Skeptic News: Tin Foil Treatments

NZ Skeptics Newsletter

In this week's newsletter I spend far too much time debunking a baseless vaccine injury claim about Celine Dion, convince my wife to use tin foil to treat what ails her, and talk about a tragic, and avoidable, death in New Zealand from COVID. And, after all of that, committee member Bronwyn has returned with another great article, this time looking with a critical eye at some claims that have been made about the damage fireworks can cause.

Mark Honeychurch
 

Is Celine Dion suffering from vaccine injury?


I was talking to a friend last weekend who works as a tradesman. He asked me, as a skeptic, what I thought of the coronavirus vaccine - did I think it was dangerous? And was COVID real? He’s pretty sure the scientists aren’t lying to him, but he’s talked with a lot of colleagues who aren’t so sure. Most of my friends are fairly skeptical, and a lot of the time I breathe the rarefied air of skepticism, so it was interesting to hear a perspective that I don’t really come in contact with in my daily life - a friend who’s intelligent, but has heard enough misinformation from the anti-vaccine crowd that he’s becoming a little unsure.

After our conversation, the next morning, he forwarded me a copy of a screenshot he’d been sent - a news story saying that Celine Dion has had to postpone a tour because she has been suffering from muscle spasms - and that the COVID vaccine is the reason for her horrible symptoms.
 


He asked me if I could find anything to prove this statement wrong, so of course I immediately started googling.

The first thing I found was several articles about Celine Dion cancelling a residency in Las Vegas because of health issues - specifically muscle spasms. None of the articles talked about the cause of her problems, but it turns out that at least half of this story is true. So, what about the other half? Was the vaccine the cause? I found a few fact checking sites which debunked this specific rumour, dating back to October, but the articles didn’t have any proof that this wasn’t a case of vaccine injury.

But does it matter that I couldn’t find any kind of statement from Celine Dion refuting the claim that she’s been damaged by the vaccine? No, it doesn’t.

There’s an important skeptical mantra to remember here, about the onus of proof. If someone’s making a claim without any evidence, it’s not up to you to prove them wrong - the onus of proof is on them, as the person making the claim; they need to provide evidence to back up what they’re saying. This has been described eloquently by the late Christopher Hitchens, and is known as Hitchens’ Razor:

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”

Having said that we don’t need to prove the rumour false, we can still look at its plausibility:

Firstly, the fact that no reputable news source has reported this is telling. Instead, this vaccine injury claim has been solely spreading through social media.

The message my friend received came from an anonymous Twitter account called “Christ is our King”. Looking at the account, it was only created in April this year, and is supposedly run by a “Traditional Catholic, Husband & Father” in Phoenix, Arizona - although a lot of the content posted by the account is about Australia. The account shares other unverified stories of vaccine injury, as well as a lot of conspiracy ideas (like that COVID is engineered by China to kill Christians), and frequently compares people to Nazis.

Out of interest, here is a word cloud of common words used by the account:
 



And here’s their Twitter posting by hour - and, interestingly, this matches the Phoenix time zone well (7am to midnight). I was expecting to see a timeline that more closely matched somewhere in Australia:
 



Next, as Celine Dion is in her 50s and currently lives in Nevada, she is likely to have been vaccinated early on in the year. Vaccine injuries usually happen immediately after the injection - not months later. 

The symptoms also don’t fit what we’d expect from vaccine injury - injuries are usually expected to be an allergic reaction, which the CDC says would likely include “rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat, or a generalized rash or hives”.

Finally, Celine Dion’s sister talked with ABC news about the issue. She talks about the cause of the muscle spasms being a sloping stage, and doesn’t mention the COVID vaccine at all.

So, although I can’t prove that this is not a case of vaccine injury, it’s certainly looking like a pretty implausible claim. Plus I can rest easy knowing that it’s not up to me to prove the rumour wrong, it’s up to those who created the rumour to prove that it’s true.

Tin Foil Treatments

I was sent a funny article the other day about the benefits of aluminium foil on a website called Tips and Tricks. The website appears to be a prolific source of clickbait - articles with catchy titles that are designed to suck you in and get you to click the link to read more. This is because the company wants to take you away from social media sites and onto their website, to show you adverts and make money from them.

