From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 14 No. 3
Bland, self-serving delusion has become an industry....Do you disagree? Really? Or are you complaining because your fantasies got jostled?--V.C. Bestor
New SD entry: integrative oncology (To borrow from Dr. Harriet Hall's comments on naturopathy: The things integrative oncology does that are good are not special, and the things it does that are special are not good.)
Revised SD entry: Joel Wallach, the mineral doctor.
New essay: prior plausibility ("The concept of prior plausibility originated, as far as I know, in discussions over the role of plausibility and prior probability in medicine ... I discuss prior plausibility in medical research in the entry on science-based medicine, but here I want to explore the role this concept plays in skeptical investigations in general.")
New reader comments: applied kinesiology: why I'm seeing a nutritional response therapist; paranormal experiences;
natural cancer cures; my ignorance of physics and the importance of vibrations; homeopathy; electrosensitivity; hemp oil cancer cure hoax; and climate change deniers.
SD entries updated: integrative medicine (The Society for Integrative Oncology promotes integrating pseudoscience into oncology); homeopathy (ineffective for any condition); nocebo effect (Today, the nocebo is perhaps most visible in such controversial disorders as “wind turbine syndrome” and “electro-sensitivity.”); Gonzalez/Kelley cancer cure (None of the 50 cases Gonzalez reports as cancer cures satisfy three basic requirements.); marijuana and cancer (How Cannabis Could Help Your Body Fight Off Cancer); immune system (Although the war on cancer has not shown much promise in last several decades, recent FDA approval of two breakthrough immunotherapeutic agents); natural cancer cures (response to the Otto H. Warburg idea that "the root cause of cancer is oxygen deficiency."); and climate change deniers ("The new documentary 'Merchants of Doubt' addresses the reality of corporate-sponsored public disinformation campaigns on subjects such as cigarette smoking, fire retardants and climate science.")
Update (April 22, 2015): [In the days following the allegations against her, Gibson posted on social media that she was being bullied and had changed “thousands of lives for the better.” Now she admits she made it all up. Why did she do it? She doesn't say, but she seems to be a long-term, chronic confabulator. Why were so many people ready to take her story at face value? Wishful thinking and lack of skepticism?][/update]
Many of you have heard of Belle Gibson, the popular Australian blogger--193,000 followers on Instagram--and cancer-cure cookbook author who claimed she shunned science-based medicine in favor of diet and pseudoscience and beat five different kinds of cancer--including terminal brain cancer--in the process. All BS of course, but that didn't stop thousands from buying into her "clean living" utopia (she calls it The Whole Pantry) and purchasing her cookbook and app. Caught in her web of lies and deceit, Gibson now claims she was "misdiagnosed." It seems only just that she who found fame and fortune via social media should end up the focus of a Facebook page aimed at exposing her hypocrisy and ridiculous claims about curing herself of cancer by food, detox, and other nonsense such as colonic irrigation, craniosacral therapy, herbalism, and oxygen treatments. Apparently, Gibson's fantasy life began at an early age. Last November, a writer of a puff piece for news.com.au wrote of Gibson:
As an introverted six-year-old, she teetered on a chair over a stove making dinner for an autistic younger brother and a mother who had multiple sclerosis. As a severely obese 11-year-old, she managed to stop overeating and, with her brother in tow, began sunset strolls around their Brisbane block.
She stoked the fire of her fantasies by adding that she had had a stroke at age 20 after being given the Gardasil HPV cervical cancer vaccine. That led to terminal brain cancer. Chemo and radiation treatment nearly killed her, she said. Doctors gave here four months to live and, as a bonus prognostication, told her she could never have children. (Since it usually takes more than four months for a human to conceive and deliver a child, these doctors were playing it extremely safe in their prediction.) She proved them all wrong. By clean living--no meat, no dairy, no gluten, no GMOs, etc.--she cured herself and had a son. That wasn't enough to satisfy her endless quest for a fantasy life. Despite her clean living, she claims she then developed four more cancers: of the uterus, liver, blood, and spleen. But she powers on nonetheless and seems to not be troubled too much by these new cancers. I guess I should also mention that before her brain cancer she had serious heart problems and died for three minutes. Sound too absurd to be true? I think the reader knows why it sounds that way. Also, Gibson claims she's donated $300,000 of her new wealth to charity, but both she and the money seem to have gone into hiding.
