A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 14 No. 4

May 2015

“The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”-- H. L. Mencken

What's New?

New SD entries: traditional Chinese medicine and gua sha.

New reader comments: homeopathy; Carey Reams on lemons, detox, and diet; EVP: ghosts know her name; and near death experience - just a dream? Maybe a lie.

SD updates: Another study finds no link between MMR vaccine and autism; Belle Gibson admits she never had cancer and thus did not cure herself by giving up gluten, meat, and coffee; GMOs: another journalist sees the light; cellular memory: Dr. Harriet Hall deconstructs Alex Loyd's fantasies; climate change denial: large-scale changes in extreme weather due to human influence on the climate; fluoridation of public water supplies: new rules.

Nonsense, Homeopathy, and the FDA

It's been seventeen years since "The Power of Belief," an ABC special with John Stossel, aired. The program dealt with many of the topics taken up in the Skeptic's Dictionary: "alternative" medicine, firewalking, psychic detectives, astrology, levitation, channeling, psychics, therapeutic touch, OBEs and NDEs, voodoo, and more. Stossel took a skeptical approach and gave ample time to James Randi and Michael Shermer to argue that true believers are fideists, i.e., they don't care what the evidence is, they believe because they want to believe.

Stossel, like Randi, Shermer, the band of warriors at CFI, and the rest of us who have been trying to expose the folly of belief in things that are palpably not true, aren't optimistic that we can give up our work any time soon. Firewalking, levitation, channeling, and therapeutic touch may have receded from the headlines in the James Randipopular media, only to be replaced by integrative medicine, anti-vaccinationists, climate change deniers, and anti-GMO folks. My local newspaper today featured a story about a tribal leader thanking his god for keeping suicide on the reservation down to one this week. Another story featured a person thanking his god for not allowing all the children kidnapped by Boko Haram to be stoned or crushed to death during a rescue effort.

I've maintained The Skeptic's Dictionary for over twenty years and I'm still being confronted by defenders of homeopathy, acupuncture, and naturopathy. I don't think this will change soon. When Stossel did his show I thought it was unfortunate that nobody asked why true believers in one bit of nonsense think those who believe some other bit of nonsense are deceiving themselves. I now realize that no matter what we say, our chance of changing the world very much is pretty small. We know that wishful thinking, confirmation bias, communal reinforcement, subjective validation, and the so-called placebo effect go a long way toward explaining most cases of belief in nonsense. We keep pointing it out, but what good does it do? Also important to understanding why so many smart people believe so many dumb things is the natural tendency to see patterns, especially causal connections, where there are none. Equally important is the power of strong emotions to make the conceptual bond between one thing occurring after another virtually impossible to break. We know this and we repeat it, but what effect are we having? A person who has heard that vaccines cause autism is primed to perceive a causal connection between the MMR shot and autism should her child be diagnosed with autism after getting the shot. All the scientific studies in the world will not convince her otherwise. Because of the natural tendency to make erroneous judgments about causal connections, especially when they involve a strong emotional component, it is necessary to insist on the importance of blinded, controlled, randomized studies. Such studies are done because we know how easy it is to deceive ourselves about causal connections. It's not natural for us to try to disconfirm our beliefs. What's natural is to try to confirm our beliefs. We must force ourselves to test our claims. Otherwise, we run the risk of deceiving ourselves into believing things that seem true but are just not so. We know this, but our words seem to fall on deaf ears.

