Sci-ence! updates “The Red Flags of Quackery” to version 2.0.

Quite awhile back I posted a webcomic by the guys over at Sci-ence! all about “The Red Flags of Quackery” that was a nice little primer on the buzz words and concepts that should warn you that you’re dealing with pseudoscience woo-woo bullshit.

Now they’ve gone and put out a new version 2.0 of the comic:

Click to embiggen!

This really is an excellent guide to knowing when you’re being bamboozled by someone or some product. Another good warning sign is when you see the words “THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN EVALUATED BY THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION! THIS PRODUCT IS NOT INTENDED TO TREAT, CURE, OR DIAGNOSE ANY ILLNESS OR CONDITION!” That’s legalize for “This product is 100% horse shit and only an idiot would buy it.”

If you’re not already following the Sci-ence! web comic, I’d highly recommend you do so.

New study concludes that “colonic irrigation” does not work and could be damaging.

Pic of Charlie Brown.

I'm right there with you on that one, Chuck.

It seems shoving a hose up your ass and flooding your bowels with water doesn’t have any practical health benefits at all.  Not only that, but according to the study done at Georgetown University, it could have a number of adverse health effects ranging from minor stuff like nausea, cramping, and bloating all the way up to renal failure and possibly even death:

Lead author Dr. Ranit Mishori, a physician at the university, said, “There can be serious consequences for those who engage in colon cleansing whether they have the procedure done at a spa or perform it at home.”

She added, “Colon cleansing products in the form of laxatives, teas, powders and capsules … tout benefits that don’t exist.”

The report, which looked at 20 previous studies on colonic irrigation published in medical literature over the past decade, said that as well as no evidence of any benefits, the spas and clinics administering the treatment have no significant medical training.

via Colonic irrigation does not work, US scientists say | Herald Sun.

Of course this really shouldn’t be news. The idea of showering the inside of your shitter stretches all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and it maintained a certain level of popularity among the medical community right up until the early 20th century. Around 1919 a publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association dismissed the theory of “auto-intoxication” — which colonics were supposed to be a treatment for — as being full of shit. Colonics soon fell out of favor with most people with the exception of fans of some very kinky fetish porn. There is one situation in which a colonic is still performed by the medical industry today and that’s usually just prior to a colonoscopy, but the idea of doing it to cleanse the body of “toxins” is pure [bull]shit.

Which, of course, means it’s enjoying a comeback among proponents of “alternative medicine” hence why the folks at Georgetown University felt the need to take another look at the research done on it. And that is at best a waste of time as the Alties are unlikely to be swayed by a report from scientists that disputes anything they hold dear.

Still, it never hurts to try and talk sense to the woo-beholden among us. Every once and a while one of them might listen.

“Pet psychics” now pass as legitimate columnists in supposedly serious newspapers.

Catherine Ferguson learning that this horse used to be Abraham Lincoln. What are the odds??

Not to suggest that crap like this is why newspapers are dying a slow death, but I’m sure it doesn’t help. It seems you can write into The Jersey Journal for a reading from a “Pet Psychic” who will reveal your pets’ innermost thoughts and dreams:

My 9-year-old cat Lotus lives the good life in that she sleeps and eats all day. My question for you is as follows: She tends to meow and twitch a lot when she sleeps. I’ve often wondered if she is reliving a previous life. Could this be the case?

By now I’m sure you can guess that the “Pet Psychic” is going to answer in the affirmative, but you’ll never guess what one of Lotus’ past lives was actually spent as:

Lotus tells me that you are very wise, in general. But, she is quick to add that you are way off base this time. She does admit to having a past life as a Roman general, but that’s not what she’s viewing when she sleeps.

Got that? Kitty used to be people and an important people she was! But that’s not what she’s dreaming about:

Instead, she is frequently living scenes of great conquest in animal form. She is a tiger, or sometimes another big cat, stalking then pouncing on her prey. She is proud to wind up with hard-to-catch, but delicious fresh food.

Well isn’t that just a stunning revelation. Well, no, it’s not.

Here’s the great thing about being a Pet Psychic: You can make up whatever bullshit story you want and the one person who could call bullshit on you… can’t because they’re an animal now. So go wild and claim whatever nonsense enters your head! Fluffy was once Cleopatra! Tickles used to be a famous 18th century German brewmaster!

Apparently the Pet Psychic in question is Catherine Ferguson who advertises herself as a psychic for pets and people as well as a Reiki master, and she has a PH.D (probably in advanced bullshitting). Her fees for readings run from $25 for one question via email or snail mail for approximately 15 minutes worth of a reading at a limit of 15o words to $90 for a 60-minute consultation in person or via phone, e-mail or snail mail. That’s roughly a buck and a half per minute which is a good rate of pay if you can manage to bullshit well enough to get it.

Here’s the thing I don’t get: Since when is this something worth putting in a newspaper? Granted, I haven’t subscribed to a paper in years so maybe I’m unaware of the sudden legitimacy of “psychics” as columnists, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would encourage people to take your paper seriously. Given that I just wrote a similar entry a week or so ago about a local news website, Ann Arbor.com, also putting woo in its pet advice column, I guess I must be totally out of touch with current trends in pet care. But at least in the latter example it wasn’t a full-time woo column like this one appears to be.

However, there is once again a silver lining in the comments to this article the first of which reads: “Oh, for #$%&’s sake.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Advice column for pet owners can’t leave out the woo.

