Tender Rattlesnakes, Useless Polygraph, Pregnant Because of Needles?, Patently Absurd, Young Hungary Opines, Houdini Stamp, Sylvia Again [yawn], Alternative Medicine Gurus, A Cold Tumo Artist, and A Hellish Worm in the Apple....
Reader Tanith Tyrr, of Snake Getters apparently a brave group dedicated to snakes and such, and available at: http://members.tripod.com/~MsTT/ informs us about the reality of snake-handling, as described here recently. This is in response to my item here on religious snake-handlers. It seems those of us who don't "get" snakes regularly need some education which follows, somewhat shortened....
There seems to be some question regarding the phenomenon of "snake handlers" and their claims that handling rattlesnakes and surviving bites has to do with some kind of religious or supernatural grace. In fact it is simple science. The fact is that many species of rattlesnakes are amazingly reluctant to bite, even when they are freshly caught. In captivity many will readily become habituated to handling . . .
Thank you, Ms. Tyrr! My, my, how we can learn about the fakers if we just look far enough, and try hard enough. And if considerate persons with special expertise care to inform us!
Bob Park, of the American Physical Society, at firstname.lastname@example.org, has struck out again at ineptness in government circles. We've long preached that the polygraph [lie detector] is a useless device, subject not only to poor implementation by the operator, but also the whims and prejudices that said operator may hold. Certainly, it can be beaten by even modest efforts of the experienced liar, yet it is used by prominent US Government agencies as if it really worked. The possibilities of slanting evidence by means of the device, are frightening. So Bob asks:
HAS THE POLYGRAPH EVER UNCOVERED A SPY? WN believes it has not (WN 5 Apr 02). If it has, the government has never acknowledged the fact. The National Academy of Sciences is conducting a scientific review of the validity and reliability of polygraph testing. Its final report is due later this year. It is widely expected that the report will expose the polygraph as less than worthless. But beware, this is a powerful industry.
That last sentence is the operative one here. I suspect, as does Bob, that the government and other equally uninformed agencies will continue to use the polygraph, regardless of the results of the NAS study and conclusions. It's the "Henriette Syndrome" at work again....!
Bob Park also noted, as did we, another batty item in the news, this time via CNN, the proud winners of the Media category in the JREF Pigasus Awards for last year. A medieval form of medicine, acupuncture, is now being touted as a new hope to women having difficulty getting pregnant. (As an aside, I find it bizarre that there is an industry dedicated to getting women pregnant, and just as busy an industry devoted to preventing that condition. But when you know that the two biggest categories of books sold in the USA are cook-books and weight-loss books, you begin to understand the strange needs of folks....) Wrote Bob:
CNN interviewer Paula Zahn asked an acupuncturist how sticking needles in the hands or feet, or just about anywhere, it seemed, could affect pregnancy? "It increases the flow of chi," the acupuncturist explained. Even for Paula, that was a little short on scientific precision, so she turned to a "fertility expert" from NYU. "We're still looking for the science," he conceded, "but this has been around for more than 3,000 years, so it must work." Sure, about as well as astrology. The story was prompted by a feeble German study that wasn't even single-blind. It was published by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Fertility and Sterility maybe in the "Sterility" category.
Last week I expressed amazement about yet another patent issued by the US Patent Office, number 6,368,227 on 9 April, for a way of swinging on a child's swing. I received a number of calls and e-mail messages on this item, some from patent attorneys. It turns out that the patent was given to a five-year-old kid, Steven Olson of St. Paul, Minnesota, for a "method of swinging on a swing." Steve's father Peter is a patent attorney. As if Mr. Olson Sr. were working tongue-in-cheek (we've no idea where Junior's tongue was located) his application asserted that "A new method of swinging on a swing would therefore represent an advance of great significance and value." Hmm. Perhaps. He also said that "Children can get bored by swinging back and forth, or by twisting the swing to make it spin." Another hmm.
In an interview with New Scientist Magazine, Peter Olson said, "I had told him that if he [Olson Junior] invented something he could file a patent." Any patent has to pass the "prior art" test, in which the applicant must prove that his invention is new and has not been done before. Thus, the US Patent Office initially rejected the application for prior art, citing two earlier patents on swings, but Peter Olson appealed, noting that neither was a method for swinging sideways, and the patent was then issued.
