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Posts Tagged ‘medicine’

The Mega Myth of Mega Vitamins

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 23, 2013

Too much of a good thing can kill ya!

Okay, I am going to write about how we overmedicate ourselves with regards to vitamins. That said, I am NOT saying that vitamin supplements are always bad. In parts of the world where a balanced diet is unavailable, supplements make sense. There are people, myself included, who have specific medical conditions that prevent proper absorption of vitamins…again supplements make sense. So, please no straw men.

In an article published in THE ATLANTIC, Dr. Paul Offit makes the case that we consume way more vitamins than we need. Beyond that, this overdosing of vitamins is dangerous.

Now the name Paul Offit may sound familiar to our skeptic readers, he has been a front man in the war against the Anti-Vax movement.

A vast majority of the article focuses on the origin of what we now call ‘mega-dosing’ vitamins. Which he lays at the feet of one person Linus Carl Pauling.

I should stop and point out that Pauling was in his lifetime a great man, humanitarian and scientist. He won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering an entirely NEW chemical bond, from work he published in the 1920s. Having revolutionized physical chemistry, he then was part of a team that discovered the structure of proteins in the 1930s. In the 40s, he helped prove that ‘abnormally’ folded proteins caused Sickle Cell Anemia. He won the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his work “against nuclear weapons testing”.

Pauling is the only person to win two solo Nobel Prizes…one in Chemistry and one in Peace.

All these earlier discoveries were accompanied by proper scientific investigation. For some unknown reason, at the age of 65, that changed. Now, armchair psychologists (such as me) feel that Pauling may have a…well, developed an inflated ego, that he could do no wrong. That, in almost every endeavour, he used “unconventional” or radical thinking to find new discoveries missed by others. One might excuse what I am about to say, that he had personal precedent on his mind when promoting ideas that were not supported by the ‘establishment’

Pauling got some anecdotal evidence that large doses of Vitamin C could increase his life expectancy by 25 plus years. Pauling tried it and felt better…again anecdotal.

It also ran contrary to studies done in the 40s that showed no benefit. It is unclear why Pauling seemed to, in his waning years; abandon the scientific method…the very thing that created his career. When people said his ideas were nuts, the method proved them wrong. But by the late 60s till his death, it was not the method but his own personal belief that made things true.

Of course when Pauling started praising Vitamin C, more people did research…proper controlled studies…and again, no effect was found. We should remember, Pauling was worshiped as a genius, if he said something was good, people…scientists WANTED to believe. However, the scientific method has no room for the cult of personality.

That have been over a dozen large scale controlled experiments showing no link.

Pauling then doubled down…He claimed it also cured cancer.

This was based on a small study in Scotland, but when unbiased scientists looked at the study, they noted that the people given Vitamin C were in better health to begin with…oops. One of the foundations of a valid double blind scientific study…that can PROVE things…is that the ‘subject groups’ are equal. One could say that smart phones promote good health because people who use one have less medical issues…this of course ignores the fact that the majority of young HEALTHY people have smart phones while the ill and infirm elderly are not ‘early adopters’ of new tech.

Again, based on the ‘now’ reputation of Pauling (which is rapidly declining thanks to these quack med claims), scientists tested the effectiveness of Vitamin C on cancer and again, no connection was found.

Pauling in classic quack science mode, when he could not get peer reviewed science journals to talk about this miracle cure, wrote a book titled ‘Vitamin C and the Common Cold’ and went on the talking circuit directing people to take 3000 mg of the vitamin…50 times the recommended dose. I say TALKING circuit because the ‘lecture’ circuit already knew his ideas were bunk, however the popular press is always open to a charismatic talking head.

Again in classic Woo medicine mode, he could not accept that the science contradicted his beliefs and lashed out calling the studies against were shots at him personally…that they were cases of “fraud and deliberate misrepresentation.” He even tried to sue the scientists.

