|Volume 8 Number 3||www.ntskeptics.org||March 1994|
It's one thing when the news media disseminate pseudoscientific rubbish. It's quite another when peer-reviewed medical scientific journals make the same mistake. The latest victim of this sort of health fraud is Obstetrics and Gynecology, the official journal of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the fellows of which are all Board Certified in their specialty.
In its December 1993 issue, the "Green Journal," as it's affectionately called, published an article by two proponents of "reflexology," sometimes also called "Zone Therapy." The scam here is that the human body is somehow (never mind how!) completely "represented" on everybody's hands, feet, and ears and that specialized massage of the hands, feet, and ears can "stimulate" the corresponding body part to health.
The "theory" behind such nonsense seems to be a combination of modified acupuncture (despite the problem of drug abuse, Americans seem to be squeamish about needles) and ideas of a religious flavor about humans being "connected" to the earth and its electromagnetic fields at the feet. In any case, the article in question purported to justify the use of "reflexology" for the alleviation of premenstrual symptoms.
Neither of the authors are engaged in the practice of medical science as such, nor did they collaborate with anyone who did. They and their "research" were supported by something called the "American Academy of Reflexology." They were nevertheless allowed to prattle on about "cutaneo-organ ... reflex points ... that correspond somatotopically to specific areas and organs of the body" as though they were demonstrable aspects of human anatomy, and otherwise make use of terminology devoid of any medical scientific meaning.
The enormous conceptual difficulties that accompany such absurdities went completely ignored. What about the subjects' footwear, for example? What about the effects of grasping an automobile steering wheel on what the authors claimed are the "reflex systems found on the ... hands ... which are 'holographic reiterations of the anatomy of the body?" Does this mean that stepping on your child's Lego block in the dark of night could give you brain cancer? And what happens to this supposed "holograph" at the point where there's a "reiteration" on the hand of the hand of the hand of the hand ... ?
Despite their obvious bias, the authors' "research" was not credibly blinded, nor did they even attempt to control for subject bias except that they excluded those with "extensive previous experience with reflexology" [emphasis added]. This could be compared to polling "ordinary" people concerning whether they think the earth is being visited by extraterrestrials and only excluding respondents who say they've been aboard alien spacecraft more than once or twice.
The authors did proudly claim to have compared their "reflexology" massage with a "control." The sham treatment consisted of similar stimulation which was "overly light or very rough." Consequently, assuming that the people in the latter group didn't go home and massage their own feet, hands, and ears to get some relief, the very most that could be said of this "research" is that it demonstrated stronger nonspecific effects of massage than of tickling and pinching.
Reflexology quacks will obviously be capitalizing on this first-class public relations victory for some time. Sadly, it comes at the expense of what has otherwise been a largely dependable scientific journal, the editors of which have yet to offer any apology for, or even a recognition of their deplorable lapse.
Roy M. Pitkin, M.D., the journal's editor, has so far defended the publication of the piece. Although he stopped short of actually defending reflexology as such, in a letter to me he referred to his satisfaction with not being associated with a "narrow-minded" organization!
Depression & Survival
Although frequently accused of ignoring mind-body effects, legitimate research into the important relationships between health and states of mind continues. In the October 20th issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, researchers at the Montreal Heart Institute in Quebec reported that major depression in those hospitalized after heart attacks was associated with a four to six-fold increase in mortality within six months. Therefore, besides the immediate and obvious benefits to be had from identifying and treating depression in these patients, such an approach might also extend their lives.
This interesting finding leaves unanswered the question of what exactly is the connection. Vitalists and other traffickers in "wholistic" approaches, of course, are content to leave such questions as irreducible elements of their confused metaphysics. But, in fact, major depression has already been linked to altered metabolism of certain chemical substances in the brain which act as messenger molecules (neurotransmitters) between nerve cells. These changes could easily result in further physiologic effects throughout the body in any of a number of ways. Or, as even the Montreal researchers admit, the connection may be as simple as a reduced commitment to and compliance with a rehabilitation treatment plan among depressed heart attack victims.
Similar research on the effects of depression on HIV-infected individuals (appearing in the December 1st issue of JAMA) showed no change in the rate of progression to AIDS or mortality.
