Mass Media Bunk is a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.
March 16, 2000. "Homeopathy - It's not wizardry; in fact, it's based on the same principle as vaccination" is the title of an article by Debra Ollivier for Salon.com. Homeopathy is not based on the same principle as vaccination. Homeopathy is based on a metaphysical belief that like cures like and that healing is brought about by the vital force; vaccination is based on empirical facts regarding bacteria, viruses and the immune system. This is just one of several errors Ollivier makes in her panegyric to a pseudoscience.
According to Ollivier, Dana Ullman, an advisory board member of alternative-medicine institutes at Harvard's and Columbia's schools of medicine, is a leading spokesman for homeopathy. Ullman uses a musical metaphor to describe the homeopathic law of "similars":
It is also called a false analogy. The human body shares almost nothing in common with a piano string, and reverberation is unlike anything in the body's natural healing system. The analogy may make sense to Ullman because he buys into the notion that homeopathy is a type of "energy medicine." Disease is caused by blockage of energy and health is restored when the energy flows freely. Ollivier claims that according to Andrew Weil (whose bunk we have noted before), "energy medicine" like homeopathy is one of the major medical developments of the 21st century.
Ullman's finest false analogy, however, is when he compares the work of infinitesimal amounts, sometimes equalling zero, of homeopathic substances, to tiny atoms containing vast amounts of energy.
From this he concludes that we shouldn't dismiss the "successes" of homeopathy to the placebo effect.
Ollivier's article does provide some useful information,
however. For example, did you know that Oscillococcinum is the biggest
selling homeopathic flu "medicine" in the U.S. and France. The
stuff is made from the heart and liver of Barbary ducks. (
The article does have one skeptical paragraph (about 4% of
the overall article). In the middle of her piece, Ollivier quotes Dr. Michel
Tramos, a Paris general practitioner, who claims homeopathy is psychobabble,
unscientific and its successes are due to the placebo effect. Ollivier
made no effort to find support for Dr. Tramos's claims, as she was
obviously too busy resonating to the vibes of Ullman's moronic metaphors.
Another piece of bunk on homeopathy appears in Wired.com: "Homeopathy -- Dilute And Heal" by Andy Patrizio. The focus of Patrizio's article is a book by Dr. Bill Gray called Homeopathy: Science or Myth. Gray claims to have earned an M.D. from Stanford Medical School in 1970 and to have been a homeopath for 27 years and he has rubbed elbows with several Nobel Prize winners. Dr. Gray may be a bit confused, however, since he claims that George Vithoulkas of Athens, Greece, who trained Gray in homeopathy, was a "1996 recipient of Nobel Prize for Alternative Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden." There is no Nobel Prize for Alternative Medicine. (Vithoulkas did receive some kind of recognition from the Right Livelihood Award Committee and apparently he did address the Swedish parliament but as far as I can tell he never received a Nobel prize for anything.)
Vithoulkas has no medical training but his claims go way beyond advocating homeopathy. He claims that western medicine not only does not cure diseases, but is the cause of most diseases.
He even claims that he predicted the AIDS epidemic.
I don't suppose that he's noticed that measles is rampant in Afghanistan and AIDS is rampant in Africa where people die and unnecessarily suffer every day because of the lack of vaccination against preventable diseases such as polio and measles. Vithoulkas has predicted that if western medicine doesn't change its ways the result will be that "most of the population on earth will be mentally ill individuals."
Vithoulkas is only one of Gray's heroes. Another is Shui Yin Lo. I wonder if this is the same Lo who has been mentioned in these pages before in connection with Laundry Balls. Has Lo moved on from the worthless laundry balls scam to an outfit called American Technologies Group, Inc. (ATG)? ATG sells several items for the automobile, including something called The Force Formula 1 & 2 which allegedly "super charges" air coming into your engine. You stick The Force Formula 1 and 2 in your air cleaner compartment and it "modifies the air taken into your engine, enhancing combustion and begins to purge internal moving engine components of the carbon buildup that impedes performance and damages parts.
According to Wired.com's Patrizio, while working on a way to clean car engines for ATG, Lo claims to have found that "water molecules, which are random in their normal state, begin to form a cluster when a substance is added to water and the water is vigorously shaken -- the exact process homeopaths use to create their medicine."
There is an interesting site on the Internet which lists selected classic papers in chemistry. None of the papers mentions Lo or "structured water." One wonders why Lo hasn't won a Nobel Prize for this discovery. Why hasn't he shared his discovery with the rest of the world? Why no publications? Why toil in relative obscurity for a company that sells car washes and fuel enhancers? Shouldn't Lo's paper on "structured water" be a classic by now?
Patrizio, rather than ask to see the paper on structured
water with the data proving Lo's claims, notes that the American Medical
Association declined to comment on Gray's book. Patrizio does note, however,
that the AMA "stated in its charter it was formed 'to stamp out the
scourge of homeopathy'." Patrizio also quotes another M.D., Richard Sarnat,
who has turned to "alternative"
medicine and who claims that the theory of structured water is now
proven. It isn't proven, but it should be a simple matter to prove it.
