Writer’’s last book entertaining and moving

Snake Oil And Other Preoccupations, by John Diamond. Vintage, 2001, $29.95

I recently reviewed for NZ Skeptic this author’s previous book (C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too), which described his experiences of his throat cancer and its treatment. That was written when he was still unsure whether it had been cured, and I admitted to moist eyes on reading of the gruelling time he had.

The success of that book, and his steadfast convictions about cancer treatments, led him to write another book, which was to be “an uncomplimentary look at the world of complementary medicine”. Unfortunately the cancer was not cured, and, in the middle of writing chapter six, he was taken to hospital for the last time. His brother-in-law describes how, the day after his death, they found his computer still switched on, the last words he had typed were “Let me explain why”. That he was never to do so brought on in your reviewer another attack of unmanliness.

Wisely, and luckily for the many who appreciate Diamond’s views and style, his executors have published the unfinished material, 82 pages, and filled out the book with a varied selection of his weekly columns in several magazines. Of the 60 or so of these, almost half are connected to the “Snake Oil” theme, and widen the coverage of “C”. Read about the role of the tongue in swallowing (you never miss it until you haven’t got it), and the problem of replying to a hearty friend’s enquiry after your health (“Oh, fine thanks…..well,actually, no. I’ve got cancer”).

The other items are light-hearted, entertaining pieces, remarkably so considering the pain he was in during the writing. Try “Does my bottom look too big?” (wise advice for those outside, and inside, the changing rooms in ladies’ dress shops). Diamond (of Jewish birth) confirms the view that Jewish jokes are invented by Jews; “The week before you know when”, is a spoof “The night before Christmas” bemoaning the way Jews are missing the commercial opportunities.

Diamond’s skill with words is matched by the Introduction contributed by Dawkins, another master. The light-hearted but erudite tone of his writing is the more remarkable considering what he was enduring. All who read and admired the earlier book will be both moved and amused by this one.

The people who believe that Satanists might eat your baby

Damian Thompson argues that a tangle of folklore and urban legend, allied to a particular horror of paedophilia, has blinded many to the scientific facts

Ritual satanic abuse is back. In March, a private meeting at Westminster, chaired by Lord Alton, discussed assaults on children by hooded, chanting Satanists. “You may be aware,” the organisers said, “that, for several years, there have been reports of the ritual abuse of children and in some cases ritual murder. The rituals reportedly often involve the Black Mass and the wearing of robes. Adult survivors of ritual abuse are divulging important evidence regarding the large scale of this problem in the UK.”

One of the organisers, Wilfred Wong, an evangelical Christian, is campaigning for ritual abuse to be made a specific crime, so that the Satanists – responsible for “hundreds, if not thousands” of sexual assaults and murders – can be brought to justice. “But so far little has been done,” he says plaintively. That is a matter of opinion. In the early 1990s, far too much was done. In Rochdale, 20 children were removed from their homes after a 6-year-old boy told teachers he had seen babies murdered; the claims were dismissed by the High Court. In the Orkney islands, village gossip about satanic practices led to the removal of nine children from their homes; after a £6 million inquiry, all charges were dismissed and social workers criticised for planting ideas in children’s heads. In 1994, a 3-year Department of Health inquiry by the anthropologist Prof Jean La Fontaine into 84 alleged cases of ritual abuse found no evidence of Satanism in any of them.

What the inquiry did expose, however, was the tangle of folklore and urban legend that produced the scare. The ingredients included stories of baby sacrifice borrowed from 19th Century anti-Catholic prop-aganda (many Satan-hunters are anti-Catholic fundamentalists), the anti-Semitic blood libel, corny images of devil-worshippers owing more to The Wicker Man than to any real occult rubric, television cartoons (the Orkney allegations featured adults dressed as Ninja Turtles), and the scatological rambling of small children.

As Prof La Fontaine points out, paedophilia is the most potent representation of evil in modern society; it is not surprising that it should become conflated with older folk devils, or that groups with a distrust of the Establishment – fund-amentalists, feminists, social workers – should prove receptive to such a myth. What is surprising is that they have been able to sustain their belief in the face of the empirical demolition of their claims.

