How to Make the Miraculous Blood of St Januarius

Brew up a miracle for fun and profit, in the comfort of your own kitchen.

The blood, in a phial in a church in Naples, is reverently turned over several times during services every few months. It has seldom failed to liquefy since 1389. (It has also accidentally liquefied when the monstrance holding the phial was being cleaned!) Three Italian scientists are quoted in the Skeptical Inquirer (Vol 16, No 3, Spring 1992, p236) as having duplicated the “blood.” The relevant data (Nature vol 353, p507) are:

“To a solution of 25g FeCl3.6H2O in 100 ml of water we slowly added 10g CaCO3, and dialysed this solution for 4 days against distilled water from a Spectra/por tubing (parchment or animal gut works just as well; a simple procedure1 even allows us to avoid this dialysis step). The resulting solution was allowed to evaporate from a crystallisation disc to a volume of 100ml (containing about 7.5% of FeO(OH). Addition of 1.7g NaCl yielded dark brownish thixotropic sol which set in about 1 hour to a gel. The gel could be easily liquefied by gentle shaking, and the liquefaction-solidification cycle was highly repeatable.”

Thixotropy is the property that interests us, that of setting to a gel or shaking to a sol(ution). I had always imagined the warmth of the priest’s hands was the main secular reason for the liquefaction, but apparently not.

I rang my old chemistry master, Alex Wooff, in Christchurch, to find out what the dialysis would involve. Dialysis is a differential diffusion through a membrane. You put the mix in a tube (rather like a sausage skin with the ends tied, I gather) and the tube in a tank of distilled water. Certain acidic by-products pass out through the tube walls, and what you want stays inside. (Someone who speaks French could look up what Herr Doktor Guthknecht had to say in 1946 about avoiding that.)

Alan Wooff also explained that the calcium carbonate would have to be precipitated — common chalk wouldn’t do; “You wouldn’t want lumps in it.”

Perhaps (I like to give people the benefit of every possible doubt) the 14th century originators of this pious fraud did not use sausage skin — let alone Spectra/por tubing — but stripped a blood-filled vein from the saint’s leg, say, and piously washed it in a mountain stream, like kaanga pirau.

If some reaction turned the iron in the haemoglobin into FeO(OH)– a reaction with the chalky deposits of the saintly artherosclerosis, perhaps? — and all unknowing they dialysed it out, perhaps they would get the result that the faithful see in Naples to this day.

Costing

Denise of Salmond Smith Biolab (Freephone 0800-807-809) told me they could get precipitated calcium carbonate (CaCO3) from England for $22.86 a kilo, in six or eight weeks by air freight at $39. They have hydrous ferric chloride (FeCl3.6H2O) in stock at $47.22 for 250 grams. The minimum order of dialysis tubing (10mm diam, 32mm flat) is 30 metres at $60. Geoff Meadows of Clark Products Ltd quoted $36.59 for 20 l of deionised water.

The limiting dimension is the volume of the tubing, 2.35 litres. That divides into 78 samples of 30 ml each.

That’s $205.67 (plus the cost of the phials) to produce 78 phials of miraculous blood. Perhaps 20 skeptics might pay $10 each for them, so I’d be lucky to break even. That is, if all the kitchen chemistry worked out.

Of course, if I sold them outside a church at $1000 a phial…?

Anyone got access to a chemistry lab?

1. Guthknecht, R. Bull Soc. Chim. Fr. 13, 55-60 (1946)
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Tattooed Maoris Did It!

The failure of clairvoyants to locate the missing Wellington man, Michael Kelly, or to know the manner of his death, will not startle many skeptics. No major missing persons case in the history of New Zealand has been solved with paranormal help, despite the fact that police have been deluged with clairvoyant tips over the years — from Mona Blades to Kirsa Jensen, Teresa Cormack, Luisa Damodron, Heidi Paakkonen or Michael Kelly.

Nor are we surprised that self-described psychics were called in by a desperate family. When all leads go cold, people are vulnerable to the suggestion that paranormal powers can help.

What ought to worry us is the media-generated atmosphere in which such delusion can flourish. Both the Dominion and the Evening Post published straight accounts of the clairvoyants’ visions of Michael Kelly’s “abductors” (See News Front). Kelly was supposedly robbed by two or three “rough-looking, tattooed Maoris,” about 26 years old. All the clairvoyants agreed on a description of their car. I’ll bet it was a Holden in need of body work.

No sooner had the Dominion published these psychic delusions than police phones started ringing hot with reports of suspicious-looking Maoris motoring about Wellington.

Both the Dominion and the Evening Post richly deserve a Bent Spoon for treating psychic fantasies as though they were news, but they’re not the only guilty parties. The Holmes show recently featured an item on a clairvoyant who was “helping” in the search for a toddler missing near the shore of Lake Wakitipu. Just as Michael Kelly’s family was told foul play was involved in his disappearance, so the mother of this little drowning victim has been given psychic visions implying abduction by a man. This psychic search also failed, but that fact didn’t make it onto Holmes.

Particularly upsetting in the Kelly case is that the clairvoyants were at last report still insisting another person was involved in the death, implying foul play. To the family’s anguish can now be added the burden of disquiet about the coroner’s findings.

