Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Trepanation: A most extreme form of quackery

Posted in Depleted Cranium by Skepdude on April 23, 2010


If there’s anything that can be said in favor of this idiotic procedure, it’s that at least it usually tends to be self-inflicted by those who actively seek it and is not normally something that quacks convince people, who would otherwise not do such an act, to do.   However, this is not always the case.   In 2000, at least two men were arrested in Utah for practicing medicine without a license after preforming trepanations on several individuals. The practitioners claimed that they could provide relief for a variety of conditions ranging from depression to addictions.  There is, of course, no scientific evidence of this being the case.

Warning: The following video contains some slightly graphic scenes of an actual medical trepanation. It’s only brief and relatively clinical, but if you’re really squeamish you may not want to watch. However, the second of the two videos is not graphic at all.

There are a number of individuals and organizations that push the procedure and advocate the benefits of trepanation.  One of the most vocal is Bart Hughes, who, despite often being called one, is not a doctor at all.   As recently as this year, Hughes has been publishing various articles and press releases claiming that the procedure has numerous benefits and can enhance human consciousness.  There is even an international trepanation advocacy group.

It is true that trepanation has a long history in both Western culture and other places in the world.  That said, “Well doctors in the middle ages did it,” is generally not recognized as a means of validating as good medicine.   Whether or not it ever had any therapeutic value is, at best, questionable, although few medical procedures of centuries past did.   Skulls with apparently intentionally created holes have been found in Asia, Europe and the Americas.   A few show signs of healing, indicating that not only was the hole created on purpose, but that the individual survived the procedure.

It is a fallacy to presume that there must be some special significance to a custom that was independently developed in multiple cultures.   In the case of trepanation there are examples of the practice from around the world, and some have used this as evidence that various societies must have discovered the effectiveness of the procedure.  There is, however, a simpler explanation.   Headaches are a common complaint in humans and have a number of causes.   They can range from irritating to nearly debilitating.  An individual suffering from persistent or severe headaches may feel as if there is pressure inside their head that must be relieved or that there was some need to release bad energy or spirits from their head.  Lacking an understanding of medicine and the human body, it’s easy to see how putting a hole in the skull might seem like the logical thing to do.


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Canada gets it right

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on October 6, 2009

Firms that sell “natural” health products are being asked to provide proof their crap works (it doesn’t most of the time) and get this: while these firms do not oppose being regulated they think that being asked to show their claims are correct is too much. Come again?

Firms that make and sell natural health products are not opposed to being regulated. In fact, they welcome the Health Canada stamp of approval, said Carter. However, he said the “pendulum has swung too far” in terms of proving that a drug works.

Oh I get it, they want the “stamp of approval” but they don’t want to do any work for it. They do know that it is not a literal postage stamp right?

The licensing has been underway since January 2004, when Health Canada announced it would regulate natural health products. As of April 2010, all natural health products will need an NPN, natural product number, to be sold.

However, the licensing process has become bogged down, and Carter said it’s partly because Health Canada has set the bar too high.

I guess not taking their word for it qualifies as setting the bar too high in woo woo land. “Trust us this stuff works”. Oh sure, here’s your stamp; you’ve been approved. Yeah right! They’ve had 6 years to get their shit together and now that the deadline is approaching they’ve got nothing to show for it. Do you know how many double blind studies one can conduct in 6 years? Enough to prove your claims are true, that’s for sure!

Carter said part of the problem was something he called “pharmaceutical creep,” where the same stringent standards that are applied to pharmaceutical products are applied to natural health products.

There comes the special pleading: the rules as they apply to everybody else should not apply to me!

Natural health producers today are being asked to supply double-blind studies and human clinical trials to back claims made on the labels, even when safety has been established, he said. It’s a very expensive requirement for small- to medium-sized firms.

Oh the Red Herring! You have to prove your crap works ON TOP of proving it is safe dumbo! Do they really think people are that stupid not to see through this farce of an argument?

He expects herbal and homeopathic medicines to be the most affected and says it’s “crazy” for Health Canada to apply the same standards to both pharmaceuticals and natural health products.

