Another Candle Goes Out….

Denis was a founder member of New Zealand Skeptics, back in 1984 when it was known as the NZ Committee for Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal. For many years he was the face of organised scepticism in New Zealand, fronting up to the media …

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Acupuncture is one area of alternative treatment which has apparently gained widespread support, but questions remain about whether it actually does any good.

Acupuncture evolved from primitive blood­letting rituals to the insertion of needles into points alleged to lie on lines called meridians. Acupuncture needles can be twirled or electrically stimulated and, in addition, a burning herb can be applied to the acupuncture point (moxibustion). Acupuncture points can also be stimulated with laser light. It is even claimed that the ear contains an inverted foetus pattern (homunculus) which can be used for treating disease in distant organs.

There is no anatomical or physiological basis for the existence of either acupuncture points or meridians. The concept of the auricular homunculus is a scientific absurdity.

There have been extravagant claims made for the success of acupuncture treatment. A common finding is that the most extreme claims of success are made on behalf of the most poorly designed trials. Because acupuncture involves needling of the body, it has been difficult to perform adequate double-blind placebo controlled trials. Nevertheless, careful studies have contradicted many of the claims made by the proponents of acupuncture.

One controlled study showed that electroacupuncture of the ear to treat chronic pain was no more effective than just lightly touching the ear, despite claims of effective treatment for such.

Some have argued that acupuncture analgesia can be explained by suggestion in the same manner as hypnosis. He found no discernible difference in the behaviour of patients whether operated on under acupuncture anaesthesia or hypnosis. This suggests that needles are unnecessary and would also explain the apparent success of laser stimulation of acupuncture points.

Following its evolution from blood-letting, acupuncture points numbered around 365, but the number has increased to over 2,000. Many published charts of the points and meridians do not agree with each other and this lack of specificity would explain the success of random needling. Despite thousands of years of use in China, the Emperor removed acupuncture from the curriculum of the Imperial Medical College because he viewed it as a barrier to the progress of Western medicine.

Since its introduction to the West, acupuncture has undergone many revivals, complete with extravagant claims of disease treatment. In 1822 the editor of a medical journal wrote,

“A little while ago, the town rang with acupuncture, everybody was curing incurable diseases with it; but now not a syllable is said upon the subject.”

The latest revival of acupuncture followed Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. He and his entourage were treated to dramatically staged examples of operations under acupuncture anaesthesia. Reports of these operations were grossly exaggerated and took no account of the published historical evidence of surgery being done in the West without any anaesthetic at all. Professors Geng Xichen and his colleague Tao Naihuang denounced surgical acupuncture as a myth and a hoax.

Acupuncture anaesthesia is not as commonly used for surgery in China as is often claimed. It is not applied to emergency surgery and, when used on carefully screened patients, is often used in conjunction with local anaesthesia or narcotics.

In New Zealand, approximately 14% of doctors practice acupuncture on the basis that 3,500 years of clinical observations by the Chinese are reliable evidence of its efficacy — the same could be said of astrology or the belief in a flat Earth.

Acupuncture has been introduced in such a way that unproven assumptions were made about its effectiveness. Instead of being experimentally evaluated it has become widely used for an absurd range of clinical indications.

A huge scientific literature has arisen in support of acupuncture, such as studies purported to show improvement in asthma symptoms following acupuncture treatment. However, when the studies were repeated by asthma specialists, the claimed improvement could not be duplicated. The acupuncture literature is an example of how people will always find support for what they believe in.

Parsimony refers to the philosophical process of checking whether some new effect or phenomenon can be explained by current knowledge. Acupuncture analgesia can be explained within the paradigm of contemporary conditioning theory. Other theories suggest acupuncture stimulates the production of endorphins, reducing pain. However, this sort of pain relief can be produced by many other types of hyperstimulation, without using needles or requiring meridian points or flows of “chi” vital life force.

When acupuncture is administered by someone who believes in it to someone of a like mind, it is hardly surprising that there is a huge placebo response. One trial claimed dramatic improvements in pain reduction for patients with rheumatoid arthritis when acupuncture points were stimulated by laser. The same improvements were found with the laser switched off!

It has been claimed that the successful treatment of animals with acupuncture proves that acupuncture is not a placebo therapy. The same arguments have been advanced by vets in support of homeopathic treatment. All this demonstrates is that animals, like humans, are subject to spontaneous and unexpected recovery.