Holmes, the Dominion, the Evening Post — why, even Sharon Crosbie gave at least one skeptic an attack of near-clinical depression on a recent morning when she provided fifteen minutes of unchallenged air-time to a visiting American “clairvoyant.” This huckster told Sharon that she got into the psychic business 25 years ago when she had a seven-hour conversation in French with her daughter, though neither of them had ever spoken the language before. Seems they simply “flipped back to the year 1654 in the south of France.” Sharon fairly giggled and gushed while the woman babbled on about akashic past lives and predicted “many, many changes on the planet … a lot of earthquake activity in New Zealand,” all because “we’re moving into a higher level of vibration.”

Let’s give Sharon credit: two days later she had the good grace to read on air a letter from Peter Lange excoriating her for the interview. Sharon’s an intelligent woman and, what the hell, we all have our off days. (Though the Press Association carried our official condemnation of the use of clairvoyants in police investigations, neither the Dominion nor the Evening Post chose to publish the story — guess they’re having an off month.)

It’s the continual tacit validation of claims to psychic power in gullible broadcast interviews and published articles that leads anguished, vulnerable families of missing persons to resort to clairvoyants. “There must be something in it — after all, I heard a woman on the radio just the other morning…”

But critical intelligence isn’t dead yet. The reliable Kim Hill recently interviewed Dave Allman, promoter of the Elliott Wave Theory, a form of share market voodoo that’s been around for a long time. Like Sharon’s psychic, Allman was a nonstop talker. When she could finally get a word in, Kim brought the interview to a close. “I was going to ask you if it’s an art or a science,” she sighed, “but I guess it’s a religion.”

E-Meter

This is a summary of a talk given at the 1992 Skeptics conference by Dr Eric Geiringer.

[An E-meter is a device used by members of the Church of Scientology, and some related groups or individuals, to “diagnose” illnesses. The subject grasps a pair of metal electrodes connected to an Ohm-meter, and an “auditor” asks questions and interprets the meter’s readings.]

The resistance the skin offers to the passage of an electric current is inversely proportional to the amount of electrolyte in the neighbourhood, and that essentially means sodium chloride in the sweat.

The skin is an important regulator of the sodium chloride content of the tissues, which must remain constant within narrow limits.

The amount of sweat and its salt concentration (0.1-0.37%) will vary in different people and at different times in the same person with:

  • fluid intake
  • clothes
  • stage of menstrual cycle
  • amount of salt in the tissues
  • amount of salt in food
  • the circum-ambient temperature
  • the number of sweat glands
  • their topical distribution
  • adrenal activity
  • anterior pituitary activity
  • posterior pituitary activity
  • hormone output of heart muscle
  • kidney function

and a number of other factors, all playing a part at any given moment in determining how much salt will meet the electrodes.

To this must be added the psychic state of the subject at the time of measurement, because as with blushing (which is also part of the hypothalamic heat regulating mechanism) sweating will be brought on by joy, fear, embarrassment or pain.

The effect of these variables on the final reading is, of course, additive and gives a composite reading of little, if any, specific value.

E-meter operators may claim that the refinements which they have introduced into the machine and the method standardise subjects to all these variables, and can therefore isolate idiosyncratic differences and enable specific physical or mental disorders to be diagnosed, but it would be up to them to substantiate such an extraordinary claim.

Although Scientology in toto is a dangerous, exploitative and mischievous humbug, we must concede that, by recording and utilising psychic sweating to loaded questions, their use of the E-meter is on a par with the use of lie-detectors<|>–<|>i.e. a crude, nonspecific but marginally valid means of spotting emotionally sensitive areas in a significant number of subjects.

It is the imaginative use, or pretended use, of these Ohm-meters and Volt-meters to diagnose specific mental or physical disorders by homeopaths and acupuncturists which constitutes their real danger.

Hot-footing it in Fiji

New Zealand Skeptics walk happily on red-hot embers, protected by the laws of physics. Fijian firewalkers, however, are said to stroll across white-hot stones. How do they do it?

Fijian firewalking is an ancient tradition. It was originally confined to a few villages on the island of Beqa (pronounced Mbengga). The ceremony achieved fame with a demonstration for visiting European dignitaries in 1885.

As John Campbell explains in Skeptic 15, firewalking is explained by science, not mysticism. Although the firewalker’s skin is in contact with glowing carbon at a temperature of around 700oC, very little heat energy is transferred. No injury occurs because though the surface of the charcoal is at this temperature, the charcoal has a low heat capacity and heat is not conducted through it sufficiently rapidly to raise the skin temperature to a dangerous level. Each foot only contacts the hot charcoal twice for a brief instant. Of course, if skin and hot carbon were in contact for longer, or if the walker attempted to take too many steps on the hot coals, burns would ensue. Faith in one’s firewalking abilities has no effect on the outcome.

Beqa Firewalking

Several published accounts of the Beqa firewalkers describe a ceremony with features that cannot be accounted for by this explanation. Many of these descriptions are rather informal (as well as unbelievable). Others are by anthropologists interested in rituals and beliefs associated with the ceremony. These describe human behaviour in minute detail until it gets to the part which would most interest a physical scientist. Some writers seem unaware that they are describing events which are commonly thought impossible.

Accounts agree that flat stones or rocks are heated using wood fuel in a fire-pit. The wood is then raked away, leaving the stones glowing white-hot. After various rituals, the walkers enter the pit and walk round and round on the glowing stones. The men (only men can do this!) have anklets of dried leaves; afterwards neither these anklets nor the soles of their feet show any effect from the heat.