At the time of the Stossel program I thought it would have been instructive had a scientist been brought in to explain not why people believe weird things but why we devise controlled tests and why having satisfied customers is not sufficient to justify a belief. It seems obvious to me, after a few decades of studying believers in the palpably not true (as Mencken put it) that many, if not most, true believers believe what they do because of the power of cognitive biases in the evaluation of personal experience. Many well-educated, intelligent people who are fully aware of ad hoc hypotheses, Occam's razor,  the post hoc fallacy,  and why testimonials are of little scientific importance, nevertheless persist in defending homeopathy, acupuncture, naturopathy, reiki, and dozens of other forms of energy medicine. (Note: Stossel did feature 11-year-old Emily Rosa's testing of claims by practitioners of therapeutic touch. The test seemed to show that the energy healers couldn't tell when 'energy' was present. We are left to assume that the energy healers are deceiving themselves about healing a patient by waving their hands over various parts of the patient's body. The test done by young Rosa showed that those tested were largely self-deceived in their claim to feel energy coming from the body parts of a patient. Nothing was said--not that it would have done much good--about the need for controlled experiments to test causal claims to reduce the chance of our bias in forming a belief about two things being causally related. Her test showed that the alleged healers who had no trouble feeling 'energy' from 'the human body field' couldn't perform under controlled conditions and were most likely misinterpreting their personal experience when waving their hands over patients. [The healers could, of course, revert to the age-old argument of parapsychologists: the magic powers disappear in the presence of skeptics.] It should be obvious that the test didn't prove that energy healers are deceiving themselves about healing anybody. To do that would require a much more elaborate setup and would involve a much larger waste of time and money.)

A painful recent example--painful to those of us who are trying to promote rationality, skepticism, and critical thinking over superstition and magical thinking--of really smart people defending nonsense can be seen by reading the testimony of interested parties at the recent FDA hearings on homeopathy. Read the testimony of Lisa Amerine, ND, DHANP, Youngran Chung of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, or of Bruce H. Shelton of the Arizona Homeopathic and Integrative Medical Association. These are smart people who believe something that is beyond any reasonable doubt palpably not true. Why do they believe this nonsense? They've seen homeopathy work. Once they saw it work, they looked for it to work and it continued to work. They didn't test their belief by trying to falsify it. They didn't pay any attention to the cases where it didn't work. They got reinforcement from satisfied customers and then more reinforcement from others who'd also seen it work. They didn't need to do any controlled tests because they knew it worked. If anyone brought up the fact that tests had been done and homeopathy had failed the tests, they rationalized the failures as due to the special nature of homeopathy. You can't test it using the mechanistic, reductionist paradigm of conventional science. A new, special paradigm is needed to properly evaluate this special, magical medicine where each individual is unique and responds differently, etc. Add to all that that homeopathy is widely accepted in most countries around the world (only Honduras outlaws it, I think) and is part of many so-called integrative medical practices at major health institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere. Heck, even the next king of England is a fan. Over the years, the belief armor grew more and more impenetrable until now these folks sit at the table next to real scientists and science-based medical practitioners and testify before the FDA.

Yet, the real story of how homeopathy works isn't too difficult to demonstrate or to figure out. And it doesn't involve water with memory or fantasy beliefs about increasing the potency of a medicine by diluting it and releasing its vital energy. Shamans (traditional healers) figured it out thousands of years ago. Mesmer Franz Anton Mesmerperfected it three hundred years ago. And even though Franklin and others tested and falsified Mesmer's claims about healing people with magnétisme animal (magnetic life force), the lesson that double-blind, controlled, randomized studies trump personal experience seems to have been lost on many people. As an 83-year-old friend of mine put it: I know acupuncture works because many years ago I returned from Ireland with [some sort of health problem] and was told by an acupuncturist that she could cure me in eight sessions and by golly she did it! My friend is very intelligent, a retired chemist and pharmacist, but no number of scientific studies showing that there's no difference between true and false acupuncture will ever convince him that he's wrong. Once you know A caused B because you experienced it, scientific studies that fail to find any connection between A and B become irrelevant to you. Or, as we've seen in the case of those still claiming that vaccines cause autism, you come up with an ad hoc hypothesis that A does cause B in 'especially sensitive' people that can't be detected by controlled studies. You waste your time pointing out that if some infants are that sensitive to having their immune systems stimulated by inactive viruses, they are unfortunately doomed to neurological damage from the stimulation they'll get from the thousands of little particles of stuff in their environment that they will be exposed to. Even if it's true that a vaccine stimulated their immune system to attack their brain because they're especially sensitive, these poor creatures will have their brains attacked by something else in short order. If there are especially sensitive infants, one would expect that large scientific studies comparing autism rates of those vaccinated with those not vaccinated would find that the rates are about the same. That's what has been found, but such studies are irrelevant to those who know what they know and know that they know it.

