best fits their observations, but the belief is strong enough that facts like non-magnetic materials also stick are conveniently forgotten. If anything, they are unique in that they have interesting skin properties, but it is not magic, the supernatural, or magnetism.

A Live Debunking

As I said above, if a person was really producing a magnetic field that could hold up a clothes iron, then it should not matter if they are wearing a shirt or not: it should still stick. Furthermore, we have seen how the stickiness of the skin is the main factor here, so what happens if you remove that factor?

The founder of the JREF, James “The Amazing” Randi, put this to the test on a Korean TV show. He showed that when you removed the stickiness of the skin from the equation with a little baby powder, any supposed power immediately vanishes. In science we would call this controlling the variables, and it proves that there is nothing magnetic going on here:

Also notice that the man in the video was leaning backwards to take advantage of friction and used an object to prove his magnetic properties that was not magnetic. It doesn’t get any more clear than that: there are no magnetic people.