Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Hair Transmission Homeopathy

Posted in The Quackometer by Skepdude on July 14, 2009

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Cut free from the tethers of evidence and reason, homeopathy, as a system of thought, is free to soar into lofty heights of wild fantasy. Unrestrained by the weight of reality and the heavy ethical demands of accountability, practices and principles are able to float into almost any area that the imagination will allow. There are no maps to guide this flight of the bizarre and no compass to return the traveller to a safe base.

Despite two hundred years of existence, you will still find vigorous debates on homeopathic discussion boards about what exactly homeopathy is. There are homeopaths who will only ever give one pill. There are homeopaths that do not mind mixing pills. Some only accept remedies based on the original forms of testing, know as the ‘proving’. Others allow themselves to dream what a remedy might do. Homeopaths squabble about what is right, but can never resolve their difference because they have long ago abandoned objective means of settling disputes. An uneasy truce exists between the various schools of thought with only occasional cold war like peripheral fights breaking out, mainly in the form of a diatribe by one side denouncing heresies and calling for all homeopaths to unite under the scriptures of Hahnemann, the founder, and the One True Authority.

A few common principles bind the various factions together – the idea of similarity, that like cures like; the need to match the totality of symptoms to a remedy; and the idea of minimum dose – use the smallest amount of remedy possible. This last point means that homeopaths most often give no dose. The medicine has been so diluted away that not a single molecule remains. The beauty of homeopathy, and probably the reason that it is has done so well, is that it is a pure placebo therapy. There are no risks of side effects and the patent is quite free to allow nature to take its course and the complaint to get better on its own.

When the actual physical acts of homeopathy are completely inert and when practiced by people with no regard for critical self appraisal, the scientific medicine and the objective collection of data, one can expect a certain amount of evolution of ideas and the generation of variants.The only criteria that restrain such ideas are the need to keep the treatment inert, the philosophical acceptability to the vitalist mindset of the homeopath and, most importantly, its profitability in practice.

Thus, in the UK, we have seen the former founder of the Society of Homeopath, Peter Chappell, invent the homeopathic delivery of remedies by MP3 file. Since homeopaths invent cod explanations for their work along the lines that it is an ‘energy medicine’ or a ‘vibrational medicine’ then the thinking goes that because MP3 files can encode sound vibrations, then they can also encode ‘healing vibrations’. And so, we find Chappell running a little business where people can download MP3 files and play sounds of waves crashing as they worry that they might have swine flu.

It is in India though that we must look to see some true inventiveness. The country has more homeopaths than any other and the government appears to be quite happy to support all manner of quackery in the name of political expediency.

And so, I stumbled across the works of the followers of Dr. B. Sahni who runs the Research Institute Of Sahni Drug Transmission & Homoeopathy (risdth.org). Without a hint of irony, the home page proclaims “Welcome to Medicine Free World“. The Sahni protocol is rather wonderful: a homeopathic remedy is chosen in the classical way, by matching symptoms to a remedy. The chosen pill is then dissolved in a vial and a single hair is then plucked from the customer’s head and placed in the vial with a little bit sticking out. The hair is then able to transmit the remedy back to the owner.

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Top Ten Tips For Creating Your Own New Alternative Medicine

Posted in The Quackometer by Skepdude on March 31, 2009

The economic downturn may mean that you are thinking of retraining as an alternative healer. You might be tempted to invest your redundancy money or savings in training courses and equipment. Think again. It may be far cheaper and much more lucrative to invent your own brand new form of quackery. Most forms of alternative medicine are at most only a few decades old or have only become popular recently. If others can become famous and wealthy by doing this, why can’t you?

Here is the Quackometer’s Guide to inventing a new branch of alternative medicine in ten easy to digest and holistic tips:

1. Minimise specific effects

Right. Let’s get one thing out of the way. Your newly designed alternative medicine is very unlikely to actually work. Progress in medicine does not happen with people just making stuff up, but instead relies on remarkable insight, careful analysis, detailed research and long and expensive clinical trials, with lots of false starts and wrong turns before progress is made. You will not have the time, inclination, money or intellect for this.

So, with little chance of being able to offer real benefit to your clients, the best you can do is to ensure you do as little as harm as possible. To this end, make sure your new quackery is inert, neutral and inconsequential in action. Take your inspiration from existing and successful alternative medicine. Homeopathy is just plain sugar pills. Acupuncture is just little pin pricks. Reiki is just hand waving. Bach Flower Remedies is just a few drops of brandy. Reflexology is just a foot massage. Even chiropractic is just a vigorous body rub.