And the descent continued. Pauling started to claim that Vitamin C plus Vitamin A, E and Beta Carotene, selenium…that this cocktail, or what we now call a multivitamin….could cure almost everything[1].

By the time of Pauling’s death in the mid-1990s, vitamin supplements were a big business. One plant alone in Texas was churning out 350 tonnes a year of Beta Carotene alone.

In 1992, Time published as its cover story “The Real Power of Vitamins: New research shows they may help fight cancer, heart disease, and the ravages of aging” which parroted Pauling’s unfounded and disproven claims.

Big Supplement though loved it, National Nutritional Foods Association or NNFA, distributed a copy to every member of Congress. They described it as “a watershed event for the industry.” They had a major publication uncritically stating that MEGA doses of vitamins will, again, cure anything without any valid (i.e. scientifically verified) evidence…anecdotal from top to bottom.

It is ironic, that in 1994 a law was passed that loosened regulation of vitamins because they were not, according to law, seen as a medicine. Deregulation, of course, was great for Big Supplement and the industry skyrocketed. If the medial value of vitamins were…well, valid, then the industry should be pushing for medical validation. By having them ‘deregulated’ and putting them in the same class as pork…well, the flim-flam of the industry, its claims and its proponent seems obvious.

IF it’s medically good for you, you WANT it to be classified as a MEDICINE, if it is quackery, then you would like it classified as a ‘spice’.

Of course, one might say, what’s the harm…

  • Well, high doses of Beta Carotene and Vitamin E, causes cancer…it will increase the numbers of cancer cases in smokers.
  • Similarly, Vitamin A is linked to some forms of lung cancer.
  • A study of the Pauling cocktail in 2004 showed that in gastrointestinal cancers, mortality was UP if you took Pauling’s advice.
  • 2005, Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out that patients taking mega-doses of Vitamin E were at higher risk of Heart Failure.
  • 2007, men who took multivitamins were twice as likely to develop prostate cancer.
  • 2008, a study involving over 200,000 people found vitamin supplements increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.
  • 2011 saw two studies published. One showed that in older women, multivitamin (these included mineral supplements as well) died at rates higher than those who didn’t.
  • The second study, showed a 17% increase in the chance of prostate cancer IF you took vitamin E.
  • In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28 billion.

From “Dummies” website:


Overdose and Possible Effect

Vitamin A 15,000 to 25,000 IU retinol a day for adults (2,000 IU or more for children) may lead to liver damage, headache, vomiting, abnormal vision, constipation, hair loss, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, bone pain, sleep disorders, and dry skin and mucousmembranes. A pregnant woman who takes more than 10,000 IU a day doubles her risk of giving birth to a child with birth defects.
Vitamin D 2,000 IU a day can cause irreversible damage to kidneys and heart. Smaller doses may cause muscle weakness, headache, nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, retarded physical growth, and mental retardation in children, and fetal abnormalities.
Vitamin E Large amounts (more than 400 to 800 IU a day) may cause upset stomach or dizziness.
Vitamin C 1,000 mg or higher may cause upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation.
Niacin Doses higher than the RDA raise the production of liver enzymes and blood levels of sugar and uric acid, leading to liver damage and an increased risk of diabetes and gout.
Vitamin B6 Continued use of 50 mg or more a day may damage nerves in arms, legs, hands, and feet. Some experts say the damage is likely to be temporary; others say that it may be permanent.
Choline Very high doses (14 to 37 times the adequate amount) have been linked to vomiting, salivation, sweating, low blood pressure, and — ugh! — fishy body odor.

So, in conclusion…to paraphrase Mackenzie-King, “Vitamins if necessary but not necessarily vitamins”…translation, eat a well-balanced, shyte, in Canada, even half-assed balanced meals and leave the supplements to those FEW who truly need them.