Many acupuncture claims are pure fantasy. One paper claimed that a patient with 96% burns, mostly 3rd degree, made an uneventful recovery following treatment with acupuncture. Publication bias means that only positive trials tend to get reported and published. Since the better-designed acupuncture trials consistently report negative findings (i.e. fail to show any benefit from acupuncture) they tend to be under-reported.

Safety is important and acupuncture treatment can cause serious complications such as collapsed lung and various infections, as well as nerve and spinal cord damage. A survey of almost 200 acupuncturists revealed 132 cases of fainting, 26 cases of increased pain, 8 cases of pneumothorax (punctured lung) and 45 other adverse results amongst their patients. A further concern is that non-medically trained acupuncturists are likely to misdiagnose or fail to diagnose serious conditions.

There is little or no evidence to justify the current widespread use of acupuncture. It should not be funded by the health system. Acupuncture needs to be confined to an experimental setting in order to prove its efficacy and indications.


Channelling claims that spirit entities can speak by using the body of a person, the channeller. Some channelled spirits are said to be those of dead loved ones, others are more exotic folk such as Nepalese lamas, Native American shamans, Altantean priests or even Cro-magnon warriors!

Spirits of the dead

People channelling the spirits of the dead are simply a new version of the 18th-century spiritualist medium. In some cases, channellers have been discovered to have extensively researched people to be able to produce seemingly inexplicable details about them, allegedly provided by a recently departed loved one. In other cases, the channellers are practicing what stage magicians everywhere recognise as “cold reading”.

James van Praagh and John Edward both rely on rapid-fire delivery of generalised questions and statements which are typically used to “home in” on someone in a large audience. Thus throwing a line out such as “does anyone know a John?” is likely to elicit a response from someone (from most people in fact!). Using ambiguous statements such as “do you understand that?” or “does this have meaning for you?” helps provide a spurious sense of accuracy or detail. And people will invariably provide feedback, verbally or nonverbally, which is then built into the patter. There are many books available on “cold reading” which teach how to do this, and it can be very, very compelling and mystifying to those who don’t know the basic techniques involved.

Modern ancient spirits

An easier version of channelling which doesn’t rely on trying to elicit personal details, is where an allegedly ancient spirit – sometimes one from a different planet – provides pearls of wisdom to an audience seeking enlightenment.

Modern channelling made its first major appearance in 1972 with the publication of Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts and Robert Butts, which detailed the wisdom of Seth, an “unseen entity”. But the really big boost came in 1987, with the ABC mini-series based on actress Shirley MacLaine’s book Out on a Limb. This depicted her conversing with spirits through channeller Kevin Ryerson, who claimed to channel “John”, a contemporary of Jesus. Like many channelled entities, “John” was not able to speak the language of his own era, but instead sounded like a B-grade Elizabethan. And, like many channelled entities, John made outrageous, but affirming statements (he told MacLaine that she is co-creator of the world with God!).

One of the most famous channellers was J.Z. Knight, who succeeded in taking legal steps to lay claim to her 35,000-year-old Cro-magnon spirit “Ramtha”, preventing other channellers from tapping into this lucrative market. She has been able to charge patrons US$1,000 a seminar to receive such wisdom as “[we must] open our minds to new frontiers of potential”, and has sold tapes, books and accessories as part of the business. Ramtha, too, has a liking for Elizabethan-accented platitudes, despite having apparently lived in Lemuria and Atlantis. However, “he” fared badly in predicting a series of natural disasters that didn’t happen (California and Florida did not fall into the ocean, and acid rain did not poison New England’s water supply). Followers who had shifted house to be safe were not happy with him. Then Knight was served an injunction. She had been telling followers that Ramtha recommended they buy her Arabian horses, at up to US$250,000 each. Knight was discovered practicing Ramtha voices, and then Ramtha began making homophobic comments. Small wonder that Ramtha’s popularity has waned in recent years.

An example of how easy it is to fool people was the infamous 1988 Australian tour of “Carlos”, a 2,000-year-old spirit allegedly channelled by artist José Oliver. The tour was a hoax intended to demonstrate how easy it is to fool people and show how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when covering paranormal or supernatural topics. José was trained by his friend, master magician James “The Amazing” Randi, to perform as a channeller. Carlos developed a large following and, even when the hoax was revealed, many continued to believe in him.