Being an Ann Arbor resident I regularly visit the Ann Arbor.com news website to keep up with what’s happening locally. Generally it’s a pretty decent news source, but I’ve found myself stunned on two different occasions by the advice column for pets because it contained references to “alt-med” woo-woo nonsense that’s usually associated with humans. It’s kind of the same feeling I get when on those rare occasions I visit The Huffington Post blogs and come across an article by woo-meister Deepack Chopra.

Today’s surprise came in this article about a dog suffering from a snake bite from a Massasauga rattler, the only venomous snake native to Michigan. They’re pretty rare — I’ve lived here my entire life and spent plenty of time in the woods as a kid and have never encountered one  — and as a result a lot of vets are not prepared to deal with pet that has been bitten by one.

Overall, the column is well written and contains much useful advice. The author, John Spieser, is a professional dog trainer and much of what he recommends didn’t raise an eyebrow until I got to this particular suggestion:

If you are a believer in homeopathics (which I happen to be, based on personal experience), having a few appropriate remedies on hand as a first course of action is a good idea.

It really is amazing how one stupid comment can put doubts in your head about all the rest of the advice being proffered. Homeopathy? Really?? Hey, why not give him a Milkbone while you’re at it. I’m sure it’d have just as much curative effect. Plus it’ll help to clean his teeth!

What’s really interesting is the fact that, despite the amazing curative powers of homeopathic water, in the case being discussed it’s never said that that approach was tried. Instead there’s a desperate search for anti-venom which none of the vets called had stocked because this is such a rare occurrence and few people are even aware that Michigan has a native rattlesnake. By the time some anti-venom was procured from the Toledo Zoo (at great expense) it was too late to administer it. Ultimately the dog was given a blood transfusion which seemed to do the trick.

Given all of that, you can understand why I’m puzzled the author would even bother suggesting a homeopathic treatment as something folks should keep on hand. The rest of his suggestions are good ones, but earlier in the article he mentions the fact that “vital time was lost due to unfamiliarity” on the part of the vets the dog was brought to. How much time would be lost if someone administered a homeopathic “remedy” expecting it to actually have some effect?

As I said, this is the second time I’ve been surprised by woo in a pet advice column at Ann Arbor.com. The first time was back at the start of April when author Lorrie Shaw wrote an article promoting the benefits of Penetrating Laser Therapy for your pets:

Anyone who has a pet has likely had the experience of monitoring their four-legged friends’ minor injuries or painful strains, and for the most part, the body will deal with it on its own, given a little time and/or rest.

When there is a chronic problem, like stubborn wounds or bone injuries that need extra attention, or perhaps when a pet is rehabilitating from injury and the healing process needs a little boost, holistic therapies or treatments can prove to be very useful — especially Class IV Penetrating Laser Therapy.

Now the first red flag this article raised for me was the use of the word “holistic” as that’s a popular word among the woo-woo faithful, but I admit that I hadn’t read up much on Penetrating Laser Therapy so I trudged on through the very brief article. It turns out that it’s not so much an article as it is a lead-in to free advertising for Dr.Taryn Clark and Dr. Jessica Franklin at the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital. That’s where the second red flag popped up as they are described as “veterinary acupuncturists” by the article.

Oh boy.

Like I said, I had not looked into whether or not  Class IV Penetrating Laser Therapy is legitimate or not. So I did a Google search that reveals that it’s very popular with Chiropractors and Veterinary Clinics. One such example can be found here where they promote it as a near-miracle cure for chronic pain:

The K Laser is an FDA approved Class IV laser. Early Class III therapeutic lasers are effective, but literally thousands of times less powerful than the new technology available today. Class III lasers are capable of penetration of only a few millimeters, while Class IV lasers can penetrate over 4 inches into the deep musculoskeletal tissue. The perfect blend of chiropractic and laser therapy produces phenomenal results in extremely short periods of time.

[…] The laser works by creating vasodilatation, bringing oxygen to the cells. It stimulates the lymphatic system, pulling edema and inflammation from the area. ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) production is stimulated in the cells helping them have the energy to function normally. The pain reflex is broken, offering immediate relief. In other words, “it brings in the good stuff and gets rid of the bad stuff”.

Sounds amazing, right? I looked up the K Laser on the FDA website(PDF), no small feat given the amount of stuff they publish, and this is how it’s described there:

Klaser provides infrared therapy for the following allowed claims:

Infrared therapy to provide topical heating for:

– Temporary increase in local blood circulation

– Temporary relief of minor muscles and joint aches, pains and stiffness

– Relaxation of muscles

– Muscles spasms

– Minor pain and stiffness associated with arthritis

The Intended Use/Indications For Use stated herein are identical to the cleared indications for the predicateddevice.

The device is indicated for emitting energy in the Infrared Spectrum to provide topical heating for the purpose of elevating tissue temperature for temporary relief of minor muscle and joint pain, muscle spasm, pain and stiffness associated with arthritis and promoting relaxation of the muscle tissue and to temporarily increase local blood circulation. – March 25, 2005

So it does have some effect, but it doesn’t sound quite as exciting based on the FDA description. Still, it at least has some benefit, right? So what do the folks at the Ann Arbor Animal Hospital claim is the benefit for pets? Here’s a quote from their “Ask the Expert” column at the Ann Arbor.com website:

Laser therapy provides a sterile, pain-free, surgery-free, drug-free treatment that is used to treat a variety of injuries, wounds, fractures, neurological conditions, numerous dermatological problems, and pain (post-surgical, neck & back).

