“Frack no” (Hydraulic fracturing)


Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is a procedure where workers pump high-pressure water into natural gas reserves that sit deep underground. It serves to break up the rock and make the natural gas easier to mine.

There are a few supposed issues with fracking: That it so pollutes tap water that the liquid can catch fire if a match is lit near it; That it unleashes toxic chemicals which contaminate our ground water; and that it causes earthquakes.

It’s true that holding a match next to a running tap that contains enough methane – the main ingredient in natural gas – will result in a burst of flames. However, whether this can be pinned on fracking is doubtful.

Water wells are shallow, whereas fracking takes place miles underground. There are usually several layers or rock formations between where the fracking takes place and where well water resides. There’s little if any transfer of gas or liquid between these two stratum, which are separated by many rock layers.

The burning of water can happen anytime wells are near an area housing natural gas. Mining of this gas can cause methane to move from a high-pressure area to a lower-pressure one. Also, an inadequate seal on natural gas wells may leak methane. This is especially likely to occur near old, abandoned wells.

Now, onto the assertion that fracking pumps hundreds of poisonous chemicals into the ground. Water makes up at least 98 percent of fracking fluid. Another one percent consists of a proppant, which is mostly sand. The rest of the fracking fluid serves as a lubricant and what is used differs based on circumstance. Toxicity is determined by amount, not ingredient, and while there are trace elements used in fracking that would be hazardous in higher concentrations, they are used in safe numbers during this process.

As to earthquakes, in the strict definition, fracking causes these, but only ones so minor that they do no damage.  Whenever a rock cracks underground, it qualifies as a seismic event. However, fragile shale is the main kind of rock involved and fracking drills horizontally through natural gas, not through a hard rock fault zone.

Fracking the shale to break it up is unlikely to relieve any massive forces. Rather, fracking opens up shale in a stable manner, the sand holds the fractures open, and no unstable layer results. Finally, since all this takes place miles below the surface, pressures are easily sufficient to hold the ground in place.


“Golden deceiver” (φ)


With this year being an unfortunate exception, I have traditionally ran an NCAA Tournament pool. For the last several seasons, I have used a point-distribution system based on the Fibonacci sequence, in which any given number is the sum of the previous two numbers. When applied to a Tournament pool, this means that the sequence awards up to 8 points for a correctly naming a regional final winner, up to 13 points for calling a national semifinal correctly, and up to 21 points for picking the right champion.

The system’s originator also devised a control whereby upsets are worth more points, relative to how big a shocker it is seed-wise. The system used some fairly advanced mathematics, and being not fairly advanced mathematically, I forwarded the pool outline to a Ph.D. in the field, who confirmed that the ideas presented were sound. As if I needed more proof, the first year that I used the system, I won the pool.

The Fibonacci Sequence is frequently associated with the Golden Ratio, although there is no evidence that the 13th Century Italian mathematician was thinking about the ratio when he came up with the formula. He devised it while solving a problem that centered on rabbit populations.

The idea that Fibonacci employed the Ratio while coming up with the sequence that bears his name is one of many myths associated with the Ratio.

The Golden Ratio has the value of 1 to φ, or phi. φ is about 1.618, but like pi’s 3.14, this is an approximation since phi is an irrational number that strings along infinitely.

φ and the Golden Ratio have multitudinous mathematical applications. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning explained one such case thusly: “If you take a rectangle whose sides are proportional to the golden ratio, you can cut a square off one end of it, and the resulting small rectangle that remains is of the exact same proportions as the original. You can cut a square off of that and you’ll get a still smaller golden ratio rectangle, and you can do this ad infinitum.

Nature has discovered its applications. Dunning noted that, “A tree is most efficient if as many leaves as possible are visible and not shaded by other leaves. As a stem grows, it follows a genetic formula to know how often to produce a leaf and at what angle from the preceding leaf…Produce φ leaves per turn and no two leaves will ever shade each other.” A similar process allows sunflowers to grow with maximum efficiency.

