Hokum Locum

Quack Aids Remedies

The Prevalence of HIV disease has continued to increase across the African continent and is a major public health concern due to cultural attitudes to sexuality and a degree of poverty which precludes effective pharmacological interventions. A quack Nigerian surgeon has been charging patients US$1000-1500 for a course of his vaccine which he claims has successfully treated 900 patients for HIV/AIDS. The Nigerian Academy of Sciences deemed the vaccine “untested and potentially dangerous”. The Surgeon’s response has been to allege that “he has been the victim of a conspiracy by transnational pharmaceutical companies, in league with the Nigerian Health Ministry, to steal his ‘wonder vaccine’….” This is the familiar paranoid conspiracy theories of the quack.

HIV/AIDS disease has continued to attract the same sort of quack attention as has terminal cancer, which is not surprising given that both progress to a fatal conclusion. Desperate people are given false hope as well as being robbed of their remaining wealth, which is siphoned away into the pockets of charlatans instead of passing to the descendants of the unfortunate victims. Using the late Petr Skrabanek’s rules (demarcation of the absurd) I would not even bother to test this AIDS “vaccine” and predict with complete confidence that should someone conduct a test the preparation will be found to be worthless.
Lancet Vol 356 August 5 2000 p 493

Acupuncture wins BMA approval

Like homeopathy practitioners, acupuncturists are irrepressible and in a neat example of Bellman’s fallacy (repetition leads to recognition) have prevailed long enough that they now have the imprimatur of none less than the British Medical Association. The full report is available at the BMA website (www.bma.org.uk) but seems to have been largely motivated by the fact that acupuncture is both widely requested and safe. I wonder if the BMA visited www.quackwatch.com or any of the other skeptical websites.

The study claimed that greater use of acupuncture could save the National Health Service “millions of pounds each year”. There was a call for minimum standards of training. As you will recall from Conference 1998, I modestly set the training standard by showing that a one hour training session was adequate for any lay audience. It may be necessary to gild the lily somewhat by devoting more time and training for a credulous medical audience. (BMJ Vol 321 1 July 2000 p11)

Perhaps this would be the time to share with you my memories of my acupuncture training course, during which the trainer demonstrated a popular alternative medical technique known as kinesthesiology. A patient with an allergy to tomatoes was shown to have reduced muscle strength when exposed to the alleged allergen. The test was an attempt by the examiner to separate the patient’s apposed index finger and thumb. The next step was to have the patient hold a packet containing a vial of depomedrol, a steroid. This was meant to show that the reduced muscle strength would be countered by the contact with this potent steroid. Unfortunately one of the other observers had mischievously removed the steroid vial from the packet and once the “patient improvement” had been triumphantly demonstrated he revealed his subterfuge. The trainer was unfazed and quick as a flash claimed that the improvement was maintained owing to “homeopathic residues on the packet”. It was at this point, as I gazed at the bovine and credulous faces of my fellow course members, that I became a confirmed skeptic.

Canadian Idyll

While recently in Canada for a military conference I suffered a recurring nightmare that I would arrive home to find a peremptory missive from our editor demanding a contribution for the next issue. (I did.) I was therefore relieved to find a supplement in the Vancouver Sun of Nov 16th 2000 outlining a “health show” and decided this must be worth a few column inches. I will summarise a few key points. Naturopathy/Naturopathic medicine diverges from allopathic medicine (translation: ordinary “scientific” medicine as practised by JC Welch) only “at that point where professionals in common possession of scientific facts conscientiously disagree on how best to use their shared knowledge in treating patients”. Before scoffing, I caution readers to be aware that “there is a common assumption that naturopathic treatments are placebos”.

Not surprisingly, there is a wealth of research carried out at Naturopathic Colleges showing that naturopathic remedies are very effective. You can choose from “Khamut”, a wheat grown from grain recovered from Tutankhamen’s tomb, Light therapy which uses biostimulation to promote efficient cell function, and “Trilovin” – the natural sex formula of the Ancient Greeks.

