The Week in Conspiracy, 30 April 2011

April 30, 2011

Nothing related to conspiracy theories happened all week. Well, except that I have been receiving messages from the New World Order through old Monty Python episodes. Other than that, nothing conspiracy related has happened. Except that Obama released the birth certificate.

In other not-news:

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

That’s all, folks. Only 3 more weeks to the rapture, so make sure to wrap up warmly.



April 29, 2011

Here is a snapshot of my brain this morning:

Ronald Linsday, President and CEO of CFI/CSI, discusses Birthers and their problem, what it is, on NPR.

In other news, Zuul made an appearance in New York City yesterday.

The Dave Mabus of the 9/11 truth movement, and the least viewed video of all time:

Here beach-goers gett their butts kicked by a jet engine:

That is all. Please feel free to have a day.


The Dr. Oz Show: The Price is Right of Medical Woo

April 28, 2011

Previously, on Skeptical Humanities:

We wrote about Dr. Steven Novella’s appearance on the Dr. Oz show (Dr. Novella describes his experience here; the first part of the show is available here). Of course, Dr. Novella appeared only in the first segment of the show, roughly the first ten minutes. So what happened on the rest of the show?

First a brief recap: Dr. Novella and the three physicians featured in the “Here’s what your doctor says” clips repeatedly pointed out that “alternative” therapies are not subject to the same kind of rigorous testing that conventional therapies are. By law, non-alternative medications have to be tested for efficacy and safety. Alternative therapies are not under the oversight of the FDA and do not have to meet the same standards. These concerns were never properly addressed.

In segment 2, after Dr. Novella has been whisked from the stage, Dr. Oz discusses online companies that use his name and image to sell their products without his consent. Dr. Oz could have used this fact to emphasize the risks of buying medical products online: many of the claims are deceptive. How can a consumer be sure the products are effective and safe and that the claims are valid? Instead, Dr. Oz just expresses irritation that they are using his name. He mentions one advertisement specifically that has a disclaimer at the bottom, which makes it technically legal. This company sells products “featured on the Dr. Oz show.” Oz notes, “There are times when you can be factually on target but be untruthful.” This statement is, of course, true, but I find it highly ironic for a number of reasons. In the first place, I wonder what Oz actually found untruthful about the statements in the ad. Is he annoyed that the ad suggests that he has endorsed this specific company and its products? Or is he suggesting that he has never endorsed the supplement in general? I’m assuming the former because they show a screenshot of an ad for Omega-3 krill oil pills, and later in the same show, Dr. Oz does enthusiastically promote fish oil supplements for heart health. So it seems the ad is correct when it says that a product similar to the one it sells has been both featured and endorsed on the Dr. Oz show.

In the second part of this segment, Dr. Oz promises to help viewers decide “what alternative products are safe for you.” Hurrah! He’s addressing one of the major concerns of science-based medical practitioners. Surely he’ll bring back Dr. Novella to help his viewers evaluate the claims of safety and efficacy made by producers of alternative therapies. Well, no. Instead he brings back Catherine Ulbricht, chief editor and co-founder of the National Standard Research Collaboration (their website), which Oz describes as the “gold standard of databases that study alternative medicine. We use it on the show all the time.”

Ulbricht begins by explaining how Natural Standard evaluates supplements. They “collect traditional information [and] historical data….” Hey, that sounds good to me! Of course, I’m a medievalist. I’m not sure folklore and anecdotes are the most reliable way to evaluate the safety and efficacy of medicine. To be fair, though, she says that they collect this information “as well as hardcore scientific evidence [and] clinical trials.” Their grading scale is based on that of the US Preventative Services Task Force. So, okay, that all sounds a bit better. So how do you know whether a supplement or therapy is safe?