Traditional healers and mountebanks like Mesmer figured out that the emotional component of a personal experience of healing can be strengthened with rituals and theater. Whatever else I may have thought of a friend of mine who showed up at the golf course one day with acupuncture needles stuck in his bald head, I couldn't deny that it made great theater. Mesmer had his subjects sit in "magnetized" water and wave magnetized poles. Traditional healers mix up concoctions of animal parts and plants or burn sage and wave feathers, etc. Such rituals are not irrelevant to impressing a causal connection in the patient's mind.

I don't doubt that what the quack does is also done by the science-based physician who works in a clinical setting, wears a white coat and wears a stethoscope around his neck, has an office with framed diplomas and medical charts on the walls and filled with other items that will give patients a sense that they are in good hands with an expert who will relieve them. A good clinic or hospital will be designed to make the patient feel comfortable, give her confidence that healing is happening here.

The fact is that most of our ailments and physical complaints will resolve themselves whether we see a healer or not. How many science-based physicians have prescribed antibiotics for viral illnesses? How many patients with viral illnesses have given credit to an antibiotic for their recovery? A lot of medicine, both science-based and quackery, is based on ritual, relaxing the patient, giving her confidence in your healing powers, classical conditioning, patient expectation, and enough time passing for the illness to run its course. Most customers are satisfied because after they saw you and had your treatment, they got better or felt better or didn't want to admit that they paid all that money and got nothing out of it so they say they're better even if they're not. The reason we do controlled studies is to weed out the treatments that are placebo medicine from the treatments that are truly effective.

Retired psychology professor Dr. Ray Hyman tells a story about the chiropractors who believed in applied kinesiology (AK). After AK failed a double-blind, controlled randomized test, one of the participants told Ray that that was why they don't use randomized, controlled tests: they don't work! I imagine that even if we got all those who testified on behalf of homeopathy before the FDA to agree to give their patients little vials of tap water instead of their homeopathic brews and if their customer satisfaction rate didn't change, these folks would invent some sort of rationalization to explain away the data. Maybe they'd repeat the ad hoc hypothesis of the Russian energy healer who was exposed by James Randi in Secrets of the Psychics. When the healer couldn't tell which bottle of water in a room full of bottles was the one he had energized with his special power, as he said he'd be able to do, he hypothesized that his energized bottle had energized all the others in the room. Even if we could convince the homeopaths to give the wrong homeopathic medicines to their patients and even if customer satisfaction didn't change, I'm sure they'd rationalize the data to protect their beloved homeopathy. In fact they do. Whenever homeopathic remedies fail standard scientific tests, defenders claim that their potions can't be tested by standard scientific tests, that a new science paradigm is needed to understand how homeopathy works, that each remedy is special and must be designed for each patient individually, etc. Special pleading all around, if you please. I don't understand why rational people don't roll their eyes and slap their foreheads when defenders of homeopaths speak of the memory of water and releasing vital energy by vigorous shaking and pounding (succussing) of a water-filled sack. How can any educated person today take seriously the notion that diluting a substance until there are no molecules left in the finished product makes something way more effective than measurable amounts of the substance? It would seem that one would have to swallow some kind of magical potion to believe such stuff, but all it takes to seal the deal is a few cognitive biases and personal experience so powerful that it blocks out logic and rational thinking. Too bad there isn't some sort of acupuncture that could unblock the mind that has been seduced by its own confidence in knowing what it knows because it just knows it.

