Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Placebos: Not Just Pills!

I just came across a fantastic example of a placebo effect, in an unusual context without a sugar pill in sight. According to Rhodri Marsden in the Independent, the Beach Boys were getting sick of Murry Wilson (Brian, Dennis and Carl's dad) interfering with their studio set up, until engineer Chuck Britz created a completely fake mixing desk for him to fiddle with. This kept him happy and quiet, and let them get on with their recordings in peace. What a great idea!

The story  reminded me of my old mate Dave, a notorious beer monster. At one party, the booze was running low when I heard him arrive, already quite pissed from the pub but (of course) bringing no beer of his own. I knew our dwindling supplies were in danger, so I quickly stuck an empty Party Seven  under the tap and filled it with water. Dave was delighted when I presented it to him, and spent the rest of the evening happily sitting on the stairs, jealously guarding his treasure and slowly working his way through the lot.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things...

Actually it's just a bunch of links to websites that inspired my interest in quackery and pseudoscience. I am posting it here because my old web page has disappeared from the server at work. But feel free to read on...

Now then. Can I interest you in five gallons of lukewarm water, pumped into your rectum? No? How about if we make it... ...coffee flavoured? If you think I'm joking, check out "Jos-hua Medicine man" at the Ultimate Resource for Colon Care Online. This site certainly tells you more than you ever needed to know about the joys of deep bowel cleansing. On the other hand, you can get a real doctor's opinion at Quack Watch. Whatever you do, just please, please, don't try this at home.

Fortunately, not all bodily secretions are bad for you. In fact, if you believe Shirley Lipschutz-Robinson, you can cure ALL diseases with nothing more than your own urine. Sometimes, you just splash it all over, and sometimes you need to quaff a few jars, but if you do you will be free from cancer, rabies, polio, AIDS and anything else you may care to name. Wow. I shall never think of a "beaker of the warm south" in quite the same way ever again. Just one question: if urine-drinking cures all ills, does that mean eternal life? If so, pass me a flagon of my finest Aqua Vita, post haste.

Shirley, no doubt, would suggest Urine Therapy as an ideal remedy for chronic or acute ear infections, hearing loss, sinus congestion, ear pain, itching, allergies, ringing (tinnitus), or vertigo. However, since you may find it difficult to piss into your own ear (don't take my word for it, feel free to try) you may prefer to look at Roberta Cruz's Ear Candling pages. Candling, we are told, will cure all the ailments mentioned above. This truly mind-boggling "therapy" involves shoving a candle into the ear, lighting it, and letting the smoke draw all the nasty "toxins" out from deep within. The true devotee then gets all excited, believing that the ash remaining is in fact a pile of impurities extracted from their very brain. What can you say? If that weren't enough, Roberta even claims that having clean ears improves the supply of oxygen to the brain! Marvellous.

Here's an easier way to live forever. No kidding! Jusy by putting magnets on your pinkies, or across your toes, you can align your cells and make them denser and better able to fight off germs. Says who? Alex Chui, that's who! Alex's "Eternal Life Devices" will make you physically younger, and remove wrinkles, fat and scars. Even better, if you don't want to buy them, he provides instructions on how to make your own. For me, however, the best things on the site are the little snippets of personal information. Alex wants China to invade Taiwan! Alex's favourite celebrity is Alicia Silverstone!

The biggest problem with pseudoscientific therapies is that they can be very dangerous, either directly (people have died from infections caused by poorly-sterilised colonic equipment, for example) or because people who believe the quacks do not seek proper medical help for their problems. This site, however, contains probably the most dangerous pseudoscientific claptrap I have ever seen. Check out "Jasmuheen" of the Cosmic Internet Academy. Jasmuheen is a "breatharian", which means that she never eats or drinks anything (she claims), but subsists instead on a diet of "Prana", or light, which comes from "the Divine One Within". The breatharians claim to be "Knights of Camelot" who can cure all famine and hunger (and even anorexia) by teaching people to live on Prana. Unfortunately, press reports suggest that several of Jasmuheen's followers have already died from starvation and dehydration. How, then, can she have survived since 1993 without sustenance? Perhaps she gives the game away when she reveals that although technically she never eats, she does have occasional meals purely for the "pleasures of taste and social interaction". Sheesh.

Sadly, some quackeries have become almost respectable. Homeopathy, for example, sounds almost plausible if you think (as I did) that it involves administering very small doses of various irritants in order to cure the very problems that would be caused by larger doses. After all, you might say, isn't that how vaccination works? Well, no, actually. And it turns out that the doses used in homeopathy are so small that the "medicine" contains NONE of the supposedly active ingredient! How then does it work? The answer is that of course it doesn't work. Homeopaths and homeopathic techniques always fail double-blind tests (a good example is the study performed by BBC Horizon in 2002). Like all pseudoscientists, the homeopaths love to dress their quackery in scientific clothes. Here's a terrific example, from a site maintained by Joseph Mercola, who believes that the molecules of water can be physically changed by positive or negative thoughts! This research so inspired me that I wrote an article with no words for Homeopathy, one of the discipline's most prestigious "scientific" journals. Sadly, they will not be printing it any time soon.

Now here's a wonderful site, which includes everything I love about pseudoscience on the internet. Trepanation is the ancient practice of drilling a 10mm hole in the skull, either to release demons (ancient justification) or to reduce pressure and improve blood flow (modern pseudoscientific justification). This site includes a number of truly stomach-churning trepanation pictures. Please do not try this at home! 
Let's now turn, with some relief, to some less dangerous idiocies. For example, why do so many people insist on paranormal explanations for simple phenomena like crop circles?  Enthusiasts for this art form have been forced to accept that many (even most) circles are made by humans. They still insist, however, that at least some cannot be explained. How can they tell the difference? By dowsing, another load of pseudoscientific nonsense! Sadly, most dowsers really believe in their powers, and they are always dismayed when (inevitably) they fail in controlled tests.

Have you got a few more minutes to spare? How about visiting Donna Ciaciarella, devotee of Past Life Reading. For just eighty dollars she will tell you all about your previous incarnations. Or try the Alien Abduction Experience Research site, with its self-test questionnaire. Could YOU have been abducted, and not even realise it? Well obviously, since the aliens are bound to have some kind of memory-erasing mind beam. Maybe they come and probe you every night, then wipe your brain before morning? This is the place to find out.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Worden Park - Boxing Day 10k

I am 49, overweight, have a history of knee problems, and haven't run further than the bus stop since I gave up playing football nearly 20 years ago. Despite this, I decided in November to have a go at the Worden Park Boxing Day 10k, giving myself just six weeks to get into shape.

The reason for this madness is to support my girl Izzie Butchart in her preparations for the 2014 London Marathon - a much more ambitious plan than my own! - on behalf of ARC, an excellent charity who provide impartial and evidence-based advice to expectant and bereaved parents throughout and after the antenatal screening and testing process. Her big sister Caroline (a proper runner, unlike me & Iz) is coming up for xmas too so there will be three of us running for ARC on boxing day.

If you would like to incentivise us by donating to this fine charity, please do it via Izzie's marathon page so it helps towards her target. If we can get her up to £1,400 before xmas I will also dye my hair bright pink for the race, and Caroline is going to run in a giraffe costume. I know - the mind boggles! Come along and cheer us along if you live near Leyland: you know you will need fresh air after all that christmas excess, and I for one will need all the help I can get...