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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Creation of a skeptic

No intro today, figured I'd just jump right into my little rant/opinion piece, but as a warning, it is fairly link heavy.  What I want to talk about today is the creation of a skeptic. This one basically comes from my appearance on the BlueBalls Skeptics, hosted by Damion and Chas. I'm just going to lightly touch on some of the topics as I've either already written about them, or I'm in the process of writing a stand alone article on them.   And yes, this entire article is anecdotal and from personal experience.

I grew up in a fairly religious family.  My parents are a mix of  Methodist and Baptist, which are possibly the 2 most popular sects of christianity in Oklahoma.  The small town in Arizona I spent the first 10 years of my life was evenly divided between Catholic and Mormon beliefs.  We prayed in school before first hour began and we prayed before lunch. It was officially called a minute of silence, but the teacher normally led the class in a prayer.  Keep in mind this was a public school in the early 80's, so it wasn't actually that unusual.  I went to summer bible school every year, when I wasn't spending the remainder of the summer with grandparents in another state.  I went along with everything I was told, like most kids that age.  Santa Claus was the deal breaker.  I remember looking at a globe in the school library wondering how big the planet was.  I've always wanted to know everything, and have been intensely curious about how things worked.  I asked the librarian how big Earth was.  She very kindly told me it was huge. (Lot of help there, but then again, I was 5 or 6)  I looked at the globe and realized there was no way 1 man could get around the whole thing and give a gift to every kid.  I realized my parents had lied to me about him, and probably the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Christopher Columbus.(Ok, they got one partially right)  I quickly became the most hated kid in class because I had to tell everyone what I'd figured out.  Needless to say. it was safer to stay in class at recess than go out to the playground for a while.

When I was a bit older, I began reading encyclopedias from beginning to end. (This is before the internet, in the early to mid 80's) I really don't know why I did it, except I wanted to learn everything I could about everything, and as I said, it was safer for me to stay in the classroom during recess.  I would tell my classmates about what I'd read, and they'd walk off talking about whatever sport was being played at the time.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed sports.  I played football, baseball, soccer, basketball, and I was on the wrestling team.  I was just more interested in knowledge, which is why I probably sucked at sports.  It is also around this time I began paying attention to the things that adults said.  When we studied the moon landing, and I told my parents about it, my dad said it was a hoax, and he could prove it.  He showed me pictures of Armstrong on the moon and asked me "If he's the first man on the moon, who took the picture?" (Never mind that there were other people on the mission) He also showed me how the shadows were wrong, the lighting was strange, and some oddities in the pictures that he said were from them actually being done on a movie set.  He was an amateur photographer, so I thought his explanation was reasonable.  He also said that the astronauts couldn't survive the radiation out in space.  When we learned about the Kennedy assassination, he simply said there was more than 1 shooter.  I have an idea of what he did during his deployment to  Vietnam during the war, so I thought he must know what he's talking about.  Again, as I got older, his ideas got stranger.  He talked for a while about the New World Order, the Knights Templar, and the Free Masons. Once I went to college, and had access to better research material, as well as that new fangled internet, I looked into his claims.  That is when I went down the dark path for a while.  I began to find a lot of information that normally began with "What they don't want you to know!" in an enormous font with flashy lettering.   I believed it all.  Then, somehow, I was able to drag myself out when I realized all these conflicting ideas couldn't all be true.  I began to actually look into the details.  I learned that the astronauts had placed reflectors on the surface of the moon, and you can shine a laser at them and the light will bounce back.  They also brought back samples from the moon. Neither are things that can be done on a soundstage.  I've seen reconstructions and forensic analysis of the Kennedy assassination that show a single shooter could have done it.  I decided that if I want to know something, or find out the truth, I either need to do the research myself, or find an expert in the field and talk to them about it.

As a child, I was also exposed to water dowsing, cryptids, faith healing,and wearing either magnetic or copper bracelets for pain relief,  as well as herbal, all natural, or native treatments.  My mother, who always took great pride in stating that her grandmother was "a half-breed" (1/2 caucasian, 1/2 native american), would try anything she heard that native peoples used for medicine.  If it worked, she would say it was because natural cures work better than modern medicine. If it didn't, the patient must have done something wrong. Looking back now, when the "cure" would work, it was more than likely either due to the placebo effect, or the natural course of an illness.  I was a rather rough and tumble kid, so I had my share of broken bones (left arm twice, right arm once, right leg once, right collar bone once, various fingers and toes, fractured skull once, the nose and ribs too many times to count), and she would actually try to heal them by the laying of hands.  Sometimes she claimed the spirit of god would help her heal me, other times she would also claim she could do it because she was Native American.  Of course, we'd end up driving to the nearest doctor to get the bones reset and either splinted or put in a cast. She would also try this when I got a severe sunburn, which happens a lot when you haul hay for a summer job.  She would claim to be drawing the pain out of me into herself.  After a few minutes of being very uncomfortable, I would look at her smile, and lie my head off, telling her I felt great.  As soon as I could get away, I would slather on the aloe vera gel to ease my misery, as well as raid the liquor cabinet and for the next couple of weeks, no one in the family would see me without a shirt on.  Both of my parents wore copper bracelets to help with their various aches and pains, and as much as I hate to admit it, I did too.  I never personally noticed any kind of improvement, but I thought it looked nice.  In the late 90's, they'd moved on to magnetic bracelets to help with circulation and other problems.  By this time, I'd already looking into things in a more proper, scientific manner, so I've never worn one, though I have been given several of the things. They don't look as nice as the old copper bracelets, though.

