From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 13 No. 3
A man who lives not by what he loves but by what he hates is a sick man. --Archibald MacLeish
Review of The Critical Thinker's Dictionary: The SkepDoc review.
The Russians Have Arrived and They are Carrying The Skeptic's Dictionary!
Several Russian skeptics have accomplished something that is perhaps not as important as winning medals in the Olympics but which will have a long-lasting effect, provided Putin or his successors don't shut the skeptics down: they've translated The Skeptic's Dictionary into Russian and posted it online. They've also set up a Facebook page in Russia that has more followers than the SD Facebook page I've set up (19,923 vs. 17,097). A gold medal goes out to Evgeny Volkov, Dmitry Samokhvalov, and all the other translators. Спасибо ("spa-see-ba").
...and the natural selection award goes to.....
According to Duraid Adnan of The New York Times, "A group of Sunni militants attending a suicide bombing training class at a camp north of Baghdad were killed Monday when their commander unwittingly conducted a demonstration with a belt that was packed with explosives, army and police officials said."
According to Sameer N. Yacoub of the Associated Press, "Nearly two dozen people were arrested, including wounded insurgents trying to hobble away from the scene."
The teacher who blew up his class has not been identified for obvious reasons but I'm sure his deeds were admired by some god somewhere.
Is Meditation Good for Your Health?
Meditation is often listed as an "alternative" medical treatment, part of a healthy lifestyle, and is often recommended by those who market themselves as practicing integrative or complementary medicine. Recently, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reviewed thousands of reports on meditation and found 47 studies that were sufficiently well-designed to be included in a meta-analysis. The researchers wanted to examine the scientific evidence for meditation programs: does meditation reduce anxiety or depression; does meditation enhance mood and mental health-related qualities of life; does meditation increase focus and attention; what effect does meditation have on substance abuse, eating habits, sleep, pain, and weight in adults? [Goyal M and others. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 2014.]
The authors concluded:
- Mindfulness meditation programs showed (a) moderate evidence of reduction of anxiety, depression, and pain, (b) low evidence of improved stress/distress and mental health-related quality of life, and (c) low evidence of no effect or insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight.
- Mantra-based programs, such as transcendental meditation, demonstrated no benefit.
- There was no evidence that meditation programs were better than drugs, exercise, or other behavioral therapies.
According to Consumer Health Digest: "The published report did not consider the extent to which meditation is inappropriately recommended to people who would benefit much more from counseling or psychotherapy that helps them identify and deal with the causes of stress responsible for their symptoms."
I doubt if this new study will have much impact on the beliefs of those who are certain meditation reduces their stress levels, their blood pressure, their heart rate, and increases their energy level while protecting them from the flu, cancer, and who knows what else.
What about all those scientific studies on the benefits of relaxation techniques? Herbert Benson has made a career out of writing papers and selling books touting the benefits of what is now called the Benson Relaxation Technique. He's published over 200 articles and several books claiming all kinds of wonderful effects from reducing stress by relaxation as part of his promotion of mind-body medicine and bringing spirituality into healing. It's possible that most of his studies wouldn't make the cut for a similar study that included other forms of relaxation besides meditation because his studies have been too small or too short or had some other methodological flaw. For example, in 1974 he published an article in Lancet: "Decreased blood-pressure in pharmacologically treated hypertensive patients who regularly elicited the relaxation response." The study had 14 subjects. Still, his many studies seem to support the notion that relaxation therapy and stress reduction lower blood pressure and cardiovascular risk. According to Dr. Steven Novella, "There is a known mechanism for this - emotional stress increases sympathetic [nervous system] tone, which raises blood pressure and stresses the heart."* In any case, meditation is just one way to relax, but apparently it isn't superior to anxiety drugs or exercise for reducing stress or improving one's health.
IARRT Closes its Door to the Future
IAART, the International Association for Regression Research & Therapies, closed its doors in January 2014. These are the folks who huddled together in 1980 to spread the word about the wonders of past-life regression therapy. The first issue of the Journal of Regression Therapy came out in 1986; the last issue was published in 2012. These folks are very proud of the fact that they systematically encouraged patients to create false memories as a way to "recovery." The past-life regression folks are part of a larger group of mental experts (double entendre intended) who believe that a person's well-being is determined by the narrative one believes about oneself. To change your mental state, change your narrative. It doesn't matter whether the story you make up is true or not. What matters is that it's a good story for you and you believe it. Hell, maybe it doesn't even matter if you believe it.
