via Science-Based Medicine
Any sociological question is likely going to have a complex answer with many variables that are not easy to tease apart. We should therefore resist the temptation to make simplistic statements about X being the cause of Y. We can still, however, identify correlations that will at least inform our thinking. Sometimes correlations can be triangulated to fairly reliable conclusions.
When the data is complex and difficult to interpret, however, evidence tends to be overwhelmed by narrative. The recent Sandy Hook tragedy is an excellent example. No one knows exactly why the shooter did what he did, so it is easy to insert your own preferred narrative as the explanation.
Another example is the phenomenon of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Why has it been increasing in popularity (and is it, really?). Is it slick marketing, relaxed regulations, scientific illiteracy, a gullible media, or the failures of mainstream medicine? You can probably guess I think it’s all of these things to some degree. The most common narrative I hear by far, however, is the latter – if people are turning to CAM it must be because mainstream medicine has failed them. This version of reality is often promoted by CAM marketing.
The evidence that we have, however, simply does not support this narrative. Studies show that satisfaction with mainstream medicine is not an important factor in deciding to use CAM, that CAM users are generally satisfied with their mainstream care, and they use CAM because it aligns with their philosophy, and they simply want to expand their options.
None of this is to imply that mainstream medicine has no problems or failings – it does. We should, however, be working toward keeping and improving what works and fixing what doesn’t, not discarding science and reason to embrace fantasy as an alternative. This is often the false choice presented by CAM proponents, and is analogous to creationists pointing out alleged weaknesses in the theory of evolution as an argument for creationism as an alternative.
What are the principles behind Homeopathy and does it work?
Here’s what to say to anti-vaxxers!
Michael (at VSauce) is always entertaining. This video (made in 2012) is not as intense as his more recent works, but still thought provoking and entertaining. Enjoy 🙂
A new study out of Australia looked at 26 different Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) products purchased from stores. They performed three types of analysis: heavy metal screening, toxicological analysis, and DNA sequencing. They found that 92% of the products tested had at least one type of contaminant.
This adds to a growing list of studies and revelations about how poorly the supplement industry is regulated, and raises further concerns about the overall quality of herbal and supplement products.
A 2008 study found that about 20% of ayurvedic herbal products contained heavy metal contamination, often at levels high enough to be toxic.
“Although we were able to authenticate almost half (48%) of the products, one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label. Product substitution occurred in 30/44 of the products tested and only 2/12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers.”
A 2014 study published in JAMA found that half of the product recalled by the FDA for being adulterated with banned drugs were dietary supplements, including up to one third of products purchased online. Further, when the FDA followed up they found that 6 months after they had issued a recall for adulterated supplements, two-thirds were still on the market and still contained the banned drugs.
Here is the latest fad to make you smarter with one easy trick – Superbrain Yoga. The technique is simple (and worthless, but we’ll get to that).
All you have to do is touch your left hand to your right earlobe, your right hand to your left earlobe, take a deep breath, and do a squat. Who knew it could be so easy to improve your brain function. There are a few more details, helpfully shared by Parenting Special Needs magazine:
– Connect your tongue to your palate.
– Face East
– The left arm must be inside and the right arm must be outside (over the left arm).
– Inhale while squatting down and exhale while standing up.
– You thumbs should be touching the front part of your earlobes, index fingers behind the earlobes.
– Perform the exercise 14-21 times, once or twice a day.
Facing East is very important, because magic.
When I first heard of Superbrain Yoga I thought it was going to be a neuroscience-based pseudoscience, with some hand-waving explanations about blood flow or something. This one is actually blatantly spiritual magical nonsense.
This practice is based on the principles of subtle energy and ear acupuncture. Basically, SuperBrain Yoga allows energy from your lower chakras–or energy centers–to move up to the forehead and crown chakras. When this happens, this energy is transformed into subtle energy, which is utilized by the brain to enhance its proper functioning.
It’s Eastern mysticism, however, which is a far-off exotic culture, so that makes it OK.
It seems that the regulation of supplements, homeopathy, and “natural” products in Canada is as bad as the US. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, the equivalent of NPR and PBS in the US) recently conducted a demonstration of just how worthless and deceptive the regulations are.
They created a fake treatment called “Nighton” which they claimed treated fever, pain, and inflammation in children and infants. They then applied to the government for a Natural Product License. On the application they checked all the appropriate boxes and submitted as evidence copied pages from a 1902 homeopathic reference book. That was it. Five months later their fictitious product was approved as “safe and effective.”
What this means is that when the Canadian government approves a natural product as safe and effective, it is completely meaningless. It is essentially a license to lie to the public about a health product.
It is reasonable to assume that many if not most of the public, if they see a product on the pharmacy shelf with the label, “licensed as safe and effective for fever, pain, and inflammation,” with an official government issued product number, that some sort of testing and quality assurance was involved.