Oh crazy isn’t it? These geniuses want to keep calling their crap “medicine” but they do not want the same stringent standards that are applied to all other medicines to apply. Bit hypocritical no? Hey I have an idea, call your stuff flavored water or tea, stop making claims of it curing this and curing that and guess what: you don’t have to do any double blind studies in that case. Problem solved for both you and us (the rationalists that is).

Pharmacists are talking crazy too (at least the ones quoted in the article):

“Pharmaceutical drugs are far more potent and just a slight deviation in dosage can be dangerous,” said Staples, whose Moncton pharmacy Staples Drugs, has sold both types of drugs for 40 years.

“A doctor can prescribe the arthritis drug Celebrex for you, but it can also cause a heart attack,” he said as an example. “With homeopathic drugs, you can take 10 times the dosage and there’s no problem.”

Umhh, Staples? That’s because homeopathic potions are water and don’t do anything. That’s the way it works you see, homeopathic potions = No effect whatsoever! Either way positive or negative. So why do you want to keep selling them to people? A bit unethical no?

Health Canada is not allowing any “may” claims. For instance, a label cannot say the product “may” do something. In Health Canada’s eyes, it either has an effect or not.

Good for them. “My magical potion may help cancer” is not such an innocent statement after all. People can die because of it; peoples’ lifelong savings may be wiped out because of it; peoples’ precious little time left can be wasted because of it. Canada gets it right. Woo woos have to be held accountable for their words and claims!

The Telegraph and Woo sitting in a tree

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on June 22, 2009

What is it about woo-woo and the Telegraph, the (in)famous british paper, that makes them stick together like wet farts and but cheeks? Why is the Telegraph so woo friendly? How can they even half-seriously entertain the idea that a lock of hair can hold the key to health?

First cut a strand of hair from your head. Next, fill in a questionnaire about your state of health and send it, with your hair, to an address on the other side of the country.

Then sit back and, while not exactly by return of post, you will in due course receive relief from whatever ailment is troubling you. It could come in the form of a pill or a potion, but it’s just as likely to come in the form of healing vibrations, transmitted from the person to whom you’ve sent your hair.

What is it? Magic? Witchcraft? A load of twaddle? No, it’s radionics, the largely unexplained art of healing someone you’ve never met, who is hundreds, even thousands of miles away.

Oh shoot, I actually, for a brief moment, thought they were going to call bullshit, but nope they do not. Radionics is an art alright, just not of the kind the Telegraph wants you to believe.

There are only 80 or so practitioners of radionics in Britain and Rebecka Blenntoft is one of them. She’s also the secretary of the UK Radionic Association and, like her colleagues, she gets to the root of her patients’ problems by holding a pendulum over their hair sample (or “witness”, as it’s called), and seeing what happens.

I knew the ideomotor effect was going to come in at some point! Well, actually no I had no idea, it just feels like the right thing to say. So they hold  a pendulum over a hair sample and see what happens? I suspect the pendulum will swing, and that’s about all that will happen. I wonder if it makes any difference where the hair sample comes from???

“We get the information by interrogating the witness,” she claims. “I will ask question after question, some looking for a yes or no answer, some looking for an answer that will quantify the health or otherwise of the patient’s various physiological systems [aural, visual, skeletal].”

Wow, that’s some tough sounding words no? Interrrogating the witness, sounds like some pretty conclusive stuff will come out of this “interrogation”. How can one doubt the acuracy of the information? They’re interrogating the witness for god’s sake.  Do they put the hairball on a table underneath a table lamp and play the good-cop-bad-cop routine on it?

So, as well as rotating in a clockwise direction for “yes”, and anticlockwise for “no”, the pendulum also gives scores out of 100 when placed over a sort of healthometer chart.

“It’s quite a time-consuming process, because you have to go through every part of the body,” says Blenntoft. “It’s also quite tiring, because you have to stay very tuned in and focused on the person you are treating.”

Sure, making shit up takes time and effort, I can agree with that. And they go through every part of the body by interrogating a few strands of hair? Sounds mightly wooful to me!

Once she’s identified the problem area, she enters an eight-digit numerical code into a black-box-like radionics machine (they prefer the word “instrument”), either via a digital keyboard or a set of dials. Followed by the relevant treatment instruction (restore, rejuvenate, elasticise, for example). Almost simultaneously, it is claimed, the patient will experience some form of improvement in their condition.