1. How long has it been around? “You’re safer using therapies that have been around a long time, traditionally used in foods, grown in your own garden.” You know, the therapy of bleeding people to balance their humors was around for a long time. That doesn’t make it a safe or effective therapy. She notes that aspirin “is a good example because willow bark is a natural product that’s been around, you know, since forever, and it’s one of the mainstay therapies in conventional and alternative medicine.”

I’m not a medical expert, but it seems to me that she’s got this backwards. We know aspirin is safe and effective not because willow bark is natural (hemlock’s natural too) but because the chemical acetylsalicylic acid has been studied out the wazoo and found to be safe (with some risks) and effective. Aspirin is a drug and therefore regulated by the FDA.

Dr. Oz notes that a supplement that is available in food form and has been around for centuries is “probably not going to be catastrophically risky for you.” Now, perhaps I’m being unfair by parsing an off-the-cuff remark too closely, but certain words in that sentence bother me, specifically “probably,” “catastrophically” and “risky.” And while it may be true that these herbs are safe in food form, are they safe in supplement form? How much of the active ingredient do they contain? What other ingredients do they contain? Can we trust the companies that sell them? We don’t really know because they are not regulated by the FDA.

2. Evaluate the claims. This seems really important. They spend roughly 30 seconds on it. Ulbricht says that the more specific the claim, the more likely it is to be accurate. If it claims to be a panacea, don’t trust it: “There is no such thing as a magic pill.” That seems reasonable as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Yes, general, overarching claims are probably false, but many specific claims are false as well, or at least not backed by good, scientific evidence.

3. Determine safety. Ooh, really important. They don’t spend much time on this either. Ulbricht advises viewers to speak with their healthcare providers “even if they don’t know, they can use resources like Natural Standard and educate themselves and work with you to customize your care.” She also suggests looking at clinical data. This is good advice, although the plug for her own organization is perhaps a bit off-putting. But,again, the advice doesn’t go nearly far enough. How do people evaluate clinical data? Or find it?

Nowhere in this segment does either Oz or Ulbricht discuss potential toxicity or drug interactions. They don’t mention quality control.

At the end of the segment, Dr. Oz says “the only thing I endorse is information.” This is right after he and Ulbricht have endorsed fish oil, glucosamine and echinacea. He then endorses Natural Standard, telling his viewers to go to his site to find a link so they can get one free login at Natural Standard. Like many professional databases, Natural Standard is asubscription only resource. It seems possible, even likely, that some viewers, after using their free login, will choose to subscribe. Surely, Dr. Oz is endorsing not just information, but also a fee-based service. In short, what Dr. Oz says about endorsements seems to be “factually on target,” but misleading.

In the next segment Dr. Oz continues to endorse alternative supplements. The show calls this segment “Assistant of the Day.” I call it “The Price is Right of Medical Woo.” An audience member is invited to “come on down!” (okay, they don’t really say that). Dr. Oz is in scrubs; the woman is given a lab coat. The woman was presumably chosen because she suffers from headaches, and the segment focuses on headache triggers. I won’t discuss what he says about triggers as I don’t really have the necessary knowledge to evaluate all his claims. However, he does recommend two herbal supplements.

First, he says, “There are over-the-counter medications that work, but I happen to love this one.” “This one” is feverfew. According to Wikipedia, “It is hypothesized that by inhibiting the release of serotonin and prostaglandins, both of which are believed to aid the onset of migraines, feverfew limits the inflammation of blood vessels in the head. This would, in theory, stop the blood vessel spasm which is believed to contribute to headaches. Feverfew may also have GABAergic effects.” “Hypothesized,” “in theory,” “may.” Hmmm.