Phi also plays a role in better acoustics and dynamics. Engineers can cancel unwanted audio waves or resonances if they design sound rooms or theatres on Golden Ratio principles.

This is all wonderful, but the Golden Ratio’s beauty has been coopted by the pseudoscientific crowd. Perhaps the best known example is the claim that the ancient Greeks who designed the Parthenon employed the Ratio, as assertion without historical or mathematical evidence. A look at the Parthenon’s design shows no employment of the Ratio, though some armchair archeologists think they have discovered it, which is mostly based on miscalculations.   

Another pseudoscientific claim is that the Golden Ratio is found throughout the human body, such as the width of the shoulders compared to the height of the head, where the belly button is in relation to the rest of the body, or the forearm’s length competed to the distance from the head to the fingertips. The glaring issue with such claims is that such proportions are different for everyone and thus, the Ratio is not in play. In the tree and sunflower cases, application of the Ratio is uniform for every such living organism.

A nearly soundproof way to tell real manifestations of the Golden Ratio from assumed ones is whether it serves a purpose that could not also be served by a similar number. A tree’s employment of the golden angle for its leaves’ distribution serves a clear purpose and requires φ. An example of a mistaken assumption is claiming that the joints in human fingers become longer at a rate that follows the Golden Ratio. Not only is this measurably wrong, but it would provide no specific benefit to people when they are filling out NCAA Tournament brackets or otherwise using their hands.

“Home evasion” (Social distancing and the immune system)


There are many conspiracy theories centered on the coronavirus. Some of these would seem mutually exclusive but all are still bandied about by believers. For example, the suspicion that China developed it as a bioweapon is at odds with the idea that COVID-19 is mostly innocuous and being greatly overblown by leftists hoping to wreck the economy. Harmless chemical warfare does seem a tad contradictory. Yet this position, at least when broken into two separate charges, is a regular feature of the conspiracy crowd, whose members make appearances on my news feed with annoying regularity.

While there are many COVID conspiracy theories, our focus today is the narrow idea that being mostly homebound damages our immune system. In short, proponents feel that social distancing harms, not helps, the situation. Similar attempts to invert the normal order pop up frequently among conspiracy theorists: Excess carbon dioxide is good for the environment; insulin causes diabetes; vaccines are worse than what they prevent.

In Mother Jones, Keira Butler wrote of three persons who have posted claims about the putative immune system damage that social distancing is causing. She referenced two physicians and one engineer, who made separate videos outlining their positions.

It is telling that these claims were pitched to a sympathetic audience on YouTube and not submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. Alas, we will still assess the legitimacy of their assertions, not where they aired them.

The gist of their argument is that the lockdown is harming the immune system. They base this on the notion that germs and disinfectants are in constant battle, both evolving and adapting as they try to get the upper microscopic hand. Without exposure to enough germs, the trio argue, the immune system may grow lax and put up too feeble a fight. In some cases, there is merit to this idea, which is why some immunologists argue against trying to develop ultra-germ killers since it opens the chance that the germs which survive will further adapt and form a superbug, which is impervious to all treatments.

But this does not apply here since COVID-19 is not a chronic immune condition, but rather a novel virus that attacks the afflicted in ways immunologists don’t fully understand. As a novel virus, our immune system has no defense in place for it.

Moreover, isolated persons are still exposed to germs at home, which is another strike against the notion.

Social distancing helps to slow the spread of the virus and the anti-lockdown fervor, which is based not on the rate of infection or any projections, but on livid persons wanting a haircut and dine-in pizza, figures to be a public health disaster.

I miss the park, PTA meetings, and arcades, but not more than I value the health of my children, myself, and everyone else. A nationwide commitment to social distancing and pursuit of a vaccine would have solved this problem.

But selfishness and the ignoring of science are winning. A virus has no idea nor concern if its host is a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or independent, so this should have been the ultimate non-partisan issue. Instead, it is highly divisive and shows how dangerously close to the mainstream anti-science tropes and conspiracy theories are becoming.

