Current Affairs Science

Lush throw science out with the bath water

Facebook post from Lush Cork advertising their charity pot party event.This week, Lush found themselves the subject of some controversy when they posted a message about an upcoming charity pot party supporting the Girl Against Fluoride. In an event that spanned Friday 24th to Sunday 26th, Aisling FitzGibbon, aka the Girl Against Fluoride, was to appear and discuss her opinions on water fluoridation, and potentially (as implied by the charity element) raise money for her campaign. When the event link appeared on Facebook, something really beautiful happened: people came, and almost unilaterally sent Lush a message – we support science, evidence, and reason, and if you don’t then we will take our business elsewhere.

It really cheered me up to see (especially in wake of Dublin City Council’s questionable decision regarding water fluoridation) that the large majority of the people commenting were shocked that Lush would support someone who appears to ignore science, and subscribe to a lot of dangerous, disproved, or just downright insulting beliefs. Not only is the Girl Against Fluoride against fluoride, but she’s also apparently not a fan of vaccines, real medicine, or gay people, and commenters took her, and Lush, to task over these points and more.

RebeccaLush1After a significant number of commenters both on Facebook and Twitter called for Lush to make a statement about the event, their charitable giving manager Rebecca Lush weighed in to ask for some evidence about the points that people had raised – but only about the homophobic comments made by Girl Against Fluoride’s creative manager and mother, Martha Brassil. Rebecca went as far as to say that she wasn’t looking for information on the science behind the anti-fluoride campaign, just evidence of the homophobia.

Several commenters obliged Rebecca and Lush with evidence of the homophobic comments, and we began a long wait for Lush to comment. With the start date of the event drawing closer, Lush would only say that they were close to releasing a statement, and that they wanted to get it right, and verify it with various internal groups before releasing it. On Thursday, a comment from Lush confirmed the outcome that many had hoped for. Lush would not be hosting or raising money to support the Girl Against Fluoride. However, as the saying goes, every silver lining has a cloud…


Lush may have cancelled the event, but not because they care about the bad science or scaremongering that characterises the anti-fluoridation campaigns, but because the homophobic comments made did not sit well with their commitment to gender equality and anti-homophobia stance. I commend Lush for standing up for LGBT rights and gender equality, two topics close to my heart, but this resolution leaves a lot to be desired. They may disagree with the homophobic comments, but they share the Girl Against Fluoride’s views on water fluoridation and apparently wish to have a reasoned debate about the issues surrounding it (without, to my knowledge, actually consulting any scientists about it). It’s good that Lush examined the homophobic comments made in the name of the Girl Against Fluoride, but the science matters too, and it should be just as important a reason to reconsider this event.

It’s becoming increasingly common to try and balance out scientific input with something fluffier but inaccurate, because people often perceive the “truths” of science as harsh. It seems cruel to tell someone “you’re wrong”, and easier and friendlier to tell someone “everyone will have time to express their equally valid opinion”. And if we were discussing fabric samples for the living room curtains, that would be lovely, but we’re not. We’re discussing a number of topics for which there is very well established information, and people who choose to ignore that information. The pill doesn’t cause women to have homosexual babies. Urine doesn’t cure cancer. Vaccines don’t cause autism. And water fluoridation is an important public health measure that is safe, effective, and considered one of the most important health measures of the 20th century. Maybe it’s not as sexy or interesting to discuss the facts like this, and perhaps it would be better received if I, too, posed in a bikini, but the really beautiful thing about facts is that they are true, whether or not you like them or believe in them.

I’ve discussed the problem with applying “balance” to these situations before, but it boils down to a very simple message: while everyone can have their own opinion, everyone can’t have their own facts, and when a group misrepresents facts (or just outright lies) and is given airtime the same as groups which actually represent the evidence for the sake of balance, it lends them a legitimacy that they do not deserve. The Girl Against Fluoride does not deserve this legitimacy. She believes a number of dangerous and damaging things, and actively spreads misinformation about fluoride (among other topics). Hosting her doesn’t encourage discussion of different points of view, it lends the support of a brand to her point of view and her point of view alone, especially when they host her alone (and not her in conjunction with any one of a number of qualified people who could provide the other side of that balance they seem eager to seek).

It might not be popular to stick up for science in a climate where words like “natural” are venerated, and words like “chemical” are decried (whatever their actual meanings!), but that doesn’t make the facts go away. When good, robust evidence shows me that it is better to remove fluoride from our water, I will support that change. Until then, I will continue to trust the overwhelming evidence in favour of water fluoridation, I will continue to be the Girl Not Against Fluoride*, and I will continue to promote science above populist scaremongering and misinformation.


*I still won’t pose in my bikini though.

Current Affairs Science

The time I believed in homoeopathy

I have a confession to make: once upon a time, I believed that a homoeopathic arnica cream magically cured my bruises.

By аз, via Wikimedia Commons

No, no, bear with me. Don’t leave yet, the story ends well…

Some years ago (don’t ask how many), I studied Biology and Computer Science in NUIM. I thought I understood how scientific research worked, and I thought that articles in scientific journals were infallible. I thought that, as long as there was a journal article about a topic, it must be true. When I realised that this wasn’t the case, that all studies were not created equal, that merely being published did not make a study truth, and that the quality of the study (and the journal) mattered, it fundamentally changed how I approached scientific evidence gathering, and how I cemented or debunked beliefs.

While I was in college, I also took up martial arts for the first time. As virtually any martial artist will tell you, it’s nearly impossible to study a martial art without picking up some bumps and bruises, and I was no exception. When I eventually did my first grading, it’s fair to say that I came away with more than a few bruises, particularly on my arms. Normally, this wouldn’t have bothered me, but in this particular case, I was due to be a maid of honour at a wedding only a short time afterwards, and my family weren’t too keen on the idea of my sashaying up the aisle looking like I’d been beating rocks with my forearms.

