Interview with American Freethought

September 11, 2011

I caught up with John and David from the American Freethought podcast at Dragon*Con, and they asked me to be on their show for the 9/11 episode. That interview is up right now. Go. Listen. Subscribe.

I am currently working on the 9/11 version of the “week in conspiracy,” but there is a lot. Go figure.


My visit to the TruthCon…in video form!

June 30, 2011

Tim Farley, or as I like to think of him, Novellatron 2.0, has created a vimeo site for the Atlanta Skepticamp. Below is the talk-version of my Skeptical Inquirer article:

All They Want is the Truth: TruthCon 2011 from Atlanta Skeptics on Vimeo.

If you want to see the vids as they appear (a couple hundred MB at a time), visit the site!

Check out Tim’s, an invaluable skeptical resource. More coming soon!


My Skeptical Inquirer article, “All They Want is the Truth,” is online

June 9, 2011

Several moons ago, I visited the TruthCon, a convention with a difference. It brought together a wide variety of extraordinary claims together under one roof. I was unable to write about it here because I was reporting on it on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer. Well, it’s up now and ripe for your delectation. Enjoy!

All They Want is the Truth

(I should mention that I am also going to be appearing on the conspiracy theory panel at the upcoming CSICon in New Orleans in October. You should really come. It’s going to rock out!)


The Language of Pseudoscience

May 28, 2011

On April 20th, I was a guest on Inside the Black Box, a science-themed radio show produced at Georgia Tech. Well, they have archived the show, which makes me very happy, because now I get to hear myself speak, which as you can imagine is something I enjoy immensely! Also, I am dying to know if they kept in a calculus joke I made that they thought might be too dirty for the archives. I know! I can make calculus positively obscene!

The topic is “The Language of Pseudoscience” (mp3 file) and it draws on a course that I taught in the Fall of 2010.


Cogito, ergo not ergotism: The Salem Witch Trials

May 19, 2011

After a grueling week of covering conspiracy theories, I thought that I would pick up a gauntlet not so much thrown down as dropped suggestively by Ryan F in the comments of Eve’s wildly successful berserker post a few weeks back:

I’d love to see a similar takedown of ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials; I always have a few students who latch on to that one. There really is an appeal to the mundane scientific explanation for a cultural phenomenon that doesn’t quite fit with modern sensibilities.

So, instead of conspiracy theories, today I’m going to talk about…a lot of people who thought there was a Satanic conspiracy afoot! But this is different because the characters in this story are wearing amusing headgear:

One of the perennial questions of American history is, “What the hell was wrong with the Puritans?” In my opinion, a lot. Let’s face it, the Netherlands didn’t want them, and you had to be a real jerk to make yourself unwelcome in the Netherlands in 1630, let me tell you.

Anyway, between September 1692 and May of 1693, 19 men and women were executed on charges of witchcraft in the towns surrounding Salem, MA, and one man was crushed to death as the court sought to force him into entering a plea. A variety of causes have been suggested for the witch mania that seized New England that year. In truth, it seems likely that a number of factors contributed to the Witch Trials; it is also apparent that the forces that initiated the craze were not the same ones that perpetuated it. Among factors that contributed in various degrees are gender and class (which were related), social and individual psychology, the social structure and beliefs of the townspeople, and, finally, the separation of church and state, which in Salem was about 2 blocks.

I have taught the Salem incident in past conspiracy theory courses. I tend to put a lot of weight on the theological background that made witchery seem like a plausible explanation. In really, truly unacceptably rough terms, the social order was thought to reflect a divine order. The maintenance of a system of covenants (women and children/father, head of household/government, government/God) was seen as ensuring the health of the relationship between the colony and the Lord. When that tranquility was disturbed, one might easily interpret that as someone having made a covenant with someone other than God, wink wink nudge nudge. It also makes a stunning lesson about standards of evidence.

But I digress.

In the 1970s, Linnda R. Caporael, a psychology graduate student at UC, Santa Barbara, published a new hypothesis in Science. She posited that ergotism might account for the physical symptoms that were reported by those making accusations of witchcraft. Ergotism is caused by…wait for it…ergot poisoning. Ergot (Claviceps purpura) is a fungus that grows on various cereals and has a special hankering for rye:

Ergot on wheat. Hold the mayo.