As a keen scientist I decided to administer some of this product to my wife and I am amazed to report that she has increased pain tolerance, enhancement of the immune system, improved mood and a sense of well being, reduced cholesterol and blood pressure and can now play tennis and ride a bike, but for some reason I’m tired and seem to have a constant headache.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

When I was at school 30 years ago I recall widespread concern that global cooling was going to lead to a new ice age. Now it’s global warming! I do not however, recall my fellow students exhibiting the behaviour alleged by those suffering from ADHD. I have long been suspicious that this is a fad disorder created by doctors in order to explain the exuberant but normal behaviour of some children. I will therefore conclude by quoting in full from the Guardian Weekly Vol 163/20 “Notes and Queries” column.

At school in the 40s I cannot remember pupils being hyperactive, disruptive or showing symptoms similar to ADHD. Is its growth due to a lack of discipline, or to pollution, radiation, junk food, etc.? There are always fashions in mental illnesses. In Freud’s day conversion hysteria was popular. Now it is rarely found. In Sydney, where I was working as an educational psychologist, any child with a behavioural or learning disability was likely to be labeled as autistic. Since then this diagnosis has come to be used much more discriminatingly.

Nowadays the psychiatric profession, supported by the drug companies, readily creates fashions in diagnosis. The committee that decides on the contents of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association needs only to ascertain that a group of psychiatrists agrees that a mental disorder exists to include this disorder in the manual. Another committee could reliably agree that the moon is made of green cheese. There have always been children who do not behave in the ways in which adults around them want. A few of these children have actual brain dysfunction. Many more, living under conditions that they find stressful, are constantly distracted by anxiety, and so are hyperactive and disruptive. Other children have parents and teachers who cannot tolerate the exuberant behaviour of ordinary children. The popularity of the recently created mental disorder ADHD means that many children are diagnosed as ADHD and prescribed Ritalin or other similarly potentially addictive drugs. These drugs’ long-term effects on a developing brain are yet to be discovered.


Taking a leaf from the UK Skeptic, we’re turning our news clippings into a column. Which means I get to read them – never used to before! Many thanks to all those who’ve sent in material, and please keep it coming.

Luck of the Dragon

Visiting Malaysian woman Lillian Too got herself and her range of Feng Shui jewellery in The Evening Post on Wednesday 30 and in the Dominion the next day. In a half page spread she chats about how Feng Shui is much, much more than making sure the loo is not by the front entrance and the bed not in a coffin position. It’s also about having your mind in balance. Readers will be pleased to learn that Stephen Hawking is a dragon and tiger brain genius who practises inner Feng Shui. Everyone can be a winner, particularly if they buy one of Too’s dragon headed, tortoise-bodied rings to wear. For instant wealth one should buy an Arowana fish symbol. (It doesn’t say whose wealth we’re talking about here – a three-legged toad costs from $733 and a dragon bangle $6999.)

Magnetic Qualities

On the subject of adornments, a Malaysian man has discovered he has magnetic power – the ability to hold metallic objects to his body without using his hands.

Liew Thow Lin, 69, dressed only in his trousers, featured in The Dominion on Monday 31 July with a handful of forks sticking to his ample belly. Also attached was what appeared to be an iron holding up three bricks. Very handy if he runs out of shelf space in the garden shed.

Eyewitness Evidence Questioned

Something most of us have known for a while – The Evening Post carried a report on Thursday 10 August stating wrongful convictions could be more common than previously thought.

Two Victoria University researchers say false identification of suspects by eyewitnesses is the problem. In the United States, mistaken eyewitness identification is responsible for 80 percent of wrongful convictions.

Psychology senior lecturer Maryanne Garry and masters student Kellie Fitzmaurice have received $12 000 to apply the US research to this country. They will also seek to identify people in prisons who may have been wrongly convicted.

Moon Studies

Find yourself howling at the moon? You may have lunar fever. A Timaru rest home has undertaken three months’ research into the effects of the moon on its 37 residents. They found some lunar cycle links, The Evening Post reported on Wednesday 26 July.

