The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine

I happened to have a busy day yesterday, and in addition today's a deadline to submit a letter of intent for a grant application, as well as to write a response to some criticism in a letter to the editor of my recent Nature Reviews Cancer article. (Trust me, it's fun.) Never one to let such an opportunity pass, I decided to take advantage in order to do a little shameless self promotion.

A week and a half ago, I gave a talk at Skepticon 7 in Springfield, MO entitled The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine. It's now been posted on YouTube.

Because some of the sound didn't come through as well as one might hope, I'm also including the full video of Kim Tinkham that I used early in the talk to illustrate a point. I only used about two minutes' worth of it, but here is the whole thing, in case you're interested:

Let me know what you think! And don't forget to donate to Skepticon, to keep the skeptical goodness coming next year and beyond.

I'll be back tomorrow, after I finish the letter of intent and the response to the letter to the editor. Both are proving more difficult than you might think because, well, they have very strict word count limitations and you know me.

More like this

As this goes live I’ll be heading to the airport, my purpose being to wing my way to Skepticon 7, where I’ll be speaking tomorrow on a little ditty I like to call The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine. It’ll be fun, and I’m looking forward to it. However, in true Orac fashion, I haven’t…
(NOTE: The videos of Robert O. Young's interview with Kim Tinkham have been removed, as I predicted in this post that they would be. Fortunately, I downloaded copies before he managed to do that. Part 6 appears to be still there--for now.) (NOTE ADDED 12/7/2010: Kim Tinkham has died of what was…
Two women died of breast cancer yesterday. One was named Kim Tinkham. One was named Elizabeth Edwards. In some ways, these women were similar. True, one was older than the other, but both of them died far sooner than they should have, one at age 53, the other at age 61. Both engaged in activism…
(NOTE ADDED 12/7/2010: Kim Tinkham has died of what was almost certainly metastatic breast cancer.) Three days ago, I decided to take a look at the scientific literature regarding whether any "alternative" therapies do any good for breast cancer. Not surprisingly, I found no evidence that any such…

Very good.
Pity that this YouTube clip seems to be afflicted with a popup ad for holistic/homeopathic remedies though.

dingo -- I'm sure they target ads based on the content of the video. Whatever robot is doing the targeting sees the words "alternative medicine" in the title, and is too dumb to understand that the video is debunking rather than promoting.

I've seen this on RI, too, when adblock is off.

By palindrom (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

That was spectacular but I expected no less, Orac.

I think that there's an additional facet in placebo worship:
remember that accomplished woo-meisters require more than just belief, they command followers adhere to strict regimens like highly restrictive diets ( GMO-free, organic, vegan, smoothies chock full of superfoods), handfuls of specified supplements ( which they sell), complicated and protracted exercise routines and programmed meditation as well as other flimsy mind-body manoeuvrings- it includes thinking right as well as living right. And emulating their leaders' own divine role modelling- woo involves subservience.

Woo takes work and costs money as well - both of which motivate subjects to believe. There's an entire literature in attribution that illustrates how people believe in and value whatever they work upon and that for which they pay more.

As Orac mentions regarding Kim Tinkham, subjects who don't recover as blamed. Thus, if a follower doesn't stick religiously to each aspect of the prevaricated nonsensical protocols, they should castigate themselves, not the author of the pseudo-scientific detritus.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

That should be -
subjects who don't recover ARE blamed

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

And -btw- speaking of intractable woo, isn't today the last day for Andy to re-appeal his vexatious lawsuit?

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

When I was a kid I asked my mother (a critical thinker) how people could have believed in witchcraft and magic spells for so long, because didn’t they see that they didn’t work? She explained that the detailed requirements of the spells were so difficult to meet that you could always blame it on the practitioner not having met the exact requirements. Witch 1: I got “eye of newt” but they were all out of “finger of birth-strangled babe ditch-deliver'd by a drab” so I used M&Ms instead. – Witch 2: Well there’s your problem right there!

And -btw- speaking of intractable woo, isn’t today the last day for Andy to re-appeal his vexatious lawsuit?

