From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 14 No. 7
“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.” ― T. S. Eliot
new in essays: Natural Thinking: (another) case study.
Nobel Prize Nominees
Several years ago I reviewed an audio tape for one of my students. The tape featured veterinarian/naturopath Joel D. Wallach. It was a hilarious abomination, attacking science-based medicine and defending the idea that mineral deficiencies are the cause of all ills and offering Wallach's special supplements as the cure for those ills. The claims on the tape were noteworthy enough to earn Wallach his own entry in the SD. The label on the tape noted that Wallach was a Nobel Prize nominee. This is true but meaningless. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology by the Association of Eclectic Physicians "for his notable and untiring work with deficiencies of the trace mineral selenium and its relationship to the congenital genesis of Cystic Fibrosis." [It may or may not be noteworthy that a group of scientists who found "it is unlikely that selenium plays a significant primary pathogenic role in cystic fibrosis" were not nominated for any prizes, Nobel or Ignobel.] The Association of Eclectic Physicians is a group of naturopaths/oddballs founded in 1982 by Edward Alstat and Michael Ancharski and is in no way connected to the Nobel Prize Committee, which does not accept unsolicited nominations for consideration for the prize in medicine and physiology. The Nobel Prize organization has a website where it answers the question Who Can Nominate for a Nobel Prize? The answer:
Each year, thousands of members of academies, university professors, scientists, previous Nobel Laureates and members of parliamentary assemblies and others, are asked to submit candidates for the Nobel Prizes for the coming year. These nominators are chosen in such a way that as many countries and universities as possible are represented over time.
The website has a search feature, allowing the curious to see if it is true, for example, that Johanna Budwig had seven Nobel nominations. It's not true. At least it's not true that she was nominated for the prize before 1965. The names of nominees who fail to get the prize are not released for 50 years after the nomination.*
According to BudwigCenter.com, Budwig had seven Alternative Nobel Prize nominations. In 1980, Jakob von Uexkull felt that the Nobel Prize categories were too narrow in scope and didn't represent the interests he thought were most valuable to humanity. So, he set up his own award, The Right Livelihood Award, now known affectionately as the Alternative Nobel Prize. "Anyone - except Right Livelihood Award Jury and staff members - can propose anyone (individuals or organisations), except themselves, close relatives or their own organisations, to be considered for a Right Livelihood Award." I have to say I admire this Right Livelihood Award group. Last year, they gave a prize to Edward Snowden “for his courage and skill in revealing the unprecedented extent of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and constitutional rights.”
Presented annually in Stockholm at a ceremony in the Swedish Parliament, the Right Livelihood Award is usually shared by four Recipients. The prize money shared by all Laureates is SEK 2 million [about US $240,000] (2014) but not always do all Laureates receive a cash award. Often an Honorary Award is given to a person or group whose work the Jury wishes to recognise but who is not primarily in need of monetary support. The prize money is for ongoing successful work, never for personal use. [click here to see a list of laureates]
The criteria for eligible nominations for each of the Nobel Prizes is spelled out on NobelPrize.org. Needless to say, the criteria are strict enough to exclude nominations from your local Reiki Masters Society or the Organization of Oddball Integrated Oncologists. A nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, however, may be submitted by any person who meets the nomination criteria. (Click here to see the criteria.) A letter of invitation to submit is not required.
So, the next time you read that someone you suspect of being a crank has been nominated for the Nobel Prize 17 times, check out the NobelPrize.org website and do a search.
A Skeptic Compares me to Isaac Asimov... Unfavorably
Occasionally I get email criticizing me for doing what I do here. The critic doesn't claim that I'm wrong about anything in particular, but that what I do here is, in general, illegitimate. An example came in last month:
Dear Dr. Carroll:
Like you, I am a skeptic. I have been visiting Skepdic.com for over 15 years now. Reading your scornful but humorously insightful articles always amuses me. You remind me of Isaac Asimov, another skeptic, and an author who once replied to my fan mail.