The situation is identical in the US. Companies can market homeopathy products or supplements without providing any evidence that the product is safe, and can even make health claims (as long as they don’t mention a specific disease by name) again without the need to provide any evidence. In essence, in the US or Canada a company can put anything in a pill or bottle (as long as it doesn’t contain an actual drug), then without any testing market their random assortment of vitamins, herbs, or just water (in the case of homeopathy) with specific health claims. Pharmacies are happy to sell these fake products side-by-side with real medicines.
This is nothing short of a scandal.
Fad diets pop up on a regular basis. I believe that is because they are so easy to manufacture and there is a ready made market for them. Add to that the fact that it is difficult to lose weight. There is also a great deal of misinformation out there about diet and health, so the environment is very friendly to pop pseudoscience.
If you want to create your own fad diet, here is a handy formula. These things pretty much write themselves.
#1 • You need a catchy title, usually taking the form of “The blank Diet.” You can fill in the blank with almost anything. For example, a recent fad diet is called “the bulletproof diet.” This doesn’t say anything about the diet itself, it’s just a catchy phrase, a brand. You can fill in the blank with a title that does reflect the diet itself, but this is optional. Creating a catchy title is actually the most creative work you have to do in making a fad diet.
#2 • Make outrageous claims of success. The bigger the lie, the more people are inclined to think that it’s not a lie because no one would be that audacious. So just come up with a very impressive figure – a pound a day, 10 pounds a week, or whatever. In reality, on a healthy weight-loss diet people will lose about 1.5-2.5 pounds per week maximum, depending on their current weight, fat percentage, and other variables. Also, weight loss itself is not the ultimate goal, just a marker. People really want to reduce fat and build muscle. Following waist size is also a good measure, and perhaps better. Using the scale is helpful to make sure you are staying on track, however. Liberally use the world “miracle,” although admittedly Dr. Oz has tainted this word a bit by overusing it.
#3 • Testimonials. Personal stories, starting with your own, are the bedrock of fad diets. Don’t worry if there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support your claims – fad diets are not about evidence. They are about selling a narrative, one in which people struggled endlessly to lose weight, but then started the X diet and the weight just fell off. Testimonials can be very compelling, even though they are almost worthless as evidence. Actually, that is their advantage for you as a fad diet marketer, because you can find testimonials to support whatever claims you wish to make.
#4 • The Secret. Your fad diet has to have the secret or key to weight loss. Make this as compelling as possible, using . . .
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.
A study has been making the rounds on social media claiming an association between prenatal exposure to pesticides and the risk of autism and developmental delay. This means that I am getting asked by many people what the study actually shows. Spoiler alert – not much. But let’s break it down.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder involving brain development resulting in decreased communications among neurons in the brain and characterized by reduced social ability. Our current scientific understanding is that ASD is largely a genetic disorder. While environmental factors cannot be ruled out, it seems that genes are the primary factor. It’s reasonable to search for environmental risk factors, but so far none have been clearly established.
Those who feel there likely is an environmental factor also tend to believe that there is an autism epidemic – that the incidence of autism is increasing in a way that is not easily explained by genetics, and therefore suggests and environmental factor. While it is uncontroversial that the number of ASD diagnoses has been increasing over the last two decades, this does not necessarily mean that the true incidence of ASD has been increasing.
The evidence actually shows that diagnostic substitution, broadening of the definition of ASD, and increased surveillance account for much of the increased recorded incidence. It’s possible that changes in diagnostic behavior entirely accounts for the apparent increase. It’s also possible that a subset is due to a true increase, but that has not been clearly established.
This still leaves us with the conclusion that an environmental factor is possible in ASD, but not necessary.
What does this current study show? The study in question is a case-control study using data from the CHARGE study and data about pesticide use in California. A case-control study is a retrospective epidemiological study. It looks at two or more populations based upon whether or not they have a condition, in this study there are three groups – ASD, developmental delay (DD) and typical. The groups are then compared based on exposure to a potential risk factor to see if it is correlated with the condition.
In this study the authors looked at proximity to pesticide use prior to conception and during each trimester of pregnancy. They concluded:
“This study of ASD strengthens the evidence linking neurodevelopmental disorders with gestational pesticide exposures, and particularly, organophosphates and provides novel results of ASD and DD associations with, respectively, pyrethroids and carbamates.”
Orac has already reviewed this study and I agree with his assessment – this conclusion is not justified by the data presented.
First, there is a fatal flaw in the study design . . .
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This New Age alternative health fad claims to be based on ayurveda… but is it?