One resident becomes incontinent only at the full moon and others became more aggressive at that time. However, Strathallan Life Care Village manager Jan Hide has since discovered the need to conduct such studies for a longer period of time with fewer people in order to detect accurate trends. So to keep scientists happy (who like things in black and white) Hide will carry it on for a further six months. There may be something to this, says she who often becomes grumpy near a full moon. Watch this space for results.

“Star” Student

Former Victoria University education professor Adrienne Alton-Lee has been awarded $90,000 by the Employment Court, the NZ Herald reported on Friday 21 July.

The row was over a postgraduate student who claimed to have experienced interplanetary travel. Dr Alton-Lee challenged faculty staff who wanted to send the student out to teach in a school. Chief Judge Tom Goddard ordered the university to pay $11 735 which had been withheld from the second year’s funding of Dr Alton-Lee’s research (she financed this by selling her house), $25 000 for stress, $10 000 for loss of advancement and $15 000 because a premature announcement concerning her contract was made.

The student was in fact sent out to a school and only lasted one day when she continued to assert she had just returned to Earth…

Selma the Serpent Won’t Be Hurt Scientists Promise

The hunt is on for Nessie’s cousin – The Evening Post (Thursday 3 August) reported an international team of monster hunters have unveiled a giant trap for catching a serpent in a lake in Norway.

The trap, comprising a metal frame with nylon netting, will be lowered into Seljord lake full of live whitefish to catch Selma the Serpent. If Selma falls for it, she will be checked out by two University of Oslo biologists, who were on standby with a helicopter and good intentions.

“We’ll take a DNA sample, document the serpent and then release it into the lake. We will be very careful not to hurt it.” Selma was first spotted around 1750.

Same Old New Age

Dream catchers, acupuncture, palmistry and spiritual surgery were all the go in Tauranga recently during the Healthy Life Expo, says the Bay Of Plenty Times (Monday 8 August.)

Acupuncturist Neil Denyer treated a local for sinus problems and palm reader Peace Life saw some good things in the hands of a client. Times reporter Val Sherriff was sent to check it out and discovered all this and more being demonstrated to hundreds of Tauranga folk.

Organisers said things had been very busy and would have continued that way if not for the Saturday footie game which drew people away (I’m sure it had nothing to do with the ethereal music supplied by Jeff Clarkson.)

Cereology Comes Full Circle

A British researcher has come up with another theory about one of the world’s lingering mysteries – crop circles are the result of the earth’s magnetic fields.

According to The Evening Post of Friday 11 August fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic fields lead to corn fields being “electrocuted”, collapsing in patterns. The paper says the researcher is funded by an American billionaire who is well known for his paranormal beliefs. Colin Andrews acknowledged that some 80 percent of the designs were caused by hoaxes with lawn rollers.

“The other 20 percent remain quite another thing.”

The piece goes on to say Andrews couldn’t explain why only corn would be zapped and not other crops, nor why no circles were discovered before 1981.

Doug Bower, the man who claims to be Britain’s original crop circle creator, said he made his first design in 1978 after leaving a pub. Media attention to his work took a little time to catch on, he says. Since then, around 10,000 crop circles have been charted around the world, including New Zealand.


Finally, The Dominion (Thursday August 31) reported new Nelson-Marlborough health board director Mere Wetere is frightened for herself and her family following a Maori curse being placed on her.

It says the curse was placed on Ms Wetere by a woman at a hui at Nelson’s Whakatu Marae the day after she was appointed to the board by Health Minister Annette King.

Ngati Tama representative John Mitchell said the curse was used by a tohunga or priest to bring pain, bad luck, misadventure or even death to the victim. He doubted anyone in the district could be regarded as a serious practitioner of traditional Maori ways and questioned why the curse had been placed on Ms Wetere when she had no control over the appointment process. The power of such curses to do real harm was apparently taken for granted by all concerned.