As James Randi noted in an interview with Australia’s ABC:

“All [José] had to do was look at videotapes of other people speaking in strange voices, and he picked it up right away, and eventually we got it into the Sydney Opera House with a fair audience there, all handling crystals and beads and whatnot, and with charmed looks on their faces, attracted and enthralled by this man out on stage, José Oliver doing the Spirit of Carlos that was 35,000 years old.

“He felt like an awful fool doing it, especially since all of the material that we produced was spurious. In the press releases we invented magazines, we invented towns and cities and radio stations and TV channels and whatnot, that didn’t exist. And one phone call by the media back to the United States would have revealed the whole thing as a hoax.”

Deliberate deception?

Cases like “Carlos” show how easy it can be to fool thousands of people, but are the “real” channellers perpetuating a similar kind of hoax? At face value, it’s hard to tell. There are always at least three basic hypotheses to explain any paranormal claim:

  1. the alleged phenomenon is genuine
  2. the claimant is perpetrating a deliberate deception
  3. the claimant is sincere but self-deceived

Skeptics concentrate on looking for evidence which will allow the first hypothesis to be rejected or accepted. Channellers have consistently failed to provide any evidence that can’t be more simply explained by mundane methods, such as cold reading. Their wise pronouncements are banal and commonplace. They have no knowledge that isn’t available to the person involved (i.e. no inexplicable language skills or answers to arcane questions). Some of their pronouncements are blatantly wrong.

Many channellers have made a good living out of their alleged abilities; some have become very wealthy indeed. For others, the attraction may be the sense of power inherent in gaining a devout following. Just whether deception is involved – intentional or self-deluding – is for you to decide, but it’s what the evidence points to…

Colloidal Silver

Composed of particles of silver suspended in another medium, such as water, colloidal silver is taken orally, and is claimed to cure at least 650 different conditions, including bacterial, viral and fungal infections, leukaemia, Lyme disease, cancer, malaria, HIV and impaired immune systems.

Three main products

There are three different forms, each with vociferous proponents.

Non-ionic colloidal silver contains metallic silver particles which are said to ionise and become active once ingested.

Ionic colloidal silver claims to be 0.006-0.015 microns in diameter (highly unlikely), and is sold at a concentration of 1×103 – 1×106 ppm. Its small particle size is said to make it capable of crossing cell membranes and accessing viruses. The claimed particle size is unlikely, although people working on nanotechnology do make such particles, but not with medicinal uses in mind. One product claims to contain hydrogen peroxide and deionised water in addition to ionic silver.

Colloidal silver protein is made from a mixture of silver nitrate, sodium hydroxide, gelatine and water. Mild silver protein (19-23% silver) is said to be less ionisable and thus less effective than strong silver protein (7.5-8.5% silver), which is said to be bactericidal. Health food shops may be selling further dilutions of these two forms of colloidal silver protein.

Silver does not occur normally in humans and in its elemental form is not considered to be extremely toxic, though most of its salts are. Colloidal silver products show some antibacterial activity in laboratory tests, but this does not mean they are effective if swallowed. Silver products were used in the past to treat gonorrhea and for infections of the nose and throat, but have been discontinued because they were ineffective and toxic. By 1960, warnings were made that there is no justification for its internal use, either theoretically or practically.

Colloidal silver creams for topical use sometimes contain manuka honey, so any beneficial effects from the silver alone would be hard to prove.

What happens inside?

When swallowed, silver enters the gut. Once there, smaller particles could form a complex with proteins, while larger particles could simply be excreted. Some may enter the blood and any that is systemically absorbed concentrates in the skin, liver, spleen, and adrenals, with lesser deposits in the muscle and brain.

Colloidal silver is said to work by binding to pathogens and thereby causing the body to get rid of them, though there is no way in which it could differentiate between human and pathogenic cells. It is also claimed that, as a foreign body, it activates the immune system and that kills all pathogens. In fact, beneficial CD4 and CD8 cells of the immune system are actually destroyed by colloidal silver. Claims that it is stored in the Kupfer cells of the liver where it increases their action are unlikely, as it is more likely to inactivate or kill such cells.

Colloidal silver is said to be able to pulverise pathogens by Brownian motion, which is characteristic of colloidal silver particles. All this is claimed to happen within six minutes of making contact with the pathogen.

One of the more outlandish claims is that colloidal silver interferes with mitosis, and that one of the daughter cells becomes a stem cell that can migrate within the body and cure anything!