Lucky for me, then, that I had heard about the miraculous curative properties of arnica from a number of people. I went straight to my local health food store, picked up some cream without a second thought, and dutifully applied it like it was going out of fashion. And come the day of the wedding, why my bruises had faded faster than I thought possible, and I was 100% convinced that the arnica had helped me to do it. Naturally, because I was completely convinced that the arnica cream had made a difference, I told everyone. I extolled the virtues of the cream in my martial arts club, to friends and family, and even online. It was while browsing online that I came across a forum thread that started me down a slippery slope to critical thinking – a thread on a martial arts forum discussing arnica, and some commenters who were adamant that it was nonsense.

When I found this thread, of course, the first thing I thought about was my own experience – I had used arnica, and I was sure it had worked, so surely that was evidence? Of course, I summarised my story and posted it up online, and those commenters told me I was wrong. I googled, and I found a paper or two that posited an explanation for arnica’s effect (that it caused increased blood flow to an area, that it had an effect on capillaries), and posted that, sure that the evidence supported my anecdote. The commenters weren’t convinced, but then, neither was I. I had papers and my story, and they had some papers too, but whatever, it worked and that was that.

Looking back on this, I cringe at how silly I was. I didn’t understand so many of the basics about alternative medicine, so I didn’t understand that there was a fundamental difference between herbal medicine and homoeopathic medicine. I didn’t know that herbal medicines are often poorly regulated, with differing quantities of active ingredient, differing quality, and other similar issues. I didn’t know that homoeopathic medicine involved finding components that allegedly caused the symptoms (10ccs of forearm double block anyone?), and then diluting those components so much that they aren’t even present anymore (ironic, since I had been learning about the practicalities of serial dilution in the lab). I didn’t realise that the papers I presented discussed application of herbal medicine, not homoeopathic, and I didn’t realise that those papers were in poor quality journals, and not properly peer reviewed. I didn’t even know that the cream I was sold contained no active ingredients, and was just an expensive, smelly placebo. To those commenters who worked hard to convince me, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise how wrong I was.

Why am I telling this story now? Because I no longer believe these things, and if I came across my former self, posting her healing anecdote on that forum, I would pick apart the argument with one internet hand tied behind my back. I’m telling this story because I have changed my beliefs, and that is ok. Sometimes, when you believe something for a long time, it’s hard to change that. It’s much easier to ignore evidence than to acknowledge that you were wrong, possibly for months or years. Having egg on your face, realising that your declarations of the effectiveness of arnica were laughable, is really not much fun at all, but in time, instead of being an embarrassing memory, it can become a reminder of how easy it is to be fooled by people who are unscrupulous, a reminder that the information out there is sometimes confusing and conflicting.

But how on earth can anyone figure out what’s what when scientists seem to change their minds every day? People often joke that scientists (as a large, amorphous, faceless science-blob) can’t agree on anything – first red wine causes cancer, then it cures it, then it causes it but only if you drink it while eating or not eating dark chocolate. This notion is used to debunk assertions that climate change is real, that magical urine can’t cure cancer, and that infinitesimally small quantities of compounds are remembered by water but sewage is not. After all, if scientists can’t agree on red wine, how can we trust them about our climate/medicine/children?

The truth is somewhat different – sometimes press-releases present preliminary results as if they were final, verified findings, and then forget to also present the later study which disproves it. Scientists assert a theory, and then test it, and if they find it to be true, they celebrate. But other scientists might find out, after more independent testing, that this was just a freak result. Over time, enough of these results will prove or disprove a theory, and scientists may change their minds about something that they once believed to be true. This isn’t the equivalent of political flip-flopping, or being fickle – this is the scientific process in action. Believe a thing, test that thing, examine all of the evidence, and then, if necessary, believe the confirmed thing (even if it’s different to what you used to believe). Be sceptical of things that seem too good to be true, and be pleasantly surprised if they are.

Science doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes, papers will make it to journals when they never should have passed peer review. Sometimes, bad scientists will lie about results or manipulate data and deceive people. There are still a lot of things that we don’t fully understand, but this doesn’t mean that the scientific community is constantly at war over everything, or that every piece of established knowledge is tenuous, and liable to be disproved at a moment’s notice. On an awful lot of the big stuff, there is agreement. The human genome contains 23 chromosome pairs. Climate change is real. Water doesn’t remember the lavender that was in it 30 dilutions ago. There is no miracle cure for all cancers, being suppressed by big pharma. Some people believe some of these things to be untrue, but they are usually in the minority, however disproportionately loudly they may shout.

Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, this scientist believed in homoeopathy. She hoped that it would work, and was amazed to find out that it did, which only made her believe all the more. Then, her alarm clock rang, and she awoke from her slumber to a world where belief doesn’t trump evidence (or lack thereof), and all was well.

Current Affairs Science

Balancing act

What would you do if someone claimed that, because of “geopathic stress”, moving your bed could be the key to avoiding cancer? Well, if you’re the Irish Independent, you give that someone the most prominent picture and article space in a section about cancer prevention and treatment, with the bold headline “The truth about avoiding cancer”.

The man in the picture holding the magical pieces of wire is Brendan Murphy, and the article is little more than an advertising piece for his company, Positive Energy. Though the piece starts promisingly by pointing out that geopathic stress is “an area that is still open to debate”, sadly, it fails to deliver that debate. Instead, the reader is treated to a number of claims with a dearth of supporting evidence.