Since Penguin Random House has stopped publishing Gibson's guide to healthy living without cancer, you may have to turn to The Ultimate Anti-Cancer Cookbook by Pam Braun for your healthy anti-cancer diet. Braun claims that one-third of all cancers could be avoided by diet and exercise. I agree, if all she means is don't smoke, don't get obese, and get a good amount of oxygen into your bloodstream by exercising. In 2004, Braun was diagnosed with fallopian tube cancer. Braun claims that at age 52 she was given "a 15% chance of survival and a 75% chance of recurrence." She's still living and thriving--cancer-free--thanks to a good diet and healthful living, she says. I don't know why she was given a 15% chance of survival since, according to Cancer.net: If detected early, fallopian tube cancer can often be successfully treated. If the cancer has spread outside of the fallopian tube, the five-year survival rate is 45%. If one wants to look at Braun as a statistic, she hasn't beaten the odds. Nor did those with fallopian cancer who died shortly after diagnosis die because they didn't eat their broccoli. (Cancer.net notes: "Cancer survival statistics should be interpreted with caution. These estimates are based on data from thousands of women with this type of cancer in the United States each year, but the actual risk for a particular individual may differ. It is not possible to tell a woman how long she will live with fallopian tube cancer. Because the survival statistics are measured in five-year intervals, they may not represent advances made in the treatment or diagnosis of this cancer.")
In an article Braun wrote last February she reveals that she had a hysterectomy and some lymph nodes removed (the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes). A biopsy showed she had fallopian tube cancer. A mammogram showed no signs of disease in her breasts. She was treated with chemotherapy. But what has kept her cancer from recurring, she believes, is the diet she is on, a diet rich in phytochemicals (antioxidants, flavonoids): fruits, nuts, veggies, and spices. According to the American Cancer Society:
There is some evidence that certain phytochemicals may help prevent the formation of potential carcinogens (substances that cause cancer), block the action of carcinogens on their target organs or tissue, or act on cells to suppress cancer development. Many experts suggest that people can reduce their risk of cancer significantly by eating more fruits, vegetables, and other foods from plants that contain phytochemicals....
Because of the number of phytochemicals and the complexity of the chemical processes in which they are involved, it is difficult for researchers to find out which phytochemicals in foods may fight cancer and other diseases, which may have no effect, and which may even be harmful.
Much of the evidence so far has come from observations of cultures in which the diet comes mainly from plant sources, and which seem to have lower rates of certain types of cancer and heart disease. For instance, the relatively low rates of breast and endometrial cancers in some Asian cultures are credited at least in part to dietary habits. These cancers are much more common in the United States, possibly because the typical American diet is higher in fat and lower in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. Part of the lower risk in Asian cultures is likely due to other factors such as lower obesity rates and more exercise.
Many studies have looked at the relationship between cancer risk and eating fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Most of the evidence indicates that eating a diet high in these foods seems to lower the risk of some cancers and other illnesses.
Some of the links between individual phytochemicals and cancer risk found in laboratory studies are compelling and make a strong case for further research. So far, however, none of the findings are conclusive. It is still uncertain which of the many phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables actively helps the body fight disease.
Researchers have also shown much interest in phytochemical supplements. Some laboratory studies in cell cultures and animals have shown that certain phytochemicals have some activity against cancer cells or tumors. But at this time there have been no strong studies in humans showing that any phytochemical supplement can prevent or treat cancer....
Some people assume that because phytochemical supplements come from “natural” sources, they must be safe and free from side effects, but this is not always true. Many phytochemical supplements, especially when taken in large amounts, have side effects and may interact with some drugs. Some of these interactions may be dangerous.
So, the facts are that things look promising for phytochemicals and preventing cancer, but there is no evidence that any phytochemical or group of phytochemicals can cure cancer.
You don't need a cancer survivor or a phony cancer survivor to know that avoiding smoking and obesity, eating a healthy diet that includes several daily servings of fruits and veggies, and exercising regularly are important in maintaining health whether you have cancer or not.
In Dr. Gabe Mirkin's April 5, 2015 ezine, the importance of exercise for those of us with cancer is explained.
