Posts Tagged ‘alternative medicine’

The harm in “traditional healing”

April 5, 2011

A few weeks ago when I wrote about a new age exposition here in Western New York, a few commenters on Facebook were whining about how I could dare to criticize the idiots who attended and the frauds who sold overpriced garbage to them. Here’s what one of them said:

Let whackos be wackos. Nothing wrong with them at all- they’re just wackos. Live and let live….. Whether the vendors are con-artists or not… Wackos need to buy their wacky stuff. It’s good for the economy.

Usually I just direct people who make this kind of argument to for lots of examples with what’s wrong with “wackos” selling quack “treatments” to the gullible. But since I don’t have a Facebook account, I’ll have to just write about a recent example in the news here.

Tanzania has outlawed witch doctors and traditional “healers” recently due to a mass killing of albinos for their body parts to use in magic potions. But that doesn’t mean their government will do anything about one of them selling the same crap to desperate sick people when the “miracle pastor” selling it happens to be making a lot of money off of it.

There is a line 16 miles long stretching to Rev Ambilikile “Babu” Mwasapile’s house in a remote area of Tanzania. They’re all waiting to pay the equivalent of 30 cents to get a mixture of water and herbs which, according to the BBC, is “safe to drink.” The problem is that it’s not really safe to buy. The people waiting in line for this have no real shelter besides their automobiles (if they happen to have driven there), and no access to clean water. So far 52 have died just waiting in line to buy this stuff.

Maybe some of them would have died of whatever they were trying to cure anyway. After all, they wouldn’t be going to such extreme measures if they didn’t have some serious medical ailment already.

Fortunately even the guy profiting off of all this insanity is calling for fewer customers, since it’ll probably turn out that he’s caused more suffering in his business venture than he’s alleviated. When this story came out, he was asking for no new arrivals until April 1. Also the tests to see if his concoction had any medical benefit were still ongoing. But even if it turns out it has some measurable positive effect, he should still be subject to the law for selling it without doing any real tests or seeking any approval for it at all.

Douchebag preacher mocks medicine

April 12, 2010

Here is the black preacher version of Sarah Palin:

So I guess my defense mechanism to teh stupids of this magnitude is to treat it a little more seriously than it deserves. It’s basically “folksy wisdom,” and like most of that crap it’s just feel-good fluff which contradicts itself if it’s lucky enough to even make any sense in the first place.

In the beginning he’s talking about how God decides when we die and we just have to let God do his God-thing. “Let go and let God” is a popular and nauseating way of expressing this idea.

But later he seems to switch over to a secular argument, which is that staying away from doctors who try to find “knots” is actually better for your health. But I thought worrying about what’s better for your health is a betrayal of your faith… So which is it? Should we try to live longer lives, or should we just give up and let God decide when we’re supposed to die? This preacher is in such a thick fog of theological bullshit that he probably doesn’t even realize he’s preaching for contradictory positions.

Simon Singh wins appeal

April 1, 2010

After almost two years of legal action, Simon Singh won the libel case against him by the British Chiropractic Association on appeal (full text of ruling). The case was over an article called “Beware the Spinal Trap” which appeared in the Guardian in 2008, specifically over where Singh wrote that the BCA “happily promoted bogus treatments,” because they do.

Originally, the courts ruled that happily promoting bogus treatments implied that the BCA would have to be promoting treatments which they knew didn’t work. This is exact opposite of how we have libel in America, where the prosecution has to prove that the defendant knowingly misinformed the public. In British law, such as it is, being right isn’t good enough of a defense against libel.

The president of the BCA said he is considering appealing the appeal (YO DAWG I HERD U LIKE APPEALS). Singh says that so far the lawsuit has cost him £200,000.

Hopefully this can be used as a precedent to reform the UK’s primitive libel laws. From the BBC:

Coalition for Libel Reform spokeswoman Tracey Brown said: “This case has brought out of the woodwork the fact that so many other discussions are being killed, from discussions of cardiology to human rights to medicines.
“We’re now pushing ahead for bigger changes to the law so that we have the kind of public interest defence that means it wouldn’t have taken two years and £200,000 to find out whether Simon can defend himself.”

You can learn more about British libel reform here.

You can also read more info on the case from the Index on CensorshipSteven Novella, Rebecca Watson, and Jack of Kent.