  • By ‘dousing’ (an ancient practice of using two wires to find underground waterways) Brendan can identify where water runs under a house and has found a strong correlation between that and illness.
  • If you’re constantly waking tired and unrefreshed it could be a sign that you’re sleeping over geopathic stress.
  • There’s a growing interest in how geopathic stress or ‘sick building syndrome’ affects health, with planners in several countries now considering geopathic stress lines when building houses. 
  • On the basis that electromagnetic waves affect the body’s ability to restore itself during sleep, Brendan advises also keeping mobile phones and electricity boxes an arm’s length from the bed – as well as keeping WiFI switched off at night.

The piece neither provides, nor suggests where you might find evidence to support the claims about Murphy’s dousing abilities (or anybody’s ability to accurately douse), or why electricity boxes and wifi might prevent your body from “restoring itself”, and if you found yourself wondering what planners are interested in geopathic stress lines, and how they could possible hope to avoid them all if they are as prevalent as claimed, you are not alone. A quick search through any academic database will cure what ails you – geopathic stress turning up only in low quality journals and those that focus on complementary and alternative therapies. Whatever strong correlations Murphy claims to have found between illnesses and these imaginary stress lines, it certainly hasn’t been documented in any research papers.

Continuing to largely ignore the seemingly fictional nature of the piece, the author concludes that there has been “little investigation into the area, but if something as small as changing where you sleep, or moving your phone, might impact on your health it could be worth thinking about.” A statement of equal legitimacy might be “there has been little investigation into the area of alien-induced head colds, but if something as small as wearing these protective alien UFO blocking nose plugs might impact on your health, it could be worth thinking about”.

Further down the page, nestled between largely sensible articles from an Irish Cancer Society representative and a dietician, Dr. Aileen O’Kane, now an Ayurvedic practitioner tells us that “if the digestive system is overtaxed the immune system is compromised and can’t gobble up the cancer cells that the body is always producing, the way it normally would”, and in a nod to the thoroughly debunked “alkaline diet” craze, that “Many people who have cancer have excess acid in the body.” The conclusion, highlighted for you in a section of its own, is to “keep acidic foods to a minimum”. O’Kane believes that any illness, including cancer, is the body’s warning sign that our lives are out of balance.

Our lives aren’t the only things suffering from a lack of balance – increasingly, in the name of journalistic balance, legitimate and accurate information is overshadowed by misleading quotes and scaremongering by those brought in to “balance” the piece. It’s one thing to include dissenting opinions when discussing the latest trend in fashionable shoes, or whether some movie lives up to the hype, but medical science isn’t about which opinion is more popular or compelling, it’s about evidence.

These articles might pay lip service to the lack of evidence by saying things like “still up for debate” or “Dr. Someone  believes that”, but placing these articles next to pieces by legitimate medical professionals lends them a degree of credibility which they often don’t deserve. When articles like these are published, the trust that is placed in well-respected and nationally read newspapers such as The Irish Independent is extended to the people who make claims about alternative therapies. They are claims that shouldn’t be trusted, claims for which they should have to provide evidence – but the mere fact of publication often means they don’t have to.

Every time an author discusses serious medical conditions like cancer, and decides that appearing to be “neutral” is more important than reporting accurately, they perpetuate the idea that alternative and unproven therapies are as legitimate as proven ones, and that when it comes to treating these conditions, everyone’s opinion is equal, even if those opinions come with no pertinent training, no supporting evidence, or an eye-watering price tag. Encouraging people to “think about” these alleged cancer causes and prevention methods essentially encourages baseless worry, reaching down to a fear of terminal illness and death that we all possess, and as no effort is made to draw a distinction between the sensible advice (eat a healthy, varied diet) and the more ridiculous advice (magical invisible lines under your bed), the overall impression one is left with is that each of these “truths” about cancer prevention are equally valid. Alternative therapies are alternative because they have either not been proved to work, or have been proven not to work, and including these therapies, simply so that you can call your piece balanced is irresponsible to the point of dangerous – a lesson which The Independent sorely needs to learn.

Current Affairs Science

Scapegoats and quackery

““The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Quack clinics are often quick to claim their victories, with the smallest improvement in a condition being hailed as irrefutable proof that the treatment works. When the treatment fails, however, and there is blame to be apportioned, it seems that everyone and everything but the treatment are to be targeted.

A few days ago, we heard about Olivia Downie, who sadly has become so ill that she is unlikely to live. Her family raised money to send her to the Hope4Cancer Institute in Tijuana, Mexico, so that she could receive Sono-Photo Dynamic Therapy. The unproven  treatment uses light and sound to fight cancer, and is not generally accepted as an effective treatment for cancer. The expense, difficulty, and stress of travelling to Mexico have been compounded for the family, as the treatment has not worked, and Olivia has deteriorated significantly. She is now too unwell to fly home without medical assistance, and will need a chartered flight with specialist care if she is to be brought home before she dies.

This is a story which is all too familiar for many who read about alternative cancer treatments – though we are told at great length about the alleged successes of the treatment, more often than not, a family spends all that they have only to be separated from their loved one, and to potentially see them die alone in a foreign country. Several articles appeared today, detailing the fears of her parents that her life support machines will be turned off, because of delays in paying their medical bills. Surprisingly, instead of criticising the clinic for what is despicable, bullying behaviour, the blame has been placed at the feet of NatWest, saying that their banking problems, which caused delayed payments and account issues, are threatening Olivia’s life.

The Daily Mail opens their article by talking about the “innovative”,”life-saving”, “specialised” treatment, and gives no mention to its unproven nature (barely mentioning the fact that the treatment hasn’t worked). Later, we are told that the hospital deny making this threat, but that denial has come after a rushed payment was arranged by the family at the weekend.



The Daily Mail article quotes the mother as she spoke to the Telegraph, and the article which appears in the Telegraph is similarly uncritical of the clinic and the treatment, and eager to lay the blame with the banks.