My grandfather was the one that initially exposed me to dowsing. For those that don't know, this is an old practice where you take either brass or wooden rods and use them to locate metals, oil, or water.  Grandpa would take me out when he was hired by his neighbors to help them locate water so they could put in a new well.  He would walk around with a forked willow stick, and when the tip would suddenly drop down, that's where he would tell them to dig.  In high school, I learned that much of Oklahoma sits on top of a major aquifer, and if you dig down about 65-70 feet, you're more than likely to hit water)  I later learned about the idiomotor effect, which is basically an uncontrolled muscle movement.  I will admit that I have witched water wells for people, mostly to help earn some money to pay the bills. After college, and learning about the idiomotor effect, I have quit doing it, even though on rare occasion, I still have people ask me if I would come out and dowse for water. At $200 a pop, it can be pretty tempting. He's also the one that initially told me about Bigfoot and other local monster stories, which I initially took as the truth.  Later, as I looked more into these, I realized the improbability of creatures like this existing.

As I've talked about previously, my wife is the one that introduced me to the larger skeptical community.  It started with podcasts like the Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Skeptoid, and later on the Geologic Podcast, Herd Mentality, and a lot of history and science podcasts.  I also began reading skeptical and science blogs and articles.  I then began this blog, and began looking for skeptical groups in Oklahoma.

In 39 years, I've gone from a gullible child, to a full blown conspiracy theory believer, to carefully walking the very fine line between being a cynic and being a critical thinker.  It hasn't been an easy journey, and I'm no where near the end (I hope), but it has definitely been worth it.

Until next time, just take it easy, and have fun, but always be skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Now taking requests. Please comment.

I'm still around folks, just trying to make a living, so unfortunately, the blog had to be put on the backburner for a bit.  I do have a question for anyone that is still reading this.  What topics are YOU interested in?  Cryptozoology, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, urban legends, mythology, or something I've missed?  Let me know and I'll start researching and writing.  I've got so many ideas that they are just jumbling up and I don't know where to start, so I'm asking for your help.  Let me know what areas you're interested in, and I'll start covering them.  Thanks, and until next time, be good, be skeptical, and be rational.

Skeptical Okie

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Cured by vibrating jewelry?

Hey folks, how have you been.  Yes, I'm still alive, just been very busy with work, and family.  The list of things  I want to talk about has grown to the point I'm having to cull a few items because everyone else has already covered them pretty thoroughly.  I do have a topic today that falls under the banner of Project Bullshit!  What I want to talk about today are the:

Tuning Element Bracelets TM  (dun dun dunnnnn).  (The story is a bit long, so if you want, skip down to the claims and background.)

During a local county fair, I saw this booth displaying a lot of bracelets.  It had a very nice background, a pretty display case, and was manned by an elderly couple.  I saw this booth for 3 days straight.  (I'm not a fair junkie, I was helping my wife with her civic group booth.)  By the last day of the fair, I had probably seen 50-75 people talk to these folks, and at least half of them bought things.  I went over there and took one of their brochures and looked it over.  (I'll go into the details of the pamphlet later)  The older gentleman saw me walking around and actually called me over to him.  Curious as always, I went to see what he was about.  He looked me in the eye and asked if I occasionally have pain in my knees, mainly my left.  I answered honestly and told him yes I do.  In my head, I was thinking, "Great, he's going to cold read me.  This could be fun."  Full disclosure, about 2 years ago, I broke my kneecap and femur in a bovine related accident (not like that!), and I've had problems and pain since then with my left knee, including a mild to severe limp. I had been helping my wife with her booth, which was next to the "healing bracelets" booth,  for the last 3 days, and my looks are a bit distinctive, so the people had plenty of opportunities to witness me limping around.  The fellow that ran the booth sat me down in a surprisingly comfortable chair and began his sales pitch.  He told me that both he and his wife suffered from arthritis pain for years until they discovered these bracelets.  They were so impressed with them that they became salespeople for the company.  I had noticed the woman wearing one, and I realized while talking to him that his watchband was actually one of these bracelets.  (I'm not going to include any images because the manufacturer wouldn't give me permission by the time I published this.)  These bracelets are "vibrationally harmonized with the Earth" to help with healing.  When I asked him what the rate of vibration was, he looked at me and informed me that he wasn't completely sure (honesty right off the bat? Wow!) and even if he knew, it was proprietary information.  I did try to find out what the Earths frequency is supposed to be, and most of what I was able to find comes from New Age sites, so they were full of word salad, so as of right now, I just have to saw I don't know.  While I was sitting there and this purveyor of Woo was giving me anecdotes and testimonials, he had his wife open the case, pull out a rather attractive black metal bracelet, and he set it right above my knee.  He informed me it would take about 10 minutes to begin to take effect.  I was fine with this because, as I said, I'm a curious person, so we started talking about the properties of the bracelets.  During this conversation, I noticed almost immediately that he was trying to get medical history from me by making statements like "Most people with knee problems have hip and back problems too." and "A lot of guys your age get muscle pain."  I'm familiar enough with these tactics that I went along with them to see what he would do.  And wouldn't you know it, he basically took the info I gave him and fed it back to me, saying this "scientifically balanced" bracelet could help with my problems.  He also mentioned it could help with cancer, but because of the "damned" FDA, they can't actually say it will cure anything. (I'll discuss the actual claims in a bit.)  I asked how the bracelets were harmonized with the Earth, how they stayed in this state, as well as asking if there was any documented evidence of efficacy.  He informed me, once again that the entire process was proprietary, and the only evidence he could offer was more testimonials. I asked him what they were made from and he told me they were stainless steel.  the ones that aren't silver are plated in other metals.  I then asked about the prices.  The cheap ones, the plain silver ones with no adornments cost about $75.  The more elaborate ones, with the different coatings and laser engraved images, cost up to $300.  I think I just blinked at him when he casually gave me the prices.  About this time, he seemed to feel that the sales pitch wasn't working, so he went the friendly route.  He began asking me about what I do for a living, if I have a wife and children, if I have any hobbies, etc.  I told him I do animal control, as well as farm work for a living. Yes, I have a wife and child, at which point he asked me if she worked.  I said yes, she's a bio-chemical researcher.  The look on his face at this statement was odd enough, I had a hard time not laughing.  He then asked me about my hobbies.  I said reading, writing a blog, outdoor activities, and I'm part of a skeptical group.  As soon as I said this, the 10 minutes suddenly finished. (It was actually closer to 20)  He removed the bracelet and asked if I had any pain.  I told him honestly no at that moment.  He then had me stand up.  Upon doing so, my knee popped loudly enough to be heard from several feet away ( a normal occurrence if I've been sitting or standing for a while.)  He told me that sometimes it takes a while for the effect to be noticeable, and I should go ahead and buy one.  I told him I'd have to talk to my wife first, and I left thinking I need to write about this.