They have done so by retreating into the time-honoured logic of the conspiracy theorist: the absence of evidence proves the effectiveness of the conspiracy. The resourceful Satanists dispose of bodies by feeding them into mincing machines, dissolving them in acid baths, burning them in furnaces or just eating them. How do they get away with it? Dr Joan Coleman, a psychiatrist who spoke at the meeting, says the abusers have “Masonic connections”, though an American campaigner, Professor Cory Hammond, thinks they are part of a Nazi conspiracy led by a renegade Jew.

The anti-Satan lobby has also seized opportunistically on isolated crimes. Last September, the torso of a 5-year-old black boy was found in the Thames. Valerie Sinason, a psycho-therapist at St George’s Hospital in London, told the press that the case bore all the hallmarks of a ritual murder. “Sadly, I do not think this is a one-off,” she said.

Of course she doesn’t. Miss Sinason, the main speaker at the meeting, is on the record as saying that Satanists are breeding babies for ritual murder, a practice she described to the Catholic Herald as “an Auschwitz in peacetime”. Until now, not one body has surfaced to corroborate this theory, which explains why the ritual abuse lobby is so eager to claim the Thames torso for Satanism. But this, too, is nonsense. The little boy may have been ritually killed – but by an African witchdoctor harvesting body parts for the magical medicine known as muti. It has nothing to do with suburban devil-worship.

Prof La Fontaine’s verdict on Valerie Sinason goes to the heart of the problem. “It’s depressing to find someone who has a position at leading London hospitals who is so cut off from what research methodology is, and what rational evidence is,” she says. When Miss Sinason announces that she has “clinical evidence” of infanticide and cannibalism, she means that her patients have told her stories about them. The implication is that, because the suffering of these people is real, their “memories” must be accurate.

Miss Sinason’s claims are so implausible that they are unlikely to win much of an audience this time. The real cause for concern is the influence on our thinking about a range of social problems: chronic fatigue, cot death, post-battlefield stress, autism. In each case, it is more emotionally satisfying to identify a single cause – an undiscovered virus, chemical warfare, the MMR jab – than to accept that nasty things happen randomly, or are produced by a mixture of causes.

It is not just that we have lost faith in science: it is also that we have done so without bothering to understand the limits within which science must operate. Statistical probabilities are hard to grasp; we prefer to encounter our evidence in the form of human interest stories. Proper research, which is fundamentally about measurement, lacks entertainment value: Prof La Fontaine’s report cannot compete with the Hammer Horror scenario of satanic abuse, just as the painstaking work of real archaeologists pales in comparison with the tales of “lost civilisations” that television companies, to their shame, still commission.

Fortunately, inconvenient facts have a way of fighting to the surface. Lord Alton – who says he is keeping an “open mind” on satanic abuse – might want to consider the following story. Last year, Jeremy Laurance, the health editor of the Independent, was alerted by a well-known psychotherapist to the existence of pictures on the internet of a man eating a dismembered baby. The paper ran the story. A week later it apologised. “Let’s not beat about the bush. I’ve been had,” said Laurance. It turned out that the photographs were a hoax by a Chinese performance artist. And the gullible psychotherapist? Valerie Sinason, of course.

From The Daily Telegraph (London), March 22, 2002

Man refused bail after Dick Smith food poison threat

A man charged with threatening to poison food produced by Dick Smith has been refused bail in the Rockhampton Magistrates Court in central Queensland. Graham Andrew Cooper, 30, is charged with trying extort $100,000 from the Australian Skeptics Association.

Cooper appeared in court charged with stalking, extortion and sending threatening emails. The court was told Cooper sent emails to Barry Williams from the Australian Skeptics Association, which has offered $100,000 to anyone who can prove psychic powers. The police prosecutor said Cooper claimed the association refused to test him. It is alleged the emails said that Dick Smith owed him $100,000 and that he would put “rat sack” into as much Dick Smith food as he could lay his hands on. The court was told Cooper is a paranoid schizophrenic and police said the threats were not carried out.

Cooper will be held in custody until his next court appearance in May. He was not required to enter a plea.

From ABC On-Line News, March 8

Skeptical Surfing

Netsurfer Science is a website every skeptic should bookmark. It provides a good lead-in to many science and skeptic-related sites and issues on the web. Here are a couple of recent items.

