Archive for Faith Healing & Spirituality

Bill Maher endorses cancer quackery

Over the last five years or so, I’ve often asked, “Is Bill Maher really that ignorant?” I’ve come to the conclusion that he is, and a couple of weeks ago laid out the evidence why right here on this very blog. (Lately Maher has been issuing Tweets that call people who get flu shots “idiots.”) Indeed, I even included in the post perhaps the most hilariously spot-on riposte to Maher’s crankery. This occurred when Maher proclaimed that he never gets the flu and wouldn’t get the flu on an airplane, which his guest Bob Costas to exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, come on, Superman!”

Bob Costas won my respect that day. My favorite part was when Maher looked at his guests, who were shifting in their seats, all embarrassed and unsure of what to say, and observed, “You all look at me as though I’m crazy.”

Why, yes, Bill, we do. Let’s put it this way. When Age of Autism likes you, you have a serious problem when it comes to being credible about medical science.

In that same post, I complained about Maher’s being awarded the Richard Dawkins Award by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI). I liken giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health, given that, at least when it comes to medicine, Maher is anti-science to the core. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of both Dawkins’ and Maher’s fans.

I regret nothing.

Not only do I regret nothing, but on September 18, a mere two weeks before the AAI Convention, Maher provided me with more ammunition. In fact, this is probably the most blatant bit of crankery I’ve seen from Maher in a long time. Watch and learn. The “alternative medicine” nuttery begins at around the 0:50 mark:

Laetrile? Really? Laetrile?? How 1970s cancer quackery!

Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Woosceptibility: A Brief Interview With James Randi

James Randi, perhaps better known as “The Amazing Randi” has spent most of his life performing magic shows. In 1996 he created the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) designed to expose the fraudulent claims made by psychics, faith healers, and snake oil salesmen. The ultimate goal of the JREF is to create a new generation of critical thinkers – people who will not be hoodwinked by the aforementioned hucksters.I had the good fortune of interviewing Mr. Randi briefly at the recent conference known as “The Amazing Meeting.” I was eager to pick his brain about human behavior and magical thinking. This is what I learned…

Randi identified certain groups of people who seem to be more susceptible to magical thinking and/or belief in the paranormal. According to him, the top two are:

1. News reporters. Although at first I wasn’t sure if Randi meant that reporters like a good story versus they believe a good story – he told me that in his experience, they were some of the most gullible people on earth. In fact, they were more interested in implausible stories than true ones – and Randi said that the more fantastical his explanation for phenomena, the more likely they were to believe it and write about it.

2. Academics. This surprised me since I assumed that this group would actually be less susceptible. Randi suggested that they are more likely to be taken in because they are single-minded about phenomena. They are over confident in their ability to understand how things work, and when something cannot be explained in their framework, they’re willing to attribute it to the paranormal.

Who are the least susceptible? Children. Why? Because they are simple thinkers, and harder to distract. The art of magic is in distraction of the sophisticated mind. Children tend to be very concrete, so they don’t expect things to happen with hand-waving and flourishes. They keep their eye on the coin (or other item being transferred from hand to hand), and are more likely to know where it is at all times.

To wrap up our short interview, I asked Randi if he could explain why people believe in magic, fantasy, and the paranormal? He responded plainly:

Ultimately it’s not about intelligence or lack thereof. It’s about people not wanting to accept that life is random, suffering is inevitable, and there is no good reason for bad things happening.

What do you make of Randi’s observations?

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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An Original: Richard de Mille, Carlos Castaneda, Literary Quackery

An Original: Richard De Mille, Carlos Castaneda, and Literary Quackery

I was away in Nature – with a real capital N,  and decided to insert an allegory this week instead of a medical subject. The genesis here was a sweeping of the mind and brushing away of cobwebs and detritus called worries and other preoccupations.  The application to this here blog is – methodology. The experience is one of discovery, and of loss, and of bearing the burden of inaction.   


Some thirty or more years ago a family member became enamored of a new book, The Teachings of don Juan by an unknown author, Carlos Castaneda. But mention the name now and one gets one of two responses: Who is that?  Or, Oh, he is that literary fraud.  But in the late 1960s – 1970s, two social movements had captured imaginations of youth, academics, and much of the intellectual world. They made fantasy seem plausible, and fraud seem believable – psychedelics and postmodernism.