The Claims:

The overall claim of this particular type of product is that can help "bring our body back to it's natural frequency"  The manufacturer states that electromagnetic radiation  disrupts our bodies natural frequency, which in turn pulls the protons in our cells  out of their natural alignment and causes cellular dysfunction. (Waiter, I'll have the word salad with the house dressing, thank you.)  The brochure says that the bracelet will realign the protons so they spin or resonate in harmony.  It also claims that our "electronic technology" (and I have no idea why they have that in quotation marks) has hidden "pollutants" (More quotation marks) and our bodies absorb these.  Care to guess the pollutants that the maker of these bracelets is concerned about?  EMF's(Electrical magnetic fields) and ELF's (Extremely low frequencies).   According to the brochure, these are emitted from different tech, and when the body gets hit by these waves, to paraphrase them,it just completely fu!&s us up.  The top of the paper has the words Got Pain?  in 21/2 inch letters, with the following conditions:
  • Arthtitis                                            
  • Carpal Tunnel
  • Muscular Pain
  • Stress
  • Hip Pain
  • Knee Pain
  • Back Pain
  • Insomnia
  • Colds/Sickness
  • ADD/ADHD
  • Joint Pain
  • And many More


Under this, it has Need help with? followed by:

  • Quality of Sleep
  • Range of Motion
  • Better Athletic Abilities
  • Balance
  • Flexibility
  • Less Snoring
  • Coordination
  • Better Golf Average
  • Faster Recovery Time
  • Strength
  • Energy
  • And Much More

And of course at the bottom, it has the usual disclaimers about going to your doctor for health issues, this product has not been evaluated by the FDA, and results may vary.  As someone with knee pain and ADHD, if one product could take care of these, I would be overjoyed.  The problem is, to quote the Sawbones podcast, "If it sounds like a cure-all, it cures nothing".  A lot of the various pains that they list have to do with joints or muscular damage, while balance is controlled by the inner ear, and ADHD is a neurological issue.  No single thing can treat three very different systems.

How it works:
This product is supposed to work based on the principles of harmonic balance.  According to their website,(and no, I'm not going to link to them)  these ideas were created by Georges Lakhovsky and  W.O Schumann.  Lakhovsky created a machine called the Multi Wave Oscillator in the 30's and Schumann is know for Schumann Frequencies.  Both of these men's ideas are popular in alternative medicine as a means to treat people of various problems.  They both have too much history to go into here.  The companies description of what their product does is overly vague and almost magical sounding.  The problems it is supposed to treat, as well as their supposed initial causes are extremely similar to the  T-28 3G/4G Whole House Protection device I wrote about a while back.  It's supposed to protect you from EMF's and ELF's, which in turn are supposed to slowly damage every part of your body at the cellular level.  Every description of how this item works is so vague I can't tell if they are talking about a bracelet or pasta salad.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's supposed to work by magic and wishful thinking.  And your money.

The Problems:
The main problem with this product, much like the infamous Power Band and the  T-28 3G/4G Whole House Protection device, is that they just DO NOT WORK!  No one item can have a beneficial effect on every system (skeletal, nervous, muscular, cardiovascular, respiratory, etc.) at once.  If you look at actual medication, or medical therapies, while they have a beneficial effect on the given system that they treat, if you look at the possible side effects, they normally effect other systems that have a direct effect on each other..  Wearing something on your wrist will not have a effect on ADHD, unless it's shiny and can actually help you keep your focus.  The same product won't help with a cold and give you a better golf average. Another problem is how the hell do they know what frequency the human body is supposed to have, and who determined what is in harmony with the planet?  Do things in nature have the same frequencies?  Does pumice vibrate at the same rate as uranium, and does that vibrate at the same rate as wood?