Whether your pet is rehabilitating from trauma or injury, healing from wounds, or simply aging, your companion might benefit from this holistic approach to treating pain.

Wow, according to the experts, this laser therapy stuff does more than stimulate temporary increases in blood circulation and pain relief, but did you note the escape clause I highlighted in bold? “Might benefit” is a favorite of woo-wooers trying to ensure they don’t get sued.

But how does it work you ask? Here’s their explanation:

Like veterinary acupuncture, laser therapy stimulates the body to heal from within. Non-thermal photons of light are administered to the body and absorbed by the injured cells. The cells are then stimulated and respond with a higher rate of metabolism. This results in increased circulation from the body, an anti-inflammatory reaction, relief from pain and an acceleration of the healing process.

Non-thermal photons of light! That DOES sound impressive, but what the fuck does that mean? And how can it be non-thermal when the FDA specifically says that a Class IV Penetrating Laser delivers Infrared topical-heat therapy?

Well, trying to explain what a non-thermal photon is gets into some heavy physics concepts which even the experts say they don’t fully understand, but from what I can gather it’s not the sort of thing that’s easily producible as it tends to come from stuff in space like supernovas, pulsars, radio galaxies, Seyfert galaxies, BL Lacertae objects, and GRBs. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, we don’t have anything on a commercial scale that could produce non-thermal photons that you’d use in medical therapy.

You’ll note that they don’t explain how a non-thermal photon stimulates the cells to a higher rate of metabolism, they just say that it does and expect you to trip over the buzz words enough that you accept the claim. For true humor, however, you have to consider their list of symptoms that you may want to consider Laser Therapy to treat:

Most of our laser therapy patients are older dogs with musculoskeletal ailments. Some signs that your dog is experiencing pain that laser treatment may be able to assuage:

Abnormal sitting or lying posture

Whining, groaning or other vocalizing

Limping, unable to get up or lie down

Difficulty getting into car or down stairs

Lack of grooming

Won’t wag tail

Licking or biting area

Lack of appetite

Trembling

Could you possibly be any more vague while still covering as wide a range of possibilities?

Again, it’s not that the therapy doesn’t do anything because it does. So does a warm compress or a heating pad applied to the affected area and for the same reasons. Heat is a traditional treatment for sore muscles and joints as it promotes blood flow and relaxes muscles. The folks at AAAH say that your dog may go to sleep during treatment and your cat will purr. Well of course they will, it’s a warm massage.

The next question is, how much does it cost? According to the representative I spoke to on the phone (prices aren’t listed on the website) the initial treatment is $50 on top of $55 office visit fee and then $40 for each additional treatment. Or you can sign your pet up for a series of six treatments for $210. The number of treatments varies depending on the specific problem your pet is suffering from, but seeing as many of the problems this treatment is dealing with are age-related it’s likely that you’ll need to go back more than a few times. Depending on your income level that may or may not be an unreasonable amount of money to spend, but when you can get similar results from a heating pad or a heated pet bed, well, you have to wonder if it’s worth the money. Still, at least it actually does something as opposed to acupuncture or giving your dog homeopathic water.

Finding this nonsense in the local news website, however, really bugs the shit out of me. Especially when it’s presented in such a non-critical fashion. We already spend billions on our pets every year because we consider them to be part of the family. Is it too much to ask that we not be fleeced by questionable treatments from supposed professionals? It makes me loathe to read the Ann Arbor.com website the same way that all the woo-woo crap on The Huffington Post makes me loathe to read that website. Which is a shame because both sites have plenty of good stuff to offer which is just undermined by the bullshit.

Still, there’s always a silver lining and this one comes in the comments to both of those articles. First, from Rick Kuick in the article about the snake bite:

“If you are a believer in homeopathics (which I happen to be, based on personal experience)…”
I believe – I believe they contain water and little else.

And then in the earlier article on penetrating lasers there were two comments that brought a swell of pride to my chest. The first from Amlive reads:

With all due respect, I smell nonsense and snake oil here, not unlike many other questionable science permeating the field of “holistic medicine”.

For an alternative view –

http://skeptvet.com/Blog/2010/05/cold-laser-therapy/

When studies confirming benefits and science of these therapies show up in NEJM, I might start listening. Until then, I have to put this up there with homeopathy (which means I’m sure there’s a market for it here in Ann Arbor).

And the latter from Trespass:

Is this news reporting? Even soft news should be generally accepted medical/scientific fact not holistic nonsense. It damages the credibility of a news organization.

Yes, it does this skeptic’s heart much good to see there our others out there questioning this nonsense being in a supposedly legitimate news source.

Good news in the U.K. as doctors vote to drop homeopathy funding from the NHS.

The advocates of woo-woo in the U.K. have had a bit of a setback:

In all the furore over cuts to the NHS, doctors have voted to stop one service all by themselves – and unlike what is expected to follow, this is something we should all celebrate. The British Medical Association (BMA) has voted to stop offering homeopathic treatment on the NHS.

It’s better still. They also say that homeopathic products should no longer be labelled “medicines” and should instead be marked “placebo” when sold in pharmacies. In entertainingly robust language, Dr Tom Dolphin of the BMA’s junior doctors committee described homeopathic remedies as “nonsense on stilts”.

It’s worth reading the full “nonsense on stilts” quote from the news article:

Dr Tom Dolphin, from the BMA’s junior doctors committee, said that he had previously described homeopathy as witchcraft but now wanted to apologise to witches for making the link.