Caporael gives a cursory history of the madness outbreak (entire careers can be consumed by the scholarship around the Witch Trials), and considers three possible explanations 1) fraud on the part of the accusers, 2) psychological/ psychiatric issues, and 3) “physiological explanations.” Because Caporael finds that the possibility of physical ailments causing the outbreak have not been considered in depth before, the review of that literature is necessarily very brief, and she means to fill in the blank. She mentions that “A modern [1949] historian [Marion Lena Starkey] reports a journalist’s suggestion that Tituba had been dosing the girls with preparations of jimson weed, a poisonous plant brought to new England from the West Indies in the early 160o’s” (23), but the reference is not immediately available to me, so it is not clear when the journalist was writing or what evidence the journalist was citing.

Most of the studies of ergot that I have come across stress the effects of ergotism on cattle and livestock, which would be eating the affected grains. Ergot has medical uses, most notably as a vasoconstrictor, and most modern human cases of ergotism are the result of overdose on ergot-based medications. Ergot also contains alkaloid precursors to LSD, and so they share similar structures.

As you might expect given the pharmacology above, the types of symptoms associated with ergotism have to do with vasoconstriction resulting in dry gangrene and insults to the nervous system resulting in convulsions and hallucinations. It is the later suite of symptoms that lead Caporael to hypothesize convulsive ergotism as a possible culprit.

Caporael’s evidence falls into a couple of different categories. The first is “growing conditions.” There was ergot in the region, so it was a possible contaminant of rye stores. Also, she says that the crucial growing period, between April and Thanksgiving 1961, was warm and stormy, as evidenced in Puritan diaries, ideal growing conditions for the fungus. Her second line of evidence is “localization.” Three of the eight afflicted girls lived in the Putnam residence, and Putnam’s farm was large, as indicated by his will. Presumably, the agricultural yield from his substantial land holdings, if they were the source of the ergotism, would be dispersed more widely among the population. And this is how she explains the second group of afflicted girls:

The two afflicted girls, the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, lived in the parsonage almost exactly in the center of the village. Their exposure to contaminated grain from western land [including Putnam’s] is also explicable. Two-thirds of Parris’s salary [as parson] was paid in provisions; the villagers were taxed proportionately to their landholding. Since Putnam was one of the largest landholders and an avid supporter of Parris in the minister’s community disagreement’s, an ample store of ergotized grain would be anticipated in Parris’s larder. (192)

Another sick girl was a servant in the household of the man who was presumably the town’s only doctor. Because Ann Putnam was often sick, he probably visited her a lot and got payments in ergotized grain. Another servant girl, this one on a farm near a river, may have been poisoned from her own Master’s fields, but Caporael says this case is questionable and possibly fraud (on the basis of the timing and nature of the accusation, as well as a second-hand report of the servant admitting to lying).

Another servant on an outlying farm is a bit of a puzzle. She alone was afflicted in the household (though pretty much everyone, including the kids was accused of witchcraft). There is a record of her once staying in town overnight, however. Because this girl had two bouts with the affliction, Caporael entertains the notion that she may have been poisoned the first time and then under psychological duress during the second episode.

I take these first two lines of evidence as an attempt to establish the plausibility of the ergotism hypothesis. The last line of evidence is the testimony of the trial, of which there is a staggering bunch. Caporael is looking for the symptoms of ergotism in the testimony.

After Caporael re-establishes that the outbreak of witches was an abnormal reaction, a strange paragraph follows:

The affected girls’ behavior seemed to be no secret in early spring. Apparently it was the great consternation that some villagers felt induced Mary Sibley to direct the making of the witch cake of rye meal and the urine of the afflicted. This concoction was fed to a dog, ostensibly in the belief that the dog’s subsequent behavior would indicate the action of any malefic magic. The fate of the dog is unknown; it is quite plausible that it did have convulsions, indicating to the observers that there was witchcraft involved in the girls’ afflictions. […]

The importance of the witch cake has incident has generally been overlooked. (25)

Hold on…I must have missed something. There is no contemporary record whatsoever of a dog having convulsions (or not)? If it did have any symptoms at all…surely it would have been mentioned somewhere? Where did the “importance of the incident” happen?