Howling at the Moon

Do we believe everything the government tells us? Of course not. But, we think that some conspiracies would be so unmanageable that they’d implode faster than an empty soda can in the Marianas Trench. The fake moon landing is one of our favorite confabulations. Under this theory, NASA didn’t land on the moon – and its own photos prove it. Now, to the extent that anyone cares, once we stop chuckling about how little the hoax proponents actually know about the science they claim to defend, this sort of nonsense also makes us angry, because it diminishes not only the breath-taking courage of people like the Armstrongs and Lovells of this world, but also the heart-breaking sacrifices of the Grissoms and McAuliffes. People (and television networks) who propagate this foolishness at least owe it to those pioneers to get their science right. Phil Plait, whose very admirable Bad Astronomy site has made Netsurfer lists before, tackles the so-called evidence point by point. Even if you don’t care about the accusations, take a look at the science. It’s instructional in reminding us how very alien even our own lunar environment is. In his personal pages, planetary scientist Jim Scotti covers much the same territory, though he deals equally with a hoax site.

Bad Astronomy:
http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html

Scotti:
http://pirlwww.lpl.arizona.edu/~jscotti/NOT_faked/

Marianas Trench:
http://www.geocities.com/thesciencefiles/marianas/trench.html
http://www.cnmi-guide.com/info/sketches/marianastrench.html

Evolution, Again

Before we hear from the creationist watchdogs, we’ll tell you what our position is. Does Netsurfer Science (NSS) believe in the Biblical version of the origins of life? No. We do, however, believe in its illustrative grace and power. (The only subject to provoke more correspondence was the NSS error that misplaced a college hoops team in a rival conference. Now, that was brutal.) In Science and Creationism, the National Academy of Sciences puts forward an authoritative synthesis of the issues involved. In our experience, many of creationism’s criticisms of evolution are either inaccurate or outdated. The NAS deals with the most frequently cited arguments and discusses the problems. More than that, though, the academy takes the very clear position that creationism “has no place in any science curriculum at any level”. This site is the text of an academy booklet that explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. The National Center for Science Education is a nonprofit organisation with the sole mission of protecting the teaching of evolution against sectarian proponents of such propositions as scientific creationism. In addition to other services, the center tracks legislation relating to the teaching of science.

National Center for Science Education:
http://www.ncseweb.org/

National Academy of Science:
http://bob.nap.edu/html/creationism/

Fish but no Chips

John Riddell learns to his cost that fishermen can be as easy to catch as the creatures they pursue

I have a confession to make. I’ve been taken in by a scam. Normally this shouldn’t be cause for embarrassment, but I like to think of myself as a skeptic. I mean if anyone should be able to see these things coming it should be a skeptic. It’s only gullible people get taken in by scams right? It all comes from liking fishing too much. Salt water fishing in my case.

In our corner of the globe the target species is a fish commonly called a snapper. Fantastic eating and fun to catch. The world record is a bit over 30 pounds but a 2 or 3 pound fish is a good fish and much better eating. At least according to those of us who never catch the big ones. On a good day we catch the legal limit of nine per person (minimum size 27cm). But to have a good day you have to get everything right. Bait, berley, location, tide, tackle and weather all have to be right. Get one wrong and you catch fewer fish. Get two wrong and you catch none.

So like all fishaholics, between those rare occasions when I actually make it out on to the water, I spend a good deal of time thinking about fishing, reading the fishing magazines, listening to the weather reports, and thinking of ways of catching more fish, bigger fish, or let’s face it, some fish.

One day, while I was chatting to my cousin Don about fish, he mentioned that a friend of his swore by an electronic fish attractor. It is called “FishMAXTM“, and it’s a little box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. A sealed unit. Two wires come out of it. These wires are put in the water as far apart as possible. Once the electrodes are in the water, a little red light (LED) starts flashing on the box. That means it is working. It supposedly puts out a signal that attracts fish from up to three miles away.

Now I should have known better than to accept anecdotal evidence but we are talking about fishing. Rational thought gave way to greed. My ears perked up. “An electronic fish attractor? What a brilliant idea,” I thought. That was the first mistake. Allowing my enthusiasm to override logic. Here comes the next mistake. “Heck. If it really works, think of the money I could save on berley.” (Berley is what we call groundbait/chum, ie chemical fish attractor).

The phrase “If it really works” goes through the mind of everyone ever taken in by a scam.

I found an ad in the fishing magazine. Only $149.00 On the internet, $65.00

My next mistake. A little bit of knowledge. As opposed to enough. Fish have a thing called a lateral line. It is a line of receptors along the side of a fish that picks up small electrical signals in the water. Since fish can detect electric signals, it’s possible that an electronic fish attractor could work.