From ERA to EAV, the Sorry Saga of the Black Box

As Professor Cole explained at the last Skeptics’ Conference, “Quantum Booster”-like devices have been around a long time.

If you include the Roman physician, Scribonius, who treated patients with shocks from electric eels, then electro-medicine has a very long and distinguished history indeed. But its recent history really began in the 1920s, with the flowering of America’s Black-Box supremo, Albert Abrams, of San Francisco. He was to become a millionaire from the sale of his sealed “black” boxes for diagnosing and treating almost everything from stretch marks to streptococci and, most seriously, cancer.

At the turn of the century Abrams recognised that so-called radionics and electro-medical gadgets were ripe for exploitation with their incredible (and I use that word literally) power of rapid and accurate diagnosis of diseases and their radio-frequencies. For therapy, other versions were designed to shatter the identified diseases whether bacteria or cancer. His own device became the Electronic Reaction of Abrams (ERA).

Abrams’ fame and machines spread to the UK, where the President of the British Medical Association spoke in strong support. Fortunately there were some sceptics in the Royal Society of Medicine (we would be proud of them) and Lord Horder was sent to investigate. In 1925 he returned from the USA to report, much to the relief of the medical establishment, that his team found “its use is scientifically unsound and ethically unjustified” and, they went on to say, they could “give no sanction to the use of ERA in diagnosis or treatment of disease”, … so diminishing, but not extinguishing, this strange manifestation.

It was not just in California, the capital state of medical fraud, that electro-diagnosis flourished, for there were many others to come: Rife in the ’30s, Ruth Down in the ’40s and in New Zealand, Dr Laurie Gluckman reported meeting an elderly Maori tohunga who had an old car battery and some wires, which, attached to his clients, served the same purpose.

Nowadays we are surrounded by black boxes in our home, and they are also the armamentarium of TV servicemen, car mechanics and the ultimate black boxers, the radiologists. It is easy to see how people in the 1920s would be impressed with dials and wires, solenoids and resistors. After all the Electrocardiograph – arguably the most successful black box of all time – had been discovered only a few years before in 1921 by Eindhoven, later a Nobel Prize winner for this work.


But to return to the anti-hero of this confection. Soon after World War 1, Albert Abrams, holding an MD from Heidelberg, began treating patients’ spines by thumping special points, a technique he called “spondylotherapy”, a rival to Palmer’s chiropracty developed in Iowa two years before, or Still’s osteopathy, then a year or two older. Both have proved more durable.

As Maurice Fishbein of the American Medical Association commented wryly: “Abrams, having percussed the back to the fullest extent it would yield monetarily, he rolled the patient over and percussed the abdomen.” But strangely it was not the patient’s own abdomen, for Abrams did not need to have the patients themselves present and instead placed a specimen of their blood on a slide into the circuit. Wires led from this “dynamiser” to the forehead of a neutral test subject, standing on ground plates.

Diagnoses of illness were made, enthusiasts proclaimed, “with superb sensitivity”, aided by a remarkable chart that designated resonance areas for various illnesses (shades of iridology charts). Investigators were startled to find that, rather dramatically, these patients could also be further categorised by abdominal dullness patterns into: Catholic, Seventh Day, Jewish, Protestant and Methodist.

Very soon, delighted with his diagnostic machine and needing something with which to actually treat the patient, he invented an “oscilloclast” along the same lines. This was calibrated to respond to vibrations peculiar to the specific disease, after establishing the frequency with the “dynamiser”.

Shrewd Business

Abrams’ final entrepreneurial touch was not to sell his oscilloclasts, but instead to lease them out, insisting on a signed agreement that the machine would not be opened, examined or serviced by the lessees. A sound idea, replicated in 1998 by a New Zealand GP, who imported a $40,000 black box, ETG, whose function was “electro-trichino-genesis”, ie causing hair to grow. On the sealed generator was the statement “tampering with the box will lead it to self-destruct”.