I never mentioned here an even more absurd Australian patent, one issued on "the wheel." In that case, a lawyer Down Under who was admittedly trying to demonstrate the farcical nature of his country's patent system, was able to sneak the application through an overloaded system, but the US patent went through the full application procedure, for whatever that's worth. Olson says he was not trying to prove anything, just show his son how inventions and patents work. We may sense here that Mr. Olson has consulted competent legal counsel and decided upon that scenario?
A sense of humor, or rather of absurdity, inspired Ádám Scheuring, of the Fazekas Mihály Secondary School, in Budapest, Hungary, to produce the following analysis of an article he found presented in a popular magazine in his country, an article that was represented as being written by competent scientists. Not at all fazed by flying in the face of authority (I like that!), Ádám, 17, submitted this essay to the JREF and not only did we agree to publish it, but I awarded him my personal annual cash prize that I give to deserving Hungarian students for well-done projects that examine pseudoscientific or quack claims. Here is Mr. Scheuring's winning article:
The Weight of the Soul or the Mass of Stupidity
As an added note here, I've been invited to contribute monthly articles to the Hungarian Journal, Természet Világa, one of the world's oldest scientific periodicals. I'm greatly honored by this request. And perhaps Mr. Ádám Scheuring can be prevailed upon to succeed me, when the time comes....?
We mentioned previously that this year the U.S. Postal Service will honor magician/escape-artist Harry Houdini with a stamp to be issued officially on July 3rd this year, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Society of American Magicians, at their annual convention in New York City. Houdini was a founder of that organization, and now becomes the first magician to be so honored.
Reader Brandi Weed brings us this added information:
Back in 1997, starting with the Universal Monster stamps, the USPS embedded images in the stamps using a process called Scrambled Indicia (you can read about it at http://members.aol.com/gbroz1/Something_New/Scrambled_Indx.html). It does make a good anti-counterfeiting process, but I think the USPS saw it as just a fun gimmick for collectors (you can buy the little decoding viewers from them). Anyway, the upshot of it is that the Houdini stamp, when viewed through the decoding viewer, shows Houdini wrapped in chains. I think it's cute, anyway . . .
On April 6th, Sylvia Browne appeared as a guest via telephone on a Los Angeles radio station, KFI 640 AM, on a talk show hosted by someone named "Karel." I was edified to know that Ms. Browne was still alive, since all efforts to contact her have been futile. Karel, obviously a true believer in just about anything, gushingly averred to Sylvia that he had no cooking skills whatsoever, but that when he was let loose in the kitchen, he was taken over by a "spirit guide" who was a master chef when alive and is was he who enabled Karel to produce culinary masterpieces. Roast unicorn with mistletoe dressing was no doubt a specialty of this partnership. Sylvia, of course, accepted this codswallop with enthusiasm. The host, in his advanced wisdom of such matters, informed Sylvia that
Death is a strong emotion, and when you're in it, you're undergoing a very strong emotional response.
A startling revelation, I'm sure you'll agree. Sylvia, lest the host get too much of the attention, butted in quickly and informed the audience:
I work with doctors. They use me as a diagnostician.
Visions of lawyers float before my eyes when I hear this, folks. Can you imagine the lawsuits and the huge exchanges of money that would ensue, were it shown that a doctor used Sylvia Browne as a diagnostician? This is just another pipe-dream from the fertile imagination of Ms. Browne. Someone who doesn't seem able to find my phone number or address, can't be expected to find facts in her own stories....
As a demonstration of her incredible diagnostic powers, Karel was informed by Sylvia over the telephone, through Sylvia's "spirit guide," Francine that he had trouble with a shoulder, his lower back, and his left knee. "Oh, my God!" exclaimed a seriously alarmed Karel. Then, trying to save what seemed like an obvious error by Sylvia, he suggested that since he really had no left-knee problem, she might have "picked up" vibes from another person in the studio, and Sylvia chortled over that suggestion. As we all know, she is so devastatingly accurate that such an idea is ridiculous.
(This host is now no longer with the station, we're told. Probably had to quit when overtaken by simultaneous shoulder, lower back, and left knee collapse....)
The station, KFI 640 AM, carries Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, and Art Bell, which may hint at their level of operation. On Sundays, listeners can get two inspiring hours of "The Truth, The Light, and The Way," as well.... Wow!
During the Karel show with Sylvia, a call was received from "Chris," of Culvert City, California. Here is how the call was handled....
CHRIS: I'm calling because Sylvia mentioned something at the beginning of the hour, on how she agrees to get tested, and she accepted on the Larry King Show last year to be tested by James Randi....