Why Weight Loss Scams Won't Go Away Soon
The chief reason for continued weight loss-related health fraud is that effective weight loss continues to elude medical science. The October 1993 Archives of Family Medicine reported the results of 225 patients participating in a very low calorie weight reduction program at a community hospital in Orange Park, Florida. Although 90% achieved significant weight loss, only about a third of these maintained it, with the average maintained weight loss for all patients being a dismal 6.5 kilograms at a cost of $396 per kilogram. Those who continued on an exercise program of some kind had somewhat better results. The article's authors drew the obvious conclusion that "a more affordable and effective strategy for weight loss" is needed. But until that day arrives, those with unwanted fat will undoubtedly continue to be the targets of the indefatigable quacks.
Although he was never involved in designing, building, launching, or otherwise physically maintaining a communications satellite, Arthur C. Clarke has always gotten the credit for this space-age innovation because he thought of it first. It is on this basis that I now lay claim to the discovery of a new member of that class of small molecules which must be present in the human diet to assure good health.
Let me immodestly call this substance Vitamin G, otherwise known as cholesterol. That is, cholesterol will acquire the status of a vitamin once genetic engineers are successful in disabling the human genes responsible for the enzymes that synthesize it. When that day comes, consumers will no longer see "low-cholesterol" and "no-cholesterol" boasts at the grocery stores. Rather, food processors will compete with one another to sell products that are "highest in Vitamin G." Remember: you heard it here first!
This information is provided by the D/FW Council Against Health Fraud. For more information, or to report suspected health fraud, please contact the Council at Box 202577, Arlington, TX 76006, or call metro 817-792-2000.
Dr. Gorski is a practicing physician, chairman of the D/FW Council Against Health Fraud and a North Texas Skeptics Technical Advisor.
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There seems to be some interest in a "readers' forum," so we're running this to see what y'all think. Your feedback is solicited! Or, better yet, send our editor short noteworthy items for subsequent issues. ... [preferably ready for publication, although clips are also appreciated. — Ed.]
Trashing Psychic Myths
A new urban myth was starting to make the rounds before Pat Reeder ran his piece about earthquake detection maverick John Coles (The Skeptic, February 1994). I overheard a local rumor about Coles (by description, not name) being "the psychic (or mystic) that predicted the big LA earthquake accurately." In fact, a friend that normally scoffs at such stuff claimed she saw the prediction herself in a publication, but couldn't recall which one. Thanks to Pat's report — and a bit of research — I was able to counter it with a logical explanation.
If you're interested, here's additional esoterica: Coles appears to be using a variation of the "VAN technique," which reportedly originated among Greek seismic researchers. It seems somewhat similar to the magnetic particle detection process for finding cracks in ferrous metals — but scaled WAY up — using the earth's magnetic properties and its electrical grounding characteristics.
The calibration process reportedly has to be carefully tailored to a specific locale — and the false alarm rate apparently is quite high due to many non-earthquake related factors affecting signal variations. A number of mainstream seismic scientists seem to be evaluating the concept. They apparently look for precursor shocks mated with erratic electromagnetic activity — and have a much more conservative view about sending out press releases than Coles does.
Or — it could be that Coles is just better at translating and interpreting Greek seismic research papers ...? Anyhow, while his methods are not what I'd call conventional science, they're not mystical or psychic, either.
Meet the REAL NTS
We've received suggestions lately that NTS "should do something" about a variety of issues. I hope that's a compliment; it may imply our deeds created the illusion of being larger than our membership list (and budget) indicates. However, a explanation as to how NTS functions seems appropriate:
NTS, as a group, does not normally address specific issues. Individuals — including small groups within NTS — take on those projects. They, in turn, advise the general membership as to the appropriate details, etc., via meetings and the newsletter. Thus, anyone wishing to pursue a particular subject may: (1) go ahead by themselves as an individual, and not acting as a representative of the group; (2) enlist associates to participate, or; (3) recruit a "surrogate" member to do either of the previous two options.
We definitely want all the constructive input and good ideas we can get — but each project is entirely the by-product of voluntary efforts by individual members. So, keep feeding in suggestions, by all means. Just substitute the phrase: "Is anyone interested in ...?" for "What should NTS do ...?"