Lord Horder was not the only official enquirer about Abrams’ remarkable boxes. It is a measure of the notoriety of this treatment that in 1924 Scientific American published 12 articles exhaustively examining ERA. The experts concluded that the claims were not substantiated and the treatments were without value. Abrams was of course not deterred, he continued to attract patients and died a rich man at the height of his fame in 1925.

One of Abrams many imitators in the 1930s was another American, Royal Rife, and he deserves brief mention here because his so-called generator has recently appeared in Rotorua under the name of Quantum Booster. This was used in the sad case of young Liam Williams-Holloway from Southland. The generator allegedly produces radio waves with precisely the same frequency as the disease, usually believed to be an infection but widely used for cancer.

It is now time to introduce another medical doctor from a very dubious Medical College in Missouri, Dr Dundas Mackenzie. Mackenzie was a New Zealander who had been at the Otago School of Mines, but did not really strike gold until some time after he returned to New Zealand in 1896 fresh from homeopathic training in the USA. His name plate stated he specialised in Cancer and Chronic Disease but he later, under cross examination, said that he was an “auto-haemic surgeon” who specialised in orificial surgery (orifices not specified).

Having visited Abrams in 1920, and realising the potential of the “box”, he soon ran foul of the BMA here, for he gave demonstrations of the Abrams machine in the Auckland Town Hall and claimed cancer cures. Application was made to stop him practising but the Medical Registration Board were slow to act, for he had powerful friends, including the Chancellor of the University of Auckland, Sir George Fowlds, who also believed in phrenology.

After a preliminary hearing in front of the Board, the case moved to the Supreme Court. The local doctors had assembled some firm if devious evidence, having taken some blood for testing from a donkey who gave rides at Mission Bay. Mackenzie reported that this test sample showed the “patient” had both tuberculosis and congenital syphilis, which was naturally of some concern to the mothers of the potential riders of the aforesaid donkey.

In his memoirs Vince Meredith, the leading KC who took the Board’s case, described this case as his most memorable as it “combined the ludicrous with the tragic in almost equal proportions.” He made great play in Court of the donkey subterfuge, and pitied this “always respectable animal” whose testing had apparently “revealed a past that was not always respectable”. Mackenzie’s opponents had also covertly submitted for testing some human blood samples from people with known disease. There was no correlation.

When asked if an official and supervised test could be arranged, Mackenzie declined to take part in any trial. In Court Meredith made the strong point that Mackenzie frightened innocent patients with spurious diagnoses of syphilis and cancer and then cured them with the oscilloclast machine. It worked well for these non-existent diseases, a technique for success that is believed to have been used by other New Zealand charlatans in cancer scams in the 1980s.

Honest Belief

At the Supreme Court Meredith convinced the Judge that having refused any tests Mackenzie could not “honestly believe” in the machine. This phrase was very appropriate as it came from the 1858 British Medical Act and later was introduced into the Medical Practitioners Act in New Zealand in a 1924 amendment of s58 concerning unorthodox practice, the so-called homeopathic clause. It is a worry to us that it still survives in the recent 1995 Medical Practitioners Act although all other Commonwealth countries have abandoned it.

The process of proving and successfully prosecuting these unorthodoxies can be prolonged and very expensive (“the black wine-box phenomenon”). This is illustrated by the tale of a Hollywood chiropractor, Ruth Drown, who had an enormous following. Her radionic instrument was especially valued as she claimed it worked at a considerable distance by a telephone connection. In this instance the FDA decided to act, and after a cancer test-case Drown was found guilty and fined $1000. The prosecution had cost the FDA $50,000.

Marriage of Convenience

By the early 1950s the reputation of black boxes was flagging. What saved them was a marriage of great convenience with acupuncture. A Japanese doctor had observed that many of the 361 classical Chinese acupuncture points in the body had reduced skin resistance when tested conventionally with a small current; these he called “ryodoraku points”. It was then a small step for a German, Reinhold Voll, to develop the machine he patented as the Dermatron. Using an electrode held by the patient, and with a probe, he tested the acupuncture sites noting the skin resistance changes. He claimed he could not only identify the diseased organ but diagnose and treat a variety of disorders in these organs.

