Posts Tagged 'Alternative Medicine'

I Had a Chance to Exercise my Skeptical Chops in Real Life the Other Night

It’s not often (in real life) that I get to use all of these skeptical tools and pearls of wisdom that I spend so much time learning about, so when I do get into this type of conversation my heart will start racing and I’ll get excited to where I have to concentrate on keeping a calm demeanor so that I don’t end up coming across as a crazed denialist!

The other night my husband had his friend over, who also happened to be one of my former high school teachers, so we sat around chatting for hours and touched on a lot of different topics. At one point in the conversation Dr. Oz (one of Oprah’s spin-off shows) came up, I guess because teachers get to watch lots of daytime TV during the summer!

I’m in no way a fan of Dr. Oz. I’ve tuned  into a few of his episodes when there’s been nothing else on, and my main reason for disliking him is the way that he talks down to the audience, as if he’s addressing a room full of kindergartners. He gives these ridiculous demonstrations that add nothing to the conversation and dumb down already easy to understand things. Medicine is such an interesting field, and the human body is so diverse and complex that it just makes him look ridiculous to me when he talks to grown adults in a way that would have bored me when I was 10.

But obviously enough people enjoy it, so to each his/her own. What also gets me goat about Dr. Oz is how he lends his credibility to alternative medicines that don’t have supporting evidence (Reiki, for example). I brought this up and that’s what sparked a discussion with my old teacher on alternative medicine.

I wouldn’t say that Teacher (that’s what I’ll call him from now on) was full on into alt med or anything, but he came across as neutral on the subject. He seems like one of those people “in the middle”, who believes in the value of using herbs to treat minor ailments but would turn to actual medicine for big things like cancer. We touched on a lot of things that seem to pop up in every online discussion on alternative medicine, so I think I’ll break it down into some of the areas we hit and what was said.

I’ll just mention that everything I was responding to Teacher with was from memory, and I’m going to write it here as it was said so it’s possible, actually it’s likely, that I was wrong about many things and welcome criticisms and feedback.

1. “The placebo effect is strong, so alternative medicine helps even if it shouldn’t really work” There is a common misconception that the placebo effect is some kind of mind over matter thing, where your brain is actually healing your body, and so doing something like acupuncture is therefore helpful, even though there’s no such thing as “chi” or “meridians” in the body. I was three glasses of wine in, so I wasn’t going to try explaining the placebo effect in detail, especially since I don’t fully understand it sober.

Instead, I talked about how things like acupuncture can be helpful for issues like infertility or back pain because just going to a practitioner, having them pay attention to you and validate your problem, and having something physical done to you can alleviate the stress that might be causing the problem. But relying on these things can get dangerous if you start relying on alt med for problems that need proper medication.

2. Confusing homeopathy with herbal medicine. There are some types of alternative medicine that are so ridiculous that they can’t possibly work, and homeopathy is one of them, but people don’t understand what it actually is and so trust that it must work for whatever reason. Teacher was definitely confusing homeopathy with herbal medicine.  I explained that homeopathy means that the active substance is diluted until there’s not even a molecule of the original substance in the solution, so there’s nothing actually in it that would have an effect.

3. Confusing proper diet with alternative medicine. I’m not really sure that this was what was happening, but at one point when we were having the discussion about using herbal medicine he brought up how cutting milk out of his diet helped him to feel better. Lots of people think of diet and nutrition as alternative medicine, maybe because pretty much every diet book out there will recommend taking some type of supplement. In fact, though, diet and the effect of different foods on the body are studied by science, and therefore perfectly in line with medicine.

4. Pharmaceutical companies are out to make a buck and want you to take medicines you don’t need, so turning to herbs is preferable. Pharmaceutical companies do plenty of shady business, but at least the drugs that they put out have standards for evidence, and will be pulled from the shelves if the drug is shown to be dangerous. With the various herbal supplements out there, they have no standards for evidence if it’s called a supplement, and there aren’t nearly as many strict controls, so you really don’t know how much of the active ingredient is contained in each pill. Not to mention many pharmaceutical companies have gotten into the supplement business, so you’re not necessarily circumventing “big pharma” when you decide to go for alternative remedies. The companies that sell those supplements and natural remedies are in the profit business too!