Skepdic.com has the attraction of presenting one person's skeptical viewpoint written in a readable, humorous style. But that seems to be skepdic.com's greatest weakness too. How can one person claim to be knowledgeable about such a wide range of topics that form the entries in skepdic.com ? Isaac Asimov could legitimately do that. But he too did not know everything.
I myself am a Jack-of-all-Trades -- a dilettante with a wide-range of interests. Yet, I would hesitate to pontificate on such a wide range of topics, as you do. In my younger days, I would have. At age 49, I am now more conscious of my ignorance than my knowledge. I would not criticize alternative medicine for the simple reason that I, as a mechanical engineer, should be leaving that to skeptics who actually have medical degrees.
I do see in your FAQ that you do not claim complete knowledge of every subject under the Sun....
Yet, skepdic.com has too wide a breadth of topics that one person cannot possibly have mastered.
Have you thought of making skepdic.com more of a collaborative effort? Why not let 'guest authors' write the entries on some topics?
XX, Ph.D, P.Eng
I replied in my usual kind and sympathetic way that even a mechanical engineer Jack-of-all-Trades, a dilettante with a wide-range of interests, should not hesitate to pontificate on a wide range of topics if he does his homework and is so inclined to share his opinions. I didn't use exactly those words, however.
You write "I would not criticize alternative medicine for the simple reason that I, as a mechanical engineer, should be leaving that to skeptics who actually have medical degrees."
Can you read and understand the criticisms of alternative medicine written by those who have medical degrees? If so, you might be able to make some judgments as to which opinions make the most sense and are most compatible with available evidence and knowledge. You might even have some talent as a writer and be able not only to form your own opinion on the matters brought up by the experts but be able to express them in ways that others might find interesting, educational, or even amusing.
There is no law or rule requiring you to pontificate (as you put it) only on matters of mechanical engineering. You may not be a research scientist in medicine, but surely you understand enough about logic and controlled experiments to know when a scientist has drawn conclusions that are not justified by the evidence he or she presents. You may have never seen or been in a UFO, but surely you have a basic understanding of how perception and memory work and are able to serve on a jury, for example, where you might be asked to make a judgment based on eyewitness testimony even though you are not an expert on perception or eyewitness testimony.
Finally, there are many books you can read to enhance your knowledge and understanding. You are not limited to only those materials that have to do with mechanical engineering. As is often said, you do not have to rape someone to know it's wrong to do so and you do not have to murder someone to make a judgment about murder. You shouldn't trust me if I try to pontificate on how to surf big waves or how to survive a jump from an airplane at 30,000 feet without a parachute, but if I provide you with my sources, you might consider consulting them and deciding for yourself whether my opinions are justified or just so much drivel oozing from the mouth of someone who speaks of what he knows not.
Nobody should make claims about subjects he has no knowledge of and nobody should speak authoritatively about subjects he's not qualified to speak about. But it is absurd to tell somebody to shut up unless he's an expert in the subject or has experienced what he's talking about.
How much chicanery would have never been exposed had not magicians like Randi gone into the laboratory to teach scientists how easy it is for them to be deceived no matter how brilliant they are? How long would we have waited for an engineer to demonstrate that the arm-pressure test used by sellers of the PowerBalance bracelet or Energy Stones that allegedly give you balance and strength is not a good test of anything except perhaps of some simple principles of physics and of the gullibility of many people?
Fortunately, however, Dr. XX's concerns are more than outweighed by the views of other, more liberal minds, such as the following:
Dear Dr. Carroll,
I want to thank you for your years of effort to get people to think more critically and skeptically and for pulling together so much information on your website. I’ve just spent part of my Sunday morning going from one topic to the next to the next on the site. What an outstanding resource. A real treasure trove. I could say it’s incredible…but actually it’s just credible, and really now, how great is that!