Regardless, lack of dog testimony aside, Caporael mentions the spectral evidence (images of the accused or of their familiars who appeared to the afflicted), and “epileptiform” convulsions which she believes are consistent with convulsive ergotism. She also notes that “[c]omplaints of vomiting and ‘bowels almost pulled out’ are common in the depositions of the accusers.” She also refers to pinches and burning sensations that might signify some sort of ergotic neuropathy.

She then points to what is slightly worse evidence than the dog:

“When examined in the light of a physiological hypothesis, the content of so called delusional testimony, previously dismissed as imaginary by historians, can be reinterpreted as evidence of ergotism. After being choked and strangled by the apparition of a witch sitting on his chest, John Londer testified that a black thing came through the window and stood before his face.”

It was a little monkey-man thing, but that’s almost completely unimportant because we already have enough to determine precisely what Londer was describing, sleep paralysis. The pressure on the chest that becomes someone sitting on you (probably because his body is still “asleep”), the sensation that there are people around you, this is classic sleep paralysis. And it’s very cool to see how confusing sensory data, even when they are fairly common, get interpreted through the filter of the experiencer’s culture. If Londer were alive now, he’d testify that little gray aliens with big dark eyes were standing around his bed. Throughout history, the specters have been variously represented as the recently deceased (as in reports of vampirism and the wacky cures that communities developed for that–exhumation, beheading, staking or cremation!); when the waking dream has a sexual element, the phantoms have become incubi and succubi, and so on. Now they’re “grays.”

Within about, oh, 20 minutes of the publication of Caporael’s paper, the thesis was completely demolished Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb. Their article, “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials,” appeared in the December 1976 edition of Science.

Spanos and Gottlieb raise a question that occurred to me while I was reading Caporael, “So, were there any cases of gangrene?” I mean, ergot causes both gangrene and neurological symptoms. If uncontrolled doses were being consumed by the public, surely someone would have contracted gangrene. Or maybe the animals? Most of the studies of ergotism that I found were veterinary, after all. But they take it one step further than my uninformed musings and deploy a full arsenal of reasons why ergotism is unlikely. For instance, convulsive ergotism has been seen in groups where “the inhabitants have suffered from severe vitamin A deficiency” (1390). They note that Salem was affluent enough and had enough fish to avoid such a disease. They note that children, really young children, are the most likely to succumb to ergotism, but in Salem that the ages of the girls trend well over 15 (only 3 of 11 were younger).
The fact that entire families, who you would think would be eating the same food, were not laid low casts further doubt on the hypothesis.

In the case of the gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea) that Caporeal discovered in the depositions, Spanos and Gottlieb find much less than would be expected. One instance that Caporael cited as “bowels almost pulled out” in the original text reads like this: “Abigail hath been greviously vexed with the apparition of Eliz: Proctor the wife of John Proctor of Salem, by which apparition she has been greviously pinched, had also her bowels almost pulled out…”. It’s unclear that this is actually explosive at either end of the digestive tract, or whether it is a cramp or…even real. It seems to be a retelling, not an ongoing, verified complaint. Indeed, the three girls who mention what might be construed as gastrointestinal symptoms all had a single bout. There is no mention of vomiting. (Oh! Perhaps Regan in The Exorcist, which was released a few years before the paper, had ergotism! I sense a publication!)

They further notice that there is no record of ergotism being cured by the reading of particular Bible passages in the medical literature. There is no reason why someone who had ergot poisoning would appear to be fine (“hale and hearty”) outside of court, as was the case with these girls. The descriptions of hallucinations and apparitions are not consistent with the types that people report having when they are on LSD (remember, ergot and LSD share some characteristics), such as halos around objects, long-lasting afterimages, rainbow-like colors, etc. Seeing people who aren’t there while awake is reportedly a comparatively rare effect of LSD. The girls did not reportedly display the ravenous hungers that follow ergotic convulsions. The reports of burning sensations are clearly triggered by external suggestion. Lastly, nobody reported that the girls’ skin hues changed, as would be expected with ergotism. When the epidemic ended, it ended. There are no reports of the permanent neurological damage that people who had been ingesting ergot for months would have displayed. Ergotism is in almost in every way a bad match unless you are willing to cherry-pick symptoms.

Nonetheless, while Gottlieb and Spanos put a stake through the heart of the notion that ergotism caused witches, they did inadvertently prove that the reanimated corpse of a discredited theory can wander aimlessly through pop culture.