On screen, we see the following information: “FEVERFEW SUPPLEMENTS, 125 mg/daily, 50/60 tabs–online.” Sounds like an endorsement, doesn’t it? Granted, he’s not endorsing a specific seller or manufacturer, but he’s already highlighted some of the problems with online supplement companies (they’re not always honest). Why does Oz prefer feverfew to the medications that he admits work? Well, it “gets you off taking pills all the time for your headaches.” Except that it doesn’t. Feverfew doesn’t work like aspirin: you don’t take it when you get a headache. It’s used as a preventive measure rather than as a treatment when you get a headache. As Wikipedia states, “it might take four to six weeks before they become effective.” In other words, it doesn’t get you off taking pills all the time. You have to take the pills daily. If you suddenly stop taking them, you may suffer rebound headaches (this is also a problem with conventional headache treatments, especially migraine treatments). In addition, according to Wikipedia, parthenolide, one of the active ingredients in feverfew, “was also found in 2005 to induce cell death in leukemia cancer stem cells.” So, you are taking pills; you are taking chemicals; there may be risks; it hasn’t been studied as thoroughly as conventional treatments. And finally, “results vary widely among different feverfew supplements.” This is a huge problem with supplements and one that Oz does not address.

Oz recommends another herbal supplement that can be used symptomatically for headaches, especially exercised-induced headaches: “I think [it is] a wonderful solution.” What he’s talking about is “BUTTERBUR SUPPLEMENTS, 75mg/day. 50/60 tablets–online.”  There does seem to be some evidence that butterbur can be effective in preventing and relieving headaches, particularly migraines; however, as Wikipedia notes,

Butterbur naturally contains components called pyrrolizidine alkaloids. They are toxic to the liver and may cause cancers. The concentrations are often highest in the rhizomes and stalks, and lowest in the leaves, and may vary depending on where the plants are grown. Butterbur extract should be taken only when prepared by a reputable laboratory. Long-term health effects and interaction with other drugs have not been studied.

Does that sound like something Dr. Oz’s viewers should know about and be concerned about? It does to me. I suffer from migraines, and there are times when I would try anything that might relieve them. I’ve considered a small, portable guillotine.  People have suggested butterbur to me, and so I have looked into it. What I’ve found has concerned me. Apparently it doesn’t concern Dr. Oz, though, because he doesn’t mention these potentially lethal side-effects. And, again, you’ll note that the fact that the supplement industry is unregulated adds to the risk. You need to know what you are getting, and with supplements, you often don’t.

Dr. Oz offers no information that would help his viewers determine which manufacturers are reliable and which supplements are safe. He never mentions that “natural” substances can be deadly. Honestly, it might be better if Dr. Oz did endorse specific manufacturers. Then, at least, his viewers could assume (or hope) that they are really getting a safe product. Based on the information he provides in this episode, they don’t have the resources they need to make an informed decision.


The Palimpsest of History: WWII in Images

April 28, 2011

I wanted to share a link with you that hit the web big about a year ago, but is related to the course I am currently teaching on World War II. Photographer Sergey Larenkov’s stunning then-and-now-at-the-same-time photos conjure the ghosts of the past dramatically and make us the modern world in a new way.

It’s like cubist multiperspectivism on crack.  My Modern Metropolis also posted an interview with Larenkov, with more photos, including photos of Hitler in Paris.


Breaking News: American President American!

April 27, 2011

I’ve discussed the issue of Obama’s birth status more than it warrants. Indeed, everyone has. During the campaign, the issue came up, but was dealt with handily by the press and they walked away from it. But the news cycle and the conspiracy theory cycle are not in sync, and the smoldering conspiracy theory every so often will occasionally flare up. Usually it appears only when some wingtard (I use that word with all possible respect–none whatsoever) who has managed to get elected decides to submit a “birther” bill, stipulating that a presidential candidate, to be on a ballot in the state, needs to produce a birth certificate.

Take Georgia clown Rep. Mark Hatfield, who submitted that the following become the law of the land:

(b) Within 10 days after submitting its list of names of candidates, the state executive committee shall submit to the Secretary of State for each candidate an affidavit by the candidate stating the candidate’s citizenship and age and shall append to the affidavit documents that prove the candidate is a natural born citizen, prove the candidate’s age, and prove that the candidate meets the residency requirements for President of the United States as prescribed in Article II, Section 1 of the United States Constitution.
(c) The Secretary of State shall review the affidavit and supporting documents submitted for each candidate; and if the Secretary of State finds reasonable cause to believe that the candidate does not meet the citizenship, age, and residency requirements prescribed by law, the Secretary of State shall not place that candidate’s name on the ballot.”