[1] heart disease, mental illness, AIDS, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningitis, shingles, fever blisters, cold sores, canker sores, warts, aging, allergies, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, retinal detachment, strokes, ulcers, shock, typhoid fever, tetanus, dysentery, whooping cough, leprosy, hay fever, burns, fractures, wounds, heat prostration, altitude sickness, radiation poisoning, glaucoma, kidney failure, influenza, bladder ailments, stress, rabies, and snakebites

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Biomeridian Feedback

Posted by Ethan Clow on July 7, 2011

Recently, a listener wrote in with this email:

Hey Radio Freethinker,

I love your show! I’ve been listening to it for a few months now as a
podcast (since I’m in Ontario).

I’m sure you get plenty of suggestions, but I thought given your
interest in debunking so called ‘alternative health’ methods, I
couldn’t resist sending you this idea.

I’d love to hear something on Biomeridian Stress Testing. I know some
people who are very excited about this test, and suggesting it to
everyone. They found someone performing this “diagnostic” in the back
of a health food store, and started taking their claims (about
allergies, parasites etc…) very seriously (including changing their
children’s diets, and buying natural remedies (conveniently sold in
the same store)). Being a skeptic myself, I find the claims of these
devices suspect to say the least and dangerous at worst, given that
people substitute them for scientific, medically proven tests and
diagnoses. I even spoke with a naturopathic doctor, and she thought it
sounded pretty suspicious. However, they seem to be getting very

Just a thought!
Thanks for the great show!

Thanks for the email Cathy. I started to do some digging to figure out what exactly Biomeridian testing was. It turns out, that’s easier said than done.  Fortunately I found a few sources, including a recent article written by Dr. Harriet Hall over at the blog Science Based Medicine.

From what I’ve been able to gather, Biomeridian Stress Testing, or Biomeridian treatments, or meridian treatments as they are occasionally called, is an alternative medical treatment for allergies. It involves using a form of “no touch” acupuncture to cure allergies by strengthening organs and preventing allergic reactions.

How does it “supposedly” work? That I’m not sure about. The websites I could find for companies that offer Biomeridian testing were very vague about exactly what the process involves. (which is a huge red flag) – if a company had a treatment that worked and was effective, they would be very clear on what the process is, how it works and what it does. This is what I found on one website offering Biomeridian treatment:

“our medical office has used sublingual provocative neutralization techniques for treating patients with adverse reactions to inhalants, foods, and chemicals. This technique is described in detail elsewhere, and has been “proven” beyond any reasonable doubt by numerous double-blind studies executed by various investigators in multiple centers and reported in a number of peer-reviewed medical journals.” – source

Another website I looked at made it sound more like acupuncture but with tapping instead of needles. What they called “Energy Meridian Tapping (EMT)” which is apparently “a user-friendly version of the long established meridian tapping modality called TFT (Thought Field Therapy).”  – source

Biomeridan testing seems to involve using electronic devices to measure some vaguely described form of “energy” that apparently indicates when someone is ill or not. Some of these treatments use devices designed to measure electrical currents. A complete circuit is made by having the patient hold a metal object and applying the device to another part of the body. Once the current is made the device will ding or dials will flash about and the tester can either make up some results i.e “oh my you’ve got a conductivity of 12.4 that means you need X more treatments…” or they might have some sort of standard system they use, similar to how scientologists use e-meters.

So, if I understand this correctly, it’s some form of acupuncture that relies on a theory called radionics, the idea that illness and health can be detected by the energy emissions of the body. This theory was created by Dr. Albert Abrams in the early 1920’s and its been around in different forms ever since. When all tests failed to find either that the energy that was indicating the illness, or show that the devices that were supposed to cure these energies didn’t work as they are supposed to work or that they are simply measuring electrical resistance, proponents assert that there is a paranormal element that is “integral to radionics, noting that the radiations being measured are similar to those felt by a dowser”  and the person operating the machine must have some paranormal powers.