You don’t believe it? Neither did Blenntoft, until she saw the effect a radionic diagnosis had on a dog in her local village (the treatment can be used not just on humans, but on animals and even crops and soil).

This is coming full circle. On top of the vibration, interrogation, mumbo jumbo we get an actual woo-machine, distant healing through some sort of waves or vibrations and it also works on pets. Folks, welcome to the Land of Woo. Michael Jackson has got nothing on these people.

For the Radionic Association’s chairman, Geoffrey Bourne, the proof came in two-footed form. “A local farmer had a very bad recurring kidney infection but had become allergic to penicillin,” he recalls. “There was nothing the doctor could do, but the radionics practitioner traced the problem back to a tetanus injection the farmer had been given at the age of 10. It took a year of treatment, but that farmer, who was in his seventies, went on to live till the age of 96.”

There is nothing more pathetic than a testimonial from the chairman of the woo organization itself. Couldn’t they find a deluded person to testify on their behalf? And notice how after “a year of treatment” we are not told that the farmer was cured of this bad infection, instead we’re told that he lived to 96. It’s a testimonial that doesn’t even testify to the effectiveness of the woo in question! That has got to be the lamest anectodal evidence ever. It’s a Guinees world record of crappy woo testimonials. Pop that champagne open!

So how exactly does it work again? Best guess is that we all plug into some kind of universal energy grid and radionics constitutes a kind of battery recharging rescue service. From afar.

Sure, why the hell not?

“Believe me,” says Blenntoft. “There’s not a single person involved in radionics who hasn’t gone into it thinking ‘This can’t possibly work’.”

Oh, I belive you Blenntoft, I believe you!

How to get better at doing nothing

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 30, 2009

Or, as the author put it, “How To Become More Psychic – Techniques That Actually Work” . Who knew that you could become more psychic by reading a John Edward book, but apparently you can. But do stay away from Sylvia Browne (sexist) and James Van Pragh (depressing), those actually don’t work. Kinda sounds like one of those “my God is better than your God” games.

Also you should “Learn to meditate, the best method I found was to rest in a darkened room with a blind fold and ear plugs.” otherwise known as daydreaming/sleeping. I guess that must help. You must avoid anything harmful from entering your body, good health advice overall, though it’s a bit of a stretch to say that it will make you a better psychic, although I do see how alcohol can mess up your cold reading skills, so maybe it does make some sense in some cases.

One thing I would personally add to this list of things to do to make you a better psychic is that you must be either gullible, deluded or an outright fraudster, commonly referred to by the woo-woo crowd as being “open minded“. You can consider my mind tightly shut!

The Royal Society is no match for these three

Posted in News by Skepdude on April 12, 2009

Madonna, Stella McCartney and Gwyneth Paltrow

Behold, the most serious challenge to the Royal Society in that august body’s 350-year history – the medical musings of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Stella McCartney. These women are not just singers, or actresses, or fashion designers. They are distinguished professors at the University of Celebrity, and are coating your understanding of science like a totally amazing organic body oil.

On top of this, they are best friends, so we can say their pronouncements are peer-reviewed in the best sense of that term. Can you imagine their gatherings? It must be as if Isaac Newton were taking antioxidant tea with Robert Koch and Marie Curie.

We shall come to her latest discoveries shortly, but by way of background, do recall that Gwyneth has formerly claimed that eating “biological foods” can prevent cancer, reminding us that starring in Iron Man and maintaining a glittering career in clinical research are not mutually exclusive. Then we have Madonna, who has cited the extraordinary healing powers of Kabbalah water, which costs $4 a bottle, is said to have had energy injected into it, and may or may not have been blessed by the former insurance salesman who dreamed up her religion.

Other fields of specialism? Alas, Lost in Showbiz hasn’t the space today, but Madonna has previously championed a soi-disant scientist who claims to have reversed the second law of thermodynamics. And then there’s Stella, who launched her organic skincare range with the warning that “lots of skin products use the same petrochemicals as the antifreeze in your car!”, and is one of those celebrities who thinks they eat “chemical-free” food and use “chemical-free” products. I beg you not to tell her that water and trees are made of chemicals. The shock could finish her off.