5. Lots of drugs were developed out of traditional healing substances, so herbal medicine must work. Sure, a lot of drugs came about because the substance used in them was traditionally used in healing the ailment. But the reason why they’re drugs now is because they were subjected to scientific testing and found to work, so the active substance was isolated or synthesized, and put into pills with specific dosages in a bottle that lays out the possible side effects. This doesn’t mean that all traditional herbal medicines work, though. Some are tested and found to do no better than placebo. There may be some out there that will be shown to work once they’re adequately tested, but I wouldn’t rely on those to medicate myself because a) possible side effects are unknown, and b) how would you know how much you need or how long you need to  take  it for if the substance has never been properly tested?


That was pretty much it, it was a fantastic discussion and I hope I gave Teacher (and you?) something to think about.

Sorry about the scatter-brained posting!

Sex and the City and the Suzanne Somers

I went and saw Sex and the City 2 with a friend the other night, and I have to say I enjoyed it. It was fun, corny, light-hearted, and the clothing and furniture made it pretty to look at. But I had one major complaint that spoiled it for me, and that is that Samantha’s entire story-line was basically a commercial for Suzanne Somers’s books and alternative medicine anti-aging nonsense.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Samantha is the oldest of the group of four ladies (she’s 52 in this movie), and she’s obsessed with staying young. Right near the beginning of the movie she’s asked what surgeries she’s had done to keep her so young, and she replies that she hasn’t had any, and then proceeds to pull out Suzanne Somers’s book (from memory I think the specific book was Breakthrough: Eight Steps to Wellness) and starts talking about all of the hormones and pills she takes and the creams she rubs on herself and patches she wears.

This becomes her gag throughout, as she’s always constantly either rubbing an expensive-looking cream on herself, or swallowing ridiculous amounts of pills. If you’ve seen the previews you know most of the movie takes place in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and when they arrive at the airport there she has all of her drugs confiscated. From this point on she starts complaining about her menopausal symptoms, and she starts rubbing yams and eating hummus because apparantly they have some natural estrogen or something. To top it all off, near the end of the movie (seriously now, spoilers) a room full of women remove their burkas to reveal youthful looking, New York-style fashion wearing women, who are (surprise!) discussing the Suzanne Somers book in their book club.

What makes it worse is that all four of the stars of the movie are smart, successful women, and they offer her no skepticism apart from a little bit of attitude at the silliness of taking so many pills. It’s sad, especially considering the success that the movie is having, to think that women might watch it and think that if they use all of these undoubtedly expensive products, they too could look like Samantha. I hope that most people would approach this skeptically, but I think that this feature-length commercial will unfortunately lend the semblance of credibility to her alternative therapies.

My heart sank immediately when Samantha first pulled out Somers’s book and started talking about bio-identical hormones, but that’s largely because I read skeptical blogs (like Respectful Insolence), so I had seen a lot of evidence-based responses to Somers’s claims before I saw the movie. But even without that prior knowledge, there were some red flags that anyone’s skeptical side could pick up on:

1. Appeal to Celebrity: taking medical advice from an actress is not prudent. Suzanne Somers is not an expert, so before starting any treatment she recommends make sure to consult your doctor, and read reviews of her treatments by skeptical experts, so that you’re not only getting the information supplied by people who have professional or financial interests in promoting these treatments.

