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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 9 No. 10

6 October 2010

If alternative health practices came in different colors, my guess is that some practices would be more effective placebos than others simply because of their hue.

In this issue

What's new?
Traditional Asian Medicine
Reiki: more Asian medical nonsense
Russia to ban ads by psychics?
Vatican condemned
JREF Scholarship Awards
Richard Wiseman's latest book
Paul Kurtz's latest venture
Scum of the minute

What's New?

New SD entries: weeping statues, William C. Rader, M.D., science-based medicine, and psychic staring effect.

Book review: SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable by Bruce Hood.

Skeptimedia: Cure Cancer the Natural Way? and The present is the only window to the past.

Suburban myths: 92-97.

reader comments: The present is the only window to the past, Patience Worth, glossolalia, and Noah's Ark.

What's the harm?: Exorcism rape.

Dutch translation of the SD now available: http://tinyurl.com/2cz3ble

Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at skepdic.com/updates.html.

Traditional Asian Medicine

Alternative health advocates often base their beliefs on superstitions, such as the one promoted by traditional Asian medical systems (TAMs) that prescribe rhino horn for a variety of ailments.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the horn, which is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. According to the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen, the horn could also cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” (However, it is not, as commonly believed, prescribed as an aphrodisiac).*

All five species of rhinoceros have been brought to the edge of extinction because of the human appetite for their horns. In addition to being used medicinally in China, Malaysia, South Korea, and India, the horn is prized by Muslim men in Yemen for dagger (jambiya) handles.

"In China, the ornamental use of rhino horn dates back to at least the 7th century CE. Over the centuries, rhino horns have been carved into ceremonial cups, as well as buttons, belt buckles, hair pins, and paperweights."*

Despite the fact that the science indicates that ingesting rhino horn is about as healthful as chewing on your fingernails, the demand in China continues. A British citizen was recently sentenced to a year in jail for attempting to smuggle two rhino horns out of England to sell in China. The horns are said to have a market value of £600,000 ($950,000).*

Essex Police's Wildlife Crime Unit established that the rhino's entire head was stolen after the white rhino died at the Essex zoo. The head was sold for £400 after its body was sent to an abattoir for disposal. A 52-year-old man from Chelmsford admitted the theft and was cautioned by police for the illegal sale of rhino horn.

Last month, seven members of a rhino-poaching syndicate were arrested in South Africa, where more than 200 rhinos have been killed since the beginning of this year.* A South African official told the BBC that the gang sent rhino horns to Asian markets.

If you're concerned about your health, you might do well to order The Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies: What to Do For The Most Common Health Problems. The SkepDoc has given it a very positive review.* And no animals were killed in its production.

Reiki: more Asian medical nonsense

A "teacher and practitioner" of reiki, a form of "energy medicine," informed me recently that I am wrong to describe the waving of hands over a patient as an attempt to "manipulate ki."

"I can assure you that we do NOT manipulate ki, or anything else in a reiki session!" she wrote. I stand corrected, but with qualifications.

I realize that reiki "healers" haven't got a clue what they are doing or how their "healing" works. So, they can't claim to "manipulate" energy. I use the word in its original sense of using the hands. It is true, however, that these energy healers don't handle anything. They don't touch the patient at all. By saying that these healers claim to manipulate energy, I certainly don't mean to imply that they actually handle energy in any way, that they emit energy from their hands, or that they alter the "flow of energy" in a patient. I suppose to be perfectly accurate I should simply say that the reiki "healer" waves her hands in the air over a body part and thinks this has some positive effect on some sort of magical energy that in some way is supposedly related to health.

My reiki antagonist writes that she learned reiki "over a decade ago to help my husband with the chronic pain he suffered from a nearly fatal construction accident which crushed both feet and left him with back and neck injuries. The relief he experienced after one session was enough for me to take training and there has not been one day since that I have not used reiki for him or myself." I have no reason to distrust these claims. What I question is her belief that the reiki was the cause of the pain relief and her belief that "personal experience is the best teacher." There are many lessons personal experience can teach us; complex causal mechanisms is not one of them. Personal experience can be very misleading. I rather doubt that a 911 call brought a team of reiki shamans to the construction site or that her husband's only treatment for his injuries involved an ancient superstition involving magical healing powers popularized by a Japanese monk in the early part of the last century.

She is correct in claiming that there is much anecdotal evidence that reiki sessions are often followed by patients claiming to feel relief from pain. (It is also true that many patients get no relief from reiki.) She is also correct that reiki "programs are now found in most major hospitals and healing centers across the states and millions practice Reiki as the accepted alternative complimentary medicine that the National Institute of Health has classified it."

The NIH is a hotbed of quackery and has been ever since it established NCCAM. The quackaloons have infiltrated many hospitals and medical schools. Even so, the attempt to find some clinical evidence for the effectiveness of reiki under controlled conditions has shown that reiki has no substantial health value.

This defender of reiki brings up the old chestnut about not knowing how aspirin works to ward off the criticism that there is no plausible mechanism by which reiki could work. We may not have known how aspirin relieved pain while knowing that it did, but we also had many ideas about how it might work. Thus, we were able to develop testable hypotheses and experiments. Now we know how aspirin works. ("Aspirin works by inhibiting the action of chemicals called prostaglandins and thromboxanes, which are responsible primarily for inflammation, by its irreversible inactivation of the cyclooxygenase (PTGS) enzyme."--John Renish) The mysterious energy that reiki allegedly affects in some mysterious way is so conceptually elusive as to be nearly meaningless. We can go through the motions, of course, of waving hands in the air over body parts. We can put a shield between the practitioner and the patient so the patient wouldn't know whether she was being treated. We can perform somewhat meaningful tests of reiki. So far the scientific evidence does not support an effect beyond what one might expect from administering a placebo or doing nothing.

