From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 7 No. 1
The newsletter reports recent additions and changes to The Skeptic's Dictionary, comments on selected issues, feedback, and information about skeptical publications and events. For a free subscription see the Newsletter Archives.
January 9, 2008
"Given how 'impressive' the placebo effect truly is, is it any wonder that most CAM therapists honestly do believe that they are helping people?" --R. Barker Bausell
In this issue
A word about feedback
Science debate 2008?
New medical blog
No more million dollar challenge
Acupuncture in bypass surgery
Woo-woo of the minute
Psychic predicts next president
Psychic won't predict next president
Making a mockery of The Secret
Coming soon: how Kevin Trudeau's sales force deceives people
I've phased out The Skeptic's Refuge.
I've consolidated Mass Media Funk and Bunk into Skeptimedia. There have been two Skeptimedia postings. One examines a typical media treatment of hypnotherapy by journalists ignorant of how to evaluate a clinical trial. The other is about the latest study on vaccines and autism, which I've linked to a file containing everything I've written about mercury, vaccines, and autism since 2002.
I've posted a book review of R. Barker Bausell's Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Medical journalists should read this book. The book inspired me to add a new entry on conditioning and to revise the entries on the placebo effect, hypnosis, mesmerism, and acupuncture.
I also added a new entry on a bunch of asses in the Australian Psychics Association who tried to invent something called predictive remote reviewing.
While researching the Hawthorne effect I came across another suburban myth about the power of hope in medicine. (I've given up on adding an entry on the Hawthorne effect because it seems to mean whatever users want it to mean and the study at the base of this alleged effect was too small to draw any meaningful conclusions from. The following is from Gina Kolata and appeared the NY Times in 1988:
[The Hawthorne effect] refers to a study from 1927 to 1933 of factory workers at Western Electric's Hawthorne Plant in Illinois. It showed that regardless of the changes made in working conditions -- more breaks, longer breaks or fewer and shorter ones -- productivity increased. These changes apparently had nothing to do with the workers' responses. The workers, or so the story goes, produced more because they saw themselves as special, participants in an experiment, and their inter-relationships improved.
Sounds very compelling. "The results of this experiment, or rather the human relations interpretation offered by the researchers who summarized the results, soon became gospel for introductory textbooks in both psychology and management science," said Dr. Lee Ross, a psychology professor at Stanford University.
But only five workers took part in the study, Ross said, and two were replaced partway through for gross insubordination and low output.*
Some study. Even so, medical researchers know that participants in clinical trials change their behavior in ways that can affect the outcome of the trial. They may be more compliant, for example, with other instructions their physician has given them regarding exercise or proper ways to lift objects or taking breaks from repetitive activities, and the like. They may feel a strong urge to report positively to please the researcher and out of a desire for the therapy to work. Those in the placebo group may know which group they're in from the start, or figure it out and become less compliant and less motivated.
I added a suburban myth regarding eight Jesuits who, according to legend, survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima by praying the rosary. I also tried to find out how anybody knows how many species are allegedly going extinct each year and ended up posting another suburban myth.
Two new items were added to the What's the Harm? page. One is about a macabre psychic in Britain who posts photos of dead children to lure their parents into hiring him to contact their children's spirits. The other is about a Polish priest opening an exorcism center near the German border.
The exorcism page has been updated to include links to two news articles, one that says that the Catholic pope is gearing up for war on Satan by training a horde of new exorcists and another that says it's not true.
I updated the acknowledgements page to express my gratitude to all those who have helped make The Skeptic's Dictionary (the book and the website) what it is today.
I also updated the electromagnetic radiation page to include a link to Brian Dunning's latest rant on the microwave militia and the ghosts page to include a link to his rant on the use of scientific equipment by ghost hunters. If you don't listen to the Skeptoid podcast on a regular basis, you should. Later this month, Dunning will be featured at the Amazing Meeting 5.5 along with Alison Smith. The theme of the meeting is skepticism and activism.
Finally, my wife noticed a sweat swastika on my shirt that must mean something to somebody. I felt it was at least as worthy as the Mary in the toasted cheese sandwich, the Mother Teresa in the cinnamon bun, and the Lenin on Phil Plait's shower curtain, so I placed a picture of it on the pareidolia page.
Because of those clever spammers, I filter to the trash folder all mail to the feedback address that does not have the word 'feedback' in the subject line. Please remember to include this word in your mail to me at the sdfb address, otherwise I may not see it.