Rather than isolation and inoculations, the other side embraces the naturalistic fallacy, where it is assumed that whatever is natural is good and whatever is artificial is bad. Butler cited one error-laden anti-vax group post, which claimed that masks, gloves, vaccines, and synthetic soap damage the immune system. This is another example a topsy-turvy belief where the prevention is labeled as the cause. They also claimed that fear damages the immune system. There is no truth to this, a good thing for the bazooka-toting Subway patron.





“A lot of nonsense” (Empty hospitals)


Proponents of medical conspiracy theories frequently exhort detractors to “do their research.”

By this, of course, they don’t mean earn a master’s in a related field, conduct original testing, give presentations to experts in the field, and submit findings for peer review. They mean spending two hours on Google or YouTube, watching videos that eschew the Scientific Method entirely, have been carefully filtered to include only items that agree with the pre-determined conclusion, and which dismiss all contrary evidence as more proof of the conspiracy.

Now, theorists have coopted another term and are mangling it to fit their agenda. They label “investigative journalists” those who tote video cameras into mostly empty hospital parking lots, and present this as evidence that COVID-19 is a total hoax or at least massively overblown.

There are a few reasons why the number of cars and trucks present is a poor vehicle, so to speak, for deducing the seriousness of a virus.

First, there are more than 5,000 hospitals in the United States, and about .1 percent of them have been hard hit by the coronavirus. If doing a story on the virus’ spread, it is logical that news media would focus on those hospitals and not those which only had one or two cases. Skeptic leader Benjamin Radford noted that stories which make the national news are seldom ones that are indicative of what the entire country is experiencing.

There are virus hotspots since the spread of COVID-19 varies widely by region and population center. It would be expected that some hospitals would be overwhelmed, some would have moderate impacts, and others be barely affected.

A second factor is that fewer people are going to the hospital because of reduced budgets and staffing. Radford wrote, “Most hospitals make half or more of their revenue from elective procedures, which have been put on hold.”

He continued, noting that this now sometimes includes even serious matters: “A survey of nine major hospitals showed the number of severe heart attacks being treated in U.S hospitals had dropped by nearly 40 percent since the novel coronavirus took hold in March. Patients are so afraid to enter hospitals that they are dying at home or waiting so long to seek care that they’re going to suffer massive damage to their hearts or brains.”

No visitors are allowed and fewer medical personnel and prospective patients are showing up at hospitals, hence less vehicles.

None of the “investigative journalists” brought up these points or asked questions of anyone, be they hospital employees or an outside medical expert. They have no journalism degree, experience, or training. They merely posted videos of themselves walking around a parking lot, drew unsubstantiated conclusions about what it meant, and hit ‘upload.’ If that’s journalism, my drive to Dollar Tree makes me a NASCAR champion.

“See through it” (Blindfold reading)


In India, there are those who claim children can read and see through solid objects while blindfolded, and proponents dub the ability midbrain activation.

The midbrain is part of the anatomy, located at the top of the brain stem. Its purpose is to coordinates eye and body movements, and it also plays a role in hearing, short-term memory, and pupil constriction.

But in a classic pseudoscience tactic, proponents adopt a genuine scientific term then misuse it. Skeptic leader Brian Dunning uncovered a midbrain enthusiast on YouTube who claimed the midbrain remains in an inactivated state until acted upon by a series of mental exercises. Other than select Indian yogis, this portal remains closed, per the video.

Allegedly, achieving midbrain activation gives children the ability to keep their eyes closed and still be able to read, bike, play chess, and identify colors and pictures. Further, the youngsters can recollect readings for much longer and can commence to Shining by telepathically communicating with each other.

All of this is accomplished with a series of brain gym exercises, which allegedly serve to increase the brain’s melatonin production, and allows one to better see in the dark. There is nothing in medical literature to justify concluding that elevated melatonin levels produce an ability to enhance nighttime vision. Nor is there any evidence support supporting such wild ideas as telepathy or being able to see while blindfolded.

A competing midbrain activation theory holds that nāda-yoga, which incorporates sounds into the bodily contortions, can vibrate the brain, with those waves causing activation. Again, this is unsupported by any validated research.