Advocates of psychedelics, most of whom experienced drug-induced alterations,  promoted revolutionary psychological ideas such as drug-induced multiple realities.  The other, postmodernism, was and is the intellectual and philosophical movement originating in academia that similarly views of reality(ies) as possibly multiple.  (The relation, if any, to alternate universes and relativity theories in physics I have to leave to philosophers.) But the ‘60s and ‘70s were decades of several revolutions in social and personal thought – paradigm changes – that brought fairy tales, delusions, and irrationality onto realms of plausibility, from which we are still reeling, and trying to deal with. 

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Academia

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AA is Faith-Based, Not Evidence-Based

Alcoholics Anonymous is the most widely used treatment for alcoholism. It is mandated by the courts, accepted by mainstream medicine, and required by insurance companies. AA is generally assumed to be the most effective treatment for alcoholism, or at least “an” effective treatment. That assumption is wrong.

We hear about a few success stories, but not about the many failures. AA’s own statistics show that after 6 months, 93% of new attendees have left the program. The research on AA is handily summarized in a Wikipedia article.  A recent Cochrane systematic review found no evidence that AA or other 12 step programs are effective.

In The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Bob Carroll comments:

Neither A.A. nor many other SATs [Substance Abuse Treatments] are based on science, nor do they seem interested in doing any scientific studies which might test whether the treatment they give is effective. (more…)

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Science and Medicine

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The case of chemotherapy refusenik Daniel Hauser

I’ve written before about clinical trials as one place where “the rubber hits the road,” so to speak regarding the interface between science-based medicine and actual medical practice. Another critical place where an equal amount of rubber hits an equal amount of road is how the medical system and the law deal with the medical care of minors. In the vast majority of cases, parents take their children to physicians ostensibly practicing science-based medicine and, more or less, follow their advice. One of the more common areas where there is resistance to science-based medicine is, of course, the issue of vaccination, which I and other bloggers at SBM have written about extensively. Another issue, which has not yet been touched upon on this blog, is what to do about parents who refuse chemotherapy for their children with curable childhood cancers or children who refuse chemotherapy whose parents either agree with them or are unwilling to do the hard work of convincing their children that they must undergo therapy. Most often, the reason cited by such “chemotherapy refuseniks” is either religion or a desire to undergo “alternative” therapy rather than conventional therapy. One such case, a particularly high profile one, has been in the news over the last couple of weeks. In this post, I plan to discuss the case of Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old boy from Minnesota with Hodgkin’s lymphoma who, after one round of chemotherapy, is currently refusing further therapy. This case ended up in court (as these cases often do) and led to a decision that is likely to satisfy no one (as these cases nearly always do).

Before I discuss Daniel’s case in more depth, however, let me make one thing clear. From my perspective, competent adults have the right to choose whatever treatment they wish–or to refuse treatment altogether–for virtually any condition. The sole exception that I can think of would be the case of a highly contagious infectious disease, where society has a right to prevent epidemics and, if necessary, quarantine someone who refuses treatment and refuses to avoid interaction with others. Note, however, that the right competent adults to choose whatever quackery they desire should in no way be construed to imply that quacks have any sort of “right” to provide them with quack treatments. The reason is that providing such treatments inherently involves making claims for them that are not supportable by science. In essence, selling such treatments involves fraud, even if the practitioner is a true believer and just as deluded about the efficacy of the woo he is selling as the person buying it is. Be that as it may, if a competent adult wants to refuse treatment and understands the consequences, then I will call him a fool if what he has is a potentially very curable disease like Hodgkin’s disease and chooses bogus (word choice intentional) alternative “cures” instead, but it’s his call.

However, from my perspective (and that of the law in most states) the key to such self-determination is that the person must be informed of and understand the consequences of his actions, and there are three components to this understanding. First, of course, is mental competence; i.e., no serious untreated mental illness that impairs a person’s ability to perceive reality can be present. Untreated schizophrenia, for example, can definitely interfere with a person’s ability to evaluate information. The second is the ability to understand the disease and what the consequences of treatment or doing nothing are. That is why adults with mental retardation severe enough to prevent them from understanding are in general not considered competent to make such decisions. Indeed, it is why parents are expected to act on the behalf of their normal children to make such decisions. Finally, there is informed consent. A person refusing treatment must be told the consequences of his refusal and acknowledge them. Whether he believes what he is told is another matter, but it is not up to physicians to force treatment on someone just because that person doesn’t believe what they tell him, as long as the first two conditions are met.