According to Beqa: Island of Firewalkers (published by the Institute of Pacific Studies), the men even gather in the centre of the pit and chant! If these accounts are reasonably accurate then we are dealing with a miracle.

Profit Potential

About 1960 the villagers of Rukua on Beqa discovered that firewalking had commercial potential. The income of this village jumped from about $400 per year to about $6500 with this discovery, and other villages quickly followed their example. Contracts with tourist hotels guaranteed $400 per performance.

The original ceremony had involved the whole village. Firewalkers had to respect certain tabu — in particular, abstinence from all sexual contact for a period of one month. Costumes were made and burned afterwards. About six tonnes of firewood were consumed.

Modifications

It was quickly discovered that costumes could be modified so that they could be re-used and a much smaller fire satisfied the tourists. If the walkers abstained from sex for only two weeks they were not injured by the smaller fire — this seems quite logical.

More hotels featured the ceremony and teams performed twice a week. The sexual abstinence tabu was reduced to one night or dropped altogether.

Traditionally the fire pit was large. Beqa: Island of Firewalkers contains some photos from the thirties and I have an old postcard of the ceremony. These suggest the hot area was around five metres in diameter (the pits are circular) and the walkers may have needed ten or a dozen steps to cross the hot stones.

The modern pit is about 2.5 metres, but in the two examples I have seen, the hot area was less than two metres in diameter. Apparently the cost of firewood is a big problem.

I have a postcard showing the preparation of a fire pit for a modern performance. The caption reads, “the fire-walkers the cross the pit walking on the white-hot stones.”

Skeptics can safely walk on red-hot charcoal, but “white hot” implies much higher temperatures. For example, mild steel is tapped from a furnace at about 1600oC. This molten metal is glowing brightly but it looks yellow rather than white.

Rock, unlike carbon, has a high thermal capacity, that is, it stores plenty of heat energy which can be released to human skin. This implies that hot rock is more hostile to human feet than carbon at a similar temperature.

Anybody with some knowledge of science should be dubious of the published accounts of Beqa fire-walking. Could the rocks really be white hot?

The anklets worn by the walkers provide a clue. If dead leaves were brought close to an object radiating at a temperature high enough to be glowing white, they would burst into flames. In fact, human skin could be damaged before contact.

Examining the Pit

In Fiji, I have twice had a good look at a fire-pit immediately before the ceremony. When the fire was dying down, any unburnt wood was raked aside and the stones brushed clear of glowing embers. White ash covered the stones which lay in a bed of glowing charcoal. They were so close together that little of the hot charcoal could be seen, but the white sides of the irregular rocks reflected the glow in a spectacular fashion. The rocks themselves were not glowing.

Obviously, the rock upper surfaces were at a temperature well below the 700oC of glowing carbon. This could explain why the Beqa people can stand relatively prolonged contact. The modern walkers cross the pit, circle round the edge and re-cross. All the tourists I have questioned agree on that point. I am sure anybody could do the same.

The photographs I have of the old ceremony with the large pit do not show any activity that could be construed as “walking round and round in the pit.” The old postcard shows a line of about fifteen people, some holding hands. About four or five are crossing the hot rocks. The rest appear to have crossed and are circling back around the edge.

In the pit they seem to be taking short steps, and perhaps few people have feet that could stand such lengthy exposure. However, these people probably never wore any kind of footwear. Certainly some modern Fijians can stand barefoot on a sun-heated surface that would cause me pain.

On the other hand, it is doubtful that Beqa people could have crossed such a large pit, so slowly, if they had had to walk on glowing charcoal rather than the relatively cool rock.

So how did this myth arise, that Fijians could walk barefoot across white-hot rocks?

Poor observation and inaccurate reporting, plus the will to believe, seem adequate explanations. The rocks are certainly white as they are covered in white ash; they are certainly hot, as they are heated in a fire. They are not, however, white-hot.

Forum

Confronting Creationism

The article on creationism by Barend Vlaardingerbroek (Skeptic 24) contains much with which I would agree, but there are also several points that could be contested.

The mainstream christian churches as allies? Census figures suggest that in NZ their membership is declining so fast that support would be limited. In America in the past they have been useful allies (at the Scopes trial in particular) but most of their rapidly ageing congregations have little interest in creationism and even less in biblical scholarship.

“If we live in a secular democracy…” Barend Vlaardingerbroek seems to assume that we do, but this is one of the points that creationists dispute. If we do not want our democracy to become less secular we will have to fight for it.

Writing articles in academic journals may indeed be preaching to the converted, but combating creationist propaganda in the media is essential. If lies are repeated often enough without any protest people will start to believe them.

Contrary to Barend Vlaardingerbroek’s view, there is an excellent case for attacking creationists through their religious beliefs, for this is their weakest point. Creationists, one should note, say as little as possible about creationism. Nearly all of their diatribe is an attempt to ridicule evolution. While it is necessary to point out their major distortions of science, our best strategy is to go on the attack and ridicule creationism.

A person who claims to believe that the biblical account of creation is infallibly true, when the first two chapters of Genesis contain two separate and contradictory accounts, has got to be on shaky ground. Pointing this out will sway the public towards skepticism more than any defense of evolution.