It turns out that the whole deal is nothing more than an illusionary trick, and a poor one at that. Subjects merely sneak glances through a gap on either side of their nose, as they are wearing blindfolds placed in such a manner as to allow this. Children in on the ruse tilt their head back to look at something in front of them, or hold the object close under their face in order to see it by looking down past their nose.

Under controlled conditions, the supposed ability always fails. When researchers have the subjects try and read through a sealed opaque container, or the blindfold is affixed by a skeptic or neutral party, the only magic is that the ability to read blindfolded vanishes.

Which isn’t really a big deal since the kids can just take the blindfold off and read that way.

“Gold meddle” (Yamashita’s treasure)


I have taken a few trips to the Philippines and will probably get back some day. If so, I could embark on a quest to find tunnels bored into green mountains, which lead to rolling hills of gold bullion. This collection, large enough to make every Moline resident a millionaire, is dubbed Yamashita’s Gold and has eluded all treasure seekers, government expeditions, and history buffs.

Legend tells that during World War II, Japan looted as much gold as it could plunder, melted it, and used captured Filipinos to bury it. Finally, the invaders sealed the victims and the booty. Many legends contain a harrowing aspect, even if the overarching idea – in this case a fortune waiting to be found – is an attractive one.

The Japanese looters planned to return for the riches when the fighting ended.  When they were defeated, they lost the gold as well, and there it still sits, awaiting discovery by a Scrooge McDuck.

All this is a greatly-condensed version of Sterling and Peggy Seagrave’s book, The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan’s Imperial Family. A sequel, Gold Warriors: America’s Secret Recovery of Yamashita’s Gold, whose title acts as a spoiler, details how we Yanks got that treasure, plus some Nazi loot, and kept both in a slush find to fight them no-good Commies. We won the Cold War, so I guess it worked.

A counter claim has been made by treasure hunter Charles McDougald, who reported that he and fellow hunter Robert Curtis went looking for Yamashita’s Gold, with the blessing and funding of Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos. They claimed to have found the stunning stash, yet produced no gold nor even a photo of such. After a second expedition failed to yield even a claim they had found it, the duo were booted from the country. They claimed this only happened since they were so close to finding it and Marcos wanted it all to himself. 

In such a scenario, the dictator would, of course, swooped it up, bought his wife 10,000 more pairs of shoes, and further funded the elimination of his enemies. Yet, Curtis and McDougald inadvertently revealed that they didn’t actually believe Marcos was about to horde it when the accepted Corazón Aquino’s offer to resume the search following the 1986 revolution. This expedition managed only to damage landmarks and spur accusations about booby traps preventing the find. Following repeated failures, the two were banished from the country a second time.

Yet another claim came from Rogelio Roxas, who filed suit against the Marcoses for the treasure’s value. Roxas claimed he used a map given to him by the son of a Japanese soldier to find Yamashita’s Gold and a golden Buddha. The discovery included seeing the corpses of the victims who were buried along with it.

Roxas insisted he and his compatriots tried to sell the Buddha to finance removal of the rest of the treasure, whereupon Marcos had expedition members tortured until they revealed the location.

While there are various claims about the gold, they have the commonality of having produced none of the treasure.

And while Japan was in control of the Philippines for about three years, it had no intention of making it a colony and, in fact, knew it could not hold the country forever. It would have been a terrible location to bury treasure.

The, cough-cough, History Channel claims the Japanese carved symbols on rock faces leading to the locations of all the treasure tunnels. Yet neither History Channel producers nor anyone else has been able to follow these glaring clues to the stash.

It’s true the Japanese government and military seized valuables and raided the treasuries of invaded nations. But the resulting bounty went to the war effort, not to the planning of the granddaddy of all scavenger hunts.

“Eyeful Tower” (5G)


For a few years now, baseless fears about cell phone technology causing brain cancer have been a conspiracy theory staple. This, even though the metadata of reputable studies shows there to be no harm to humans from radiofrequency radiation. A New York Times article noted that while cell phone use has exploded exponentially in the last 30 years, there has been no corresponding skyrocketing of glioma in that time.