Solid cancerous tumors produce a large number of new blood vessels around themselves, much more than normal tissues do. These new blood vessels become so numerous that they crowd each other and curl around and pinch the blood vessels to actually block the oxygen-rich flow of blood to the tumors. Tumors grow faster without oxygen, so the extra blood vessels produced by cancerous tumors actually deprive the cancers of oxygen to make them grow faster. Since lack of oxygen harms normal cells and helps cancerous cell to grow, lack of oxygen helps cancers grow faster so they may invade and destroy normal cells.
Inside of every normal cell (except mature red blood cells) are tiny areas called mitochondria. All normal cells get their energy from two chemical pathways: the Krebs Cycle (inside mitochondria - uses oxygen), and glycolysis (outside the mitochondria but inside the cell - does not need oxygen). The main source of energy for normal cells is the Krebs cycle, inside the mitochondria. Cancer cells have defective mitochondria, so their main source of energy is glycolysis, the turning of sugar into energy without needing oxygen. The extra blood vessels that overcrowd each other to block the flow of oxygen around a tumor actually cause the cancer to grow and the normal cells to die. This can spread the cancer. Exercise increases the flow of blood to all areas of the body, so if a patient exercises while being given chemotherapy, more blood will flow to and around the cancer. This increases the amount of oxygen and chemotherapy drugs brought to the cancer cells. The extra oxygen nourishes normal tissue and helps it to grow, while interfering with the cancerous tissue. Furthermore, the extra oxygen can help to revive the damaged mitochondria in the cancerous cells, which could turn the cancerous cells back into normal cells.
Keep healthy. Eat well and exercise regularly if you are able.
Word for the Day: fisking
'Fisking' is blogosphere slang for a point-by-point criticism that highlights perceived errors, or disputes the analysis in a statement, article, or essay. For example, Gorski, Novella, and Myers gave a thorough fisking of The Food Boob's latest exhibition of manic blathering about the human body, which she knows little about even though she has one. Check out these ten sentences:
For several years, I’ve started my day with warm lemon water and cayenne pepper. Lemon water is very alkaline and can stimulate the liver. It can change your taste buds so you don’t crave sugary foods, and instead crave alkaline ones like fruits and vegetables. The cayenne pepper has been proven to boost your metabolism. But both of those ingredients together strengthen the immune system. I’ve gotten fewer colds because of following this habit. An acidic body promotes disease and inflammation. I try to make my diet mostly alkaline. And with water, you want to make sure it’s not contaminated. Unfortunately, our water is contaminated with everything from chlorine to fluoride.
In a single paragraph, The Food Boob managed to create eight sentences that were either unintelligible, untrue, or unknowable. (I've boldfaced these sentences for Food Boob fans who might otherwise not know which sentences I'm referring to.) One out of her ten sentences is good advice: try not to drink contaminated water. Her opening sentence may be true and is a warning that what follows comes from the mouth of someone with extremely odd-smelling breath and probably too much coconut oil in her oven.
As cool as 'fisking' is, there is more truth and humor in 'mansplaining,' as demonstrated by Jon Carroll (no relation).
Study examines how doctors respond to parental requests to delay vaccinations
According to Consumer Health Digest, "Researchers have found that nearly all pediatricians and family physicians who responded to a nationwide survey have been asked by parents to deviate from the standard vaccination schedule." Despite concerns, most of those surveyed are agreeing to do so.*
Should pediatricians give in to the beliefs of parents about the safety of giving vaccines on the current schedule? No, despite the widespread belief that parenting or being a celebrity makes one an expert in medical matters far superior to those who have spent years or decades studying medicine.
The experts at the Center for Disease Control disagree with parents and celebrities about children receiving too many vaccines too soon. According to the CDC:
The available scientific data show that simultaneous vaccination with multiple vaccines has no adverse effect on the normal childhood immune system....
No evidence suggests that the recommended childhood vaccines can "overload" the immune system. In contrast, from the moment babies are born, they are exposed to numerous bacteria and viruses on a daily basis. Eating food introduces new bacteria into the body; numerous bacteria live in the mouth and nose; and an infant places his or her hands or other objects in his or her mouth hundreds of times every hour, exposing the immune system to still more antigens. An upper respiratory viral infection exposes a child to 4 to 10 antigens, and a case of "strep throat" to 25 to 50.
Quackwatch calls this belief about too many vaccines being given too soon misconception #7.