“Homeopathy is not witchcraft, it is nonsense on stilts,” he said.

“It is pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method.

“We risk, as a society, slipping back into a state of magical thinking when made-up science passes for rational discourse and wishing for something to be true passes for proof.”

According to the Society of Homeopaths, homeopathy has been available through the NHS since its creation in 1948. You’d think that 62 years would be more than enough time to establish that it actually does something, but so far there’s not much in the way of evidence to suggest that it does.

It does my heart good to see doctors in the U.K. standing up for evidence based medicine. Perhaps there’s hope for all of us yet.

New study warns that herbal supplements and medicines don’t always mix well.

What’s the harm, the question goes, if herbal supplements don’t actually help cure anything? Well, they could kill you if you’re on certain types of real medications:

Researchers are warning that popular herbs and supplements, including St. John’s wort and even garlic and ginger, do not mix well with common heart drugs and can also be dangerous for patients taking statins, blood thinners and blood pressure medications.

St. John’s wort raises blood pressure and heart rate, and garlic and ginger increase the risk of bleeding in patients on blood thinners, the researchers said. Even grapefruit juice can be risky, increasing the effects of calcium-channel blockers and statins, they said.

via Vital Signs – Study Warns That Some Supplements and Medicine Do Not Mix – NYTimes.com.

People don’t tend to think of herbs as being a type of chemical, but they are and they can have an impact on any other chemicals you might be taking:

The paper includes a list of more than two dozen herbal products that patients should approach with caution, as well as a list of common drug-herb interactions. Among the products listed are ginkgo biloba, ginseng and echinacea, as well as some surprises like soy milk and green tea — both of which can decrease the effectiveness of warfarin — and even aloe vera and licorice.

The abstract to the paper will get your attention:

More than 15 million people in the U.S. consume herbal remedies or high-dose vitamins. The number of visits to providers of complementary and alternative medicine exceeds those to primary care physicians, for annual out-of-pocket costs of $30 billion. Use of herbal products forms the bulk of treatments, particularly by elderly people who also consume multiple prescription medications for comorbid conditions, which increases the risk of adverse herb-drug-disease interactions. Despite the paucity of scientific evidence supporting the safety or efficacy of herbal products, their widespread promotion in the popular media and the unsubstantiated health care claims about their efficacy drive consumer demand. In this review, we highlight commonly used herbs and their interactions with cardiovascular drugs. We also discuss health-related issues of herbal products and suggest ways to improve their safety to better protect the public from untoward effects.

Visits to so-called complementary and alternative medicine practitioners exceeds those to primary care physicians? Really? Have we all gone that nuts? The $30 billion a year in money wasted doesn’t surprise me that much, we’ve been a nation willing to waste tons of money on shit that doesn’t work for quite a while now, but the fact that the woo-woo practitioners are seeing more people simply shocks me.

Given that they’re talking about health effects from supplements made from a single herb, consider what that means when you take something like (We-Can’t-Say-It-Cures-Colds-Anymore-But-It-Kinda-Does-Wink-Wink) Airborne which contains a shit load of herbs and vitamins. According to the official site it has the following in it: Vitamins A, C, and E, Zinc, Selenium, Manganese, Magneisum, Riboflavin, Amino Acids, and a proprietary herbal blend that includes Lonicera, Forsythia, Schizonepeta, Ginger, Chinese Vitex, Isatis and Echinacea.

That’s quite the mix and you have no idea what the dosages are for most of the ingredients. Consider that it contains 5,000 units of Vitamin A per tablet and you are encouraged to take five tablets a day or more. Did I mention that taking more than 10,000 units of Vitamin A a day is considered unsafe? Not to mention that it also contains high doses of Vitamin C which can lead to kidney stones, among other problems. Combine that with the fact that several of its components are known to interact with legit medicines and you could be doing quite a bit of harm by taking it.

But hey, it was created by a school teacher and they know better than any stupid old doctor what’s best to put in your body, right?

“Fairy and Human Relations Congress” brings out the mildly delusional.

If you thought people didn’t believe in faeries anymore, well, you’d be wrong. There’s still plenty of people out there willing to believe in wee-folk living in their gardens. They even have their own annual convention that’s in its ninth year:

TWISP, Wash.—In the foothills of the North Cascades, where the veil between dimensions is said to be thinnest, inhabitants of this world gather once a year to coexist with fairies in theirs.

About 250 people came to the Methow Valley June 26 through 28 from as far away as Europe and Hawaii to participate in the ninth annual Fairy and Human Relations Congress, an outdoor festival in a secluded mountain meadow called Skalitude.

[…] “The purpose of the congress is to encourage communication and cooperation of the fairy realm,” said Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski, the event’s founder and organizer.

The human world is in crisis and can use all the help it can get, Pilarski said, so why not form alliances with those in other realms?

The most obvious answer is because there’s no evidence said other realms and their supposed inhabitants actually exist. Not that that is likely to stop the wishful thinking taking place at the conference. It’s a veritable who’s who of woo-woo. You’ve got your there-are-more-things-in-heaven-and-earth Shakespearian philosopher:

Asked whether she believes in fairies or is merely sympathetic to those who do, Swope said, “I believe in it. Life is way more complicated than what we can see, hear and touch.”

You’ve got your it’s-just-like-crazy-concepts-in-other-religions guy:

“We might call (fairies) angels of nature,” said Pilarski, an herb farmer and writer who also founded the annual Okanogan Family Barter Faire in nearby Tonasket.