Furthermore, he serendipitously “observed” that homeopathic substances introduced into the test circuit further altered the resistance in some subtle way and could thus be tested for relevance; for example, putting dilute Roundup in the circuit might identify it as the problem. This was the crucial breakthrough that ensured the commercial success of the method. Schimmel in Germany also produced a “Vegatest” machine which has found increasing favour and similarly allows for the introduction of test samples.

We are told of course, there is “enormous” skill required to find the right points and apply the correct pressure. This became apparent when a New Zealand medically qualified, now deregistered, eco-medicine specialist was asked during his trial to allow patients with known disorders to be put through the circuit, even when he was the operator. Just like Mackenzie he refused because he considered these were unusual and misleading situations, not comparable to natural patient diagnosis.

Detached observers have repeatedly commented that the degree of skin pressure of the probe, and hence the resistance reading, is entirely, and unreliably, in the fingers of the operator.

The Vega Machine

Unlike the Abrams oscilloclast, the Vega machine does not seem to be used for treatment on its own, but has usually been linked to treatment by homeopathy. In the case referred to above the doctor had relied heavily on the Vega readings in his management of the cases by “complex” homeopathy and hyperbaric oxygen. The Medical Council found this and other aspects unacceptable, and he was deregistered.

In another case put before the disciplinary authorities, a GP described the manner in which he identified a baby’s food allergies by Vega-testing her mother’s foot. Indeed it seemed it was not even necessary to have the baby in contact with the mother and in one case under discussion the practice nurse had been required to remove the crying child to the office so the examination could proceed. The startled mother was assured the machine could still work up to five metres. Indeed very few questions were asked of the mother for the doctor had, he explained, a subconscious link with the baby and was getting the answers directly. Worse still was his frightening of mothers with old-fashioned homeopathic miasm warnings of ancestor disease and criminal activity, the inherited basis for the baby’s problems.

No Substantial Benefit

In this case, and the preceding one, the medical tribunal steered clear of any evaluation of the efficacy of the procedures. It was transparently clear, that for the patients assembled as witnesses, no substantial benefit was provided. But more than that, proper and standard medical treatment, as expected from a registered medical practitioner, was seriously absent. This is what led to the penalties.

The final generation of these diagnostic machines are inevitably now computerised. In Canada withdrawal of medical license followed a Dr Korman’s use of his “interro-computer” for what the registration body described as “totally useless and unproven tests while working under the cloak of respectability of his medical licence”.

His prescriptions for the patient to observe after diagnosis, can only be described as bizarre. These including having all dental amalgam removed (under hypnosis), removing the microwave from kitchen, use of a dustless vacuum cleaner and watching TV via a mirror. Two mirrors might have allowed her to at least read the text.

Here is a quote from the 1991 American Journal of Acupuncture:

“Western allopathic medicine is founded and supported on the reductionist-mechanical scientific paradigm that originated in the 17th century. Unlike Western medicine, science is becoming holistic” [the magic word], “based on quantum mechanics, new laws relating to the chaos theory, fractals and the discovery of self organised criticality and non linear science”.

These words, like “chaos theory” conveniently plucked from sister sciences, are implying that we are far from up to date. Has the unorthodox world found something we are missing? I think not.

Hokum Locum

John Welch started writing for the magazine in Issue 16, but a posting with UNSCOM to Iraq meant he had to relinquish responsibility for the column. He is delighted to once again have the opportunity to indulge his interest in bizarre medical beliefs and wishes to thank Dr Neil McKenzie for his efforts to date.

Craniosacral Therapy

Manipulative therapists such as osteopaths and chiropractors continue to provide a rich source of deluded ideas. Here is Clemens Franzmayr writing in NZ Doctor (10 May) on the treatment of dizziness: “Colleagues experienced in craniosacral therapy have good results by freeing tentorium cerebelli from restriction and by mobilising the temporal bone on the disturbed side, including the ear pull.” For once I am in complete agreement but I have always obtained far more impressive results from the “leg-pull.”