Next mistake. Do a little bit of research. As opposed to enough. I checked out the net. That’s inter, not fishing. There are lots of sites on the net about electric fishing. The thing is, it does actually work. There is a phenomenon called electrotaxis. If you get a fish in a certain type of electric field the fish will swim towards one of the electrodes. Once the fish gets really close it conveniently falls asleep (electronarcosis) and floats to the surface. Now this sounds too good to be true, but it is true. Fishologists and conservation types use these electric fishing things to study endangered species and also to catch pest species such as carp. When the electric field is switched off, the fish wakes up and swims away unharmed.

So I rang the toll free number in the fishing mag and told the “FishMAXTM” guy at the other end that they were only $65.00 on the net. “No problem.” he said and matched the price. Now I normally spend $8.00 on berley every time I go fishing so I was thinking “if it really works, think of the money I would save.”

I gave him my credit card details and he couriered it to me the next day.

So did it work? As soon as I got it I put the electrodes at opposite ends of my 3 foot tropical fish tank. The little red light began to flash. This means it is working. The fish in the tank carried on, blissfully unaware that they were being attracted to anything.

A guppy did swim up to examine one of the electrodes but then he swam away. The rest of the fish continued to distribute themselves randomly through-out the tank.

I confess to being disappointed. But not surprised. By now I had done a little more research. It turns out real electric fish attractors use high voltages (600V) and also a fair amount of power. They are also only effective in fresh water, and over very short ranges, a few metres at most. My fish attractor was supposed to work for thousands of hours without a battery replacement. Something began to smell fishy.

Since then I have been fishing four times. I used the FishMAXTM electronic fish attractor on two of those occasions. I caught fish. I usually do. But I caught more fish when I didn’t use it. On one of the occasions I used the FishMAXTM the berley I had been using fell off without my noticing. Even though the FishMAXTM was still flashing the fish stopped biting. When I realized the berley had fallen off, I put more berley out and we began to catch fish again.

By now I had decided that if it wasn’t a scam, it should be.

The thing is, fisherpersons are very superstitious. I try not to be. I usually catch a limit on days the Maori fishing calendar says are bad for fishing. And I always take bananas even though they are supposed to be bad luck.

The problem with fishing is the outcome can be so variable. This variability is the stuff that superstitions are made of. Most of the time you can’t see what is happening under the water. Sometimes the reasons people use to explain why they do or do not catch fish don’t have much to do with the real reasons. From the point of view of a scam artist, fishermen have got to be an ideal target species.

Ok, so lets think of a way of getting fishermen to give us money for a worthless and therefore cheap to make, product. What we need is a small sealed box that has a flashing light (LED) to show that something is happening. It needs to be sealed so you can’t look inside and see there isn’t much there. Inside the box we need batteries to power the light. We also need to have some wires that come out of the box. These wires can be put into the water. Once the wires are in the water the circuit is complete and the light begins to flash. We tell the fishermen that when the wires are in the water and the light is flashing that fish will be attracted.

One of the boys at the pub happens to have a PhD in physics and conveniently runs an electronics research lab. He very kindly connected my FishMAXTM up to one of his squiggleoscopes. There were a couple of volts DC but not much else. Next came the hacksaw and the Stanley knife. The unit was filled with a resin. It took quite a bit to get into it. Inside were two 1.5V AA batteries and the wire that connected them to the flashing LED. If there were any silicon chips or even resistors and capacitors or electrical components of any kind, the boys in the lab would have recognised them. But they just weren’t there. I admit that even I was surprised. I had assumed there would be some sort of circuit, even if it were just to make the light flash. It turns out the LED does that automatically.

So now I get to play games with the Commerce Commission and the Fair Trading Act.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Bookshop Caters for Skeptical Tastes

Aristotle’s Books in Auckland has started a skeptics section of titles. Books debunking the New Age and religion in general are found there.

It is at 167 Symonds St, Newton, Auckland, and is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 7pm, and also features a small coffee shop.

The shop manager is Sally O’Brien

Budget Science

Owen McShane examines last year’s Great Soya Sauce Scare

There’s a lot of Budget Science going on.

Budget Science is not low cost science. It’s certainly not amateur science driven solely by the noble search for truth. Budget Science is state-funded science which jacks up next year’s funding.