Looking at the different ways this biomeridian treatments are described, they appear to be creating a hodgepodge of various alternative medicines. Harriet Hall mentions this plethora of names and theories in her article on Science Based Medicine:

“The testing procedure was originally known as electroacupuncture according to Voll (EAV), but is now called by many other names including electrodermal screening (EDS), electrodermal testing (EDT), bioelectric functions diagnosis (BFD), bio resonance therapy (BRT), bio-energy regulatory technique (BER), biocybernetic medicine (BM), computerized electrodermal screening (CEDS), computerized electrodermal stress analysis (CEDSA), limbic stress analysis (LSA), meridian energy analysis (MEA), point testing, and many more.” – source

In addition, there are a lot of red flags when looking at this; the constant vagueness when describing the treatments, the use of words like quantum, energy and wellness – and never are those terms defined, they are simply thrown in as adjectives to make the treatment sound more sciencey. Not to mention the easy out these proponents have given themselves. If ever the treatment doesn’t work they can fall back on the claim that there’s something immaterial or even supernatural going on. That also doubles as an excuse as to why these treatments can’t be examined scientifically.

Cathy also mentioned the potential dangers of such a treatment. I was able to dig up a few alarming reports related to biomeridian testing. One was about some naturopaths taking this treatment to Haiti after the earthquake to help people. Despite being well intentioned, this treatment is scientifically implausible to work and could delay or prevent necessary medical treatment.

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Science, Tool of colonial imperialism?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 4, 2011

A friend of mine asked me if it wasn’t true that science…WESTERN science is really just part of the whole colonial imperialist baggage intended, and used, to diminish ‘local’ indigenous knowledge and elevate the superiority of ‘western ways of thinking’. As a believer in science, I knew he was wrong…then as an even better skeptic I thought I should exam the question.

To start with we should point out there are several ways to look at the question. First is the idea that science made ‘western’ domination possible, then the fact that science may be (claimed to be) neutral but scientists are not and lastly the idea of Scientism. I should also note that I used Europe and European but mean Western which would include Canada, the USA and those non-European countries/colonies that were largely populated by Europeans AND their ideas.

Now, it is a fact (or a quirk of history) that Europe took knowledge and technology from other cultures…altered and improved many…eventually applying them to world exploration and then domination. Europeans did not invent gunpowder but they did ‘perfect’ its use as a weapon. They did not invent oceanic travel but they did improve both the technology of ship-building and

by Jerad Diamond

navigation to the point where they could not only circumnavigate the globe but to do so regularly. Now, I don’t want to go into the why or even how Europe did this expropriation of technology that is a different question (I recommend checking out “Guns, Germs and Steel” and the response to the book). They were not the first imperial power and probably not the last, they were however the first global power.

There is a paradox in colonialism with regard to how science was able to both create and destroy civilizations. One of the greatest crimes Europeans committed (at time accidental – other times with purpose) against the indigenous people of the world was the spread of disease. However through transportation (plagues) and medicine, science was fundamental to Europe’s ability to dominate. Science caused the loss of many indigenous cultures while creating an entirely new one  for both Europeans and those they dominated.

Trade routes facilitated the spread of the plague

First you had the science of transportation. Not only did this allow Europeans to travel around the globe encountering new peoples in new lands but to take with them (unknowingly) a plethora of diseases from one continent to another. Ironically, because of the endless waves of plague and disease that ravaged Europe (also due to scientific advances in trade and travel), Europeans became a reservoir of ‘biological weapons’ like smallpox as well as the science to ‘deal’ with it like vaccination and drugs.

Painting of massive deaths in Europe due to bubonic plague

When Europeans first encountered indigenous peoples, local medicine was only adapted to local conditions…which would have little experience with highly ‘communicability’ of disease. Europeans, thanks to extensive Euro-Asian trade, were better equipped both biologically (ie natural immunity) as well as culturally to deal with ‘new’ communicable disease. Thus indigenous people died by the millions while Europeans only died by the hundreds.