Just the Facts
I try to avoid religious debates, since I'm not aware of an objective test for determining the status of a Deity. What I'm about to address is not actually a religious issue but, rather, a factual issue. The creationist/fundamentalist types have managed to get a variety of letters published in local newspapers recently, claiming the USA was "founded on Christianity" or " ... Christian law." (I have no idea what the latter is; I can't find it in a variety of law dictionaries.) However, I did discover a citation for an international treaty signed in 1796 that contains the clause "As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion; ... "
I feel science must remain safe from restriction by the mandates of any and all self-authenticating scriptures. (It's not an abstract issue for me: I've experienced the problems of getting technical data critical to flight safety out of fundamentalist states. Being scientifically objective can land you in jail — or worse.) Thus, I'm looking for authoritative data confirming the basis for that clause in the treaty. i.e: apparently, Thomas Jefferson was either a Deist or Unitarian — as were a number of other Founding Fathers.
In fact, Jefferson may have been agnostic — at least to the point of questioning, if not overtly doubting, the existence a Deity. He reportedly expressed that viewpoint in a 1787 letter to a nephew: "Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because if there is one, He must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." (The term "agnostic" was not coined until 1869, so Jefferson may have opted to characterize any comparable personal convictions as being "Deist" or "Unitarian" in nature.)
I think the implications as to the Declaration of Independence are obvious to anyone examining its "foundation." Interestingly, a quick re-reading of that document discloses (only) the relevant phrases " ... the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God ..." and " ... all Men ... are endowed by their Creator ..." That language certainly seems to agree with the view of a Deity expressed in the letter Jefferson apparently sent his nephew.
Many of our founding fathers pursued scientific interests. Both Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, in particular, were notorious for engaging in critical, but objective, scientific enquiry. The significance of that point was noted by Richard Feynman in his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? As Feynman so perceptively observed, that same type of rational, skeptical philosophy is evident in the manner that those founders reinvented government and produced the freedoms we enjoy.
Please note this is a factual issue, as I see it. I have no reason for (or interest in) addressing the merits of our founders' beliefs — pro or con. (I would also like to remain completely apolitical. However, the scope of our freedom to pursue scientific objectivity seems to be increasing subject to a thing labeled "public policy.") The " ... USA was founded on Christianity" type contentions were stated as "facts." I feel those bogus "facts," left unchallenged, could have a profound effect on our ability to be real scientists.
That does not imply science is, by its nature, in any way opposed to Christianity, per se. Science quite rightfully, however, should be opposed to itself being controlled by the mandates of any type of self-authenticating "truth." That principle is also the essence of both our rights to religious freedom and to free speech. I think these hard-won freedoms deserve to be jealously guarded.
If anyone knows of resources to validate, augment (or repudiate) my preliminary findings, I'd appreciate being advised of them.
During a recent conversation, Dr. Jim Baerwaldt of the University of Texas at Arlington mentioned "disturbing" recent reports on ESP tests that have excited the pro-ESP types — and apparently, to date, stumped critics of ESP.
My initial reaction was: "That's impossible! There's obviously a flaw in the test methodology." However, I reconsidered (before I said something stupid, thankfully) and shifted to a more objective view: "That seems highly improbable. Can the same results be reproduced, on demand, using a variety of objective, but rigorous, test protocols?"
I haven't reviewed the reports yet, so I have no current basis for an opinion on the tests — either way. The point is: In my haste to be critical, I almost forgot to be impartial. For a moment, I was applying different standards to the conflicting possibilities. As a rational skeptic, I can't do that!
Evolution vs. Creation Reprint Available
Michael Shermer of The Skeptics Society sent us a bunch of high quality reprints of his excellent "25 Creationists' Arguments & 25 Evolutionists' Answers," courtesy of SKEPTIC magazine. They were prepared primarily for science educators — but are a great resource for anybody that gets involved in the evolution v creation debate. We'd be "right proud" to send a copy on request.
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I have disagreement with Ms. Boak's statement that "[Oxford Professor] Richard Dawkins' comments last year at the CSICOP Convention, which included a critique of the Catholic Church's doctrine of transubstantiation, drew attention to this in an even more striking way. This wasn't much appreciated by [CSICOP Chairman] Paul Kurtz, as I understand it."
I attended the CSICOP conference and talked to Paul Kurtz and Richard Dawkins. I have read some thoughtprovoking articles by Kurtz in Free Inquiry. Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. I recommend both books to you to read and study.
In my opinion, Kurtz was in agreement with the statement which Dawkins made. What Kurtz later had to say at a luncheon was to clear up the point that CSICOP was not an atheist group such as was "The Secular Humanist". I did not know that until then. Deborah has to say : ". . . as I understand it." From that I assume she did not hear Dawkins' talk and was going on what she had been told.