Yah. It seems to take them a couple of days to get new documents posted, though.

@imr90 #6:

“finger of birth-strangled babe ditch-deliver’d by a drab”

Is it the mother or the midwife who must be a drab? I despair at ever getting this spell to work unless you can clarify this for me.

By Rich Woods (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

She explained that the detailed requirements of the spells were so difficult to meet that you could always blame it on the practitioner not having met the exact requirements.

Likewise if the supposed spell had unexpected side effects, like the water-fetching charm that sorcerer's apprentice Mickey put on the broom in Fantasia. Which is why the sorts of things wizards do is often described as arcane.

It also happens to be an argument for maintaining a priest class. Did your most recent harvest not go well? Blame it on a poorly executed rain dance, fertility dance, or whatever. Better to entrust this sort of thing to "experts" who pretend to know all about this stuff, and who can concoct a convincing explanation for why it fails when it fails. (As opposed to real scientists, who admit that there are limits to their knowledge.)

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

When I was a kid I asked my mother (a critical thinker) how people could have believed in witchcraft and magic spells for so long, because didn’t they see that they didn’t work?

But, just like homeopathy and reiki, enough of them saw that they did work to counter those that saw they did not. They caught a cold, the shaman chanted over them/priests sacrificed to the gods, and 10 days later they were fine--and telling everyone who'd listen how the magic did its thing.

After all, what else could it have been?

As DW has noted, the "beauty"of alternative medicine is that its practitioners can blame the patient for falling ill (wrong diet, wrong thoughts etc), AND for not getting better (failing to follow the quack nostrums to the letter). It's a perfectly hermetic, unfalsifiable philosophy.

Funny to see Orac in the flesh - I was expecting a box covered in blinky lights.

“finger of birth-strangled babe ditch-deliver’d by a drab”
Is it the mother or the midwife who must be a drab?

The mother, I believe.
"They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

Concur with HDB: of course it's the mother--they are the ones who do all the work ergo they deliver. Midwives and doctors attend the birth. ;->

By brewandferment (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

Just watched the whole talk (thanks for posting it!) and enjoyed it very much. You brought out a lot of good examples and arguments for something I've noticed also: alt med is strongly connected to supernaturalism in general ('mind does not come from matter or depend on matter') and "spirituality" in particular ('everything is connected on a deeper, moral level and happens for a reason.') In fact, my altie friends are explicit on this topic. Alternative medicine is a major part of their spiritual beliefs (not 'religion,' religion bad.)

This connection between spirituality and alt med is I think part of the reason so many people are reluctant to criticize it. It all falls under the blanket acceptance granted to matters of faith and the importance of respecting people's 'right' to believe whatever fanciful thing they want if it appears to overlap into religion, spirituality, metaphysics, and/or 'identity.'

Right now my weekly tea group is enthusiastically praising the book You Are The Placebo: Making Mind Matter. They not only recommend it to each other, they especially recommend it to me in hopes that all the SCIENCE will finally persuade me out of my closed mind and bring me into the empowering light. It's written by a doctor -- Dr. Joe Dispenza who was in the movie What the (Bleep) Do We Know. It looks like a potential slide in your next talk.

I have warned them that the 'science' is almost certainly pseudoscience and unsound. But they treat my skepticism the same way they treat my atheism, ascribing both to the same cause: I am blocking out higher knowledge due to fear and a desire to be in control. Which, given the truth of what you call the Central Dogma, is heavily ironic.

@ Nick K:

And wouldn't you know it but Grandmaster Woo even castigates his own late parents and brother who ( respectively) never followed his advice or converted to his Holy Writ but then backslid, landing directly at death's door irrevocably.

He could have saved them but THEY failed. Similarly, he discusses many of those he counselled who do well but then, give in to family pressure ( and go to a doctor or some other reckless action) or immoral weakness ( they eat sugar or meat) and then,- poof!- they're gone. Just like that.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

@ Narad:

And do you imagine that AJW will persist in this folly or what?
That's my guess. Unfortunately.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

And do you imagine that AJW will persist in this folly or what?