Scientists and other concerned citizens are calling for a presidential debate on science and technology. So far, most of the talk among the candidates seems to be about some vague thing called change and how religious they are. The weirdest talk, though, is about how badly these folks want to go to Washington because those in Washington are holding up that thing called change. Maybe Washington will change them. Weirder still is that a lot of them have been in Washington for years and things haven't changed much. Anyway, the president can't change anything that matters unless the Congress agrees to it. No matter who gets elected, it will be a change. Nobody running is a Bush or Cheney insider.
Do these folks really believe that the American people believe anything they say, anyway? Does the media think we don't know how they're slicing and dicing the candidates? So, sure, let's hear what they have to say about science. I'm especially interested in what the ones who don't accept evolution have to say. Anyway, if the past is any guide to the future, it won't matter what the president knows about science. What will matter is whether he or she believes science supports policy. If so, it's good science. If not, it's rubbish.
We ought to have a theology debate, too. That's the kind of circus the American people would watch. According to a Pew poll, 70% of Americans say they want a president who has strong religious beliefs. I want a president who won't invade foreign countries, allow torture, destroy our credibility around the world, wreck our economy, put us deeper in debt, pardon criminals who undermine our national security, and ignore or try to stifle any scientist whose work suggests a national policy might cause more harm than good. I want a president who will remind us each and every day that fundamentalist Islam is an enemy of civilization and desires to bring the whole world back to the 8th century. I want a president who will work with moderate Muslims to put a check on the growth of radical fundamentalist movements within that religion. Finally, I want a president who will try to reform government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, and for the lobbyists. What are my chances of getting such a president?
I've voted in every presidential election since 1968 and rarely have I voted enthusiastically. I have a very hard time relating to all those people I see jumping up and down and chanting for their candidates like they were at some high school pep rally. I'm too jaded to be amused by Oprah Winfrey or Chuck Norris. Politics looks like another form of entertainment to these excited supporters of various candidates. They remind me of devoted sports fans cheering on their favorite teams.
I find myself voting by process of elimination. Huckabee went first with his claims about faith and the implication that God was somehow on his side and that ours has never been a secular nation. Romney went when he said that "freedom requires religion." McCain was dumped when he said this is a Christian nation and we need a president to continue the Judeo-Christian tradition. Maybe we should have a History Debate. This country has freedom, including freedom of religion, because it's a secular nation with a constitution that does not favor any particular religion or require anyone to belong to any particular religion or accept any religion's beliefs.
Giuliani was gone because I read the New Yorker. He's only in the running because of the way the national media have sliced and diced him to make him appear to be not only palatable but an exquisite dish.
Ron Paul was deleted when he proudly declared that he rejects evolution. He didn't earn any brownie points when I found out he values individual liberty over the nation's welfare. If it were up to him, vaccinations would always be voluntary.
That leaves Fred Thompson and the Democrats. None of them seems to want to cram their religion down my throat. Thompson doesn't seem to have a chance of winning the Republican nomination, so that leaves the Democrats, only three of whom seem viable: Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. I won't be so petty as to rule out Obama just because of my distaste for Oprah. Nor will I rule out Clinton just because she posed with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whom I've written about and cannot abide. So far, Edwards has offended me the least, but he probably won't get the democratic nomination. So, once again I will choose the lesser of two evils. I know, there are libertarian and green party candidates, etc. I could always vote for Ralph Nader. I wasted my vote in one election (no, I didn't vote for Nader). I won't make that mistake again.
I'm sure George W. Bush is watching all this with a smile on his face. He's probably thinking to himself: Hey, I don't know anything about science and it didn't stop me from becoming the most powerful man in the world. The American people are just glad I say I'm a Christian and have stopped drinking thanks to Jesus. Plus they're really happy I'm not getting any sex on the side and that my wife doesn't make me iron my shirts. You don't have to know much science to please this crowd.
According to the Vancouver Sun, a national survey of 1,000 Canadian adults found that two-thirds of Canadians believe in angels and nearly half believe in spirits and ghosts. Another 10 per cent are convinced their own residence is home to a supernatural presence.
"To put it in perspective," reports pollster Ipsos Reid, "that's 2.5 million Canadians who believe that when something goes bump in the night, it's more than the (rodents) from Ratatouille."
The survey, commissioned by CanWest News Service and Global Television, found women are far more likely to believe in angels than men: 75 per cent versus 56 per cent. Women are also more likely to believe in spirits: 53 to 42 percent.
A new blog concerned with science and medicine has been started by Steven Novella, M.D. Joining Dr. Novella at Science Based Medicine are Kimball Atwood, M.D., Wally Sampson M.D., Harriet Hall M.D., and David Gorski, M.D. They plan to review newly published studies, examine dubious product claims, respond to dubious health reporting, and explore issues related to "the regulation of scientific quality in medicine."