In 1982, historian Mary K. Matossian, who had been studying the effects of mold poisoning on history and culture, resurrected the theory. Her principal objection to the Gottlieb and Spanos is  that:

“The Salem court record does not mention certain symptoms often associated with mild or early ergotism, such as headache, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, chills, sweating, livid or jaundiced skin, and the ravenous appetite likely to appear between firs. If these symptoms were present, they may not have been reported because they were not commonly associated with witchcraft.”

They didn’t note that the sufferers had changed color, eh? I’d like to refer you to a specialist in this area:

They also would have noticed bits of people falling off, I imagine.

Most of Matossian’s reply is, “Well, you can’t disprove ergotism.” But that’s not positive evidence of ergotism. Matossian does offer more circumstantial evidence of conditions that might have been conducive to ergot, like tree rings, but again, we get nothing that remotely looks like ergotism in the record. Of course, her hypothesis got picked up by the New York Times, and the rest, as they say, is the History Channel.

In a strange way, I feel that this issue could be settled using Baysian analysis. As you probably do not remember because nobody was reading Skeptical Humanities at the time, Baysian analysis appeared in our examination of whether FDR had polio or an autoimmune condition. By looking at the frequencies of different symptoms in known polio cases, researchers were able to assign a very, very low probability that FDR’s particular cluster of symptoms would have appeared in a genuine polio case.

I looked for descriptive surveys of known ergotism outbreaks in human populations, but did not find any. (Be fair, I’m way outside my area here.) If you took a couple of large studies of outbreaks (or lots of little studies), it seems to me that you might be able to assign a likelihood of seeing an outbreak that has the variety of symptoms like the one at Salem.

So, there. Now you have homework. Go do that.



Caporael, Linnda R. “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?” Science 192.4234 (2 Apr. 1976): 21-26.

Matossian, Mary K. “Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair,” American Scientist 70 (1982): 355-357.

Spanos, Nicholas P. and Jack Gottlieb. Science 194.4272 (24 Dec. 1976): 1930-1934.

Science Gone Berserk

May 3, 2011

Not long ago, I wrote about how the History Channel dealt with the Norse warriors known as berserks (spoiler alert–they dealt with it badly). More recently, Brian Dunning mentioned berserks in an episode of Skeptoid on feats of superhuman strength:

Such drugs [as PCP] have also been suggested to explain groups such as the Norse berserkers, a subset of Viking shock troops who fought like enraged wild animals, impervious to pain, and contemptuous of injury. Some researchers have suggested that berserkers may have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle, as did Zulu warriors. Another theory states that they may have simply gotten really drunk, but this likely would have resulted in poorer performance in battle. It’s also possible that berserkers simply worked themselves up into a frenzy, and combined with the fight or flight response to the impending battle, did indeed gain heightened physical ability.

Berserks aren’t the focus of the episode, but Dunning covers the all the bases briefly: berserks may have taken magic mushrooms; they may have used another substance, such as alcohol (but probably not); or they may have achieved the frenzy without any mind-altering substances. The idea that berserks may have taken something seems to be pervasive, and the history of the idea is traceable and interesting. To a large extent, it has been scientists who have explored the “magic mushroom” theory. It turns out, when science gets involved in the humanities, science is not always right.

In Dunning’s “References and Further Reading” section, he lists an article called “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry” by Howard D. Fabing. This article was published in both The Scientific Monthly and The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1956. It is based on a paper Fabing presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. According to the author biography included in the article, Fabing was at the time of writing “in private practice of neurology and psychiatry.” Previously,

[he had] taught physiology and neurology at the University of Cincinnati. During World War II he was director of the School of Military Neuropsychiatry in the European Theater of Operations. His research activities have been in the fields of parkinsonism, narcolepsy, epilepsy, wartime blast concussion syndrome, shock therapies, and the neuro-chemistry of mental disorders.