2. Naturalistic Fallacy: When Samantha is having her pills taken from her at the airport, she protests by saying “but they’re all-natural!” This is appealing to the fallacy that since something is natural, it’s safe or good for you, but this just isn’t so. I guess Samantha forgot that other substances, such as cocaine or marijuana, that would be confiscated in airport security are also natural. Many natural substances are poisonous to humans, and even ones that are seen as safe and healthy, like Vitamin D, can be overdosed on. One shouldn’t assume that because Suzanne Somers claims the treatments she endorses are natural (I say “claims” because there’s nothing natural about the process of synthesizing bio-identical hormones), that they are healthy and don’t carry risks.

3. Testimonials: Stories are a convincing way to sell a product, as anyone who’s been sucked in by an infomercial knows. But often products that are promoted with the use of testimonials just aren’t supported by scientific evidence. The Skeptic’s Dictionary has a good article on why testimonials are unreliable forms of evidence: “Anecdotal (Testimonial) Evidence“.

4. Quality of Life: Anyone considering a treatment or a lifestyle change should weigh the pros and cons. If somebody is convinced that the anti-aging methods promoted by Suzanne Somers actually work, they should look at Samantha’s lifestyle in this movie and decide whether all of the time spent counting out pills (she swallowed a whole handfull at one point), rubbing creams on herself, and obsessing over her hormone levels is worth the benefits. Personally, I would take the wrinkles and hot flashes and spend the time I saved by not obsessing over my looks doing things I enjoy. One should also keep in mind that supplements aren’t nearly as regulated as pharmaceuticals, so if you’re on a regime that involves swallowing handfuls of supplements daily, you may be risking exposure to contaminants. More on that here, and here.

5. How Kim Cattrall (the actress that plays Samantha) actually stays young: A red flag that should be obvious to every person who is wondering whether they should start a regime like Samantha’s, is that Kim Cattrall looks like she does without all of the hormone nonsense. I browsed a few websites and interviews done with the actress, and she claims to keep her looks by sticking to a strict diet, exercising at least 30 minutes per day, and using botox (guess who else uses botox? Yup, Suzanne Somers). So it’s possible to look just as good as Kim Cattrall without the use of hormone therapies (that are possibly dangerous and that aren’t supported by science).

I hope that most people who watch the movie would pick up on at least a couple of these red flags, and look into Somers’s claims thoroughly before starting such an over-the-top anti-aging regime. Here are some good places to start if you’re looking for a critical look at the things she’s promoting:

  • Dr. Harriet Hall looks at bioidentical hormones in an article for Skeptic Magazine
  • Quackwatch recommends steering clear of bioidentical hormones
  • Science-Based Pharmacy explores the veracity of claims made about bioidentical hormones
  • Newsweek criticizes Somers’s poor grasp of the science behind the treatments she endorses

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Enlightning Bolts *Video Edition* – 02.11.2010

This post is going to be short and sweet, but it will link you to lots of awesome videos that I’ve been loving. Enjoy!

College Humour takes on the end of the world.

The history of the universe…flipbook style.

Dragon’s Den berates a snake-oil salesman.

Jimmy Kimmel responds to the Tim Tebow ad.

Have a nice weekend!

10:23 – Bringing Awareness to Homeopathy

Homeopathy is: “a form of alternative medicine, first proposed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, that treats patients with heavily diluted preparations which are thought to cause effects similar to the symptoms presented.” In other words, if I’m sick, a homeopath would dilute something that caused the symptoms I presented, with the belief that water has a memory.

In reality, homeopathic preparations are just water. Substances are diluted to the point where it’s unlikely that even a single molecule of the original amount remains. Yet homeopathy is a multi-million dollar industry in spite f its utter lack of plausibility or supporting evidence.

The 10:23 campaign is an effort to bring awareness to these facts about homeopathy, with the hopes that informing the public about what homeopathy actually is will help people realize that it’s silly quackery.

There is nothing in homeopathic remidies, and it will do nothing for you (no risks, side effects, or effects. So what’s the harm? Simon Singh explains here, and this is why it’s important to bring awareness to the problem that is homeopathy.