The great soya sauce scare was a fine example. The Ministry of Health (MoH), with the enthusiastic support of our tabloid media, panicked the nation into believing that Soya Sauce would strike us down with cancer. The health police swooped on supermarkets and hauled away the stuff of healthy stir-fries, while leaving cigarettes safely on the shelves above the check-out.

How did this happen?

The story begins when some lab somewhere carried out the notoriously unreliable rodent test on a group of chemicals known as chloropropanols. Sure enough these chemically-overloaded lab rats got cancer. We should remember that just about all foods – organic, GM or whatever – contain scores of chemicals which have failed the rodent test. There are at least 12 of them in your morning cup of coffee.

Anyhow, one of these chloropropanols, known as 3-MCPD, occurs in foods which have used acid hydrolysis, roasting, and similar processes to enhance their flavour.

A laboratory in England soon announced a test to detect 3-MCPDs down to one part in a million or lower. The European Food Safety Agency then decided that this detectable level should establish the safe level.

You can be sure that “safe” levels set by “detectable levels” are unsupported by any epidemiological evidence whatever. But such standards sell a lot of tests and keep lots of lab-workers busy.

And so the EU bureaucrats set the labs to work testing soya sauce, which was suitably foreign and known to contain 3-MCPDS. Lo and behold, several brands failed the test.

The news spread rapidly round the world. Scaring the hell out of people is a shortcut to fame for both young scientists and even younger media hacks.

However, not everyone knee-jerked into action. The Canadian Cancer Society reached the following measured conclusions:

  • 3-MCPD is a member of the chloropropanol group of chemicals and is a possible carcinogen in humans.
  • Health Canada has reviewed the situation and has found there is no health risk to Canadians from existing stocks of soy and oyster sauces.
  • Continuous lifetime exposure to high levels of 3-MCPD could pose a health risk to Canadians, but future imported stocks will be below the legal tolerance limit of 1.0 ppm. The Canadian authorities saw no point in raiding their supermarkets.

So why did we wage war on soya sauce? After all, the European Food Agency found quantifiable levels of 3-MCPD in breads, savoury crackers, toasted biscuits, toasted cereals, cheeses, doughnuts, burgers and salamis.

The survey also found 3-MCPD in a long list of food ingredients, including bread-crumbs, meat extracts, modified starches (used in glazes, yoghurt, soups and ready-made meals), malt and malt-based ingredients (used in confectionery, cereal products, sauces, bakery products, snack seasonings, beers and malted drinks).

Funny that. I don’t remember our health police clearing the shelves of cheddar, Weet-Bix, yoghurt and beer.

Surely the cancer risk will be determined by the total volume of foods containing 3-MCPD we ingest regularly over long periods – not the level within a single sauce used occasionally at best.

So what was going on here? Why did our ever-so-caring Ministry of Health decide to scare the hell out of us, when their peers in other countries found more useful things to do? How much extra risk did soya sauce pose to our biscuit, cereal, cheese and cracker-chomping pop-ulation?

The answer is simple – Budget Science ruled.

While the Europeans were demonising soya sauce, our own MoH was being criticised for failing to develop a rational, risk-based, food safety policy. The Cabinet was debating whether to shift responsibility for the Food Act from the MoH to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Maf) under a new Food Assurance Authority. MoH officials saw millions of dollars disappearing into the maws of Maf. So they raided the supermarkets to show their determination to protect us from Asian imports.

It didn’t work – the funds were transferred to Maf anyway.

But what about our health? There is no epidemiological evidence connecting soya sauce to cancer rates. Indeed Asians have low rates of digestive tract cancer.

We do know that New Zealand’s high rate of bowel and stomach cancer is caused by our low intake of dietary fibre. We eat too much meat and too few vegetables.

Those New Zealanders who found no soya sauce on the shelves were probably going to make a stir-fry for dinner. Stir fries are low in meat and high in fibre. Budget Science probably persuaded lots of them that sausages and chips are safer.

A few more New Zealanders may die of cancer.

Budget Science is like that.

Good Work All Round

With winter almost upon us, the time has come to curl up in front of a nice screen and browse the internet. Speaking of which, congratulations are in order to our chair-entity Vicki Hyde and media spokesman Denis Dutton for having their websites nominated in the sixth annual Webby Awards.