And that's it. I think you can see that Karel was trying to save Sylvia and dump Chris in a hurry, and I can picture Ms. Browne frantically waving those 4-inch fingernails about, since this was obviously not a call that she welcomed.... That entire call lasted a frantic 40 seconds; other calls to that program had her just pouring out mystical, clairvoyant, declarations to the enraptured callers, and those calls lasted for at least several minutes. I could assure Sylvia if I could ever reach her! that her "personal family stuff," which I understand from its nature could take much of her attention, is not anything that I consider my "business," though correspondents have been pressing details on me. But surely there's a half-hour in there, somewhere, that she could spare to do the test for us? For a million dollars....?
No, I don't think we'll ever get that opportunity. "Eventually," in Sylvia's usage, can be a long, long, time. Hey, I'm 73.....
In the April issue of the Washington Monthly Home Page, author Chris Mooney ran a devastating article titled, "Science Fiction." It was sub-titled, "After spending half a billion taxpayer dollars, alternative medicine gurus still can't prove their methods work how convenient."
This article brought home strongly the basically bad science or perhaps more accurately, bad approach that is being employed by researchers in "alternative medicine." He describes how acupuncturist Dr. Cai, in a test of that art pops needles into patients suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome, but with only one in three of the needles inserted into the "proper" points which should "balance the body's energy" in a way that heals carpal tunnel syndrome. There should be a dramatic difference between the "real" acupuncture and the fake. But if each group shows the same result negative or positive Dr. John Pan, who heads the George Washington Center suggests that it could "knock out thousands of years of treatment principle. . . . That would be very unfortunate."
There's the defect, or at least one defect. A true scientific finding should have no "unfortunate" results for a researcher who is looking for the facts and that's what science is all about! Dr. Cai says the ideal outcome for practicing acupuncturists would probably be "if the result is in between," that is, no essential difference is found between "real" needle-sticking and a sham procedure. Hold on! I don't give a damn whether "practicing acupuncturists" are happy with the results, or not! I am interested only in whether acupuncture works, or doesn't work!
Therein lies the problem implicit in testing popular CAM [complementary/Alternative Medicine] treatments do too good a job, and you could find yourself out of work. So perhaps it's small wonder that many CAM proponents have figured out that the "ideal outcome" for any test is one that's inconclusive (or that can be made to seem that way). The past few years are rife with examples of scientific studies that have carefully debunked worthless practices, but which proponents continue to promote.
Author Mooney cites a comprehensive study that found that one of the most popular treatments for major depression problems, the herb St. John's Wort, had no effect. That research team made a recommendation to discontinue the use of St. John's Wort until positive benefit can be proven, a statement that was objected to by promoters of the drug. Mooney also cites reflexology, which claims that pressure on specific magical "zones" on the hands and feet can heal ailments in other parts of the body, a claim that has been tested and failed. He brings up another discredited treatment, therapeutic touch, Which we has discussed here many times. The practitioner's hands are moved over a subject's body to "balance the patient's energy field." Mooney points out the 1998 article in JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] on the science project of nine-year-old schoolgirl Emily Rosa, which resoundingly showed that practitioners could not do what they basically claimed they could do. (The JREF gave Emily one of our Special Student Awards for this research.) Yet top nursing schools continue to teach and promote it, and "graduates" in this quackery are turned out by the hundreds every year. Monney's list goes on. "Colonic irrigation" (running a tube through a patient's rectum in order to "cleanse" the intestines with warm water), iridology (diagnosing illness by studying the iris of the human eye), and ear candling (inserting a burning candle in the ear canal to remove "impurities" from the brain and sinuses), he writes, have all been debunked as useless or dangerous, and the FDA has even banned the importation of ear candles, though they are still manufactured and sold from domestic sources. He writes about the $1 million NIH study of "magnet therapy," which traces its roots to an 18th-century notion that blood circulation can be improved by mounting magnets at various points on the human body. NIH also funded expensive studies of "distance healing," and a therapy based on the ingestion of shark cartilage, for which they gave another $1 million to study shark cartilage's ability to heal advanced colorectal or breast cancer, an idea which some of CAM's biggest boosters admit is absolute nonsense, since it's well known that sharks themselves get cancer, including cancer of the cartilage itself.