Conclusion:
Do I really need to say it?  Okay, you asked for it, so I'm duty bound to do it.  This bracelet, while it actually is good looking, and I wouldn't mind wearing one for aesthetic reasons, it doesn't treat anything except for a heavy wallet or purse.  A piece of metal on any part of your body, unless it's a brace for a joint or back, won't treat a single medical issue, let alone everything under the sun.  When you consider that in 3 days I saw 30-40  people buying these at a minimum of $75 each, and I found very similar looking items at Wal Mart for $10 the next day, someone made out like a bandit.  Granted, I don't know the companies business model, and I'm not 100% positive what the markup is on these, but it's probably still a good chunk of money.

Until next time, Be Good, Be Skeptical, and Be sure you turned the stove off before you leave.

The Skeptical Okie

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Margaret Sanger, a lesson in research and picking your battles.

This week, I'm just going to jump straight into the topic because it has got me so pissed off.  Lately, I've been seeing a certain picture popping up on my Facebook feed.  I'm sure some of you have probably seen this one too.  It's:


I have made the mistake a few times of pointing out that the quote on the picture is taken completely out of context from a book that Margaret Sanger wrote in 1922.  The first time I did, someone had mentioned what a horrible person she was for wanting to kill babies.  There were also a few comparisons to Hitler in the thread.  I did a little looking, mostly in Wikipedia and WikiQuote.  This quote comes from chapter 2 of her book "Woman and the New Race".  I found that she was talking about extremely large families where the infant mortality rate and the mothers chance of dying in childbirth increases with every child.  In 1922, the mortality rate among the youngest children of large families was as high as 70%.  Many times, the children died from starvation, typhoid ,or tuberculosis.  I also pointed out that Margaret Sanger was against abortion.  She promoted contraceptive use to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions. After making my point, the person that posted it said she hadn't realized this.  She just wanted to show what a wicked person Sanger was and the next day, we had a calm, rational, and informative talk (in real life no less) about the topic.

 The next time I saw this, I simply said read the Wikipedia article or the Snopes article on it and I was thanked by several people.(Rationality for the Win!)

  The most recent appearance of this horrible amalgamation of photograph and quote, everyone in the comment thread was screaming (a lot of them seemed to have gotten their Caps Lock stuck) about how she was a racist.  I simply pointed out that the quote is taken out of context, and in fact, she helped set up the first womens health clinic in Harlem.  Then it got strange.  One person said he could prove she was a racist, as he had been in the Anti-abortion movement for nearly 40 years, and yet he offered no proof.  The next one pointed out that she was a eugenicist, and accused me of basically being insensitive.  At this point I realized that no matter what I said, all it was going to do was incite a flame war.  I don't have time for that crap.  All I tried to do was point out that an organization was taking one sentence from one book she wrote nearly 100 years ago and are using it in their marketing campaign.   If you look hard enough, you can pull the same damn stunt with Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or even your own parents.   I'll admit, she did believe in eugenics,and so did Winston Chuchill, Theodore Roosevelt, John H. Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, and George Bernard Shaw. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics#Supporters_and_critics and en.wikipediaorg/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States. )   The fact that most of the people seem to be missing is that in 1922, eugenics, which is essentially a human breeding program to improve the species, was a popular idea.  In fact, in the United States, there were 32 states with eugenic programs for criminals and people with mental and/or physical disabilities.  North Carolina didn't end theirs until 1977 and Oregon performed their last mandatory sterilization in 1981.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_sterilization#United_States and en.wikipediaorg/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States. )  Concerning the claims of racism, while she did view African Americans to be inferior, she did work with W.E. B.Du Bois to set up the first womens health clinic in Harlem. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger )

I found all this info in about 2 minutes, and yes, a lot of it does come from Wikipedia.  There are more "Sanger is evil" articles than there are "Sanger was a normal early 20th century woman" articles, but with a bit of looking, I was also able to find relatively unbiased biographies of her and corroborate them with the Wikipedia article, which also has links to the articles external sources.  She's not an angel, but she's not some spawn of hell either.  She was simply a woman that was doing what she could to help other women during a period of our history when what we consider strange ideas about race and sexuality were considered normal.

By todays morality, and yes, morality does change, she would be viewed as a bigoted, racist woman.  However, when you put the quote in the picture into context with the time it was written in, her views were the norm.  What this organization, the ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice) is trying to do is to apply the morals of 2014 to a statement from 1922.  It doesn't work.  As people and cultures change, so does the moral fabric of society.  20 years ago, homosexual men were either a joke or plot device in movies and television shows.  Now they are just another character.  In 1968, on the episode titled "Plato's Stepchildren"  Captain James T. Kirk kissed Lt. Uhura.  The day before it aired, an interracial kiss was unthinkable.  Now, most people don't really notice.  You can not apply something as malleable as morals to events that happened in the past.  The farther back the event occurred, the less that present day morals can be applied.   

And by the way, the ACLJ, from what I can determine looking at their website, is a christian law group that views freedom of religion and freedom of speech as inalienable, god given rights. (Their words, not mine)  So of course they would be anti abortion.  Some of the questions on their homepage are "Bible study in the workplace" (not really phrased as a question, is it?), and "Religious groups denied public access".  Under most popular are such pleasant titles as "Stop funding the United nations" and, wait for it...."Stopping abortion, Ending Planned Parenthoods Taxpayer Funds".  Yep, an unbiased legal defense organization.  

  I do try and take advantage of every teaching moment I can, but I also have realized recently that I have to pick my battles more carefully.  The people that will happily butcher and warp the legacy of a historical figure and the people that believe in their cause with every fiber of their being, are not going to be convinced by any facts that you present to them.  But, if they were to put as much energy and time into looking at the claims they are making (and yes, even if you just re post something on Facebook, you are making a claim, unless you have a disclaimer) as they do spouting their vitriolic drivel, then maybe they would be able to build a more solid foundation for their arguments.