This make-up-a-good-story approach to life and well-being is obviously attractive to many people. Brian Weiss, for example, has made a very successful living selling a fairy tale that appeals to many people. (The story involves past life regression, angels, and just about every hook every evangelist has ever used.) He adds to his sales pitch by claiming to be a scientist and a skeptic, though he shows little evidence of being competent at either. Another reason this and many other "crazy therapies" persist is that they all have testimonials from satisfied customers. In most parts of the world, a passionate testimony from a true believer trumps the need for scientific studies every time.
I don't know why the IARRT shut down but it was popular in California, where at least 60 people were listed as members at the time of its demise. The notice on its homepage says:
We are so grateful for the Association, the sharing and learning, the friendships, and the knowing that our work has been a Light to the World. Thank you for all your love and support.
It is time now for us each to take what we have learned and practice what we love to do, be our highest and best, and continue to spread this work to help the human race and the World. We are proud to have been members of IARRT.
"A Light to the World"? Sounds like a religious cult. Helping "the human race and the World" (with a capital W)? What was their motto? "Hi! We're from the untraceable past and we're here to help"? Don't fret, though. IARRT's light may have been extinguished, but I guarantee you several more have already popped up. The New Age hates a vacuum. (Here insert something clever about Hydra heads or the Phoenix.)
Betty Hewitt is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She says that in 1998 she was appointed to the post of Natural Remedy Consultant HIV/AIDS to the Military Medical Services in Zambia. After three years of work there "we were able to establish that the HIV replication rate can be controlled with vegan nutrition, colon irrigations, herbal treatments and water therapy." Right. Something equally nutritious was tried in South Africa under Thabo Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Beetroot, lemon juice, olive oil, ginger, and garlic would do the trick, they said. A study by Harvard researchers in 2008 estimated that the South African government would have prevented the premature deaths of 365,000 people if it had provided antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients and widely administered drugs to help prevent pregnant women from infecting their babies.
Betty Hewitt is not discouraged by such news. She has grand plans. "My plan is to use a detoxification program with herbal remedies and raw food vegan diet for cancer and HIV. We have already done this for a 17-year-old girl with cancer of both breasts, today both breasts are normal and she is back to school." (My guess is that this girl was misdiagnosed or a figment of somebody's imagination, but what do I know? These folks are the experts and are getting divine guidance.)
Hewitt offers hope to those with AIDS: "I can send you a complete 3-month package with the immune pack, the diet, and the colonic cleansing equipment and instructions. Your purchase will firstly reverse your T-cell count and enable you to live a healthy life and secondly contribute towards the building of AIDS clinics in Kenya."
Hewitt recommends that AIDS patients use garlic suppositories before bedtime. "Cut a small clove of raw garlic and roll it in coconut oil or butter. (Size 3/4 inch long by 1/4 inch round). Use as a rectal suppository before retiring at night. The garlic will kill HIV infection in the colon while you sleep. It will also kill worms, parasites and other bad bacteria including Candida albicans. It will help purify your blood while you are sleeping." How she knows this is anybody's guess. But others with a bit more knowledge have actually studied the effects of garlic on the human body because (a) they know that many people use garlic as a medicine without any idea of what's in garlic [allicin is the main active compound of garlic] or how it interacts with other things in the body, and (b) they know that just because something is 'natural' does not mean that it is good medicine: it may be harmful in itself or it may adversely interact with real medicines. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, of which I am no great friend, has posted what is known from the little bit of science that has been done on garlic. Besides not finding strong evidence that garlic helps lower blood cholesterol levels or helps prevent stomach cancer, the studies have found that garlic interferes with the effectiveness of saquinavir, a drug used to treat HIV infection. The AIDS patients treated at Ms. Hewitt's clinic won't have to worry about any interaction of garlic or lemon juice with drugs because her patients don't get any drugs.