Writes author Mooney:
Other CAM techniques probably don't even merit study. For instance, as I waited to meet Dr. Cai at the George Washington center, I picked up a pamphlet on homeopathy, which, for the uninitiated, is a water-based treatment that uses substances ranging from belladonna and garlic to zinc and ambergris. The catch is that most of these potions are diluted to the point that they're just water one tenet of homeopathy being that substances somehow become more powerful as they're diluted. No matter that this violates fundamental laws of chemistry. Homeopaths insist that water "remembers" the presence of a substance it once contained and uses it to cure illness. Even proponents have trouble explaining how that's possible. Yet legitimate medical schools like George Washington University continue to promote it, while the NIH wastes money studying it
(Pause here for a simple question from this non-academic who is concerned about terminology. If a school continues to teach and promote an obviously quack procedure, is it still a "legitimate medical school"? In my definition, no.)
Though in 1998 the NIH made a great show of cleaning up the shoddy test procedures and simply bad science they were using to look into its CAM program, says Mooney, things haven't much improved. Many researchers, he says, still consider the NIH program to be simply a joke. He quotes Dr. Stephen Barrett, M.D., who runs the website Quackwatch.com (look in!) as saying, "It's been about eight years now, and they've never said that anything didn't work."
In the latest issue of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Saul Green, a former professor of biochemistry at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute, examined how recipients of NIH federal grant money used it. He found it was not for original research; they merely repeated or commented on studies already conducted! They published uncritical studies, thereby creating ambiguity over what parts of CAM actually works and what doesn't. At great taxpayer expense, says Green, they've been astoundingly successful. His conclusion:
To my knowledge, and based on a review of abstracts published by the OAM/NCCAM, no report stated that a treatment did not work. In the past nine years, no negative result has been published, nor have any of the methods studied been shown to work to the satisfaction of the medical science community.
This is deception by the agency trusted to investigate CAM. It is an obfuscation of the reality, that none of the "alternative" methodologies that have been evaluated, have been shown to work as advertised so effusively by the quack community!
As Mooney says, CAM's proponents must finally surrender to the rules of scientific rigor, rather than using half-claims and superficial studies:
There can be no exceptions, no special pleading, no "postmodern philosophy," and no hiding in the skirts of more legitimate treatments. Simply calling for "more research" won't do, since it's just another way of dodging the facts. And since so few proponents share Dr. Cai's willingness, however reluctant, to put their beliefs to the test, it should fall to NIH and the nation's top medical schools to do it for them. That means halting the CAM gravy train in which academic institutions are effectively lulled into submission by millions of dollars in foundation grants. The deans and presidents of respected schools like Harvard should step in and call out professors and directors who'd like to trade on their academic affiliation without living up to what that entails.
Mooney quotes two authorities in the New England Journal of Medicine:
There cannot be two kinds of medicine conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work . . . If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted.
Mooney concludes: "And if it's found to be otherwise, it should be rejected. By everyone."
Reader Matthew H. Fields comments for us on research done recently by a Harvard team on a "tumo" artist who claimed to be able to substantially raise his body temperature by meditating. Remember Harvard? One of their graduates is Pigasus-winner Gary Schwartz, and they have Professor John Mack, who promotes "alien abductions." Tumo is the ancient Buddhist art of keeping warm, and a website devoted to the subject also offers items on "Get Any Girl You Want," "Weight Loss Secrets," and "Secrets About Men." While comfortably warm, we can assume?
The "tumo" performer failed to do what he'd claimed, but then he immediately complained that conditions hadn't been right, and that the instrumentation had broken his state of mind. This is the reason that all of my tests have involved a "baseline" beginning; that gets around any post-test complaints of this kind. Matthew covers this in his point #4, calling a baseline test a "dry run":
The Harvard researchers goofed royally.
Good observations, Matt!
Well, California's done it again.... In the San Jose Merc online, GMSV column, we find:
The Christian Web hosting service "Truepath" likely experienced a massive influx in traffic last week after a text it hosted sparked the interest and ire of the Apple [computer] faithful. The treatise in question, OBJECTIVE: Creation Education, outlines the addled world view of anti-evolutionist Dr. Richard Paley, who argues that Apple by marketing their operating system "Darwin" has aligned itself with the Forces of Darkness.
Poor Steve Jobs. As if he didn't have enough ups-and-downs in his life already. Now he has to deal with a nut-fringe that will doubtless jam his e-mail with cries for his hide. No, it won't cause any drop in his business, because the nutcakes won't be smart enough to use his systems or his products, but just extinguishing the burning crosses on the lawn will be enough of a nuisance.
I'm so glad that we enjoy separation of church and state. Otherwise, the religious types would be active in the administration, and impressing their convictions on us!
What's that? "Ashcroft".....?