Mark Twain takes on the snake oil salesmen of his time

January 27, 2010

Mark Twain was awesome. A lot of people date the beginnings of the modern skeptical movement at around the 1970s, when Paul Kurtz was starting CSICOP, Carl Sagan started making counterarguments to the claims of Ufologists, and James Randi started offering money to people who could objectively prove paranormal claims.

But it all goes back further than that and Mark Twain is a great example. He battled the emerging Christian Science school of faith-healing in a largely unknown book, was critical of religion in general in most of his works, and was even critical of belief in free will.

So back in 1905 a patent medicine salesman sent out a leaflet (p1, p2, p3, p4)advertising his “Elixir of Life” which proposed to be able to cure meningitis and diphtheria, among other diseases of “Human, Animal, and Fowl.” I guess today they call this stuff natural supplements which detoxify your body and stimulate the immune system. But they went even further in those days by calling it the “GIVER OF LIFE EVERLASTING.”

The huckster’s problem came when he didn’t notice a prominent name on his list of recipients to his advertisement – Mark Twain’s. Or maybe he was listed under Clemens then. Anyway, Twain decided to have his secretary take dictation on a letter in response. This secretary was apparently not chosen for the job due to her stellar handwriting, so there will be a transcript after the image of the actual letter:

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

“An idiot of the 33rd degree” is one of those phrases that need to live on, so I think I’ll be borrowing that one from time to time. Anyway, Twain was probably a little agitated beyond normal by this particular ad since his daughter and son had both been killed by diseases which this product claimed the ability to cure.

Idiotic quote of the day

January 25, 2010

Usually I post quotes I admire by people I admire. This is the exact opposite. But first I have to give a little context.

This guy called Mike Adams runs this pro-quackery website called Natural News. Mike was in some kind of Twitter contest, which is serious business. PZ Myers noticed that some quacks like Mike were in the lead in the health category and encouraged his horde of followers to pharyngulate the polls in favor of Dr. Rachael Dunlop from Australia.

Well, it turns out that the people running the Twitter contest found that Mike’s votes were from new accounts on Twitter, implying at the least that his voters had signed up for Twitter exclusively in order to vote for Mike, which is against the rules. A less generous interpretation would be that they’re just sock puppet accounts.

So Mike Adams lost his shit over this internet contest and made some really funny/pathetic attempts at analyzing the methods and perspectives of skeptics. He claimed to have researched, but doesn’t cite any sources. Orac had a good way to describe it – he is a “pyromaniac in a field of straw men.” PZ also responded, as did Steven Novella. Everyone’s having fun with this Adams character’s apparent mental breakdown. Good times for all.

Now Mike has a new response to the responses, which is even more hysterical (in more ways than one). And here’s where we get to the idiotic quote of the day:

“One such skeptic accused me of being a quack because he said that I believe “water is magical.” Was that supposed to be an insult? I do think water is magical!

I think pregnancy is magical. Human consciousness is magical. Plant life is magical. And water is at the very top of the list of magical substances with amazing, miraculous properties, many of which have yet to be discovered.”

The thing is that we have a pretty good idea of how pregnancy, human consciousness, plant life, and water work, and none of those things require any magic to be explained. And on the latter “point,” (and I’m using that term in the loosest possible sense) I wonder how Mike here knows that water has these “amazing miraculous properties” if, by his own admission and in his own words, those same properties are “yet to be discovered.”

The problem with hypothetical properties which have yet to be discovered is that they appear in exactly the same way as properties which don’t actually exist, regardless of how magical and miraculous they might or might not be. What a sad and miserable existence this Mike person must have to need to believe in magic to have any meaning in his life at all – which is obvious from reading the rest of his gibberish.

Homeopathy overdose scheduled for January 30

January 19, 2010

In 10 days, participants in the 10:23 Project will simultaneously overdose on homeopathic “medicine.” This is something James Randi used to do all the time. At the beginning of a lecture, he would take a huge amount of what is marketed as homeopathic sleeping pills and then go on with his talk. If they really were sleeping pills, he wouldn’t be able to finish his talk without falling asleep at least, or even needing medical attention. Needless to say, he never had any problem finishing his talks when this was done.