This is to be expected, as cell phones and towers emit non-ionizing radiation, which rests on the safe side, by a comfortable margin, of the electromagnetic spectrum. Dr. Steven Novella wrote that 5G and other wireless communications technologies operate at too low a frequency and energy level to cause tissue damage. “It is too low power to break chemical bonds,” he explained. “The computer screen you are looking at right now is bathing you is much more powerful and higher frequency EM radiation than any 5G network.”

 By contrast, ionizing radiation is harmful since it can damage DNA and kill cells, possibly leading to cancer. But saying that 5G can spur rogue cell growth because, like X-rays it is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, is to commit the composition fallacy. It makes no more sense than thinking 5G could be used to get an inner look at our bones.

A graph touted by believers in wireless communication nefariousness shows that tissue injury becomes more pronounced as radio wave frequency escalates. But according to William Broad in Scientific American, the graph fails to consider the shielding capabilities of human skin. He wrote, “Radio waves become safer at higher frequencies, not more dangerous. At higher radio frequencies, the skin acts as a barrier, shielding the brain from exposure.”

With that out of the way, the anti-5G throng has switched its focus to the coronavirus and insist that 5G towers are spreading the respiratory tract infection. In most cases, this is considered an intentional act by a malevolent cabal. They even consider stay-at-home orders to be a plot to keep people from seeing the towers being constructed.

Proponents note in harrowing tones that 5G networks began appearing regularly in late 2019, the same time that coronavirus started spreading. Further, Italy, China, and South Korea are all at the forefront of this emerging technology and have all been coronavirus hot spots. This is textbook post hoc reasoning, wrapped in a self-righteous bow. It also represents extreme cherry-picking since it ignores that nearly every country has had a coronavirus case, while most nations have yet to employ 5G technology.

Advocates also tout a map of COVID-19 clusters and compare those areas with places that recently tested 5G technology. While the overlap is substantial, this is again a correlation-causation error. The overlapped areas were merely major U.S. cities

On April 1, one QAnon theory, which would have been considered an April Fools prank were it not for the source, warned that we were at the beginning of a 10-day stretch where electricity and the Internet would be unavailable anywhere. In the midst of this confusion, the 5G/coronavirus brigade would amp up its invasion and implement mass slaughter. The end date has arrived and we are still here. In classic doomsday mindset, believers have doubled down and are either promising that an even-worse demise is being plotted, or are claiming that calamity has been averted because brave citizen journalists exposed the plan.

People drawn to such conspiracy theories prefer the element of control they seem to offer. Believing that he or she has access to hidden information, and is more clever than the brainwashed sheep, gives the conspiracy theorist comfort.

China and Bill Gates are often cited by theorists as being behind the spread. These are both extremely powerful entities with vast resources and the idea of one or both of them coming after us and our loved ones is terrifying. So theorists seek solace in the idea of exposing them and readying for battle.

The truth, readily available to anyone who wants it, is that scientists have sequenced COVID-19’s genome and have traced its evolutionary path from other coronaviruses and they understand how this mutation transferred from animal to human. It shows none of the markers of genetic engineering. And as Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted, if the virus is an engineered bioweapon, it is remarkably inefficient. It has killed three percent of its victims, 15 times less than most bioweapons.

Further, there has been no scenario put forth from theorists as to why low electromagnetic radiation would cause a virus characterized by fever, dry coughs, and respiratory tract infections.

Those who most fervently deny this reality have taken their belief to disturbing heights. This has included the burning down of 5G towers and the intentional derailing of a train in an attempt to crash it into a military ship that had been enlisted in the COVID-19 fight. Put another way, believing in such a theory can be a worse evil than what the conspiracy is supposed to be bringing.  



“Tall tale” (Si-Te-Cah)


In the Nevada desert sits a small cave that 130 centuries past was part of Lake Lahontan. Unlike the parched landscape today, this area at the time represented one of the continent’s largest bodies of water. When it dried, native tribespeople inhabited Lovelock Cave.