Colonial governments vaccinating indigenous population

To add irony to this, science had first enabled Europeans to infect and decimate indigenous populations then, thanks to the ever increasing medical advances (spurred by the challenges to overcome new disease), science then provided a salvation for the locals to ‘save them’ from the very disease the Europeans had brought as well as the local ‘incurables’. Thus Europeans were cast as both the takers of life (because of  things like small pox) and the saviours of life (especially in the 19th century when ‘modern’ medicine really started), allowing them to take on the persona of gods while instilling a sense of inferiority in the locals.

Nigerian solder keeping guard over slaves

Now this give-and-take of science had its parallels in agriculture, mining, manufacturing and a great number of other areas of life that allowed Europeans to dominate most indigenous cultures both physically as well as psychologically. The most notable of these “other” areas is the science of warfare and in particular weapons.

Haitian revolt for independence from France

First it allowed Europeans to dominate local power structures but then provided the means for locals (friendly to the Europeans of course) to dominate their own rivals as well as offer the only effective resistance to the colonial powers. You had a situation where the only way to defend the local people from colonial invaders was to adopt the science of those very same imperialist.

Europeans splitting the Chinese pie

Now as an aside, this analysis may not completely explain colonization of the ‘old’ culture like China but if goes some ways. Of course having gotten rich and fat from the New World, when Europe turned its eyes on the ‘old’ cultures of the middle east and Asia, it was not as much science but brute force that allowed Europe to become a global power.

Okay, enough of the first part…the HOW science made western imperialism possible. Now let’s look at the idea that science is itself used as a tool of domination.

What do we mean when we say that…science is tool of domination? By this I mean that not only the fruits of science have allowed for imperialism (as already discussed) but the idea, authority or method of science itself has been used to re-enforce that dominance. This is done in two ways; first local knowledge, such as herbalism or shamanism was seen as backwards and ‘primitive’…that the only real medicine was found in a test-tube. Another way it has done this is to use (or misuse) the tools of science to make dogma seem natural and right…giving it an air of authority by the fact it is a  ‘scientific fact’ therefore supporting cultural (political, etc.) truths; for example the attempt to use biology to PROVE the superiority of whites over blacks. Another example is the Piltdown man fake.

Piltdown Man skull

For those who are not acquainted with Piltdown Man, it was a partial ‘humanoid’ skull (jaw and scull fragments). In 1912, this “missing link” was found in England by Charles Dawson. It’s ready acceptance in the scientific community was because it fit with the cultural prejudices of the time…England was THE superpower, the birth place of the industrial revolution and the ruler of billions of people around the globe. It was obvious, to those at the time that England had to be the birth place of ‘intelligent’ man. It also confirmed the assumption at the time that the brain drove the evolution of the body…ie big brains with ape bodies evolved into big brains with human bodies…notably the jaw in the Piltdown man was ape-like and the brain case human-like.

However the scientific method moved on and by mid to late 20’s other discoveries (such as Peking Man and the Tsaung Child) showed that the human body (i.e. the jaw, upright walking et al) evolved first then the brain. By 1930, Piltdown man was seen as at best an anomaly and at worst fraud…and proven a fraud by improved dating mechanism in the 1940’s.

Another great example is herbal or folk remedies. One of the greatest growth areas in pharmaceuticals is in  the natural pharmacy of evolution, found in the plants and animals of the world. Modern science is checking out rainforest plants to see if they have chemicals that help fight infections…remedies that sometimes were already known, albeit in an anecdotal way, to local ‘medicine’ men.

Aztec medicine man applying herbal remedies

Of course this leads us to the difference between scientist and science. Now medicine men may have, by trial and error, discovered some remedies in the flora/fauna of their habitat however they were not using the scientific method so were not scientists. This is an important distinction. Although it may have been wrong to ‘off handedly’ dismiss local knowledge it was still true that the average life span of the indigenous was perhaps 30, whereas

Longevity through the ages

Europeans (at least the upper classes) lived to 50-80…it was bad science to write-off local medicine without investigating but it was also obvious (now and at the time) that Europeans lived longer and thus it would be just human nature for the Europeans to be so dismissive. It became dogma (not without supporting evidence…ie. Global empires) that Europe, Europeans and the ‘western’ ways were always superior to ‘foreign’ and ‘primitive’ alternatives.