Serious effects

Contrary to what is claimed by proponents, silver does accumulate in the body. Silver salts can cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in cells of the brain and spinal cord. Systemic toxicity increases where mucous membranes are disrupted in the gut or on the skin, such as in burns.

Large amounts of absorbed silver accumulate in the skin causing argyria. The first sign of this is a slate-blue/grey pigmentation of the gums. Such discolouration can spread to other skin areas and is irreversible.

A candidate for the US Senate turned his skin blue by taking colloidal silver for about two years as a precaution to there being no antibiotics available after the turn of the millennium. He has been nicknamed “Papa Smurf”, and although the disfigurement is permanent, it is not considered medically serious – he just looks ridiculous. There are over 300 cases of argyria in the medical literature and certainly thousands more which have gone unreported. It is usually self-limiting in that when people’s skin starts to turn grey, they are usually willing to follow advice to stop taking silver products.

When used as eye drops, it turns the white of the eye bluish-grey or brownish-black. Silver nitrate eye drops have been used to kill gonococci bacteria in newborns, and this is often quoted in support of the product. However, these drops were used once, not repeatedly, and have been superceded by antibiotics.

Skin discolouration is the most common side effect, and one which can have a profound psychological effect. Physiological effects are more difficult to assess, due to the relatively small number of cases that have been covered in the medical literature.

There are suggestions that ingestion of silver can have serious medical consequences, such as neurological defects after prolonged use, including problems with walking and reduced senses of taste and smell. There is also the possibility of silver accumulation affecting the developing foetus, causing anomalies in the ear, face and neck. Customers are being duped, purchasing either a useless medication or simply very expensive water. Selling silver products can be lucrative. Albert Barnes invented argyrol, a silver drug used as eye and nose drops in the early 20th century. The fortune he made funded one of the greatest collections of modern art, which is displayed at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

In Australia in 2000, the Federal Court granted injunctions against a manufacturer of devices to make colloidal silver, banning them from making misleading claims about the benefits of taking these products, and enforcing the payment of refunds to purchasers.


Echinacea is one of the top selling herbal products in the USA, with sales worth more $US300 million dollars annually. A member of the daisy family, it is claimed to treat abscesses, burns, eczema, liver cancer, urinary tract infections, varicose leg ulcers, boils, and gingivitis, but mostly it is used to treat upper respiratory infections. It is:

  • sold as capsules, pills, tinctures, teas, creams for topical use, and toothpaste, or in combination with other compounds
  • marketed to children as fizzy tablets also containing vitamin C
  • purported to support and promote the natural powers of resistance of the body, especially in infections of the nose and throat
  • unproven in many clinical trials to prevent or ameliorate the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections
  • unproven in its claimed immune-enhancing effects
  • a known cause of asthma and anaphylaxis in allergic patients

Echinacea was used by American Indians to treat snake bite and relieve fever, and was incorporated into a 19th century wonder cure called Meyer’s Blood Purifier. With the advent of sulfa antibiotics, echinacea lost its popularity as an anti-infective agent. Most recent research has been carried out in Germany, where echinacea extracts are injected, a procedure not pursued in the US or elsewhere.

Echinacea is a member of the Asteraceae [Compositae] family, which includes sunflowers, daisies and the potent allergen, ragweed. Three species are used medicinally — E. angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea, the latter being the most commonly used in New Zealand. These ‘coneflowers’ are perennial herbs, and production involves drying the roots or juicing the stems, flowers and roots, or ethanolic extraction of various compounds. The method of manufacture, the time of harvest and the part of the plant harvested are all variables that need to be taken into account when attributing clinical efficacy to echinacea. The root is said to contain the highest levels of active components and the stem to be less desirable. Claimed potency is said to depend on how long the herb is stored before use and how finely it is powdered and processed.

Studies show that there are indeed many potentially pharmacologically active compounds in echinacea, but whether there is sufficient present in crude extracts to be effective is debatable. Echinacoside is claimed to be a natural antibiotic comparable to penicillin, but its concentration is not likely to be sufficient to have any significant effect. Polysaccharides, such as heteroxylan and arabinoglycan, are touted as having major pharmacologic effects on the immune system, though these are likely to be digestively destroyed when taken orally. Echinacea has a pungent smell and taste caused by echinacein, an isobutylamide that is responsible for a tingling sensation if fresh stems are chewed. Echinacein is said to counteract the invasion of tissues by bacteria. This may be so if injected, but orally administered preparations are not so likely to function. Clinical trials are hampered by the fact that many of these products lack appropriate quality control and cannot be standardised because the active ingredient(s) has not been defined.