Legend refers to this population as Si-Te-Cah, described as 10-foot tall redheaded cannibals. As one might suspect (or would never suspect, based on one’s gullibility), no bones exist to support this extraordinary claim.

The most thorough study of the area – and indeed, one of the most exhaustive researches in anthropology history – was completed by University of California professor Llewellyn L. Loud, whose parents presumably fixated on the letter L.

Loud collected more than 10,000 artifacts over his 17-year excavation, and his massive publication about what he had uncovered contained nary a giant reference. All subsequent examinations and digs were likewise behemoth-free.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning wrote that a complete radiometric history has been done of the cave, and once again, there’s no evidence of anyone falling from a beanstalk.

The idea of the tribe being redheaded is much less shocking, but would still fall beyond the scope of what has ever been known to exist. Every Native American tribe has members with raven hair, as opposed to auburn.

Dunning deduced that the tribespeople had red hair, but only post-mortem. He wrote, “Pigment in dark hair nearly always turns red after centuries of burial in certain temperatures and soil chemistry.”

As to the cannibalism, this also has an element of truth, albeit barely. A tiny percentage of the bones found at Lovelock Cave had been split and had their marrow removed. This suggests desperate tribe members had once resorted to cannibalism as a last-ditch attempt to stay alive. To describe the people as cannibals would be no more accurate than saying that Uruguayans are, based on what happened in the aftermath of the famous 1972 plane crash.

So where did this idea of flesh-eating ginger giants come from? Two-thirds of it we owe to a 19th Century book by Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins of the Paiute tribe. She tells how her brave people rose up against a savage population of redheaded cannibals.

In this tale, the heroic Paiutes chased the brutes into the cave, which the good guys then covered with firewood. The barbarians were given the choice to forsake their barbarism and join the Paiutes. They gave no response and suffered a fiery fate.

As to their being giants, Dunning suspects that may have stemmed from a common misidentification that occurs when unearthing Native American burial sites. The skeletons are often separated in such a way that the bones appear, especially to one unfamiliar with burial customs, to have belonged to a person eight feet tall.

“Corona with lies” (Sylvia Browne virus prediction)


Kim Kardashian and lesser-known oxygen thieves are wowed by this prediction Sylvia Browne made in 2008: “Around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling…is that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived.”

While Kardashian and the others consider this a reference to the coronavirus, the evidence fails to support the weight of such a claim. First, the illness, as Benjamin Radford of the Center of Inquiry wrote, is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness.” Instead, 80 percent of patients have mild symptoms and the morality rate hovers at three percent.

Second, the assertion that COVID-19 resists all known treatments is an inaccurate descriptor of the virus. Radford notes that doctors know how to treat the symptoms, they just don’t yet have a cure. A third Browne misfire is that the virus will vanish as quickly as it appeared.

Browne made other claims about global viruses and each prognostication increases the chance that at least one of them will seem to be correct. Four years prior to the prophecy that has proponents excited, Browne shared a similar vision. In the earlier soothsaying, she wrote, “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely.”

Again, multiple guesses like this increases the chances that one version of the prediction will seem to score a hit. Followers decide which one is closest to reality and forget about the others.

For instance, one part of the prophecy trimmed from the 2008 book was that the disease’s source and cure would by unknown. Yet, the source has been identified as a food market in Wuhan, China. Obvious misses like this are why Browne’s followers are posting her 2008 prophecy and not the earlier version. Proponents have seized on the more correct version and ignored or rationalized away the earlier prediction.

As to a cure, Radford writes that, “Viruses themselves can’t be cured, though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are ‘cured’ of Covid-19 when they recover from it.”

There’s also the matter of visions that aren’t just fuzzy, but completely obscured. In the same book Kardashian raves about, Browne prophesied that by now there we be cures for AIDS and the common cold, telemarketing would be extinct, humans would have made it to Mars, and that there would be flying cop cars. Only in the world of psychics would a success rate this pitiful be considered doing a good job.