If you make the mistake of delivering real effects, then you may well be found out and your new business will come to sticky end. That is why we do not see old sorts of quackery anymore such as blood letting and trepanning.

2. Maximise placebo effects

Make your treatment theatrical. Make your customer feel as if they have been listened to, been taken seriously, and then had lots of effort made on them to create a cure. This will ensure any available placebo effect is maximised. People will feel better about themselves if you make the effort. We know that the more dramatic the intervention, the greater any placebo effect will be.

So, spend at least an hour with your customer, asking lots of detailed questions, just like a homeopath. Use arcane terms and be thoroughly paternalistic, just like an old-fashioned doctor. Wear a white coat and have a brass plaque outside your spick and span clinic – just like a chiropractor. Get an impressive Harley Street address. Use equipment with dials and flashing lights. Take x-rays. Put certificates on your wall and, if you are doing well, have attractive receptionists. Give the impression you are creating your cure just for this patient. They are special. Make them feel so.

3. Choose what you want to cure carefully

The bread and butter illnesses for alternative medicine are the self-limiting (hayfever, flu, morning sickness) and the chronic but variable and cyclical (bad backs, arthritis, mild depression). The number one reason for people believing in alternative medicine is that it ‘works for them’. What this means is that their particular complaint just happened to improve sometime after rubbing whatever magic beans they had chosen.

Chronic illnesses are ideal – they represent repeat business. Bad backs are a classic. People will come to you when their backs are really playing up. Cast your spells, crack their bones and stick a pin in them and their pain will become less noticable. It will have gone away anyway. But now you have a loyal and evangelical customer. Correlation is causation to your customer. “Regression to the mean” is your friend. Understand it and use it.

Have excuses ready if things are not quite getting better yet – or even if things are getting worse. Homeopaths expect to see ‘aggravations’, that is, things getting worse before they get better. To them, it is more proof that the sugar pills are ‘working’. Have a story ready for every outcome, good or bad. Never admit you have failed.

Avoid illnesses with obvious end points, like death. Getting payment may be the least of your problems. If you want to be heroic and tackle illnesses like AIDS and cancer, best do it offshore. Find a country with fewer regulations, much lower standards of healthcare and more vulnerable people. Homeopaths tend to go to Africa to treat AIDS or prevent malaria. They might be imprisoned here. Find a nice spot in Spain for treating cancer. Or Mexico, if you are from the US.

Invent a ‘wellness’ programme. Tell people you can help them even if they are feeling fine. It’s preventative, you see. Chiropractors are masters at  roping people into prolonged, expensive and unnecessary treatment programmes, all in the name of ‘wellness’. Nutritionists ensure people are popping highly ‘personalised’ lists of vitamin and mineral pills and creating a continuous and easy revenue stream for you.

Perhaps the most lucrative path is to invent illnesses. Create your own problems, diagnostic techniques and cures and you can provide an end-to-end service of imaginary illnesses and cures. The Detox industry has thrived on this. Food intolerances and allergies have made shed loads for vitamin pill sellers. Electrosensitives have been sold millions of pounds worth of useless EMF trinkets and neutralising boxes.  People love their daily aches and pains, tiredness and mood swings to have a name and to have something to blame. You can provide a wonderful service by filling in the gaps for them.

4. Embrace the language of quackery

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Queen Margaret University and Prostituted Academia

Posted in The Quackometer by Skepdude on February 19, 2009

A few weeks ago, newspapers were carrying remarkable stories about a Scottish mineral water, Deeside Water, that could halt aging, reduce wrinkles and have amazing anti-oxidant effects – a remarkable fountain of youth. Newspapers gushed with reports of this amazing scientific discovery. Even the BBC had previously reported that Deeside Water could “treat rheumatism, skin conditions and stomach complaints” .

Deeside water were celebrating a press release from Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh that said that “A bottle a day keeps the wrinkles away”

For the first time, scientists can prove that Deeside Mineral Water actually slows the signs of ageing and does so 50% more effectively than other tested waters on the market.

In the first of two new research studies, Deeside Mineral Water was rigorously tested against other major international market leading brands of bottled water. The study was undertaken by scientists at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and confirmed that Deeside Mineral Water is 50% more effective than other waters tested in suppressing free radicals.