The article had some health tips that involved using tin foil to help with colds, joint pain and fatigue. Now, sadly, I wasn’t suffering from any of these ailments last night, but my wife walked the Tongariro Crossing last weekend and since then she’s had a sore knee and has been feeling tired. So I managed to convince her to help me out, and test these medical life hacks.

For her fatigue, the site says to:

“put a few sheets of aluminum foil in the freezer for two to four hours. Then put the sheets on your face... We haven’t tried this ourselves yet, but we hear from many people that it really works! So, definitely worth trying.”

So, I folded a large piece of foil a few times and placed it in the freezer yesterday in preparation.

For the knee pain, the site said:

“Wrapping your joints in a sheet of aluminum foil can also help against pain. You can use a bandage to keep the foil in its place properly. Wrap the foil around the painful joint before you go to bed and keep it in place during the night.”

The third tip was about wrapping your feet in foil if you have a cold, but sadly my wife doesn’t have a cold. I am, however, committed to trying this myself the next time I have the sniffles. Apparently it can take a couple of days for the treatment to make a “difference”, which is not really saying much - especially as our bodies usually only take a few days to fight off a cold.

When my (long-suffering) wife went to bed, she wrapped her knee in foil and placed the cold foil on her head. I continued browsing the Tips and Tricks website, and found an article about how to help with Restless Leg Syndrome. Wouldn’t you know it, my wife also suffers from RLS! So, following the site’s advice, I very quietly snuck into the bathroom, unwrapped a bar of soap, tiptoed into the bedroom and slipped it quietly under her side of the mattress.

In the morning, my wife said that her knee was not really much different - apparently it’s hard to sleep with foil wrapped around your knee, so she removed it at some point. But she did have a horrible headache - so the foil on the head had backfired.

As for the restless leg - from what I could tell, and from what she could remember, she didn’t have any issues at all last night. Success! ... however, when I double-checked the instructions, I noticed that it said to put a bar of lavender soap between the sheets at the foot of the bed. I’d put a bar of aloe vera soap under the mattress in the middle of the bed. So maybe I’ve found a new cure? Or maybe my wife’s RLS is worse some days than others, and a single night’s secret test is not a good way to test claims!

I found a lot of other silly health “advice” on the website, such as:

If you pee in the shower often, you’ll immediately feel as if you need to pee every time you hear running water… On top of that, peeing in the shower on a daily basis can lead to nerve damage. There’s a chance that this will result in a lowered continence.”

Pickle juice is cheaper and healthier than a sugary drink, and can help with weight loss, hangovers and muscle spasms.

When you poop, it should be as long as your forearm and you should only ever need to wipe once.

In fact, if you follow the positive advice on this site, your diet will consist of the daily consumption of pickles, pears, garlic, bananas, beer, coffee, kiwi fruit, lemon, ginger and vinegar.

Although those examples are pretty silly, some of the other health pages are concerning - such as one which “helps” people to self-diagnose stomach cancer via symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, low appetite and nausea. And another for lymph node cancer, with symptoms including itching, fever and fatigue. And there are many, many other pages listing these kinds of symptoms for ovarian cancer, endometriosis, menopause, Parkinsons, COVID, appendicitis, pregnancy and more. These pages all list such generic symptoms that the articles are likely to cause unwarranted worry for some people. I think doctors are overloaded enough at the moment without having to deal with people self-diagnosing from using Dr Google.
 

The sad death of Rex Warwood

Rex Warwood sadly died late last week. He was a long time reporter, and later editor, for the Franklin County News, and was apparently well liked. However in recent years he appears to have succumbed to conspiratorial thinking, and he became a vocal critic of vaccination against COVID, saying things online such as:

"Vaccinations have got nothing to do with health. They have been part of a global plan to depopulate the planet, only that won’t become evident for a little while. "

"Consider ivermectin if you think you have the dreaded lurgey (bad flu)."