Another example from Ray Hyman illustrates the power of belief that can blind intelligent, otherwise quite reasonable people, into believing nonsense. While a college student, Ray got interested in palm reading. He read several books on the subject and began earning money as a palm reader, but he didn't believe any of it. He got so much positive feedback from his clients, however, that he started to think that maybe there was something to it. Things changed when he was advised to put his belief to the test:

The late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman’s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example. I said, “well, you have a very strong heart,” that sort of thing. In this particular case, though, it was really spooky, because she just sat there poker faced. Usually I get a lot of feedback from the subject. In fact, I depend on the feedback, and this woman was giving me nothing. It was weird. I thought I bombed. But it turns out the reason she was so quiet was because she was stunned. She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had. So I did this with a couple more clients, and I suddenly realized that whatever was going on had nothing to do with what I said but with the presentation itself. This was one of the reasons I went into psychology—I wanted to find out how it was that people, including myself, could be so easily deceived. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I am not as confrontational as Randi, because I actually see that “there but for the grace of god go I.”

Ray discovered that it didn't matter what he told his clients; they would figure out a way to make him right. Ray would later become an expert in understanding self-deception. The satisfied customers who sing the praises of palm readers and fortune tellers of all kinds know from personal experience that the reader has some sort of magical ability to see the future. Ray went on to become an expert in cold reading and subjective validation, the process of making claims with no basis in fact or study and having them validated as true by others. As a palm reader, Ray had become an adept cold reader, assisted by the efforts of his customers to selectively ignore his errors and misses and to focus on items they could make sense out of or give meaning to. As Ray notes, his clients wanted him to succeed in his reading and they would do everything in their power to help him.

The writer James Michener, who did fortune telling as Mitch the Witch for a number of years, found that he, too, could tell his clients just about anything and they'd figure out a way to validate his nonsense. Michener gave up fortune telling when he realized that a chance remark he'd make could have a profound effect. He was dismayed that people could be changed when an off-the-cuff bit of nonsense that he made up would be taken as guidance. For example, telling a woman to avoid a certain color would give her something she could do something about, even though it was meaningless. The fact that he could do much good with chance remarks made up on the spot made Michener "a sober man as far as fortune telling was concerned." It wasn't worth it to see people deluding themselves about their lives. Seeing the power he had over people "finally compelled me to stop giving readings," he wrote. People, said Michener, "deserve better guidance than I can give them." So, he quit his gig as Mitch the Witch and "the comedy ended."

Fortune telling, however, seem innocuous compared to a naturopath telling a patient that he doesn't have ALS but Lyme disease that can be treated with supplements. Likewise, when a homeopath tells a diabetic she doesn't need to take her insulin, the results can be be tragic. Of course, the "integrative homeopath" would say:

Homeopathic remedies can be taken in conjunction with prescription medications. In time, as general health improves and blood sugar levels are normalized, allopathic medication can be reduced gradually (with the knowledge and support of the doctor who prescribed it in the first place) until it is no longer required. Remember that homeopathy is healing all of you – not just regulating your blood sugar. With patience and perseverance, becoming drug-free is a definite possibility.*

As bad as these homeopaths are, they are Florence Nightingales compared to Hongchi Xiao, a self-proclaimed Chinese healer, who advised the parents of a seven-year-old diabetic boy to take him off insulin and slap the ill humors out of him. The boy died.

Even our National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, which hasn't seen an energy medicine it didn't want to spend taxpayer dollars on testing, admits "There is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition."* Yet, I don't doubt that the NCCIH will Michael DeDoracontinue to fund homeopathic "research" and the FDA will continue to allow homeopathic potions to be sold as medicines. I hope, though, that the FDA will agree with the request of Michael DeDora of CFI, who asked the FDA to require a label on homeopathic potions stating that "This product has not been evaluated by the FDA for either safety or effectiveness." De Dora pointed out that currently many homeopathic products boast that they are regulated by the FDA. Most consumers don't know that that claim is nearly meaningless because even though the FDA has the power to make rules regarding products claiming to be homeopathic, the FDA relies on the honor system to enforce its rules. In other words, the FDA doesn't evaluate any homeopathic potion unless a specific complaint is lodged regarding its safety or efficacy. (This reliance on the honor system applies to herbal products and, as far as I know, to all over-the-counter products regulated by the FDA.)

