Once When My Back Was Crook

I was struggling with the vacuum hose to reach an awkward corner of the kitchen.

“What’s wrong? Afraid to bend your back?” my wife asked. I felt a little pain and it didn’t go away. It got worse, seemed to improve for a day, stayed barely tolerable for a week, and then became intense.

It spread, and by the following weekend I was virtually immobile — unable to roll over in bed, racked with unbearable pain every time I moved. I finally phoned Skeptic Barrie Tait, who agreed to see me the next morning. My panic was dictated by an important conference I had to attend on Monday morning in Wellington. Things were looking bleak.

Dr Tait was the soul of courtesy and good-humoured professionalism. He’s the head of Musculoskeletal Medicine at Christchurch Hospital. I bragged about that. People always want to convince everyone — especially themselves — that their doctor is a genius.

Finally, after a gentle, thorough and obviously expert examination, Barrie took the crucial first step on the road to my recovery — he gave my disease a name.

“It’s lumbar dysfunction,” he said with quiet authority. I tried to translate from the Latin and kept coming up with something that seemed to mean “back not working too well.” What could he do for it, I asked eagerly.

“Nothing,” he said. Take pain killers and anti-inflammatories and your back will gradually heal itself. There was no specific medicine or treatment. I should go ahead and walk as much as possible.

Which is what I did. I stopped by the chemist and, by the time I was limping up to Victoria University things were improving. As the hours wore on, my back got better and better, and at home later that evening I was virtually able to turn cartwheels. The pain was gone. After over two weeks of agony, my tortured back was miraculously “cured”.

Over the years, the Skeptics have been relatively unsuccessful in altering the general public credulousness toward alternative medicine. In light of my experience, it’s not hard to see why.

What if Barrie had twirled a pendulum over me, said a mantra, given me chiropractic manipulation, a homeopathic preparation, or analysed my irises? And what if — like most desperate, pain-wracked patients — I’d wanted to believe it?

Barrie would have had a convert for life. The psychological evidence of my spectacular “cure”, coming as it did after weeks of suffering, was overwhelming. Who cares what the Skeptics think about alternative medicine when sufferers are similarly “cured” on a daily basis by chiropractors and other healers?

And it’s not just back pain that has spontaneous remission, but countless other afflictions. This — combined with the fact that people want to believe in their healer, orthodox or quack — means there will always be an army of satisfied customers ready to testify that some placebo cured them after all the marvels of scientific medicine had failed.

Having said all that, and accepting it at a rational level, I still in my heart believe Barrie Tait is a medical genius. I can’t help it. You see, once when my back was crook…


Reader Response

Also, as a NZCSICOP newcomer, I’d like to respond to Carl Wyant, who asked why skeptic groups rarely attack the Big Groups. Firstly, skeptics challenging religious beliefs or their legal implications do so elsehere as atheistic or political groups. Secondly, religious belief is untestable, so a skeptic cannot point to refuting evidence. The argument reduces to philosophy. Thirdly, pseudoscience is a lot more irritating than something not even pretending to be scientific.

I would like to comment on a note in the #22 Hokum Locum column. Dr Welch called tinted lenses developed (in 1983) by a “marriage guidance counsellor” a “quack” treatment. Firstly, Irlen is a psychologist and I haven’t heard of her being a counsellor.

It is true that favourable studies have not usually been judged to be up to full scientific scratch (see pro and critical papers in the Dec 1990 <I>Journal of Learning Disabilities<D>, including an experimentation validity paper by R. Parker). Criticisms I find in the literature are: a) the lenses do reduce distortion, but orthodox treatment may work better; b) longer term scientific studies have not been done; c) no complete mechanism has yet been found.

These valid points mean the onus is on the Irlen lens proponents to scientifically demonstrate their worth. But I feel the label “quack treatment” is unjustified.

Matthew Hobbs, Wellington

No Crusades

The letter from Carl Wyant (Forum, March 1992) asks, “…why the Skeptics are so quick to pounce on relatively trivial paranormalities … yet never appear to say anything about the seriously dangerous personalities, such as Christians, Muslims, among others.”

Like many, I started subscribing to The Skeptical Inquirer (the parent skeptical publication) after reading the famous “Metamagical Themas” article by Douglas P. Hofstadter in Scientific American around ten years ago.

It was refreshing and novel to encounter a skeptical approach to claims of the paranormal. Organised skepticism did not provide some sort of substitute religion without a god. Hofstadter wrote that the aim was “simply to combat nonsense”, while the methods used were the testing of claims coupled with rational debate.

Carl Wyant seems to suggest some sort of crusade against organised religion.

Now although I would agree with Bertrand Russell that the “great religions” have, on the whole, done more harm than good, I would not wish to belong to an organisation that set out to tackle what Carl Wyant calls “these Big Groups”. Past experience shows that enthusiasts who do so set out, quickly turn into just another religious group themselves.