Nor does one have to be qualified in the area of biblical scholarship to take this approach, although obviously some reading is required. For an introduction to the first five chapters of Genesis, may I recommend Isaac Asimov’s In the Beginning.

It is always vital not to underestimate one’s opponents, but in the case of creationists it is easy to overestimate their knowledge of the bible. An overseas creationist on a New Zealand tour accidentally revealed in debate that he did not know the Old Testament had been written in Hebrew. The audience responded with scornful laughter, much to his discomfort. Does this story sound too much for good skeptics? I assure you I have witnesses.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek seems to assert the old proposition that one should not scoff at religion. But why not? The best weapon against ridiculous belief is ridicule, and there is excellent evidence to show that this is excellent PR. People enjoy being made to laugh.

Robert Ingersoll in nineteenth century America used this approach to attack the views nominally held by the majority of its citizens and he was enormously successful. He became both affluent and politically influential. Although described as the most hated man in the country, he was extremely popular. His lectures on Some Mistakes of Moses are a superb send-up of creationism.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to imagine that creationism will ever go away. There will always be flat-earth societies. But surely the tide turned several years ago and the creationists have long been fighting a losing battle in New Zealand? In America, their high-water mark was clearly at Little Rock on Jan 5th 1982 with the Overton judgement.

Jim Ring, Nelson

Homeopathy Works

I wish to protest the criticism of homeopathic medicine in Skeptic 25.[Skeptics Bite Watchdog]

Certainly, homeopathic medicines are just water. But what more is needed? The magical qualities of water are well documented. It cures everything! Not only is it very good for the digestive system, but — as any sports enthusiast will confirm — it is a superbly effective cure for any injury incurred on the field of play. Many is the time I have seen a player with serious injuries get up and run away with (if anything) even more agility than before, following the application of water to the injured area.

This is not just a vague impression. I have spent thousands of hours in front of the television in dedicated study of this phenomenon, and I have managed to establish this as scientific fact in the same exhaustive fashion as the esteemed Consumer magazine: I have found another person who believes in this treatment.

My friend Mike not only studies the Water Cure Phenomenon on television, but also drinks large quantities of liquids containing water while engaged in his scientific studies. He claims that he feels happier and more confident after consuming these water bearing fluids, and that’s hardly surprising.

He insists that on one occasion he even saw water used to successfully solve a problem involving decapitation. Bloody Australians!

I can’t help wondering why Syd Eru, the Rugby League player (Skeptic 25), did not simply cure his broken wrist with water at the time of the injury. He could have finished that game. Still, I think his case provides solid proof of the value of faith healing.

While the medical “profession” sneeringly suggested he would be out of action for six weeks, the faith healer’s involvement enabled him to take the field for the New Zealand Maori side on October 17th, only five weeks and six days after his wrist was broken.

Grant Gillatt, Lower Hutt

A Challenge

Being a priest in a Christian church, and a confirmed Skeptic (a situation I enjoy so much I don’t attempt to resolve it), I am fascinated by Carl Wyant’s article “Angelic Sexism and the Politically Correct” [Skeptic 25].

As far as I can see, it would be a great advantage all round if the Skeptics did show an interest in religion and big-time superstition.

Mind you, it may be difficult to express this in an informed manner. I found it difficult to recognise familiar territory in Carl Wyant’s article, and there may not be many readers of the Skeptic who are up to date with the latest religious trends. But who could not but profit from the refreshing effects of reasonable doubt?

However much the contrary might be wished, religion is very much part of New Zealand society, and is a deep-rooted and powerful force amongst us. Nothing so significant should be beyond investigation, or be regarded as untestable.

I devoutly and piously hope that you will see your way to permitting investigation and debate on these absorbing issues.

Leicester Kyle, Vicarage, Kerikeri

When Faith-Healing Works

Sometimes feeling better isn’t a good sign at all… Carl Wyant recalls an occasion when faith healing showed itself better at handling symptoms than causes.

The following story is true; the names have been changed to protect the lame-brained. It’s not a terribly dramatic story of its type — that is, no one died — but it illustrates an important point. Over the years I have found, as a general rule of thumb, that most “natural healers” know hardly anything about the human body.

Once upon a time there was an attractive, young married couple, Jack and Jill, and Jack’s mother, a charming, vivacious 50-ish woman, with a growing reputation as a “spiritual healer.” I was deep into my Zen phase at the time, and too caught-up in the mysteries of the void and the unfathomable wisdom of one hand clapping to remember every last detail of the case, but here’s the basic gist.

Stomach Ache

Jack and Jill were around at our place, when late in the day Jill began to complain of a bad lower stomach pain. Being an occasional pancreatitis sufferer, I tend to take bad stomach pains seriously, so I suggested she see a doctor. But of course, being budding New Agers, they said, “we’ll see what mom says”; which is what I figured they’d say. I forgot about it.

When I saw Jack a couple of days later I asked him how Jill was. “She’s fine,” he said. “She had a few sessions with mom and it just went away. Tension, apparently, from a block in her sexual energies.”

Jack’s mom specialised in blockages of the “life airs” or vapours, ethers, chi, or whatever term is popular at the time. She was able to determine where these alleged blockages were by studying the client’s aura and then healed them by focusing her energy on the trouble spots.