So it’s the 21st century, and our collective knowledge in fields such as medicine and hygiene is better than at any other time in our past. If you have some medical problem, chances are we’ve developed a pretty good treatment for it that’s better than it was 25 years ago, and 25 years before that. Just about everything anyone can think of has been tried and tested as a treatment for that condition. Why then do some Westerners shun the results of what we’ve been able to learn, and instead seek out folk remedies notable only for their roots in pre-scientific knowledge? Nowhere is this trend more aptly illustrated than in the latest fad, oil pulling.
Oil pulling is an alternative therapy that involves putting vegetable oil in your mouth, swishing it around for a few minutes, then spitting it out. There are many different variations. Some say you should do it for about 3 minutes; some say you should do it for a full 20 minutes. Some say you should gargle it; some say you should swish it around; some say you should fill your entire mouth cavity completely and just hold it. The types of oil to be used also do not seem to adhere to any particular standard: some say that any store-bought oil is equally useful; some specify that coconut oil should be used; some say sesame oil, sunflower oil, or even the oil produced by separating butter, called ghee in India.
For all the many variations of how oil pulling is to be done, there are just as many conflicting beliefs about what it is supposed to do for you. Most often found is the claim that it cleans and protects your teeth from plaque and bacteria, but just as common is the idea that it “pulls” toxins out of your body (thus the name oil pulling). Like all alternative detoxification claims, there is no accepted description of what these alleged “toxins” are. An article on Food Matters, an anti-pharmaceutical activism web site based on the 2008 film of the same name, lists the following as other “possible benefits of oil pulling for overall health”:
- Migraine headache relief
- Correcting hormone imbalances
- Reducing inflammation of arthritis
- May help with gastro-enteritis
- Aids in the reduction of eczema
- May reduce symptoms of bronchitis
- Helps support normal kidney function
- May help reduce sinus congestion
- Some people report improved vision
- Helps reduce insomnia
- Reduced hangover after alcohol consumption
- Aids in reducing pain
- Reduces the symptoms of allergies
- Helps detoxify the body of harmful metals and organisms
Oilpulling.com says that:
Oilpulling heals totally “head-aches, bronchitis, tooth pain, thrombosis, eczema, ulcers and diseases of stomach, intestines, heart, blood, kidney, liver, lungs and women’s diseases. It heals diseases of nerves, paralysis, and encephalitis. It prevents the growth of malignant tumors, cuts and heals them. Chronic sleeplessness is cured.”
Taken by itself, any one of these is likely to raise your eyebrows: How, the 21st century mind might ask, could swishing a non-specific type of oil in your mouth using non-specific technique address any or all of these conditions? Is human biology really so simple and its health really so easily manipulated? How could someone be convinced by such a claim?
The answer to that question should come as no surprise to regular Skeptoid listeners. We turn to our list of logical fallacies, and look up the Appeal to Antiquity: the invalid logic which states that an idea is old, therefore it’s valid. The antiquity in this case, as presented by nearly every book and web site that promotes oil pulling, is ayurveda, traditional medicine from India.
The essences of certain flowers and herbs produce a pleasing smell, but is it also medicinal?
The popularity of essences of aromatic plants appears to have skyrocketed in recent years. Normally they’re used as simple fragrances, in perfumes, incense, soaps and candles, or even potpourri. But their recent rise may be due in part to stinkier practices: a lot of people are now turning to essential oils for medical purposes. Some believe they promote general wellness, some believe they boost the immune system, and some depend on specific aromatherapies to treat very specific diseases. Are they right to do so?
Let’s look exactly at what an essential oil is. First of all, the word “essential” means that the oil contains the “essence” of whatever plant it’s from; it does not mean that it’s essential (as in necessary for health). Leaves, stems, flowers, or whatever part of the desired plant is placed in a distillation vessel with steam. The heat releases the volatile organic compounds from the plant matter (volatile means they exist as a vapor at room temperature). Volatile organic compounds are what goes into your nose when you smell a flower. These compounds are then distilled into a liquid, which we colloquially call the “essence” of the plant. Finally, to make a nicely packageable product of desired consistency and concentration, the essence is usually mixed with an odorless carrier oil. Then, voilà: we have what’s called an essential oil, strong with the smell of the plant it’s made from.
It can be a massage oil; it can be the scent added to incense; it can be added to bath water, to soaps, or to candles; you can put some in your tea; or you can dab some on your skin for the fragrance. Many such aromas are delightful, even pleasurable. For a thousand years, people have been willing to pay a fair price for essential oils. But in recent years, prices have skyrocketed, especially among allegedly “premium” oils. Why might this be? The plants have not become any more scarce, and the production methods have only become more efficient and cheaper (particularly with our global economy providing the best access ever to bargain-basement oils produced in developing countries).
The answer is a resurgence of aromatherapy in the New Age and alternative medicine communities. But before we talk about its resurgence, let’s see how it first became a thing at all.
The principal anecdote cited by virtually all credulous articles on essential oils comes from the perfume industry.