“Zeus juice” (Super-fruit drinks)

Super hero juice smoothies green in cartoon table

There are any number of delicious, nutritious fruit drinks available, the most ubiquitous being a breakfast staple squeezed from oranges. There is also grape juice, apple juice, and similar citrus choices.

But what marketers call super-fruit juices claim their products are loaded with antioxidants, which fight the free radicals that cause aging. Briefly, free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron, a distinction allows them to cling to a good molecule and oxidize it. This equates to an attack on a cell and leads to age-related diseases.

Antioxidants, then, are touted as allies in our battle for better health. However, the oxidation caused by free radicals also comes with benefits, such as converting fat into energy and attacking harmful bacteria.

Sketoid’s Brian Dunning noted that since disease-fighting is one of the keystone features of medicine, there have been decades of rigorous research into antioxidants. If we condensed what could literally be a mountain of papers into one sentence, we would arrive at this: A certain level of antioxidants is good, but too much is bad; more significantly, the source of the antioxidant is more important than the amount.

Dunning wrote that the “primary phytochemicals that deliver antioxidants to the body are vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. For the super-fruit juices to fulfill their claims, they would have to contain large amounts of these vitamins.”

We have long known that regular consumption of fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. But as to whether supplementing fruits and veggies with antioxidants is of added benefit, the research so far shows a negligible impact at best and a detriment at worst.

Dunning noted that the American Heart Association evaluated five studies of putative super-fruit juices for their ability to combat cardiovascular disease. Of the five studies, two showed the antioxidant increase yielded no difference, and three revealed a negative impact. But even if the antioxidant overload were beneficial, the amount their products contain is exaggerated by super-fruit aficionados.

The Australian Consumers Association publication Choice studied every super-fruit juice it could find. Researchers tested them for total antioxidant capacity, a step conspicuously missed by those who sell the products and attach grand claims to them.

As a baseline, Choice measured the total antioxidant capacity of a Delicious apple. Juices from alleged super-fruits such as goji, mangosteen, noni, and açai all had from between nine to 34 percent of the antioxidant content that an apple did.

Fruits that are common – and therefore less exciting to the alternative medicine crowd – like oranges, strawberries, and blueberries contained more antioxidants than the apple.

Yet super-fruit marketers assert that a goji has 10 times the antioxidant capacity as an apple, an açai six times as much, and so on. And this is true, as it relates to the fruit. But most of those antioxidants are in the rind. Once a goji is converted to a juice, it goes from having about 10 times as many antioxidants as an apple to about one-tenth as much. So if wanting antioxidants, go with the fruit, not the juice. But also remember that an anti-oxidant overdose will create more health issues than it eliminates.

An apple a day won’t necessarily keep the doctor away. But chomping a Granny Smith or Honeycrisp is better for your physical and fiscal health than chugging a liquefied gumbo of gogi, noni, and açai berries.

“Radiating optimism” (Healthful radiation)

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There are radiation horror stories centering on Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. However, there are also mundane matters like radioactive potassium occurring naturally in bananas and potatoes, among other edibles. There’s no way to avoid all radiation since we are exposed to it from our bodies – a disconcerting thought since doctors know ionizing radiation can damage and mutate DNA, which sometimes leads to cancer.

But like so much else, dose is the key. There is exposure in the form of dental and other X-ray exams that contribute to one’s overall better health. The same is true with a full-body CT scan. The Health Physics Society has established safety levels for radiation but cautions these amounts are just educated guesses. From the Society: “There is considerable uncertainty associated with the estimation of risk from relatively low doses.”

Depending on the amount, length, and frequency of exposure, there may be a risk from certain types of radiation, or maybe there isn’t. Dr. Harriet Hall wrote that in some cases, the risk is so low that tens of millions of people would have to be studied “to overcome the signal-to-noise ratio in the data, and the risk is confounded by varying background levels of radiation and other factors.” In short, there’s no practical way to study this issue completely.

While we can’t know for sure the danger levels for all types, there is no reason to assert that low-level radiation is beneficial, an idea championed by some and based on the notion of hormesis. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information website, “Hormesis is a term used by toxicologists to refer to a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect.” In other words, a little can be good, too much can be bad or even fatal. For example, two Advil will help you recover while you lie on your back, while two bottles of Advil will put you on your back permanently.

Some proponents claim that low doses of radiation can kickstart DNA repair and make the recipient healthier. One such believer, T.D. Luckey writes, “Hormesis is the stimulation of any system by low doses of any agent. Large and small doses of most agents elicit opposite responses. A wealth of data presents irrefutable evidence of the benefits that radiation provides for a great variety of organisms: Decreased infections, decreased cancer death rates, increased fecundity and average lifespan in humans.” Luckey attributes these abilities to biological stimulation and suppression of genes, enzymes and other proteins that indicate an activated immune system. He insists there is evidence that ionizing radiation is essential for life.

However, in an article for Human and Experimental Toxicology, Kirk Kitchin and Wanzer Drane criticize the use of hormesis to assess risk/benefit ratios. For starters, they point out that hormetic dose response curves are mostly unknown. (The dose-response relationship refers to the risk of a defined outcome produced by the amount given and the level of exposure).