Hewitt recommends spraying 1 tablespoon of 3% hydrogen peroxide over your body once in the morning and massage the spray into the skin. "The hydrogen spray enters the blood-stream through the skin and kills the HIV virus. It lowers T-8 suppressor cells and creates a more favourable T4/T8 ratio. Do not drink hydrogen peroxide. (In the intestinal tract, it acts like an antibiotic and will kill off friendly bacteria along with the bad bacteria). The use of lemon juice and sour yogurt are a much better way of getting rid of bad intestinal bacteria." Right. Lemon juice is granted all kinds of wonderful powers by Internet Healers whose only qualification is that they can be found by Dr. Google. Many claim lemon juice can cure cancer. They're wrong, but that minor detail won't hinder the popularity of the natural healers.
Hewitt's main qualification as a healer seems to be her certificate showing that she is a certified Christian Life-Style Consultant.
One expects to find a quack Miranda warning somewhere on Hewitt's website. Hers is a bit unique. Her disclaimer page starts off like many other similar disclaimers from naturopaths: "This life-style and nutrition evaluation is intended only for educational purposes and to assist an individual in learning how to preserve his or her own health in harmony with natural health principles. It is not the intention of this evaluation to diagnose or to prescribe any medication, treatment or modality for any physical or mental disorder, disease or ailment, complaint or abnormality." Hewitt offers a treatment plan; the patient has to diagnose himself. No prescription is needed for herbs, vegetables, and other non-medicine medicines.
The disclaimer then lets the prospective buyer know that they are being asked to validate the "Life Style" plan in the Bible:
Do not follow any of these suggestions in this response package unless you accept the suggestions as an application of God's Life Style plan and understand that God has not called us to practice medicine.
We are however ordered to heal the sick using the life style approach which was given to us by God. Christian Advisory Health Service cannot be held responsible or liable for the use or misuse of this information for God has declared that he alone is responsible for the results when we obey his commands.
Therefore, your pursuance of the recommendations herein will be construed as an unwritten contract between you and God in which you commit to following his plan, leaving the results with Him, and he promises to heal you if by doing so He will be glorified.
So, if you die despite subjecting yourself to the divine wellness plan, blame Hewitt's god, not her. I will admit that what these folks call a supernatural health plan does have one or two reasonable recommendations. For example: Abstain from all harmful substances. That's not a bad idea, if only it were clear what those harmful substances are. The list of substances these folks consider harmful is a bit weird. For example: Use no spices. Why? "Spices are parts of trees or plants that grow in tropical regions." You learn something new every day. What about herbs? "Herbs are fine, they grow in temperate regions." Does this mean that everything that grows in the temperate zone is not harmful? Not really. Many items on the list of harmful things grow in the temperate zone. Sugar is one of them. Tobacco is another. Eggs are also forbidden.
Hewitt says: "Heaven is all health; and the more deeply the heavenly influences are realized, the more sure will be the recovery of the believing invalid.” I don't know why these folks have to bring a god into it. Their ideas are improbable enough without trying to prop them up with supernatural affidavits and bona fides. Still, I wish all you believing invalids good luck because you're going to need it if you submit to Hewitt's natural AIDS cure.
In case you're wondering who came up with the idea of treating AIDS patients with lemon, olive oil, garlic, ginger, and beetroot, it was Tine van der Maas and her mother Nelly. Now bankrupt and disgraced, they are asking for donations so they can do clinical trials, presumably testing their natural concoction against the drugs provided by the evil pharmaceutical firms and recommended by the fiendish scientists and doctors who consider her a quack.
Tine claims that her concoction detoxifies the body so it can heal itself (heard that one before?) and it works on many diseases and disorders besides AIDS. She says her "wellness program" has
helped thousands of people recover from arthritis, asthma, TB, MDR-TB, (and I am sure it would also work for XMDR-TB), diarrhea, shingles, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, epileptic fits, cataracts, yuppie flu, glandular fever, candida, all types of cancer (even the so-called “untreatable” cancers, all kinds of other Syndromes, and many other health problems – known or unknown to the medical world. All we are doing in this Program is detoxifying the body, getting rid of infections and inflammations, in the case of cancer assisting the body to break it down, and restoring the biochemistry of the body, so the body can heal itself.
