False Claims Thrive on Internet

The Misinformation Age has arrived at last

How many times in the last month were you conned or approached by a con? Maybe this con took the form of a weight loss product described in an ad in the newspaper. Perhaps it was a too-good-to-be-true TV infomercial that claimed to be backed by science. Or maybe it was a testimonial from a friend.

Even if you didn’t take the bait, it seems that the more often you hear or see something that isn’t true, the more likely you are to believe it eventually. This is especially so when claims are partial truths couched in scientific jargon.

The Internet is loaded with this type of misinformation. In just a matter of days, contemporary urban legends and outright hoaxes are broadcast all over the world.

These legends are part of a type of folklore that claims to be true. They may be harmless, containing stories that describe humorous scenarios, but many report terrifying happenings.

Many of these hoaxes are broadcast over email among friends and acquaintances. They frequently have a sinister or threatening side to them. You want to pass on this information to those you care about. Of course, these things always happened to someone other than the concerned friend passing it along.

Food is the topic of many hoaxes. Here are a few weve come across the last month:

“Costa Rica bananas have been infected with a flesh-eating bacteria. The FDA has been reluctant to issue a country-wide warning because of fear of a nationwide panic.”

This is completely untrue as is indicated on the Center for Disease Control Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/banana.htm.

“Aspartame is the cause of lupus, multiple sclerosis, memory loss, Desert Storm health problems, and obesity.”

These claims, said to have been presented at a Conference of the American College of Physicians are untrue. There are hundreds of websites on this topic, making it nearly impossible to discern fact from fiction. The most reliable source we could find was Arnold Dias, a respected investigative reporter who actually contacted all of the claimed sources (http://www.abcnews.com).

“The Mayo Clinic has a weight reducing diet that has been formulated to alter your metabolism so that you literally burn fat. You can lose 20 pounds of fat in two weeks.”

Untrue. The fact that there is no Mayo Clinic Diet is indicated on the Mayo Clinic Web site at http://www.mayohealth.org/mayo/9806/htm/mayodiet.htm.

This legend has been around for decades. The most common version is a very low calorie diet which contains lots of grapefruit, eggs, meat, fish, chicken, spinach, tomatoes, celery and carrots. You will lose weight quickly but most of it is water and muscle, not fat.

Today, we encounter tremendous amounts of information. Because of the difficulty in discerning fact from fiction among the info-overload, there is a strong human tendency to just believe what sounds good.

The next time that you think you’re not being given the straight scoop or maybe just want some entertainment, check out http://www.urbanlegends.about.com, a website dedicated to clearing up hoaxes.

Salting Away the Profits

The marketing of sodium chloride should be taken with a pinch of salt

Sodium chloride is a very simple chemical and cannot decay. Excess is harmful though it is an essential part of our diet. These days many people seem to believe that some forms are better than others.

Years ago an idea developed that all white foods were bad: bread, sugar, milk, salt. Similarly it was held that all refined substances were bad: (because they were unnatural), while food additives were worse (though of course diet supplements do not count).

Table salt is white, it is refined, anti-caking agent is added to prevent clogging in damp weather, and a tiny amount of potassium or sodium iodide is added for health reasons. Thus it offends against a host of popular prejudices.

Many people’s diet is short of the essential element iodine, which is added to salt to prevent deficiency. In particular, without sufficient iodine, children’s brains will not develop properly and they suffer a form of mental retardation called ‘cretinism’. It has been claimed that non-iodised salt is better for preserving food (though I know of no scientific justification for this), so this is available in bulk packs.

In most countries salt is obtained from underground deposits, either by mining or by dissolving it in water. It is not generally extracted from seawater because this is so dilute that huge amounts of energy are needed to evaporate such large quantities of water. A dry climate at low latitudes allows solar energy to be used, but large areas are needed so land needs to be cheap.

These requirements are marginally met at Grassmere in the Awatere valley, Marlborough, where evaporation exceeds precipitation in nine months of the average year. A long-established solar salt industry is a prominent feature, visible to travellers between Picton and Christchurch. However the suitable area is limited and New Zealand has always imported salt.

Solar salt is of sufficient purity for most purposes but not all. Vacuum salt is more highly refined and is produced both at Grassmere and Mt Maunganui; the latter uses imported salt as feedstock.

A fad starting in Europe held that sea salt was healthier than other kinds, being ‘more natural’, and it was believed this came as large crystals. Fashionable restaurants provided salt grinders, which held large crystals of sodium chloride, rather than the old dispensers of fine crystals in a shaker. One advantage of sea salt, it was argued, was that it was ‘more salty’ and therefore healthier because less would be needed.

It is possible that relatively large crystal fragments have a more vigorous assault on the palate, however most salt is added in cooking, and in solution all salt is equally ‘salty’. Salt ions have no memory so do not know what size crystal they inhabited.

The underground deposits in Europe are remains of dried-up seas, so all their salt is ‘sea salt’; while in NZ the cheapest form of table salt is locally produced, and made directly from sea water. Furthermore it is not really ‘highly refined’.

It may be of concern that some parents refuse to use iodised salt, and so expose their children to a risk of iodine deficiency. It is claimed that in New Zealand, iodine intake has been dropping for twenty years. In the 1990s intakes twice fell below internationally recommended levels (NM 17th May Report quoting Elizabeth Aitken in NZ Dietetic Association Journal).The decreased use of iodised salt in our diet is to be deplored.

On Sale Now

I had a look at what is available in Nelson and the results were quite interesting. The cheapest salt available was Skellerup Marlborough in bulk packs at $0.80 per kg. It could be bought either iodised or non-iodised. Prices for similar quality in other brands ranged up to $1.00.

Salt in dispensers was naturally dearer because of the packaging; the price range was $2.10 – $3.60 per kg.

The dearest salt was Maldon Sea Salt from Essex, England, declared to be ‘Unrefined and Natural’. Various NZ writers on health and food have touted this as a superior product. It needs to be good, as the price was $38.75 per kg.

Other imported products were:

Celtic Sea Salt produced in Brittany and packaged by Lotus in Australia priced at $13.46 per kg. This claimed to be ‘Hand harvested and Unbleached’ (whatever that means). It consisted of large brownish crystals and was very sticky. The pack carried an analysis showing it to be only 83% sodium chloride with 7% water. Other elements (found in seawater) amounted to around 3% so what else the stuff contained we do not know.

Also available was Lotus Australian Sea Salt. This was only available as a fine grade; but a relative bargain at only $2.50 per kg.

Some small New Zealand firms were selling salt.

