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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.
Creationists are winning hands-down in the publicity stakes, despite, one presumes, no real assistance in the form of Divine Guidance.
Volumes of perceptive articles by competent scientists and philosophers have been written about the indefensibility of creationism. Still, the beast not only manages to stay alive, but also to deliver a nasty shock now and again by conducting successful forays into the science education arena. Why?
It is my opinion that the answers are found in the way science and creationism tend to conduct their campaigns: it is the latter camp which has consistently outsmarted its opponent in the public relations field. This adds a lot of points to the scoreboard in a democracy.
In the course of some twenty years of studying creationist literature and tactics, and people’s responses thereto, I have noticed a number of things about public perceptions of the issue.
Newton’s Law of Public Relations
There is a widely-held (mis)interpretation of the democratic ideal to the effect that for every view there is an opposite and equally valid view. (I call this Newton’s Third Law of Public Relations.) A corollary of this misconstruction being the simplistic sequitur that there are “two sides to every story,” creationism’s appeal to heed what is presented as “the other side of the story” finds many willing ears.
Also arising from this gem of common philosophy is the perception that science and religion represent the above “two sides.” The creationist case is highly dependent on the continuing popular belief that science and religion are mutually exclusive antagonists in the area of origins, and people must “believe one or the other.”
The 1960s are not that distant in time, and creationism skilfully manipulates the latent anti-establishmentism present in general society. People love an underdog (creationism) taking on an orthodoxy perceived as aloof and patronising (science), especially when that underdog is seen to challenge the ivory tower on its own terms and the establishment appears to be worried.
Creationism makes sense to many, if not most, people. Everything has a purpose, doesn’t it? Pure chance can’t possibly lead to something like the human eye, can it? You can’t really reconstruct an ape-man from a single tooth, can you? (Creationists love the 1934 Nebraska Man débacle.) That Aussie Doctor-guy found Noah’s Ark, didn’t he?
The list goes on, and the common theme is clear. The creationist PR machine identifies and manipulates public ignorance and misconceptions to its immense advantage.
The one thing most people do know about science is that it is tentative — thereby opening the way for another gem of popular wisdom, the “but you don’t know everything” argument which when applied to any area of controversy involving science is regarded as creating an instant niche for an opposing view, no matter how absurd. (This principle also applies very much to the orthodox/fringe medicine debate.)
Furthermore, any perceived weakness in the orthodox case becomes a plus-point for the challenger. The creationist case relies heavily on using science’s tentativeness (portrayed as uncertainty) and occasional blunders (Nebraska Man) to bolster its public image.
People prefer certainty. A naked ape arising fortuitously on an inconsequential planet in a far corner of the universe is just too much for most people to handle — especially when placed in opposition to the creationist Linus’s Blanket of “you are so special.”
Science’s response to creationism has frequently been counterproductive in that it has reinforced the public misconceptions which creationists have turned into assets.
The ridicule levelled at creationism by some exasperated scientists and science educators reinforces the image of science as a patronising, superior Olympus inhabited by an esoteric elite who harbour undemocratic views.
And there is more than a vestige of 19thcentury anti-religiosity (especially anti-Christianity) left in the scientific community.
When scientists turn their literary skills into a diatribe against Christian scriptures and belief, the result is definitely good PR for creationists.
Of course, we are in a three-way Catch 22 situation when it comes to replying to creationism:
- If we ignore the creationists, we “haven’t got an answer” and seek to shield ourselves from valid criticism.
- If we respond to creationism at all, they’ve “got us worried.”
- If we respond by writing articles most people don’t understand we’re “snobs” and/or trying to “put up a smokescreen.”
Finally, if we try to argue at the intellectual level creationism operates at, we lose the match because we have tried to play it by the opposition’s rules, which are stacked so heavily in its favour from the kick-off.
The upshot is that we cannot defeat creationism on scientific grounds, and should stop trying to do so. Writing articles in academic journals may make us feel better, but we are preaching to the converted and only reinforcing our negative image by alienating the general public even more.
More importantly, a scientific response to a pseudoscientific argument publicly perceived as a scientific argument merely reinforces the opinion that there is a case to answer.
Creationism is not a scientific argument, but a religious one. However, we must appreciate that we are dealing with a vocal fringe minority who are not representative of Christianity as a whole, and we must therefore correctly identify the enemy — fundamentalism — and also identify our allies, the mainstream Christian churches.