Clearly, Fabing was eminently qualified to discuss neurological and psychiatric disorders. He was perhaps less qualified to discuss medieval Scandinavian history. He doesn’t directly quote a single primary document related to the Viking age, and indeed, it seems clear that he was not immediately familiar with the primary documents (many of which were available in translation in 1956, although often in that “ye olde” variety of English that no one ever spoke). He begins by giving the supposed legendary background of the berserks:

Berserk was a mighty hero in Norse mythology. Legend states that he was the grandson of the mythical eight-handed Starkadder. He was renowned for his consummate bravery and for the fury of his attack in battle. He had twelve sons who were his equals in courage. He never fought in armor but in his ber sark, which means “bearskin” in the Nordic languages. Thus the term berserk became synonymous with reckless courage. (232)

I was not familiar with a hero named Berserk. I have still not found him in any primary text. I have, however, found references to this story in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century re-tellings of Norse legendary material. For instance, the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives the following information under the entry for “berserker:”

[I]n Scandinavian mythology, the name of the twelve sons of the hero Berserk, grandson of the eight-handed Starkadder and Alfhilde. Berserk was famed for the reckless fury with which he fought, always going into battle without armour. By the daughter of of King Swafurlam, whom he had killed, he had twelve sons who were his equal in bravery. In Old Norse berserer thus became synonymous with reckless courage, and was later applied to the bodyguards of several of the Scandinavian heroes.

Starkaðr, usually Anglicized either as Starkad or Starkadder, does appear in various primary texts. There are actually two of Starkads. One or the other or both appear briefly in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and a number of sagas. Starkad the Old plays a larger role in chapters 6-8 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (translation available here) and the extremely strange Gautreks saga. Neither Starkad has a grandson named Berserk in any of these works. I suspect that the origin of this story comes from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, translation available here). In the versions of Hervarar saga that I have seen, there is no character named Berserk. The berserk father of the twelve berserk sons is named Arngrim, and in most versions Starkad does not seem to be his grandfather. There are, however, several variant texts of the saga. In this short, strange version* of Hervarar saga, called Saga Heiðreks konúngs ens vitra (The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise) Starkad does indeed seem to be Arngrim’s grandfather, and Arngrim is called “Arngrímr berserkr” (Arngrim the berserk).

So, without citing a source, Fabing recounts a garbled version of one variant of one saga. As I said, it is clear he is not familiar with the primary texts and accepts conflated and sometimes inaccurate accounts in secondary sources. Later, he gives a description of berserks that is third-hand (“A vivid description of the behavior of the Viking hoodlums is given by Schübeler, who relied on the renowned Norse historian, Munch” 234). While this description contains a lot of the usual information, it includes symptoms that are less common: “This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color” (234). These sound like medical symptoms, and they fit rather well with some of the symptoms he and other doctors have observed in patients who have taken or been given hallucinogens, but they are not common in the sagas.

Fabing goes on to note that

There is a fascinating theory that Berserksgang…may not have been a psychogenically determined habit pattern, but may rather have been the result of eating toxic mushrooms. This idea, fantastic though it may appear at first glance, has won general acceptance among Scandinavian scholars, according to Larsen. (232)

According to the endnote, this information comes from a personal communication from “H. Larsen, provost, University of Illinois.” The next note identifies him as Henning Larsen. Larsen was a professor of English who is listed as a consultant in the front matter of the Middle English Dictionary. He was also the president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. Several articles he wrote are listed in the MLA Bibliography. Still, it would have been nice if Fabing had cited some actual articles or books to show this “general acceptance.” The theory does not seem to be generally accepted among Norse scholars any more.

The reasons it is not widely accepted are clear from Fabing’s article. He notes that the mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has been “used orgiastically” by Siberian tribes. The practice was first described in 1730 (232). Notice that Siberia is not Scandinavia, and the eighteenth-century is not the Viking age. He describes the effects in some detail. Some of these effects fit with the berserker rage: “Prodigious feats of physical strength are reported to have been accomplished under its influence” (232).  Other effects would seem to be detrimental in battle: “Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sings, and dances” (W. Jochelsen qtd. in Fabing 233). Berserks would not have been effective warriors if they raged about fighting imaginary people.

One man who accidentally poisoned himself with hallucinogenic mushrooms suffered

explosive onset of diarrhea, profuse sweating, excessive salivation and vertigo. He fell asleep and wakened…completely disoriented, irrational and violent…. He did not react to deep pain stimulation, but responded to pinprick. He was disoriented in all three spheres…. He thought that he was in hell and identified the interne, nurses, and attending physicians as Christ, Satan, God or angels (Arthur Drew qtd. in Fabing 233)

Violence and imperviousness to pain fit with descriptions of berserks. Diarrhea, vertigo, disorientation and hallucinations would seem to be drawbacks for a warrior.