Now, it doesn’t say “birth certificate” or “nigger,” but we know what it means.

Personally, I believe that race is an important part of this ridiculous movement. The white ruling class, which people somehow assume I am a member of, is losing its majority. This, to me, at least, suggests, “Be nice to the swarthy people,” but reactionary types kicked back hard against the election of a black president. The president no longer looks like them, and there seems that there is something very primal, very basic, fueling this unquenchable fire.

Now, this is not the first presidential birthplace scandal, and historically the issue has not been raised on the basis of race. Take for instance the case of Chester Arthur, who was born within a day’s walk of the US/Canada border. (See? There is something mildly interesting about Chester Arthur!) He was the subject of much suspicion by his political opponents, but it seems to have just been that. More recently, candidates like Barry Goldwater (born in the “Arizona Territory”), John McCain (born on a US military base in Panama), and even Al Gore (born in Washington, DC) have faced scrutiny over their status and eligibility underneath the “natural born citizen” clause of the Constitution, though they generally haven’t been more than mild objections by opportunists. (Chester Arthur might not have been able to prove to himself that he was born on the American side of the border, by the way. Record keeping was not then what it is today.)

The Obama birth story, as far as I can tell, is the product of WorldNetDaily and Joseph Farah, and it surfaced as an issue in 2008. When you go back into the papers, you find that it was originally linked to allegations that not only was the dirty word “Hussein” in Barack Obama’s name, but “Mohammud,” at least so it appears in the 14 June 2008 edition of the St. Petersburg Times. The fact that this stems from concerns about his religion (I mean, doesn’t anyone remember him being criticized for hanging out with Jeremiah Wright?) suggests that this manufacture-versy is originally rooted in racism. And this is dangerous. I’m concerned about what could happen to the President when a significant percentage of the population think that he is a usurper.

Indeed, as I look through the record regarding the President’s ancestry, a headline (19 Jan 2004) from Africa News seems badly worded, considering the current goofiness and otherwise-valuable-time sink of the birther conspiracy theory: “Kenyan in US Senate Race.” Of course the first line of the report is more precise: “An American of Kenyan descent is topping the opinion polls in the race for Senator in the state of Illinois.”

I wanted to post some reactions from conspiracy theorists to today’s release of the so-called long-form birth certificate:

Obama’s Damned Birth Certificate

Joseph Farah, the guy who started this at his weird little website, says that he is still going to publish a book that attacks Obama’s birth certificate. Yeah, the guy really has no shame. I encourage the New York Times and Amazon to no longer list this book, “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” as non-fiction, but as fiction.

Infowars just rejects it out of hand and says that it “raises as many questions as it answers.”

The Smoking Gun anticipates the upcoming looniness from those who simply will not accept this as evidence. Ironically, even though TSG calls these ideas “nutty,” Infowars (Alex Jones’s website) cites it as if it didn’t think that they were loonbats from Mars.

Donald Trump has gotten stranger by the week. He is now demanding that Obama show his college record (as anyone in education knows, these records would be sealed under FERPA, so of course we don’t have them). He suggests that Obama was not a good student, basically suggesting that Obama was an affirmative action hire, who took away a slot from a more talented, better-qualified white kid. Of course, Trump’s son-in-law clearly bought his way into Harvard.

I’m just glad this is all behind us, and that now that undeniable evidence has come to light, exactly what the birthers were demanding, that we can put this behind us and march happily into a bright tomorrow!


The Shakespeare Conspiracy, or Did Batboy Write Hamlet?

