Running down the hallways naked

Steven Novella was recently on the Dr. Oz show. He had been fairly critical of Oz earlier this month on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, so I was surprised to see him invited. Novella’s post-mortem is here. It’s a great read.

Jay Novella said something that keeps cracking me up on that podcast, though, and I’d like to share it with those who aren’t SGU addicts like me. Here it is:

“[Oz] is like the classic rock star guy who just got into the good band and he’s all happy and enthusiastic and he’s getting up early to practice his riffs…and then you zoom out and zoom back in…about six months later and he’s doing coke, he’s running up and down the hallways naked, Jack Daniels every night…”

And you can just see Oz running up and down the halls with a big check signed by Oprah Winfrey. What a load of nonsense this man is peddling.

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Let’s all get smashed on homeopathic heroin

This weekend the 10:23 Challenge will be held across the world. That’s exciting, because any opportunity to poke a little fun at homeopathy is worth taking. I do it all the time, and the effects are strikingly similar to those of a full bottle of 30C Belladonna. Well, they’re a bit stronger really. Typical side effects include snickering.

I’ve been having a little fun myself on Facebook debating homeopathy with friends. It appears everyone knows it’s pretty much just a huge matzoh ball floating in a sea of schmaltz, but I’ve also heard a few voices claiming it still must not be entirely worthless.

Why? Because millions of people believe it works? Because it’s just a placebo dressed up for a dinner party? It’s true, the placebo effect is unpredictable and – ahem – mysterious, but I can’t see how that would give homeopathy any credit. Riding on coattails and all that. It’s the same as people who defend prayer by saying it makes people feel better. So does masturbation. What’s your point?

Perhaps you’re reading this and asking yourself, “What the hell is homeopathy anyway?” It’s not herbal medicine, if that’s what you were thinking. It’s a bit like taking a magic pill any time something ails you. People lie and tell you it does extraordinary things that science can’t detect or explain. And that it takes a while to begin working, and you can’t expect resuts right away. And so on and so forth. Stories. Anecdotes. People say this, people say that. “Malarial-shaped holes.” Bollocks, in short.

Have a nice weekend.

100% nonsense

Despite Phil Plait’s infamous “Don’t Be a Dick” talk last year, I still like him. I just didn’t like his message much. But that’s fine, because disagreement is what I do best (if you don’t count foot massages and omelets). He’s especially good – and kind of dickish in a mild-mannered way – on things like astrology. Here are a few words that should be written on a t-shirt. I know I’d wear it.

We knew this already, but it's still good to hear.

Weird Medicine

Feeling funky yet?

I began to wonder what was really going on when my own family began telling me of their positive experiences with alternative medicine. The first lesson I learned was not to ask too many questions. As a result I only began asking more.

To be fair, I once flirted with alternative treatments myself. I’ve always suffered severe allergies and hay fever. Some years ago in New York, a colleague suggested I visit her acupuncturist in Chinatown. “He did miracles for my back,” she said. Desperate for anything that worked (or might) I made an appointment at his office on Canal Street.

I went only twice. Perhaps deep down I was just a skeptical 26-year-old. I recall the quick tap of an index finger and the needles sinking into the skin of my face. I felt less pain than constant pressure, especially when the needles were twisted in. I now know they were supposed to touch a meridian, which channels the Ch’i, or life force. The needles were then hooked up to what appeared to be a Ham radio. The doctor left me there for almost an hour. When I walked out into the street I was convinced I felt better. Then again, I had just shelled out $50 and my face hurt.

But my allergies didn’t dwindle. True, I didn’t complete the treatment, leaving me to wonder what if

Having just finished reading Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial I can safely say I’m glad I never returned to Canal Street for anything more than a cheap meal. Singh and Ernst studied scientific evidence culled from many trials, discarded the results from unreliable ones, and provide a useful overview of what works and what doesn’t.

They concentrate on the four “respectable” alternative treatments: acupuncture, chiropractic therapy, homeopathy and herbal medicine. An appendix deals briefly with the borderlands of alternative medicine: crystal therapy, ear candles, Reiki, Feng Shui.

When faced with rigorous testing, none of the four major therapies appear to be anything more than a placebo. That means whatever’s “working” is pretty much wishful thinking coupled with a wish to feel that your money, time and trust have been well-invested.

This should come as no surprise based on the founding principles of chiropractic (“innate energy”), acupuncture (Ch’i, meridians) and homeopathy (“memory” water). Herbal remedies fared slightly better, but the authors warn strongly against misuse and fraudulent marketing. They conclude that there’s really no such thing as “alternative medicine.” Either something works, in which case it is “medicine;” or it doesn’t, in which case it isn’t.

There are surprises on almost every page. Most homeopathic remedies don’t contain a molecule of their original substance. Frequently, they’re watered down millions of times, intended to make them even more potent! They are said to retain the “memory” of the original tincture, often made from soaking a root or leaf in a vial of water. When they reach the market, they’re often just pure water with a hefty price tag.

Acupuncture had been pretty much discredited in China until Chairman Mao decided it would be a great way to revive national “tradition.” The authors quote him as saying, “Even though we should promote Chinese medicine, I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine.”

Now back to my family. My mother believes she has been cured of her lifelong allergies through a treatment called Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique, or NAET. This involves holding small glass vials of “essences” to which one is allergic — things like chocolate and nuts in her case — while a therapist does acupuncture on the patient. When I asked my mother how it worked, she shrugged and said, “How do I know? It just does.”

Further questioning prompted her to phone the therapist. “Hello, Fran? My son would like to ask you a few questions about allergy treatment. He thinks you’re a witchdoctor.” Then she passed me the phone.

Our conversation lasted for a few minutes. Fran enthusiastically explained how NAET is supposed to work. She more than once dropped big-sounding words like “energy” and “mind-body.” “But how do you know this stuff really works?” I pressed. “Listen,” she said confidently, “I could cure your mother’s allergies over the phone.”

That was it for me. My mother was the helpless victim of an alternative therapy guru. Her belief in the efficacy of prayer was already a bone in my throat. Now NAET and acupuncture. What was next, 2012?

When I voiced my skepticism to my sister — herself a part-time believer in alternative therapy — she rightly pointed out that the glass vials were probably just a placebo. It was the acupuncture that really did the trick.

That last word was telling.

Published in The American