Many people of mainstream faiths believe angels watch over them, he said.

“God’s love does not just extend to humans, but to all of nature and to all the species on Earth,” he said, so why should these spirits not watch over all of creation?

You’ve got your reality-is-what-you-want-it-to-be lady:

“Like anything, whatever you look for is what you find in life,” Kathleen McKenty, a retired horticulturalist from Snohomish, of the congress.

“This is the way life should be. It’s healthy, it’s positive. The setting is gorgeous. It keeps alive the possibility of things unknown and larger than yourself, the sense of wonder and magic in your life,” said McKenty, who has attended four or five congresses, including the first one.

Because, darn it, there just isn’t anything else that could possibly inspire a sense of awe and wonder they way believing in mythical faeries can.

In “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Elves and Fairies,” author Sirona Knight wrote that the fairy realm is “somewhere between this world and the divine.”

Never before has a book been more aptly titled.

These themes were repeated by Fairy Congress presenters such as Orion Foxwood, author of “Tree of Enchantment” and a self-proclaimed witch who tends to speak in aphorisms.

“We are here to remove that distance between humanity and divinity,” Foxwood said. “We are not humans on the spiritual path, we are spirits on the human path.”

Wow, that’s deep. Good thing I brought my waders.

Remember Pilarski from a couple of quotes back? Here he is again pulling out the absence-of-proof card:

Pilarski said he has not actually seen a fairy, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Fairies manifest themselves differently to different people – and besides, he said, only about 10 percent of people have “the sight.”

How does he know the number is 10 percent? How does he know the people who claim to have “The Sight” aren’t lying or just batshit crazy? People like this wacko:

One who claims to have seen a rather large deva, much like the Jolly Green Giant only without the peas, is Mary J. Getten, of Olympia, who says she can communicate telepathically with animals and fairies.

It also is possible to communicate with the “unseen realm,” Getten said, but it’s important to know what you’re doing before trying.

“Seeing fairies changes your reality,” she said.

I’m sure it does. Preferably it should change your reality to a little rubber room with a comfortable jacket with really long arms that lets you hug yourself silly, but I hear they don’t have those places anymore.

Would it surprise you to learn that Getten teaches a class on how to be telepathic?

Telepathy is the universal language, Getten said, but like learning any language, it takes a little practice.

“We all have it. It’s just that in our society it’s not encouraged or supported.”

And, unlike Pilarski, she thinks anyone can learn to see faeries:

When encountering fairies and devas, Getten and others said, people tend to see what they expect to see. One workshop presenter said he once saw what looked like the Rice Krispies elves, Snap, Crackle and Pop.

Did she ask him if perhaps he was having cereal for breakfast at the time? It seems like it’d be a pertinent question.

One of the great things about conferences like this is that they don’t tend to limit themselves to one form of woo-woo. These guys are big into orbs as well:

As proof that the nature spirits are fascinated with human shenanigans, many at the Fairy Congress cited the existence of orbs, transparent balls of light that appear only in digital photographs taken at happy occasions such as festivals and weddings.

Critics say orbs are reflections of photographic flashes off dust particles in the air, but Hope and Randy Mead, who live north of Colville, say they know better.

Classic definition of delusional right there, folks. It’s just dust in the camera flash. That’s it. Dust. You can create orbs at whim with a handful of dust, a low-light situation, and any old digital camera.

But wait, there’s more! What goes great with orbs? Why the whole 2012 Mayan Calendar nonsense:

Their independent film, “Orbs: The Veil Is Lifting,” was shown at the congress.

Hope Mead, who has studied orbs for eight years, said they are beings from another dimension, perhaps from the fairy realm. Such phenomena are becoming more common as the year 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar, approaches, and the veil between the dimensions lifts, she said.

“What we believe is that it’s not the end of the world, but the end of time as we know it, and we are going through a dimensional shift,” Mead said.

Hey, you know what else orbs might be?

Spiritual adviser, author and recording artist Brooke Medicine Eagle believes fairies and orbs are just incarnations of the nature spirits of Native American animism.

But of course! You can’t have a woo-woo conference and not invite the Native American spiritualists to it! That would diminish the awesomeness of the woo by a factor of 10!

Nature spirits, fairies, devas whatever you want to call them Pilarski said more people believe in them than let on.

“Thirty years ago, we would have been called kooks or worse,” he said. Now people are more accommodating in their thinking.

No, you’re still kooks. There may be more people buying into your nonsense, but that doesn’t make you any less delusional. Though I have to give Pilarski credit for one thing: He’s still sane enough to charge these people $250 a head to attend his conference.

Perhaps he’s not quite as crazy as the rest of them.

Ten years and $2.5 billion shows “alternative” medicines don’t cure jack shit.

In news that will likely fail to dissuade folks who buy into the whole alternative medicine nonsense, the report from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says that just about every alternative treatment they tried failed to produce results:

Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.

As for therapies, acupuncture has been shown to help certain conditions, and yoga, massage, meditation and other relaxation methods may relieve symptoms like pain, anxiety and fatigue.

All it took was ten years and $2.5 billion in taxpayer money despite the fact that many other independent studies have already shown this to be the case. So will the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which I still have a hard time believing is a government run organization, shut down and admit that there’s nothing to this nonsense? Of course not. They plan to spend even more money studying even more ridiculous claims:

However, the government also is funding studies of purported energy fields, distance healing and other approaches that have little if any biological plausibility or scientific evidence.