To be fair to the medicine men, they did not have the scientific method; they had to use spiritualism and religious/cultural dogma as their guides for discovery. It is by allowing dogma to rule that retarded the development of ‘traditional’ cultures (this included Europe during the religious or dark ages). Now this putting dogma ahead of the scientific method is not limited to the ‘primitive’ cultures, sadly it is all too common in modern science. The saving grace of science though is the scientific method…the method will in the long run correct the errors made by scientist be those errors purposeful or institutional/systemic.

Anatomical "proof" of racism

A great example of this ‘corrective’ nature of the method on the scientist can be seen in the ‘science’ of race and racism. Science once showed that whites were the top of a biological tree of humanity. However, in attempting to affirm previous generations results, assumptions and predictions; the scientific method began to show new generations the holes in the ‘old’ theories…they had to adjust the theory to match the evidence…they had to abandon (however slowly and reluctantly) cultural biases in the light of scientific evidence. It must be accepted that the scientific method is independent of culture but scientist are the products of culture. As such, they often carry the baggage and assumptions of the dogmas of their society which can affect how they apply the scientific method and how willing they are to follow its path.

The Scientific Method writ large

Now what do we mean by scientific method? In this context it has really three parts. One – observe the world, create a model of the world that predicts its outcomes, test those predictions, and adjust the model based on the test results then repeat.

The Second part is a commitment to follow the evidence; this is where scientists occasionally fail. Part of the method is the willingness to accept the fact that, given sufficient evidence, ANY and ALL beliefs, theories and models may be wrong and need to be adjusted to match the reality…even if that means abandoning long held ideas…like racism.

The last element is not often acknowledged as part of the method and that is intellectual compaction…that driving need all scientists have to expand the boundaries of knowledge. For those who say that once an scientific idea becomes established it cannot be challenged misses this concept…every up-and-coming scientist wants to make his name in the field…to gain immortality for their contribution to the project of human knowledge.

To that end, one of the best ways to gain this immortality is to prove the ‘old’ way of thinking wrong…to prove an established model is either incomplete or wrong. This means that every generation of scientist, by their very nature, challenge anything that had become ‘dogma’ in science and are, when successful, rewarded greatly for that challenge.

The first supper of sceince

Lastly Scientism; there are two versions of this term (both derogatory), the first is the misuse of scientific claims in fields of study they were not intended or do not apply; an example is the often misuse of quantum science by spiritualist. This definition is not the one that concerns us now; our Scientism is the idea that science itself is dogma…that the ONLY truth…the ONLY way to find the Truth is in and with science. Now this criticism is in some ways a straw man. It is true most scientists and skeptics believe that science if the best way to know the ‘truth’ about anything but that does not mean that they believe science can, in actuality, be applied (or at least applied perfectly) to every question humanity may ask.

On a recent episode we discussed the role of science in ethics. One of the points that came out was the idea that IF science could, with the same accuracy, certainty and predictability as found in physics, be applied to ethics then it could provide ALL the answers. It seems plainly true that science has absolute answers when it comes to launching a satellite into space because the problem, formulas and results are so well known and predictable. IF we could say the same for ethical questions, such as abortion, why would we NOT follow the same path?

However, it was reiterated that (at least for now and probably forever) science could not achieve this level of knowledge and that in the gaps (often very large gaps) the traditions of philosophy have their place. That, because of the complexity of the human mind and society, the role of  science may be quite limited in many of the ‘big’ questions.