Admittedly, I’m not a doctor, but somehow the kind of pain Jill had been describing, to my uncultured, insensitive, skeptical ear at least, didn’t sound like an everyday, run-of-the-mill type of pain, and for a minute I was almost disappointed that my more fearful diagnosis was so far off the mark.

More Than a Stomach Ache

Some days later I was informed that Jill was in the hospital recuperating from an operation to remove a burst appendix. Jack’s mom had miraculously stopped the pain sure enough, but not the progression of the appendicitis.

One would think that if a person was genuinely interested in healing people they would endeavour to learn as much about the body and its problems as possible. But most occult and natural healers don’t do this. For them, the main premise of New Age healing is that modern western science is all hogwash because it lacks the “spiritual” dimension. It’s not worth knowing.

This “no need to know” theme is a common one among paranormalists. Indeed, most religions would burn every book on Earth right now if they had the chance. Throughout history, religions have always hit the libraries.

It would behoove us to remember that despite the alleged “spiritual” dimension, the body is still a machine of sorts, and just as we take our cars to people who know a lot about cars, rather than, say, windmill systems, we should take our bodies to people who know a lot about bodies rather than, say, ritualistic superstition and fairytales.

Luckily there are people available who do try and find out as much as they can about the body; they’re called doctors.

Hokum Locum

More on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

An American study reported in the GP Weekly (2 Sep 1992) found that chronic fatigue syndrome was indistinguishable from depressive disorders. (Refer also Skeptic 21) Patients diagnosed as having CFS were likely to believe that their illness had a viral cause, but it is more likely that CFS is a new age variant of the 19th century neurasthenia.1

A large study reported in the BMJ is worth looking at in detail. 200 patients with CFS were studied. Many of the patients had tried alternative therapies which were “not helpful,” namely diets (27%), homeopathy (20%), hypnosis (5%). This has been confirmed in NZ by Murdoch, writing in the NZ Family Physician (Autumn 1992).

Again, most patients believed that their illness was caused by a virus and the study found that most patients had an emotional disorder. Despite this, most patients had recovered after two years and this outcome is also confirmed by Murdoch in an unpublished survey of New Zealanders with CFS. At all stages in the illness, “functional impairment was associated with several patient factors, including belief in a viral cause, leaving or changing employment, coping with illness by avoidance of exercise and alcohol, membership of a patient organisation, and emotional disorder.” The authors acknowledge that these factors may reflect a more severe illness and call for more prospective studies.

Despite the high incidence of emotional disorder, very few of the patients had been referred to a psychiatric outpatient clinic.

Despite the considerable evidence against an infectious cause of CFS, an Australian doctor has been treating patients with intravenous gamma globulin2 in what is described as a placebo controlled trial. Unfortunately, no reference is given to the trial and until I can get these details I will have to reserve judgement. Watch this space!

Clearly patients resist the suggestion that chronic fatigue has a psychological basis, and unfortunately some members of the medical profession continue to foster this belief. Of concern is the activity of quacks touting EAV, homeopathy, anti-candida diets and other useless nostrums. Patients should not be allowed DSW benefits unless they have willingly cooperated with a program of cognitive based psychotherapy.

References:

1. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. American Family Physician March 1992 p1205.
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2. Acceptance and treatment of CFS is improving. NZ Doctor International Oct 1st 1992.
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Follow up of patients presenting with fatigue to an infectious diseases clinic. British Medical Journal July 18th 1992 (also reported in New Zealand Medical Journal Sep 9th 1992, p366)

Chronic fatigue syndrome. The Lancet May 30th 1992, p1349

Psychiatric diagnosis and CFS link. GP Weekly Sep 2nd 1992

Fake GP

I was only mildly surprised to read in the BMJ (June 27th 1992, p1652) that a doctor with no medical qualifications had worked for 30 years as a general practitioner. All that is required to be a successful GP is the ability to listen sympathetically to patients. This is more effective than the millions of dollars wasted on drugs such as tranquilisers and antidepressants.

It took some time before the local chemists became suspicious and I quote one of them:

“If one 5 ml spoonful of hair shampoo is to be taken three times a day you tend to think there is something wrong. Time and time again there were inhalers to be injected, tablets to be rubbed in — all very unusual.”

Unfortunately no information was given as to whether any patients had been harmed and, conversely nothing from grateful patients. How on earth did he last 30 years before being exposed? I conclude that he must have been helping enough of his patients to forestall complaints about his eccentric prescribing. The English have a reputation for eccentricity and they certainly must have indulged themselves with this doctor!

Fishy Tale?

In a tribute to anthropomorphism, a Dr Motha will be birthing mothers in the company of dolphins who can “make ultrasonic communications with the fetuses.” All becomes clear when we are told that Dr Motha runs an alternative medicine clinic “including aromatherapy and reflexology.”

Personally I have always thought that dolphin intelligence was over rated since reading Restaurant at the End of the Universe when, at the end of the world, dolphin squeaks were translated as “goodbye and thanks for all the fish.”
GP Weekly August 19th 1992

Fringe Medicine and the Medical Practitioner

The New Zealand Medical Council normally does not involve itself in criticising unorthodox treatments unless the patient suffers harm. Doctors practising quackery are protected by a clause in Section 58, subsection 4 (2) of the medical registration legislation, which states: “no person shall be guilty of infamous conduct merely because of the adoption and practice of any theory of medicine or surgery if in doing so he has acted honestly and in good faith.” I find this statement disappointing, because a medical degree surely implies a knowledge and acceptance of scientific principles.