Second, the duo caution there is the chance of a random occurrence of hormesis, bedsides there being a little data on hormesis’ repeatability. There is also the possibility of post hoc reasoning, and the chance that hormesis represent the total of many different mechanisms and multiple dose-response curves – some beneficial, some negligible, and some toxic. In short, we are unsure if intentional exposure to low doses of radiation may carry benefit, but there is insufficient reason to assert this, and there could be a great danger in being wrong.

“Con-fusion” (Plasma infusions)

DRACSCREEN

I have a great fondness for schlocky black-and-white monster movies and have seen hundreds of them, but have yet to come across a flick called Dracula Meets Ponce de Leon. But that plot is playing out in real life, as some merchants are offering young-blood plasma transfusions that supposedly reverse or slow aging.

The FDA cautions against trying this, and if that’s inadequate incentive, your accountant advises the same. The treatment comes at $8,000 per intravenous session. The FDA states there is “no proven clinical benefit of the infusion of plasma from young donors in the prevention of conditions” that companies offering the transfusions claim to treat.

Some studies indicate that plasma transfusions may be beneficial – though that’s far from certain – but even if real, those advantages do not include arresting the aging process. Angela Chen of The Verge interviewed Michael and Irina Conboy, whose studies revealed possible benefits, but their research dealt with neither  humans nor transfusions. Meanwhile, the biotech company Alkahest is testing a plasma product on Alzheimer’s patients, but the results are still unknown and the goal is not to be eternally young. By contrast, those hawking the Fountain of Youth in plasma form transfuse patients with donations from the young and purport that the donor’s vim and vigor comes with it. But again, there has been no adequate plasma screen, so to speak.

Most research on young blood transfusions has been conducted in mice and the results are mixed. But even when the data seems promising, researchers are still unsure of the long-term results. Moreover, many times developing products look good in lab but fail to translate into human use. Along those lines, Nicole Westman wrote in Popular Science that research on rats has shown that the older ones benefit from a supply of younger blood, but most of those studies use a technique which surgically joins the circulatory systems of the animals. This means when the younger blood flows into the older animals, the rodent recipients also benefit from accessing the younger rats’ organs and systems.

Jesse Karamzin, founder of the transfusion company Ambrosia asked Inverse’s Sara Sloat, “If it works so much in mice, could it work in people as well?” However, much of the research that Karamzin is basing his optimism on was conducted by Tony Wyss-Coray, who has not endorsed the practice of trying it on people. Wyss-Coray injected mice with plasma from other mice and from people, but doesn’t see the benefits extending to human-to-human transfusions. He cites the lack of evidence it would work and he thinks it unethically raises a false hope.

By contrast, he founded Alkahest in hopes of developing drugs from plasma transfusion research instead of selling the plasma itself. The goal is to improve the quality of life as opposed to the quantity. He seeks not a Fountain of Youth but a way to conquer debilitating diseases that accompany aging.

“No big dill” (Pickle juice cures)

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There are two things wrong with Tomi Lahren’s claim that she represents the silent majority. Likewise, her assertion that pickle brine is loaded with health benefits is likewise fact-challenged. Lahren says she learned this through a Google search, which is the one part of her claim I can believe.

For that matter, I Googled “Nazis escaped to Mars” and got validation of that idea. But we know better than to focus solely on the source when determining a claim’s validity – no genetic fallacies on this blog – so let’s look at the evidence for the pickle brine claims that a Google search will unearth.

Some of the liquid’s supposed powers are the ability to relieve heartburn, control blood sugar, soothe Restless Leg Syndrome, and ease sunburn discomfort. But the most frequent claim is that it vanquishes cramps. However, most of these declarations are in the form of anecdotes, making them subject to post hoc reasoning. With one quasi-exception we’ll examine, none of the claims attesting to the healing propensity of pickle brine are backed by a double blind study.

When looking into this issue, one almost invariably ends up at Central Michigan University professor Kevin Miller, who has probably authored every study meant to determine if pickle brine will reduce muscle cramping. For these tests, Miller recruited fit and active college students to exercise and then drink 80 milliliters of pickle brine. He consistently finds there is never a measurable uptick in key nutrients or electrolytes one might get if chugging a sports drink.

There is one study that at first glance might seem like an outlier. This was overseen by Miller at BYU in 2010. In a hot room, 10 men bicycled for 30 minutes using one leg. They lost three percent of their body weight in sweat, enough to be considered mild hydration.

The subjects then had the big toe of their other leg electrically stimulated in order to cause cramping. Next they drank either nothing, pickle brine or deionized water, which serves as a close approximation of the dull green liquid when it comes to taste. Among those quaffing Vlasic Juice, cramps vanished in 85 seconds, which was 45 percent faster than for those who drank nothing and 37 percent faster than for those who drank the pickle placebo.

While this seems to suggest some pickle power, it really doesn’t. First, 10 persons constitutes a microscopic sample size that would tell us nothing substantial. Beyond that, Miller said it would take 25 minutes for a liquid to enter the bloodstream and quash any cramping if it had that ability. He suspects the toe pain was balanced by the unpleasant sensation in the mouth. In the Daily Beast, Tanya Basu quoted him as saying, “The vinegar or combination of vinegar and salt affected a reflex in the mouth and acted as a counterirritant.”