Solar Sea Salt was from Kaiora Organics, Napier and certified by Bio-Gro (organic salt is a splendid idea). These large crystals at $8.81 per kg were ‘unrefined, unwashed’.

A Nelson firm provided ‘Safe Earth Unprocessed Sea Salt, “The way Nature created it” Not altered, Not refined, No additives, Natural Minerals retained. Bio-Gro certificate currently being sought’.

They have a leaflet that is a mixture of good sense and outrageous claims. Stating that salt cannot be organic, but also; ‘unprocessed sea salt is a natural antihistamine’. In a health shop it was $18.00 per kg for both large crystals and normal grade. At a supermarket it was $15.88 per kg; still hardly a bargain.

Presumably for legal reasons the pamphlet refers to an overseas website rather than making direct claims – nevertheless under ‘Prevention and Cure’ it manages to refer to most human diseases except cancer, including such refractory problems as ‘Altzheimer, Multiple sclerosis, and Insulin Independent Diabetes’ (sic).

It also includes the delightful thought; ‘Without sufficient water to wet all parts equally, some parts of the body will not receive the vital elements that water supplies’.

Bargain price

Large crystals of Empire Rock Salt by Hansells NZ were at a bargain price ($1.25) in one supermarket. Apart from the claim ‘no additives’, there was no further information. Without labelling on the packet, this was of dubious legality.

The large companies are also in on the act and their products labelled ‘Sea Salt’ are much cheaper than those sold by the small companies; though more expensive than their own sea salt without the label. This is a truly wonderful way of adding value. Saxa and Cerebos have fine ‘Sea Salt’, not iodised but with added anti-cake which sells at a range of $1.20 – $1.55 per kg depending on the supermarket. This is generally around 20-35c more than their similar (possibly identical) product not labelled ‘Sea Salt’.

But in one Supermarket I found Cerebos Sea Salt as large crystals at $1.20 per kg. It is more expensive to produce large crystals so this is very reasonable. It makes ‘Maldon Sea Salt’, essentially the same product but 3000% dearer, look rather overpriced.

Organic “Evidence” Doesn’t Stack Up

Howard Bezar and Denis Curtain

Scientific support for organic farming isn’t all it seems

An article appeared in the Canterbury Digest in December, 2000, claiming organic foods have ‘superior nutritive value’. The article, titled “Rapid growth in organic products” was by Seager Mason, Technical and Certification Manager for Bio-Gro New Zealand. It contained a table headed “Scientists prove superior nutritive value of organic food”. The table presented data showing large nutritional advantages of five “organic” vegetables over “inorganic” vegetables. The source was said to be “Researchers at Rutgers University”.

A search of the internet revealed that over 20 websites have published this material together with some commentary. The websites attribute the data to F. E. Bear of Rutgers University. On further investigation the original paper was identified. This paper was published 52 years ago and is titled “Variation in mineral composition of vegetables” by F. E Bear, S. J. Toth and A. L. Prince, published in 1948 in the Proceedings of the Soil Science Society of America Volume 13: pages 380-384.

The article grossly misrepresents the work of scientists who are now deceased and unable to defend their research. More seriously, the information is false and misleading to readers of Canterbury Digest as well as people using the internet as a source of information and who will not have an opportunity the check the data presented against results in the original, 52-year old research paper.

The deliberate misuse of scientific information in this way is a serious concern in that it undermines public confidence in science, it undermines the credibility of any organization using the information without checking the original source, and it undermines the editorial integrity of any media using the data without first checking with reliable expertise before publishing.

Seager Mason’s claims in relation to this paper are inaccurate on several counts. He claims that the researchers “set out to disprove the claim that organic is better”. Not so. The stated purpose of the paper was to examine the effects of variation in environmental factors (principally soil type and climate) on mineral concentrations in vegetables. At no point in the paper were the terms “organic” and “inorganic” production used or implied. In fact, there were no comparisons between vegetables grown in “organic” and “inorganic” systems. In essence, the study was a survey of the mineral contents of five vegetable crops sampled in ten US states with widely differing climatic conditions and soil types.

Mason claims that the “researchers purchased selections of produce at supermarkets and health food stores”. Not so. The paper clearly states that “samples of cabbage, lettuce, snap beans, spinach, and tomatoes were obtained from commercial fields of these crops.” Management practices used to grow the crops were not specified.

The results in the paper of Bear et al. were summarised in the form of Tables showing the lowest and highest values recorded for each crop. Mason misrepresents these results by indicating that the highest values were obtained for organically produced crops and that the lowest values came from crops grown by inorganic methods. There is absolutely no justification for this. As pointed out above, vegetables representing “organic” and “inorganic” production methods were not even included in the study.

The summary remark that “organic foods are three to 100 times more nutritious (than inorganic food)” bears no relation to the contents of the paper published by the Rutgers scientists. It is certainly ridiculous to claim that “many essential elements were completely absent in the commercial (i.e., inorganic) produce”. Plants just will not grow in the absence of essential elements!

The labels on columns of data are transposed, the molybdenum column has been left out and some other transcription errors are apparent. This means that the ash content is reported as phosphorus, the calcium column as sodium, etc. All the columns are wrongly labeled except for cobalt.

Further points to note in relation to this paper are:

  • A comprehensive review of international literature undertaken by Dr Diane Bourn and Associate Professor John Prescott of the Department of Food Science, University of Otago in April 2000 (currently in press), concludes that “With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is not strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients”.
  • In May last year the British Advertising Standards Authority upheld four complaints against the Tesco and Iceland supermarket chains for claiming in brochures that organic food is tastier, healthier and better for the environment and animals. They ruled the supermarkets had not been able to provide evidence and that the claims were “misleading” and “unsubstantiated”.
  • In a February 2000 interview with ABC News 20/20 Kathryn Di Matteo of the US Organic Trade Association, in answering the reporter’s question, Is it (organic food) more nutritious?, replied, “It is as nutritious as any other product on the market.” This has been widely taken as an acknowledgment by the US organics industry that organics are no more nutritious than other food.

Footnote: Seager Mason and Canterbury Digest editor Simon Nutt have since apologised for the article.

Plenty of things are better to drink than distilled water

There are plenty of things which are better to drink than distilled water, says John Riddell. But then, most of you probably knew that anyway.