This clause has been dropped from the same legislation in Australia, Britain and Canada. However, the Medical Council has made it quite clear that quack doctors have to satisfy the doctrine of informed consent by fully briefing their patients “that these treatments are not part of conventional medicine and hence he or she is not practising as a registered medical practitioner in providing these therapies.” The medical registration authorities in Ontario, Canada obtained a change in their act which allowed them to ban such unproven remedies as amnion implants and chelation therapy. They also erased from the register a doctor who combined pendulum dowsing with a form of vega testing. I look forward to similarly robust attitudes towards dealing with quackery by our own authorities.

Having enjoyed the study of general science, I am amazed at the capacity of some doctors to believe in quackery. As H. L. Mencken said, “How is it possible for a human brain to be divided into two insulated halves, one functioning normally, naturally, and even brilliantly, and the other capable of ghastly balderdash?” The reference quoted below is well worth reading.

Unorthodoxy and the Registered Medical Practitioner. David Cole. Patient Management Vol 21 No 9.

Irlen Lenses

In Skeptic 22 I criticised the promotion of Irlen lenses in New Zealand and called these a quack remedy. Since then I have been criticised by Matthew Hobbs (Skeptic 24 — nice to have some feedback) on the grounds that it remains to be seen whether these lenses are a proven remedy for reading difficulties such as scotopic sensitivity.

My use of quack in this context is straight from the Concise English Dictionary: “one who offers wonderful remedies or devices.” Firstly, there is no evidence of the existence of the condition “scotopic sensitivity” and secondly, as the coloured lenses have not been tested they should not be used, as efficacy has not been established.

An article in the Marlborough Express (Sep 24th 1992) outlined how a 10 year old with reading difficulties was fitted with coloured plastic lenses. After six months his reading had improved 100 percent. What alternative explanation is there for this improvement, and how was the improvement measured? It is most likely that his reading disorder was related to aberrant conditioning. The more his parents expressed concern, the more reinforcement was given to the “poor reading.” The coloured lenses are a placebo associated with a change in management which, along with the passage of time, has lead to an improvement in his reading.

Faith Healing

Dr Keith Davidson kindly informed me of the source of the quote mentioned in Skeptic 24 “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better.” It came from someone called Emile Cove. Keith also sent me a cutting from the Christchurch Press detailing the activities of an American faith-healer by the name of Morris Cerullo.

The article demonstrates the obscene side of evangelical fervor. People were warned “Cynicism will sour you, bring cancer to you, and disable you.” The audience revelled in an atmosphere of mass hysteria and were told by an expert on “biblical economics” that there was no pressure to give money but the amount given would determine how far God would move towards miracles! The cartoon that came with the article is great. It shows Cerullo gesticulating while his shadow is the outline of a devil.

The evidence for faith healing is not good. As most deluded beliefs rest on faith, and faith is not amenable to testing, it is unlikely that testing will ever be done. In fact believers are on record as saying that testing claims of faith healing would be disrespectful to God.

Skeptics and Consumerism

Members of the NZ Skeptics have enjoyed some media exposure lately. Denis Dutton has been conducting a vigorous rebuttal of acupuncture beliefs (Patient Management, September 1992) and Vicki Hyde is “Eyeing Alternative Medicine” in the August edition of the NZ Science Monthly.

Consumer magazine were so unhappy with our criticisms of their alternative medicine story that they came out fighting and awarded us with a magnifying glass. I have used it in vain to re-examine their original article, but I have not changed my mind about its feeble journalism. Consumer journalists should read NZSM to see how their story should have been treated.

A new development is Maori medicine, or rongoa, (NZ Doctor, August 20th 1992) Given reasons for its use by Maori are an inability to pay for prescriptions and a belief that rongoa can provide something that western medicine cannot. The Bay of Plenty Area Health Board has provided $15,000 for traditional Maori remedies, such as red matipo to purify the blood and para blue gum for asthma. These treatments are administered in an atmosphere of “love and kindness.”

I doubt whether any of these remedies will ever be subjected to a clinical trial, because such treatments have to have some kind of rational basis to start with, and any results are clearly explained by the very powerful and under-rated placebo effect. At a time when Maori health has never been worse (e.g. smoking-related disease) I find it incredible that an AHB can waste money on this nonsense.

Homeopathy

After our little tiff with Consumer magazine, I wrote to the School of Pharmacy in Dunedin to ask whether they would consider doing some tests of homeopathic solutions. Peter Hayes (Lecturer) kindly replied to my letter and enclosed a copy of a paper entitled “A case for homeopathy” written by a Scottish pharmacist, Dr Steven Kayne.

It is fascinating to read the intellectual rationalisations used by otherwise intelligent people in order to indulge their deluded beliefs.

Kayne concedes that increasing dilutions leave no discernible molecules in solution and then goes on to say “chemical analysis is therefore inappropriate”!!!

He further concedes that he cannot explain the mechanism of action but goes on to say “it is extremely difficult not to be impressed when one sees therapeutic efficacy clearly demonstrated.”