Even if one still clung to the BYU study as proof, many other results show the opposite. Skeptoid’s Alison Hudson found seven studies, which in totality suggest little promise for pickle brine as an elixir. She wrote, “One study concluded that drinking pickle juice after exercise did a poor job of replenishing electrolytes; another study determined that pickle juice ‘does not relieve cramps via a metabolic mechanism’; a third study suggested that swallowing the pickle juice might in some way relieve an electrically-induced cramp, but that, again, there was nothing metabolic going on.”

Since pickle brine is about 70 percent water, it would be of some rehydrating value. And if consumed in enough quantities, it might replace some lost carbohydrates and electrolytes. But this would be true of many beverages, most of which taste better than a heavy salt-and-vinegar solution that once housed hamburger condiments. In any case, there is zero evidence it assuages the litany of conditions listed in the third paragraph, regardless of what Larhen’s physician Dr. Google has to say.

 

 

 

 

 

“Not my type” (Cancer cure)

CANAN

Last month, the Israeli company Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies announced it would be revealing a cancer cure within a year. Company president Dan Aridor told reporters, “Our cancer cure will be effective from day one, will last a duration of a few weeks, and will have no or minimal side effects at a much lower cost than most other treatments on the market.”

For veteran skeptics, immediate red flags went up. First, there is the extravagant claim. Since there are hundreds of cancer types, the idea of a panacea wiping them all out is unrealistic. One reason there is no common cold cure is because, like cancer, the cold takes many forms. There are many distinct viruses. The signs and symptoms of the more than 200 types are indistinguishable from each other, but since each virus is its own, a solution that takes care of them all is highly unlikely. The same is true with a cancer cure.

As Dr. Steven Novella of the Yale Medical School explained, “Different cancers involve different tissues, different mutations, and different behaviors and features. While some treatments are effective against a variety of cancers, there is no one treatment effective against all cancers, let alone a cure for all cancers.”

Also, the idea that it would be relatively cheap and painless – two distinctions noticeably absent from current cancer treatments – increases the implausibility.

Second, even if this were a more measured claim – such as wiping out one type of cancer, mesothelioma – it was still broadcast to the media rather than presented to a peer-reviewed journal. Nor did the company release the results of any clinical trials. The number one sign of pseudoscience is bypassing peer review and clinical trials in order to take one’s claims straight to the press or public.

Which leads to the third red flag, the lack or replicability. Peer review is an essential part of the scientific process, but the process continues from there. Researchers look at the findings and see if they can replicate or falsify them. Because Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies workers have yet to explain their findings and show how they reached their conclusions, other scientists have no chance to test the ideas for soundness.

Finally, the assertion is not that all cancer has been cured, but that it will be. This is similar to claims of water-fueled vehicles, cold fusion, and perpetual motion machines, where a major breakthrough is always tantalizingly close yet never quite arrives. This provides a means to lure investors on a pseudoscientific wild goose chase. The only thing perpetual about one of those motion machines is the cash that self-aggrandizing promoters continue to rake in.

If a cancer panacea ever is achieved, it will likely be the result of slow, incremental progress, not a sudden leap from pipe dream to reality. Novella wrote it is “very unlikely that one lab will make all of the necessary advances by themselves. The basic science would likely be a collaboration of many labs, publishing over years, leaving a paper trail that any expert could follow. There would be presentations at meetings, and the basic science would be discussed in the community. So any claim that would require not just one step, but multiple steps, happening largely in secret in one lab over a relatively short period of time, stretches credulity.”

Now let’s take a closer look at the specifics of the Israeli laboratory’s claim. Its researchers say they can attach a toxin only to cancer cells and kill them, no matter the type of cancer. This coming cure is said to be based on phage display technology.

Frankly, I had never heard of phage display prior to looking into these claims, so I will defer to Novella: “Phages are viruses that attack bacteria, and can be made to display antibodies on their outside. AEB claims that they can use this technology to instead display small peptides. With this they create what they call multi-targeted toxins. They have three peptide toxins on one phage, each of which targets an aspect of a cancer cell without targeting healthy cells, and further they can target the cancer stem cells to prevent recurrence. This all sounds fine, a reasonable basis for cancer research. The problem is extrapolating from the basic idea to implausible clinical claims.”

Or, as noted by American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, “Phage or peptide display techniques, while very powerful research tools for selecting high affinity binders, have had a difficult road as potential drugs.”

Consider how ignoring this and jumping right to the trumpeting of a cure impacts those with cancer and their loved ones. It fills them with false hope during a vulnerable time where they will cling to anything.

One of the clingers, profiled in Forbes, was Facebook user Lisa M., who posted, “So many negative comments on something potentially so amazing. Try optimism once, I promise it doesn’t hurt.” Nor does it help. How credulous or doubtful someone is about a treatment will have no impact whether it works. A person may genuinely believe that lemongrass water infused with peppermint spray will regrow their missing leg, but this blind faith will not make them once again bipedal.