Homeopathy advocates can always respond to this by claiming that a true overdose of homeopathic “medicine” would mean either drowning or death by sugar high since such “medicine” necessarily needs to be diluted with either sugar or water until there’s probably nothing left. But the main point here is that if it worked as something other than what it clearly is (water), then there should be dramatic results from this mass overdose.



Have you ever stared at the back of a dollar bill… on South African vulture brains?

January 4, 2010

Vultures in South Africa are in danger of going extinct because gamblers are smoking their brains. They believe doing this will give them visions of the future – like lottery numbers and the outcomes of sporting events.

This is one of those crackpot ideas that should have a short shelf life. If people were rational, they’d see that the people they know who smoke vulture brains then (probably) don’t win the lottery – and then stop smoking vulture brains. But it seems to have become an obsession on its own, kind of like how gambling itself can to some people. Just… a few… more… vulture brains….

From the Guardian article:

Andre Botha, manager of the birds of prey working group at the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa, said: “People believe it’s foresight and this finds fertile ground in people’s imagination. If it worked for the lottery, everyone would use it and we’d have a lot of millionaires walking around today.
“There is a lot of betting in South Africa. So we may see an increase connected to gambling around the 2010 World Cup.”

For some reason the Guardian is calling people who do this “traditional healers” instead of more appropriate terms, like quack. It’s not objective to refer to this as “traditional,” it’s just enabling.

There are parallels to this around the world. The vulture brain story is just the one to become a news story recently. Another problematic area in “traditional healing” is the use of ground-up Rhinoceroses’ horns in China as an antidote to poisons, devil posessions, to keep away evil spirits, to cure typhoid, headaches, fever, dysentery, smallpox, and pretty much everything else. Similar use waste of tiger bones in China has led to their demise in that part of the world.

So people who are interested in preserving a diversity of animal species on Earth are left with what some might approach as a dilemma. They want to protect endangered species, but many of those same people have a misguided but well-intentioned desire to preserve marginalized human cultures – and never mind what those human cultures happen to be doing, even if it’s in direct conflict with the goal of protecting endangered species.

So the obvious solution, at least it’s obvious to me, is to not worry so much about how “OMG IT’S THEIR CULTURE” when that involves doing unnecessary harm. Otherwise you’ll have no reason to use that same principle to defend witch hunts and human sacrifices in the interests of communities which do that sort of thing.

Anyway, the important thing to remember about all of this is that smoking vulture brains will let you see the future.

Antivaxers get litigious

January 4, 2010

So if anyone’s reading this on the actual website and not through a reader, you might have noticed that I have a few of these ‘widget’ things on the right side here. The first one is for a campaign by Sense About Science in support of science writer Simon Singh in his ongoing legal battles with the British Chiropractic Association. Here is what it looks like:

You can click on it to read more about Singh’s case, but the gist of it is that he said that the BCA happily promotes bogus treatments, because they do, and the BCA sued him. This all happened in the UK, where libel law is completely ass-backwards and the burden of proof is on the defendant(s) to prove that they’re innocent, instead of on the prosecution to prove guilt.

Anyway, now Rachael Dunlop of the Australian Skeptics is reporting that something similar is happening to Amy Wallace and her publisher at Wired for an article published a few months ago about the anti-vaccine movement. The pdf of the case is here.

Barbara Loe Fisher has a problem with Wallace citing someone who called her a liar, even though she is one. But that doesn’t seem to be in dispute here. Fisher seems to be much more upset that she wasn’t given an opportunity to say to Wallace pre-publication, “Nuh uh, I’m not a liar!” Seriously, just look at the pdf linked to above.

The antivaxers are actually starting to get pretty funny at this point. They skip over the whole point of suing for libel (i.e. proving intentional disinformation, material damages, etc.) and go right into their whiny political rants:

“The article does not present science concerning the risks or the informed consent rights issues that arise from mandatory vaccination but adheres to a bias in favor of the general safety of vaccines and a presumed medical necessity blah blah blah.”

So they don’t appear to have much interest in pursuing their case for the goal of actually winning it; and it’s being done in the US, where libel law is more reasonable than most other places. These two facts together add up to this being nothing but another SLAPP-suit by the alt med industry, just another attempt to frighten and silence critics. And the pattern recently with those kinds of things is that they reveal much more ugliness about the plaintiffs than they do about the defendants. Hopefully this case will fit in that pattern.