When Dawkins made his comment about transubstantiation, I thought little of it. I accept that was the word Dawkins used, although I'm not sure. There had been comments throughout the conference about the potential fraud in religious groups and their beliefs. It was, and still is, my opinion that the objective of CSICOP, and I thought NTS, was to test the truth in certain things - not to try to prove them wrong. To test in a scientific way, to find the truth as best could be determined. Perhaps one reason I did not think much about the comment by Dawkins was that I did not know what transubstantiation meant for sure. I am not sure I know now.
What reason is there that transubstantiation should not be fair game, using Deborah's wording. Why should it not be? I, for one, would be interested in participating in the true spirit of CSICOP and learning from such a study. Not to try to prove transubstantiation wrong, but to study and learn how it might be right. I read, study, and write on Theology.
I offer a challenge for Deborah to explain what I mean by all that. There is no problem with one believing, is there? The potential trouble starts when one tries to tell someone what they believe is the absolute truth. That is where freedom of religion comes into play. Also responsibility! How about integrity?
Freedom of religion should include not having to listen to others preach. Dawkins may have goofed there, as he should have known the requirements for being a member of CSICOP and that to be an atheist was not one. [CSICOP is not a membership organization. - Ed.]
In my opinion Deborah's reply to this article could be that she finds agreement with what I have said. Her letter to the editor was not clear to me how she felt other than that she suggested a discussion. If Deborah finds agreement, I would certainly find that rewarding.
If she only agrees then I will not learn for I already believe what I wrote. If Deborah or others will present a different viewpoint, and I hope they will, then it will give me a chance to learn.
Ms. Boak replies:
Regretfully, I must decline the challenge from Mr. Gant to explain what he means.
My original question was simply whether it is possible or reasonable to distinguish between unscientific/pseudoscientific beliefs and religious beliefs. Historically they were often conflated, which is why Galileo got into trouble. And we have similar problems today with those who deny the scientific fact of evolution.
Exploding falsehoods is made easier when their proponents mistakenly claim the support of facts and reason. "Scientific creationists" are easily shown not be scientific, for example. Similarly, dowsers who show up to be tested under controlled conditions are a skeptic's dream come true, as are "psychics" trying to demonstrate their abilities scientifically, preferably under the watchful eye of James Randi.
But what of those claims which may be equally outrageous but which attempt to preclude falsification? This is the case with Dawkins' example of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, wherein it is claimed as an absolute fact that, at the moment of sacramental consecration, ordinary bread and wine actually become the living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Yet devout Catholics would never allow the truth of this doctrine to depend on any human observation or analysis. They are the first, in fact, to point out that the actual flesh and blood of their God is present "under the appearance" of bread and wine. By "appearance" they mean any and all means by which these materials could be tested or analyzed with the intent to discern their true nature.
This is why you will not see a devout Catholic engage in a challenge to discern unconsecrated bread and wine from the consecrated kind. And they will be just as unwilling to eat and drink poisoned bread and wine after it has been sacramentally transformed as before. The "truth" of transubstantiation is thereby neatly placed beyond the realm of scientific criticism.
But Richard Dawkins refused to allow theology this refuge, objecting that it was just as much an affront to intentionally abuse language as to assert palpable falsehoods. I believe he suggested that one might as well believe that Benjamin Disraeli is actually physically present under the appearance of his (Dawkins') typewriter if the doctrine of transubstantiation were to be taken seriously. And it takes but a little effort to see that all the other religious doctrines amounting to "it is such, even though it cannot be demonstrated to be such" are similar constructions.
There is nevertheless, I think, a line that can be drawn, on the one side of which theology can be declared safe. This is the line between objectivity and subjectivity, between reality and imagination, and between thinking and feeling. It's just the place for religion, in fact, however much it may pain theologians to admit that their rightful domain is the world of make-believe.
I welcome criticism on these thoughts.
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Don't take my word for it: according to the British magazine The Fortean Times, the number of "strange events that can't be explained by science" took a big leap in 1993. The editors supposedly arrived at this conclusion by dividing the strange phenomena into 34 separate categories, and noting increases in the number of each type of occurrence (or to be accurate, in the number of reports of each type of occurrence).