The 10:23 campaign was started by the Merseyside Skeptics (they have an excellent pocast), a UK-based skeptics society, in response to the Boots pharmacies there continuing to sell homeopathic “remidies” to a public that trusts them to sell medicine that works

On January 30th at 10:23 am, they’re having a demonstration that will effectively show how homeopathy really does nothing at all: “more than three hundred homeopathy sceptics nationwide will be taking part in a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’ in protest at Boots’ continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, and to raise public awareness about the fact that homeopathic remedies have nothing in them.” I think it’s a great idea!

If you want to get involved with the 10:23 campaign, you can fill out this form.

Homeopathy for Emergencies???

Homeopathy is the process by which a tiny drop of an active ingredient is diluted in water until there isn’t even a molecule of the substance left, and then calling that medicine. It’s laughable, it’s pre-scientific magical thinking, it’s completely without evidence, and yet the idea that it works persists.

I recently came across this article, in which the author, who apparantly works at a hospital in India that incorporates homeopathy with traditional medicine, believes that homeopathy is useful in emergency medicine:

I have been hospital-based and practically living on campuses of various hospitals for the last ten years. I can assure you that this is not exactly pleasant; nor has it been a necessity forced on me by circumstances; I have done it only to experience firsthand and at close quarters the power of homeopathy in critical moments of life and death. The experiences have destroyed the last vestiges of doubt about whether homoeopathy works in critical situations. I believed that the Law of Similars of the chronic conditions should work in acute situations too. If it did not, then there were only two conclusions. Either we do not know the way of practicing homeopathy in critical situations or the science of homeopathy was incomplete and had a serious limitation.



Perhaps homeopathy appears to work when used alongside conventional medicine, but IT’S JUST WATER!!! Sometimes satire is the best way to make a point, so have a look at this video to see what would really happen in a homeopathic ER.

Homeopaths Curing Autism

Yeah, right. If a homeopathic preparation ever does anything more than quench someone’s thirst I’ll eat my foot.

Homeopathy is the ridiculous idea that the more you dilute something the more effective it becomes. It’s pure pre-scientific magical thinking, and it should have been laughed into distant memory decades ago. But clever marketing and the draw of making money selling water and sugar pills to an unsuspecting public has made homeopathy a booming industry.

Now, homeopaths are claiming to be able to cure autism. Assholes.

They currently have a film in production: “The first film about the potential of homeopathy to reverse autism is well under way and production is starting this summer on the second – the potential of homeopathy in epidemic diseases.” THERE IS NO POTENTIAL!!! IT’S WATER!!! The film looks to be about families with autistic children who have been treated by homeopaths.

It looks like a crap film though, you can watch the clip here, so hopefully nobody will see it.

But on the website they have a couple telling bits of information that make me think that they must know that they’re being deceitful.

Parents have been reluctant to film their children’s  struggle prior to treatment, so the film lacks good ‘before’ footage of the children filmed so far.

They’re asking you to just trust them. Because someone who peddles snake oil for a living is soooo trustworthy.

Complementary medicine and homeopathy in particular is under increasing pressure to ‘prove’ itself efficacious.

Making a film that tells the story from the homeopathic perspective means that we need to retain final editorial control and therefore we need to raise the funding to make the film.

In other words, “we need your money so we can say whatever we want without the constraints of evidence.”

Isn’t autism hard enough without kooks like Carol Boyce (the filmmaker & a homeopath) peddling false hope?

Saturday Salute to a Scientist – Emily Rosa

Ok so maybe I’m a day late, but I’ve only done one Saturday Salute so far, so it’s about time I salute the next scientist. I’m going to try my best to put out a salute every Saturday from now on, because they enrich our lives in so many ways, they deserve accolades.

On to the topic at hand…This week’s scientist is one that has proven that EmilyRosaanyone can do good science.

When Emily Rosa was 11 years old, she had a paper published in JAMA, a peer-reviewed medical journal. She is the youngest person to have done so.