Taxpayers are bankrolling studies of whether pressing various spots on your head can help with weight loss, whether brain waves emitted from a special “master” can help break cocaine addiction, and whether wearing magnets can help the painful wrist problem, carpal tunnel syndrome.

The acupressure weight-loss technique won a $2 million grant even though a small trial of it on 60 people found no statistically significant benefit — only an encouraging trend that could have occurred by chance. The researcher says the pilot study was just to see if the technique was feasible.

What the fuck? Why are we wasting money on crap that has no basis in science?

“You expect scientific thinking” at a federal science agency, said R. Barker Bausell, author of “Snake Oil Science” and a research methods expert at the University of Maryland, one of the agency’s top-funded research sites. “It’s become politically correct to investigate nonsense.”

Oh, that’s why.

Look, I’m all for testing of “alternative” medicines and therapies that could plausibly have some scientific basis. Echinacea for colds is a good example. Asprin comes from willow bark so it was entirely possible there might have been something in echinacea that could affect colds. We tested it. It doesn’t do squat. Put it aside and move on. But brain waves being emitted by a “master” to cure cocaine addiction? Fuck me, but that’s stupid.

“There’s not all the money in the world and you have to choose” what most deserves tax support, said Barrie Cassileth, integrative medicine chief at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“Many of the studies that have been funded I would not have funded because they seem irrational and foolish — studies on distant healing by prayer and energy healing, studies that are based on precepts and ideas that are contrary to what is known in terms of human physiology and disease,” she said.

Exactly! Let’s apply a little of the scientific knowledge we already have on how the universe works and prioritize based on how plausible a particular treatment might be. The further away from established theories a proposed treatment is the lower on the priority list it should be when it comes time to test.

So why are we wasting time and money on the implausible shit? Because the board that runs this agency is well populated with people who buy into the alternative medicine bullshit. Not only are they in control, but even when a study shows something doesn’t work they refused to state that fact plainly preferring to hide behind the “more research is needed” cop out:

However, critics say that unlike private companies that face bottom-line pressure to abandon a drug that flops, the federal center is reluctant to admit a supplement may lack merit — despite a strategic plan pledging not to equivocate in the face of negative findings.

Echinacea is an example. After a large study by a top virologist found it didn’t help colds, its fans said the wrong one of the plant’s nine species had been tested. Federal officials agreed that more research was needed, even though they had approved the type used in the study.

“There’s been a deliberate policy of never saying something doesn’t work. It’s as though you can only speak in one direction,” and say a different version or dose might give different results, said Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired physician who runs Quackwatch, a web site on medical scams.

Critics also say the federal center’s research agenda is shaped by an advisory board loaded with alternative medicine practitioners. They account for at least nine of the board’s 18 members, as required by its government charter. Many studies they approve for funding are done by alternative therapy providers; grants have gone to board members, too.

“It’s the fox guarding the chicken coop,” said Dr. Joseph Jacobs, who headed the Office of Alternative Medicine, a smaller federal agency that preceded the center’s creation. “This is not science, it’s ideology on the part of the advocates.”

Basically it’s the practitioners of woo-woo nonsense making more than a few bucks on the taxpayer’s dime while they busy themselves with shifting the goalposts so as to never have to say it doesn’t work. The rest of the article goes on to list off defenses by the foxes guarding the chickens, but it’s all bullshit. Not only have there been many independent studies that show this stuff doesn’t work, but even with 10 years these guys have yet to come up with anything that is clearly beneficial. There are several studies that show taking herbal supplements can interfere with legitimate drugs such as those used by cancer patients. Additionally the actual contents of a particular supplement can vary wildly between different manufacturers and can contain all sorts of potentially harmful contaminates.

This agency needs to be revamped. Get rid of the True Believers™ and staff it with qualified people capable of running proper studies and then prioritize based on the plausibility of a particular treatment. Do the study, release the results, and move on to the next one. Line ‘em up and knock ‘em down and then start putting the pushers of the shit that doesn’t work out of business. If a particular treatment shows some applicability in some area (e.g. ginger to treat nausea, which has been pretty well established) then that’s great! Use it for that purpose and stop selling it as a cure-all.

“Here Be Dragons” is a free 40 minute film on critical thinking.

I’m very big on critical thinking and I try to promote it where I can. So when I stumbled across this video over at Richard Dawkins’ website I knew I had to include it here.

Here Be Dragons is a free 40 minute video introduction to critical thinking. It is suitable for general audiences and is licensed for free distribution and public display.

Most people fully accept paranormal and pseudoscientific claims without critique as they are promoted by the mass media. Here Be Dragons offers a toolbox for recognizing and understanding the dangers of pseudoscience, and appreciation for the reality-based benefits offered by real science.

Here Be Dragons is written and presented by Brian Dunning, host and producer of the Skeptoid podcast, author of Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena, and Executive Producer of The Skeptologists.

Good stuff.

Appeals court upholds ruling blasting Q-Ray Bracelet as “fraud.”

Every now and then the makers of quack medical products and other woo-woo snake oil nonsense get a well deserved smack down. The makers of the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet, which I’ve written about previously here, got one back in September of 2006 when the FTC sued them for fraud and the court ruled in the FTC’s favor. The makers of the Q-Ray Bracelet filed an appeal and the results of that case were just announced yesterday (PDF file). Here’s a sample:

EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge. WIRED Magazine recently put the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet on its list of the top ten Snake-Oil Gadgets. See http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2007/11/10-awesome-gadg.html.