The good Doktor goes on to say: “with one single manipulation of the upper cervical spine the patient could be free of all complaint.” The patient could also be dead from spinal cord damage due to the wholly unnecessary and unscientific intervention.

Medical Overinvestigation

Your correspondent has been recently refreshing his medical skills in the Casualty Department of a large urban hospital where many of the patients present with trauma due to alcoholic decelerations. It is fascinating to experience the change in attitudes due to medicolegal fears and the consequent extensive use of sophisticated investigations such as radiological imaging techniques, recently satirised by one writer as the “gropagram”. However, a note of caution. When arriving at the hospital please do not ask for your NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) as I fear you could experience a nasty rectal invasion by an agency nurse from Sri Lanka. (New Scientist 17 April 99).

Fraudulent Skin Treatments

There is widespread belief and acceptance of treatment with secret mixtures by a section of the community who do not understand that such preparations are not subject to any form of scientific testing, standard or even basic tests of efficacy. A London clinic sold a 50g pot of cream that cost $2000 which was found to contain white paraffin and a small amount of the steroid fluocinolone, sold in New Zealand as Synalar and costing $5.92 for 30g. The great irony here is the use of a powerful and effective remedy secretly used within the context of quack therapy. Herbalists, not to mention Homeopaths, will no doubt join me in general indignation at this totally unethical behaviour.

This “Kentucky Fried medicine” (secret herbs and spices?) is a perfect accompaniment to the age of post-modern consumerism. One Wellington GP has even received approval from the Medical Council to sell similar products to her patients.

I wish I had patients like that when I was in General Practice. Even Dermatologists would envy me earning over $100,000 a year from the sale of one pot of cream a week. Damn that troublesome conscience; I could have been rich!

Analysis of Chinese herbal creams

Patients with chronic problematic skin conditions often resort to herbal remedies which are seen as “natural” and therefore safe and free of side effects. Since chronic skin conditions are commonly treated with potent steroids there are genuine concerns about side effects. Some researchers (BMJ 1999;318:563-4) found that eight out of eleven herbal creams contained dexamethasone, a potent topical steroid.

I know it’s fraud, but I still find it amusing that people using a “natural and safe” herbal remedy are in fact gaining relief from a potent nasty dangerous steroid, normally prescribed by nasty dangerous doctors in the pockets of multinational drug companies. Me paranoid? I know they are out to get me!

This reminds me of a very popular cough mixture in the early 1900s whose “magic” ingredient was heroin.

Chicken Soup

Two Israeli doctors are calling for the World Health Organisation to include chicken soup on its list of essential drugs. This will come as a great burden to the inhabitants of many Third World countries where the daily walk for water will now have to be extended for chickens. Since the WHO already lists a variety of conditions amenable to acupuncture, including myopia, the inclusion of chicken soup is entirely appropriate as an unspecified remedy for whatever ails you. Don’t be put off by the lack of evidence — “Chicken soup is over 2000 years older than the randomised trial.” They said the same thing about acupuncture.

I can assure readers that chicken soup will cure anything if you strongly believe that it will. Disclaimer: I have no shares in any chicken soup companies.

Dental Amalgam

Readers will be pleased to hear of the retirement of one of the worst medically qualified quacks in recent memory. This individual who cannot be identified for obvious legal reasons, used a dental amalgameter to diagnose “mercury poisoning.” This fraud was practised on countless patients who then paid to have all of their amalgam fillings removed, a practice condemned by the Dental Council as there is no link with any form of illness and the number of such fillings. I have written before on the subject of dental amalgameters which are basically a fraudulent blackbox device of the type discussed at our last conference. (See lead article – ed.)

This quack also railed against immunisation which prompted me to write a letter of complaint to the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (MPDC) who are essentially toothless when dealing with quack doctors. I was informed anecdotally by the MPDC that they had received dozens of complaints about this individual but were powerless to act unless they received a complaint from an actual patient who had been harmed. The MPDC forwarded me a copy of the doctor’s reply and if anybody would like a copy please send me a SAE. It is a fascinating, self-deluded and paranoid document from which I have deleted any identifying details.