Eight is Enough

Unless you have been tied up in a cave for a few years you will have heard the adverts for water distillation units. These ads are a good example of how you can mislead people with a number of true statements. “It is a proven health fact” we are told, “that we each need up to eight glasses of water a day.” Which, strictly speaking, would mean that drinking more than eight glasses a day could be bad for you. Toxic stuff that dihydrogen monoxide. Although, strictly speaking, it isn’t true. If you have been eating nothing but dog biscuits in Egypt in summertime, you might need more than eight glasses, but as a general rule, eight is enough. The strange thing is not that too much water can be bad for you. The strange thing is that when many people hear this ad, they mistakenly think it is saying we should all drink eight glasses of water a day. It is probably true that, in our climate, the mythical average man needs about 1600 ml of water per day. About eight glasses. But food contains lots of water. Watermelon, mashed potato, peas and even steak all have heaps of water. So do tea, coffee, milk and orange juice. And don’t forget beer. On top of all this, eight glasses is probably too much.

And then the ad goes on to say, “So how can we be sure that the water we drink is pure?” You have to ask, “Hold on, who said it had to be pure?” I actually like my orange juice to contain water. In fact I find it really dusty if it doesn’t.

Put a litre of freshly squeezed organically grown orange juice into a water distiller and turn the machine on. You will end up with nearly a litre of water to drink, and some yucky goo at the bottom of the evaporation chamber. This could then be used in an advert to show the evil contaminants that would have ended up inside you if you hadn’t distilled it first.

Don’t get me wrong. Distillation is wonderful. Some of my favourite things are the product of distillation. And the water distillers made by this company, while more expensive than the ones at the Home Brew shop, are very well made and more suited for the production of drinking water than stills designed for producing vodka.

The problem I have is that distillation is a very expensive way of getting drinking water. Okay, it is cheaper than buying mineral water, but then so is lemonade.

They go on to list the things that distillation can remove from water. But they don’t list the things it doesn’t remove. Ethanol, methanol, propanol, carbon tetrachloride, petrol and diesel, to name a few. Put a teaspoon of petrol into your distiller and tell me what the water tastes like. The things that distillation does remove are either not in tap water, or not harmful, or not there in large enough quantities to be harmful.

For example, it is true that distillation removes “the evil Giardia” but the one time Giardia got into a city water supply it was international news. Everyone in Sydney knew they had to boil the water for a while. Since Giardia is only slightly more likely than elephants to be in the water supply, routine distillation of the water seems a bit excessive.

There are three main reasons why you might want to distil your water. Health, safety, and taste. For the sake of your health, being dehydrated is bad. If you don’t drink enough water, you will die. No question. Even being a little bit dehydrated is bad. And if you drink too much, you can also die. But the water doesn’t have to be pure. Tap water is just as good at rehydrating as distilled water. But when a baby’s life is in danger because of dehydration due to diarrhoea, doctors add salts to the water. Giving the baby pure water can be fatal. Pure water isn’t necessary for good health. Sometimes it is dangerous.

Does water need to be pure to be safe? Of course not. Distillation does remove bacteria, but so does boiling or chlorination. Most of us live in cities or towns where the local council has a water treatment system. They very economically remove everything from bacteria to elephants and sediments, and they make the water safe to drink. Distilling town water to make it safe is simply a waste of money.

That leaves us with taste. I went to Alexandra Park to watch the trots one time, and foolishly bought a cup of coffee. I couldn’t drink it. I took one sip and threw the rest away. I can’t be sure but I think it was just the taste of the treated water that made it undrinkable. Town water. I live in the country and get water from a well. It tastes like water should. I could bottle it and sell it as mineral water. It has a few calcium and magnesium carbonates in it. That’s the mineral bit. We boil it for drinking, in case a cow stands too close to the well, but that’s all. And so when I get to taste town water occasionally, I sometimes don’t like it. But there are plenty of under the bench filtration systems( or on top if you prefer) which are cheaper to set up and cheaper to run, than the cheapest distillation system. Putting a new filter cartridge in every month is much cheaper than using a still.

Another thing that is interesting about that advert. They say something like “Some of our customers believe they have had the following health benefits from using the distiller.”

And then they give a list of things that could be explained by the placebo effect. What they don’t do is give a list of scientific articles published in peer reviewed journals on the health benefits of using distilled water.

The advertisers aren’t silly enough to say drinking distilled water actually cures these ailments. They know that would be a false claim. But it is true that some of their customers have fooled themselves into thinking that drinking distilled water has been good for them. And so by repeating the customer’s false beliefs, they can create the impression that there is good evidence that distilled water is good for you.

“It could”, they say, “be the healthiest investment you ever make.” Or it could be a complete waste of money.

You decide.

John Riddell does in fact have a distillation plant at home, but doesn’t use it for water.

The Global Messenger Hoax And The Misinformation Economy

At last year’s conference, John Scott spoke on the problems of mixing misinformation and medicine.

Early in my medical career I became aware of the enormous distorting forces which operate upon science in the real world. In my field the forces were those of Quaker Oats, Kellogg, Sanitarium, the diary industry, the AMA, elements within the cardiology camp, and the tobacco giants. I became an interested observer of some enormous investments in dubious research projects, many of which could only be termed con-jobs. More particularly, I realised that we scientists were very human creatures.

Together with many of my colleagues I plodded along trying to inculcate into oncoming generations of medical students a genuine understanding of scientific principles and methods. To be frank, my generation of teachers has failed, certainly as far as the bulk of medical graduates is concerned. Events over the past year in England, Europe and New Zealand have rammed that point home, often in painful ways, as far as I am concerned.

I do not wish to be seen to disparage many of the achievements of scientific and technological medicine over the past thirty to forty years. They have been massive. However, other huge investments in the health-disease industry deserved to be challenged and remain in that situation.

The central message so far is not news to this society. Bill Morris gave a paper at the Palmerston North meeting challenging much of the classical diet-coronary heart disease hypothesis. His voice was about as lonely as mine at that time. Science ultimately makes advances by gaining improved understanding of mechanisms. There is nothing wrong in doing one’s best with available knowledge until one obtains comprehensive understanding of a particular situation.

Coronary artery disease and arterial disease generally present very complicated problems. Fortunately and unfortunately, in an exquisite paradox, arterial disease is a very general phenomenon and becoming more so as countries become steadily more affluent.

There is enough knowledge to make a reasonably firm statement of dogma, that the causation is multifactorial and represents an interplay between environment and one’s genetic endowment. This statement doesn’t help a great deal about developing techniques for elucidating mechanisms. It does, however, provide wonderful protection for less competent scientists and technologists, and certainly, for industry generally.

New Technology

The cholesterol-saturated fat-diet-arterial disease hypothesis really took off when the 19th century concepts concerning the potential of computers were made possible through the development of transistors and printed circuits. In turn, epidemiology was provided with a tool it had needed. The autoanalyser had also been invented and thus mass biochemistry was now possible.