How one reacts to the coming cancer cure news reveals more about the person than the supposed remedy. We have the naïve in the previous paragraph. We have the skeptics. We have confirmation bias from those with a religious bent; Facebook user Rebecca A. asked rhetorically, “Does anyone else find it interesting that a country and people that are favored by God comes up with a cure for a disease that afflicts the world!?”

Then there are those who believe, but add a sinister twist. Such as Facebook user Keven L., who warned, “These guys better get some serious security, because big pharma isn’t going to allow this if they can do something about it.” Another panicky prognostication came from Denise B., who ominously informed her followers, “Big pharma will never allow it. They won’t get the FDA approval here in the states. Too much money to be made ‘treating’ cancer.” Meanwhile, Ana E. gave us this chilling vision: “And then they somehow die in a horrible accident or go missing or become an enemy of the state.”

So when this cure in fact does not come out, it will be cited by these persons as evidence it has been repressed. In conspiracy theory circles, the lack of proof is the proof.  

 

“Snakes and blathers” (DNA in ancient artwork, India anti-science)

hindusnake

Today, we will examine a pair of claims floated in the past year that were presented as furthering human knowledge, but which were supported with almost no evidence. One is secular, the other religious, but our concern here is not with any spirituality or lack thereof, but with the truth.

The first example comes courtesy Jordan Peterson, a somewhat eclectic and iconoclastic Canadian psychology professor. While not a religious extremist like those in the other example, Peterson maintains friendly ties with the Christian right and on the rare occasions he has spoken about atheists, has had nasty things to say. In this instance, however, his claims don’t have a religious bent. He has periodically proclaimed, with inconsistent degrees of certainty, that entangled serpents in ancient artwork depict DNA strands.

Short for deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA is a molecule that contains a person’s hereditary blueprint and decides which amino acids are embedded in certain proteins and in what order they lie. As to its shape, Skeptic blogger Emil Karlsson writes that strands in a DNA double helix run anti-parallel, or in a head-to-toe fashion. The double helix also has a major groove and a minor groove, which are formed by the DNA molecule’s backbone.

A winding staircase would more resemble DNA than entangled snakes in artwork. The suggestion that disparate ancient people had all acquired knowledge of a structure that scientists only became aware of during the nascent years of rock and roll is grandiose claim, one which Peterson fails to support with evidence beyond suggesting a similar appearance.

There are better explanations than long-lost knowledge for why ancient artists would have employed twisting snakes in intimate positions. First, snakes entwine themselves when mating, so the images may represent reproduction, creation, or childbirth. In other cases, the serpentine symbols may depict a culture’s deities. They could also represent fear, as snakes fascinate many of us in a macabre sense. Some are venomous and they have striking differences from humans, with no arms, legs, eyelids, or visible ears, and having a narrow, forked tongue. It’s easy to see why an artist would consider them to be striking subject matter.

Peterson makes the point that intertwined snakes existed in ancient art from places as far apart as China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Australia, and India. The insinuation is that the artists were drawing from a common source. Such thinking is a frequent error committed by Young Earth Creationists, ancient alien aficionados, and cryptozoologists. They think because lookalike images crop up in cultures that never intermingled, the characters existed in real life.

But this more accurately speaks to the commonality of the artistic process. Besides, the supposedly similar creatures usually don’t look that much alike. With snakes, the similarity is there, but that’s because humans know what the slithering reptiles look like, which is not the case with dragons, Yetis, and Andromedans. This leads to another strike against Peterson’s hypothesis: The ubiquity of snakes. Snakes existed in all these places, so their portrayal in artwork requires no extraordinary explanation.

Perhaps the most important point is that entangled snakes in ancient artwork have only negligible resemblance to DNA. Karlsson pointed out the substantial differences. First, the snakes do not mirror the DNA strands’ anti-parallel positioning. If the snakes were depicting DNA, they should run in opposite directions from each other, not be head-to-head. Second, the art does not include any structure resembling nucleotides, which run horizontally in DNA strands and which would connect the snakes is the artist was modeling DNA. Next, there are no structures akin to 5 carbon sugars, the part of DNA which resembles Tinker Toy assemblies. Finally, the snakes are without grooves.

Moving on to the second example, a trio of speakers this month at the Indian Science Congress made shocking claims that attribute relatively modern developments and ideas to writers of ancient Hindu scriptures and they deities they crafted.

Chemist and university vice-chancellor, Gollapalli Rao, cited an ancient Indian poem as proof that stem-cell research and test-tube babies existed in India thousands of years ago. And anyone with an in vitro fertilization appointment at that time could have flown there on one of the airplanes the country had been blessed with by Ravana, a deca-headed demon-god. Rao based this claim off his reading of the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Such claims always run in one direction. A religious person might try to bolster a favorite theological text by extracting a supposedly scientific interpretation from it. By contrast, no scientist ever tries to strengthen a peer-reviewed article by pointing out its consistency to a 4,000-year-old religious tract.   

Meanwhile, paleontologist Ashu Khosla credited dinosaurs as the work of Brahma. But at least he didn’t deny the behemoths’ existence, and Rao affirmed the science behind in vitro fertilization and flight. Much worse was speaker Kannan Krishnan, who contested the theories of Einstein and Newton because of Krishnan’s interpretation of Hindu scripture.