There are dozens of homeopathic products on the market that are nothing
more than vials of water. It should be a simple matter to examine the
water in the vials and determine if the water has a different structure in
the different vials.
February 18, 2000. Bob Ballard, he who found the sunken Titanic, knows how to get publicity. Just claim you're looking for Noah's Ark and the investors may follow such journalistic luminaries as the NYPost.com.
January 31, 2000. Our Lady of Guadalupe has left
the tree bark in Watsonville and has
landed in an ice-cream spill on the cement floor of an apartment complex
in Houston, or so says the Associated
January 30, 2000. The Kansas City Star is spreading fear by making claims about an AIDS epidemic among Catholic priests in the U.S. The Star is basing its baseless claims on a few anecdotes and a very, very unscientific survey which they did themselves. There are some 50,000 priests in the U.S. The Star made no effort to do a random sampling and get a good cross-section of that population for its survey. Instead, the Star bases its claims on the 801 responses it got to a survey about priests and their sexual behaviors that had been mailed to 3,000 priests.
How serious the AIDS problem is among priests will not be discovered by studying the Kansas City Star's report.
You can read about it in the Nando Times. (The Sacramento Bee headlined the story with AIDS ravaging U.S. priests, report claims)
January 18, 2000. CNN.com reprints a story from Catherine Rauch of WebMD that gives credence to the foolishness of William Harris, Ph.D. who claims: "Prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care." (Note the weasel words.) His evidence? Harris and his team had people pray for the speedy recovery of some 500 cardiac patients who were compared to 500 who didn't have a special prayer group. The results? "In Harris' study, the length of the hospital stay and the time spent in the cardiac unit were no different for the two groups." So, how did he conclude that prayer might be "an effective adjunct to standard medical care"? He nosed around with the data until he found a list of factors that made it appear that the group receiving prayers fared 11 percent better than the group that didn't. This isn't even junk science; it's joke science.
My comments on this study when it was first published may be found at Mass Media Bunk 10.
update (Aug. 11, 2001): According to CSICOP:
"On Monday, August 13, ABC will be airing segments featuring the
intercessory prayer research of Dr. William Harris, professor and director
of the Metabolism and Vascular Laboratory at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas
City, Missouri. The segments will appear on "Good Morning
America" between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and on "20/20 Downtown"
at 8pm EST."
January 14, 2000. On the front page of the Sacramento Bee today is a news article about a touring reliquary that is coming to town tomorrow. The bones of a nineteenth century French person, who died at the age of 24 from tuberculosis, are on tour in the United States. Over one million people have come to see these bones and chunks of hair dug up from her grave about a century ago. That doesn't make them quite as popular as the Beatles, but 75,000 showed up in Detroit to view the relics. That's up there with any rock band. (At least the Bee must think so. They had a full page story on the 15th and another story on the 16th, each with color photos, on the traveling religious freak show.)
The bones are traveling across the country in the "Therese Mobile" (named after the woman whose bones these used to be) driven by a priest who does interviews on the road via his cellular phone. The reliquary, a gilded jacaranda casket insured against fire and theft, is guarded by colorfully attired Knights of Columbus when it arrives at the various viewing stations on the itinerary. Commemorative T-shirts of the tour are available.
Who was this Therese? She was a girl of fifteen when she entered the Carmelite nunnery. The story is that her prioress ordered her to keep a spiritual journal while she was dying. The journal became a hit, numerous miracles were said to have occurred because of Sister Theresa's intercession, and in 1925 she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and has been known as Saint Therese ever since.
I wonder what this prayerful recluse would think of a taking her bones on tour like some rock star in a material world to juice up the faithful?
January 5, 2000. Fifty years ago, China banned feng shui as a pernicious superstition and many geomancers headed for Hong Kong where there are now some 10,000 practitioners catering to the 90% of the population who are believers, according to CNN.com.
David Groves of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, who wrote the CNN piece, gushed over a geomancer he interviewed: he was told he had a bad back, a bad temper, and bad nights. One out of three isn't bad: Groves has bad nights. The cure? He was told to place two jade statuettes and a brass icon in the corners of his room and to place a standing light fixture with nine bulbs in the center of his living room. He doesn't tell us whether he took the cure or not.
He was also told that his kitchen faucet must point away from the
stove in order to control his temper by not allowing fire and water to
meet. Groves doesn't mention whether he has a bad temper or not, nor does
he show any skepticism about the sympathetic
magic behind the advice.
December 27, 1999. The
Washington Post is now serving up astrology big time ... and CNN.com
is praising the rise of alternative medicine: They quote John Weeks, healthcare consultant and publisher of the
Integrator for the Business of Alternative Medicine," as
saying that "What was...considered quackery or fraud [in
1989]... is now being viewed as a normal part of doing business
among insurers and others in the delivery side of medicine." This is
December 24, 1999. Ten people died and 753 survived the sinking of a ferry in the Philippines. According to CNN.com, Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said that the ten dead were "a Christmas gift from above" since they were all evil people anyway, especially the two children, who probably would have grown up to be murderers, drug dealers, or televangelists. Those who survived were described as deserving a brush with death to remind them who is in charge. "None of the survivors deserved to live," said a passerby. "They obviously didn't pray hard enough."