What amounts to an industry with a turnover through the decades of trillions of dollars was really set alight by a gentleman called Ancel Keys. He undertook studies in Europe linking what amounted to death certification and some relatively crude morbidity data with the local diet and estimates of cholesterol levels.

Here we get into what I term the “global messenger hoax”. On a simple arithmetical biaxial plot, Ancel Keys’ data, from his various countries, was the traditional dog’s breakfast. Subsequently one of his senior technicians, who was extremely troubled by what happened, published the truth.

In turn the technician’s article was immediately suppressed pretty effectively by the scientific juggernaut which had developed around this particular health-disease industry. Ancel Keys had selected a series of points which produced a straight line on a semilogarithmic plot or a gentle smooth curve on semilogarithmic axes.

I was aware of this at the time but didn’t get very far in quoting it, although, to his credit, the later Sir Edward Sayers accepted that Ancel Keys had at least been naughty. However, eventually a very prominent American nutritionist and professor of medicine, Dr Feinstein, published the original material plus Ancel Keys’ simplified extrapolated data which had set the whole bandwagon rolling. Feinstein came into the scene too late. He was too big a Don Quixote to be rubbished, so he was therefore largely ignored.

Now there is nothing particularly unusual about all that. As is eminently predictable, history is catching up with the epidemiologists who have continually reinvented the Ancel Keys wheel. Basic scientists, particularly anatomists, pathologists and immunologists, with their analysers and biochemistry, have begun to get at the common pathways upon which genetics and a complex environment interact to produce arterial disease. The gross simplifications have been exposed. Interestingly, however, the process continues of twisting results of recent research to fit the theory at each stage of the wheel reincarnation.

Alternative Interpretation

Most of you will know about the statin drugs which are very powerful reducers of cholesterol levels. Probably a majority of my colleagues believe that the advent of these drugs and their testing on a massive scale by people, including me, has vindicated the cholesterol hypothesis.

However, it might interest you to know that Brown and Goldstein, now working in Southwestern University of Texas, have a huge group of scientists and technologists exploring alternative interpretations.

If it was possible for physicians and epidemiologists to remove their dogma spattered spectacles, they would see what is obvious from most of the large statin trials, particularly the much hailed 4S or Simvastatin study. The effects of morbidity and mortality were proportionally just as great for the group at the bottom end of the scale of cholesterol elevation as they were for the top end.

If one thinks that through carefully and reanalyses the evidence, something else is going on than mere lowering of cholesterol and low density lipoprotein. There is no real surprise in that, when one looks at the nature of the intervention in the cholesterol synthesis pathway, and links that to the ubiquity of cholesterol as an essential structure which holds many biologically important molecules in a particular spatial pattern.

Cholesterol is involved in many biochemical processes and synthetic pathways. The statin drugs do many more things than just lower elevated cholesterol. But the message proclaiming the dogma is out there, and the messengers are not going to change their message in a hurry without carefully considering the shareholders’ interests. After all, the drugs do have a demonstrable effect and are eminently marketable even on the basis of partial evidence.

That brings us up against the real problem and my choice for the title of this talk. We live in an age of misinformation. Politicians seem oblivious to that as they play gleefully with the bubbly toy of the knowledge society concept.

Political games not withstanding, we are all in on this mass-deception exercise. When I thought about applying to the then Mr, now Sir Douglas Graham for legal aid to support the skeptics in a crusade against the pervading partial truths and cunning deceptions, I realised that he probably would remove his pipe temporarily and mumble something about the stability of societal constructs and the impoverishment of lawyers generally.

When more recently I wondered about approaching the Hon Tony Ryall, I realised that I might receive a lecture on fundamentalist thinking. He might use the biblical quote, “You who are not for us are against us.” Moreover, if I took my protests elsewhere I would be rapidly caught up with various religion-based aphorisms. You seek to be a prophet in your own country, haven’t you read the bible?

Shooting the Messenger

These musings sent me off on another trial as the green lipped mussel saga developed. I happen to know a lot about these tasty beasties, because work on them was undertaken in the Department of Medicine in Auckland during the time that Derek North and I were HODs.

Once again, it’s the messenger business that interests me. I happen to believe that Susan Wood is a more astute and intelligent anchor girl than Holmes, allowing for gender-bending bias. However, it rankled me that she and the editor of the New Zealand Herald both came out with the all-innocent line – “Why attack me, I’m only the messenger,” to paraphrase things. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health understood that he was being snowed by Susan Wood but didn’t quite get his counter-attack launched correctly. The Herald seems to have got away with it more or less completely.

However, there is a huge message within that message. The media are not just the messengers. They are an integral part of the process of the misinformation economy. New Zealand is, for at least half its population, a comfortable consumer society, seemingly happy to buy more than it can afford. The United States is going the same way as evidenced by this month’s trade deficit.

If we analyse that situation further, it becomes pretty obvious that what might be termed scientific truth, in itself certainly not an absolute or a constant quality, is now a debased commodity. The concept of quality of information which members of the Skeptics believe to be an essential prerequisite for intelligent human advancement, is held in contempt by key players in the global economy.

Evidence of Efficacy

It is all very well for the Medical Council of New Zealand to pronounce that there is no difference between orthodox and traditional or nonorthodox therapies, their common attribute being that any claims they make shall be based upon evidence of efficacy.

That sounds fine but it flies in the face of reality. Unfortunately, the failure of people like me as medical educators receives poignant testimony from the increasing use of acupuncture, homeopathy and so forth, by so many of our graduates.

Moreover, the status of a critic of these mixed practice habits is weakened by the continuing paucity of sound justification for many so-called orthodox practices. However, thanks to the financial seduction of the messengers, downgrading of science is now a fashionable global activity.

Occasionally I tune in before the 6pm TV1 news and there is the lady representing Blackmores coaxing me into upsetting my gastrointestinal system with slippery elm and to exposing my nervous and renal systems to potential chaos as I ingest mixtures of herbs, some of which contain quite toxic compounds.

I have carefully avoided quoting from the genetic engineering debate but you all know that I am heavily involved in that as president of the Royal Society and in defending science and technology. In particular that society is trying to ensure that information across the spectrum of opinion is made available to the New Zealand public.

We have done a bad job in this, because we failed to estimate the strength, political nouse, and financial capacity of the opposition, that is, of the anti-biotechnology anti-genetic engineering lobbyists, particularly in Europe, England and now New Zealand.