In a recent study of 40 healthy male volunteers who were administered the freshly expressed juice of E. purpurea or placebo, echinacea did not enhance the immune system as measured by the phagocytic activity of white blood cells and the production of cytokines. Researchers were surprised to find that echinacea decreased the levels of serum ferritin, as that had not been predicted. They concluded that the ‘immune stimulation’ does not result from oral intake. Pharmacies and health food shops in Wellington were found to recommend echinacea most commonly as a treatment for a patient presenting with obvious symptoms of asthma following a chest infection.

Lack of efficacy in preventing upper respiratory infection was reported in a trial of 302 volunteers in Germany. They received oral ethanolic extracts of echinacea roots, or placebo, for 12 weeks. The number of volunteers who became infected and the length of time until they became ill did not differ significantly between the two groups. Even if there is a relative risk reduction attributable to taking echinacea, there are dangers in taking it for any length of time. The recommended treatment period is less than 8 weeks because of the risk of liver poisoning. In fact, people who use other hepatotoxic drugs, such as anabolic steroids, methotrexate or ketoconazole, are warned not to take echinacea.

Several other trials back up these results, including one where 117 volunteers were treated with echinacea and then challenged with a rhinovirus. Similar numbers of people caught colds whether they took echinacea or placebo and the severity of symptoms did not differ.

A 2002 Australian study of adverse drug reactions found that 51 cases including examples of anaphylaxis, acute asthma and skin rashes were attributable to echinacea ingestion. Several patients required hospitalisation. Americans with known sensitivity to ragweed are warned not to take echinacea. Patients with immune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis or AIDs are likely to suffer adverse reactions to echinacea, though there are no warnings on containers available in supermarkets, pharmacies and health food shops.


Douglas J. Echinacea – the purple coneflowers.

Executive Summary Echinacea.

Echinacea – RxList Herbal FAQ.

Healey B, Burgess C, Siebers R, Beasley R, Weatherall M, Holt S. Do natural health food stores require regulation? NZMJ 13 September 2002;115 (1161)

Melchart D, Walther E, Linde K, Brandmaier R, Lersch C. Echinacea root extracts for upper respiratory infections. Arch Fam Med 1998;7(6):541-5

Mullins RJ, Heddle R. Adverse reactions associated with Echinacea: the Australian experience. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2002;88(1):42-51

Schwartz E, Metzler J, Diedrich JP, Freudenstein J, Bode C, Bode JC. Oral stimulation of freshly expressed juice of Echinacea purpurea herbs fail to stimulate the non-specific immune response in healthy young men: results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study.

J Immunother 2002;25(5):413-20 Turner RB, Riker DK, Gangemi JD. Ineffectiveness of Echinacea for prevention of experimental rhinovirus colds. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 2002;44(6):1708-9

Friday the 13th

Only one thing can be predicted accurately for Friday the 13th – it will be an anxiety-filled day for friggatriskaidekaphobes. This label, with its origins in Nordic mythology and ancient Greek, identifies those afflicted souls who possess an overwhelming fear of Friday the 13th.

Where does this unnatural trepidation of Friday the 13th originate, and is there any harm in staying home from work for fear of a bad day or tragic accident?

As any reputable scientist or mathematician will tell you, “luck” does not exist. Good fortune is randomly distributed and not dependent on the day. The superstitious, however, will cite a long history of misfortune associated with the number 13.

As the story goes, in order to understand 13, one has to understand the history of 12. The number 12 has traditionally represented completeness. There are 12 months of the year, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 signs of the zodiac and 12 apostles of Jesus.

One suggestion has it that our counting has traditionally gone only as far as 12 (even the times tables stop after 12×12), and that anything that lay beyond that was an uncountable, unknowable mystery to be feared.

Thirteen exists just one digit beyond 12, and is symbolic of the first departure from completeness or the initial step towards evil. Judas Iscariot was the “13th” apostle, the 13th tribe of Israel was the only tribe left without land, and the ill-fated Apollo 13 space mission was launched at 1313 hours (central time), from pad 39 (the 3rd multiple of 13) and had to be aborted on April 13, 1970.