I'd like to suggest they do a piece on the quality of acupuncture studies and clinical trials. There seems to be a daily news story featuring a new scientific study touting the wonders of acupuncture. I've looked at a number of these studies over the past year and most of them involve a very small number of participants and don't adequately control for the placebo effect. Not one of them demonstrates that acupuncture is anything more than a placebo. But don't take my word for it. Read Bausell's Snake Oil Science. He was involved in designing and overseeing a number of acupuncture trials. Harriet Hall's first post on the new blog is a review of Bausell's book.
Many people seem to think that acupuncture is effective medicine because they've experienced its wonderful effects or they read somewhere that sticking needles in people stimulates the release of endorphins and other chemicals that relieve pain. What most people don't seem to know is that it has been shown in clinical trials that the stimulation of the opioid system is at least part of the mechanism at work in the placebo effect. Classical conditioning seems clearly to be at work in this aspect of placebos that relieve pain. (For those who know that acupuncture is not a placebo because it works on their dog or cat, I recommend they recall what they probably learned in high school about Pavlov and his dogs. Pet lovers shouldn't forget that their pet can be conditioned by visits to the vet. Studies have shown that dogs that have been injected with morphine will react physiologically to a later injection of saline solution as if they'd been given morphine. Furthermore, pets are subject to many of the same things that humans are, e.g., natural history of illnesses, pains and disorders that ebb and flow, etc.)
A typical example of an incompetent acupuncture study was published in 2006 in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine (Volume 15, Issue 4, pp. 228-237). It's called "The management of cancer-related fatigue after chemotherapy with acupuncture and acupressure: A randomised controlled trial." I discuss this paper in detail in my entry on acupuncture. The paper compares a small group of patients given acupuncture treatment in a clinical setting for three weeks (two 20-minute sessions each week) to two other groups, whose members gave themselves acupressure treatment at home for two weeks (one minute a day). The headline in New Scientist for a report on this study reads: "Acupuncture relieves cancer chemotherapy fatigue." Maybe it does, but this study couldn't show it. Among other obvious problems, there was no control for a placebo effect. Any measurable relief from fatigue could have been temporary and due to the expectation and belief of the participants and the comfort they received by being given attention during the treatments in a setting of encouragement.
Even more interesting, from the point of view of trying to understand why people believe that acupuncture is effective when well designed clinical trials show that it's a placebo, is the fact that many people report noticeable physiological effects or relief from pain after getting acupuncture. Many of these people also report that they'd tried several other therapies before getting the acupuncture. The fact that many people report exactly the same things after a placebo treatment is often dismissed as irrelevant. Finally, you often hear the claim that acupuncture (or whatever CAM flavor-of-the day is in vogue) doesn't work for everybody to explain why other people's anecdotes don't jibe with the true believer's.
Two more years is all you have to collect a million dollars from the James Randi Educational Foundation by demonstrating a paranormal ability. After March 6, 2010, the money will be removed from a trust and spent as the JREF sees fit. You can read all about it in Randi's newsletter.
I think this is a very good thing. Testing people who travel from Europe with an empty suitcase to take home their cash after they demonstrate that they can control people on TV or testing a woman who says she can make you pee in your pants by her thoughts does little to promote critical thinking. The tests have been of deluded or, often, of mentally challenged individuals. I don't know what publicity or money they brought into the JREF, but without a test of a Sylvia Browne, a John Edward, or some other international celebrity, the challenge seems of questionable value.
It's true. Doctors at the Shanghai Renji Hospital inserted six acupuncture needles into acupoints on a 76-year-old patient's chest and wrist. First, however, they injected him with propofol, a general anesthetic, and he was unconscious during the entire operation.* I'm not quite sure what the point of the acupuncture was, but at least it can now be said without lying that an old man underwent bypass surgery after receiving acupuncture. How long will it be before somebody in the media inserts the word 'only' after 'receiving'? Will it be Bill Moyers?
Acutonics, sound healing, or sonopuncture -- take your pick -- "applies tuning forks to specific energy or pressure points on the body. It is based in part on traditional Chinese medicine and in part on New Age speculation involving the harmonic properties of our solar system."* I couldn't make this up. The best thing you can say about it is that it is non-invasive and unlikely to have any bad side effects unless the tuning fork vibrates at the same frequency as your bladder, in which case you may find yourself incontinent.
The inventors of this exciting new technology, Donna Carey and Marjorie de Muynck, don't reveal how they discovered the exact frequencies of acupuncture and acupressure points. All evidence points to the fact that tuning forks work just as well as needles or laser beams.