Is this little diatribe of any relevance? I believe there are two important aspects to the great global messenger hoax and the misinformation economy. A lot of harm is being done to people who are not in a position to understand what is happening.

As soon as I make such a statement, I am immediately assailed by the various groups which benefit financially, or in terms of personal status and so forth, because I am becoming paternalistic in a traditional manner and seeking to impose my restrictions on their freedom of choice. However, let’s take that a wee bit further.

To me it is heartening to see Sandra Coney and Robyn Stent opposing one another publicly over the issue of patients’ rights in relation to Lyprinol. I further applaud Dr Pippa MacKay in joining the fray in the New Zealand Herald. I suspect that newspaper does feel guilty about its part in the $2 million one-day killing, but that guilt won’t last for long. Why then are these issues important?

Vaccination Alarms

In 1998 reports began to circulate that measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination might cause autism, possibly through a mechanisim involving changes in bowel function.

There were immediate notes of caution sounded but they were largely ignored. It was pointed out that the reported cases might have been due to what is termed temporal coincidence. There was certainly no convincing laboratory evidence for the contention. A specially convened United Kingdom Medical Research Council committee found the so-called clinical evidence unconvincing.

However, the media messengers got into gear and there was a definite drop in acceptance of MMR vaccination in the United Kingdom. That has spilled over into New Zealand and added fuel to the anti-vaccination campaign here.

This is what I mean by people being harmed by what I have termed the global hoax of purveying partial or pseudo scientific information, to gain readership or viewing numbers for the profit of the moment or for political advantage. Infants and children are in no position to give informed consent, their parents are well placed to be misled.

Information Ignored

I use this particular example because the press internationally ignored information available at the time of the initial sensational reports, which indicated that the measles virus was not the mechanism for the observed cases of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). There was thus selective reporting for purposes of gaining sensation.

I believe that in June 1999 The Lancet laid the matter to rest with the advent of further information. The Lancet also says in its edition of June 12, page 1988 that:

Will the scientifically sound and essentially ‘negative’ results published this week garner the same media and public attention as the initial report of the MMR-autism hypothesis? It is unlikely, as evidenced by the renewed media frenzy last week in response to another report by the group that proposed the hypothesis. This report was of an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease among individuals who had naturally acquired measles and mumps within one year of each other. The study had no data on MMR vaccine and the investigators specifically stated that they did not find a significant relation between monovalent measles vaccination alone and later IBD. Yet the popular media trumpeted the study as providing evidence that MMR vaccination may cause IBD. In such an environment it is critical to strengthen vaccine safety monitoring systems and risk-communication strategies to maintain public confidence in immunisation.

Lancet Editorial Comment, by F De Stefano and RT Chen, 1999, Vol 353, pp 1987-1988

Thus I believe the first important aspect of all this is that the misinformation distribution process can be harmful.

The second important aspect relates to what the whole process tells us about ourselves as a collective society. In a New Zealand which is seemingly increasingly non-numerate to an effective degree, and increasingly less literate in the classical sense, we do face a problem and may need more than legal aid to save our society from contemporary ridicule emanating from better educated international competitors, or worst fate of all, transformation into a nation dominated by a media worshipping cult.

I don’t blame the media for what is happening – I blame ourselves for our failure to anticipate the consequences which automatically ensue when the information technology explosion hits an unprepared, untutored, non-critical society.

We skeptics do have a role – we need to decide how to change the pattern of which I am, I believe, justifiably critical, such that New Zealand can reach democratic decisions on a basis of roundly presented, soundly analysed, best available information.

Can we, the skeptics, help disprove the hypothesis of HG Wells who wrote in 1920:

Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Organic Means What?

The Swedish chemist Berzelius coined the term ‘organic’ for substances that could only be made by living organisms and not synthesised by humans. His German friend Wöhler synthesised urea in 1828 proving Berzelius wrong, there was no such distinction. Another brilliant German chemist, Liebig, then used ‘organic’ to mean carbon-compound chemistry, extending this to include the chemistry of living organisms- so beginning biochemistry.

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Hokum Locum

No Medical Ghetto

In the last issue I warned of the dangers of a medical ghetto developing on the Auckland North Shore. Fifty new doctors set up practice in Auckland last year and even more overseas doctors are pouring into New Zealand. There has not been a corresponding drop in consultation fees in a local aberration of the law of supply and demand. Fortunately, the Northern Region Health Authority has moved to cap any further increases in doctor numbers which have already cost an extra $20 million in subsidy claims. (Christchurch Press 24/4/95)

Dietary Delusions

Retired British policeman Peter Bennett claims that criminal behaviour can be controlled by dietary manipulations. Following a shooting spree in the US, an offender claimed that he was temporarily insane due to excessive dietary sugar (the Twinkies defence, named after a proprietary candy bar). After a special diet, it was claimed that nine recidivist criminals showed a dramatic improvement in behaviour.

Such claims have been made before in connection with children’s behaviour and shown in placebo-controlled trials to be wrong. What Mr Bennett has overlooked is that changes in diet are associated with a change in management, and it is this that has the effect rather than the diet. (Dominion 3/4/95)

Magic Mushrooms in Fiji

Following its importation by a soldier returning from overseas, Fiji has been in the grip of mass hysteria over the magical properties of a tea made from mushrooms. As with most other quack remedies it is claimed to cure everything from baldness to diabetes.

The mushroom, which looks like a bloated, gelatinous pancake, is floated in sweetened black tea and the fermented brew is drunk a week later. The brew is also known as “kombucha” and is gaining popularity in the US and some other Asian countries, and has been touted as an AIDS remedy. (NCAHF Vol 18, No 2) It is in fact a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria. I wonder how long before the brew arrives in New Zealand. (Marlborough Express 10/4/95)

Naughty Children?

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is alleged to be an organically based condition where children are impulsive, overactive and have a short attention span. ADD has previously been known as minimal brain dysfunction, hyperactivity, hyperkinesis and Strauss syndrome, to name but a few.

In fact, ADD is yet another example of the expansionist activities of health professionals who “convert” ills into illnesses. This is the very activity which Illich warned about with respect to the medical profession.

ADD is far more likely to be simply a description of badly behaved children. Instead of concentrating on the behaviour (an effective strategy), people form support groups and look for organic causes which is a waste of time and resources. (GP Weekly 14/4/95)

Occupational Health Delusions

In a landmark decision, a company was fined after admitting a charge that they failed to take steps to protect an employee against occupational overuse syndrome. The employee had been in the new job for four days. I wrote to the company urging them to defend the case but they chose to plead guilty.