These are coming to be regarded as the web equivalents of the Oscars; Vicki’s Sci-TechDaily Review is up for an award in the science category against such luminaries as NASA, while Denis’ Arts & Letters Daily is taking on the BBC and other heavyweights in the news category. The public is entitled to vote for these (at www.webbyawards.com/peoplesvoice/), so if you’re reading this before the closing date of June 7, you know what to do.

It’s been a busy time for us skeptics overall. The Auckland members, led by Felicity Goodyear-Smith, have combined with the Rationalists to hold two meetings, on GM foods and immunisation. These have been well attended, and have done a lot to raise the level of debate on these issues; hopefully more will follow.

And there’s been the old possum peppering story, which the Greens were promoting as an environmentally benign means of pest control, despite a well-designed trial of this technique some years back showing it has no effect whatsoever. The society’s press release in response to the matter got a fair bit of coverage.

There’s plenty of variety this issue. We have a nice introduction to the philosophy of science in the lead article, some reflections of a former psychic researcher, and we re-examine last year’s soy sauce scare.

And John Riddell’s column, in which he confesses to being taken in by a scam, is a beaut. It all came about because of his weakness for fishing, he says…

Speaking about being active, the annual get-together is being planned once again and it’s time to consider a trip to sunny Christchurch to take part in the Skeptics Conference 2002. More details are to be found tucked up on page 8, but circle it in your diary now and book your tickets.

Annette's signature

Forum

Children & Quackery

It is hard to be sure what Mike Houlding is on about in his rather opaque letter but I gather that he is lumping the use of clairvoyants, homoeopathic remedies and ADHD under some collective rubric of quackery.

He seems to be some kind of medical practitioner in which case he should have received or known about the Ministry of Health’s publication on ADHD – its diagnosis and treatment published in August last year (available on the web under MOH publications). This publication, which is an evidential distillate of knowledge in the area shows first of all, that ADHD is a bona fide medical taxon that requires the same kind of professional diagnosis as does any other disorder in medicine and second, that its treatment with methylphenidate (which he calls Ritalin despite the fact that Pharmac no longer pays for that brand name) has more support in terms of efficacy and safety than many other treatments in medicine. The publication also sets out the standards by which this treatment is to be used and its effect monitored.

I take strong exception to his comment lumping the diagnosis and stimulant treatment of ADHD as “institutionalized child abuse”. This does little credit to the 40 years systematic research in the disorder and the care with which most medical specialists in paediatrics and child psychiatry in NZ take with children so affected.

If Houlding is a medical professional, then he needs to take some time properly to inform himself about this topic than shooting from the hip without the benefit of any intervening cognition.

JS Werry, Emeritus Professor, Child and Youth Psychiatrist

Global Warming

Pious thoughts from wise fools, by P J O’Rourke

Mom says, “Global warming or no global warming, it’s still winter. Wear a hat.”

Robin Capper

Two Views of the World Trade Centre Attack

  1. From Editorial in ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ Jan/Feb, 2002.
    Brian Farha, a professor of education at Oklahoma City University and member of CSICOP’s astrology sub-committee, wrote to me to propose we run a Forum column with this introduction: “Following are detailed summaries of documented psychic predictions-to this author’s knowledge-regarding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on America.” That would be followed by a blank page.

  2. From the newsletter of the American Society for Psychical Research, December, 2001.
    Through our website, we have initiated a survey of pre-cognitive experiences specifically related to the terrorist attack.

Submitted without comment by Bernard Howard.

Not quite hot off the press

Three or four years ago Ralph Marinelli, a researcher at the Rudolf Steiner Research Institute in Michigan, made a great discovery. The heart is not a pump. Blood is self-propulsive, energised by the primary force of cosmic levity it is self-levitating. Scientists have been confused by mis-understanding the concept of centrifugal force. The research institute is very concerned that this major development in physiology has been almost totally ignored. If anybody can channel William Harvey [1578-1657] it would be very interesting to get his comments.
Jim Ring

Alternatives to Evidence Based Medicine

Alternatives to Evidence Based Medicine

I will detail these seven alternatives in forth-coming issues of the magazine. For now here is Eminence based medicine: The more senior the colleague, the less importance he or she places on the need for anything as mundane as evidence. Experience, it seems, is worth any amount of evidence. These colleagues have a touching faith in clinical experience, which has been defined as “making the same mistakes with increasing confidence over an impressive number of years.” New Zealand Medical Journal Vol 113 No 1122 p479

Homeopathy Flunks

It’s most unusual to see published trials showing that homeopathy is ineffective. The common term for this is “publication bias” where trials tend to be published only when they show something positive. One of the authors is GT Lewith, a long time apologist for homeopathy and that makes it even more remarkable. Should we give them one of our awards?