Evidently he discounts the placebo effect and refers to “published work in human and veterinary environments.” None of the references quoted support these claims. Furthermore, he says “It is inconceivable that consumers would continue to buy these [homeopathic] products if it was all a giant confidence trick.” He obviously needs to have a chat to some of our skeptical psychologists.

Finally, he refers to the enormous volume of circumstantial evidence “that the remedies actually work — patients do get better.” This is called the “Bellman’s fallacy” — because something has been said many times it must be true. His last word is “homeopathy should be available because patients want it, because it is safe and because it works.”

The Dean of the Pharmacy School also wrote and pointed out “because of patients’ belief in complementary medicine, I doubt that even if we were to show that they were purchasing pure water, it would cause any change in attitudes.”

I am forced to agree with him, but I could not help wondering what would happen if I started selling pure water labeled as various homeopathic remedies. I could make a fortune and it would be difficult to be prosecuted for fraud. Anybody want to go into business?

Open-mindedness

The same day that I was writing all this, I received an article from Bernard Howard written by one of my favourite skeptics, Petr Skrabanek. One of his best articles on the philosophy of skepticism is “Demarcation of the Absurd,” The Lancet April 26th 1986, in which he argues that it is possible to be too open minded.

Briefly, he argues that we need a demarcation of the absurd so that we don’t bother spending our whole lives on the look-out for flying pigs. Instead, we accept that the probability is so low that we don’t waste our time either looking or testing for airborne swine.

The article that Bernard sent is called “Why we must keep the lid on the black magic box” (Healthwatch Newsletter Summer 1992) and in it Skrabanek argues that testing of irrational beliefs can give them spurious respectability and “no amount of testing will convince a believer that he is mistaken.” Skrabanek also reviews the development of “black-box” quackery, which I have already mentioned can be practised in NZ with impunity due to our feeble medical registration legislation.

That reminds me of a television program on water divining where James Randi tested the top water diviners in Australia. None of them detected water flowing through one of ten pipes any better than chance. At the conclusion of the experiment he asked them about their beliefs which were totally unshaken!

Dr Jim Woolnough

The New Zealand Skeptics lost one of its founders with the recent death of Dr Jim Woolnough, aged 77.

Jim was not only a passionate Skeptic, but a courageous fighter for the rights of New Zealand women to obtain safe, legal abortions. He was indicted in 1974 for performing abortions for the Auckland Medical Aid Centre; his acquittal on appeal in 1975 resulted in the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act of 1977, which made abortion legal in most cases.

Jim will be missed.

Bands of Hope

Lewis Jones

Can a cotton wristband and a plastic button alleviate seasickness? The British Consumer’s Association thinks so, but scientific evidence indicates otherwise.

The sea has always brought out the best in me. Such as a good lunch. So all those ads for Sea Bands have been striking a responsive chord. You know the things. They keep coming up in those glossy colour brochures that fall out of your magazines and into your waste paper basket.

How the Royal Navy Fights Seasickness — you can’t speak plainer than that. If the navy doesn’t know about being seasick, who does? “The Royal Fleet Auxiliary tested the system in 1986, and declare it a useful, drowsiness and side-effect free alternative to drugs.”

At this point you look at the accompanying photograph and see what looks like a cotton wristband with an inset plastic button the size of an asprin. You look closer and examine the picture in careful detail to see what a Sea Band really is. It turns out to be a cotton wristband with an inset plastic button the size of an asprin.

Curiosity eventually got the better of me, and I decided to follow the Sea Band trail and see where it lead. When I contacted the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s Principal Medical Officer, Dr Driver, I struck lucky right away. It was Dr Driver who tested the Sea Bands aboard Sir Lancelot in the South Atlantic. Of the 17 people tested, two-thirds said they thought the Sea Bands effective and one-third didn’t. This is a very small sample, so how about a control group? Well, another test had been planned on the good ship Tristram, without the plastic buttons, but there wasn’t enough bad weather. Dr Driver emphasised that such evidence as there was, was anecdotal.

Consumers’ Association Test

Then the British Consumers’ Association (CA) decided to hand out Sea Bands to 27 passengers on a cross-channel ferry. About two-thirds thought they felt less ill than usual, and one third didn’t. Still no control group. And again the sample was small. The CA admitted this was not a controlled clinical trial, but couldn’t resist going on to enthuse about results that were “quite dramatic.” They reported giving Sea Bands to children who felt sea-sick, and within minutes, “They were up and frisking around again.” And there was one young girl who stopped being seasick when she put the bands on, but was sick again when she took them off to fill in the questionnaire.

The CA don’t agree that they were misleading their readers, in spite of a forthright picture-caption saying, “Sea Bands might work for you” (and so might touching wood). They saw it as an advantage that Sea Bands do not produce side effects (neither does touching wood).

Naval Assessment

Enter the Institute of Naval Medicine (INM), who tested Sea Bands against the drug hycosine, sometimes known as scopalomine. (At sea, this gives good control of symptoms for some hours). But the INM also tested against two placebos. One was a dummy drug (Vitamin C), and the other was a dummy band (the Sea band with the plastic button reversed so that it didn’t press against the wrist. Eighteen male volunteers were exposed to a “cross coupled nauseogenic motion challenge.” In other words, they were blindfolded and rotated in a chair while they performed head movements to commands from a loudspeaker above them.