Thank you for joining me on this little trip through my mind and what become an almost daily occurrence. Until next time, Be Good, Be Reasonable, and be sure to wash behind your ears.

The Skeptical Okie

Monday, February 24, 2014

WTF folk medicine? (Rant warning)

Hey kiddos, how has everyone been the last few weeks?  It's been ....interesting to say the least.  Chaos at work, at home, at the Skeptical Okie headquarters, and everywhere in between.  There have been some interesting things in the world of science, which have been covered by everybody.  So once again, this is going to be a rant at dangerous, misguided beliefs.

This is a bit off topic, but I highly recommend listening to the Monster Talk podcast.  Blake Smith and his guests do a good job discussing various cryptids and the likelihood of their existence.  I heartily endorse Monster Talk and urge anyone interested in Nessie, Bigfoot, Chupacabra, Mothman, and any other cryptids to go and give them a listen,  You won't be disappointed.  (Just let them know I sent you.)

Todays topic once again is based loosely on my work, and it relates back to several previous posts.  I'm talking about, as you can surmise from the title, folk medicine.  What brought this on is an encounter at my place of employment.  As I've said in the past, I work in animal welfare for a largish city.  As I was walking through the dog kennels, I saw an older woman looking intently at a young pup in one of the pens.  I walked up and began talking to her and at some point canine diseases come up.  She stated that her daughters dog had parvo and was nearly dead.  She gave it a wormer, and it was better the next day.  I looked at her and, thinking to use this as a teaching moment, told her that wormer only works on internal parasites, not a virus like parvo.  It will get rid of roundworms, tapeworms, or pinworms, depending on the type of wormer used.  Parvo is a virus, so it has to be treated symptomatically.  She looked at me and said "Nope, it was parvo, I just know it, and the wormer worked, just like always.  Just as a side note, there are some parasite infestations that can cause symptoms similar to parvo, which is why it's important to take your animal to the vet anytime it begins to act ill.  The woman then followed that amazing cure with another one.  She said her 12 year old German Shepherd had had distemper, and been suffering from it for about 5 days.  She put 1 drop of Blue-in in its water and the next day, it was cured.  Surely everyone from the 80's remembers Blue -in?



Image from Google Images
When I asked her what her vet had said about her dog, she said she doesn't go to a vet, because the old ways work the best. (Can you say Argument from Antiquity?  I knew you could.)  If her dog actually had distemper, blue clothing dye wouldn't have had any effect.  Once again, distemper is a virus and needs to be treated symptomatically.  And according to the vet and several vet techs and assistants at the facility, even if an animal recovers from distemper, it normally has neurological damage due to the extreme high fever.  What this woman's dog  more than likely, had was either a sinus infection or Bordetella, also called Kennel Cough.  She probably "medicated" the dog as the disease was finishing it's natural course, and of course it seemed he was cured. (Correlation does not equal causation)

Many folk medicines tend to fall under naturopathy.  Natural cures, herbal medicines, and the like.  They also tend to heavily rely on off label uses of various products.  This just means they aren't using the item as directed.  An anecdotal example is from when I was young.  I found out the hard way I am allergic to Neosporin, so my families idea was to use Corona (not the beer) on my various injuries.



Image from Google Images
On the label, it says "Not for use on humans"   Makes me wonder what my parents thought I was?  Maybe that's why I was always called a Hobbit growing up.  But I digress.  Another one is when my brother, who was about 5, caught chicken pox.  First, he was intentionally exposed, which was a practice that was quickly falling out of favor at the time.  Then he was put into a scalding hot bath and given a shot of Jack Daniels whiskey (that is not a typo) to speed the process up.  I'm surprised, looking back, that any of us survived childhood.

There are almost as many folk cures as there are people and diseases combined.  Some are fairly benign, such as chicken soup or orange juice for a cold.  Some are dangerous, like alcohol to a small child to speed up chicken pox.  Some are deadly, like azarcon, which is a powder that contains high levels of lead some people give to their children for stomach aches.  There are just too many variations, not only based on culture, but also geography, to even start listing them.  However, one thing most of them have in common is that they are generally passed down through the family or culture and have been used for decades, if not centuries.  Another thing they have in common is that if they were effective, then they have been tested and the active ingredients isolated, the effectiveness greatly improved, and are now manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.

As I mentioned in the example of the woman with the 2 dogs, there are also many, many folk cures used on animals.  The ones that come immediately to mind involve garlic and tobacco and motor oil.  If a dog were bred by an undesirable male, then some of the old timers would shove an entire clove of garlic down the dogs throat to induce an abortion.  Many old cowboys would feed their horses a cigarette to worm them.  As I mentioned in my previous post, people used to pour motor oil on dogs to treat them for mange.  Sevin dust sprinkled directly on the animal was a treatment/preventative for a variety of external parasites.