Fortunately, this highly-creative science was limited to three persons out of hundreds of attendees. In another piece of cheering news, event organizers promised that next year they will vet the speakers. So I’m guessing we won’t be hearing from Jordan Peterson and his snakes.

“Inflamed issue” (Anti-inflammatory diets)

ORANGRIND

Detoxing, boosting immunity, and decreasing inflammation are the trifecta of ill-defined alternative medicine gimmicks.

Only the liver and kidneys detox and if those are failing, you need the ER, not a Gwyneth Paltrow organic bean falafel.

And except in extreme cases, such as HIV positivity or late-stage cancer, immune boosting is neither possible nor desirable. In fact, it is the defining feature of autoimmune disorders such as arthritis and lupus.

Meanwhile, inflammation is blamed by some alternative medics as the cause of many diseases. This assertion comes with an accompanying claim that certain foods will prevent inflammation from ever occurring. There are a myriad of putative anti-inflammatory diets, none of them backed by empirical evidence that disease is caused by inflammation, that inflammation should necessarily be avoided, or that dietary choice would impact this.

Inflammation is unpleasant and its trademarks include redness and swelling. But in the same way that our nervous system lets us know if we’ve back into a hot pipe – giving us a temporary discomfort in exchange for avoiding long-term serious damage – inflammation promotes overall health. It is often the result of the body fending off an infection or healing an injury. Trying to halt it in such cases would likely be futile, and if one could somehow succeed, doing so would be detrimental.

Not that inflammation is always beneficial. It sometimes aggravates rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and asthma. Then there’s chronic inflammation, which accompanies a lingering illness or other long-lasting condition. But it’s crucial to understand the relationship between disease and inflammation. Inflammation does not cause a disease; Rather the disease can lead to inflammation. Inflammation can be good or bad, depending on the situation, and trying to halt it in all cases is a poor idea.  

If one is determined to try, ibuprofen is the way to go, as no foods have proven effective at decreasing inflammation. However, one can experience increased inflammation through overeating, especially after gorging on vittles high in saturated fat. After such gluttonous behavior, the body churns into overdrive as it struggles to metabolize all the munchies you’ve crammed into your pie hole while stretched on the recliner. Any such inflammation disappears after digestion. So the relationship between food and inflammation is that eating moderate portions will prevent it, other than the times where it’s the result of disease or injury, in which case it has curative properties you wouldn’t want extinguished. The key is the size of the meal, not its contents.

Some proponents of allegedly anti-inflammatory diets will blame processed foods, but this is another ill-defined term. Any change is a process, so a list of such foods would include any that are cooked, sliced, juiced, peeled, frozen, pickled, dried, sugared, fermented, dehydrated, canned, or pasteurized. As Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning put, “An uncut, unpeeled fruit or vegetable is about the only unprocessed food that it’s possible to get.”

So unless one is prepared for a diet of orange rinds and the like, the intake will include processed foods. And again, from an inflammation standpoint, as long as the portions are reasonable, a diet of cucumbers, beans, and salmon will produce the same results as one of pizza, French fries, and maple long johns. Now that’s an anti-inflammatory diet I could get into, and it would work as well as the rest.  

“Baby, it’s cold denied” (Echinacea)

FLOWER

Most traditions this time of year are pleasant enough: Gift exchanges, The Nutcracker, eggnog. Alas, the late fall and winter months also bring an annual uptick in the common cold, although the weather only indirectly causes this. Lower temperatures don’t cause persons to catch cold, but it does prompt them to stay indoors, where they inhale stale air and spend more time next to family members, co-workers, and friends who may be housing a virus.

Meanwhile, a tradition that operates regardless of season is otherwise reputable media outlets pushing pseudoscience. The latest pitiful, predictable instance is Time boasting about Echinacea’s ability to tame the common cold. Like tales that push an even more implausible scenario of secret cancer cures, the story a herbaceous flowering plant’s cold-conquering powers confuses a multi-faceted concept with a single entity.

There are hundreds of cancer types and just as many viruses that are labeled the common cold.  It is not one illness, but scores of indistinguishable ones, each caused by a separate virus. They all impact the upper respiratory system and bring familiar maladies so they seem the same. But they are merely similar, meaning the idea of a catch-all cure is unrealistic.

In a tepid defense of the Time author, I should point out that he quoted self-described experts. This means he was accurately reporting what they said as opposed to just making up stuff himself and flinging it. Still, Time bears the ultimate responsibility for any medical misinformation appearing on its pages or website.

They should have done what Dr. Steven Novella did, which was to delve into published research on the matter. In so doing, Novella found a trio of studies, including two systemic reviews, that showed Echinacea to be of no value in speeding recovery from cold symptoms.

First, there was a 2010 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine which found cold-suffering subjects had the same results whether they received Echinacea, a placebo, or nothing. Then a 2014 review concluded that Echinacea users had no statistically significant benefit beyond what placebo poppers were experiencing. That same year, a Cochrane systemic review likewise showed that Echinacea was without benefit to cold treatment.