When I asked Laurie Sanders if I could post her comments as a contrast to those of Dr. XX, she replied:
Of course, post away! I do understand that experts can get twitchy when other people write about their area of expertise, but this is what journalists do every day, and frankly, rather than grousing, I’d recommend that the guy send you specific suggestions for edits and/or if there were any errors--if in fact he is an expert.
We really need people like you, and your website is a rich resource. Every health and science class should have sites like these as standard resources. We certainly need more information like this filtering into the region where we live. My husband (who has had a subscription to Skeptical Inquirer for 30+ years) and I live in a part of the US that’s full of folks who believe in homeopathy, feng shui, psychics, energy, EMDR and all kinds of paranormal phenomena. So much so, that it’s almost mainstream as the following story reveals.
Several years ago, a psychic based in Northampton, MA, was arrested for telling her client that to exorcise some evil spirit, the woman had to bring in $20K, which the psychic would put in a hat and burn. As the first bills ignited, the psychic told the woman to run out of the office. I’m not sure if it was the client who actually realized she’d been duped or if friends and family intervened and called the police on her behalf. The upshot was that the psychic was arrested and the story got a lot of cover in the local paper. Nothing about this particular story, I’m guessing, is unfamiliar to you. But here’s what was also alarming and discouraging to us. After reporting on the arrest, our local newspaper ran a long story about “How to Choose a Good Psychic.” Needless to say, no skeptics were interviewed and when my husband saw the reporter/then associate editor and asked her about it, she admitted that she never even considered interviewing a skeptic! She is a long time acquaintance and is, in many other ways, a very smart person, but she freely admitted it had never crossed her mind.
So, Bob, ever onward, and again a big thank you for your efforts.
Ever onward, it is.
Another Healer with No Medical Training
Stephen Barrett's Consumer Health Digest for July 19 reports on the arrest of a fake healer who claims to know what is effective and what is ineffective in treating cancer. The website of the healer, Vincent Gammill, claims that his Natural Oncology Institute is a bridge "between what is known in cancer research and what is practiced in a clinical setting." The only face and name on the site belong to Gammill, a man with no health-related training or credentials, according to investigators from the Ventura Country Sheriff's Office. On his website, Gammill claims he "was a pharmaceutical designer and consultant who chose to work with natural products and methods whenever possible." According to KTLA News, Gammill has been arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a license. The Ventura County Sheriff's Department issued the following statement:
In June 2015, the victim traveled to Gammill's office ....While at the office, Gammill examined the victim and gave her an in-depth explanation of how he was going to treat her cancer. He also advised her to alter the dosing of the medication her primary physician had prescribed her. Gammill demanded payment of $2,000.00 for his services (16 hours of consultation and treatment), which she paid to him. Gammill then provided the victim with multiple plastic "ziploc" baggies containing different powders, empty capsules, vials of liquids, commercially produced medications with expired shelf life dates (including medications labeled in Russian) and a baggie of dirt.
The mention of the bag of dirt inspired this headline on the KTLA.com website: ‘Fake’ Doctor Prescribed Ventura County Cancer Patient Bag of Dirt, Charged Her $2,000: Sheriff’s Office.
What the victim experienced at the Natural Oncology Institute is nothing like what is promised on the website. Apparently, Gammill has been running this scam, which he calls "a premier educational resource and client advocacy organization focused on helping people with cancer," since 2001. It's hard to believe nobody complained until now. It's even harder to believe that Gammill cured his own metastatic colorectal cancer in 2009 using a protocol of his own devising without any standard science-based care or surgery. Gammill claims his unnamed oncologist told him he'd be dead by October 2010. He's defied the odds and lived to be arrested five years later. He's a living miracle or a deluded scammer, take your pick.
Investigators have asked anyone who may have been scammed to contact the Ventura County Interagency Pharmaceutical Crimes Unit at 805-383-8700 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Possible victims in Northern California have been asked to call the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office Detective Bureau at 925-313- 2600.