In fact babies have an ability, right from birth, to cope with lots of different germs. The body is constantly surrounded by germs and has to react to them in different ways. The advantage of being immunized rather than catching the disease is that the vaccine uses only part of the germ, or, if the whole germ, it is either killed or toned down (“attenuated”). In this way, the challenge to the immune system is less than that from the disease, but it is enough to produce protection.
In 2002, the Immunization Safety Review Committee of the American Institute of Medicine made a detailed examination of all the evidence about the effects of multiple immunizations on a baby’s immune system. They concluded that there was no evidence to support the suggestion that multiple immunizations overwhelm the immune system. They strongly supported the continuing use of vaccines against multiple diseases....
If immunizations are delayed, a baby will remain unprotected for longer than necessary. This could be particularly dangerous for whooping cough and Hib. Very young babies, if they catch whooping cough, are likely to be much more seriously ill than older children and are more likely to need hospital care. Babies under a year old are more likely to catch Hib than older children Studies have shown that when the vaccines are given at the younger age, babies have fewer reactions such as fever, sore injection sites etc., while at the same time they are still protected.*
Some parents are still concerned about mercury in vaccines, despite the fact that there is a mountain of scientific evidence that refutes the claim that mercury in vaccines is harmful.
Sharon Hill (Doubtful News) has a (relatively) new blog called Practical Skepticism. She defines practical skepticism as "the action of applying critical thinking to everyday claims to help you make the best decisions and decide what to accept as probably true, not true, or to say 'I don't know enough about it to decide.'" Topics include video illusions, the illuminati, the ideomotor effect, rhetorical tricks used to deceive the unwary, and much more. Check it out and contribute to the blog if you feel so inclined. The site is meant to be a cooperative effort. If we get enough voices in the wilderness, maybe we'll start sounding like a choir.
Last Month it was cholesterol, this month it's salt
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly publish the Dietary Guidelines every 5 years. These Dietary Guidelines provide nutritional advice for some 300,000,000 Americans. An advisory committee (considered by some as the nation’s top nutrition advisory panel) reviews the latest scientific and medical literature and prepares a report that allegedly provides evidence-based recommendations for the Dietary Guidelines. Last month, The Washington Post reported that the advisory committee "decided to drop its caution about eating cholesterol-laden food, a move that could undo almost 40 years of government warnings about its consumption." Many nutritionists no longer believe that eating foods high in cholesterol will significantly affect the level of cholesterol in the blood or increase the risk of heart disease in healthy adults. "People with particular health problems, such as diabetes, should continue to avoid cholesterol-rich diets," we're told.
Dietary Guidelines has "broad effects on American menus, shaping school lunches, guiding advertisers, and serve as a touchstone for reams of diet advice." What will the advisory committee recommend regarding salt? For many years we've been told that too much salt would raise blood pressure and cause many health problems. Now there are many nutritional experts who say “There is no longer any valid basis for the current salt guidelines.”* The only thing that experts seem to agree upon regarding salt is that too much salt is dangerous for people with high blood pressure, but the experts don't even agree on how much is too much. Some experts maintain that "a typical healthy person can consume as much as 6,000 milligrams per day without significantly raising health risks." The current recommended max is 2,300 mg, equivalent to about a teaspoon of table salt.
“The current [salt] guidelines are based on almost nothing,” said Suzanne Oparil, a former president of the American Heart Association and professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.* This past August, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the PURE study (not funded by industry). It indicated that people who conform to the U.S. recommended limits actually have more heart trouble.
How did these guidelines originate? One hypothesis is that:
Some of the earliest notions that Americans were eating too much salt arose from international comparisons.
It turned out that in some cultures, especially isolated ones, people consumed less salt and had lower blood pressure.
In one influential 1973 paper, University of Michigan anthropologist Lillian Gleiberman collected statistics for 27 different populations. It showed the lowest blood pressures were among African Bushmen, the Chimbu of New Guinea, the Caraja of Brazil and Eskimos. Each consumed exceptionally low levels of salt.
Maybe, Gleiberman suggested, human bodies had not adapted to the higher salt available in modern societies.