After this ludicrous decision I wrote to the Dominion but they chose not to publish my letter. I have also written to the occupational health publication Safeguard but I am not confident on seeing any expression of opposition to the absurd idea that anyone can develop OOS after four days in a new job.

There are, however, some glimmerings of understanding creeping into the literature. A judge in the UK rejected the concept of OOS and in the US a court rejected a claim that computer keyboard design causes it.

Writing in Safeguard (No.30 1995) Alan Boyd lamented the fact that ergonomic changes in the workplace had not lessened the prevalence of OOS. This is not at all surprising to me as no amount of ergonomic posturing can lessen the prevalence of a psychogenic (produced as a result of psychological stresses) condition such as OOS.

In Safeguard Update (27/3/95), Chris Walls acknowledges that anxiety and depression are common in New Zealand, affecting 13% of the population. Exercise is prescribed to relieve anxiety and reduce the chance of OOS. I find it ironic that in their own literature, all the clues are there for a proper understanding of OOS but occupational health workers continue to miss the bigger picture.

When a job becomes too difficult and less socially enjoyable, people start to focus on their symptoms. Attribution to work then means that the problem is the fault of the employer and the availability of compensation validates the “illness”. OOS can only be understood by looking at the historical record of psychogenic illness. This is brilliantly examined in a new book, From Paralysis to Fatigue by Edward Shorter (The Free Press, 1992) which is supported with superb clinical examples from the medical literature.

A striking theme is the gullibility of doctors who validated such presentations as fits and paralysis. It is interesting to find that patients have always resisted the concept of psychogenic illness and have tended to find more socially accepted labels. This is why neurasthenia has been replaced with chronic fatigue syndrome, and Charcot’s hysteria with other conditions such as total allergy syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity.

I recommend this book to all readers interested in medical history. It should be required reading for health professionals.

The (Un)laying-on of Hands

A physiotherapy technique known as cupping has been suspected of causing the deaths of five babies and brain damage in eight others. The technique involves tapping the chest with a soft latex cup in an unproven method of clearing chest secretions. Like many physiotherapy techniques, this method of treatment has never been subjected to critical analysis.

The use of the term “cupping” for the procedure is a little unfortunate. Cupping used to be a medieval practice of applying suction cups to the skin to cause localised counter-irritation to some disease process or symptom. Acupuncture and moxibustion are other examples of counter-irritation quackery. Lancet 25/2/95 Vol 345 p510

Case-management Flunks

In the US, case-management became the central tenet of the care of people with severe mental disorders. The case manager takes a full and comprehensive responsibility for the client. This concept spread to the UK because it was believed to be effective.

However, a randomised trial found virtually no difference in outcome for case-managed clients compared with a control group. The authors concluded “it is unfortunate, in view of the limited effectiveness we have shown, that social services case-management was not evaluated in randomised controlled trials before its implementation in the UK.” (Lancet 18/2/95 Vol 345 p409-412)

Once again, this article demonstrates the absolute necessity of critically evaluating new treatments. This process should be extended to evaluate many of our existing treatments across the whole health area.

Udder Nonsense?

In a form of primitive immunotherapy, Herb Saunders injected his cows with patients’ blood and then sold the bovine colostrum (“first milk”) with the claim that it would cure cancer and other serious diseases.

Saunders sold each patient a cow for US$2500, but not only kept the cow on his farm but charged the patients $35 a bottle for the worthless nostrum. He was charged with practising medicine without a licence but the jury were unable to find a majority verdict of guilty. In my opinion Saunders was definitely guilty of milking his patients!

Chelation Abuses

The California Medical Board has been attempting to prevent the use of chelation therapy for unapproved indications. At a meeting, dozens of patients gave impassioned personal testimonials claiming cures after chelation treatment. It was noted by observers that the “tense atmosphere did not lend itself to rational decision-making.” Despite several impeccable trials that showed no benefit, chelation therapy continues to be offered in New Zealand.

With respect to the dramatic improvements claimed, it is more likely that there has been a fraud rather than a miracle. When confronted with the ravages of arterial disease, people often make profound health and lifestyle changes. They quit smoking, lose weight, exercise and make substantial changes to their risk-factor profiles. These same people are also the ones most likely to seek out chelation therapy. How ironic that they end up paying out thousands of dollars for a treatment whose benefits have been produced entirely by their own effort. (NCAHF Vol 18, No.2)

A Skeptical Miscellany

Picking Winners?

When the short list for the Booker prize was announced there was much chortling about the fact that Jill Paton Walsh had been unable to find a publisher in Britain for Knowledge of Angels. She had to publish it herself.

The Times Literary Supplement (9 Sep, 1994) points out that the English publishing houses could not justify their decision by claiming that they had a surplus of great and worthwhile books. Heinemann has just published what the TLS described as “a work of the purest bilge”. They refer to Nostradamus: his key to the centuries, prophecies of Britain and the world 1995-2010, by V.J. Hewitt.

This adventurous work is not Valerie Hewitt’s first appearance as a seer. In her earlier publication, Nostradamus: The end of the millenium, she predicted that George Bush would be re-elected in 1992, that the Prince of Wales would be crowned King Charles III on May 2 of the same year, and that California would be destroyed by an earthquake on 8 May 1993.

In spite of this unenviable track record, Valerie Hewitt seems to have no difficulty finding gullible publishers. Poetic justice could have won the day. Maybe they asked her, as Nostradamus’ UK agent, to pick the Booker Prize List as well.

An American Dilemma

In the September 16 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Prof Claude Rawson made a nice point during his review of The Beginning of the Journey — the marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling, by Diana Trilling. I’m sure the TLS won’t mind us quoting at length:

“[Diana] too persevered with analysis despite a series of discouraging experiences, including a date with her first psychiatrist, from which she had to be sent home by taxi in a drunken panic … Three of her analysts died on her, an occupational hazard in transactions not otherwise willingly terminated by either party. One was a drug addict who missed appointments and fell asleep during sessions … She was next treated by by Marianne Fris, wife of Ernst, who told her that Lionel was being mishandled by his analyst … At one point the Trillings shared the same analyst and became “sibling rivals, vying for the attention of the same father figure”

This (Stalinist) doctor turned out to be unqualified and had to be retrained. The next “analyst’s wife, herself a psychiatrist” maintained a courteous professional distance. When her husband fell under a car she demanded payment of bills already paid, maintaining professional behaviour to the end. Diana had seven analysts in all and still feels that she “was never properly analysed”.