Despite these consistent underwhelming performances, Echinacea endures in part because proponents cherry pick and misrepresent lines in the reviews that suggest there may be some benefit. For example, the exhaustive Cochrane study contains the this sentence: “The results of individual prophylaxis trials consistently show positive (if non-significant) trends, although potential effects are of questionable clinical relevance.” Proponents pass this off as “consistent positivity,” even though the review as a whole made it clear that Echinacea has not shown to be effective at reducing cold effects. There are insignificant differences to some aspects and the review makes it clear that even that minor plus likely has no clinical relevance and is likely the result of statistical noise.

This refers to unexplained variation or randomness within a data sample. This noise is usually the result of error and this deviating data is unlikely to be replicated under the same, controlled conditions. In other words, Echinacea won’t take away your scratchy throat, make your eyes less watery, or reduce your cough’s intensity.

Proponents sometimes lean on the Appeals to Tradition and Nature Fallacies since the flowering plant was used as a sort of panacea by some 19th Century Native American tribes. Favoring anecdotes in lieu of data is another tactic. Or they cite a poorly-documented article in a media giant that should know better.

“Wheat’s eating you?” (Glyphosate fears)

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Spaghetti can be topped with meatballs and Parmesan cheese, but according to some crusaders, it can also be accompanied by digestive aliments. Not only can spaghetti pose a risk, they say, but with any food made with wheat, thanks to the herbicide glyphosate. But these concerns are based on misunderstandings of how glyphosate is used, how widespread it is, and its toxicity level.

The most frequent claim is that wheat is drenched with glyphosate just days before going to market, leaving unsafe levels of dangerous residue which cause health issues when the food breaks down inside us.  

However, only about five percent of North American wheat farmers apply the herbicide in the days immediate before a harvest, and this is done because of its power as a drying agent. This may be needed in northern climes during wet summers. However, glyphosate (trade name Roundup) is not the most efficient method of achieving this, so it is not the first choice for most farmers.

Whatever product they use, one must always consider dosage when assessing safety. Herbicide labels are not suggestions, but rather federal law. Restrictions on the concentrations of glyphosate mandate that its dosage be equivalent to 20 ounces of Kool-Aid being mixed with 10 gallons of water and spread over a Canadian Football League field. 

On a related note, toxicity is determined by amount, not ingredient. “Lethal Dose 50” is a term for how much of an ingested substance will kill half of laboratory test animals. On this scale, vinegar and salt are more toxic than glyphosate. In fact, the EPA classifies glyphosate as a Group E, which it reserves for products that show no evidence of human carcinogenicity. Glyphosate has negligible toxicity, and any dose a person might be exposed to will be well within safety limits. Furthermore, farmers must abide by a Maximum Residue Level, which is the highest amount of pesticide that can safely remain on crops after application.

This entails more than just taking farmers at their word or believing that government regulations are adequate. There is substantial science behind the assertions of glyphosate safety.

A systemic review in 2000 found that, “No significant toxicity occurred. The use of Roundup herbicide does not result in adverse effects on development, reproduction, or endocrine systems in humans and other mammals.” 

More recently, a 2011 review reported that there was “no evidence of a consistent pattern of positive associations indicating a causal relationship between any disease and exposure to glyphosate.” 

Then in 2012, a review showed there was “no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations.” That same  year, another study “found no consistent pattern of positive associations indicating a causal relationship between total cancer or any site-specific cancer and exposure to glyphosate.”

Still, claims persist that glyphosate-saturated wheat is causing digestive ailments in North America, though these alarms are in the form of anecdotes instead of data. The panic is partly attributable to glyphosate’s indirect connection to GMOs, which are a boon to agriculture but which misinformed detractors see as a bane. Glyphosate has been used for 44 years, but has become much more common since genetic modification came along. The connection is that GMOs are Roundup resistant.

Glyphosate prevents nearly all plants from producing proteins they need to survive. So while it would kill a noxious weed, it would take out the desirable wheat as well.  At least until Monsanto devised a method to make GMOs Roundup resistant. Now, genetically modified wheat can be treated with glyphosate, a herbicide which repeated studies have shown to be harmless and which has a low toxicity.

So go ahead and safely eat that spaghetti. Or give into unfounded fear and leave more for me.

“Search-and-annoy mission” (Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Fair)

no energy

With last week being Thanksgiving, I fittingly my made my annual pilgrimage to the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Fair. In previous sojourns, I would either attend an hour-long presentation or hit as many tables as I could. After the former, I reported in detail on one of the fair’s many salespersons. With the latter approach, I gave snippets about a multitude of peddlers of the psychic, supernatural, paranormal, and alternative medicine. This time I went for a middle-ground approach, focusing on the specialized area of energy healing and speaking with anyone proclaiming this ability.  

When talking with alternative medics, I have unfailingly found that even the most rudimentary probe of their field leaves them flummoxed. They are used to hearing, “What can you do for my nagging backaches,” instead of being asked to explain the mechanisms behind such treatments. 

For the energy healers, I had three primary questions in mind: What kind of energy is it? How is it accessed? How do you measure it? Someone doing genuine energy work could explain these basics instantaneously. For example, an electrician would be able to tell me that a light bulb works by converting electric energy into light energy. He or she could further explain that a light bulb has embedded negative and positive terminals connected by a tungsten filament. When electricity is supplied to those terminals, the resultant flow of electrons cause the filament to heat up until it glows. Further, the electrician could tell me that this resultant energy is measured in watts, a derived unit of one joule per second which quantifies the rate of energy transfer.