Actually, the survivors were claiming that God saved them because they are special and Mercado claimed the survivors were given a Christmas gift from God.
Such rationalizations are wondrous, indeed: searching for
meaning in the meaningless and praising God when we should be blaming some
of our own species. Such self-deception may have psychological value, but
it diverts our attention from where it should be focused: on other human
beings. It does get worse, though. Check out Time's
story on Darrell Scott, father of Columbine murder victim Rachel or ABCNews.com's
story about a woman who awakes from a semi-coma after 16 years. It's a
miracle when she awakes but nobody blamed God when she went to sleep for
December 8, 1999. NYPost.com features Jane Seymour in defense of alternative medicine (AM). She played Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman on the popular TV series of that name. Her faith in AM is based on several anecdotes. She claims that an alternative therapy involving a massive injection of vitamin C into her father who was dying of cancer "saved his life." He died five months later of a heart attack. The fact that his traditional doctors didn't give the old man (he was 73 when he died) much time and the fact that he perked up for a few months after the AM treatment, convinced her that AM works. There's little doubt that the two-week treatment gave the old man hope and his depression lifted, making it possible for him to not just give up and die on the spot. But it didn't cure anything and the poor fellow died within months of his diagnosis. For all Seymour knows, the vitamin C injections weakened his heart and killed her father sooner than the cancer would have. (I'm only suggesting that the logic for such a conclusion would be as valid as the logic she used to reach hers.)
Were this just a matter of Seymour's personal beliefs, I'd ignore her, but she is on a campaign to get increased funding for research into herbal treatments and homeopathy, which she believes "can work miracles when combined with conventional remedies." She has also testified before a Congressional committee that "natural remedies saved her father when he was at death's door," a claim which at best is misleading and at worst is a lie.
Seymour's second anecdote involves her mother, who she claims had rapidly deteriorating eyesight due to macular degeneration. Her mother was treated with electro-crystal therapy, which involved placing crystals on her eyes and sending electro-magnetic waves through the crystals. This alternative therapy was created by Harry Oldfield and is based on the belief in the healing power of crystals. What wave frequency is used depends on one's chakras.
Seymour does not mention what other treatments her mother was given, such as laser surgery, or how she knows the original diagnosis was correct. When she says that her mother's vision is "back to normal" what does that mean? Is this claim based on a vision exam or on her mother's word that she sees "fine" now? People with vision problems often report that they can see fine, either because they think they really can see fine or because they don't want to admit to themselves or let others know how serious their vision problem is.
Seymour's third anecdote comes from her sister, a homeopathic nurse, who reports that homeopathic remedies dramatically reduced swelling after brain surgery for an aneurysm. How she knows this is not clear.
A fourth anecdote involves Seymour's daughter. When she had her wisdom teeth extracted, Seymour "gave her the homeopathic remedy arnica and she had virtually no swelling." Virtually no swelling means she had swelling. I wonder if her daughter was given anything else besides arnica or if the surgery was done without anesthesia.
Let's hope Congress invites some real authorities and experts the next
time it has hearings on how much of our tax dollars it should waste on
homeopathy and other quack remedies.
December 1, 1999. Reuters and ABCNews.com announced that
Huey-Jen Lee and a colleague studied 12 people, had no control group, but since they used high tech MRI equipment they must be doing good science. Here is what they did. They used
What we will never know, because there was no control
group, is what the brain would do in time when no acupuncture was applied.
Perhaps it would show a decrease in brain activity as the pain subsided.
In any case, we already know that acupuncture can reduce
November 30, 1999. PC Computing's Gordon Bass has jumped on the cell phone alarmist bandwagon. Is Your Cell Phone Killing You? he asks in the title of his article. Yes, he answers in a maze of technical jargon that sounds impressive until you read between the lines. (Or next to them, where there was a link to the hottest selling cell phones, in case you are inspired to buy one while reading the article that tells you how you might be killed if you do so. The ads had been removed when checked later.)
Bass resurrects George Carlo, still searching for research money, to stoke the fires of fear.
I certainly don't doubt the last claim, but I wouldn't brag about it. The FDA should not have banned silicone breast implants. He's "found evidence" and there are "suggestions" and "clear evidence of statistically significant higher risk," etc. What he hasn't found is clear language that states that the research is very preliminary and that there is not a great body of evidence that warrants banning cell phones. I will agree that there is as much evidence to fear cell phones as there is to fear computers and their peripherals, as well as other household gadgets that emit electromagnetic radiation in doses that would make your breast implants curl. [update: Nov. 17, 2006. The ban on silicone implants has been lifted by the FDA.]
most amusing about this article is how it represents the absurdity of
modern journalism. The author claims that Motorola is suppressing evidence
of cell phone harm, but there is a link to Motorola in the article which
takes you to another
ZDNet page where you can find out such things as the latest price of
Motorola stock (118 9/16, up 1 5/8, apparently the news hasn't filtered
down to the stockholders) and reviews of Motorola cell phones.
Robert Todd Carroll