Like the superstition surrounding the 13 present at the Last Supper, Norse mythology has a superstition surrounding 13 at a dinner table and the bad luck that ensues; the Christian belief may have been partly based on the older story. Apparently 12 Norse gods sat down for a feast only to have Loki, the god of mischief and disorder, gate-crash the party and bring the number of guests to 13 which caused one of the gods to die during the meal.

Practitioners of witchcraft note that 13 lunar months multiplied by the 28 days of a woman’s menstrual cycle give 364 days in a year, with one extra day added to make up the solar calendar. (Many stories in European folklore use “a year and a day” as a standard measure of time.) The implication is that the 13 months of the fertility or lunar year led to the pagan reverence for the number 13 and, thus, the Christian dislike of it.

Friday has an equally colorful past. According to the Bible, Eve gave the apple to Adam on Friday, the Great Flood began on a Friday, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed on a Friday, execution day was Friday in Rome, and Good Friday exists because it is the reported day of Jesus’ crucifixion. An English schoolboy allegedly proved mathematically that 13, when examined over a 400-year period, falls on Friday more than any day of the year . He was 13 years old, of course.

There are all sorts of things you are not supposed to do on a Friday, including: setting sail, moving house, starting on a journey, beginning new work, writing a letter or even cutting your nails! But for all the infamy and credence given to bad luck on Friday the 13th, there are many less publicized examples of good fortune. Friday is the Sabbath of the Jewish lunar calendar and the Sabbath of Islam. Scandinavian pagans, Hindus, rural Scots, and Germans consider Friday to be a good day to wed or go courting because it is associated with fertility.

This is because Friday is named after the Norse Goddess Freya who represented fertility and sexual love (the Romans called it dies Veneris after Venus). The reason not to set sail on a Friday was originally not because of bad luck, but as a sign of respect for Freya in her aspect as goddess of the sea. That’s said to be one reason why fish were often eaten on Friday, as fertility charms in honor of Freya.

Many of us are pleased to welcome Friday as the end of the work week. Many actors insist on signing contracts only on Friday because it brings good luck. Novelist Charles Dickens habitually began the writing of all his books on a Friday, the day of his birth.

A baker’s dozen is considered a fortunate bargain, and if you are Jewish, age 13 is the time for a bar or bat mitzvah. For some Christians, 13 could be considered sacred, since it equals the Ten Commandments plus the Trinity. The Chinese are sanguine about the number 13 because its literal meaning is “alive” (their taboo number is four, because it sounds like the word for “death”). Even with all the fuss over Friday the 13th, the only reality that surrounds the date is that it remains nothing more than superstition. Friday is like any other day of the week that happens to occur on the 13th of the month. Every year will have at least one, and some as many as three. Every time it comes around in the calendar, a fuss is made of it. This makes it far more likely that people will remember the “bad luck” that happened on that day, rather than any bad luck associated with other days or even “good luck” to occur on Friday 13th.

It has been common for buildings to eliminate numbers with 13, such as the 13th floor or the 13th apartment, and airlines at one stage would not have a row 13 in their seating arrangements. This is becoming less common, though whether that is due to the dying out of this superstition or a reflection of cultural diversity making it less of a taboo, remains to be seen.

It might be easy to laugh at such foolishness, but this same kind of superstitious thinking operates to support beliefs that can be harmful. It is estimated that the 13th of the month costs the US a billion dollars annually through train and plane reservation cancellation, absenteeism, and reduced commerce.

One can see why philosopher Edmund Burke proclaimed superstition the “religion of feeble minds.”

Belief in Friday the 13th is no different from belief in astrology, hauntings or UFOs. None of these claims are grounded in sound scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, the media often promulgates and spreads superstition through uncritical presentations. Television programs and films like the Unexplained, Friday the 13th, Psi Factor and Unsolved Mysteries contribute to a society of believers in superstition and the paranormal. It is when people make financial, political and personal decisions based on these kinds of superstitions that we witness the true dark side of Friday the 13th.

Magnetic Therapy Products

The seemingly magical properties of magnets have been puzzling humanity for centuries, but the magnetic therapy market got its first big boost in the 1700s when Dr Franz Anton Mesmer started to impress the European gentry under the sponsorship of Marie Antoinette. As greater understanding of magnetism and electricity developed, more and more products were produced which relied on a connection between this mysterious “vital force” and the human body. Magnetic belts, cravats, wrist-bands, corsets and a host of other products designed to wrap around the human body were sold to boost sexual performance (always a crowd-pleaser), promote hair growth and stave off aging. More recently, such products have focused on claims to provide healing powers for a broad range of medical complaints. These days, the world-wide magnetic therapy market has been estimated as worth close to two billion dollars.