There's not much left to persist with after this one. BMJ et al. may just file a waiver letter, in which case the Court will notify them if they need to bother. Half of the time, petitions are chucked anyway. They could even do Willingham a favor and out-Wakefield Wakefield by waiting 30 days to file the waiver, thus running down the statutory clock on his imaginary defamation suit against her (which has something like five months remaining).

If and when they do file a response (15 pp., as the petition), Wakefraud gets to file a reply (8 pp.), and then the Court decides whether it wants briefs on the merits (50 pp. each). Then review is granted – with or without oral argument – or denied.

How the petition tries to hand-wave its way through § 22.001(a), which is to say, argue that this is a matter with statewide ramifications, should be good for some amusement, though.

^ Oh, wait, Wakefraud gets one last shot in the briefing on the merits, a 25-page reply brief.

I guess he could file for another extension of time. A completely random "survey" suggests that a second extension is accompanied by the phrase "FURTHER REQUESTS FOR EXTENSIONS OF TIME FOR THIS FILING WILL BE DISFAVORED" (emphasis in original). And that one was unopposed.

OK, last two:

1. There are actually three* possible results: granting of review, denial of review, and refusal of review. Tex. R. Civ. P. 56.1. "Refused" gives the appellate ruling precedential value equivalent to that of SCOTX.

2. It's actually possible to file a "motion for rehearing" if the petition is denied or refused, unless the Court is so irritated that it explicitly precludes this option in its disposing of the petition. I haven't the foggiest idea how this "works" if the Court doesn't bother to explain itself, but I'm guessing that it's not a particularly successful approach.

* Technically four, but don't mind the other one.

^ Crap, I make myself a liar. Really, this time I promise.

If the Supreme Court determines that a direct appeal or a petition for review is frivolous, it may — on motion of any party or on its own initiative, after notice and a reasonable opportunity for response — award to each prevailing party just damages. In determining whether to award damages, the Court must not consider any matter that does not appear in the record, briefs, or other papers filed in the court of appeals or the Supreme Court.

Tex. R. App. P. 62. I'd rank this right up there with finding a winning lottery ticket stuck to one's shoe, but less than FANFIC. The old rule (PDF) offered a lot more in terms of fantasies of a 10-gallon, cantankerous Supreme Court of Texas:

Whenever the Supreme Court shall determine that application for writ of error [the old term for "petition for review"] has been taken for delay and without sufficient cause, then the court may award each prevailing respondent an appropriate amount as damages against such petitioner.

One of the more interesting aspects for me was Orac's references to epigenetics. As he pointed out, the epigenetics angle has also been latched onto by mainstream media as well (Spiegel in Germany, for instance). It has been used to argue against heritable components in traits such as intelligence.

By Peter Dugdale (not verified) on 03 Dec 2014 #permalink

Orac is godly good. Recently I was cursed by a perforated ulcer, in my stomach. As I lay on the footpath in our empty one horse town, in so much pain I could not think. Orac came to me and I remembered a mantra that got me vertical and into my car and eventually surgery. It was, " Someone call a homeopath." Over and over. Apparently it went on for too long, my surgeon wanted to discuss my alternative beliefs. Hilarity resulted. Orac was cited. I have to eat now.

By Bert Burless (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

Having some familiarity with The Secret etc, yeh, I think that's an excellent insight, that the LOA (or loa as Byrne now writes it for copyright reasons -- the person she stole the idea from, Esther Hicks - who stole it from someone else - tried to copyright this universal Law).... um... yes, I think that's a brilliant insight that this Law is the central dogma of CAM.
Oprah hinted at a slightly less culpable, but perhaps slightly more stupid, interpretation of The Secret, which holds that all great medical discoveries were made by people who "understood The Secret" (like Einstein, Newton and Lance Armstrong. And Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nicola Tesla).
In fact, the movie claims it directly.