Scientists should not venture into the area of biblical scholarship unless they are qualified in that area, for the public appreciates only too well that an expert in one field may be a layman in others. This is where we need an alliance with mainstream religion.
Such an alliance would put paid to the popular misconception that science and religion are incompatible. (Anselm, Teilhard de Chardin and new Zealand’s own John Morton appear to have had little impact on public thinking) and that creationism represents the battle of good, Bible-believing Christians against the tyrannical reign of atheistic scientists.
I believe that this aspect of the creationist case in the public eye is at the same time its Achilles’ Heel, and can be used against it.
For if we live in a secular democracy and creationism is a religious view, then while the right to profess that religious view is safeguarded, the right to foist it on others through state educational apparatus is an infringement of democratic principles.
Once this is understood by the general public, I suspect creationism will rapidly lose the positive public image it appears to have built up so painstakingly.
It’s a mindbending situation, but I guess you’d have to call me a skeptical believer. Like parapsychologist Susan Blackmore, personal experience inclined me towards the idea that supernatural events really happen.
Blackmore’s approach to the problem was carefully designed ESP experiments. My approach was to go boldly forth among the space-cadets themselves, expanding my consciousness, grooving, absorbing the mind-enhancing rays of the Melchizdek Messengers and basking in the all-embracing super-soul of the Maha Vishnu.
My consciousness expanded all right. It expanded so much my brains nearly fell out.
It’s a jungle out there. If the fundamentaist super-cults don’t get you, the communist descendants of the Abominable Snowman will.
You don’t know what the third kind is until you discuss doomsday with the under-cover Pleiadean alien over a sanctified lunch in a Rama/Krishna boutique.
Ten or fifteen years later (time loses meaning in the Etheric world) I was back where I started. I still think there are grains of truth among claims of the paranormal, and from these tiny grains huge empires of hogwash are built.
If every religion on earth miraculously vanished today, they’d be springing up like toadstools again tomorrow. It is bound to happen, because underneath it all, people keep having experiences.
The hypothetical perceiver, Mrs Smith, knows she saw a ghostly entity float through her room last night, so when her scientifically trained doctor says it was just her imagination she goes away thinking, “What do these clowns know anyway?” The next time it happens she goes to a Mayan channeller and seeks advice from the lost ancestors of Mu.
To some extent “psi events” are undoubtably in the mind. Maybe it’s completely “in the mind”. Maybe. But while the wand-like utterance “hallucination” may mean something to someone, it gives me the screaming-jeebies.
Hallucinations are devilishly tricky things. It could be said that the brain mechanism behind the hallucination allows some aspect of the subconscious mind to come into play. Or, it could be said that the “mechannism” allows the mind of the perceiver access to actual external things not otherwise perceivable.
The whole problem with these damnable, luciferic happenings is that they look like real, external events. They are not inside our heads. Until I get a better idea of how this mental process works, I have to remain a little skeptical of the “all in the mind” theory.
Still, whether it’s all in the mind or not, the only way to get at it is through mind research. The paranormal itself has never given us any genuine information on the subject.
One only has to look at the conflicting literature to realise something’s rotten in Denmark.
Of course, the super-cults have an every-ready explanation for all this confusion — demon activity.
A colouring book for young patients of chiropractors says “A is for alligator and adjustment. B is for bells and for back. C is for caterpillar and for chiropractor. D is for dog and for doctor.” The latter two may have more in common than is apparent at first glance.
It is as much of a surprise to the medical profession to find that their standards of back care are under attack as it would be to a high-rise executive to be attacked through his office window by fighter planes.
The orthopaedic surgeon, secure in his strength and apparently limited in his intellect, seems ill-equipped to withstand the challenges mounted against him from a variey of paramedical platforms. The face of the enemy may be unfamiliar, but the threat to the doctor’s authority is absolutely clear. The battleground is the low back. The opposing forces clash at the point of pain.
The public has little confidence in the medical profession’s ability to diagnose or manage back pain. Recently, on my way to conduct a seminar, I took a taxi from my hotel. The driver, seeing my carousel full of slides, observed I was going to give a lecture. When I responded to his questions that my topic was back pain, he observed I must be a chiropractor.
The medical profession is justifiably under attack because the conventional medical management for back pain is often wrong.