The Telegraph is happy to tell us about the “life-saving” treatment which Olivia received at the Mexico clinic, and though Olivia’s mother, Linza, is quoted as saying that you “can’t blame the banks. It was bad timing, it was one of those things”, the Telegraph (among others) seem to be quite happy to blame the bank for threats to Olivia’s life support machines. In fact, as more articles appear, the focus seems to be on the role the NatWest problems may have played in the transfer of funds, and on nothing else.

I can only imagine how difficult and upsetting this time must be for Olivia’s family, but this doesn’t excuse the lazy, uncritical reporting which will almost certainly draw more attention to the clinic. The treatment doesn’t work, and it hasn’t been properly tested or proven. Andy Lewis blogged about Olivia, including a video which shows the doctors promising results that they cannot hope to achieve, lying about the effects of chemotherapy, and the effectiveness of their treatment, and articles discussing the treatment have been at best uncritical, and at worst, complimentary.

When a lone maverick sets up a clinic, because he or she has been persecuted by the mainstream medical community and Big Pharma, because they have a simple, non-toxic cure for all cancers, it all sounds a little bit too good to be true, and that’s almost invariably because it’s not true at all. The Hope4Cancer clinic is another example of this, and once again, the uncritical reporting serves only to harm the public. NatWest haven’t threatened the life of this little girl, the clinic which promised a cure based on wishes and dreams, and then threatened to pull the plug for purely mercenary reasons are the ones who should be at the receiving end of any backlash forthcoming, as they alone are responsible for what has happened.

Current Affairs Science

It’s Burzynski, Jim, but not as we know it.

Stanislaw Burzynski has been in the spotlight for some time now, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’re already aware of the controversy surrounding his alternative cancer treatment: Antineoplastons. Burzynski claims unheard of success rates with his treatment, and his website is full of testimonials from patients who say they have been cured of incurable cancers. Given all of the publicity, one might be convinced that Burzynski has just one string to his bow, but it seems that we may have been too quick to judge. Cancer patients can allegedly benefit from antineoplastons, but it seems that we can too.

Aminocare is the genetic solution to anti-ageing, brought to you by the Burzynski Clinic. It will solve all of our ageing problems with a whole new approach which focuses on genetics. As there are a whole host of problems associated with advanced age, many of them more significant than wrinkly skin, something which could combat these problems at a genetic level could be revolutionary – imagine a world free, not only of cancer, but of Alzheimer’s, for example.

Aminocare Brain Longevity Supplement is marketed as possibly preventative of Alzheimer’s (yours for the bargain price of $60 for 60 capsules!), and two of the ingredients stand out as significant. The first is curcumin, a compound which is part of the tumeric spice. Curcumin is the subject of ongoing trials because it has demonstrated some promising results in animal and in vitro studies, and it is true that in animal tests with transgenic Alzheimer mice, there a marked reduction in the plaques and inflammation which are characteristic of Alzheimer’s. So why aren’t we using this revolutionary treatment in humans? Simply, because we are not mice. Mice and humans absorb curcumin quite differently, resulting in drastically lowered amounts of free curcumin (that is, curcumin which has not bound to another molecule as part of metabolic processes) in humans. Curcumin which has bound to another molecule (most often glucuronic acid) can not pass through the blood brain barrier, and thus, cannot target the plaques and inflammation. Because we are aware that curcumin is absorbed differently, much research has been done on combining curcumin with other compounds, to try to increase the absorption. One such compound is found on the ingredients list: piperine.  A note in the product information tells us that piperine is something which increases the absorption of curcumin, and piperine was one of the first compounds tested which appeared to increase the bioavailability of curcumin. However, the overall levels of curcumin absorbed still do not match those seen in prior animal testing. There are some compounds which appear to be performing well in making curcumin absorb more readily, but those compounds are still in the early stages of testing, and piperine is not one of them. The inclusion of that animal test titbit in the product information is a subtle ploy; even though it is technically true, it is not the whole truth.

The second ingredient which caught my eye was “Glutamine Derivative (PG)”, which is described in the product information as a proprietary amino acid derivative phenylacetylglutamine. If you think that looks familiar, you’d be quite right – Burzynski says that it’s the active ingredient in A-10-I, one of his antineoplastons, which apparently cure Alzheimer’s as well as cancer.

Not content with ridding the world of cancer and degenerative  brain conditions, Burzynski also wants to tackle the scourge of make-up wearers everywhere – ageing. With Aminocare A10 Dietary Supplement, you can genetically slow down ageing. That’s powerful stuff (especially as there is still a ways to go before there is certainty about the genetic causes of ageing), let’s take a look at what’s in it. A10 Dietary Supplement claims to be a blend of amino acids, vitamin B12, and our old friend L-Glutamine Derivative (a.k.a. Dr. Burzynski’s proprietary ingredient, a.k.a. antineoplastons). Below are some of the claims made by this product, and I have highlighted some pertinent information:

A10 Supplement Claims


Absolutely none of the statements made about the efficacy of the product have been verified by an external body. This should be enough to make anyone very wary of spending money on such a product ($120 per box!), but if that’s not enough to give you pause for thought, a sidebar note about the product certainly should:

A10 Pic and Blurb

Aminocare A10 slows down the ageing process by gene expression modification. This is hinted at in the product description (“aids the regulation of normal cell division”) and is stated in the sidebar advertisement for the product (pictured left). This over-the-expensive-counter, completely untested, unregulated, and unverified capsule is going to stop you ageing by messing with your gene expression. How will it do this? Presumably, with the magic of antineoplastons, which are advertised as targeted gene therapy, because they “turn off” the “cancer genes”.