Incidentally, James Ray ("philosopher" from The Secret and also a one time prison jumpsuit wearer) stated that the Jews - excuse me for writing this - did indeed attract the holocaust to themselves with the loa. (Or the LoA - depending if they were using the copyrighted version.) He even said "I know Jewish people who believe a lot of good things came from the holocaust." (He wound up in jail for 3 counts of negligent homicide.)

Incidentally, Bob Procter, another Secretard, once claimed that receiving social security payments alters your DNA. I could go on, but I won't.

Thanks for mentioning Lipton, BTW. Incidentally, he thinks that belief in darwinian evolution is causing the end of the world in 2012 (or the "final hoo har" as he calls it) and it can be prevented by applying his cancer quackery to the earth. (Humanity is the earth's cancer cells. Or some of us are. Those who have "bought into the darwinian belief" are.)

Sorry for ranting. I'll stop. It was triggered by hearing that headline about the placebo effect proving God's existence.

@ Narad:

Thanks. I guess that leaves old Andy room for wanking.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

re Bruce Lipton:

Oh g-d! ( not that I believe in one)

Lipton has appeared on Null's PRN show MANY times and is featured in several of the woo-meister's 'documentaries'-
if you google their names together, you'll find beaucoup de woo.

Basically, alties take epigenetics to mean that ANYTHING you do can affect gene expression- healthy living can 'turn off' bad genes.( They mis-represent SBM's approach, i.e by . saying that SBM views genes as being all powerful) Even worse, they then attach the same significance to ideas, thoughts and beliefs as actions- having a genetic predisposition towards CVD could be overcome not just by a better diet, weight control and exercise but by thinking happy thoughts because depression leads to heart disease. This nearly brings us into the Secret territory.

Unfortunately, this tripe is fed to an audience hungry for information about improving their lives. I often feel that woo-meisters have uncovered a real need that people ( who haven't studied much science and psychology) really want to know what can help them in their daily lives. Woo gives easy answers and enriches its providers.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

To add some emphasis to a point from the lecture, blaming the victim is all part of a deliberate ploy by The Secret & Co to use fear to sell their products.

The opening 5 minutes of The Secret was made an advertising firm who embedded every possible manipulative dirty trick in it.

1. They switched off the audience's critical faculties by presenting "the secret" as being given to Byrne by her daughter, with a note saying "Mama this is for you 0X0". How could you be so cold hearted as to use your critical faculties upon a child's gift? Shame on you. (Plus her father had recently died, and the way the note was presented made it look like 0X0 = DAD.)

2. As well as presenting "the secret" (aka thge loa) as a gift given to Byrne by her daughter, they also pulled viewers into becoming participants in the film, by deliberately using "viral marketing" (term invented by the advertisers who made the film) to compel viewers to pass on the film "as a gift" to their friends. Again - it's a gift, no criticism, you heartless beast. And the film was initially itself presented "as a gift" from the film makers to the public .. revealing god's own "secret" to the world for the first time.

3. They used subliminal images (may or may not work, depending, but the way they used them reveals their intentions). For eg., a ghostly visage of an elderly man appeared in the back ground barely perceptibly as Byrne opened the book of the Secret. Fatherly images appeared at other times in reflections in windows etc.

4. Classical subliminal advertising - single frame flashes of images only visible if you play it at low speed. These include sexual imagery, and dollar bill morphing into that stupid Secret seal logo.... and....

5. Subliminal imagery of terrifying images resenblijng people being burned to death.

6. The whole opening sequence covers the story of persecution of those who "knew the secret" throughout the ages - lots of implied witch burnings and people being hunted by KKK-like mobs.

If you watched it and it made you sick in the stomach and you wanted to turn it off, then that's exactly what they wanted you (or us here) to feel -- polarizing people, causing arguments and socially isolating believers from non-believers. It's a kind of free-form scientology.

7. The opening sequence finished with subliminal flashes of all the assholes who were about to appear in the film. One single frame after the other.

And as a bonus for reading this far, I will that one subliminal was of Byrne's desk with a copy of "Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus" briefly visible but barely noticeable.

(Sorry if I've blabbed too much.)