Your Friday Dose of Woo: The Worldwide Wanker of Woo

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on April 3, 2009

Let me say right up front that I’m not entirely sure that the victim–I mean target; no, I mean subject–of this week’s little excursion into the deepest darkest depths of woo is not a parody. That’s the beauty of it. I’ve never heard of it before, but a little Googling brought me evidence that it may not be a parody, that the guy purveying it may actually believe it. I’ll leave you to judge for yourself, or, if you’ve heard of this guy before, to chime in and let me know the deal. I’ll also point out that parts of this website are not entirely safe for work. Actually, a couple of the pages are not safe for work at all. Don’t worry, I don’t plan on directly linking to any those pages, but you could hit a link while exploring the site and accidentally find yourself looking at something you really don’t want to. Trust me on this.

And what woo it is!


Have any of you ever heard of Happeh Theory? You haven’t? Well, you have now! Suffice it to say that Happeh Theory has an odd obsession. More about that later. First, it starts out a lot like any other run-of-the-mill woo site, only with cheesier graphics. Specifically, Happeh Theory seems to think that we all have “energy bodies” that are in essence duplicates of our own body:

Treating the energy body of a human being as an exact duplicate of the physical body can be especially helpful in discussing the movement of the energy body from it’s proper location and orientation on the physical body.The reason why knowing if the energy body has moved away from it’s proper location and orientation on the physical body is important, is that any movement of the energy body away from it’s proper orientation or location is usually associated with the development of some type of health problem, and because the exact way in which the energy body has moved, will provide insight into how the physical body of the individual moves.

And, of course, there is “intent”:

It is the nature of the energy of the human body, that the light reflected by the body usually corresponds to the energy level of that region of the body. A bright and well lit part of the body would usually be an area of the body that was filled with energy, or had a high energy level. A dark part of the face would usually be an area of the body that had a low energy level.A phrase that is used to name the low energy areas of a person’s face, is the phrase “black in the face”. Calling the low energy areas of the face “black” simplifies talking about the subject.

The usage of the phrase “black in the face”, would be by describing the amount of black an individual’s face had in it.

An individual whose face was mostly well lit, would be an individual who had very little black in the face. Since black in the face corresponds to low energy, a person who had very little black in the face would be a relatively healthy person, because their face was filled with energy.

Everyday language supports that claim. A healthy or happy person can be described as “beaming”, which is a word associated with bright lighting.

He’s convinced me! If I just shine lights all over my body, then I, too, can be filled with energy all over. I wonder. Happeh Theory seems to imply that if I were to shine light on my head, that would fill it with energy, boosting its level and (hopefully) increasing my intelligence beyond its already stratospheric level to the level of Super Genius, just like Vox Day likes to tell us he is.

So far, this is the standard sort of “energy” woo that is hard to escape on the web and, sadly, increasingly hard to escape in some of the formerly greatest academic medical centers in our nation, given how many of them have embraced “energy healing” modalities like reiki and therapeutic touch. Be that as it may, there is one aspect of this woo that distinguishes it from the usual run-of-the-mill variety. Suffice it to say that Happeh Theory has a rather strange obsession. While Robert O. Young may be obsessed with pH and “acid,” Hulda Clark with liver flukes, and autism quacks with mercury, but Happeh Theory has found a new scourge, a new horrible cause of so many of the ills that plague modern humans.


According to Happeh Theory, masturbation will cause a person to become crippled and blind in one eye, as well as causing many other physical health problems. Excessive masturbation will also lead to the development of gay tendencies, as well as other alterations to the personality or mentality of a person.The most common question that is asked in response to the claim that masturbation makes the human body blind and crippled, is “How does masturbation make the human body blind and crippled?”. Or to phrase that question more accurately “What does masturbation do to the human body, that causes it to become blind and crippled?”

Masturbation causes the human body to tighten up or become tense. That tightness or tension impairs the ability of the limbs to move properly, and impairs the ability of the eyes to see properly.