Consider the previous paragraph to be the science lesson portion of the post because we now segue into how the Psychic and Paranormal Fair merchants answered those same queries.

The first stop on my search-and-annoy mission was with a therapeutic touch practitioner. She explained, or tried to anyway, that she was “Checking your energy and seeing how it’s in alignment. Energy comes through us.” I asked what type of energy it was and was told, “It’s an attunement to a particular type of energy. It’s just all energy that comes through. And it just works. You have energy all the way around you, I can feel it. I’ve been doing it for 25 years.” Doing it for a quarter century without being able to explain what energy is behind it or how it works would be like the aforementioned electrician being unaware that the light bulb must be screwed it clockwise.

I move on to the next energy merchant, who highlighted her energy clearing abilities. “We all get bogged down with things. You know, we go to Wal-Mart or a bar or a funeral home.” She continued that on these odysseys to discount stores, beverage distributors, and final stops, “We all get bogged down with things and you pick up things, it kind of clogs it up. And when you get an energy clearing, it clears all the energy off and you feel lighter and your chakras get balanced. It’s amazing.”

“What type of energy is it?”

“Um, like, you know, we have our energies. So they get bogged, we get our attachments, you know.”

“But I mean is it chemical, radiant, thermal?”

“It’s like a Reiki and shamanic energy clearing.”

“How do you access it?”

“Um, well, you use the angels and the divine and beings that you work with, like the angels and the divine and the avatars. You know, like we have the hierarchy and the divine, our avatars, and Michael the archangel.  

“How do you measure it?

“Well, when you’re not clear and your chakras are blocked and you have attachments on you, that’s where disease comes in.”

My trip to the fair was mostly comical, but her last statement shows the seriousness of scientific stupidity. Instead of realizing diseases have been eradicated and contained via Germ Theory, antibiotics, vaccines, bleach, soap, clean water, sanitation, and double blind studies, she credits, “Um, like you know, angels and Reiki and stuff.” That’s coming from someone in an advanced civilization and her mindset has permeated much of our culture.

Moving on, I came to someone offering two types of energy healing: Reiki and Theta. I may have gotten confused about whether she was talking about one, the other, or both, but I kind of got the feeling through the day it didn’t matter much; all are pretty much the same and equally pointless. Nevertheless, she extolled her ability to “channel energies from the universe into you.”

“What kind of energy?

“Just from the creator.”

“I mean, is it nuclear, electrical, motion?” She answered, “I don’t know,” which was by far the most accurate information and honest assessment I received that day.

While most of the energy healers highlighted ancient angles featuring shamanism or angels, at least one preferred the appeal to novelty instead of the appeal to antiquity counter-fallacy. She offered energetic and vibrational healing.

As to what kind of energy, I was told, “Source energy.”

“How do you access it?”

“I pull it from the source.”

The source comes from the source. That would be like a dentist telling you that your cavity comes from that hole in your tooth.

“How do you measure it?”

“I don’t have to. It’s intelligent, it goes where it needs to go.”

In that case, why would I pay someone to send it there?

So I sauntered to yet another table, this one proudly proclaiming its ability to use reconnective energy healing through shaman this or theta that. There, the purveyor informed me, “It has to do with the higher spiritual self. We can go in and help release that energy and make it heal almost immediately.”

“What kind of energy?”

“Energy.” Hmmm, could you be a little more vague? She doesn’t know what kind of energy she’s releasing; for all she knows it could be nuclear. She later clarified that it was “source” energy. Oh yes, I’ve heard all about that.

“Well, this source energy, is it sound, elastic, gravitational, thermal, what kind?”

“It’s a little bit of everything. It’s really about the vibrations, about Hertz. Like a tuning fork. When we work with a physical body, we work with the vibrational frequencies. In the magnetic field, they are what we call your auras.”

By using “frequencies” and “auras” in her description of how it works, she mixes a science term (though using it incorrectly) with gobbledygook. Frequency refers to how often a repeating event occurs during a specified unit of time. Auras are a fabricated anatomical feature with no basis in reality. The vacuous vendor’s misuse of a science term and her combining it with a pretend one are both pseudoscience trademarks.

She displayed plenty  more examples of such in her next spiel:

“In you center, because you’re electrical, it’s really about your electrical currents. When you bring in the flow of your meridians, it’s just like a little – it’s your polar, it’s your meridians and your mind and your energy and your field and whether you repel or attract. We want to bring all those into balance and get rid of the ick you get from microwaves, audio waves, EMF waves, cellular waves, and cell phones. We are bombarded and you get all staticy like an old rabbit ears TV. We take on those energies and get out of attunement, and like a car needs an alignment and tune-up, your physical and spiritual body needs the same thing.”

I came to this fair skeptical, but as she finished, I realized she was right about my mind becoming extremely cluttered. I was also wondering if she planned on further research, testing, and experiments on this ickiness she had isolated.

With all her meandering, I lost track of whether she was claiming to bring energy in or take it out. “Both,” she clarified. If that case, why not just leave it alone?

