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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 4

April 6, 2008

"A man accused of killing his exterminator has been ordered to undergo psychic evaluations at a state hospital."--headline, WBIW.com Kansas News Leader (March 13, 2008)*

In this issue

--What's new?
--The trouble with acupuncture, homeopathy, etc.
--The Ignorance of Ben Stein
Scam of the Minute Award

What's New?

There are three new entries in the Skeptic's Dictionary: anchoring effect, availability error, and  representativeness error.

I updated the Emotional Freedom Technique entry to include a link to a news article about a teacher who thinks he can cure troubled youth with this pseudoscience.

We now have a theme song: The Tower of Woo.

It was a bad month (or good month, depending on how one looks at these things)  for What's the Harm? Here are links to six new entries:

April 4. Italian priest accused of duping believers in demons of $6.5 million.

March 29. Diabetic girl dies while parents pray.

March 18. Tarot card reader bilks clients with the old cleansing-the-curse scam.

March 16. Religious group dupes mentally unstable women into Bible studies and exorcisms to rid them of the snares of Satan.

March 14. A man posing as a priest cons an elderly woman with mental problems out of 40,000 euros. He tells her he needs the money for an exorcism against "obscure presences."

March 12. A Australian man was sent to prison for 19 years for strangling a woman he had told "he had psychic powers and could remove her evil spirits by having sex with her."

Finally, I posted a letter from a reader who agrees with me on almost everything except acupuncture. I posted my response, which did not appease the fellow at all.

The trouble with acupuncture, homeopathy, etc.

The reader who told me that he agreed with me about everything except acupuncture followed up his original email with several more in which he excoriated me for my blindness and lack of critical thinking. It is probably pointless for me to go over what I am about to go over but....

Let's begin by admitting that most people who have a favorable view of acupuncture, homeopathy, and  other quack therapies came to their opinion from personal experience. Either they have used these treatments, they know someone who has, or they have heard about them in the mass media. They have not arrived at their beliefs by studying RCTs: randomized, double-blind, controlled trials. I am aware that many people feel better after acupuncture, homeopathy, etc. They are not deluded. They really feel better. Furthermore, many people have measurable physiological changes after receiving these therapies.

Many people really feel better and show measurable physiological changes after getting a placebo, the medical equivalent of a glass of water or a teaspoon of honey. I don't doubt that millions of people swore by the effectiveness of Airborne, that fraudulent cold remedy "created by a school teacher." The placebo effect is not completely understood but classical conditioning plays a part. Expectation also plays a part. Some people expect to feel better when they go to a healer, any healer, scientific or alternative. Some people also do not expect the treatment to do them any good and this, too, can affect the outcome. This last point is relevant especially when evaluating RCTs that compare acupuncture to pain pills, for example. In any case, the placebo effect works for scientific medicine, too. For example, think of the many people who swear antibiotics gave them relief from a viral infection. They really feel the relief. They really show physiological changes. They really get better. Yet, we know that none of this has anything to do with the antibiotic. It couldn't. Antibiotics don't act on viruses; they act on bacteria.

Many, but not all, of the medicines your doctor gives you may work by the placebo effect. Some medicines we know are effective because of the results of RCTs. Such studies aren't perfect because, for example, drug companies aren't required to publish the data from all their studies and it is expected by the laws of probability that a certain percentage of all clinical trials, no matter how well designed and executed, will yield results that are statistically misleading. One conclusion we should draw from this fact is that usually a single study should not be taken to prove or disprove a hypothesis about a drug or treatment.

Another thing to remember is that it is not always easy to do an RCT. Homeopathy is unlike acupuncture in that doing a double-blind study of homeopathy is simple; whereas doing a double-blind study of acupuncture seems impossible. There is no way that I can think of that an acupuncturist can do acupuncture and not know whether he or she is actually sticking needles into either the traditional points on the traditional meridians or in non-traditional points. Nor is there any way for an acupuncturist to not know whether he or she is sticking in and twirling the needle or not. Sham acupuncture requires the acupuncturist to be an actor who can leave the subject not knowing whether he has received acupuncture or not. One form of sham acupuncture requires the subject to be ignorant of where the needles are traditionally stuck. The other requires the subject to feel like he's been stuck even if he hasn't. The actor knows he's an actor and the knowledge of whether you are doing traditional acupuncture or not may be conveyed to the subject.