That’s right. That evil scourge of masturbation can result in shortening of the yin part of the right arm, leading to horrific things, such as faces like this.


Dr. Emoto’s water woo metastasizes

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on March 30, 2009

Indiana Jones had a saying: “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” This line was most famously delivered in Raiders of the Lost Ark after he and his friend Sallah had opened the Well of Souls and were staring down into it. Sallah noticed that the ground appeared to be moving within; so Indy shined a light down the entrance, only to see thousands of snakes waiting for him at the bottom.

Sallah then drily observed, “Asps. Very dangerous. You go first.”

As we knew from earlier in the movie, Indiana Jones hated snakes and was afraid of them; so it was only natural that later in the movie he would encounter a floor literally writhing with thousands of them. So it was when I innocently picked up the latest issue of TIME Magazine and started perusing it yesterday. What to my fearfully wondering eyes should appear but an article entitled Mind over Chocolate. Because I like chocolate, I was curious and began reading:

Move over, organic, fair trade and free range–the latest in enlightened edibles is here: food with “embedded” positive intentions. While the idea isn’t new–cultures like the Navajo have been doing it for centuries–for-profit companies in the U.S. and Canada are catching on, infusing products with good vibes through meditation, prayer and even music.

My reaction was much like Indy’s: “Intent. Why’d it have to be intent?”

To which my imaginary companion replied, “Emoto. Very woo-ey. You go first.”

So I will, because as much as the whole concept of “intent” in various “alternative medicine” and other woo irritates the crap out of me, it also holds a bizarre fascination as well.

Before I go on to deal with these products, let’s take a trip back down memory lane to nearly two and a half years ago. That’s when I first encountered the infamous Dr. Emoto and his amazing water woo. Naturally, being the…pioneer that he is, a lot of this business of “imbuing” water and food with happy “intent” can trace back to him, at least as a business plan, given his H20m water. The long story is in the link immediately preceding this; the short story is that Dr. Emoto believes that water can somehow be altered by “vibrations” sent from someone focusing his or her intent upon it and that those vibrations leave behind residue of that intent that can then be imparted to the people who consume H20m. As “evidence” for this, Dr. Emoto cites “studies” (I’m using the term very loosely here, as you might imagine) in which he claims to be able to differentiate different ice crystals on the basis of whether “good” or “bad” intent had been directed at them. Being of an entrepreneurial bent, Dr. Emoto decided to scale up his focusing of intent on water into an industrial process, infusing the water with happy thoughts thusly:


Rhinos and tigers and bears. Oh my.

Posted in Science Based Medicine by Skepdude on March 27, 2009

This is a must read, a great entry from SBM.

No good deed goes unpunished.

The website is a depressing recitation of the harm that humans do to themselves and others from participating in various forms of nonsense in the attempt to do good. It my backfire, and instead pain and death result.

I would bet that most practitioners of medical woo are true believers. They do not intend to harm people, and believe they are doing good for their patients. Certainly the consumers of alternative therapies intend to have good benefits from their use of sCAM modalities. Most want to get better, and do not intend to hurt themselves or others.

Unfortunately, actions always have unintended consequences. Sometimes the harm is directly to the patient. Sometimes the harm in indirect, with collateral damage to people or the environment. My hospital system has an extensive recycling program to handle the huge amounts of waste generated by the need to insure that all manner of materials are sterile. Patients in isolation consume large amounts of paper and plastic to keep infection confined. My hospitals actively look for ways to decrease their environmental impact and carbon footprint and still deliver high quality medical care. Legacy Health System, where I work, is an award winning leader recycling medical waste, which is a lot more difficult to dispose of than the pop cans and paper bags in your house. Hopefully the trash in your house is not covered with pus, blood and other potentially hazardous medical waste. We try to be good global citizens.

I wonder if some branches of the alternative medical industrial complex are so environmentally conscious.

Natural products are at the greatest risk for being adversely affected by a demand for their use. If millions of people want a natural product that has limited supply, soon that product will be exhausted and the product extinct. Adverse effects from alternative therapies can come in many forms, and the alternative practice with the greatest adverse impact on the environment is probably traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). A billion or more people wanting a traditional herbal or animal product is going to have a detrimental effect on the herb or animal being consumed. There are numerous examples of the adverse effects on the environment from traditional Chinese medicine.