As to the energy she accesses, I asked, “How to you bring it in?”

“Energy comes directly from the true source, divine.”

“How do you measure it and know you are getting the right amount?”

She assured me that was done automatically. “When you pour water in a cup and it overflows, that’s what the body does. When it fills up with that energy, it loses what you don’t need. Your body will only take on what you can manage.”

Could you imagine that coming from your anesthesiologist? It would be unacceptable then and, while with our analogy-happy alternative medic would only take your money and not your life, it again shows the clear distinction between authentic and counterfeit medicines.

She closed by telling me, “There’s a lot of clutter out there and you never know when you’re going to bump into it.”

“That’s for sure,” I said. “And in some places it’s more concentrated than others.”

I moseyed onto another Reiki provider, who made the same hackneyed undefined energy claims.

“What type of energy is it?’

“I call it energy from divine, from God. We are just conduits, we don’t do the healing. We don’t determine where it goes.”

Here we see another difference between medicine rooted in science fact and one grounded in science fiction. Imagine a chemotherapist telling a cancer patient, “We don’t know what this is, how it works, or how we’re going to direct it to where it needs to go.”

“It is thermal energy, sound energy, motion energy?”

“The energy comes through you. It’s divine energy. You can’t even put a title on it.”

Oh, I can think of a word or two.

“How do you access it?”

“You get trained and attuned to it.”

“I mean, do you use a wand, a ringing bowl, a tuning fork, maybe a spork?”

“It actually just comes – your attuned physical energy will know what it needs.”

“How do you measure it?

“You don’t. You feel it, you feel the heat.”

“But if you can’t measure it, couldn’t you overdose?”

“You can’t. You can never to too much Reiki.”

Or too little.

Next was a theta healing table, featuring one of the more obscure versions of alleged energy medicine. While it is seldom seen even at alternative medic gatherings, the purported mechanisms sound familiar.

“I help people change what they want to change, shift what they want to shift,” the merchant told me. “And I do that by putting my brain into the theta brain waves. In that state, I can talk to whatever sources and ask it what needs to be healed.” If she’s hearing voices, she needs to see a doctor, not play one.

“What type of energy does it use?”

“It uses the energy of the creator, whatever divine source that is for you.”

“I mean, is it kinetic energy, potential energy, heat energy, light energy?”

“I can’t explain it. All I know is that it works if I use the technique.”

“With that technique, how do you access the energy?”

“I close my eyes, I lift my eyes up. I do a short mediations and that puts me into the theta brain waves.”

“How to you transfer that to the patient to heal them?”

“I’m not actually doing the healing.”

Then what the hell are you here for? I asked that in a more diplomatic way, but the gist was the same.

She answered, “It’s that very act of witnessing it that brings the healing.” Sounds sort of like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, except for parts about being grounded in decades of sound scientific research, peer review, and replication.

“How do you measure it to ensure you’re using the right amount for healing?”

“Well, I’m asking the creator to do it, so if you believe in the all-knowing force, it will do what it needs to do. It’s all-knowing.”

Then is should know to heal without being asked to.

The day’s most awkward encounter was with a cherub-faced 14-year-old who I can only presume was running his first fair booth, and who was definitely being asked specifics of his healing modality for the first time.  

The following exchange is presented largely without the multiple 40-second pauses between question and answer and his repeated gazes back at the healing pyramid which accompanied him. He first told me that this 3-D triangle “allows energy to flow easier.”

“What kind of energy?”

“Um, like, right energy. To make you understand things easier.”

“How do you access it?”

“You just kind of sit there, relax.”

“How do you measure it, how do you get the right amount?”

He made a third awkward silent stare back at the pyramid, as if expecting the right answer to spring forth from within with the, um, like, right energy.

“It’s just kind of like gives you whatever is necessary.” I’ve always found the notion of a healing pyramid oxymoronic since such structures are where ancient Egyptians buried their dead.

I figured I had made the laconic lad’s day laborious enough, so I moved on to crystals, without which no psychic and paranormal fair would be complete.

“What kind of energy does this use?”

“Well, any kind, universal. There are different ways to use different energy for healing.”

“Which types of energy correspond to which types of healing?”

“Well, there’s universal energy basically. Each type of stone emits a different frequency and each stone has a different healing property.”

“How do you access the energy, through the stone?”

“Well, the stone emits its own. And then by holding it, it emits that frequency and you can pick it up and share that frequency and attune yourself to that. We are all energetic beings so we will change our frequency, the vibration of our frequency slightly and different energies help us in different ways.”

“How do you measure it, how do you know you’re getting the right amount?”

“You quiet yourself and you put the stone in your non-dominant hand.”

I had spoken to nearly a dozen energy medicine practitioners without buying anything, so my energy level was draining and I decided to challenge her no further and I made my way to yet another Reiki enthusiast.

“What kind of energy is it?”

“Um, well, it’s not only me using your energy, you can also use universal energy as well.”

“What type is it, nuclear, radiological, chemical?”

“It’s a little bit different for everybody. Some people see colors, some people feel intense heat, some people feel cold, some people feel nothing.”

I strongly suspect what category I would be in.