A double blind, randomised trial evaluated the efficacy of homeopathic immunotherapy on lung function. The conclusion: homeopathic immunotherapy is not effective in the treatment of patients with asthma. BMJ 2002;324:520-3

An accompanying editorial comments: “we believe that new trials of homeopathic medicines against placebo are no longer a research priority.”

All responsible health professionals must ensure that homeopathy is never funded by the health system. It would be grossly irresponsible to waste public money on “dilutions of grandeur”.

Ministerial Advisory Committee on Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (MACCAH)

Have a look at their Website: www.newhealth.govt.nz/MACCAH/. I have been visiting from time to time in keen anticipation of the result of their deliberations and to see what quackery will be introduced into our failing health system. The committee comprises a sociologist (chairperson), iridologist, doctor of medicine, naturopath, acupuncturist, paediatric nurse (and massage therapist), and teacher. The iridologist is David Holden who organised the International Iridology and Sclerology Conference that I mentioned in an earlier column.

Certain members of the committee have asterisks alongside their names as a reflection of a possible conflict of interest. Readers will recall that our organisation was unsuccessful in getting any skeptics on this committee. Would such a putative member have warranted an especially large asterisk?

There is a similar committee in the USA. It has become a scandal that the National Institute of Health (NIH) has distributed (wasted?) hundreds of millions of dollars on testing what Americans refer to as CAM, or complimentary and alternative medicine. They spent $1 million testing “magnet therapy”. The majority of the studies have been inconclusive and have led to the need for more tests. This has tended to give such quackery a spurious degree of acceptability. As critics point out, how many studies have been published showing that CAM doesn’t work? Read a very good critique of this area at www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0204.mooney.html

It is quite clear, given the US experience, that the MACCAH will produce nothing of any value and furthermore I predict that they will never publish a single article stating that any CAM modality is useless. I sincerely hope to be proved wrong.

Laying on of Hands

Every doctor of medicine knows the importance of properly examining patients even when they do not expect to find anything wrong. The act of touching people in a therapeutic context carries a very powerful placebo effect. This is a legitimate part of the "art" of medicine and when coupled with good communication leads to a good outcome. This effect is sometimes referred to as the “laying on of hands”, itself derived from the concept of mediated divine healing. For example, the King’s touch was supposed to cure scrofula, a cutaneous form of tuberculosis.

The extreme version of this is the absurd delusion of therapeutic touch where the patient is not actually touched but their energy fields are "corrected". Don’t laugh; this is part of mainstream nursing at Wellington Hospital!

The laying on of hands effect explains the apparent success of many physical treatment modalities such as osteopathy and chiropractic. They all do exceptionally well out of ACC-provided funding and it is no wonder that a recent provider survey found a high level of satisfaction from chiropractors (79%) and physiotherapists (76%). I once asked an ACC Colleague why they funded quackery such as osteopathy and chiropractic and his reply was that ACC didn’t care about anything except getting people back to work. Applying that logic I could set up a military consultancy (Boot Camp Rehabilitation Inc) and get people back to work by threatening them with military-style discipline.

Here is an extract from an advertisement from my local paper: "cranial osteopathy for babies and children to help with poor sleeping patterns, restlessness, crying and poor concentration". This quackery involves allegedly manipulating the bones of the skull to regulate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. It is complete and utter nonsense that relies for its effect on the touching, a plausible patter and a gullible consumer.

ACC News October 2001 Issue 39

Bye, Bye, Bivalve

Trials of green-lipped mussel extract have been stopped after it was found that “the extract didn’t work.” (Marlborough Express March 11, 2002). Green-lipped mussel extract was marketed in NZ as Lyprinol and more than $1 million of the product was sold after it was claimed that it was a cure for cancer. Successful prosecutions were taken against those responsible for the scam.

The media frenzy showed that journalists had learned nothing from the Milan Brych affair.

I feed our cat (Gilgamesh) on green-lipped mussels, and as well as a lustrous coat he has shown no sign of developing cancer. I rest my case. In order to satisfy the most sceptical of journalists I enclose this picture as proof as he and Claire read the Lyprinol story.