You might think she was slow on the uptake, but the persistence with which busy and intelligent persons in the US lavish their time and money on analysis in the teeth of a continuous sense of the inefficacy of the whole thing is a cultural phenomenon that awaits explanation.

If you remain unconvinced, watch the wonderfully scary video called Whispers in the Dark. It’s hard to know who is the most terrifying — the psychiatrists or their patient/victims. (Not for children)

Science and the Citizen

On Tuesday 26 September, National Radio’s Morning Report carried an interview with a scientist discussing his research programme which I hope is better founded than it sounded — seeing that we are all paying for it.

Apparently some Danes have shown that males who eat organic food are more fertile than those who eat regular (inorganic?) food. Our local scientist plans to repeat the programme here because if they confirm the Danish findings, it will prove that — and wait for it — pesticides cause male infertility.

Where does one start being decently Skeptical?

Would it not be simpler and much more direct to dose people with pesticides — without greatly increasing the doses they are presumed to be absorbing from their normal fruit and veges — and then send them out into the world to multiply?

And surely any Skeptic can think of several reasons why organic food-eaters might be more fertile than the average member of the population. Do they wear organic ill-fitting underpants?

But there are even more interesting hypotheses to test. We know that we eat about 10,000 times as many natural pesticides as we do synthetic ones (J.D. Mann, New Zealand Skeptic 32). I buy organically grown potatoes because they taste so much better (even though they cost about twice as much), which suggests that they contain a greater and more concentrated range of compounds than the regular watery variety.

Maybe it’s these “special secret ingredients” in the organic fruit and vegetables which serve to boost fertility among Danish males, rather than any tendency for nasty chemicals to diminish the fertility off their less “green” brethren.

And what might these extra compounds be? I presume that the way to raise vegetables which are resistant to the normal range of pests and diseases is to grow them so robust and healthy that their natural defenses are good enough to provide adequate protection. (Any gardener knows that healthy plants are much less prone to disease than sickly ones.) So maybe the reason these Danish organophiles are more fertile is that they are taking in far more natural pesticides than the rest of their countrymen. (And yes they are men!)

Could be it be that our crafty bodies respond to this toxicologic challenge by producing extra sperm to improve the survival chances of our selfish genes?

Who approves funding this stuff — New Zealand On Earth?

New Zealand Skeptic will watch for the outcome with pitchfork drawn and at the ready.

Numero Uno?

I was driving my car when Kim Hill spent half an hour of public broadcasting time interviewing a woman who claimed to be a Pythagorean Numerologist. The woman claimed that she had not appreciated Pythagoras at school because the teachers focused on arithmetic and all that other dry stuff. But later she learned that Pythagorus was a genuine mystic at heart and was worthy of redemption.

Our numerologist explained to a somewhat sceptical — but not falling-about-the-floor laughing — Kim Hill that Pythagorean Numerology could identify all our personality traits by translating the letters of your born name into numbers and then combining these numbers with the numbers of your birthday.

Evidently we can then all be identified as five/sevens, tens/tens or whatever. As you would expect, a five person could be careful with money, but could be able to overcome this tendency by applying the determination which is also associated with five. These people would make wonderful economists — on the one hand this … but on the other hand that …

Kim Hill did raise the difficulty that Pythagoras used the Greek alphabet, but our numerologist explained that the system had been adjusted to fit the Roman alphabet.

Now if telepathy worked at all, Kim Hill would have heard my 10,000 watt telepathic messages saying “Ask her about the birthdays.” Even Pythagoras could not predict the assumed birthdate of Jesus Christ, so its difficult to imagine him building a numerology system based on his being born on the 30 September 582 BC or whenever. And I cannot conceive of any algorithm which would translate the calenders of Pythagorean times into the Gregorian calendar dates we use now.

Once again telepathy failed me, and we never heard how our numerologist dealt with this problem. However, we learned something about Pythagoras. Evidently he ran a University in which everyone would have been vegetarians, because vegetables, unlike meat, are such spiritual food. I suppose this explains the behaviour of that other famous vegetarian, Adolf Hitler. One of Kim Hill’s questions indicated that our numerologist’s extensive research seemed not to have revealed to her Pythagoras’s famous aversion to beans.

However, my frustration with all this nonsense was eased later on in the morning’s programme when Kim Hill read out a fax from an alert Skeptic who complained bitterly about the use of public radio to disseminate such garbage over the air waves. Well done.

Don’t these programmers realize that this sort of stuff makes it doubly hard to argue in favour of preserving public radio. The more National Radio sounds like No Idea On Air the harder it is for any of us to argue its case for survival.

Hokum Locum

MSG Myth Laid to Rest

Another sacred cow from my medical school days has been laid to rest. A letter in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 triggered a rash of anecdotal reports about facial flushing allegedly caused by monosodium glutamate (MSG) in Chinese food. “Chinese restaurant syndrome” had entered the popular medical mythology. Finally, 26 years later, two Australian scientists conducted a double-blind placebo controlled trial and found that some reaction to MSG was experienced by 15% of the subjects but the same reactions were also experienced by 14% of the placebo subjects. The scientists believe that the true cause of Chinese restaurant syndrome are histamine compounds found in fermented ingredients such as soy sauce, black bean sauce and shrimp paste. New Scientist 15 Jan ’94 p15


A US plastic surgeon found that the majority of his patients presenting for operative penile enlargement were motivated by anxiety over the size of their privy member rather than its performance. In fact one patient’s partner reportedly phoned the surgeon before her husband’s operation and told him she would rather have a fur coat! (GP Weekly) The procedure of penile enlargement was developed in China by the appropriately named Dr Long Daochou.

This absurd operation is not at all unusual in a culture where people also have silicon inserts into their muscles in order to look good at the beach. In fact, Ken and Barbie dolls are good models for such people who prefer plastic moulding to the real thing. Speaking of which, Barbie now has her own spiritual “channeller” (Barbie:”I need respect”!) and a “Barbie Channelling Newsletter”. Sadly, Barbie’s cries for help were treated with derision by Mattel Corporation who threatened the channeller with a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Sunday Star Times 5 June ’94


I was absolutely stunned to read in the Christchurch Press (12/8/94) that the Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru is planning to offer a three-year Bachelor of Applied Science in naturopathy. Incredibly, the Qualifications Authority (QA) will be visiting the polytechnic to assess the course. The list of “basic sciences” to be studied includes herbal medicine (Kentucky fried medicine) and homeopathy (dilutions of grandeur). Is there anyone out there with any influence on the QA? Should market forces be allowed to dictate what constitutes a “basic science”? These are serious questions.