To me the fact that you cannot blind the acupuncturist in acupuncture studies means that some information is bound to leak to the subjects as to which group they are in. The nature of this leakage is likely to be that some getting either true or sham acupuncture will be able to figure out which they are getting. This would affect the outcome of the study in favor of acupuncture if the subjects mostly expect acupuncture to give them some relief, a likely event in such trials. People who think acupuncture is rubbish are not likely to volunteer. The effect may be small but it should not be unexpected to find that groups getting true acupuncture would get better results, even if only slightly better, than sham acupuncture groups. This is, in fact, what has been found in most high quality studies (an exception can be found here). The fact that both true and sham acupuncture get better results than some science-based therapy in RCTs supports the placebo hypothesis and argues against the acupuncture hypothesis.

Why does acupuncture work better than some science-based therapies in clinical trials? Part of the explanation may be in the expectancy effect going in opposite directions. Many of those randomly assigned to the science-based therapy group may be disappointed in their assignment, as is evidenced by their higher dropout rate. For example, in the highly touted study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine [December 21, 2004] 43% of the science-based group dropped out, while 25% dropped out in each of the acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups. The trial started with over 500 subjects. The high dropout rate in the acupuncture groups suggests that a significant number of subjects were not getting any relief from either true or sham acupunctures. If they were getting relief from their pain, do you think they would have dropped out?

Doesn't acupuncture stimulate the release of endorphins and other natural pain-killers? Isn't that why it works? Perhaps. However, Antonella Pollo et al. demonstrated that placebos can help people with serious pain (Blausell 2007: pp. 139 ff). Other researchers, such as Donald Price, have shown that placebos work to reduce pain only when the subject believes that the therapy is capable of reducing pain. "This belief can be instilled through classical conditioning, or simply by the suggestion of a respected individual that this intervention (or therapy) can reduce pain" (ibid., p. 141). Martina Amanzio et al. demonstrated that "at least part of the physiological basis for the placebo effect is opiod in nature" (ibid., p. 160). That is, we can be conditioned to release such chemical substances as endorphins, catecholamines, cortisol, and adrenaline. One reason, therefore, that people report pain relief from both acupuncture and sham acupuncture may be that both are placebos that stimulate the opiod system, the body's natural pharmacy.

Is it possible that acupuncture and homeopathy and other alternative therapies that have lasted hundreds or thousands of years are just placebos? Yes, as long as a treatment is not harming people right and left, it could be having a beneficial effect due to people's beliefs, expectations, and conditioning. This is true of both scientific and alternative treatments.

When one considers the difficulty, if not impossibility, of doing a double-blinded study on acupuncture, and when one considers the dropout rates of acupuncture studies, one should conclude that the evidence from all the best studies supports the hypothesis that acupuncture works by the placebo effect, not by balancing yin and yang energies, whatever that might mean.

Is Ben Stein really that ignorant? Yes.

Ben Stein is a comedian, writer, lawyer, and zealous anti-evolutionist. He calls Darwinism "a great, great relic of the age of imperialism in the nineteenth century." He thinks evolution means humans are little more than muck because we were created by a lightning bolt hitting a mud puddle or something like that. He claims that scientists are persecuting believers in intelligent design, which Daniel Dennett calls "one of the most ingenious hoaxes in the history of science." Stein also blames belief in evolution for the Holocaust, among other things. Certainly, he couldn't have forgotten that Christians were persecuting Jews for nearly two millennia before Darwin proposed his explanation for the origin of species. Anyway, Stein  co-wrote and stars in a recently released anti-evolution film called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

Richard DawkinsStein and producer Mark Mathis apparently think they are doing God's work by lying and trying to deceive us about the content of their film and about the way in which they produced it. They lied to several people that they were doing a documentary on science and religion called "Crossroads." Those on record as having been lied to are Richard Dawkins, PZ Meyers, Allen MacNeill, and Eugenie Scott. The Expelled folks used a shell company to produce the film and owned the domain name expelledthemovie.com months before interviewing real scientists whom they planned to make look foolish by systematic editing.

Mathis must be a moron of Biblical proportions. His people set up a screening of Expelled at the Mall of America in Minneapolis and used the Internet to have people sign up to attend. Those who signed up could bring several guests. Evolution blogger PZ Myers signed up and said he'd bring four friends. When he got there he signed in and he and his friends showed IDs. Mathis sent a security guard to remove Myers. Yes, the guy who made a movie claiming his fellow Christians are being expelled from academia and denied their right to free speech expelled Myers from the theater even though Myers was in the movie and is acknowledged in the credits. Myers's guests were allowed in, however. After the showing, Mathis took questions. One of Myers's guests asked why Myers was expelled. The guest was Richard Dawkins who was in town to speak at an atheist gathering. Mathis told Dawkins that the show was by invitation only (which was not true) and that Myers wasn't invited (which was true because nobody had been invited). Dawkins thinks he got in because Myers's name was on a list of those who signed up on the Internet. Guests' names were not on any list and neither Mathis nor his goons recognized Dawkins, who had shown his British passport as identification. Mathis now claims that Dawkins "crashed" the showing. It is understandable that Dawkins calls his article on the Expelled experience "Lying for Jesus?."