Finally, the only change in the FDA rules that homeopaths seem to want regarding their potions is that products that contain active ingredients stop calling themselves 'homeopathic.' Maybe the FDA should require these folks to label their products as "capable of releasing magical healing powers hidden in the bowels of our benevolent universe and contrary to all scientific knowledge."

postscript: To those who wonder why we bother to continue to fight the good fight, the answer was given by Stephen Jay Gould: think how bad things would be if we did nothing.

To those who ask me how I know I'm right and the homeopaths, acupuncturists, etc., are wrong, I say only this: If they're right then we may as well give up science and logic and reasoning, because everything could be governed by magical powers, entities, or energies, and nothing is as it seems to be. If I'm right, nothing changes. Science and logic continue to work as we know them to work. To those who wonder why I don't speak of 'weird beliefs' or 'alternative views' and refer to beliefs in homeopathy and acupuncture and the like as nonsense, I say this: they are nonsense. They make no sense at all unless you are willing to agree that we are deluding ourselves about logic, reason, and science. I'm not will to believe that nothing is as it seems, that there is a magical universe running parallel to ours that is the real reason anything that happens happens, that our beliefs in the law of contradiction, the laws of physics, and the like, are just delusions. Science and logic aren't perfect and they're not infallible, but they are orders of magnitude superior to magical thinking and metaphysical notions like chi, meridians, yin-yang, the law of similars, the law of infinitesimals, and dynamization.

Not All Weird Beliefs are Nonsense

I hope the rant above does not give the reader the false impression that I think all weird beliefs are nonsense. Not at all. Some beliefs are questionable and worth investigating and debating. Some beliefs Megyn Kellyare just plain wrong and others are so stupid that it makes me ashamed to have to admit I'm a member of the same species as folks who believe such things as that Obama is planning to invade and take over Texas. What would he do with it anyway? Give it back to Mexico? You might ask Ted Cruz or Greg Abbott. This kind of stuff seems to make sense to them. Or you might ask Megyn Kelly of FOX who thinks Pamela Geller is the poster girl for free speech and the First Amendment, which Kelly seems to think allows slander, libel, blasphemy, fighting words, incitement to riot, and any old thing anybody wants to say anytime anywhere. She's wrong.

reader comments

Regarding your reference to Pamela Gellar and (implicitly) her "draw Muhammed" competition, is it really your position that this event is not protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?

How can you reconcile your otherwise consistent adherence to scientific skepticism with accusations of blasphemy? Furthermore, how can you possibly claim that Gellar's event constitutes "fighting words" or "incitement to riot"? Deliberately antagonizing a group of people (Muslims) is not a crime, insofar as it does not necessarily create an immediate threat of violence (people do this with regard to Christianity all the time and the only complaints you hear about it are from the evangelical right). Now, if your position is that Muslims are so dangerous that any act of provocation on the part of non-Muslims is likely to precipitate an immediate explosion of violence and may therefore be considered "fighting words," then I retract this line of inquiry, as your position is not inconsistent with the rest of your views -- but wouldn't that be more of an indictment of Muslims than of Gellar?

Regards, Josh Warren

reply: My reference to Pamela Gellar was to highlight the rather simpleminded approach to the First Amendment that Megyn Kelly took in her defense of Gellar as one whose speech is just the kind that the First Amendment is intended to protect. Gellar is a provocateur who has in the past proclaimed that President Obama is the love child of Malcolm X and a secret Muslim who wants to destroy the U.S. She's no more a poster child for free speech than any other babbling idiot filled with hate. Whether her jihadist baiting is protected by the First Amendment isn't of much interest to me. And anyway that issue is one that could go to court and I wouldn't try to predict how any court in this country will rule on any First Amendment issue.