This may sound pretty innocuous, but in fact it’s a fairly severe test. It will bring on the first symptoms of vomiting within 15 to 20 minutes on average. Each subject was tested on the motion challenge on four separate occasions, with at least a week between each. The results? The hycosine had an effect. But Sea Bands? No better than the dummy remedies. In fact, it emerges that the US Naval Aerospace people had tested Sea Bands back in 1982. The results then? No benefit.

You can browse through Gray’s Anatomy until your thumb is sore, without ever finding any connection between your wrist and being seasick. So why on earth did anyone think there was anything in the idea in the first place?

The Acupuncture Connection

It turns out that a Mr D.S.J. Choy had come up with a “seasickness strap” in New York in 1982. The idea was to find a way of pressing against the Nei Guan or P6 acupressure point, which is situated two Chinese inches away from the wrist crease. Why? At the end of the trail we open The Treatment of Disease by Acupuncture by Felix Mann, President of the Medical Acupuncture Society. He lists the ailments you can cure by pressure on the wonderful P6 point:

“Headache, insomnia, dizziness, palpitation of heart, epilepsy, madness, easily frigthened, swelling under armpits, cramp of elbow, cardiac pain, vomiting, middle regions blocked full and swollen, spleen and stomach not harmonised, stomach very painful, gastritis, enteritis, swelling of abdomen, diarrhoea, hiccoughs, coughing, depleted and weary, summer-heat diseases, rheumatism of foot, jaundice, irregular periods, post-partum bleeding and dizziness, spermatorrhoea, nearly pulseless.”

It’s difficult enough to come up with a remedy that can make a firm claim to cure one specific ailment. Remedies that claim to cure everything from hiccups to madness can only expect to be taken seriously by mediaeval visitors from a time warp.

Sea Bands does list a medical advisor: Dr Stainton-Ellis, a retired medical man. But Dr Stainton-Ellis said he had little contact with the company, and it is not clear that he is actually called upon to do anything. He told me that Sea Bands “are now being used in pregnancy, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.”

In fact, in these areas Sea Bands have not so much been “used” as put under test, usually by the same small group of enthusiasts. These studies have been heavily criticised for their statistics, their poor methodology, their lack of double-blind controls, and the fact that other researchers have been unable to reproduce the results. But acupressure is a mere ghostly cousin of acupuncture. So is it worth considering acupuncture itself before a sea voyage?

Dr Peter Skrabanek has surveyed the needle scene, and reported to the medical journal The Lancet on 26 May 1984: “numerous controlled trials have shown that the claims for acupuncture have no scientific validity<193> Let us leave quackupuncture to quacks and let us tell the misinformed patient the truth, so that he or she can choose.”

This article appeared recently in the The Skeptic (UK) and is reprinted by permission of the author.

Update

Bernard Howard

1) After seeing Sea Bands advertised in the magazine of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, Mr Jones made a formal complaint to the British Advertising Standards Authority, on the basis of the facts in the article above. The Authority’s response:

CONCLUSION: Complaint upheld. The advertisers failed to provide evidence for any of the claims. The Authority was concerned that the advertisers were unable to support the claims for the product as required by the Code, and requested that they cease making any claims for the wrist band until adequate substantiation could be made available.

2) Of a similar nature are “Isocones,” which are said to induce sleep in insomniacs by pressing on the acupressure point in the wrist. Unlike the Sea Bands, you must use a fresh Isocone each night on each wrist. Whether the acupressure points concerned with seasickness and sleeplessness are identical is not revealed by the advertisements for these products. If the points are different, it must require skill to press the right spot to produce the desired effect; if identical, the effect produced must depend entirely on the expectations of the subject, that is, our old friend the placebo effect.

3) For those interested, a member reports seeing Isocones for sale in a New Zealand pharmacy. Whether Sea Bands are available here is something we have not bothered to discover

UFO Update

Dr J.F. De Bock gave the 1992 Conference an update on the study of UFOs.<>

The study of UFOs (UFOlogy) started out as research on unidentified atmospheric (or aerial) phenomena, but rapidly became invested with questionable researchers holding preoccupied, but popular, convictions that the earth is being invaded by extraterrestrials in their flying-saucer shaped spaceships.

The alleged recovery of aliens and their saucer in the 1947 Roswell Incident, and the photos of a hovering spaceship in the 1981 Gulf Breeze case, fuel the belief in extraterrestrial visitation. However, both cases are so invested with fraud, swindle, deception and contradiction that arriving at the truth is seemingly an impossible task.

To further cloud the credibility of serious UFO researchers, UFOlogy is forced to absorb subjects such as contactees, crop circles, Men in Black and cattle mutilations.

“True” UFOlogy is a continued unbiased research into verified sightings and encounters of mostly unidentified lights, occasionally exhibiting a physical reality by leaving a variety of tangible proof of exchange with the environment.

In 1989, during a UFO chase by two Belgian Fl6 fighters, the elusive unidentified object demonstrated seemingly controlled and deliberately evasive action, momentarily appearing to swing the balance in favour of the belief in alien visitation. Unfortunately, one finds that the case was reported by dubious researchers being too over-zealous to promote the extraterrestrial hypothesis. When the dust dies down, one is left with a confirmed sighting of a repetitive and common but puzzling occurrence of an unknown atmospheric phenomenon.