The human brain, however, doesn't always like the scientific evidence. One reiki practitioner wrote me that she was afraid to use her powers because sometimes her patients got worse. Yes, she really believes that it is her waving hands that have brought disaster to some of her patients. Magical thinking and superstition, I'm afraid, often override the magic of science.

In 2009, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged Catholic health-care facilities and clergy not to promote or support it. The bishops claimed that reiki lacks scientific credibility, but that may not have been their main motivation for condemning the practice. The bishops claimed that reiki therapy has no support in Christian belief. I'm sure if the bishops wanted to support the practice they'd be able to find some scrap of historical nonsense to bolster their claim. The fact is that the Catholics most likely to be practicing this form of voodoo are nuns in Catholic hospitals. Perhaps the bishops didn't want the nuns to get too uppity. Let them heal and they might think they're worthy of saying Mass! Can't have that.

The bishops were correct, though, in claiming that:

Reiki lacks scientific credibility. It has not been accepted by the scientific and medical communities as an effective therapy. Reputable scientific studies attesting to the efficacy of Reiki are lacking, as is a plausible scientific explanation as to how it could possibly be efficacious. The explanation of the efficacy of Reiki depends entirely on a particular view of the world as permeated by this "universal life energy" (ki) that is subject to manipulation by human thought and will. Reiki practitioners claim that their training allows one to channel the "universal life energy" that is present in all things. This "universal life energy," however, is unknown to natural science. As the presence of such energy has not been observed by means of natural science, the justification for these therapies necessarily must come from something other than science.*

My antagonist is correct in claiming that in reiki nothing is applied, touched, or ingested. But this does not make reiki any more effective or safe than, say, prayer or any other placebo for healing.

Finally, it is true that, as this advocate of reiki reminded me, there are many things we don't understand. Fortunately, there are many scientists investigating the placebo effect, why doing nothing often brings more relief than doing something, and how the brain tricks us into thinking there are magical forces at work that we can master if only we put our minds to it.

Russia to ban ads by psychics

Russia, long a hotbed of psychic superstition, faith healing, and paranormal nonsense, has moved to ban ads in the media by witches, magicians, psychics, fortune tellers, and faith healers. The State Duma has approved the first reading of the correction to the Law on Advertising, which forbids users of supernatural powers of all kinds to promote their services in the mass media.

If I understand what is being proposed, however, the new rules will make it unlawful to promise healing by "unconventional or occult methods" unless the healer has a valid license for his activities.*

Vatican condemned for condemning Nobel prize award

Predictably, the Vatican condemned the awarding of a Nobel prize to British biologist Robert Edwards, who developed the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, the Vatican’s bioethics spokesman, said that the Nobel prize committee’s choice of Edwards was “completely out of order.”* Many human embryos end up being destroyed as a result of the creation of excess embryos during IVF. True, but as Russell Blackford notes, since the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978, "about 4 million babies have been brought into the world using the technique, enabling many couples to achieve their goals of becoming biological parents."

The Vatican's condemnation of the award was not based on scientific grounds. Some might say that Edwards just applied science that had been developed by others to humans and did not make a great scientific discovery worthy of the prestigious award. The Vatican condemned the award on moral grounds. "The Vatican’s morality," notes Blackford, "is not based on anything rational but on recondite ideas of natural law, the will of God, and the ensoulment of non-sentient life. It puts human happiness below its bizarre and miserable version of morality."

JREF Scholarship Awards

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has announced the recipients of its academic scholarships for 2010 - 2011. Four awards were given, each worth $2,500, to support students in studies that promote critical thinking and skepticism. For details of the awards and more about this year's recipients, see http://tinyurl.com/2c2leyd.

Richard Wiseman's latest book

Richard Wiseman’s Supernormality has been sold to Macmillan in the UK. The new book will examine the way that scientific research into the apparent fringes of psychology—mediums, lucid dreaming, and telepathy—has led to breakthroughs that can be applied to everyday life.*

His previous book, 59 Seconds, sold to 31 foreign-language publishers.

Paul Kurtz's latest venture

Paul Kurtz, a co-founder of CSICOP (now CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) and founder of the Center for Inquiry (CFI), has started a new organization with several former employees of CFI: the Institute for Science and Human Values. Kurtz has criticized CFI for being anti-religious and pro-atheist. His new endeavor appears designed to emphasize what he calls neo-humanism, a philosophy that includes criticism of theism without being anti-religious and supports various liberal views regarding ethics, economics, and politics. One of his goals is to "develop transnational planetary institutions."

On Friday the 8th of October 2010 Kurtz will participate in a plenary session along with James Randi and others at the 30th Anniversary Conference of Free Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The session will be moderated by CFI president Ronald Lindsay.

According to Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times, Kurtz recently stopped by the center, where he still keeps an office. He found the locks had been changed. Mr. Lindsay told Oppenheimer that Mr. Kurtz did not need a new key because he “has no connection with us.”

If this meeting of minds on the 8th sounds weird, consider that Jerry Coyne considers CFI to be anti-atheist.

Scum of the minute

Blue Berry, a product whose promoters claim can improve your eyesight, even those with age-related macular degeneration. For more info, see Science-Based Pharmacy "Blue Berry Eyebright: Claims without Evidence" at http://tinyurl.com/2vxgda6.

Also recommended for the scum of the minute award is Konstantin Rudnyov, a 43-year-old Russian who claims he's a spiritual master from the star Sirius. He was recently arrested for establishing a "nationwide totalitarian sect that brainwashed and sexually abused members." Sounds too familiar.

A close runner-up is Dr. Mark Hyman, the spinner of "functional medicine."


Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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