Perhaps you, like me, do not relish the thought of swallowing tablets. Never fear, as you may modify your gene expression and stay looking young simply by rubbing antineoplastons onto your skin.  The two antineoplaston ingredients in the  Aminocare Cream and Lotion cream “may restore the proper balance in gene expression” by turning off ageing genes, such as the icky wrinkly gene, and turning on other genes (such as the forever young gene) which are silenced during the normal ageing process. I have used chemicals in the lab which had the potential to mess with your genes and they are, in a word, scary. They are not something I would be in a hurry to smear all over my skin, so it is a very good thing that antineoplastons have an in-built identifier to know which are the “good” genes, and which are the “bad” genes.

A substance which claims to cure everything is called a panacea, and if you investigate this word, it’s likely that the only cures you’ll find are mythical ones, such as the philosopher’s stone, or the elixir of life, and this is not an accident. Throughout history, people have touted various substances as panaceas (tree sap, silver, mercury,etc.), and they have all been proven false. The truth is that we suffer from diseases which are so diverse that there is no one substance that could hope to conquer them all. The patter has changed, the terminology is littered with pseudo-scientific jargon, but the message is still the same. Come one, come all – you can inject them, eat them, or even just rub them all over your body. Antineoplastons are good for the soul!

Current Affairs Science

Curing Canine Epilepsy with Starvation

Pets can be wonderful companions, and the (often unconditional) love they provide can really lift your spirits when things are dark and difficult. Most people want to repay that joy by giving their pets the best training, toys, and food that they can, and for food in particular, the average pet owner is spoiled for choice. A popular pet food in the UK and Ireland is Burns, and make no mistake, it is legitimately popular, because it is a good and well-liked food. The person responsible for Burns Pet Food is John Burns BVMS Lic. Ac. MRCVS, a veterinary surgeon, and in addition to offering a range of foods, he and his team also offer nutritional and health care advice for your pets, and this is where I must sadly become less complimentary.

Burns Pet Food advertises itself as a holistic pet food, and offers advice on its website about holistic health care for your pets. The principles upon which this health advice is based are:

  • Good health is the normal state.
  • The body will tend towards a state of good health.
  • Healing will take place if it is possible.
  • Acute illness is a sign that the body is trying to heal itself.
  • Chronic illness is the result of failure or suppression of the healing process.

These principles raise alarm bells immediately for their similarity to a number of alternative medicine principles – namely the “healing crisis” myth (common in many CAM therapies, but homoeopathy and chiropractic in particular), and the idea of “optimum health” (common in many CAM therapies). A brief look into Burns’ “Guide to Natural Health Care (PDF)” provides a history of his education, and it becomes clear where these ideas have sprung from:

[…] A few years later, having read some impressive reports about acupuncture I decided to become an acupuncturist. The two-year course on Traditional Oriental Medicine attempted to unite ancient principles of health to our Western way of life. During this time I came to realise that acupuncture suffered from the same important shortcoming as modern medicine – the illness itself was being treated but the treatment did not address the cause of the problem.

At the same time I became a Student of the Macrobiotic movement which was in great vogue in Britain in the seventies but which has now virtually disappeared from view (in the UK at least). Macrobiotics attempted to apply and adapt ancient, traditional philosophy in a way which was practical and appropriate to our modern lifestyle.

At first, the advice given in the guide – based mostly around the idea that a balanced diet is best – seems sound. It isn’t long, however, before we tread into the nebulous region of “toxins”, and their effect on the body. Though the guide does not detail the toxins in question, it assures us that a build-up of these toxins (often a result of poor diet) can cause all sorts of illnesses, from hepatitis to heart disease. I asked Burns what these toxins were, and received some notes on the production of toxins, and a brief definition:

“Toxins” are
1.) The waste products of normal metabolism but which are produced to excess, in the form of mucopolysaccharides, cholesterol and fatty acids., urea.

2.) Pollutant chemicals which are absorbed from the gut, lungs, even through the skin.

3.) Bacterial endotoxins

4.) Ammonia from bacteria and protein metabolism

5.) Products of cell damage (inflammation, infection, free radical production)

6.) The products of fat oxidation i.e. rancid dietary fat but also oxidation of body fat.

These are the sorts of toxins that are regularly mentioned when discussing detoxification and the associated idea of optimum wellness, and they certainly sound legitimate, but even a cursory examination of the claims is enough to begin to debunk them.

Cholesterol, urea, and other chemicals/compounds/particles/etc can build up in the body and cause problems, but this is often something associated with other, more severe medical problems, rather than the cause of them. High levels of urea in the blood can cause a number of problems, such as vomiting, weight loss, etc., but high levels of urea are most often a result of kidney failure – something which is not caused by dietary (or process waste) toxins. Pollutant chemicals have a hard time affecting our bodies, because they must first pass through a number of barriers. The skin is our first line of defence against disease and “pollutant chemicals”, providing an excellent barrier which keeps out a tremendous number of substances. It keeps out any and all particles that are larger than ~40nm in diameter (pretty small!). Indeed, the development of transdermal patch medications has been limited as a direct result of the fact that many molecules (medicinal or otherwise) are simply too large to pass through the skin (and even if they do, they are diffused within the first few layers, before the molecule reaches the bloodstream). The gut is regularly assailed with foreign material, pollutant chemicals, and indeed, food, but before anything reaches the intestines (and absorption), it passes through the stomach. The low pH of the hydrochloric acid effectively kills many common bacteria, and anyone who has ever had the unpleasant experience of having food poisoning can attest to the body’s ability to expel matter that it believes damaging. These systems are not infallible, but nor are they the paper-thin,  sieve-like defences that many alternative medicine practitioners would have you believe. Dietary and stored body fat can be harmful to health, if there is a large amount of it, but it’s not “toxic”. Nor are the products of fatty acid oxidation, which is part of the process of using stored fatty acids for energy. As for the products of cell damage, protein metabolism, and other body functions, any waste material is processed by the body itself.