UPDATE: Case dismissed.

Prince Charles urges EU medical deregulation

December 3, 2009

England’s most famous welfare queen – besides the actual queen – is meeting with the UK’s health secretary to get him to cancel proposed EU medical regulations which would “crack down” (words of the Telegraph) on people who practice medicine without being registered to do so.

Imagine that! It’s like the EU wants to enter the 20th century already in this regard.

Prince Charles has been outspoken in his advocacy of certain antiscientific positions. For example, he’s opposed to so-called genetically modified crops because to do otherwise would be to take us into “realms that belong to God and God alone.” Apparently he doesn’t understand that crops have been genetically modified by humans ever since there were such things as crops, during the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago.

Likewise, he doesn’t seem to understand the importance of regulating medicine, which is funny for what’s supposed to be the “nanny state” of the UK where regulation is taken a bit too far. He sees the deregulation of medical practices as protecting the “alternative medicine” industry, of which he has long been a strong supporter from promoting coffee “cures” for cancer to homeopathy and herbal remedies which has angered actual doctors who understand medicine. Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst even dedicate a chunk of their book to countering Charlie’s claims about such “medicine.”

It’s often said that there’s this word for “alternative medicine” that’s been proven to work: It’s “medicine.” So alternative medicine by definition either has yet to have been shown to work, or has been shown not to work. If you want your remedies and magic potions to be considered medicine, why not test them and have them join the rest of medicine? After all, it’s not like this is a foreign concept. Lots of medicine was once in the same category as herbal remedies, but then it was tested and shown to work. If it can’t pass those tests, then there are good reasons to regulate them and point out clearly that the results of such testing are consistent with them not working at all.

That’s what Charles would be doing if he actually cared about showing that his quackery works. But he doesn’t. He just wants more money poured into the multi-billion dollar industries he favors for his own personal, ideological reasons.


Charlene Werner and Homeopathy

November 5, 2009

I try not to write about stuff that’s been dealt with by PZ Myers on his blog Pharyngula, simply because it’s the most popular blog dealing with science and atheism since, like, ever. But the subject of this post probably should be duplicated as much as possible for reasons which should become obvious soon.

About a week ago, this video started being circulated around skeptical circles. It’s a person called Charlene Werner trying to explain homeopathy.

“Do you know what H2O is? Do you know who Einstein was? Do you know who Stephen Hawkings [sic] is?”

Yeah. Wow. Depending on my mood, it’s either hilarious or painful to me.

So it looks like this Charlene Werner person decided to contact the original poster of this video with a sort of threatening letter, claiming that it is copyrighted material. But this isn’t about her trying to make money off of this footage, this is about her being embarrassed about being called names (and rightfully so) on the internet. It seems like Charlene Werner and the king of Thailand both need to learn about the Streisand effect. And they’ve apparently decided to take that lesson the hard way.

Vaccines will kill us all

October 20, 2009

Louis Farrakhan has joined the party with his fellow medical professionals Bill Maher and Jenny McCarthy in trying to scare people into not getting the swine flu vaccine:

“The Earth can’t take 6.5 billion people. We just can’t feed that many. So what are you going to do? Kill as many as you can. We have to develop a science that kills them and makes it look as though they died from some disease,” Farrakhan said, adding that many wise people won’t take the vaccine.

Farrakhan doesn’t seem aware that “science” is a method, not a vaccine or a poison. But I do agree that there are many wise people who won’t take it. Lots of wise people are dead, so that would prevent them from getting it. I don’t think that’s what Farrakhan meant, though.

Anyway, here is a good summary of how we really know that these people are wrong. And here are some more search engine terms which have led people here, for your amusement.

  1. david attenborough naked
  2. demons in h1n1 vaccine
  3. does god want me to get h1n1 immunizatio
  4. mind-controlling nanobots flu shot
  5. banana man ray

I am really not sure which is less sane – wanting to see a naked David Attenborough or worrying about demons and mind-controlling nanobots in a flu shot.

The AAI / Maher / Dawkins controversy recap

October 11, 2009

OK, I’m going to try to summarize all this crap at once.

It all started last year when Bill Maher did his Religulous movie. Besides the boring autobiographical stuff and the stupid ending, it was pretty funny.