Healthy Options

This is the title of a magazine that contains some of the most nonsensical rubbish I have ever seen. The editor is the woman responsible for promoting the Hoxsey quackery in Tauranga, which led to dozens of desperate cancer suffers taking one-way trips to Mexico to receive treatment. Tauranga travel agents made a killing in every sense of the word. This magazine should be read by all Skeptics in order to get a taste of what could be inflicted on the health system by the MACCAH. One ray of hope however – they mentioned www.quackwatch.com and stated that “this leads the public to believe that natural medicines are a fraud.” Well-enough said!

Possum Peppering

Is this delusion never going to go away? How many trials does it take to show that burnt possum testicles do not deter possums from eating vegetation sprinkled with said preparation? The Green party are already a bit of a joke and this latest nonsense makes me wonder whether they have all been partaking of ganja while worshipping with Nachos Tandoori. However, there is more to this than meets the eye, or testicle. I tried sprinkling some of a late relative’s ashes around our garden and I haven’t seen the mother-in-law for months. I rest my case. It must also be horribly lonely for all of those people living downwind of a crematorium – they never get any visitors at all!

Dummy pills just the trick

Dummy pills just the trick

The best paper in New Zealand (Waikato Times, May 6 – and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that I work there) reports that depressed patients tricked into thinking they are being treated have undergone healing brain changes.

The discovery is “conclusive proof of the power of the ‘placebo effect’ – the mind-over-body influence of believing that a drug will work.”

Scientists at the University of Texas, San Antonio say patients given a dummy pill experienced brain changes remarkably like those attained by taking Prozac.

World’s biggest ghost hunt

Hertfordshire’s Dr Richard Wiseman involved 250 volunteers and an array of hi-tech equipment in what became the world’s biggest ghost hunt, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Evening Post (March 3) says despite a number of creepy tales from volunteers, no definite proof of the supernatural was found during the experiment conducted in Edinburgh early last year. Wiseman said it was truly fascinating but “…none of the stories convinced me ghosts exist … I used to be a magician and I saw how easily people could be tricked.”

The tour guide who worked in the underground vaults of the 18th Century chamber, was in no doubt of the presence of ghosts, the paper said. These included a little boy, a dog and “the spectre of a nasty man who whispers obscenities in people’s ears.

“He has foul, stinky breath and he’s really horrible … The vaults … have been closed for 180 years so I think all that paranormal energy has been bottled up and is only just now being released.”

Maybe the tour guide needs Scooby Doo to deal with the wee doggie.

Measles epidemic hits anti-vaccine town

A measles epidemic involving 700 children that ravaged a small German town is being blamed on two homeopathic doctors who denounced the MMR vaccine, says the Dominion on March 7.

Debate on the merits of the vaccine is reaching fever pitch and 30 children had been admitted to hospital where there were fears there could be deaths.

On one side are “alternative health enthusiasts” who dominate Coburg, an affluent Bavarian town. Two of the town’s seven child health doctors fiercely oppose MMR. And then there are the public health experts, who “accuse a ‘nest’ of militant anti-MMR activists … of putting children’s lives in danger.”

Germany, the paper reports, is becoming famous as a world leader in “exporting measles”, according to leading specialists.

Dr Helmut Weiss, head of the state health office in Colburg, said the stronghold of the epidemic was the Waldorf School.

He’s at it again

And the Evening Post (April 13) informs us that psychic Uri Geller is to look for the site of the battle featured in the movie Braveheart.

The “paranormal expert” has been called in by historian John Walker, to try to pinpoint the exact location of the Battle of Falkirk which was fought between King Edward I of England and William Wallace, in 1298. The location has been lost, and no bodies or artefacts ever found.

Mr Walker stumbled on to Uri Geller while on the internet one evening, and read how he’d helped discover the location of a wrecked submarine. Since, he said, conventional methods to discover the graves of the combatants had failed, “… we need to try the unconventional.”

And Mr Geller said the battle was mysterious. “…the fact that very little was found could mean they have not been looking in the right place for the site.”

As they say, watch this space. And, by the way, William Wallace was not a homespun-wearing, oatmeal-eating fighting man of the glens as depicted in that movie, but grew up in a genteel manor house where he probably had very good table manners. So there.