Dr Mary Warnock, lecturer in Dietectics, Nutrition and Biological Sciences at Queen Margaret University explained “Free radicals are harmful to the body’s cells and contribute to the ageing process. Reducing free radicals helps protect cells from damage. Deeside Mineral Water has some very unusual properties and we know that people have been drinking it for its curative benefits for centuries. The results from these tests are very exciting. They show that something as simple as Deeside Mineral Water, a Scottish product, could be effective at protecting the body and skin from the harmful effects of free radical damage.”

The study, carried out on women aged between 18 and 52, also showed a reduction in the average number of wrinkles when a litre of Deeside Mineral Water was drunk daily over a period of 12 weeks. Again this is due to skin hydration, one of the single biggest factors in the ageing process. The test results showed that by drinking Deeside Water, the skin was plumped up, leading to fewer wrinkles.

Now, this rang many alarm bells. Firstly, extrapolating from test tube data to ‘health benefits’ of products is one of the cardinal sins of quack nutritionists. Just because a product “suppresses free radicals” in a test tube does not mean that the same product will “slow the signs of ageing” when eaten or drunk. Not least, any antioxidant effects of a mineral water must be utterly insignificant when looked at in conjunction with other components of a diet, i.e. food. The idea that choosing one brand of water over another will have any meaningful effect in ‘slowing aging’ is just preposterous. The research at QMU, if it existed, surely could not support the claims in the press release or the newspapers.

My alarms rang even louder when I read the Deeside Water web site. The site starts of with quite a claim that it “is one of the purest, healthiest waters in the world”. The site gets remarkably worse when it describes Deeside Water as ‘enhancing complementary treatments’. It claims the water has a ‘living energy’ and ‘higher vibration’ than other waters, and advises its customers to “Ask your pendulum which water is the best for well-being!”, Genius quackery. To cap it all, we find out that the water is supplied to Prince Charles, the quacktitioner royal, to bottle as Duchy Original water.

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Tong Ren and the Magic Magnetic Hammer of Healing

Posted in The Quackometer by Skepdude on February 2, 2009

have got to share this with you. The fabulously bonkers web site What Doctors Don’t Tell You has a news report about a breakthrough in acupuncture with a story entitled,  “New therapy helps cancer patients”.

They say,

A new form of acupuncture is dramatically improving the quality of life of patients suffering from a range of diseases, including cancer, anxiety and autoimmune diseases, according to a new study.

The therapy, Tong Ren, has been pioneered in the USA since 2001 by Tom Tam, an acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner.  He has used it to treat patients suffering from cancer, diabetes, AIDS, arthritis, anxiety and depression.

Researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine have tracked the health of 265 patients after weekly sessions of Tong Ren.  Around a third noted improved quality of life, and with no adverse effects.  ‘Substantial’ improvements were noted by 63 per cent of patients suffering anxiety, and 60 per cent of cancer patients.

Although the survey is based on subjective and anecdotal evidence, the researchers say the results warrant further research into Tong Ren.

Yet another thing that our Doctors are not telling us. Is acupuncture really curing cancer and other serious diseases? It had to be worth a little checking. I wonder if Lynne McTaggart of WDDTY did any checking on this too? This is what I found out.

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Is the Popularity of Homeopathy Collapsing?

Posted in The Quackometer by Skepdude on November 14, 2008

There is a claim by many sceptical writers that we live in a new age of endarkenment. Our public lives, whether in politics, universities, businesses and health, face an onslaught of irrational thought. However I have uncovered some remarkable evidence to suggest that interest in homeopathy is declining rather aggressively. I am not sure I believe it, and I want to encourage comments and interpretations to see if this might be real.

All this came about because Google have unveiled the latest part of their rather splendid toolset that allows researchers to look at search trends and see how this might be used to monitor and predict all sorts of behaviour. As a showcase for their techniques, they have developed flutrends that shows how people are searching about flu across the United States. They believe this correlates very closely with incidence of the disease and thus can be used as a near real time monitor of the severity of outbreaks. Standard reporting techniques mean that reporting lags two weeks behind and so this technique may be a much more timely and accurate measurement. Fascinating stuff. And very useful if you want to deploy resources effectively.

So, I decided to play around myself and naturally wanted to see if people were looking for stuff about homeopathy on the web. The graph below shows the relative incidence of the search term in the United Kingdom over the past few years. (The lower part of the graph shows results for news items.

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