Just about the only really scary toxin on that list are the bacterial endotoxins – even very small amounts of them can cause severe illness in humans, and the majority of septic shock cases are caused by endotoxins. They are genuinely toxic, but so much so that no adjustment in diet will prevent them from affecting you (or your pet) . I strongly suspect that this particular entry made the list simply to add gravitas to the rest of the entries, because a pet food, no matter how good, will not prevent septic shock, and septic shock does not cause many of the “signs of elimination” discussed later in the guide (and this blog). The “toxins” listed above (even the bacterial endotoxins) do not build up in our body as a result of poor diet, and nor can they be controlled by diet. They are the waste products of normal bodily functions, or things that we encounter daily in our diet, but because of the functions of our liver, kidneys, digestive tract, skin, and other organs, we simply don’t experience toxin build-up unless there is some sort of more serious problem (e.g. kidney or liver failure, genetic disorders, etc.), and if a more serious problem exists, it’s unlikely that dietary change alone will fix it.

The guide, goes on to talk about the development of disease, stating that “as the build-up of toxins continues, the major organ systems will start to show signs of degeneration and failure. […] One may encounter: Heart Disease, Kidney Disease, Diabetes, Tumour formation”. This is a perfect example of putting the cart before the horse – toxin build-up doesn’t cause kidney disease, kidney disease results in build-up of chemicals such as urea. We’re also told that arthritis and rheumatism are caused by muscle tension which is due to:

(1) the accumulation of waste metabolic products in the muscles.
(2) weakness of a major internal organ system. This is a viewpoint which will be familiar to students of acupuncture, but suffice to say that certain muscles relate to specific organs e.g. a weakness in stomach function affects the muscles on the front of the (hind) leg or the lumbar muscles at the level of the stomach.

This, as you might expect, is in sharp contrast to the stated causes of arthritis, as you might find them in a biology or medical textbook – damage to the joint from disease, wear and tear, or in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation in the joints causing swelling and destruction of cartilage. There is a disorder which does cause joint pain as a result of things building up in the joints, but that’s not arthritis, it’s haemochromatosis.

Throughout the guide, there are plenty of mentions of toxins, and their underlying role in all aspects of animal health. It seems that most conditions are merely “signs of elimination” – the body getting rid of all of these toxins (for example, the warmer weather draws toxins to the surface of the body, which is what causes dogs and cats to moult – a sign of elimination. This is how they expel toxic waste matter.). Ultimately, the main message seems to be that good food will solve a number of behavioural and health problems, and I’m certainly not averse to anyone feeding their pet good food, but I draw the line at questionable medical advice. Moulting (and it’s causes) might not be the most life-threatening  or dangerous condition, but it’s not long before the guide reaches more serious conditions. Approximately half-way through the guide, I came across the following paragraphs, which so shocked me that I was rendered speechless:

Holistic Medicine views epileptic fits as a process by which excess energy is discharged. Generally, excess energy is discharged by increased mental and physical activity – hyperactivity or excessively boisterous behaviour. […]

Holistic treatment of epilepsy is by feeding a diet which is hypo-allergenic, chemical-free, low in protein and fat, and high in complex carbohydrate (brown rice is best for this). It is essential that the quantity of food meets but does not exceed the dog’s energy requirement.

Epilepsy is because you feed your dog too much, and it has excess energy to get rid of.

I can’t think of a more irresponsible thing to say to a pet owner, or a more irresponsible behaviour to encourage. A dog developes epilepsy, the owner thinks the food is exceeding the dog’s requirements and feeds less, the dog continues to have periodic fits, the owner continues to reduce the food given to the dog. I enquired as to whether there was a study I could read which might support this connection between overfeeding and epilepsy, and received the following from John Burns (via another staff member):

There is no source for this; it is my simply me musing on the nature of holistic health based partly on my understanding of traditional medicine, especially Macrobiotics.

I thought that the comments on epilepsy were quite irresponsible, but a few pages on, and I’ve found something equally questionable:

Many pet owners who are interested in holistic medicine or who are concerned about using drugs and chemicals on their pets are reluctant to have their pets vaccinated. In theory if a pet has the correct diet and lifestyle it will be naturally resistant to disease and therefore need not be vaccinated.

However, theories do not always work in practice. My policy is that a puppy/kitten should be vaccinated by conventional methods in the usual way. Distemper, parvovirus and leptospirosis are too dangerous to be treated lightly and I do not have sufficient confidence in Homeopathic vaccination.

You don’t have sufficient confidence in Homeopathic vaccination? Why would anyone have any confidence in homeopathic vaccination, let alone someone who is medically trained?

The guide finishes with an overview of a holistic lifestyle, which includes many more typical alternative medicine ideas and phrases, including lots of mentions of “Western Medicine”, and the suggestion that our society is “fragmented and ill-at-ease”, because we have “replaced the problem of infectious disease with that of degenerative disease”. We are also treated to an overview of Macrobiotics and the Seven Levels of Judgement that it is concerned with. Both sections are too long to include here, so I suggest that you consult the guide to read them.

When it comes right down to it, pets are an easy target for alternative medicine. Adults who choose alternative medicine for themselves may have been taken in by the advertising and false mysticism associated with it, but they have made that choice for themselves. Adults who choose alternative medicine on behalf of those less able to decide (young children, pets, etc.) muddy the waters, as the recipient of the treatment must naturally assume that their primary care-givers mean only the best, and that the treatment will work as promised. In this scenario, pets bring an additional complication – they can’t tell you that it isn’t working, that they are sick or in pain, or that they would rather you medicated their epilepsy than starved them for it.