Rudolf and Bailer, psychologists at the University of Heidelberg, looked at 40 patients who claimed health problems connected with their amalgam fillings. When compared with other people with amalgam fillings but no such complaints there was no correlation with any measurements of mercury in blood, saliva or urine. The researchers found that the complainants had histories of psychological problems, were emotionally unstable and had an obsessive attitude towards their health.

I have a mouthful of amalgam fillings and my health is perfect. I rest my case.

Buteyko and Asthma

The Buteyko breathing technique (BBT) is merely one more of a long line of quack therapies for asthma. (Try the medieval remedy – powdered fox lung.) Central to the theory is the belief that all patients with asthma hyperventilate (over-breathe). Deliberately slowing breathing increases carbon dioxide levels which could dilate restricted airways. However, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that asthma is an inflammatory disorder. Since quack treatments are seldom put up for testing, I was surprised to read of a trial of BBT reported in the Lancet (1998; 352:1993). It flunked. Although BBT patients were able to reduce their medication there was no objective change in key indicators of lung function. This is not at all surprising as patients receiving acupuncture treatment for asthma also reported marked improvement which was not confirmed by objective measurements of lung function. This is the classic placebo effect which is the cause of perceived improvement in most alternative medical treatments.

When people strongly believe in something and that belief becomes an unshakeable faith, they are immune to reason. When the above results became apparent the researcher from the BBT Clinic withdrew her authorship from the paper.


Cathie Comments

I just wanted to make a comment on the clipping from the Christchurch Star concerning “nuclear extinction” which appeared on p.9 of the NZ Skeptic periodical. In the clipping, a refutation of this possibility was based on some writings of one Bruce Cathie who is claimed therein to be a mathematician among other things.

That Mr Cathie is read by many around the world cannot be in doubt. The claim that he is a mathematician is an insult to real mathematicians. Mr Cathie is best described in my opinion as a numerologist. I read his book “Harmonic 33” when I was a starry- eyed (but scientifically educated) teenager.

On the basis of what I read, I wrote to the author outlining the defects in his arguments in the early 70’s. The claim concerning the timing of nuclear explosions was among them. I pointed out that nuclear reactors don’t stop and start at particular times and that fission bombs which work on the same basic principles don’t either. I got a reply from his secretary saying he was too busy to answer correspondence. I was disappointed to say the least.

All Mr Cathie’s “predictions” about the French tests were retrospective. I have a firm principle of making those who claim to be able to predict things based on numbers or anything else to front up with a date in advance of a specific prediction. To date, not a single prediction made (and there are precious few) has ever come true.

Other material in that book included photos of mysterious aerials, one of which was instantly recognizable as a quad antenna used by some amateur radio operators. It is too easy for scientifically illiterate people to swallow this stuff and there was quite enough of it to make me gag, even at my tender age back then.

I won’t bore you with a list of examples but the doomsday predictions surrounding the recent appearance of a certain comet have disappeared into nothingness as have those surrounding the planetary conjunction of which Bernard Howard spoke in the same edition of NZ Skeptic. I have no hesitation in claiming that Bruce Cathie is a charlatan whose books should be left sitting on the shelf.

Malcolm Watts, Wellington


Like Noel O’Hare, I attended the September Skeptics’ conference. Noel, winner of an NZ Skeptics Bravo Award “for critical analysis and common sense for his health column throughout 1997”, had a gripe (Shadow Of Doubt, Listener, 19 September 1998). He accused us of favouring “soft targets — psychics, New Age fads, alternative medicine, astrology.” “Poking fun at Creationists or crystal healers,” he wrote, “may produce a warm glow of superiority — but doesn’t change much.”

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A ruse by any other name smells just as fishy, and it seems RSI, OOS and OOI are good examples, if a UK surgeon is to be believed. According to Murray Matthewson, the condition, whatever you choose to call it, is not what it’s cracked up to be.

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