"Covid is a non-event but the combined governments of the world contrived to make it an industry (event 201, 2019) that will destroy lives and give control to the few in power. God help the vaccinated!! "

"Vaccines are a bio weapon and it will be left to “the few” - the un-vaccinated - to save it from extinction"


Rex even appears to have fallen for a Jacinda Ardern cryptocurrency scam I wrote about a couple of weeks ago - a Facebook advert sharing a video which talks about Jacinda investing $25 million in a cryptocurrency that everyone should invest in. When I say that he fell for the scheme, Rex didn’t invest in it - but he did believe it was real, and thought that Jacinda must be corrupt for having earned $25 million during her time as Prime Minister that she could afford to invest in a cryptocurrency scheme. He said:

“This person has been reported as being worth $25 million after being in a job for three years that pays around $450,000 per year… What a coincidence she is now going on advertisements promoting a new “secret” method of earning fabulous money… Time to open the books on all of these politicians who are spending billions on COVID”

It was quite surprising to hear that Rex had died in Auckland’s North Shore hospital from COVID - a tragic irony that is being repeated all too often around the world at the moment. In fact, there are a couple of sites that document deaths of anti-vaxxers from COVID.

One is the Herman Cain Award sub-reddit - a part of the reddit website where people post stories of those who have died of COVID after calling the virus a hoax or similar. The board is named after an American politician, and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, who was famously skeptical about the use of face masks and caught COVID after attending a Trump rally:

The site describes the Herman Cain award nominees:

“Nominees have made public declaration of their anti-mask, anti-vax, or Covid-hoax views, followed by admission to hospital for Covid. The Award is granted upon the nominee's release from their Earthly shackles.”

The other site is called Sorry Anti-Vaxxer, and it serves a similar purpose. There’s a disclaimer on its front page which says:

“The purpose of this site is educational, except for a few exceptions, everyone listed on this site was/is an anti-vaxxer activist who helped spread COVID-19 misinformation on social media. Share to stop others from making the same mistake. GET VACCINATED!”

However, despite these lofty aims, I’ve found the tone of both of these websites to be concerning. There’s almost a glee to some of the stories of people dying of COVID. I’m not sure if it would even be possible to make an educational site about COVID deniers dying of the disease that was not offensive, but these two sites have most definitely not managed that.

It’s likely we’ll see more COVID deaths in this country, and the stats we already have show that these deaths will disproportionately be among those who are unvaccinated. I hope we can all be kind, and not gloat about this slowly unfolding, and largely avoidable, tragedy.
 



 

Real and imagined issues with fireworks

 

Bronwyn Rideout

 

The 96-hour fireworks industry is both a source of joy and dread for New Zealanders nationwide. Fireworks can only be sold privately in this country between November 2nd and November 5th, and while this period is an ideal lead-in to Guy Fawkes Night, those of us living near pyrotechnic enthusiasts know all too well that amateur backyard displays will be a feature of our lives until late into the summer.

 

However, the sounds and sights of fireworks throughout the late-spring and early-summer may be a thing of the past. First, opinions about Guy Fawkes Night are changing. In New Zealand, town and city councils are directing their focus (and funds) towards Matariki (which is held in July), while celebrations in the United Kingdom are declining in many localities due to the rising popularity of Halloween, and controversies that surround questionable effigy choices (such as this story about an effigy made of the Grenfell Towers).

 

Secondly, the ongoing pandemic has had a contradictory impact on supply and availability of fireworks worldwide. Two years of lockdowns and missed celebrations are the perfect tinder for those who want to blow-off steam and blow-up things. While this increase in demand should signify a hefty pay-day, reduced transport capability and capacity has pushed shipping prices to a premium, with one purveyor of fine pyrotechnics stating that his shipping costs alone have increased by $20,000 - before increases in product costs are included; Stuff shared Bad Boy Fireworks owner James York’s claim that several small seller had approached him to buy-out their supplies. For communities that were keen to push forward with their own displays, attendance was limited by alert levels, while attempts to get fireworks out of Auckland were hampered.

 

Compounding this supply and demand issue is a third element: opinions about fireworks are simply changing. The Countdown supermarket chain stopped selling fireworks in 2019 while The Warehouses stopped in 2021, both as a result of consumer surveys. Customers of The Warehouse preferred public displays, while more than 25% were claimed to have stated that they did not participate in fireworks at all. Participants of the Countdown survey found that 66% of customers rarely or never bought fireworks. Even though they still enjoyed special occasions like Diwali, Chinese New year, Matariki, and Guy Fawkes, the inclusion of fireworks was not seen as necessary (the number of respondents in either survey has not been shared).