I got this news from a short blurb on Prodigy, so I do not know whether the magazine had any predictions about whether the level of strangeness will continue to rise in 1994. But since it is an election year, I'm betting that it will.
The reason I start off with this news nugget is because (and I hope The Fortean Times will forgive me for this attitude) I find their survey hard to believe. In my job, I spend at least five hours a day doing nothing but reading news. I scour international computer news wires, several newspapers and an electronic clipping service, radio and TV news, and dozens of magazines, from mainstream to obscure (but not tabloids), specifically looking for strange tales to write about. And it seems to me as if I'm having to look much harder to find them.
Think about it: when was the last time you saw the names Whitley Streiber or Bud Hopkins in the news? They used to be all over every channel and paper. The release of the movie Fire In The Sky (already on the lower shelf of your local video store) did not lead to the expected tidal wave of fresh UFO abduction claims, despite Channel 4 News' attempts to convince viewers it was a documentary. The Shroud of Turin crowd has been pretty quiet lately (they barely made a peep last month when University of Tennessee researchers said they might have figured out how the image was drawn), as have Bigfoot believers. Even the producers of Fox TV's The X-Files have dropped all pretense at claiming it's based on true stories, and have turned it into what David Letterman calls "a good old-fashioned creep-out."
It seems as if the once-popular occult-type weird tales have been eclipsed by real-life weird tales. For sheer icky fascination, how can little gray men from outer space possibly compete with Michael Jackson and his family? Who needs vampires when you can watch Tonya Harding? Why fear things that go bump in the night, when you can lie awake listening for Lorena Bobbitt to go "thunk!" in the night? It has finally happened: reality has gotten so weird that the supernatural has become boring by comparison.
So wherever The Fortean Times is finding these verified, reliable reports of unexplainable happenings, I wish they'd pass them on to me. I'm tired of reality, and I could use the material.
Another inexplicable statement: Shirley McLaine has weighed in on the reasons for the earthquakes in L.A. and the blizzards in New York. It seems that the Earth is annoyed with us and is trying to tell us to get our lives turned around, our chakras aligned, and our sock drawers cleaned out.
Shirley says she tells her friends that the Earth is very specific in its messages. For instance, if your phone was destroyed in the earthquake, she says the Earth was trying to tell you that you spend too much time on the phone (What a noodge! No wonder they call it "Mother Earth!"). Or if your bookcase was not damaged, the Earth was trying to tell you to read more books (but for God's sake, don't read more books by Shirley McLaine!). Shirl says that the Earth definitely reacts to our inner lives, and that "This is not a belief ... it's a law."
I have no doubt that Shirley McLaine believes that the Earth talks specifically to her. I'd be willing to bet that every time she opens her mouth, she hears voices saying ... "Earth to Shirley!"
Of course, I didn't hear any of them predict that the Bills would be leading at half-time, which I did hear from at least one NBC sports caster who is apparently unaware he possesses psychic abilities. But let's not spoil the victory celebration by getting picky.
That is why I salute the chiropractors who were willing to go on TV and condemn their unscrupulous brethren in no uncertain terms. I'll also mention that a few years ago, I had a positive experience with a chiropractor myself. I had a bad back spasm on a weekend, and getting no relief from the local emergency room, I decided to give him a try. He had studied chiropractic, sports medicine, and physical therapy, and before seeing any new patient, he lectured them in detail on exactly what chiropractic was and what it could and could not do. He also made it clear that if you had any condition that could not benefit from physical therapy, he would send you to a medical specialist. And he really helped relieve my pain. But then, my problem was a back spasm, not pneumonia. And if he had even mentioned chakras, I would have hobbled out the door as fast as a bent-over man can scurry.
A couple of weeks later, noted occult-proponent Dan Ackroyd appeared on Letterman's show. He referred to Dave as "the world's Number One skeptic," gave him a copy of Above Top Secret, the bible of UFO conspiracy believers, and urged him to read it. Dave held it as if it were a dirty diaper, then asked Ackroyd, "How many people have seen flying saucers? A million?" Ackroyd replied, "About 80,000." Dave said, "Weeeell ... you call me when it hits a million." Dave then told a spooky story about how he once saw some mysterious lights on the horizon near his home ... "but it turned out to be the neighbors backin' up a boat trailer." Dave is very popular with young people. This bodes well for the future of the human race.
Who needs Martians anymore?!
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