Prolonged bedrest beyond five days is of no proven value, and admitting a patient to hospital merely to sit on him is boring for the physician and makes it difficult for the patient to breathe. Getting high on drugs seems somehow more appropriate on the street than in the clinic. The prescription of modalities, such as traction, to treat a structural spinal abnormality leads to lengthy treatment producing temporary alteration but which ends precisely where it began, with a structural spinal abnormality.
Medicine’s fascination with excessive and even unnecessary investigations proceeds towards one of two unfortunate conclusions.
The patient is told, “The results of your tests were negative. Get lost.”
Or, the surgeon is seduced into operating on an x-ray. When the radiograph, rather than the patient, demands treatment, I recommend that the surgeon content himself with the film, a view box and a pair of scissors.
Faced with this apparent lack of medical success, there is little wonder that many patients seek out alternative treatment, searching for “a backache remedy that works”.
Therapeutic touch is one such alternative. It is a non-invasive therapy utilising “the body’s own electromagnetic field” which assists the client (no longer the patient) to return to “a more balanced state of body, mind and creative spirit”. I suspect the client/patient is not the only one who is being creative.
The Magnetic Four Season Band is typical of the commercially available remedies to relieve backaches. Naturally, since over 80% of backache subsides spontaneously within three months, the Four Season Band comes with a money-back guarantee.
The advertisement also explains the Band’s mode of action to relieve back pain, namely the polarisation of haemoglobin by small magnets. I have no idea what that means, but I feel better already just knowing my haemoglobin has been polarised.
The lack of proof or scientific validity seems no deterrent to the method, and the picture is confused, as it is with so many spurious treatments, by the coincidental subsidence of pain or some unrelated additional benefit.
In the case of the Magnetic Four Season Band, for example, you might use the magnets to attach yourself to the outside of a bus and be allowed to travel for half-fare.
Perhaps striking closer to home is the practice of craniosacral therapy. Instruction in this art form throughout North America generates an annual revenue of more than three million dollars.
The therapy is based on a philosophy expounded in 1908 by an osteopathic student, who felt that since suture lines were visible on the human skull, God had intended there to be movement. The fact that no movement can be demonstrated and that the suture lines commonly fuse over the age of 50 was, and is, considered irrelevant.
Having spent considerable time and money, and having been required to memorise, for example, the over 20 articulations at the base of the skull (none of which move) as potential sources of pathology, it is little wonder that the initiated are reluctant to dismiss the technique as a waste of time.
Furthermore, patients find it comforting to lie in a darkened room, listening to soft music and having their heads massaged. But transient relaxation does not justify a belief in the repetitive expansion and contraction of the skull every five to ten seconds, nor does it establish cranioscaral’s link, as described in one of their texts, with Phillipine psychic surgery.
And I have great difficulty in accepting craniosacral’s “Laws of the Lines of Gravity”, which state:
Man deals with himself in such a manner that his brain becomes more perfect because he arranges his lines of gravity in a different manner from any other creature. Also, the gravity lines pass through his diaphragm, and no animal has this diaphragm-gravity relationship.
I advise patients who wish to have the bones of their skull rearranged to choose their therapist carefully.
Clearly we are on the road to confusion, and it is the patient who may become the accident victim. And what motor vehicle injury is more classic than whiplash?
Every one of us who has ever worked in an Emergency Room has treated this problem, and yet whiplash is not a diagnosis. It describes only a particular mechanism, commonly seen in rear-end collisions, which may lead to a variety of neck injuries.
The pathology after an acceleration-deceleration injury may be as simple as a minor muscle haematoma or as devastating as a cervical fracture with cord damage.
Each is a distinct entity requiring specific treatment, and the diagnosis should reflect the individual conditions — not the common physical cause.
Whiplash to the chiropractor offers a different vista. Gone is the range of diagnoses, to be replaced by the ubiquitous vertebral subluxations. Anatomical reality is replaced with a line drawing where the neck bows like a willow in the wind.
In case of accident, medical attention is not recommended, but the admonition to see a chiropractor follows immediately after advice to remain at the scene of the accident until all information has been collected, and before being instructed to notify your insurance company.
Thorough examination by a chiropractor is presented as a wise precaution to determine the presence or absence of injuries.
As an example, headaches are a current complaint after a whiplash-type injury, and according to matrial supplied by the chiropractor:
Most headaches result from spinal subluxations, in other words, malfunctioning vertebrae. These subluxations cause irritation of the delicate nerves and arteries that supply the head and face area, causing pain. Subluxed neck vertebrae can also interfere with the blood circulation to the brain.