Since posting my blog, Burns have responded by pointing out that I’m obviously skeptical of alternative medicine. They also have let us know that they can’t share their miraculous healing stories with us for “legal reasons”…

(Sadly, this image was stored on the Twentyfirst Floor server, and as such, is not accessible any more. I’m trying to find a local copy that I can replace it with, as the post also seems to have disappeared from the Facebook page in question)

Current Affairs Science

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

Boiron sue completely innocent blogger because he dared to tell the truth about homoeopathy!!!!!11!!11! Can it possibly be true? Well, no, not exactly, and one thing this case will serve to demonstrate well is the fact that you can’t say much without facts, and that it’s easy to lose sight of them in all of the fuss. To any who don’t know what I’m talking about, here is a summary:

  • Blogger Samuele Riva posted an article about homoeopathy, including a picture of a particular product made by Boiron
  • Boiron sent a letter (in Italian) to the internet provider in question demanding the removal of the article, etc. (Several translations of the letter appeared to show Boiron taking exception to a number of points in the blog.)

Already, comparisons between this case, and that of BCA vs. Singh are being bandied about, and the picture of Samuele Riva as David to Boiron’s Goliath is forming rapidly, but I think that the whole situation deserves further scrutiny before Riva is painted as a hero of modern science. As the letter is originally in Italian, some of the translations have been a little shaky (several machine translations have been doing the rounds), and as the legal wording is likely to be quite important in such a case, it’s difficult to understand the spirit of the letter without being able to read it, fluently, in its original Italian (and in the context of Italian law). As I can do neither, I can only look to the translations, as others have been doing.

A selection of the points Boiron seem to be complaining about are as follows:

  • The unauthorised inclusion of a picture of their product
  • The caption associated with the picture (the total nothing that according to Boiron is the cure for influenza… diluted 200C does not contain any molecule of active ingredient!)
  • A further article, including a picture, and caption associated with the picture (Seriously damages the intelligence (of the person buying it))

The letter also contains some other points, such as demands for removal of internet services, denying Riva’s access to his blog, etc. All in all, it’s the kind of letter that I’m sure anyone would be intimidated to receive, and I have little doubt that this was the intention, and while I recognise that Riva has a right to state his opinion, there are things he could have done differently that may have prevented this letter arriving in the first place.

As unpalatable as it may be, the simple fact of the matter is that people tend to be rather lax about copyright on the internet. We take images from websites without crediting them or asking the owner, and often use them repeatedly without asking the owner. This is as wrong as it would be to copy a chapter from a book and claim it as your own. Copyright law means that you cannot just take the first image you find and use it with impunity – if that image belongs to someone else, and you haven’t asked their permission to use it, and they haven’t stated that it’s there for the taking, then you are breaking the law by using it. In this respect, Boiron do have the right to request that their image be removed, as I suspect they were not asked for permission to use it, and were certainly unlikely to give permission given the context in which it would be placed.

The next major point is to do with the caption of the image – “the total nothing that according to Boiron is the cure for influenza… diluted 200C does not contain any molecule of active ingredient!” We know that one part of this sentence is fact – a 200C dilution can not include a single molecule of the active ingredient. This has been tested and proven repeatedly, and it is an established fact. In this respect, Boiron really have no complaint, though I would welcome the situation in which they were legally obliged to provide proof that this statement was untrue, should it arise. The first part of the sentence, though, is a bit more tricky. The author states that Boiron say Oscillococcinum is the cure for influenza, and if this were true, it would be both laughable and sad. A thorough scouring of their promotional media, however, has failed to turn up a single instance of Boiron stating that Oscillococcinum is a cure for influenza – the strongest claim they make is that is is used “to reduce the duration and severity of flu-like symptoms”. They don’t claim to cure the flu, and it’s quite likely that this is a conscious decision made as a result of legal advice given to them – quite simply, they’re not stupid, and they haven’t come to be the largest manufacturer of homoeopathic products in the world without learning a thing or two. Whether or not their employees believe in the efficacy of the product, their literature is carefully crafted to avoid the mention of an outright cure, and instead employs the same terminology as often found advertising other products with questionable scientific background (e.g. may help to improve x, etc.). By putting words in their mouth, Riva left himself open to criticism and sanctions – to say that they claim it’s a flu cure is, factually speaking, untrue.

The last point I’ve highlighted refers to another use of a product picture, and the caption accompanying it – Seriously damages the intelligence (of the person buying it). This is a comment which, I believe, falls into a bit of a gray area. While I make absolutely no pretence at being a lawyer, I’d imagine that Boiron will argue that this is a serious slight against their product and a claim about a side-effect which doesn’t exist. In this, and only this, respect, this is similar to BCA vs. Singh, because it can possibly be argued that this is use of opinion, etc. on the part of Riva. For a better discussion of where this particular argument may go, I suggest you look up the various rulings for the BCA/Singh case, as they explain it far better than I could.

Let me be absolutely clear – I don’t like what Boiron are doing, and I think it is a disproportionate response, but to cast them as the big bad wolf without any consideration for the blog itself is neither rational, nor critical, nor sensible. Libel laws are, in many countries, downright punishing, and sadly, open to abuse, but here’s the rub – if we want the law to change, to better protect bloggers and authors and anyone else who wishes to share an opinion, then we also have to play nice with the existing laws. Direct criticism of a company or their product is a difficult thing to do, and there is a fine, often poorly defined, line between valid criticism and outright libel. You can be critical of a company or product if you have evidence to back up that criticism, but you cannot invent evidence to support a criticism. You can share your opinion of a product or company, but you can’t put words in their mouth. In short, you can’t libel a company simply because you don’t believe in their product, and you can’t use their copyrighted imagery to help you libel them. I have sympathy for the position that Riva now finds himself in, but I also hope that others take this as a cautionary tale and learn from the mistakes that were made. Check your facts, and then check them again; don’t make claims that you do not have evidence to support, and above all, write responsibly.