The conflict arises when a parent decides to pursue quackery for a life-threatening but potentially curable illness for a child or a child refuses therapy. It is on such occasions that society as represented by the state has a compelling interest in overriding the parent’s decision and making sure that the child gets the best science-based treatment available. It is also a situation when parental rights, rights of self-determination, and the legitimate interest of society in protecting children can all clash in a most chaotic and nasty manner. That is exactly what is at issue in the case of Daniel Hauser, as described in a news report of the testimony given in his case:

Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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Naturopathy and Liberal Politics: Strange Bedfellows

Yesterday’s post by Wally Sampson and an offline discussion with David Gorski have moved me to post something that I wrote in 2001. At the time, I was a member of the Massachusetts Special Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medical Practitioners. I’ve previously mentioned that experience here.

During that tenure I wrote a treatise on the tenets and practices of ‘naturopathic medicine,’* hoping to change the opinions of several others on the Commission (no such luck). In an early draft I included a section titled “The Political Philosophy of Naturopathy.” My ally on the panel, emeritus New England Journal of Medicine Editor Arnold “Bud” Relman, advised me to remove it, citing its tangential relevance and the possibility of it irritating rather than persuading. He was right, of course, but it now seems reasonable to hall it out of the mothballs. Here it is, with minor revisions and, I hope, a provocative postscript.



Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Politics and Regulation

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Fakin’ it

Last week the Times of London revealed inside information from the General Medical Council (UK, responsible for physician licensing) of an ongoing investigation of Dr. Andrew Wakefield and from its own investigation. This revelation recalled other instances of fakery from reports of sectarian medicine (“CAM”) successes. The Medical Council information contained evidence that the data from the now famous Wakefield cases used to claim an association of the MMR vaccine with childhood autism and inflammatory bowel disease were misinterpreted, altered, and to some extent, faked. The report and history were reviewed by David Gorski last week. In eight of twelve cases, the dates of autism onset were “rearranged” to fit the needed time association, and many small bowel biopsies were “reinterpreted” to show inflammation.

The Wakefield claims were long suspected by reputable medical scientists and skeptics  as being erroneous or fraudulent.  Note: the Council hearings are still in progress, and the Times report is subject to legal complaint.  The original details can also be seen in the Times articles.

This expose’ adds to a growing list of reports with erroneous and faked information in medical journals used either for economic reward, undeserved fame, or to promote ideological claims for medical sects and cults. Although history of erroneous or false claims goes back hundreds of years, the altering or synthesizing of data passing the recently conceived peer review system is new,  illuminating defects in the journal peer review and editing system.

If journals were invented in the 18th century, and operated like journals of today, Mesmer’s demonstrations might have been published, and the Ben Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier and French Academy’s disproof might have been rejected. (Laughter here.) But journals continue to make major goofs in publishing implausible results despite the popularity of a famous specialty journal for that purpose.

Examples vary from acceptance of language manipulation – “alternative,” “healing,” “integrative,” etc., to the fakery of recent papers showing effects of prayer. The two famous studies of prayer in the cardiac care unit ranged from the unadmitted breaking of the blind in the Bird study (So Med J 1988; 81:826-826) to unadmitted imbalances of subject and control groups (Harris, Arch Int Med 1999;159:2273-2278.) And from those to the likely fakery of the distant prayer study of in vitro fertilization (Cha, Wirth, Lobo; J Reprod Med 2001:46;781-786) in which three separate prayer groups on two continents improved pregnancy rates in a group of women on a third continent by an implausible 100 percent. In all of these cases, the papers passed peer or editorial review despite the methodological defects that were picked up by us skeptics (K. Atwood, K.Courcey [an RN] B. Flamm, and others.)

Adding insult to the above, Annals of Internal Medicine published a systematic review of intercessory prayer (Astin et al, Ann Int Med, 2000;132: 903-910) containing not only the Bird and Harris studies counted as positive, but also the Targ study on brain tumors, found by reporter Po Bronson to have had its end point altered by the authors when the primary one showed no effect.

Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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The Weekly Waluation of the Weasel Words of Woo #9


Can y’believe it? The W^5/2™, that cesspool of Afflicted Sophistry and Festering Fallacy—not to say that wellspring of Awesome and Absolutely Annoying (Cloying) Alliteration© and that Mother of all Maddening Mixed Metaphors and Sundry Similitudes®—is back! Yup, like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of near-terminal procrastination, and due to overwhelming popular demand, the W^5/2 is reborn!!! Well, it also might have something to do with yer faithful servant needing some time to put together a real paper or two…naaahh! But what the hay, let’s just dive right in and pretend that nothin’s changed, shall we?


Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Humor, Medical Ethics

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Another Useless NCCAM-Funded Study

Sometimes I read an article in a medical journal that makes me say, “Well, duh! I could have told you that without a study.” Sometimes I read collected data that make me ask, “So what?” Sometimes I read an article that makes me wonder what kind of pogo stick they used to jump from their data to their conclusions. Sometimes I read a study that is so poorly conceived that you couldn’t hope to get any useful information from it. Sometimes I read a study that reminds me of class projects or term papers where you just thought of something easy to do to fill the squares to get credit. Sometimes I read a study funded by the NCCAM that makes me very angry that they wasted my tax dollars. Sometimes all these things coincide in one article.

“Ophthalmology Patients’ Religious and Spiritual Beliefs: An Opportunity to Build Trust in the Patient-Physician Relationship” is such an article. A questionnaire was anonymously filled out by 124 consecutive return patients in one ophthalmologist’s practice. It asked about their religious and spiritual beliefs and their understanding and level of concern about their eye condition. (more…)

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Science and Medicine

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Touched by a Touched Healing Toucher

reiki-hands-pic Recent posts by Drs. Sampson and Hansen and some recent comments have got me to thinking for the umpteenth time about this issue: quackery is quackery, even if it seems harmless and even if some people seek it. This is the first of a series that will discuss it. I’m afraid I will ramble a bit; it may be that not every post will support that premise. Nevertheless, in the aggregate I’ll try to do exactly that.

The posts about Healing Touch sent me on a walk down memory lane, to one of my early forays into “CAM” skepticism. It was there that I discovered just how removed from reality some true believers, even those that project a superficial air of sobriety, can be. Here I’ll recount a brief exchange that I had with one such person, who was undoubtedly well-meaning. My attempts to influence her by the use of reason proved futile.

Shortly after the publication of the famous Emily Rosa article in 1998, I read a report about it in Newsday. It wasn’t all that bad, but my annoyance with mainstream publications giving the slightest credence to “alternative medicine” had been growing, and this moved me to act. I wrote a diatribe to Newsday that was not published (I can’t imagine why):

To the Editor:

“Therapeutic touch” is such obvious humbug that it never should have been taken seriously by anyone with the slightest aquaintance with how things work. Nevertheless, academic careers have been based on it, hundreds of useless papers have been written about it, courses in it have been given and even required of nursing students, grant money has been provided for it (but not used to test it!), and scores of ridiculous magazine and newspaper articles have praised it, apparently to a naive and credulous public. All of this constitutes a huge embarrassment to nurses, a fact that would appear to be lost on their largest professional organization (the ANA).

One of the statements in your article about the JAMA study was incorrect: the practitioners were not able to detect the energy field half of the time. They were able to guess the correct hand half the time, as would be predicted by chance alone. Thus there is no evidence that the “energy field” was detected at all. This is no surprise, because this kind of “energy field” exists only in the fantasies of true believers.

Dolores Krieger’s objection to the study, that the right practitioners were not tested, is disingenuous. She has been asked numerous times, by James Randi and others, to submit to testing of the same sort as described in Rosa’s study (Randi’s foundation has even offered a $1 million reward for anyone who can demonstrate the ability to detect the “energy field”!). Neither she nor any of her trainees or colleagues has come forward, nor has any of them published a single study supporting the efficacy of “therapeutic touch.”

Among the shamelessly fawning, uncritical articles on TT referred to above is one in Newsday by Tina Morales, 7/8/96. Really, now. There are very simple, basic skills useful for evaluating questionable claims. If the writer doesn’t have them the editor certainly should!

Before gentle readers admonish me for the scolding, schoolmarmish tone of that letter, let me assure them that I have long since learned to couch my objections to “woo” in more matter-of-fact, less provocative language. As frustrating as it may be, amiable, well-meaning, intelligent people who haven’t the slightest idea how to evaluate questionable claims vastly outnumber their more savvy counterparts, even in surprising fields: journalism and medicine, for example. Ten years ago I had no intention of becoming more than a temporary, annoying gadfly. I imagined that the “CAM” fad would soon blow over, and that I’d go back to spending my free time watching re-runs of Seinfeld and Law and Order. Alas, ’twas not to be. Patience.


Posted in: Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud

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