Tine's understanding of health and how the body works is revealed in her explanation of the key to her program:
Key to the Wellness Program is the lemon and olive oil mixture, which detoxifies the body, assists the liver to function properly, and helps to get the pH of the body back to normal in the shortest of time. People who are not well have usually an acid body, which means the pH of the urine is below 7. For optimal health a healthy person’s pH should be between 7.1 and 7.3. When you have cancer, your pH should be 7.5 or above, as then any cancer stops growing, which gives you time to get rid of the cancer. You can buy urine strips to test your urine yourself in SA at Dischem or any good pharmacy.
Here she reveals a basic misunderstanding about the liver, acidity, and cancer, as well as a naive notion about detoxification of the body. Ben Goldacre, M.D. reminds us that 'toxin' is classic pseudoscience terminology. "Real detoxification of foreign substances takes place in the liver, which modifies their chemical structure so they can be excreted by the kidneys which filter them from the blood into the urine,' according to Stephen Barrett, M.D. An unhealthy liver may be helped by a change in diet. Even Dr. Oz knows that. (By the way, Dr. Oz has a "liver elixir" he recommends: warm water, lemon juice, and hot pepper sauce. The lemon is for the vitamin C, "a potent antioxidant that helps calm liver inflammation and protects against free radical damage.") I would be the last to argue that olive oil isn't good for you and your liver. I prefer an orange for vitamin C, though my favorite salad dressing is extra virgin olive oil, white vinegar, chopped garlic, and lemon juice.
Tine's views on spices, such as ginger, obviously don't sit well with Hewitt's no-spice wellness program. Ginger is very popular as a spice that can help with an upset stomach. It's also used for pain relief. According to WebMD, "Ginger contains chemicals that may reduce nausea and inflammation. Researchers believe the chemicals work primarily in the stomach and intestines, but they may also work in the brain and nervous system to control nausea." Several spices will kill cancer cells in a petri dish; ginger is one of them. It is a long leap, though, to think that ginger will kill cancer cells in a living human being. But that is the kind of leap the natural cure folks are apt to make. Anyway, there are some likely health benefits from ginger, but curing AIDS is not one of them. Ginger may help the liver, especially if one takes a lot of acetaminophen. There are also some precautions one should take, according to MNT. "You should not take ginger if you suffer from a bleeding disorder or take blood-thinning medications (such as warfarin or aspirin)."
When she was South Africa's Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was deridingly called Dr. Beetroot for her advocacy of beets as an essential part of the natural cure for AIDS. Why beets? Here is Tine's explanation:
Many people these days are anemic. We have been attacked why we use beetroot instead of liver. In the beginning, when we investigated the Wellness Program, we saw that we had far quicker and better results with beetroot than with liver. Only later we learned the following. Our bone marrow (where we produce our blood cells) is damaged by benzene poisoning. This can happen from car emissions, paraffin stoves, cooking on fires and living in areas where you can literally see what you are breathing in. When the bone marrow is damaged, you do not produce healthy red and white blood cells – which also causes anemia. Beetroot repairs the bone marrow and when eating 2 big beetroots a day, the problem will be solved within a short time. You can check your own status by just looking at the inside of your lower eyelid. If it is pink/red, you do not have a problem. If it is white/pale you do! We have seen many African people who had actually white palms (of their hands) and no colour in their nails.
Around here, we like beets because we think they taste great and they're very nutritious:
Beetroot contains high concentrations of nitrates, which are converted into nitrites by bacteria in the mouth. Nitrites help open blood vessels in the body, increasing blood flow and oxygen to places lacking in oxygen.
There is some evidence that beets might help lower blood pressure and fight heart disease. There are more than 400 types of anemia. Whether beets will help with anemia caused by benzene poisoning, I don't know. But beets provide potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamins A, B6 and C, folic acid, carbohydrates, protein, antioxidants, and soluble fibre. That's good but probably not enough to kill the virus that causes AIDS.
Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (1940-2009) also promoted alcoholic beverages as a health food. It is rumored that she needed a liver transplant because of alcohol-induced damage to her liver. She died of complications from the transplant. Apparently she didn't take her own medicine or she did and it didn't work.