One of the major problems with using folk medicine is that, much like homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and anything else that falls under the Supplement, Complimentary, and Alternative Medicine (S.C.A.M. Thank you Mark Crislip) umbrella, is that no actual physician is ever consulted.  This means that there is no diagnosis.  Many diseases, from the minor to the fatal, have symptoms that are very similar, generally being "flu-like".  This means that while they may think they are treating something relatively minor, say a chest cold, the victim...sorry, I meant patient, could actually have the early stages of tuberculosis.  The people that promote and practice this crap are what used to be called hedge doctors.  They know a little bit about herbs and a little about diseases, not from education, but from their personal experience or family stories, and put 1 and 1 together and get 3.  Many times, in my line of work, I have heard someone say that their animal had parvo, or distemper, or they were poisoned and they cured them with some asinine treatment.  When I ask them what their vet said, they almost always say they didn't talk to a vet.  They talked to the guy down the street.  He has dogs, so he knows what he's talking about.  By that logic, because I have a microwave, I should be able to diagnose and treat radiation poisoning.  Another issue that many people in the skeptical community will find is that when talking with these people, or at least get them to look at the evidence, they will always fall back on the argument from antiquity, the natural fallacy, and sometimes they will even throw a conspiracy theory in for good measure.  My favorite of the last category is when people refuse to get their animal vaccinated for rabies, or even microchipped because they think the government will use it to track them.  Fun times.

Like I said at the beginning, this one is more of a rant than a researched post, mostly because I have covered most of this in one form or another previously.  I just thought I would throw it out there for those that are new to the skeptical community as an example of some of the misguided, pseudo-scientific bullshit you will run into on an almost daily basis.

I am having problems finding anyone that is willing to talk to me about the Sea Band that was suggested during my call for Woo products.  I still plan on discussing this product, but I don't know when I will be able to write it.  If anyone out there is a neurologist, neurosurgeon, or at this point, if you're neurotic, leave a comment. I will give you their responses to my questions and allow you to respond in kind.  I'm also working on a healing bracelet that has been harmonically synchronized with the Earth's own vibrational field (Urg, I think I had an anurism talking to the guy.)

Until next time, Be good, Be fair, and Be skeptical.

The Skeptical Okie




Monday, February 10, 2014

WTF natural medicine?

How has everyone been?  As usual, it's been hectic here at the Skeptical Okie headquarters, between the strange weather (thanks climate change), work (thanks needing to eat and pay bills), and just life in general (thanks?).

Now on to the main topic.  A few days ago, during the course of my normal day at work, I had to take an animal to a local emergency veterinarian.  While I was there waiting on them to determine the course of action for the kitten, one of the vet techs escorted a family back to see their dog, a schnauzer I believe.  While two of them were talking to the schnauzer, the third one in the group, a rather elderly lady, began looking at the other animals in the recovery area.  She noticed a couple of pups that were in essentially incubators.  The vet came out and told the family what the schnauzer had been doing while in his care.  Then the older woman asked what was wrong with the pups.  The vet informed her that they had a virus, which had already killed 2 other litters that morning. (I don't know what they had because the vet never said)  She looked at him and said "You need to go to a health food store and get some oregano oil.  You rub it on their bellies and they'll absorb it.  They'll be right as rain."  The other 2 people with her were standing there, nodding their heads like it was common knowledge.  The vet looked at the three of them and said that he didn't think it would work on a virus.  She said to do it and he would see it would work.  The vet sort of blinked, said okay, and went back to his office.  The 3 folks were just saying he'll see, and the natural cures work the best.   About this time, the vet tech that was working on the kitten I had taken in was looking at me sort of oddly, and she finally said "You want to say something, don't you?"  Yes, I did, but I couldn't because it wasn't directly related to my job, and I need the paycheck.  One thing I wanted to say was the vet blew a perfectly good teaching moment.  Granted, it probably wasn't the first time he'd heard it, and he may have just given up.  Secondly, I wanted to ask the 3 people, "If natural cures work the best, why is your dog at an emergency vet?"

Looking on the ever trustworthy interwebs for the efficacy of oregano oil, the first site I looked at states that it can be used to treat arthritis, allergies, and wounds, but nothing about viruses. The best sentence of the article says "Though there are no known side effects when using oregano on dogs, make sure to consult your vet immediately in case you encounter any problems."  Then at the bottom of the page, it goes on to talk about a couple of other herbs that are good to use on dogs, including slippery elm, basil, milk thistle, and hawthorn.  Another site only states that it will kill parasites, and yet a third says that it is "Antifungal, antiviral, anti-aging, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiparasitic, immune stimulant and antiseptic."(http://www.experience-essential-oils.com/benefits-of-oregano-oil.html).  So feed your dog lasagna, it never needs to see a vet?  The reason that this pissed me off, aside from the fact I really couldn't say anything to the owners, is that, like many people who rely on "natural cures and treatments" they wait until it's too late before seeking actual medical treatment.

When I was looking for the efficacy of oregano oil, and a few other "natural treatments", I kept running into the same websites, namely naturalnews.com, mercola.com, curingherbs.com, a lot of them using some variant of "wellness" "natural" or oregano in their page title.  As soon as I see anything promoted by mercola or naturalnews, my skeptisense begins tingling.  I have discussed these two several times in the past, and I think I'm just going to have to write an article on them, and several other people and start referring people back to that.  Quick rule of thumb kiddos: When doing research on any medical treatment, if they claim something works, say oregano, or Antimonium crudum (no, that's not a Harry Potter spell) and strangely enough, why lookie there, a link to buy what they just said works!  What a coincidence! Yeah right.  The reason that there are links to buy whatever miracle cure you just read about is because it was an ad trying to entice you to buy whatever they're selling.  While looking into this lovely bit of Woo, I did find 2 articles on the first page of Google (using the keywords: Efficacy of oregano oil for dogs) from sciencebasedpharmacy.com.  The articles are Oil of Oregano: All anecdotes, no science and Oil of Oregano – No substitute for the pertussis vaccine.  I couldn't find anything published through the World Health Organization.  The CDC has about 3 pages of published material mentioning oregano.  These seem to consist mostly of articles about rates of exposure, studies about the rates of CAM(complimentary and alternative medicine) used by different ethnic groups, and a cookbook.  In Pubmeds, there are quite a few articles mentioning oregano, but they include ones concerning extending the shelf life of rainbow trout and the chemical components and character of oregano oil.  Yes, there are some talking about it having antibacterial or anti-cancer traits, but I could only read the summary, not the entire article, nor can I find anywhere that these results have been reproduced.  As far as I can tell, the main benefit to Oregano oil is to make a grilled piece of tuna taste even better.

