At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century electricity and magnetism were cutting edge science, full of excitement and unknown potential. Capitalizing on this excitement, Franz Anton Mesmer captured the imagination of the European intelligentsia with his bogus claims of animal magnetism. At the turning of the next century radioactivity was the new and fascinating scientific discovery, and this lead to a market for radioactive tonics good for a multitude of complaints, or just for extra energy. A few decades later radio waves were the latest healing craze.
Cutting edge science is cool and exciting, it evokes the promise of the future and the public has learned to expect that the latest gee whiz science appears like magic. Its newness also virtually guarantees that the public at large will mostly not understand the science or its true implications. This is a situation ripe for exploitation.
Today one medical technology that does possess great promise but is not yet ready for prime time is stem cell therapy. Legitimate scientists involved in stem cell research are almost giddy about the possibilities. Early applications are possibly just around the corner, and only time will tell what the full potential of this technology is. But right now there are no legitimate stem cell therapies outside of research protocols. It is therefore not surprising that the con artists of today are exploiting the tremendous hype of stem cells.
The Best Policy
From time to time I have been reiterating that correct use of the language has much to do with logic; I should add that it entails also honesty. I use the word “honesty” in its broadest sense…
Concision is honesty, honesty concision—that’s one thing you need to know.
—John Simon. Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and its Decline. New York, NY: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.;1980. pp. 48, 52
In 1983, a naturopath in Alberta inserted balloons into the nostrils of a 20 month-old girl and inflated them. The child died of asphyxiation. Subsequently, a judge described the treatment—dubbed “bilateral nasal specific” by the chiropractor who had invented it—as “outright quackery.”  Fast-forward 15 years: a woman presented to the otolaryngology clinic at the University of Washington in Seattle “complaining of severe midface pain and epistaxis” (nosebleed). She had suffered nasal septal fractures caused by a similar treatment, by then renamed “NeuroCranial Restructuring” (NCR). In their case report, the surgeons who had treated the woman at U. Wash discussed the claims of NCR and explained that the relevant anatomy predicts that it is implausible and risky. They also reported that it is expensive: “$2000 to $4800 for a standard course (of 4 treatments).” They concluded:
This case report of a complication after a CAM procedure called NCR highlights the wide range of treatment options available to patients. It is important for otolaryngologists to be aware of the spectrum of CAM therapies that patients may pursue and be aware of potential complications from these procedures.
An accompanying editorial used similar language.
How is it that in 1983 a judge could offer a concise summary of the essence of such a method, whereas scarcely a generation later 5 highly-trained medical doctors, even after presenting the sordid facts, could only obscure it with bland euphemism? (more…)
There is a new industry offering preventive health screening services direct to the public. A few years ago it was common to see ads for whole body CT scan screening at free-standing CT centers. That fad sort of faded away after numerous organizations pointed out that there was considerable radiation involved and the dangers outweighed any potential benefits.
Now what I most commonly see are ads for ultrasound screening. In fact, I am sick and tired of finding them in my mailbox and between the pages of my local newspaper. Ultrasound is certainly safe, with no radiation exposure. It sounds like it might be a good idea, but it isn’t.
Life Line Screening advertises itself as “America’s leading provider of quality health screenings.” They offer “4 tests in less than 1 hour – tests that can save your life.” They travel around the country, setting up their equipment in community centers, churches, and YMCAs. For $129 you get ultrasounds of your carotid arteries, your abdominal aorta, your legs, and your heel bone. They mail you your results 21 days later. (more…)
When I think back to my own ‘discovery’ of the skeptical movement, it grew out of my experience watching the James Randi Secrets of the Psychics NOVA special. After being enthralled with the special (and with several Randi books already in my library) I sought Mr. Randi out on the Internet. In chat rooms, blogs, forums and skeptical conferences such as TAM this is a tale I’ve heard repeated many times; folks heard about the JREF of CSICOP (now CSI) and then used the World Wide Web to learn more about these organizations.
Recently I began to wonder about my own personal pet peeve (unscientific medicine) and how it has benefited from the Web’s huge explosion and influence. Certainly there are plenty of great sites out there that help to show much of so-called Alternative Medicine for what it really is – blogs like this, Dr. Stephen Barrett’s Quackwatch.org site, the National Council Against Health Fraud, and many other important sites; still the number of sites extolling the virtues of science and critical thinking pale in comparison to those that forward notions embracing magical thinking and quack-related products and health claims. A quick examination of the web’s most popular search tool (Google) shows us the cold hard facts about who’s winning the war of medical woo:
No doubt you’ve come across them before, either on the Internet, printed advertisements, or radio and TV ads: Alternative medicine cancer “testimonials.” They are the primary means by which “alternative” therapies for cancer (or just about any other disease) are promoted and the primary “evidence” that is used to “prove” the efficacy of non-evidence-based therapies. There’s no doubt that they sure can sound convincing. Typically, what you will see or hear is a chipper-looking and -sounding person who claims that this treatment “cured” his or her cancer. These testimonials almost always include many or all of these elements: First, the cancer patient receives the diagnosis, after which she is lost and suffering at the hands of “conventional” doctors, who either cannot or do not wish to understand and who cannot do anything for her. Often, this will take the form of the classic alt-med cliche that the patient was “sent home to die.” Then, when all hope seems lost, the patient discovers an alternative medicine “healer” or treatment. It is not infrequently described in quasireligious terms, like a revelation or something that brings the patient out of the darkness and into the light. Naturally, there is resistance from the patient’s doctors, family, and/or friends, who warn against it, with doctors warning of dire consequences if the patient abandons conventional medicine. But the patient, convinced by dubious practitioners, friends, and, of course, previous testimonials, “sees” that the treatment “works” in a way that medical science cannot and survives. Infused with fervor, the patient now wants to spread the word. Often, the patient is now selling the remedy. Perhaps you’ve seen such testimonials or heard them on the radio and thought: “Gee, this sounds great. I wonder if it works.”
The answer is: Almost certainly not.