April 27, 2011

In March I gave a presentation to the Atlanta Skeptics about the Shakespeare authorship question and compared the flawed reasoning of Shakespeare conspiracy theorists to more modern conspiracy theories. Here is the description that I provided for the talk:

I wrote Shakespeare. I am a time-traveling alien who built Stonehenge, the pyramids and wrote the works commonly attributed to William Shakespeare. I also created the earth 6000 years ago and helped fake the moon landing. You can’t prove that I didn’t.

Not all fringe theories are alike, but proponents of fringe theories tend to use similar reasoning (or lack thereof) to support their claims. Regardless of the specific fringe theory, the same logical fallacies will appear over and over again, as, for example, the attempt to shift the burden of proof. The argument that Francis Bacon/Christopher Marlowe/the Earl of Oxford/the Countess of Pembroke/Queen Elizabeth I/Batboy wrote Shakespeare thus has much in common with theories that suggest we never landed on the moon or that 9/11 was an inside job. Come for the strawman; stay for the red herring.

Mark Ditsler of Abrupt Media has made that talk and the accompanying PowerPoint presentation available online, and I repost it here as an .mp3.


Steve Novella on Dr. Oz

April 26, 2011

Today we (Eve and Bob) watched Dr. Oz to see Steve Novella’s appearance. This is pretty much a journey into the Heart of Darkness for a science-based physician. All week, the episode was marketed under the title, “Why is your doctor scared of alternative medicine?”

Ung. So we were worried that Oz would edit the hell out of the interview, but as far as we could tell, the editing seemed to be fair. Sure, Novella was outnumbered 3-to-one, but he’s like Neo in a Matrix of goof:

Steve Novella (middle, flying) takes on the forces of fail.

We’ve never watched Dr. Oz all the way through before. We’ve seen clips where he is being especially irresponsible, but not an entire episode.

Apparently, Oz has been reading the blogs (or ego surfing), and he seemed surprised that bloggers were attacking his rotten use of non-science in the treatment of actual sick people. Indeed, they flashed Orac’s Respectful Insolence during the opening.

Oz begins by saying that he is taking on a controversial issue that “has everything to do with you taking control of your health. There are many doctors–including me–who are putting their reputations on the line because they are using alternative therapies in their traditional practices.” This is true. Your reputation is at stake, Oz. Unfortunately, the only thing that he says that is uncontroversial is that lots of doctors think that alt med is “junk science and potentially dangerous.” And these are two questions that he does not address in any meaningful way in the rest of the segment.

The segment was 15 minutes long, and he opened with the statement that over 40% of ‘you’ (Oprah fans, presumably) are using alt med, like chiropractic, acupuncture and herbs, to treat everything from stress and insomnia to chronic pain to “cancer symptoms.” This seems like a bandwagon appeal to us: although he does not say it’s efficacious because so many people use it, but that’s clearly the implication.

He goes on to say that he has “showcased” a number of these treatments, which cost his viewers some $35 billion dollars a year (out of YOUR pocket–the appeal to YOU is very strong here). It strikes us that someone like Novella could easily cite that number to emphasize the magnitude of the problem. So, the stat sounded out of place. He brags about giving opportunistic quacks like Deepak Chopra (depressingly the most respectable of the bunch), Andrew Weil, and Joe Mercola free advertising time and unearned respectability.

He says that some the most stubborn holdouts against alt med are doctors (hm…) who ask whether these treatments are effective and safe. He addresses the doctors’ concerns in a rather accusatory manner. Presumptuous doctors, being concerned about the safety and efficacy of treatments!

“YOU’VE shown you are not afraid of testing the time honored traditions of alternative medicine,” he says as a woman lying on a teetertotter gets flipped upside down, presumably for health reasons. Doctors, however, are afraid.

Have you noticed how, so far, Dr. Oz has been describing the patient doctor relationship as adversarial? This is not fair, generally true or productive. Of course, it does establish him, by process of elimination, as an authority who is “on your side,” even if the premise is completely bogus. At the same time, it shifts the burden of expertise from the doctor to the patient. This is dangerous.