Nice work on the presentation Dr G. The tie-in to real life case study worked really well.

Our campus just had a review of global infectious diseases given by our prominent specialist. Various topics, as also addressed in this blog, on the mis-information campaign discussed in Q&A. The resounding concern is that we'll never be able to 'fix stupid' from those that offer eloquence in their public speaking, though based on utter crap. The appeal for common sense to the general population does, however, seem to be swinging more into evidence-based medicine with the help of mass media. Somewhat surprising to me as they broadcasted fearbola in such poor fashion.

Anyway, I enjoyed the Skepticon talk.

@ Yakaru:

Your information is relevant and appreciated here.

On a related note, I've recently heard epigenetics applied
( @ PRN- where else?) to patients' reactions to the news that they had the BRCA gene mutation-
truly, the idiot says that women like Angelina Jolie- who opted for mastectomy ( wisely, I should add)- are entirely wrong-
their fear sets up cancer and turns on the gene.
Now if only she had changed her diet and lifestyle and began to meditate and become more concerned with other people, etc.
Right, she's a self-centred, self-mutilating, entitled actress who takes doctors' advice as though it meant something.
Hilarious, I know.

This reminds me of the old altie trope that people who get test results saying that they're hiv positive are set up to die of fear and hopelessness.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

The thing that always struck me about the Secret (and similar woo) wasn't just that it was dumb, but that it's base. Real, mature religious belief isn't supposed to be about getting cool stuff for yourself; and it takes a huge amount of childish megalomania to imagine that God cares whether you get a Mercedes or whatever and doesn't seem to care whether little kids in the Third World starve to death or not.

It's very much the same with Prosperity Gospel BS. I have to wonder if people who believe in that stuff have ever actually read the Gospels or have any idea what Jesus (well, the Jesus guy in the Gospels, whether he was real or not) was on about.

Re: epigenetics: everything I know on the subject I learned from Radiolab. Even the knowledge I got from a one-hour radio program suggests to me, though, that epigenetics isn't necessarily less "deterministic" than any other type of genetics, given that effects upon you seem to come more from thinks your parents and grandparents did or had happen to them, rather than things you yourself do to "drive your conscious evolution" or whatever.

Several years ago I did the editorship of a magazine for people with mental problems. They were also encouraged to write for the magazine and I still remember one article about 'The secret' and the author stated it was all to be found in the bible as well. I was pretty reluctant to let this pass, but it wasn't a complete incoherent mess, so it had to be published.

The whole opening sequence covers the story of persecution of those who “knew the secret” throughout the ages – lots of implied witch burnings and people being hunted by KKK-like mobs

They must have REALLY WANTED to be burned at the stake or chased my mobs if they used the Secret to bring such fates upon themselves.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

For all that The Secret appealed to people's greed, it also surreptitiously played on people's fears too, not only actively triggering them, but also telling them that if they don't get their fears under control they will materialize them.

So stop negativity or you will attract "negativity" into your life. Byrne actually sees negativity as a thing -- a negative charge which turns events negative. So you must train yourself to avoid negative thoughts. She actually lists "criticism" as a form of negativity to be avoided.

It's all detailed in her book The Power (which, incidentally, she dedicated to her lawyers.)

All the more reason why double-secret probation should end with a toga party.

"it wasn’t a complete incoherent mess, so it had to be published"

I think the exact same phrase appears in AoA's "Guidelines for Editors".

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

Well the book "The Power" is much stupider than The Secret. Much stupider. Really, much stupider. I've read it. It's my choice for the stupidest book ever written. After claiming that magnets function on the "like attracts like" principle, she also claims that all chemical reactions are also down to the LoA and that gravity is too, along with love. She really thinks that gravity and love are identical. She's mad.

And after she dedicates the book to her lawyers, she thanks some guy who was her "fact checker", who did a brilliant job.

the LOA (or loa as Byrne now writes it for copyright reasons — the person she stole the idea from, Esther Hicks – who stole it from someone else – tried to copyright this universal Law)

You mean trademark. And that application (and its appeal) failed.