While high-field pulsed magnets have a role to play in certain clinical applications, there is little to no evidence that the small static magnets used in the likes of mattress underlays, insoles or bracelets do anything therapeutic to the human body.

One study commonly used to support magnet therapy claims is the Baylor study which compared the effects of magnets and sham magnets on the knee pain of 50 post-polio patients; 29 in the magnet groups had lower pain scores compared with 21 in the control group. There were a lot of flaws in the study, however, including significant differences in the test groups in both gender and age, no measurement of the pressure used to evaluate the pain scores, no systematic follow-up. It is not an adequate basis on which to make medical claims.

Magnetic insoles can be found in retail and mail order catalogues, usually accompanied by carefully worded statements such as “people believe that these can help reduce pain”. A study by the New York College of Podiatric Medicine found that magnets did not have any effect on healing heel pain. Over a 4-week period, 19 patients wore a moulded insole containing a magnetic foil, while 15 patients wore the same type of insole with no magnetic foil. In both groups, 60% of both groups reported improvement! A similar lack of difference in pain or mobility ratings was found in a study looking at magnet use for treating chronic back pain.

Having better foot support or a change in mattress softness may well produce a positive result whether magnets are involved or not. It can be difficult in assessing the effects of a treatment to determine just what is having the effect, hence the need for carefully designed trials.

“A single study on something like magnets and pain relief should rarely be taken by anybody as significant scientific evidence of a causal connection between the two. Likewise, a single study of this issue that finds nothing significant should not be taken as proof that magnets are useless. However, when dozens of studies find little support that magnets are effective in warding off pain, then it seems reasonable to conclude that there is no good reason to believe in magnet therapy.”

Bob Carroll

Various claims for magnet products are made. Some say that the electromagnetic field helps circulate blood, some claim magnets affect the iron in red blood cells. Studies involving reasonably strong magnets (1000 gauss) show no change in the amount or speed of blood flow. More abstract claims state that magnets restore an imbalance in body energy or accelerate the body’s healing processes in some usually undefined, unmeasurable fashion.

It is true that the very powerful magnets in medical MRI machines can produce tiny changes detectable by such equipment, but this is a temporary effect only and produced under extreme field strengths of 10,000-30,000 gauss. If blood were strongly attracted to magnets, it would tend to pool and possibly even ooze through the skin when a person is exposed to an MRI scan! The magnets in consumer “health” products are much weaker. Some have the field strength of a fridge magnet, or around 100 gauss, ranging on up to 1,000 gauss, and this is simply far too weak to produce any measurable effect within the body.

One interesting test is to see whether the magnets in one of these products can pick up a paper clip while contained within the velcro strap or lining used within the product. Few if any, appear to have a strong enough field to do so. Few, if any, have a strong enough field to penetrate the skin, let alone affect the iron in blood which is strongly bound in haemoglobin molecules.

In the US, marketing claims by companies selling magnetic devices have been subject to a host of legal and regulatory actions, primarily aimed at preventing them from making claims that such products relieve pain or can cure, treat or mitigate any disease, or can effect any change in the human body.

One of the obvious warning signs that this is a questionable form of therapy is that much of the marketing material for these products relies on testimonials and anecdotes, often relating to conditions which come and go, such as arthritis, back pain, muscular strain and the like. People suffering from these conditions are very vulnerable to products touting pain relief or a cure.

The California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, on filing a lawsuit against a magnetic mattress pad manufacturer for false health claims and fraudulent business practices said this:

“We will not allow companies to hawk unproven products as a cure-all to the elderly and those with serious illnesses who are desperately searching for pain relief. These types of scams serve as an important reminder for consumers to check into claims made by companies and talk with your health care provider before making costly medical decisions.”

This is good advice.


The Medical Messiahs: A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America Chapter 11: The Gadget Boom

Magnetic Mattress Pad Sellers Sued

Lawsuit Against Magnet Product

FDA Warning Letter regarding misleading claims for magnetic products

Skeptic’s Dictionary: magnet therapy

Consumer magazine, November 2003