Then, a few months ago, the Atheist Alliance International decided to give Maher the Richard Dawkins Award, which they give out at their annual convention. People who pay attention to people like Maher here in the States got all up in arms about it because one of the criterion for the award is to promote science. Bill Maher’s an alternative medicine kook who’s against vaccines and doesn’t believe in the germ theory of disease. Here is a good summary of the problems with giving this award to Bill Maher. And just as a side note, what’s kind of weird about this is that nobody seemed to have a problem with giving Penn this same award while he was denying anthropogenic global warming, but whatever.

So some people got in touch with Dawkins and asked if he was aware of this aspect of Bill Maher. Unsurprisingly, since he’s in England and doesn’t have the same exposure to American celebrities as we do, he didn’t. He said something like “Religulous gave me the lulz and I don’t know anything about what he thinks about medicine.”

At some point before presenting Maher with his award, Dawkins looked into it and found that Maher was promoting some of the same crap Dawkins had actually attacked in print and on television. At the AAI convention last weekend he said that he doesn’t share all of Maher’s views, especially those regarding medicine – but hey, we work together with liberal religionists to keep church and state separate and fight against creationism, so this isn’t something to get too upset over.

OK, here’s where it gets weird. In a recent interview PZ Myers, who was also at the convention, said that Dawkins asked Maher if he could go back on his show to discuss “alternative medicine,” and Bill Maher said no. But later that week, Maher had Bill Frist on his show to do exactly that.

This is weird. It’s like Maher doesn’t want to be seen disagreeing with Richard Dawkins. He wants to be seen disagreeing with the conservative Republican who diagnosed Terri Schiavo as “alive” based on a few minutes of video. In the above link, Maher even tries to use some idiotic line like, “Well conservatives don’t believe in evolution (???), so you must be wrong about vaccines too! Ha ha!” And then, like usual, he derides “western medicine.” Uh, right – the same scientific basis used to show evolution as true is great, except when you apply it to medicine. What an asshole.

I’m going to have to go take a shower now. I feel dirty for being on Bill Frist’s side on this one.

Health care reform

September 30, 2009

There are a couple of aspects of health care reform I don’t think I’ve heard much about in the ongoing debate. Actually there are probably a lot more than just a couple, but two in particular I just wanted to briefly mention.

One would be the words “signing statement.” Remember those laws passed by Congress during the Bush administration which did things like restrict things like warantless wiretapping and extraordinary rendition, and then Bush would sign it attached to a statement which clarified the legislation as being interpreted to mean the exact opposite of what it actually said? Bush set a record with the sheer number of those signing statements. It was big news for a while back then.

So I’m not saying that Obama should do that as a way to force in a viable public option. But has anyone even mentioned it? All I’m finding is that he claimed to want to weaken the executive power involved in signing statements, but then used exactly that power to weaken whistle-blower protection, among a few others. But nothing about health care reform in regards to signing statements.

The other issue is that if we actually do get a public option, viable or not, there is a danger that the “alternative medicine” industry will try to capitalize on that and get even more subsidies for their quackery than they already have. The Center for Inquiry has released a report (PDF) warning of the dangers of funding “alternative medicine” alternatives to medicine garbage.

On the one hand, lots of other government-funded scientific organizations successfully avoid woo in their studies. NASA doesn’t have to study astrology. The US Geological Survey doesn’t have to entertain flat Earth or expanding Earth “theories.” The American Institute of Physics doesn’t have to invest in alleged perpetual motion machines.

But on the other hand, the “alternative medicine” industry has something that flat Earthers and perpetual motion machine scammers and astrologers don’t – lots and lots of money and political influence. So there really needs to be some stipulation in whatever health care reform gets passed – if it even does – where methods of treatment will need to be tested and will need to pass those tests. And they’ll need to be double-blinded with proper controls. Anecdotes and testimonials can not be good enough.

Sure, people like Bill Maher and Jenny McCarthy and Kevin Trudeau will claim this is all part of a conspiracy to outlaw their useless “medicine,” but so what? Fuck them. There is real danger in allowing that into a government supported health care system. One is that obviously we’re going to be forced to pay for treatments that don’t work, and the other is that it will make true all the conservatives’ claims that government can’t run health care. Because in that case, they’ll be right.