by Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia
At what point do homeopaths and other purveyors of woo non-medicine cross the line into committing a prosecutable act of medical fraud?
I ask the question because of a recent exposé by Marketplace, a production of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, called Vaccines: Shot of Confusion. In this clever sting operation, mothers were fitted with videocameras on visits with their children to homeopaths. The videocameras recorded, predictably, the moms being given lots of advice about the (mostly fabricated) dangers of vaccination, and how little pills with no active ingredients were a better choice.
One mother was even told that “measles is virtually harmless for children over the age of one.” This would have come as a shock to my grandfather’s two sisters, Marie Emelie and Anne, who died of measles in 1902, five days apart, at the ages of 22 and 17, respectively.
Not to mention the one million children who die annually from the disease, and the 15,000 a year who are left permanently blind from its effects.
The homeopaths in the video call today’s children “the sickly generation.” And admittedly, there are some medical conditions that have increased in incidence in modern times (asthma, allergies, and autism come to mind). However, it has been thoroughly demonstrated that none of the diseases which have increased are caused by vaccines (nor, by the way, are they treatable using sugar pills). Further, given that there used to be epidemics of diphtheria, typhoid, measles, mumps, and other infectious diseases that killed thousands of children, you can only claim that this generation is “sickly” if you ignore historical fact.
Know of anyone in the last fifty years who has died of diphtheria? Nope, me neither.
It seems to me that we have crossed some kind of threshold, here.
Is acupuncture really ancient Chinese medicine? Does it work? Is it safe?
This ancient Chinese medical tradition stretches back over 3,000 years, the wisdom of the ancients producing medically valid results even today. As in antiquity, slender needles are inserted at precise meridian points on the body and manipulated by a skilled practitioner. Each acupuncture point relates to a specific organ or function in the body, and the practice manipulates the body’s energy, or qi to manage pain and treat a host of conditions including allergies, asthma, headaches, sciatica, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, constipation, and even sexual dysfunction. Acupuncture is, in short, a venerable medical miracle.
Or is it? Let’s cast a skeptical eye at one of the most popular “alternative” medical modalities in the modern world.
Exactly how ancient is acupuncture? Not nearly as ancient as you may think. The first clue is right there in the hands of the acupuncturist: Those slender, flexible, stainless steel needles. The technology to make them didn’t even exist until about 400 years ago.
There are even more historical clues. The Chinese have long kept detailed records. When we examine them we do, indeed, find references to a practice called needling, but the earliest dates to about 90 BCE. The needles from that era were large, and the practice of needling refers to bloodletting and the lancing of abscesses, a treatment nothing like today’s acupuncture. Earlier Chinese medical texts, some reaching back to the 3rd century BCE, never even mention it. There’s no evidence at all that acupuncture is anywhere near 3,000 years old.
No matter. At least acupuncture is Chinese, right? Maybe not.
Chinese scholar Paul Unschuld thinks that the practice may have started in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates of Cos, and later spread to China. A fundamental feature of acupuncture, namely the special meridian points where the needles must be placed, can be traced to the medieval Islamic and European ideas of astrology mapped onto the body. This rather obvious link led researcher Ben Kavoussi to call acupuncture “Astrology with needles” He writes:
…for most of China’s long medical history, needling, bloodletting and cautery were largely practiced by itinerant and illiterate folk-healers, and frowned upon by the learned physicians who favored the use of pharmacopoeia.
Accounts of Chinese medicine first reach Europe in the 13th century. None of them even mentioned acupuncture. Wilhelm Ten Rhijn, writing in 1680, was the first Westerner to reference acupuncture. But what he described bears little resemblance to the acupuncture of today. There was no mention of qi, which is sometimes translated as chi, or any specific points. He spoke of large gold needles that were implanted deep into the skull or womb and left in place for 30 respirations.
The first American acupuncture trials were in 1826, when it was seen as a possible method of resuscitating drowning victims. As Dr. Harriet Hall describes it, “They couldn’t get it to work and ‘gave up in disgust.’ I imagine sticking needles in soggy dead bodies was pretty disgusting.”
Even through the early part of the 20th century nobody spoke of qi or meridians. Practitioners merely inserted needles near the point of pain. In fact, qi used to refer to the vapor arising from food, and the meridians were called channels or vessels, which is part of acupuncture’s link to medieval astrology and vitalism.
So just when and where did meridians enter the picture, and qi finally become some kind of energy?
The latest health fad making the rounds is something called “oil pulling,” an ancient Indian practice in which people cleanse their mouths (and bodies) of toxins by swishing a vegetable oil (such as olive, coconut, or sunflower) in the mouth for 20 minutes and then spitting it out.
It’s ridiculously simple, and, it is claimed, amazingly effective. According to science writer Mike Rothschild’s blog for the Skeptoid podcast, “Oil pulling is said to treat chronic pain, insomnia, cavities, allergies, thrombosis, diabetes, asthma, bad breath, gingivitis, digestive issues, meningitis, low energy, heart disease, kidney disease, ‘toxic bodily waste,’ PMS, leukemia and even AIDS. Oil pulling, it would seem, is truly a life-changing medical miracle.”
Okay, so maybe swishing a few teaspoons of olive oil isn’t a “life-changing medical miracle.” Other claims are more down-to-earth; according to one proponent, “Oil pulling is an age-old remedy that uses natural substances to clean and detoxify teeth and gums. It has the added effect of whitening teeth naturally and evidence even shows that it is beneficial in improving gums and removing harmful bacteria. The basic idea is that oil is swished in the mouth for a short time each day and that this action helps improve oral health… The practice of oil pulling started in India thousands of years ago.”
The fact that oil pulling has been used for thousand of years (if indeed it has) is asserted as proof of its efficacy but in fact means nothing. This is an example of a logical fallacy called the “appeal to tradition.” Just because a practice has endured for hundreds or thousands of years does not mean it is valid. For nearly 2,000 years, for example, physicians practiced bloodletting, believing that balancing non-existent bodily humors would restore health to sick patients.
The fact that the premise was completely false and absurd made no difference: the patients who died were assumed to have been too sick (and not killed by the bogus medical treatment), and the ones who recovered (despite, not because of, the bloodletting) were convinced the treatment was a miracle cure. It’s the same reason that people believe superstitions . . .