“The Certainty Principle” (Alternative medicine diagnoses)


One of the main causes of stress is the unknown. When staring a new job, an employee will wonder what the boss will be like, what the expecations are, and how cool they keep the break room fridge. But as the worker learns these answers, he or she settles into a routine and the fear of the unknown dissipates.

But until an answer is given, the stress continues. More stressful than the unknown at a new job is the angst over a serious health issue. That’s why the seeming ability of alt-med practitioners to offer a definitive diagnosis and a treatment plan can seem attractive. Their answers are often painless, quick, and inexpensive, making it more appealing. But the biggest hook is certainty.

However, Dr. Harriett Hall wrote in the Skeptical Inquirer that uncertainty is a legitimate, important part of many medical diagnoses. She recalled from her days as a practicing physician how patients would clamor for more testing when a thorough checkup and exam failed to find the cause of their malady.

She recalled, “They wanted an answer and thought if we just did more tests, the answer would become evident. I had to explain to them that we had done all the indicated tests and that further indiscriminate testing would only muddy the waters.”

Moreover, when the chance of a disease is minuscule, a test is much more likely to produce a false positive than a true one. Testing for 100 different ailments might suggest the patient has one or two of the conditions, but these would likely be false results, which, Hall explained,  “would only lead to further fruitless diagnostic efforts, including possibly dangerous invasive procedures.”

Sometimes, conditions resolve on their own. The cyclical nature of many illnesses is why many alt-med practices seem to work. By the time one is seeking an applied kinesiologist or a Reiki practitioner, the condition has likely been bugging the patient for some time, so they resort to alt-med. When the symptom then runs its course, alt-med gets the credit and another glowing anecdote in lieu of data.

This desire for certainty fuels alt-med. If a medical doctor tells someone that their leg cramps are a common ailment of unknown origin and will likely resolve, that can leave the patient unsatisfied. The diagnosis may include pain relief pills or leg exercises, but this lacks the reassurance of a quick fix.

Conversely, peddlers of craniosacral therapy, Joy Touch, and iridology will insist they know the precise cause, the specific cure, and how to guard against its recurrence, the latter involving regular visits to their office. This leaves the patient with an artificial reassurance.

Depending on which branch of alternative medicine the provider practices, the focus will be on a different body part that is allegedly the center of heath – the spine for chiropractic, the feet for reflexology, the hand for Therapeutic Touch, the skull for craniosacral therapy – and so on. Tellingly, when such practitioners gather for a group talk or forum, they never challenge each other even though they can’t all be right. If an acupuncturist claims the movement of qi through meridians determines everyone’s health, this is at odds with the iridologist’s insistence that every illness is caused by a disturbance within the eye. Yet all the practitioners and audience members nod and somehow merrily agree.

Many of those audience members may not even have an ailment. The craving for certainty causes some patients to embrace an unproven treatment for a disease or condition never shown to exist. This includes chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue, and Leaky Gut Syndrome. These are imaginary illnesses, but a desperate patient finally has a name to associate with a real or perceived medical misfortune. They now know what they are suffering from and a kindly alt-med practitioner has the cure. The practitioner offers them sympathy and an attentive ear, plus a diagnosis and treatment plan that sounds sciencey but has no medical basis.

And while replicable double-blind studies remain the benchmark of medical efficacy, they have trouble matching personal experience. A person who would never read or understand a 60-page paper can most assuredly know that a technique worked for them. But as Hall wrote, “You had a symptom, you tried a remedy, and your symptom went away. It might have gone away without any treatment, it might have gone away because of the treatment, or it might have gone away despite the treatment. Before antibiotics, there were people who survived pneumonia. Spontaneous remissions occur.”

Compare that mindset to that of alt-med darling Andrew Weil. Hall wrote that Weil ran “tests of osteopathic manipulation for ear infections, and when the experiments showed no effect, he said, ‘I’m sure there’s an effect there. We couldn’t capture it in the way we set up the experiment.’”

Such a conclusion is silly, to be certain.