While as for crusades, many will be skeptical as to the benefits provided by such endeavours.

It is fine to be skeptical about all religious claims, but let us not aim to try to destroy belief — this would be sheer folly. But when people make testable claims, whether religious or otherwise, let us test them.

Do not imagine that people will suddenly abandon irrational modes of thought, but let us try to increase the amount of rational discussion in New Zealand. These aims may be more modest than some would like, but they have the advantage of being attainable.

Jim Ring, Nelson

Environmental Skepticism

Dr Vincent Gray has written a very pertinent and timely article in “The Skeptical Environmentalist” (Skeptic #23).

Dr Gray’s criticisms of environmentalists are very much in line with a re-appraisal of the so-called greenhouse effect by American climatologists, meteorologists and geophysicists.

In February, the Washington-based Science and Environmental Project released a public statement signed by 43 prominent scientists. It said, in part:

We are disturbed that activists, anxious to stop energy and economic growth, are pushing ahead with drastic policies without taking notice of recent changes in the underlying science.

They further spoke of:

…the unsupported assumptions that catastrophic global warming follows from the burning of fossil fuels and requires immediate action. We do not agree.

The tragedy of “Green” scare stories is that their public credibility decreases each time a hoax is exposed. However, the media (Skeptic excluded) can always be relied on to seize the chance to scare the public out of their wits.

Mike Houlding, Tauranga

Hokum Locum


One of the techniques used by quacks is to attack conventional medicine as being a conspiracy against the laiety.

For example, in an article entitled “GP says vitamins wrongly dismissed as quackery”, a Dr Piesse criticises clinical trials and then outlines how he uses intravenous injections of vitamin C for flu and vitamin B12 for genital herpes.

He claims, “If you had genital herpes I’d give you an injection of B12 and the herpes would heal up within 36 hours” and “If you came to me having had flu for three or four hours, I’d give you a couple of syringes of ascorbate and you’d walk out without the flu.”

He alleges that vitamins are ignored because “they had not met the ‘semi-religious’ tests of validity.”
GP Weekly, 25-3-92

I wish I had an injection that would cure such a breathtaking ignorance of infectious diseases! How many people go to the doctor after having had the flu for 3-4 hours? It would be nothing short of miraculous if an infectious disease could be eliminated by intravenous vitamin C. Who was it who said if a miracle is proposed suspect a fraud?

Of course genital herpes could heal up within 36 hours of an injection of vitamin B12 but only if it was due to heal anyway. Any other effect from these injections is obviously mediated by the placebo effect, which is very strong from injections.

If this doctor thinks that he is on to some fantastic advance in the treatment of infectious diseases he is duty bound to publish his results in a peer-reviewed journal. I find it ironical that Dr Piesse criticises this process as being “semi-religious” but then expects us to accept his own results on faith.

Wholly Water?

While on the subject of faith, thousands of people are flocking to a small town in Mexico where a quack is touting his special well water as a cure for everything from AIDS to terminal cancer.

This special water weighs less than ordinary water, a fact confirmed by a laboratory in Mexico City. Being ignorant of physics, I can only assume that they do not perform their laboratory tests with the same gravity as the rest of us. The well owner has been dispensing free water so far but acknowledges that his product is “worth its weight in gold”, and he plans to start selling it soon.

This has all the hallmarks of a scam. Take an alleged miracle (or more likely a lie) and after a few endorsements and accounts of miraculous recoveries, have an entrepreneur market the cure to a population who are both devout and ignorant.
Christchurch Press

Pyramid Selling

Remember pyramid selling? It’s arrived in the health market. A 10-metre high replica of the Great Pyramid of Egypt is currently being “tuned in” by the Havalona Spiritual Health Centre and will then “aid the healing process by supplying additional energy so the body can heal itself more quickly and effectively.”

Pyramids are supposed to sharpen blunt razor blades and we are told that cut flowers placed under the structure were still alive 3 weeks later. I wonder whether any members would be prepared to participate in such a clinical trial?
Christchurch Press 17/1/92

Silly Smorgasboard

A quick review of the Christchurch Press Making It Happen column (27/4/92) shows a smorgasboard of silly beliefs and practices. A naturopath planned a talk on natural immunity, which means not being immunised and being protected by everyone else who is.

If that doesn’t interest you, try Pulsing, a gentle rocking technique costing $80, which brings a state of deep relaxation and awareness, surely a contradiction in terms. Personal empowerment using creative visualisation reminds me of a long forgotten guru who taught his adherents to chant “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” Can anyone remind me who taught this?

In addition to Ayuverdic medicine, there is now Vipassana, an “ancient Indian meditation technique, said to get you in touch with the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness.”

This could be useful for Housing Corporation staff. Perhaps the Christchurch Skeptics should start advertising their meetings in this same column. Skepticism clearly needs attractive marketing.