I hope that my slightly ranty article shows that skepticism and critical thought aren't relative to only people, but can be helpful to the various animals that many of us share our lives with.  When I was young, a common treatment for mange was to cover the dog with motor oil.  Need to worm your dog or horse, feed them cigarettes (My grandfather insisted the Camel brand unfiltered worked best).  Your female dog was bred by an undesirable male?  Give her an entire clove of garlic (Just watch out if she tries to lick your face afterwards).  After I got older, and learned a bit of science, I realized that not only were a lot of the hedge doctor cures I grew up with ineffective, but a lot of them were also dangerous. (I guess if the patient dies, you can consider them cured of the problem?)  Now that I'm nearly 40, I'm mildly pissed, and a bit frightened that this crap is still being used.  As I've said in the past, I work for animal welfare, and we often see animals come in that have been covered in oil or paint to "cure" skin issues, cinnamon or sevin dust put on the animal to prevent or kill parasites, and various other "treatments" that people will swear works, yet they are dropping them off at the shelter because the animal has either gotten worse or it died.  I got particularly upset and argumentative with a woman that brought in several adult dogs, 2 litters of puppies, and 2 carriers of kittens and adult cats.  The puppies had parvo, which without medical treatment, is fatal to dogs, the adults were emaciated due to a worm infestation combined with nursing the puppies, and the felines had a variety of illnesses.  When I asked her how long they had been ill, she said a couple of months, and the puppies started showing signs of parvo the day before.  I asked her why she hadn't taken them to a vet and she informed me she had.  When asked what the vet told her to do, she said she didn't like the treatments suggested because they involved "harmful man made drugs".  She finally found a naturopathic/homeopathic veterinarian (do they actually come in that flavor?  WTF!) that prescribed activated charcoal for the parvo, and parsley for the worms. For the cats, the owner had several vials with cheap labels and fake latin sounding names hand written on them.  I won't go into detail, but needless to say, I was asked to step back and go help someone in the back, and let the supervisors take care of it.  On a side note, we had to euthanize everyone of those animals, as well as the others that she brought up later. She had more animals that she was treating for a variety of illness in a similar manner. As I said, Woo is dangerous, not only to humans, but to our fuzzy, furry, scaly, and feathered companions.  So the next time you're tempted give your animal something that claims to be All Natural, or some form of a cure-all, do a little research, consult your veterinarian, and remember, cure-alls cure nothing.

As usual, feel free to leave a comment here. Until next time, Be good, Be polite, and stay warm!

The Skeptical Okie





Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sweet sweet death?


Hello kiddos, how has everyone been?  I know it's been a while, and I sort of cheated in December by reposting my rant against the war on christmas, which I will rewrite and hopefully improve, but around the holidays it gets busy, even for us secular humanist atheist skeptic types. (I think that's enough labels for now.)  There has been a lot that's happened in the world of science and skepticism.  New exo-planets, Sylvia Browne and Duane Gish passing away, new biotech coming on line, Burzynski being investigated, again, (Yes!), and Kevin Trudeau going to jail (double Yes!!).  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  So many things I want to talk about, and nowhere near enough time to research them.  Unless I quit my job, find a way to make money blogging and doing skeptic work, and never leave the house.  Or sleep. I'm open to suggestions, if anyone out there has any ideas of how to pull this off.  So, for now,  I'm going to reach into my critical thinking cap and pull out one of the many topics that I've seen pop up on FaceBook....And the winner is:


Aspartame
     This is a subject that comes up pretty regularly in my news feed from people I know and after the article, there is the obligatory message that generally paraphrases into "OMG, I'm never putting that crap into my body again!  Why are they trying to kill us?" Next to GMO's, chemtrails, and "miracle cures", this is one of the most common threads I see and that I am asked about.  I know that others , including the SGU (skeptics guide to the universe) included, have already covered it, but because it constantly shows up, I've decided I'm going to take a look at it as well.

History
     For those that don't know, aspartame is an artificial sweetener developed in 1965 by James Schlatter.  Like a great many other discoveries, this one was accidental.  Schlatter was actually working on an anti-ulcer medication when he licked his finger and discovered something sweet was on it. (I have always wondered who the hell licks their fingers in a chem lab?)  Because it's a food additive, it's regulated by the FDA, so aspartame had to go through a lot of regulatory testing to prove it's safety before it could put into food products.  In 1975, 10 years after its discovery, the FDA began reviewing studies on the safety of aspartame.  In 1980, 15 years after Schlatter discovered it on his finger, it was approved for use in dry foods, and 3 years later, it could be used in carbonated drinks. Another 10 years, and in 1993, it was approved to be used in baked goods, other drinks, and candies.  3 years after that, all restrictions were lifted. That was 1996, 31 years after it's discovery.  31 years of research and studies by numerous groups and governmental agencies before it deemed safe enough to be used with no restrictions. Yet people claim it's going to basically destroy everyone that consumes it.
    Initially, there were some problems, namely with the lab procedures used by G.E. Searle, the company that Schlatter worked for, during their testing.  In 1984, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) studied reports of health issues that people believed were due to consumption of aspartame.  You can read a synopsis of the study here.  Basically what it says is that there is no real link between aspartame and the complaints people were making.  Apsartame has also been studied by the WHO (World Health Organization), UK Food standards Agency, Health Canada, and the European Food Safety Authority, making it perhaps the most rigorously studied food stuff ever.  It's approved for use in over 90 countries as of the writing of this article.