The Federal Trade Commission has an even less honorable title for the bracelet’s promotional campaign: fraud. In this action under 15 U.S.C. §§ 45(a), 52, 53, a magistrate judge, presiding by the parties’ consent, concluded after a bench trial that the bracelet’s promotion has been thoroughly dishonest. The court enjoined the promotional claims and required defendants to disgorge some $16 million (plus interest) for the FTC to distribute to consumers who have been taken in. 448 F. Supp. 2d 908 (N.D. Ill. 2006), modified in part by 472 F. Supp. 2d 990 (N.D. Ill. 2007).

According to the district court’s findings, almost everything that defendants have said about the bracelet is false. Here are some highlights:

  • Defendants promoted the bracelet as a miraculous cure for chronic pain, but it has no therapeutic effect.
  • Defendants told consumers that claims of “immediate, significant or complete pain relief” had been “test-proven”; they hadn’t.
  • The bracelet does not emit “Q-Rays” (there are no such things) and is not ionized (the bracelet is an electric conductor, and any net charge dissipates swiftly). The bracelet’s chief promoter chose these labels because they are simple and easily remembered—and because Polaroid Corp. blocked him from calling the bangle “polarized”.
  • The bracelet is touted as “enhancing the flow of bio-energy” or “balancing the flow of positive and negative energies”; these empty phrases have no connection to any medical or scientific effect. Every other claim made about the mechanism of the bracelet’s therapeutic effect likewise is techno-babble.
  • Defendants represented that the therapeutic effect wears off in a year or two, despite knowing that the bracelet’s properties do not change. This assertion is designed to lead customers to buy new bracelets. Likewise the false statement that the bracelet has a “memory cycle specific to each individual wearer” so that only the bracelet’s original wearer can experience pain relief is designed to increase sales by eliminating the second-hand market and “explaining” the otherwise-embarrassing fact that the buyer’s friends and neighbors can’t perceive any effect.
  • Even statements about the bracelet’s physical composition are false. It is sold in “gold” and “silver” varieties but is made of brass.

The magistrate judge did not commit a clear error, or abuse his discretion, in concluding that the defendants set out to bilk unsophisticated persons who found themselves in pain from arthritis and other chronic conditions.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. The court agrees with the FTC that the product is bullshit and that every claim made about it is an outright lie. What do the lawyers for Q-Ray have to say? Well, they think the judge was being unfair::

Defendants maintain that the magistrate judge subjected their statements to an excessively rigorous standard of proof. Some passages in the opinion could be read to imply that any statement about a product’s therapeutic effects must be deemed false unless the claim has been verified in a placebo-controlled, double-blind study: that is, a study in which some persons are given the product whose effects are being investigated while others are given a placebo (with the allocation made at random), and neither the person who distributes the product nor the person who measures the effects knows which received the real product. Such studies are expensive, not only because of the need for placebos and keeping the experimenters in the dark, but also because they require large numbers of participants to achieve statistically significant results. Defendants observe that requiring vendors to bear such heavy costs may keep useful products off the market (this has been a problem for drugs that are subject to the FDA’s testing protocols) and prevent vendors from making truthful statements that will help consumers locate products that will do them good.

“But it costs money to prove our products actually do what we claim they do! How can you expect us to maintain our absurd profit margins if we have to show our products work!?” This next bit contains an important point which I think a lot of folks don’t realize so I’m going to underline them for you:

Nothing in the Federal Trade Commission Act, the foundation of this litigation, requires placebo-controlled, double-blind studies. The Act forbids false and misleading statements, and a statement that is plausible but has not been tested in the most reliable way cannot be condemned out of hand. The burden is on the Commission to prove that the statements are false. (This is one way in which the Federal Trade Commission Act differs from the Food and Drug Act.) Think about the seller of an adhesive bandage treated with a disinfectant such as iodine. The seller does not need to conduct tests before asserting that this product reduces the risk of infection from cuts. The bandage keeps foreign materials out of the cuts and kills some bacteria. It may be debatable how much the risk of infection falls, but the direction of the effect would be known, and the claim could not be condemned as false. Placebo-controlled, double-blind testing is not a legal requirement for consumer products.

Did you get that? Most medical products sold that are covered by the FTC (read: that aren’t drugs) are not required to undergo placebo-controlled double blind tests to prove their claims. Any testing done is not only at the whim of the company, but the methodology can be whatever the hell they want it to be. This is as true for so-called “herbal supplements” and “homeopathic remedies” as it is for craptastic medical devices. If it ain’t a drug (and even if it is, but that’s a different discussion for another time) then you should skeptically consider any claims of “clinically proven” or “proven in studies” made in an advertisement.

This is why everyone needs at least a basic amount of scientific literacy. We get bombarded with claims of miracle cures constantly and the government isn’t going to stop them until they’ve made enough money and gotten enough pissed off consumers to complain that the FTC considers it enough of a problem to do something about it. I get emails from people trying to defend these companies all the time that all say the same thing: “Well they wouldn’t be allowed to sell it if it didn’t work.”