Can anybody help me come to an understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? I know it is the new term for what used to be called “shell-shock” but can anyone tell me if the condition is seen in societies which do not have compensation available and are therefore not subject to Welch’s law (see NZ Skeptic 32).

Three passengers on the cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov were awarded a total of nearly $300,000 compensation for PTSD and a further 18 plaintiffs are waiting for their pot of gold. In order for PTSD to have a valid aetiology there must be an equal incidence of cases in the NZ passengers.

I briefly mentioned similar cases related to military service (NZ Skeptic 32) and most people will have heard about “Agent Orange” and alleged links with ill-health in Vietnam vets. It proved cheaper for the manufacturer to settle out of court but this decision has now entered the popular mythology as proof of causation.

Gulf War veterans (something of a misnomer since very few saw any active service) are claiming that symptoms such as fatigue and memory loss constitute a syndrome for which they will no doubt be claiming compensation. (NZ Skeptic 31) I have been following this saga in the medical literature, and investigators are coming up with ever more fanciful theories to explain what is nothing more than mass hysteria. Christchurch Press 14/6/94

Medical News

A therapist who become famous through treating Diana, the Princess of Wales, has been ejected from his Harley St consulting rooms because his claimed medical qualifications were found to be bogus. Presumably he must have had some success with his treatments but the real Harley St doctors were offended and he had to go. What about the opposite situation — real doctors who persist in offering bogus treatments? We have plenty of these in New Zealand and a medical registration system which can do absolutely nothing about the situation!

There will be no sensible policy on smoking in Israel because the acting health minister, Prime Minister Rabin, is a chain-smoker and refuses to sign a bill prohibiting smoking in public places!

Finally, a common inclusion in 17th century Dutch paintings of women visiting the doctor is a charcoal burner and string. The string was burnt near the nose of hysterical women so the fumes can drive the “wandering uterus from the woman’s upper body back to its proper place in the pelvis.” A quaint theory which has been replaced in our time with food and multiple chemical allergy, RSI, CFS. Have we made any progress? Lancet Vol 343 p 663, BMJ Vol 308 p606, International Express 31/8/94.

Mass Hysteria

Some of you will have noted the derivation of hysteria from the Greek “hysteros” for the female uterus which was thought to wander about the body causing hysteria.

Many of you will remember two cases in the US (where else?) where “poisonous” patients caused ill-health to their medical attendants. The first case concerned a 31-year-old woman receiving chemotherapy for cervical cancer. Following the taking of a blood sample in the emergency room, a nurse noted a smell and promptly passed out followed by other emergency team members. Following exhaustive tests no toxic chemical was found and I quote “no one seems to have seriously attributed the mystery illness to hysteria”. The second case followed a similar course.

Both of these cases are in fact classical examples of mass hysteria which is an unfortunate term with connotations of misbehaviour. Mass hysteria is better described as a contagious psychogenic illness. Psychogenic refers to the production of physical symptoms under conditions of stress and should not be confused with neurosis or malingering. The classical sequence of events begins with a generalised belief about a toxic substance in the workplace followed by a precipitating event, typically, as in the above example, a smell. This perceived threat to health and safety leads to psychological arousal and typical symptoms and signs such as dizziness and fainting. There have been many examples of mass hysteria in New Zealand — the Parnell civil defence emergency 1973 (NZ Med J April 28 1982 p277 and also Australian and NZ Journal of Psychiatry 1975 9:225) and the ICI Chemical fire. Occupational overuse syndrome and sick-building syndrome are good examples of mass hysteria in the workplace.

See Scand, J., Work Environ Health 10 (1984) 501-504) for a good review on the subject.

Bioenergetic Medicine

An advertisement for a course in bioenergetic medicine in GP Weekly (25/5/94) recently caught my attention. The location was the same place where I did a week-long basic acupuncture course in 1987. I spent a week and about $1,000 in total expenses learning a practice which is totally unscientific and can be taught in about half an hour to any intelligent skeptic.

During my course the tutor introduced a market-gardener with alleged “allergy” to tomatoes. The patient was connected up to a Vega machine or equivalent and we were given a demonstration of how his muscle strength was diminished when exposed to the killer tomatoes. A container of steroid was then introduced into the circuit and the muscle “weakness” was cured.

Unfortunately one of the other skeptics in the room had actually removed the vial of steroid from the box and revealed it at the conclusion of the demonstration. Incredibly, the tutor was unfazed and attributed the “improvement” to steroid residues (presumably homeopathic) in the box! Truly a graphic demonstration of the power of belief, one which got me interested in active skepticism as a scientific philosophy highly relevant to my own chosen area of medicine.

I suspect that bioenergetic medicine is very similar to applied kinesiology (AK) where muscle strength is tested while a person is subjected to various influences such as foods, vitamins, homeopathic remedies etc. Controlled studies of AK have repeatedly shown that responses are random under conditions where both tester and test subject are unaware of the substance being tested. My own anecdote is a good example of this. NCAHF Vol 17 No 3 has a brief overview

Fraudulent Food & Drink

Yuri Tkachenko, of the resort town of Sochi, has been given permission by city authorities to “magnetise” the Sochi river and thereby lessen the flow of pollutants into the Black Sea. As the river water quality is obviously a little suspect you might like to try some of his “magnetic” vodka which is guaranteed not to cause hangovers.

On the other hand, if you are mainly worried about getting rid of heavy metals, look no further than a new Hungarian oat-bran extract guaranteed to soak up lead and radioactive strontium carried in the blood stream. The pill, Avenan, has been developed by Lajos Szakasi who needs few lessons in the marketing of quack remedies. Avenan will go on sale as a health supplement rather than a medication because “it can be approved after a simple registration procedure”. To quote Lajos again “I believe the product will be successful because…people will always spend on their health.”

More fantastic still is a report from Japan where Kazu Takeishi has been arrested for giving medical advice and medicines without being properly qualified. It all began with his “healthy” vegetable soup which can be mixed with urine to become a miracle medicine, particularly effective against AIDS and cancer. Kazu claimed to make his diagnoses by touching patients’ knees and the palms of their hands. Like all good quacks Kazu is sure of his market and it’s a good one — $30,000 a day and a two-month waiting list (must have been getting behind on the urine supply). Cancer is a taboo subject in Japanese culture and doctors are even protected in law from informing patients about such a diagnosis.

Now, if I could get the recipe for this soup, I could mix it with urine and treat cancer patients for $300 per consultation and there is nothing the medical council can do — because I’m a doctor!