As Fabing points out, the theory that berserks used some sort of mind-altering substance originated in 1784 with Samuel Lorenzo Ødman, a Swedish theologian, who read the sagas (or at least some of the fornaldarsögur) and concluded:

I am not of the opinion that these ecstasies can be explained as effects of a peculiar temperament or of autosuggestion because…they were not able to keep up their hated arrogance between paroxyms. (qtd. in Fabing 234. Ellipsis in Fabing)

Now his logic here seems flawed: because the frenzy isn’t essentially permanent, it can’t be auto-suggestion. Obviously, this is not true. One could think of berserker rages as big-boy temper tantrums: awful, but fortunately temporary. Ødman goes on to suggest that berserks used some substance from “the vegetable kingdom,” but that they “kept it secret so that their prestige would not be reduced by the general populace’s knowledge of the simplicity of the technique” (qtd. in Fabing 234). Ah, yes, they kept it secret. That’s convenient. Of course, what isn’t quite being said here is that there is NO EVIDENCE that berserks used any substance to achieve the berserker rage: NO REFERENCES to any ritual consumption of mushrooms or anything else. But if you have a cool theory, there’s no reason you should let a lack of evidence hold you back: you just have to come up with an excuse for why it doesn’t exist.

Lacking any reference to berserks consuming mushrooms, Ødman turns to accounts of the tribes of eastern Siberia and finds corroborating information:

What in particular seems to me to argue for flugswamp [the delightful Swedish name for fly agaric] is the fact that to partake of it is a custom from that part of Asia from which the pagan god Odin, with his pantheon, made their migration to our North. … The history of the Berserks in our North begins with Odin’s coming. (qtd. in Fabing 235)

While it was difficult to identify the source for the story of Berserk, son of Starkadder, this bit of misinformation is easy to identify. In both the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson euhemerizes the Norse gods, explaining that they were great men who came to be regarded as gods. He suggests that they originally came from Troy. After Virgil invented a nice history for Rome, many European lands came up with foundation myths centered on Troy. Snorri’s has about as much validity as any of the others (none whatsoever). But Snorri tosses in some completely bogus etymology as well: the gods were called Æsir because they came from Asia. Hector becomes Tror, which becomes Thor. I could go on. These etymologies are false.

So, to summarize Ødman’s argument: it is based on false assumptions; it has to explain away the complete lack of evidence; it relies on “historical” accounts that no one accepts. It doesn’t really look good for the magic mushroom theory.

It didn’t go away though. A century later, it was taken up by a Norwegian physician and botanist, F. C. Schübeler. Schübeler agreed with Ødman about pretty much everything, including the likely secrecy that surrounded the mushroom-eating. He considered other substances, but dismissed them as less likely culprits than fly agaric.

Fabing concludes by discussing his own observations. He had studied bufotenine, the active ingredient in a number of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants (and toads). He injected healthy, mentally stable prisoners with bufotenine and recorded the results. He concludes that the effects are very similar to the berserker rage, which is odd because rage is noticeably absent from his descriptions. The subjects had hallucinations and their faces became purple, but they also became “relaxed and languid” and “lay contentedly in bed, feeling pleasantly relaxed” (236). These prisoners would make disastrously bad berserks. In addition to being supremely relaxed, they suffered from severely impaired spacial perception, and other side-effects that would again be problematic for a warrior.

The whole magic-mushroom theory is based on cherry-picking certain side effects of hallucinogens (the effects of bufotenine can vary drastically) and certain descriptions of berserks and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. More importantly, it depends on a flawed justification (that it couldn’t be auto-suggestion because the state is temporary) and false history. Oh, and also there is no evidence the berserks used any mind-altering substance to achieve the berserker rage!

*I’m not sure where this version comes from. Very little information is provided. There’s no manuscript reference. Googling the title in Icelandic or English just turns up a lot of hits for Christopher Tolkien’s edition/translation of Hervarar saga. Although he uses the name that is given to this version, this is not the text he is editing and translating.



Fabing, Howard D. “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry.” The Scientific Monthly 83 (Nov. 1956): 232-237.

King Gautrek. Seven Viking Romances. Tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. London: Penguin, 1985.

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Tr. and ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Ed. Erling Monsen. Tr. Monsen and A. H. Smith. 1932 New York: Dover, 1990.

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.