For her fourth-grade science fair, at age 9, Emily tested the claims of Theraputic Touch Practitioners, who purported to manipulate their patients’ Human Energy Fields by holding their hands over the person without touching them.

From her Wikipedia page:

Emily’s study tested the ability of 21 TT practitioners to detect the HEF or “aura” when they were not looking. She asked each of the practitioners to sit at a table and extend their hands through a screen. On the other side of the screen, Emily flipped a coin as a means of randomly selecting which of the TT practitioner’s hands she would hold her hand over. The TT practitioners were then asked which of their hands detected Emily’s HEF. Subjects were each given ten tries, but they correctly located Emily’s hand an average of only 4.4 times. The paper concluded, statistically, that “the null hypothesis cannot be rejected at the .05 level of significance for a 1-tailed test, which means that our subjects, with only 123 of 280 correct in the 2 trials, did not perform better than chance.”

For proving that anyone can do good science regardless of age, for seeking out truth, and for using science to demonstrate that Theraputic Touch is useless and not worthy of health practitioners’ time, Emily Rosa, I salute you.

Oprah Finally Getting the Criticism She Deserves

Oprah has had a platform for spreading woo for too long. She has had so many loyal viewers of her show, and she is good at telling a story. Every day she has the opportunity to present truth, to give useful information, and to make it entertaining. But so often Oprah does a disservice to her audience by providing a medium through which her guests can sell non-evidence-based,Oprah potentially very harmful quackery with virtually no criticism.

Last week this newsweek article got a lot of attention. I was happy to see such a high profile magazine with such a critical article of Oprah’s quack-peddling ways.

Here‘s Oprah’s response to the article:

For 23 years, my show has presented thousands of topics that reflect the human experience, including doctors’ medical advice and personal health stories that have prompted conversations between our audience members and their health care providers. I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them.

I’m sure, Oprah…your guests such as Jenny McCarthy and Suzanne Somers blather on about how you can’t trust the medical establishment and then you expect them to listen to the advice of their doctors? This CNBC show demonstrates the power that Oprah has over her viewers. It’s lazy and irresponsible of her to just brush off the criticisms raised by Newsweek.

I’m hoping Newsweek has inspired the media to do more critical reporting, and I’m hoping that it teaches at least some of Oprah’s followers to not take what she says at face value.

From what Oprah has said about the article it doesn’t look like she has any intentions of changing her ways, but maybe it will make her think twice about endorsing the likes of Jenny McCarthy.

On a related note, Skepchick posted a link to a site called I like what Rebecca Watson says about it:

The word “vajayjay,” as used by Oprah and her ilk is indicative of the way Oprah addresses women’s health issues in general: dumbed down, wishy washy, cutesy, pseudoscientific. She is creating a world in which the word “vagina” is too dirty to utter but it’s totally okay to have Dr. Christiane Northrup go on at length about redirecting her “chi” in order to orgasm…I hope that the owner of expands to include more clips of her mind-blowing vagina-related idiocy. There’s enough material out there, after all.

I concur, Rebecca.

Echinacea and the Common Cold

I woke up yesterday morning with a brutal cold. Before I began to learn how to use reason and how to look for the evidence, I would just take health care advice based on popular belief. Something I hear all the time, and something that I used to repeat myself, is that you should take echinacea to fight a cold and to boost your immune system.

But if echinacea is so effective, why isn’t there any in my NyQuil?

According to the Wikipedia entry on echinacea, the idea that echinacea helps treat the common cold began when a Swiss herbal supplement maker was incorrectly told that Native American tribes in South Dakota used it for cold prevention.

But despite its questionable beginnings as a cold medicine, it has still become an extremely popular remedy, at least among my friends and family. So is there evidence behind echinacea to convince me that it is efficacious?

This University of Connecticut study claims that “Echinacea, the most popular herbal supplement in the United States, cuts the chances of catching the common cold by 58 percent and reduces the duration of the common cold by 1.4 days.” Sounds good to me! Unfortunately, this study has come under a lot of criticism.