This however does not mean we should not TRY and apply science (acknowledging its limitations) and TRY and limit the number of inaccuracies, misconceptions and uncertainties so as to allow scientific predictions to guide our moral and philosophical inquiries as far as they can. For example, we may debate when euthanasia is right but science can at least inform us as the possibility of ‘health’ recovery or not.

So, to answer my friend’s question, which started us on this intellectual journey, is science a tool of imperialism? No, the technology it produces has been used for that purpose but it could have been used otherwise…that  even when scientists reinforce cultural superiority, the scientific method will eventually bring down their house of cards and that the belief…no the faith…that science can answer all questions is healthy provided that faith does not itself blind you to science’s own limitations. Faith is not in itself bad, it is only when it is blind to the reality around you that it becomes the handmaiden of dogma and the assassin of truth and progress.

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The Homeopaths are Coming!

Posted by Ethan Clow on January 13, 2011

Yes, they will not be cowed! In light of the upcoming episode of CBC’s Marketplace which is set to air tomorrow at 8pm, the Conscious Health Natural Therapy website is encouraging its supporters to spam the Marketplace comment section immediately after it airs!

At least they’re going to wait until after it airs to reserve judgment.

Don’t let their creative use of Capitalization and disinterest in the comma fool you. They mean business.

“There is a concerted effort World Wide to denounce all forms of Natural Medicine
as being worthless or dangerous.”

Okay, first, no one is saying its worthless. Second, homeopathy isn’t “natural” medicine. Third, any medicine not based on science that hasn’t been rigorously tested, proven and subjected to ruthless skeptical scrutiny is dangerous.

“Skeptics belittle Homeopathy as worthless yet the pharmaceutica giant Merck sell homeopathic products. They own Seven Seas who own the New Era brand, who do biochemic salts.  Do I need to say more??”

So according to this, skeptics aren’t in the pocket of “big pharma”, homeopathy is. Actually, that’s very apt. Since most homeopathic medicines are about 10 to 15 percent more expensive than normal drugs, many pharmaceuticals have jumped on the band wagon, producing their own homeopathic or natural medicines and charging more than their science-based medicines.

The Canadian Society of Homeopaths Board is quoted, presenting ways that supporters can counter this attack of skepticism.

“Be prepared to leave a comment on the CBC and Marketplace website immediately after the programme airs. Go to and check out the comment function right now. Sign up now to create a user’s account so that there will be no delay when you are ready to send your comments. Once the programme has aired, you can leave a comment by clicking on the title, which will take you to a summary page concluding with a link “Share your comment”. This leads to a comment box, which requires that you sign in. CBC monitors and reviews all messages so you may want to read the Submission Guidelines page before planning to send your comments.”


“Know what you are going to say so that you can post a response without delay. Choose to focus on a single point per comment, elaborate on it, and conclude with a strong, affirming statement. Often the most effective messages are short, concise, and to the point. Send as many of these as you can.”

Hopefully some Canadian skeptics and post a few comments of their own and if I can make a suggestion, since most of the pro-homeopathy comments will be something like “I took homeopathy and it cured my cold right away and I’ve been using it ever since!” Try to stress how one data point does not equal a scientific study. There are people to have driven without a seat-belt and not gotten into an accident, but that doesn’t mean seat-belts are worthless.

Another good point to mention is how bogus treatments seem to work. Consider how when you get a flu it advances in stages. You start off getting some symptoms, they get worse, and then really bad, and then a bit better, and then they go way and you feel fine. When most of us reach the really bad phase, that’s when we take medication. What happens? We get better! My point being, we’d get better no matter what we did. You can substitute medication for homeopathy or a cheese sandwich and the result would be the same.

Of course this is one of those counter-intuitive critical thinking observations that not everyone will notice. We naturally associate the healing with what we took at that time of illness.