Bzzt! Wrong! Thanks for playing, but you’re a complete idiot! They can sell it for years before action might be taken against them and even then it could take awhile before anything happens. The Q-Ray Bracelet has been around for the better part of a decade and when the FTC first turned its eyes towards them the makers simply changed their commercials to remove any specific claims about what the bracelet does. It featured a lot of people standing around talking about how when they first put it on they could instantly feel a difference (difference in what?) and how they felt better and more energized since they started wearing the bracelet (which means what exactly?) and that was enough to buy them a few more years. Even after losing the lawsuit in 2006 it’s taken over a year for the appeals court to uphold it and guess who’s been selling bracelets the entire time? The best defense against getting ripped off by bogus medical claims is to have enough science under your belt to smell the bullshit being shoveled your way.

Still, reading the comments of the judge in this case, who wasn’t buying the argument at all, does a lot to warm the heart:

But how could this conclusion assist defendants? In our example the therapeutic claim is based on scientific principles. For the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet, by contrast, all statements about how the product works—Q-Rays, ionization, enhancing the flow of bio-energy, and the like—are blather. Defendants might as well have said: “Beneficent creatures from the 17th Dimension use this bracelet as a beacon to locate people who need pain relief, and whisk them off to their homeworld every night to provide help in ways unknown to our science.”

Not that the lawyers didn’t try to prove the bracelets work, but when you see what they were claiming as the basis of their proof, well, if you’re like me then you’ll probably laugh out loud and scare your coworkers and/or family members:

To this defendants respond that one study shows that the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet does reduce pain. This study, which the district court’s opinion describes in detail, compared the effects of “active” and “inactive” bracelets (defendants told the experimenter which was which), with the “inactive” bracelet serving as a control. The study found that both “active” and “inactive” bracelets had a modest—and identical—effect on patients’ reported levels of pain. In other words, the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet exhibits the placebo effect. Like a sugar pill, it alleviates symptoms even though there is no apparent medical reason. … Defendants insist that the placebo effect vindicates their claims, even though they are false—indeed, especially because they are false, as the placebo effect depends on deceit. Tell the patient that the pill contains nothing but sugar, and there is no pain relief; tell him (falsely) that it contains a powerful analgesic, and the perceived level of pain falls. A product that confers this benefit cannot be excluded from the market, defendants insist, just because they told the lies necessary to bring the effect about.

Isn’t that amazing? The lawyers for the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet have admitted under oath in a court of law that the product is no more effective than swallowing a sugar pill at relieving pain and, this is the really good part, they had to lie about its benefits otherwise there would’ve been no benefit at all. So the product does work, at least somewhat, and our lies were justified because they make the product work!

As a side note: Those few idiots who still send me emails occasionally telling me that I have no proof that the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet is complete bullshit can stop sending those emails now. The lawyers have fessed up in court to the truth.

The appeals judges apparently weren’t completely unsympathetic to the argument that the placebo effect is of some use to some people, but that wasn’t enough to justify the defendants in this case. The following quotation is quite lengthy, but it does an excellent point of answering the placebo effect argument:

Yet the Federal Trade Commission Act condemns material falsehoods in promoting consumer products; the statute lacks an exception for “beneficial deceit.” We appreciate the possibility that a vague claim—along the lines of “this bracelet will reduce your pain without the side effects of drugs”—could be rendered true by the placebo effect. To this extent we are skeptical about language in FTC v. Pantron I Corp., 33 F.3d 1088 (9th Cir. 1994), suggesting that placebo effects always are worthless to consumers. But our defendants advanced claims beyond those that could be supported by a placebo effect. They made statements about Q-Rays, ionization, and bio-energy that they knew to be poppycock; they stated that the bracelet remembers its first owner and won’t work for anyone else; the list is extensive.

One important reason for requiring truth is so that competition in the market will lead to appropriate prices. Selling brass as gold harms consumers independent of any effect on pain. Since the placebo effect can be obtained from sugar pills, charging $200 for a device that is represented as a miracle cure but works no better than a dummy pill is a form of fraud. That’s not all. A placebo is necessary when scientists are searching for the marginal effect of a new drug or device, but once the study is over a reputable professional will recommend whatever works best.

Medicine aims to do better than the placebo effect, which any medieval physician could achieve by draining off a little of the patient’s blood. If no one knows how to cure or ameliorate a given condition, then a placebo is the best thing going. Far better a placebo that causes no harm (the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet is inert) than the sort of nostrums peddled from the back of a wagon 100 years ago and based on alcohol, opium, and wormwood. But if a condition responds to treatment, then selling a placebo as if it had therapeutic effect directly injures the consumer. See Kraft, Inc. v. FTC, 970 F.2d 311, 314 (7th Cir. 1992) (a statement violates the FTC Act “if it is likely to mislead consumers, acting reasonably under the circumstances, in a material respect”).

Physicians know how to treat pain. Why pay $200 for a Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet when you can get relief from an aspirin tablet that costs 1¢? Some painful conditions do not respond to analgesics (or the stronger drugs in the pharmacopeia) or to surgery, but it does not follow that a placebo at any price is better. Deceit such as the tall tales that defendants told about the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet will lead some consumers to avoid treatments that cost less and do more; the lies will lead others to pay too much for pain relief or otherwise interfere with the matching of remedies to medical conditions. That’s why the placebo effect cannot justify fraud in promoting a product.

Well said I thought. It’s worth reading the whole document as the discussion on the remedy—the makers of Q-Ray have to forfeit $16 million plus interest in profits back to consumers—as it includes decisions on objections raised by the company to the terms and reveals just how dishonest they are. In particular is the fact that if you bought a bracelet by phone you had 30 days to get you money back, but if you bought it through their website (which the infomercial heavily encouraged you to do) then you only got 10 days for a refund.