Bill Thiry's laser acupuncture avoids sticking needles into acupoints. Instead, Thiry shoots the acupoints with an invisible laser beam while playing a relaxation tape. He claims that this stimulates the body's "energy centers" into releasing endorphins.
"We're really looking to tune up the energy systems of the body," Thiry said. "The laser light interacts with the cell and allows the cell to work more efficiently. That's the primary benefit. You can look at it as plumbing. There can become clogs in the plumbing - that goes on in the body. One of the reasons acupuncture helps [is] to sort of clear out those blockages." I must have slept through that lecture in cell biology. It's hard to believe but there's no scientific evidence supporting laser acupuncture. Thiry's critics call the treatment a high-tech placebo. Imagine that.
Aculaser can help you quite smoking or so they say. It's a magical treatment for whatever ails you. "Low Level Laser Therapy (LLLT) is a safe, painless, and scientifically-proven treatment method that has been in use since the 1960s. The technique works by using lasers to non-thermally and non-invasively stimulate the body's healing processes. Today it is being used for an ever-increasing range of treatments including addictions therapy, stimulating metabolism, regulating moods, boosting the immune system, relieving inflammation and pain, and much more."
I wonder how acutonics and aculaser work on "Blackberry thumb"?
Tana Hoy, who claims he is America's foremost psychic medium, says "I've been feeling Hillary Clinton's going to win the election. It's definitely going to be a Democratic win, and I feel that we're going to be seeing our first female president in 2008." Tana who, you ask?
Miss Cleo, the faux Jamaican tarot card psychic who was on every other infomercial in the late '90s urging people to call the psychic hotline and spend $4.99 a minute for "advice," is back. She's offering private psychic consultations and "other services" through a Florida-based company, Wahgwaan Entertainment. She won't say who's going to be our next president.
"I don’t like to call things like that,” she said. “It’s important for people to realize that nothing is an absolute, but we should not be surprised if we run into the same dynamic that we ran into in 2000. Whatever happens, it’s almost the fulfillment of prophecy, because it has to happen for change to be cultivated."* Did you follow that? If so, you must be psychic or a Miss Teen U.S.A. contestant.
Dr. Jonathan G. Huxley M.D., Ph.D., has created a book, a sophisticated website, and a short film satirizing The Secret. Go to the website and watch the film if you want a laugh or two. He says he's just sellfelping people with Imagenuity, the new secret science of success known by Aristotle, etc.
How Kevin Trudeau's organization deceives those who inquire by phone about his books and newsletter. To be posted in Skeptimedia within the next week or so. (postscript: Sorry, my source got cold feet and has apparently decided not to reveal anything. Her job may be in jeopardy. Anyway, here is what she wrote me:
I work for a Work at Home company that processes orders for his Natural Cures, Debt Cures and Weight Loss Cures books. The horrible way we have to process sales of his books is disgusting. We are forced to make hard sales regarding Kevin’s Newsletter and Web site access. This happens when processing Kevin Trudeau's Natural Cures books. The beginning of the script greeting indicates that Kevin is giving away both of his Natural Cures books for only $9.95 plus shipping and handling per book, PLUS they will also receive a 30-day trial to the Natural Cures newsletter and web site. Very rarely does anyone question the 30-day trial. At the end of the script, I am instructed to tell the caller that there is no risk to trying the newsletter and web site, give them the 800 number where they can cancel, and then immediately proceed. This is forcing the trial onto the consumer. Many who order these books are seniors and really do not grasp what is happening. The sad part is that many people are unable to connect with anyone to cancel this subscription; hence, their credit cards are being charged monthly fees, sometimes even double-charged. Our company once forbade us to give the 800 number where they can cancel during the sale. However, that has changed. Yet, if someone calls for that cancellation number, it is against our policy to give that number out. I have received a written warning for doing so.
I have received calls from people who charge Kevin Trudeau with selling their credit card information as well.
I am very sad to see this type of merchandising / capitalism in our society. I have many horror stories about many products that I place orders for, the entrapment of after-sale offers such as magazine free trials, shopping club memberships, etc., and the BS we are instructed to hand out to make these sales. Kevin Trudeau takes the cake though.
Again, most of the people who financially suffer from this are senior citizens.
To my dismay, all of my attempts to contact the FTC, Senate and House offices, 60 Minutes, and many other news media publications have been fruitless.
If you ever want detailed information, if I can be of any assistance at all, you can count on me!
The letter was dated January 7, 2008. Attempts to reach this source have failed.
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