 

Chief rationale in both surveys were concerns for animal welfare, environmental impact, and neighbourhood disruption. Even if you are not on social media, talk around the water cooler or between Zoom meetings might be punctuated with tales of missing pets and broken sleep in the days after Guy Fawkes.  If you are on social media you may have seen memes/(dis)infographics like the following:

 

r/TriCitiesWA - reminder: it is NOT the 4th of July along with:

 

The claims made on this particular image appear reasonable, as it confirms some behaviours that one may have observed personally, especially with regards to domestic pets. However, it still trends to the alarmist, as some of the claims here either misrepresent the complexity of human and animal behaviour or are not evidence-based.

 

Bees:  There is no evidence to back up this specific claim, while anecdotes from beekeepers claim that bees are not bothered by fireworks. In fact, your porch light is more dangerous than fireworks, as bees are phototactic and will fly around artificial lights all night until they die. Such behaviours have been used by environment groups in Australia to protest against mining development near established apiaries. Predators or infestations by ants or mites are the most common causes of bee abscondment. Strong smells, frequent disruption of hives by beekeepers, and poor environmental conditions such as humidity, also contribute to population depletion.

 

Birds: This claim is true, but oversimplifies the issue. The mass death of 4,000 to 5,000 black birds in Arkansas on New Year’s in 2011, and hundreds of starlings, also on New Year’s, in Rome in 2021, were due to fireworks and firecrackers being set off illegally in areas where large populations of birds were roosting for the evening. Aside from egregious human error, the timing and location of these incidents were significant contributors, as birds roost together in larger numbers in the northern hemisphere winter than they do in the summer. Furthermore, professional fireworks are detonated in areas that are intended to cause the least disturbance to wildlife, whereas in the case of Rome, firecrackers were set off in the immediate vicinity of birds roosting in the trees that lined an urban neighbourhood.

 

Thunderstorms are not a comparable event, as birds have higher sensitivity to the changes in humidity, temperature, aid pressure, and sound that precede bad weather, and are able to behave accordingly.

 

Nest abandonment/abandonment of young: A 2008 study conducted in the town of Gualala, California demonstrated that seabirds did abandon their nests when fireworks were set off near the nesting sites. However, evidence that this applies to wild animals is sparse, although the claims are repeated on animal shelter and animal rights websites. Researchers attribute this to the difficulty of monitoring animal behaviour at night, when fireworks are normally displayed.

 

Pollution: Pollution is a legitimate concern and problem surrounding fireworks. Modern day fireworks are constructed from non-biodegradable plastic, and debris has been found in the digestive systems of various animals. Smoke also adds to air pollution.

 

PTSD:  A Saskatoon city councillor Pat Lorje came under fire in 2016 for making the following tweet:

 

”I hope someone warned the Syrian refugees that the booms, bangs & other noise wasn’t from weapons,”

 

Following up with:

 

“Amazed that so many people do not know of connection between PTSD of war victims & soldiers, and fireworks which often triggers anxiety”

 

While the councillor came under fire for her generalisations of refugees, they weren’t completely incorrect. They may, however, have been a little behind the ball so to speak, as a local group that supports refugees and immigrants actively informs its members of upcoming fireworks shows, an action which has been effective for refugee groups overseas. Shawn Gourley, who co-founded the group “Military with PTSD”, has been quoted multiple times saying that it isn’t planned fireworks that are triggering, but rather unexpected fireworks and explosions that are the real problem.

 

However, this wouldn’t be a skeptical article without considering if there is a scam or questionable practice behind the scenes.

 

And is there ever!

 

This meme is courtesy of “The Forever Dog”, a book and website which champions pseudoscience and keto diets as a means to elongate the life of your best four-legged friend. A full take down of this book and its writers, Dr. Karen Becker (Integrative Pet care expert at Mercola.com) and Rodney Habib ( a ‘social media influencer’), was written on the anonymous blog Skeptvet. Skeptvet’s entire blog is worth the read if you are interested in how alternative medicine is pervasive in veterinary science.

 

The meme above does have a couple of valid points, but the rest are easily resolved when we can finally forgo the homespun fireworks in favour of displays that are considerately timed, organised, and curated to benefit the local wildlife and vulnerable members of the community.
 

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