After his eviction, Myers went out into the mall and blogged immediately about the gift he had just been handed. The loud noise was probably the door being shut by potential financial backers.

Bloggers had a field day thanks to those marketing geniuses Mathis and Stein. Even the New York Times got into the fray. The Skeptic's Circle # 83 was devoted to mocking Stein. Check out this video of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers discussing the expelling of Myers by Mathis. Clearly, public relations is not Mathis's forte.

At least now we know how the ID folks are responding to their humiliating defeat in the Dover case: they are reverting to their previous tactics of claiming that they are being persecuted, that their free speech is being denied, and that belief in evolution has brought about most of the evil in the world. Using a phony documentary as their medium may not have been a wise choice. It may have worked for Michael Moore and it seems to be the medium of choice for the 9/11 conspiracy leaders, but if the movie isn't done well and the public relations isn't handled well, the tactic may backfire. Besides, YouTube now offers an opportunity for instant rebuttal of any absurd or false claims made in your movie. The whole process can get bogged down in rebuttals and rebuttals of rebuttals ad nauseam.

There will always be somebody on Fox who will interview a Ben Stein about the "persecution of creationists in America." Watch this video of Stein being interviewed by Bill O'Reilly. These two are joined at the hip. The anti-intellectual O'Reilly calls scientists "pinheads" because they haven't solved the problem of the origin of life. He and Stein think the problem is solved by referring to a "higher power." That really helps, don't you think? How did the "higher power" originate? They don't know but assume it existed forever. They claim to be able to understand that but can't understand how the universe could come into being without another entity creating it. Who created the higher power? (The answer is "nobody," which is also the answer to the question "who created the universe?") They believe only a "higher power" could create something as complex as a human cell or a universe. That's their story and they're sticking to it! Better we should believe in some invisible guy in the sky who makes a man out of mud and a woman out of the mud guy's rib. Now that's really intelligent! As Ben Stein says, this is the 21st century. We need an explanation for how all this complexity came about. It was magical thinking! Well, I agree that it was magical, but thinking could come only after there were brains. Sorry, Ben, but it looks like design from the bottom up all the way down.

I'll conclude with a brief rant about free speech. Stein whines about being denied free speech on the O'Reilly figment or factor or whatever he calls it. He claims that ID proponents are being denied their rightful place in academia because of persecution by dogmatic Darwinists. He's a lawyer so I assume he knows he is talking rubbish. Free speech doesn't give an algebra teacher the right to tell her students that triangles are four-sided figures because her Pastafarian scriptures say so. Free speech doesn't give a history teacher the right to claim that there is no history because she believes the Flying Spaghetti Monster creates the universe anew every half-nanosecond, complete with memories and signs of antiquity. Free speech doesn't give the local theologian or his uneducated fundamentalist followers the right to teach biology because they disagree with what is considered fundamental in biology by the scientific community and believe in a spirit who blows on mud to make the first man or in a "higher power" who does magic tricks and creates very complex systems using only his mind that is attached to no body. I know it appears that only a higher power with a perverted sense of humor could have created an O'Reilly or a Stein, but trust me: they too have insects in their family trees.

Scam of the minute award

The award this minute goes to Herrmann International for its spreading the germ of educational kinesiology, aka Brain Gym, an internationally advocated bit of pseudoscience that has infected educational institutions for over thirty years. Congratulations! Ned Herrmann invented what he called "whole brain thinking." He also developed The Herrmann Brain Dominance InstrumentTM (HBDI) You might call the HBDI Myers-Briggs for Dummies. Instead of sixteen basic types, the HBDI has only four, based on four alleged quadrants of the brain, one of which is said to be the dominant form of thinking in each of us. One type is creative (the imaginative person); another is analytical and logical (the rational person); another loves order and is good at following directions (the organized person); the last type is more emotional and social (the interpersonal person). This instrument is used by corporations, governments, educational facilities, and independent consultants to determine such things as who gets hired, fired, promoted, or assigned to which task. The word on the street is that it works just as well as using astrological signs or graphology. You can take the HBDI by clicking here. You probably didn't know that your dominant brain quadrant is partially revealed by how you hold a pencil.

* AmeriCares *

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