After claiming that magnets function on the “like attracts like” principle,

It's funny because that's literally exactly the opposite of how magets work.

Someone should introduce her to the guys from the Insane Clown Posse , I bet they'd really get along.

Although there is one with the same name (as well as others), so I don't know what the deal with 85783961 is.

JP @41 -- The answer to ICP's question is "the dipole-dipole interaction", seeing as how there are no magnetic monopoles.

By palindrom (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

... Although one must admit that ferromagnetism is pretty complicated.

By palindrom (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

@palindrom: Yeah, but he don't wanna talk to a scientist, 'cause y'all just lyin', and gettin' him pi$$ed. (Can we say that word?) I think Rhonda B might be more up their alley.

... I'd really like to see a rap about the dipole-dipole interaction.

The Poles might misunderstand it for hate speech.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 04 Dec 2014 #permalink

@JP, well come to think of it, the Insane Clown Posse could teach Byrne a thing or two -- it is less dumb to say "how do they work" than "I know how they work - they love each other. Einstein knew that too."

@Narad, Thanks for the correct details. I always forget whether it's copyright or trade mark law that applies to natural forces.

Esther Hicks (an former Mormon) married to Jerry Hicks (a former Amway salesman) ran this Abraham scam for decades. After making a career out of telling cancer sufferers for years that their illness is due to their negativity and they can cure it by being positive, Jerry suddenly found he had leukemia and hurried off to chemo. Told people he'd been bitten by a spider, and then transcended to the next level.... (You see the universe is not really like a mail order catalog like they said in the Secret. It's really like a giant multi-level marketing scheme. God is our upline.)

@herr doktor bimler: It's probably fine as long as you don't call them Polacks. (Unless you're speaking Polish, then it's actually the correct word.)

OK, it appears that 85783961, which was abandoned, would have covered "quarterly journals and catalogs, books, all in the field of inspiration and self-esteem"; 77630315 (for the same mark), which was granted, applies to "prerecorded CDs, cassettes, videos and DVDs in the field of inspiration and self esteem."

Ah, Feynman. I'm still half in love with the guy, even since I found out he could be a bit of a sexist d-bag.

I had a kid in my Russian class a couple years ago who was getting a master's in space engineering. (A rocket scientist!) He was hanging around after class one day to chat and somehow we got on the subject of the Challenger disaster and what a tragedy it was, and I said something like, "But then Richard Feynman went on TV and told everybody about the O rings and at least then people knew why it happened.

And he sort of gapes at me and goes: "You know about that? Most of the people in my program don't even know about that."

... Um, yeah, dude, I do take a general interest in the world. (Kid's down in Huntsville now, I miss seeing him. We email once in a while.)

@ Dangerous Bacon #37
The magazine was filled with writings from the people it was made for, so unless something was really unreadable, we published it, though I tried to correct the language and grammar in order to improve it a bit. Sometimes I rather would have rewritten the whole piece, but considering the authors where supposed to read it as well, things should be a bit untouched.

(alternative medicine rally cry)

It doesn't have to cost $4 billion a year to save thousands of lives....

"That’s because the most common way C. diff is spread is on the hands of health care workers who fail to wash up between patients....
Caring for patients with Ebola is complex. It requires extensive training and elaborate equipment. The CDC is now travelling the country and has confirmed that 35 destination hospitals in the U.S. are doing everything possible to protect health care workers and patients alike.

But that same level of caution and concern does not exist when it comes to preventing the spread of C. diff and other hospital-acquired infections. In fact, CDC figures from 2011 reported 722,000 U.S. hospital-acquired infections that year, resulting in approximately 75,000 unnecessary deaths.

Given these staggering statistics, how is it possible for caregivers not to wash their hands when they go in and out of a patient’s room? Excuses abound. Health care workers tell themselves it is not essential to wash if a patient seems healthy. They may rationalize that it’s too much trouble or that they don’t have the time. But make no mistake, if improper hand hygiene put 14,000 caregivers at risk of dying, the culture and rules of health care would change rapidly."…