The chiropractor’s adjustment keeps the body free of nerve interference and allows normal blood flow. This allows the body to use its own inherent healing ability to maintain a state of health.
A Blow to the Head
For minor cervicel adjustments, a chiropractor may employ the activator gun. This instrument closely resembles a dental implement which used to be used to pound an artificial crown on a tooth. A spring-loaded plunger is propelled a centimetre or so beyond the end of the barrel.
Patients are told that contact with the skin and subcutaneous tissues creates a subtle pressure wave, sufficient to restore minor subluxations without the discomfort or potential risk of a full adjustment. In Ontario, each trigger pull is worth $10.
In health care, as in any retail business, effective marketing means listening to consumer demands. Giving the client/patient what he or she wants is the name of the game.
When the validity of treatment is not an issue, everything from electric pain management to dietary regulation can have a place in the control of back pain. When you treat a self-limiting condition, easy access, lucid explanations, emotional support and physical contact are powerful weapons.
It should come as little surprise that most sociological studies rank the chiropractor well above the doctor in the ability to control back pain.
And where is the doctor? Has the battle been lost by default? Medical training provides little knowledge or skill to justify the restoration of public confidence.
The modern medical attitude says, “Well, Bob, it looks like a paper cut, but just to be sure, let’s do lots of tests.”
Even the doctor confronted by a patient on whose back clings a large, green monster may be reluctant to make a definite diagnosis.
Although the doctor thinks he has found the trouble, he may refuse to make a commitment until all the investigations are complete, all the while muttering under his breath about the complexity of back pain and the possibility of arthritis or cancer.
D is certainly for Dog, and seems an appropriate mark for the doctor’s attempt at back care.
The fundamentals of patient back education are too often left to junior colleagues without the depth of knowledge necessary to answer questions or the depth of experience necessary to command respect.
A concerned patient requires a clear understanding of the problem, but the lesson in consumer satisfaction so clearly demonstrated by the chiropractor is lost on the physician.
Doctors Gullible Too
Equally quick to criticise the chiropractor for non-scientific methodology, the doctor is equally vulnerable to promotions based on scant medical research — an appeal through showmanship rather than science.
Consider the cold laser. Lasers are high energy light beams which travel in perfectly straight lines. They can be used to signal satellites or to burn holes in bricks. When the energy of the beam is reduced below the combustion point there is no known effect.
Laser surgery relies on the laser’s ability to vapourise tissue. Laser therapy relies on the laser’s unseen ability to increase the energy-containing capacity of the mitochondria within the cell. There is no way to measure this!
Lasers are said to normalise Brownian movement, the random particle movement typified by dust motes in a beam of light. Since random motion is an element of quantum mechanics, and cannot be measured in the living body, there is no way this theory can be tested.
Furthermore, I find it difficult, even in a large scale model, to differentiate between normal random movement and abnormal random movement.
Finally, the laser is heralded as being able to increase the nervous system’s light-carrying capacity, or bioluminascence. This capacity, unknown to the neurophysiologists and anatomists, is well recognised by those who sell medical lasers for $10,000 apiece. Still, lighting up the nervous system has a great deal of appeal.
Having purchased my own expensive equipment, in order to keep up with the clinic across the street, I intend to treat all my joggers so that they can run safely in the dark.
The back is an emotional target, and is subject to storng mind-body interaction. Dreaming he is falling, Jerry forgets the well known “always wake up before you land” rule and is flattened like a pancake in his own bed. Here is mind-body interaction in the home.
Six months of inactivity with a bad back, too much beer and too much televisio, and we have the perfect male specimen poised to return to the job. Here is mind-body interaction in the workplace.
Lack of physical stamina limits performance. Strength requires exercise. The willingness to actively participate in the recovery process is a positive mind-body interaction.
Using exercise to control back pain is not a new idea. One manual published in the 1920s pictures the author, complete with bow tie, demonstrating his own routines.
But modern medicine’s love of technology threatens to make even this simple idea unmanageably complex. A bride in her wedding gown standing next to a computerised exercise machine smiles out from a glossy advertisement and exclaims, “Superb! I passed my dorsal stress test. Have you?” I haven’t the faintest idea what she is talking about. I think I prefer the man in the bow tie.