What is it?
Aspartame is actually a fairly simple compound made up of 2 amino acids.  You remember amino acids, right?  The basic building blocks of life?  I am not a biochemist, so I am not going to attempt to describe their exact make up in great depth.   Aspartame is made up of L-phenylalanine and L-aspartate.  and it looks like this:

(image from Google Images)


Like I said, it's a fairly simple compound.  It is also 200 times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a very long way.   The main purpose of an amino acid is to build proteins. The arrangement of the amino acids determine the shape and function of the protein, and life is driven by proteins.  Without proteins, there would be no structures such as skin and bone, hormones couldn't be transported through the body, and no antibodies to fight infections.  And that is only the beginning of the list that proteins do.  And it all starts with a few amino acids forming a chain.  Aspartame rapidly breaks down in the digestive system into it's component parts, which are aspartic acid (an amino acid), phenylalanine (another amino acid), and methanol (methyl alcohol, a normal product of the metabolic process).  And, yes, it does further break down into formaldehyde and formic acid, but before you get worried about that diet coke you've been sipping while reading this, it's fine.  Production of fomaldehyde and formic acid are normal products of the break down of foods into usable components.  As a matter of fact, formic acid is excreted  faster than it's produced by consuming aspartame.  And as for formaldehyde, there can be higher levels of it in your system after consuming all natural fruit juice!

Controversies
There have been controversies surrounding aspartame almost as long as it's been available.  Some of these include that it's not natural, it causes various cancers, hyperactivity in children, problems with various organs, neurological problems, and on and on.  Lately, Mercola has been calling it the most dangerous substance on the planet, never mind that there is more testing and research on aspartame than anything that Dr. Joseph Mercola tries to sell on his site.  After looking around, most chemists and biologists seem to agree that Clostridium botulinum tops the list. I didn't see aspartame on anyones list, except for some natural health sites. (C. botulinum is botulism. The same thing that causes food poisoning and is used for Botox treatments.) He makes a long series of claims, all of which have been disproven by multiple studies from multiple agencies. In his article, he takes the breakdown components of aspartame, lists their percentages of aspartame, and the dangers of consuming them. The way it's written, aside from trying to frighten people, is misleading.  I will agree with him that each of the components is deadly, but the caveat is that it is dependent on the dosage!  If you drink straight formaldehyde, yes, you will more than likely die.  Same for methanol.  The amounts that you would ingest in your everyday, normal diet, however, are no where near the lethal amounts.  He names a great many health problems, ranging from headaches, migraines, depression and anxiety attacks to rashes, tinnitus, and vision problems.  He also says that Alzheimers, epilepsy, and brain tumors can be aggravated by the consumption of aspertame.  Now, I've talked briefly about Mercola, and sites like his before.  For the most part, these "natural health" sites are designed to scare the hell out of people and then get them to buy their alternative products that are supposed to be safer.  (As a side note, Dr. Joseph Mercola is actually a doctor...of Osteopathy.  Take that as you will.)  If you go to any of these sites, and I don't recommend it, look at the navigation bar.  Everyone of them is going to have a "store" heading where they sell al sorts of pseudoscientific bullshit.  If you go to the about pages, almost everyone of them will say something along the lines of "Big Pharma doesn't want you to know this, don't trust "western" medicine or allopaths, don't believe the media hype, don't be a sheeple" and so on.  What he never acknowledges is that, as I've stated, aspertame is one of the most studied food stuffs on the planet, and very few problems have ever been found.  Even Cancer.org had no research saying that there is a link between aspertame and any form of cancer.  Every last damned thing he lists as a problem caused by aspertame has been studied multiple times, and the findings have shown aspertame is not the culprit.  A lot of what he does falls directly into the realm of the conspiracy theorists and their tactics.  All in all, like many other Woo subjects, most of the "controversies" that are brought up by people are actually created by people with either a lack of knowledge in that particular area or they have something to sell.

Dangers
I was able to find 1 main problem with aspertame.  People that suffer from PKU (phenylketonuria) are unable to process phenylalanine.  PKU is a genetic disorder which can lead to a series of neurological disorders including seizures and mental disabilities.  This can be controlled through diet, and avoiding phenylalanine.  Children are tested for this condition at birth, just so their parents will know to monitor their diets.  Otherwise, looking through the WHO, CDC, and Pubmeds, I couldn't really find anything to substantiate any of the claims on the Mercola site.

Conclusion
I would say feel free to enjoy that diet soda, just, like all things, do it in moderation.  With all the research behind it, I have no problem with aspartame, except I personally don't like the taste of diet foods.  Like anything else, when you hear a claim, look into it and see what is going on.  Check the sources, make sure they are reputable, and don't have an agenda.

Until next time, be good, be reasonable, and be sure to hug your favorite skeptic.

The Skeptical Okie