Oz starts the interview with Novella by asking “Why are there so many doctors out there, doctors of our viewers,” he emphasizes, “who don’t like alternative therapies? Why don’t you want me to talk about these?” Since Steven Novella has made an avocation out of addressing just these issues, this is essentially a straw man. Now if Oz had said “promoting this ” it would have been a fair question, but Oz makes it seem as if Novella and others like him want to stifle the quacks’ freedom of speech. Steve adresses what he has against alternative medicine, saying that alternative medicine is an “artificial category” used to sell treatments that are not subject to the same standards of evidence as medicine.

Novella is arguing to ensure standards of efficacy and safety of treatment, a concern to which Oz referred slightingly in his introduction. Oz ensures that these standards will not apply to certain treatments merely by placing them in the “alternative” category.

Oz then turns to his other guest, Dr. Mimi Guarneri (3:40), a cardiologist who uses alt med in her practice, who equates prayer and meditation with exercise and nutrition for heart patients, and smugly says that it is wrong to suggest that nutrition and exercise are alternative medicines. Of course Novella is too classy to yell “STRAWMAN!” or “Can I see your medical license?” but there are so many holes in this argument that I’m afraid no number of little Dutch Boys could ever plug them. She makes it sound as if Novella is against nutrition and exercise. Novella agrees that these are not alternative treatments. They are part of standard medicine and have been for some time. They are real medicine, the kind that works, the kind that has been shown to be safe and effective. But, as she just demonstrated, nutrition and exercise are being lumped in with…wishing you were better (prayer) as a form of “alt med.” This is unfair to the known practice of preventative medicine, or at least it lends unearned respectability to prayer.

Then Oz deploys what for him is a major rhetorical gambit, that alt med is “customized.” I’m not sure how medical decisions reached by a patient and doctor together, taking into consideration the needs and desires of a patient, are anything but already customized health care. All medical responses should be tailored to the needs and symptoms of the patient, and no action is taken without their consent. Right? This is what untested treatments avoid. When herbs aren’t held to quality control, for instance, can a patient be assured that they are making a wise, informed decision about what they are putting in their body? No. Cure-alls are non-specific and generic and not necessarily relevant to the individual patient’s needs.

Of course, Oz does not actually ever respond to the points that Novella makes. He merely changes the topic.

Oz then makes up 3 categories of alt med, things you put in your mouth, things that are done to your body, and the mind-body connection.

Novella is like, “yeah, whatever. Sure” (paraphrase). He is probably busy wondering why Oz is not commenting on his substantive points.

Regarding the first type (supplements and vitamins, etc.): Oz says there is a study showing that 50% percent of people use some sort of dietary supplement, as if that fact were in itself evidence of … anything: “Here is what “YOUR” doctor [as portrayed on film by Dr. Clifford Bassett, allergist and asthma specialist] has to say. What Bassett says is that, while herbs can be powerful and effective, he has some MAJOR reservations, especially about dosage, quality control, toxicity and drug interactions, when the products are outside of the purview and requirements of the FDA. He also mentions the problem of the appeal to nature. Yay!

At this point you can predict that Oz is going to ignore these real problems…again…Novella will say something reasonable, and Oz will reply, “I hear what you are saying, but what your are really saying is…” and then not let Novella answer. Let’s see how good we are, eh?

Novella reinforces Bassett’s point, saying that in 1994 Congress let down consumers by suspending evidentiary requirements concerning efficacy and safety for producers of supplements. Oz, “totally disagrees” about whether or not these products have been studied (of course, Novella has just said that echinacea has been studied and found not to work. Hell, Oz used the “they don’t work” part of that statement in his promos for the show!). Oz, also disagrees with the idea that no evidence has been found to support these treatments.