Active, Healthy Machines
Given the choice, of course, many of the doctor’s patients also prefer technology to exercise. One case in point is the passive exercise studio, where you can assure yourself of a healthy, attractive body, painlessly, without perspiration, without the discomfort of strained muscle and bruised joints, and never be out of breath.
The answer, of course, is the machines do all the work. An electric table folds in the middle, helping you with your sit-ups. After a busy day at the clinic, the machines are in great shape.
The same appeal possessed by passive exercise motivates many patients to visit the chiropractor. It is far easier to let something or someone else do the work and take the responsibility than to take charge of your own problems. But chiropractic is not unique in its emphasis on passive techniques. Nor is it alone in its apparent disregard for anatomical considerations.
Manual therapy, performed by a broad spectrum of experts, remains shrouded in folklore and mystery. Thoracic manipulation, as a means of moving the thoracic vertebrae independently, disregards the intervening skin, fat and muscle present in the average living patient.
This same disregard for proven functional anatomy appears in the descriptions of the neurolymphatic reflexes. For example, symptoms of conjunctivitis (an eye complaint) may be treated with pressure on the appropriate reflex location, the upper humerus at the deltoid insertion (arm-shoulder connection).
As surprising as this sounds at first, it is in fact one of the better recognised non-anatomical connections. The next time you meet someone whose eyes are red and bleary from a previous evening’s party, punch her or him sharply over the outer shoulder and watch the eyes fly open. You have just demonstrated a neurolymphatic reflex.
Fallacious anatomy can be used to justify massage or manipulation which brings only temporary pain relief, and yet the patient’s comfort may be enhanced through the erroneous belief that some structural malalignment has been correxted. But when applied in a more sinister fashion, anatomical misinformation can create unwarranted fear and justify the continuation of unnecessary treatment.
Dozens of medical conditions are purported to arise because of minor vertebral malalignments. The anatomy seems reasonable, the terms sound familiar, and the medical problems are easily recognised, and yet something is amiss. To accept the diagnosis you must believe. But there are several conflicting belief systems at work in the realm of back pain.
Where better to indoctrinate the true believer than in childhood. Convincing new parents that their infant’s spine requires manipulation to ensure normal growth not only increases current practice, but fosters the child’s lifelong adherence to the principle. “Bring your children for an adjustment. Teach them the benefits of chiropractic.”
Without the knowledge that most back attacks subside spontaneously within 12 weeks, that back pain is a self-limiting condition, and that most back disorders can be controlled through simple measures of self- help, a chiropractic schedule of adjustments outlining intensive care for 13 weeks, reconstructive care for two to two and a half years, and maintenance care for a lifetime seems almost reasonable.
Dependency a Problem
Dependency can be a serious problem, but patients readily accept the idea that their back can somehow be straightened, pressed and cleaned in time for them to pick it up before the shop closes. Passive acquiescence and dependency are the antithesis of active participation and self control.
For those who allow back pain to dominate their lives, the statistics paint an ominous picture. Anyone remaining off work with a bad back for more than six months has only a 50% chance of returning to work on a regular, full-time basis.
Remain off the job for a year, and the chance falls to 25%.
Remain unemployed because of a bad back for two years, and there is virtually no statistical probability that you will ever return to your previous employment in a regular productive capacity.
It is the doctors, far more than the chiropractors, who have been guilty of creating dependency. It is little wonder that many patients will use more than the “apple a day” to keep the doctor away from their backs. The medical profession possesses the potential to eliminate back pain as a major socio-economic problem, but we have yet to demonstrate our understanding of the solution.
Too many meetings, too many publications, and too much time and effort are addressed to the perfect surgical solution while neglecting the simple fundamentals of intelligent and effective back care.
Patients need a simple answer to what can be a simple problem. Most need support, not surgery. They need a platform from which they can achieve their own success.
This is not a popular message. There are too many vested interests and too many strongly held differences of opinion to gain consensus. But whether we like it or not, the battle has been joined and will continue. Both the doctor and the chiropractor have a responsibility to promote better back care.
No longer can the physician place unwarranted emphasis on investigative procedures and invasive therapies.
No longer can the chiropractor hide behind non-diagnoses like “concomitant intervertabral subluxation complexes,” nor report that “the form of treatment given is chiropractic care”.
No longer can the physical therapist be allowed to treat patients solely with modalities possessing no proven therapeutic value, providing temporary pain relief at the risk of long-term dependency.
Dr Hill presented this at a conference of the NZ Society of Physiotherapists.
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…
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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”.
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