If the guidelines were based on confusing these correlations found by Glieberman with causation, it wouldn't be the first time that sloppy thinking about causes has led to unjustified conclusions. Andrew Weil, the inventor of integrative medicine, advised men to eat more soy because: "Asian men have a lower risk of BPH and some researchers believe it is related to their intake of soy foods." As Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig note, however: "the same logic requires us to blame high rates of cancers of the esophagus, stomach, thyroid, pancreas and liver in Asian countries on consumption of soy" (Soy Alert! 2001).
Glieberman says her research was not intended to provide evidence for dietary guidelines but to stimulate research.
“My major hypothesis was that people ate much less salt in prehistoric times,” Gleiberman, now retired, said by phone recently. “And that our bodies may not be prepared for the larger amounts of salt now available to us.”
But she said her paper was intended to inspire more research, not to serve as the basis of dietary guidelines. Those remote peoples, she said, are too different from modern populations to make sound comparisons.
“They have a simpler life,” Gleiberman said. “They don’t have the obesity, the diabetes and the other problems we have. We can’t look at a no-salt culture and say, 'If we just do that, we’d be okay.'
“I have friends who won’t eat anything with salt,” she said. “I tell them they’re foolish.”*
“Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome,” John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and statistics at Stanford and one of the harshest critics of nutritional science, has written. “In this literature of epidemic proportions, how many results are correct?”*
Perhaps Professor Ioannidis will answer his own question at SkeptiCal 2015. He is scheduled to be one of the featured speakers at the one-day event (June 6) in Oakland, California. SkeptiCal is the annual Northern California conference of science and skepticism put on by the Bay Area Skeptics and the Sacramento Area Skeptics. The conference will be held at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and begins at 9 a.m. A complete list of speakers can be found by clicking here.
Getting Clear on Scientology
I hope you didn't miss the HBO documentary on Scientology. If so, there is a web page describing the take-down of one of the largest and richest cults in the world. The film was done by Alex Gibney and titled "Going Clear." If you don't know what 'going clear' means, let me give you the Classic Comics version. (For a more detailed description of the nonsense L. Ron Hubbard put forth in Dianetics, see the SD entry on the topic.)
You are one sick individual, tormented and driven by past traumas, traumas that occurred in the womb and in previous lifetimes. These traumas are crippling you emotionally and hindering your progress to be the best that you can be. You need an auditor to hook you up to a pair of tin cans connected to an ohm meter that measures electrical resistance. The auditor will ask you questions that you--in your sick, deluded state--will think are aimed at helping you erase the unconscious memory of these traumas--which are called 'engrams'--that are now embedded in a part of the mind nobody in science ever heard of, the 'reactive mind.' The session will be taped and, if you decide to turn tail, will be used to blackmail you into staying and keeping your mouth shut. Once you get all the engrams erased, you will be free and clear. Well, you'll be free and clear until the spirits of evil beings (thetans) invade your body. Then you'll need a higher and costlier form of auditing to rid yourself of these demons. If you get rid of the demons you may decide to leave Scientology. That's when you'll find out just how free and clear you are. If you are considered an SP, a Suppressive Person, you may never be free and clear of Scientologists who will hound you until your dying day. You will also be shunned and find that all your friends and family in Scientology have disconnected themselves from you. If you do get free, plan to be alone.
Does this sound like a delusional scheme of a madman? Far be it from me to call the founder of a church a madman, given the tax laws in this country that exempts churches from taxation on property, allowing them to amass great wealth while the rest of us poor suckers hand over large chunks of our earnings to the IRS. When rich folks like Robert Duggan give $20 million (or is it $40 million?) to Scientology, not only does the church get richer, enabling it to buy more tax-exempt property, Duggan gets a nice tax deduction for his charitable contribution to a non-profit.
If you saw "Going Clear," you probably concluded that Hubbard was deranged and the current madman behind the Star Ship, David Miscavige, is another little Hitler. You may be right, but these guys, like Hitler, have little trouble finding many upright mammals ready to become trained circus acts for the cause. (One of my favorite scenes from "Going Clear" shows Tom Cruise saluting a large photo of L. Ron Hubbard as "LRH" and Miscavige as "COB" [chairman of the board].) Images of Cruise's demented laugh are hard to shake off. I would not want to be stuck in a broken elevator with this guy.
The Church of Scientology may have billions of dollars' worth of property squirreled away, but there are only about 20,000 members in the U.S. and about 50,000 worldwide. Mr. COB, however, claims there are 8 million members in his cult, which is a conservative estimate according to other megalomaniacs.