For years the Rhinoceros was hunted not for food or sport, but for the horn. There is a form of magical thinking that derives function from the structure of a natural product like a rhino horn. It looks like a penis. I guess. I must not have been paying close attention during in my urology rotation. Because it looks like a penis, it must have efficacy on impotence. So the rhino horn was ground up to treat impotence. For centuries it was the Enzyte of the world. But Rhino horn is more than an aphrodisiac. Although the rhino horn is no more than a fingernail with extra calcium and phosphorus, the horn has been used in Chinese medicine to treat damn near anything.


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Feng Shui Hooey

Posted in Skeptico by Skepdude on March 26, 2009

From this thread at JREF I learned of a recent post at a blog called Fengshui Forward (“We aim to gather fellow Chinese Metaphysics enthusiatics to discuss and promote Chinese 5 arts”), entitled United we stand, Divided we fall!.  The author, ken, is bothered by the Penn & Teller Bullshit episode on Feng Shui – the one where each of the three Feng Shui experts comes up with completely different recommended colors and arrangements of furniture at the exact same house.  Unfortunately ken has completely missed the point of the P&T program, and criticisms of Feng Shui in general:

It is very easy to discredit a practice like Feng Shui because Metaphysics is defined by Wikipedia as “investigates principles of reality transcending those of any particular science”.

No, that’s not how to discredit Feng Shui, although I agree it is  easy to discredit.  P&T discredit Feng Shui not by reference to a definition in Wikipedia (which would be an absurd way to do it anyway), but by simply showing that three so called “experts”, all using the exact same “science”, come up with completely different recommendations for the same problem.  Let’s face it – they can’t all be right.  The fact that they’re all different just demonstrates to any rational person that it’s nonsense.  How would you tell which of the recommendations was right and which wrong?  If Feng Shui had any actual real effect then it ought to be possible to tell by testing.  But according to ken, you can’t test Feng Shui:

Feng Shui is not superstitious.  It merely looks superstitious because it is beyond science and hence science cannot explain it and neither can humans.  How do you expect a kid to explain the action of his parents?  Since Feng Shui transcends science, one cannot get a satisfactory explanation of Feng Shui using scientific principles.

“Beyond science”?  Science is just an organized way of testing hypotheses against reality.  The phrase “beyond science” just means “can’t be tested to see if it works”.  But why not?  If it has any real effect surely that effect must be measurable (ie it is testable).  If it’s effects really aren’t measurable, then what is the difference between Feng Shui and something that doesn’t exist?  (Clearly, nothing.)


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Your Friday Dose of Woo: The best woo is breast woo

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on February 6, 2009

Personally, if I could control the matter that is my body other than in the standard, boring, visible way of having my central nervous system fire off nerve impulses that make my muscles move, I know I’d probably like to bulk up my muscles a bit and perhaps get rid of a bit of fat. Oh, wait. There already is a way of doing that for someone like me, who’s put on about 10 pounds over the last year and is a bit out of shape. It’s called diet and exercise. But that involves work! Some people will risk surgery to get rid of that fat, and some people will risk surgery to get a better-looking body. Wouldn’t it be so much better if “mind over matter” could eliminate that choice? No more having to choose between either diet and exercise or plastic surgery, on the one hand, versus remaining unsatisfied with one’s body on the other, none of which are appealing choices. I’m sure you can see the appeal of using the mind to fix the body this way. After all, haven’t woo-meisters been telling us for years that the mind can fix the body?

In any case, if you’re a woman and unsatisfied with your endowment, why go through all the difficulties and potential risks from surgery if you can simply use Adam Eason’s Hypnotic Breast Enlargement System?

First off, if you want some yucks, you really should listen to the recording of Eason’s comments about his system:

You know what? Your brain knows how to grow your breasts. It knows how to do it. It’s grown them before and it can do so again, all wonderfully naturally. It’s very likely that your breasts enlarge when you menstruate…They’re capable of doing it, and this audio program shows you how to do it once again but even more so…This is one of the most fascinating uses of hypnosis.