The problem is that it’s a meta-analysis of smaller studies. Meta-analyses can be useful, however in this case critics say that the smaller studies are too dissimilar to be used accurately in a meta-analysis, so this study is not reliable enough to be taken as solid evidence for the efficacy of echinacea.

The gold standard of evidence in medicine is the large, placebo-controlled, double-blinded study. The closest to this type of study that has been done on echinacea is this one, done by the University of Virginia:

In one of the largest, multi-center clinical trials to study the effectiveness of the popular herbal cold supplement, Echinacea, researchers at the University of Virginia Health System have found that it has no effect on treating the common cold.

Turner and colleagues tested the efficacy of Echinacea on 399 volunteers between 2002 and 2004. The volunteers tested were recruited from UVa and were all susceptible to an experimental cold virus, rhinovirus type 39. They were divided into seven different groups and exposed to the cold virus through the nose.

Each group then received either a placebo or one of three possible Echinacea treatments (extracts of the herb originally used by Native Americans and endorsed by the World Health Organization for cold treatment). Volunteers were ‘blinded’ and did not know what treatment they were given. After five days of being studied in an isolated setting, there were no significant effects with Echinacea on the rates of infection or the severity of cold symptoms seen among the study participants. About ninety percent of all participants were infected with the cold virus.

“The results of this study demonstrate that, as tested, the putative active constituents of E. angustifolia do not have clinically significant effects on rhinovirus infection or illness,” Turner wrote in the study.  Researchers from Karl-Franzens-Universitaet in Graz, Austria; the Medical University of South Carolina and Clemson University collaborated on the research.

So no good evidence yet that echinacea does anything for the common cold.

This large trial has also come under criticism, however this time from Dr. Michael Murray, a manufacturer of echinacea. He says that the study used the wrong type of echinacea and in the wrong dosages.

I wonder why Dr. Murray hasn’t funded a study himself to prove the effectiveness of the herb? If he’s so confident in its efficacy then he would be doing himself a favour by proving that it works. Echinacea would become a part of mainstream medicine if it were shown to be effective, it would be recommended by doctors, and Murray would be able to manufacture and sell more.

For now, the burden of providing evidence lies with its advocates. Until they provide reliable evidence that shows that echinacea is good for my health I’ll continue taking my NyQuil to alleviate my cold symptoms, which is proven by science and which outlines its possible side-effects on the box so I can be informed as to any risks it may carry (unlike my bottle of echinacea pills).

Kevin Trudeau Propaganda

Oh the joys of being on Kevin Trudeau’s mailing list. Last week I received the cure for herpes, which apparantly is a $200 bottle of sugar pills, and now I get this gem:

Dear KT Insider,

I was just interviewed on the Alex Jones Show. He received hundreds of emails from people who said my books gave them better health, got them off drugs, and in some cases saved their lives. He also got many “hate Kevin” emails calling me a liar, a scammer, a criminal, etc. The point is that those who actually bought and read my books (over 90%) LOVE me and my books. Those who KNOW me, worked for me, or did business with me (over 90%) LOVE me and have only good things to say. Yet those people who only get their information about me from the internet or the mainstream media (MSM)….HATE ME! Do you understand? The mainstream media BRAINWASHES YOU into believing things that aren’t true. The MSM does one thing under order of the government and their corporate owners ATTACK and do a character assassination on the PERSON telling the truth. They cant attack the message, so they attack the PERSON. I know that the more I’m PERSONALLY attacked by the mainstream media, the more I KNOW I’m making a positive impact in a big way! Thank YOU for your support.

Kevin Trudeau

Hey Kevin, how about rather than using questionable stats (over 90% what?), CAPITALIZED WORDS, and creating paranoia about the “MSM”, you provide evidence that your claims are true? Oh, right, I forgot, it’s all bullshit.

I pity anyone who falls for Trudeau’s lies.

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