Doctor’s Gender Diet

Doctors have a distinct advantage over lay practitioners when it comes to promoting quack treatments. Doctors are already respected (personally, I’d rather be feared!) and the placebo component of any treatment is already assured. In addition, doctors will already have read Denis Dutton’s article “Increasing Your Income while Pleasing Your Patients” (Patient Management Vol 21 No 3, March 1992).

A Dr Hewitt is recommending a strict preconceptual diet in order to guarantee a child of the desired sex. This is a considerable advance over the unpopular practice of ligating the left testicle in order to increase the chances of a male child.

Dr Hewitt’s diet works by altering the ratio of sodium and potassium to that of calcium and magnesium consumed during the six weeks prior to conception. Women wishing to have a boy are advised to eat a diet rich in foods such as mushrooms.

After putting my wife on this diet in order to guarantee a son we had a daughter who flatly refuses to eat mushrooms.

Dr Hewitt can play it both ways. If parents fail to produce the correct gender in their offspring then he can say that they failed to follow his diet (described as “rigid and unpalatable”), and if they are lucky enough to be satisfied he takes all the credit.

This diet could be tested by Dr Hewitt but it is not in his interests, as the results are predictable — that is, it would turn out that children would continue to be born in the ratios predicted by the effects of known biological factors and chance.

As psychologists have explained, people do not go out of their way to test their own beliefs.

Chemical Phobia

This is extremely prevalent and can be responsible for episodes of mass hysteria, for example the aftermath of the ICI Fire in Auckland when firemen developed conversion disorders. That is, their stress and beliefs led them to develop symptoms of ill-health.

The Marlborough Express (19/5/92) featured a US account of a farmer who had been poisoned by a fungicide used on his farm. The predominant symptom was “generalised shaking”. Even a cursory knowledge of medicine suggests such symptoms are more likely to be due to anxiety or perhaps hyperventilation.

When claims of chemical poisoning are not supported by proper scientific enquiry, claimants seeking to legitimise such claims in the media and the courts.

Some of these people establish the most fantastic rituals:

Debra Lynn Dadd’s mattress is stuffed with wool humanely shorn from organically raised sheep and processed in a solar-powered mill. Her pillows are filled with organically grown cotton. Her floors are strictly hardwood. Even her hairbrush is made entirely of wood. In fact, there’s not a single synthetic fibre to be found in her house. Neith are there any synthetic chemicals, toxic substances or non-organic food.”
Christchurch Press 29/1/91

I found an excellent review of this subject in Psychosomatics (August 1983, Vol 24 No 8) entitled “Allergic to everything: A medical subculture.”

The author is a professor of psychiatry and he was examining the pseudoscience of clinical ecology which promotes chemical phobia. Factors contributing to a belief in clinical ecology include:

  • a society with a heightened awareness of the potential dangers of inhaling and ingesting noxious substances in usual enviroments
  • a group of professionals who develop a theory that utilizes concepts from allergy and immunology to explain symptom patterns formerly explained by psychological theories
  • dissatisfaction with and non-acceptance of psychological explanations suggesting that the defects are in the patients rather than external to them
  • a compensation system designed by law to favour the applicant and in the process to favour his or her explanation of the symptoms
  • a support system of lawyers and doctors who themselves may not espouse the allergic and immunologic explanation but who support the patient in the drive to convince others

This unitary theory is already operating to explain the false beliefs which underlie ME (see Skeptic #21) and RSI (see Skeptic #18).

I was reassured to see that the courts are capable of dealing with unsupported claims of chemical sensitisation. (Lancet Vol 339; 297 Feb 1, 1992).

A woman claimed 250,000 GBP for alleged chemical poisoning which had spread to include aftershave, perfume and car fumes. The judge criticised the doctor’s supporting evidence as “in many respects bizarre and unscientific” and slated the GP for giving out “sick notes rather like confetti”.

The judge concluded that the various evidential reports “grossly inflated the plaintiff’s claim without any sensible basis at all”.

New Video Titles

Homeopathy – Medicine or Magic?

QED/BBC, 1990; 30 minutes

A very interesting look at the state of homeopathy in the UK in the ’90s, including its use by some “conventional” doctors and vets. Details are given of a few trials (some double and triple blind) that have been conducted claiming to give support to homeopathic techniques. Unfortunately, relatively little time is permitted for dissenting views, and I am sure many of our rural members will have other explanations for some of the “miraculous” animal cures presented. A thought-provoking programme nevertheless; it should be essential viewing for any skeptic confronting homeopathic enthusiasts.

Secrets of Sedona

48 Hours/CBS, 1991 60 minutes

A visit to Sedona, Arizona, a centre for “New Age” blather in the US. Topics covered include fire walking, astrology, UFOs, vortexes, pendulums, channelling, reincarnation, and New Age music — surely there is something for every skeptic in this one. The programme shows how some successful businessmen and women use New Age techniques to influence their business decisions, and the industry that has built up around this philosophy in a beautiful part of the American west.