Since news of the upcoming episode of Marketplace broke, I’ve received a number of emails from homeopathic supporters, some well argued and very reasonable. Others, not so much.  One of the common strings running through most of them is that homeopathy worked for them. And again to that I would say one data point doesn’t make science. When dealing with cyclical conditions like the flu or vague non-permanent conditions like headaches, muscle pain, something like homeopathy is bound to look effective. Why? Because those things go away on their own! If you have a headache and eat a sandwich and your headache goes away in an hour, does that mean the sandwich cured you?

Another common theme was people trying to rationalize the Law of Similars or like cures like.

There really is no other way for me to say it except, you’re wrong. Not only is the theory of like cures like demonstrably wrong, it would require us to throw out huge swaths of proven and established sciences like chemistry, biology and physics. You simply can’t dilute a substance and make it more potent. Water, no matter how much you shake it, can’t remember a substance.

There is this notion of extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and proportioning beliefs to the evidence available. If homeopathy says that science has got it completely wrong and the fields of chemistry, biology and physics need to be rewritten so be it. But no one is going to take them seriously until they back up what they say with hard evidence. And so far, they haven’t. The evidence is firmly saying it doesn’t work.

As many skeptics know, there is a world-wide educational effort coming up to explain to the public what homeopathy is and how it doesn’t work. In Canada, the Centre for Inquiry’s Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism is co-ordinating efforts across the country with different groups and organizations.

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The problem with placebos

Posted by Don McLenaghen on November 17, 2010

In episode #89 we had a vigorous discussion about a resent paper published by Dr. Beatrice Golomb (et all) entitled “What’s in Placebos: Who Knows? Analysis of Randomized, Controlled Trials”[1] in the Annals of Internal Medicine published by the American College of Physicians.

It stated that “there isn’t anything actually known to be physiologically inert. On top of that, there are no regulations about what goes into placebos, and what is in them is often determined by the makers of the drug being studied, who have a vested interest in the outcome. And there has been no expectation that placebos’ composition be disclosed. At least then readers of the study might make up their own mind about whether the ingredients in the placebo might affect the interpretation of the study” [2].

What this means is that when a study is published the contents of the placebo are not listed. This is important because placebo’s have effects on the study in two ways. There is the well-studied ‘psychological’ effect of placebo which is independent of the composition of placebo; there is also physical effects based on the composition of the placebo. Now independent scientist can assess the psychological effects but if they don’t know the composition of the placebo they are unable to assess the physical effects and thus ultimately cannot determine the validity of the comparison between drug and placebo.

Let me give you an example; my company (let’s pretend) wants to release a drug to treat type 2 diabetes. We did two trials; in group A my drug was tested against placebo A (composed of Peanut oil, high in B3) and in group B it was against placebo B (composed of Corn Oil, low in B3). The results showed a significant improvement compared to placebo A and no improvement against placebo B. If I am honest I will investigate the reason for the difference which due to the fact that B3 aggravated diabetes thus it is explained by the fact placebo A  is really a nocebo (were symptoms are worsened by the administration of an inert, sham, or dummy (simulator) treatment) making the drug appear more effective than it really is.

However, it is (being overly cynical) more likely I will release results from group A as though it was an unmitigated success. Now, if my study included the composition of the placebo, independent scientist could point out that the placebo may not have been a neutral factor and cast honest doubt on my reported results. However, under current regulations, I don’t have to publish the contents of my placebo; thus there is NO way for independent scientist to know that my placebo contained B3 which may have made my results less reliable.

Now, not all examples have to be nefarious. One study testing a cholesterol drug in the 70s used Olive Oil as a placebo and showed little effect; later it was learned that olive oil has a natural ability to reduce cholesterol so the effectiveness of the drug was underrepresented in the study. The point being is that 1) scientist only can’t know the biological effects of placebo’s if they don’t know their composition, 2) that there currently no requirement (either legal or cultural) to include in a studies result the composition of the placebo and 3) this leave the processes of testing open to, at best, inaccurate results or, at worst, dishonest reports. So, the end run is there should be both profession and regulatory rules regarding at least the publication of the composition of placebos because note every fake pill is the same.


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