By the way, I didn't accuse Gellar of blasphemy (or anything else for that matter). There are still a few states with blasphemy laws on the books and it is possible those statutes may end up being challenged before a federal court all the way up to the Supreme Court. The last case the SC heard seems to protect blasphemy, but this is a new court and who knows how they'd rule if the subject comes up again. After all, all the states had laws prohibiting blasphemy (and seditious speech, which even included criticizing the government in time of war) at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified. No effort was made to get those laws off the books after the Bill of Rights went into effect. So, it is unlikely the Framers intended blasphemy to be protected by the First Amendment.

As far as I'm concerned, Gellar can express her hatred for Muslims with the same expectation of legal protection as neo-nazis have in expressing their hatred of Jews or racists have in their expression of hatred for those who don't share their color.

Finally, I don't believe Muslims or people of any religion are so dangerous that they need special protection from provocative criticism or they might erupt and harm others. If you feel the need to draw a picture and call it a picture of Muhammed, I'm not going to support making your activity illegal any more than I would want to make it illegal for you to call a black man holding a gun at your head 'nigger.' Go ahead. Speak.

Paida and Lajin Self-Healing

beating the bad humors out of the meridiansThe abovementioned Chinese healer whose advice led to the death of a diabetic child claims his healing technique is based on principles of traditional Chinese medicine. In promoting his so-called self-healing method, Hongchi writes: "According to Chinese medicine, all diseases are caused by blocked meridians (energy channels in the body). Hence, disease prevention and treatment can be as simple as clearing meridians and expelling toxins and waste in the body. Paida and Lajin are the most direct methods in this regard, which explains their miraculous effects in dispelling various diseases and pains, as has been repeatedly proven by self-healers around the world." He also brags in his book promoting his particular brand of alternative quackery that self-healing is the future of medicine because of the high costs of real medicine. He says his organization is a non-profit but he charged the parents of the dead child $1,800 (Australian) to learn how to beat the toxins out of meridians. The photos above of the bruised back and arm are from Hongchi's book. He's apparently proud of them and thinks they serve as proof of his healing technique.

Hongchi seems to have gotten his idea of self-beating from understanding how moxibustion and gua sha allegedly work according to traditional Chinese medicine. The busting of capillaries and consequent bruising is interpreted as releasing harmful stuff that is blocking imaginary pathways of imaginary energy leading to an imbalance of imaginary yin or yang. Like many naturopaths, homeopaths, and other quacks in the U.S., Hongchi claims that slap therapy activates the body’s innate self-healing power. His message and the messages of other quacks with no medical background resonate with many people. Hongchi's training was in finance until he turned to the more lucrative and satisfying role of traditional healer at age 44. Another popular quack in China, Zhang Wuben, promoted himself as an expert in nutrition and mung beans as a cure-all. He got his own TV show promoting his "food therapy." Zhang's book -- "Eat Out the Diseases You Have Eaten" -- became a best seller. According to an article published in news.xinhuanet.com/, "Zhang's medical qualification was later exposed as false and his theories have been refuted as followers failed to cure their diseases after spending expensive fees on consultations with Zhang."

Ma Yueling [director of the research institute of traditional Chinese medicine in southwestern Yunnan Province], once considered as the "Health Godmother" in China, claimed she cured diseases ranging from cancer to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) through a variety of unorthodox treatments.

But it emerged that Ma was a nurse without certifications or qualifications to prescribe treatment.

However, Ma's website has 220,000 registered members. Her four books, as well as her monthly magazine, have been read by millions.

Ma may be a quack but that doesn't prevent her from criticizing other self-proclaimed traditional healers as quacks. She says that the continued emergence of cure-all quacks and their success reflect people's anxieties about health. Indeed. Wu Kankan, an expert at the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, thinks the popularity of quacks shows that the health-care system in China can't keep up with demand. According to statistics released by the Chinese Ministry of Health, 260 million people in China suffer from chronic diseases. "People's anxieties about health and the huge demand on health care give those quacks opportunities to make profits and realize other goals," Wu said.

Poor people living in a country with an inadequate health-care system might explain why many people in that country are duped by quacks. Explaining why many wealthy people living in a country with an excellent health-care system prefer quacks to science, or think they're better off if they mix sense and nonsense, requires a bit more explanation.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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