But he goes on to concede a point that Novella didn’t ask him to concede, a point, indeed, that he didn’t even make. In any way. He says that Novella’s (and others’) underlying concern is that patients are not telling their doctors what alt med they are trying. He is reinforcing the adversarial relationship (Hmmm, I wonder who is going to get the blame here). Novella could be (and likely is) concerned that this discussion is not happening, but Oz happily dismisses the real problems of efficacy and safety backed by evidence, the overlying–one could almost call it the “overarching”–concern. And he does not let Novella answer. Instead, he asks a pharmacist who works on PubMed…I’m sorry, I meant the “Natural Standard,” which reassuringly declares itself as “The Authority of Integrative Medicine” and has that twit Weil on the editorial staff. We are rather annoyed that in this context, Oz referred to her as “Doctor.” Hell, both of us (Eve and Bob still) could legitimately be referred to as “doctor,” but we think that it is important in a medical context that “doctor” refers an MD. Maybe this is niggling, but we think it is slightly deceptive.

They show Novella nodding, perhaps expecting to be asked to reply to what the pharmacist claims is a large amount of high-quality data. But we don’t hear a peep. They move on without allowing him to answer, again. Damn it.

Speaking of manipulation, Oz moves on to “body manipulations.” Specifically acupuncture. Now, YOUR doctor is played by Audrey Halpern, MD, a neurologist. She says that body manipulation can be effective, but that such treatments are often time consuming and expensive and have not been studied well enough. (Have you noticed how YOUR doctor is being generous to these therapies while still pointing out their weaknesses? Have you noticed that YOUR doctor’s concerns are being ignored?)

Dr. Guarneri, professor of Non Sequitor Therapy, then discusses how she began to use acupuncture after putting a stent in one of her patients. She does not say that she is using acupuncture to put in stents, but when her heart patients start to exercise again, they often ache. She hesitates to give them drugs, and so she uses a mixture of acupuncture, physical therapy and stretching, which reduces her anecdote to complete and utter irrelevance. How do you isolate the effects, if any, of acupuncture from those of the proven therapies of PT and stretching? It’s like claiming a miraculous healing on someone who has had the best possible medical care because someone prayed for the patient while they were in the hospital. (Pay attention Catholic Church!)

That fallacy was so painful, I need to put some acupuncture on that.

She’s very pleased with herself that she is doing no harm. Then Novella says, reasonably, that if it doesn’t work and there is risk involved, no matter how slight, yes, you are potentially doing harm.

Then, regarding acupuncture, Oz sticks it to Novella: “THERE ARE BILLIONS OF PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD WHO USE ACUPUNCTURE AS THE BASIS OF THEIR HEALTH CARE, AND IT’S THE BASIS OF ANCIENT CHINESE MEDICINE.” Yeah, says Novella, for centuries people used leeches as the basis of their healthcare.

Oz builds his argument on embarrassingly shaky ground, a double appeal to tradition and popularity. He also suggests that science may not know how it works. (Begging the question and just ignoring the fact that science has failed to find compelling evidence of these treatments’ efficacy.) Mega sad. He also seems not to notice that the people who are stuck with acupuncture as their sole treatment (pun only slightly intended) would love to have a dose of chemotherapy.

It’s seems to us that both Dr. Guarneri and Dr. Oz are advocating complementary medicine as opposed to “alternative” medicine, essentially charging patients for useless therapies in addition to the stuff that is actually helping. That’s really cheeky and dishonest.

Regarding mind-body connections, YOUR doctor is played by Mark Melrose, DO, emergency medicine. (I wonder how often he tells his his mangled glider accident victims that they will be better if they just meditate.) Mark says that maybe, maybe it is effective, but there is stuff we know works, why not use that?

So, Oz asks if Novella disagrees with mind-body treatment because it is “soft and fuzzy, or do you think that it is just unproven and worthless?” It’s the false dichotomy fallacy, and Novella calls him out on it. “Neither,” he says. Relaxing and meditation are fine, he says. Just don’t tart it up in mystical language or claim that it can cure cancer.