The notion that a diet that lowers the body's pH will prevent or cure cancer is a common one among nature cure enthusiasts. I've written about this elsewhere in my Skeptic's Dictionary entry on the alkaline diet:
Despite the fact that there are no human studies supporting alkaline diets for the prevention or treatment of cancer, the diet is popular among some who think natural cures should always be chosen over chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Some might be persuaded of the plausibility of the alkaline diet as a cancer cure by the fact that lab studies have shown that some cancer cells grow faster in an acidic solution and some chemotherapy drugs become more effective if the area around a tumor cell is altered to be more alkaline.* The problem is that there is no guarantee that what works in vitro will work in vivo. In any case, the alkaline diet isn't going to work because it won't have a significant effect on the alkalinity or acidity of cells.
The first clue that this diet would be worthless as a cancer treatment is the general principle it advocates: dietary modification can change the acidity of the blood. It's not true that the acidity of the body can be changed significantly by diet. Whatever food you eat passes through your stomach, which is highly acidic (pH between 1.5 and 3.5), making it an ideal environment for pepsin, the main digestive enzyme, to break down food. Stomach acid pH levels can be affected by the quantity of food you eat, infection, and stress. Eating foods designated acidic or alkaline is irrelevant to affecting pH in the stomach.* Eating acidic or alkaline foods is also irrelevant to affecting the pH of blood cells, despite what Robert O. Young claims. "Homeostatic mechanisms keep the acidity of the blood stream within a narrow range."* Different foods do, however, affect the pH of urine, which is confined to the bladder.
Measuring the pH of urine is not going to tell you anything important about the pH of cells in the body. "The only way to directly measure the body's pH is by testing your blood. Testing your urine only tells you the pH of your urine. Urine is naturally more acidic and has a lower pH (~ 6.0). Similarly, saliva test strips only measure the pH of your saliva, not the pH of your blood."*
There are some healers who scoff at diet cures for cancer and AIDS. They know better. Homeopathic nosodes are the only answer.
Homeopath Claims He Cured a Man of AIDS
S. N. Rashid of Bangladesh claims he has cured a man of AIDS with homeopathy. He says the man was 25 in 2002 and had been diagnosed with AIDS in Singapore. The posting was in 2012 and Rashid claims the man has tested negative for AIDS every year since he started the homeopathic treatment. Unfortunately, Rashid didn't test the man for AIDS himself before providing the homeopathic treatment, so he has no way of knowing that his treatment was even needed. That a homeopath would be deluded and think his nosode of Tuberculinum Bovinum (diluted secretion from the tuberculous glands of cattle with tuberculosis) cured someone of AIDS is depressing but not nearly as depressing as the desperate pleas from those who left comments on his page. Perhaps they were encouraged by Rashid's final words on the site:
Although this experiment of homeopathic treatment on HIV does not give any confirmative result, such an experiment can be repeated for more HIV infected people which we could not do due to unavailability of HIV/AIDS patient in Bangladesh. I, therefore, urge my fellow homeopathic doctors, especially from the HIV infected regions of Africa to communicate with us, so that we can conduct similar experiments with homeopathy for treating HIV/ AIDS.
Rashid may have had trouble finding anyone in Bangladesh with AIDS for the same reason not too many homosexuals reveal their sexual orientation in Uganda or Arizona: many people assume that if you have AIDS you are homosexual and it's dangerous to be identified as gay in some countries and states. I knew that before I saw Dallas Buyer's Club.
new update: Two Reports Point to Possible Future AIDS 'Cure' Guess what? Neither report mentions garlic, beets, or homeopathy. "Four hours after the birth, a pediatrician, Dr. Audra Deveikis, drew blood for an HIV test and immediately started the baby on three drugs — AZT, 3TC and nevirapine — at the high doses usually used for treatment of the virus."
In case you didn't know, Dallas Buyer's Club is a movie "based on a true story," which you probably know means that much of it is fiction. The viewer's problem with such movies is sort of like watching Dr. Oz: it's up to you to figure out what part is true and what part is made up or based on really flimsy evidence? Orac tries to help. [/new]