At this point, Oz…freaking loses it. He complains that Novella is dismissing the patient’s knowledge of his or her own body by calling it mysticism, thereby standing two arguments away from what Novella is saying. And, you know, dismissing it. The subsequent rant is not loud, but it sure as hell is not rational or organized. We reproduce it here, verbatim:

“But here is where the big disconnect that we have is on this point. Because I think I that when people begin to study their bodies, and you call it mysticism, which again I think is a bit dismissive of the process, it’s people inuitively understanding what’s happening in their body beginning to examine it, and you know what? maybe we can harvest our immune cells so that they can kill cancers, neither you nor I know that, that’s darn hard to study, so my advice to everybody is, customize therapy for yourself. Figure out what makes sense for you. Do drugs and surgery work? Yeah, they often work pretty well, and they have side effects as you [Novella] acknowledge and we all talk about them all the time. But the difference for me is a bow and arrow, a stealth [he probably means “targeted”—do you want your health care to sneak up on and pounce you?] approach to getting exactly what you want to get that works in you versus the ballistic missile approach that we have so often become comfortable with [this is specifically a chemotherapy argument, which he does not explain]. Now, there have been lots of other findings from the National Institutes of Health that have been very positive, I think, in regard to alternative medicine. And the majority of schools in this nation now are offering programs that teach students so that we are more understanding ’cause you know what I think the big problem is? You know why people aren’t talking to their doctors? Because they don’t think that their doctors know anything about it. [To audience] Is that close to on target, folks? [mumbling yeah]. So if I can give you my take, alternative medicine, I think, is at the grassroots level, and because of that nobody owns it. Now, that stated, I think that we have our homework to do, but alternative medicine empowers us. And that’s the big message for all of ya, but only if you know more about it, all right and if it does work for you, trust me,don’t let anyone take it away from you. Dr. Novella, thank you very much….”


Steve does not get to reply, of course. And, really, how could you? It’s Oprah-flavored incoherent. There is empowerment, and people trying to take away your bows and arrows and shoot you with missiles. It’s a long, rambling, populist non-thought. He throws in immune cells for some reason. It sounds like he is saying, “Perhaps the mind does have some effect on cancer [Novella had just mentioned that meditation can relax you, but it cannot cure cancer], and you can’t know that it doesn’t. Neener neener.” This is a classic appeal to ignorance. He goes so far as to mention how hard it is to study things. Uh, yeah, we know. So let’s redirect some of that $35 billion dollars being flushed down the alt med toilet to do some actual research on cancers.

Good job, Steve! You have the stomach of a concrete elephant.


Popeye the Sailor vs. the Japanese

April 26, 2011

Here’s a little find that a student researching his final paper on WWII sent to me. It comes fully stocked with all of the racist characterizations of the Japanese that one expects from the period. It may be the first cartoon that I have seen that addresses Japanese ritual suicide. (Warning: may be offensive to humans.)

As it so happens, I am reading David Livingston Smith’s  book on dehumanization, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others. It’s quite good and, I imagine, very accessible for a variety of audiences.



Teh Oxford Lolcat Dikshunaree

April 25, 2011

Lolcats have taken over the Bible, so is it surprising that they’ve invaded the most famous dictionary in the English language? They really need their own multi-volume dictionary–Teh OLD (Oxford Lolcat Dikshunaree).


Skeptical Humanities Retreats into Comfortable Obscurity

April 25, 2011

Here’s the month’s hit tally for Skeptical Humanities as reported by WordPress:

That's more like it!

But enough. Time for some lulz. Here’s a kitty:

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Also, here’s a clip from the Onion’s Factzone:<br /><a href=”,20098/&#8221; target=”_blank” title=”Autistic Reporter: Train Thankfully Unharmed In Crash That Killed One Man”>Autistic Reporter: Train Thankfully Unharmed In Crash That Killed One Man</a>