Edit: This blog post also appears on The 21st Floor.

Current Affairs Science

Lava bacteria and germy soap pumps?

Crossposted from The 21st Floor:

I don’t often watch adverts, but every now and again, I’ll see one that annoys me so much that I actively seek it out. The culprit this time: Dettol, and their two recent adverts for for Complete Clean, and their “No Touch” handwash system.

I’d like to first address Complete Clean, as, to be honest, it’s Complete Rubbish. It opens with a bold declaration – “Fact: some bacteria are almost indestructible. They can even survive in lava”. Well, this is undeniably true. A number of organisms have been discovered living (and thriving) in temperatures previously thought to be hostile to all life; they are known as hyperthermophiles. They were first discovered in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park (in 1969), and since then, have been found in (and on) several other environments, such as deep sea hydrothermal vents. Organisms in this class have been known to survive temperatures of up to 130 degrees Celsius, and some have even been able to reproduce in environments heated to 122 degrees Celcius (e.g. Methanopyrus kandleri). This statement is made over what appears to be a close-up of some bubbling lava, but what is then revealed to actually be a spill on a stove-top, and it’s at this point that Dettol begin to engage in something I like to call not-quite-false advertising –  “Fact: some bacteria are almost indestructible. They can even survive in lava, so think how easily the bacteria in your kitchen could survive.” Holy nonsense! I’d better run out and buy some cleaning products right now to protect my loved ones and children! Or, maybe I could just turn off my stove, since hyperthermophiles thrive in hot environments, such as those of 60 degrees Celcius and above, so unless I’m running my stove constantly, and in the vicinity of a hot spring, I’m probably ok.

There are numerous laws in place to prevent companies from lying when advertising their products, so instead, several companies seem to be resorting to this not-quite-lying. Granted, it’s true that there are bacteria that can survive in lava. And it’s also true that bacteria can survive in my kitchen. To link the two facts, however, while not technically lying,  is about as close to lying as you can get. As I’m unlikely to start cooking with lava any time soon, the likelyhood of my kitchen becoming infested with hyperthermophiles is extremely low (M. kandleri can only survive in anaerobic conditions, for example!), and even if it were to become infested with them, there’s no proof that they are more harmful than any other organism which I might find in my kitchen. The fact that hyperthermophiles exist has no impact on the existence of common kitchen bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and other such organisms, particularly since most of these organisms could not co-exist in the same environment (Salmonella being unable to survive after an hour at 55 degrees C, for example). In truth, linking the two makes as much sense as declaring that “Black bears enjoy eating honey; think of the damage bee stings could do to your children!” It’s not technically false advertising, but it is blatantly manipulative, and at its heart, dishonest.

I might be temped to call this campaign a fluke, or a one-off, if I hadn’t then seen the numerous advertisements for the new “no touch” hand washing system, which will enable your adorable little darlings to handle all sorts of scary things like frogs and normal household waste, and then wash their hands, all without having to touch a “germy soap pump”. Now, before I even begin to examine the science behind this silliness, I can’t help but point out the most obvious flaw in this advertisement – they are touching the germy soap pump immediately prior to washing their hands. It wouldn’t matter if the germy soap pump was liberally coated in raw chicken fillets and puppy excrement, because immediately after touching it, they will be removing any potential contamination by washing their hands. This, surely, is a sensible enough reason for most to leave this expensive and nonsensical product on the shelf. If not, we’ll examine some of the facts they present as part of the advertisement.

“Fact: Your soap pump can harbour hundreds of bacteria”. Well, once again, that’s undeniably true. A soap pump, like any surface, may harbour bacteria if the conditions are right. Those bacteria are most likely to be kitchen and bathroom bacteria (since these are the places where one is likely to place a soap pump), and as such, are likely to include our old reliable Salmonella and E. coli, as well as some new favourites such as Shigella and Cholera. Who would want to touch a soap pump laden with such disease causing bacteria? Well, someone about to wash their hands, since hand washing has been shown to effectively curb the spread of all of the above conditions by effectively removing the bacteria from the hands, and thus preventing transmission. A soap pump may harbour bacteria, but so may any number of surfaces in a typical house. Basic hygiene practices will effectively prevent infection by those bacteria, so long as, after you touch the “germy soap pump”, you use the soap you’ve pumped to wash your hands. At the end of the ad, we’re treated to a scene where a mother kisses a child’s (hopefully clean) hand – don’t they know how dangerous “germy mom mouth” is?!

Humans are, for the most part, pretty robust. We have reasonably effective immune systems which, over time, build up immunity to any number of common illnesses – this is why vaccinations are effective, and it is why we have been able to almost eradicate some diseases altogether; it is why being exposed to common bacteria in childhood is important. By the time we enter adulthood, we have immunity to most common bacteria, and knowledge of the hygiene practices that will keep us safe from the rest, but companies like Dettol are changing that. There is increasing evidence that children who are living in over-sterilised environments are missing the opportunity to develop these basic immunities through a lack of exposure to the bacteria in question, and this may be linked to a rise in a number of autoimmune diseases. Of course you should wash your hands after preparing raw chicken, but if your child is crawling on the floor, there’s probably no need to sterilise the entire surface for fear of lava bacteria. Go on, live dangerously – touch the germy soap pump.

Current Affairs Religion Science

Science is not my god

Dear Deborah Orr,

When you next choose to write a small piece for the Guardian’s Science section, please do try to include some actual science. It’s considered good practice by scientists to label correctly what you do, and by no stretch of the imagination could said piece be considered science.

I consider myself to be a good scientist – I try to be thorough in my research, I do my best to be balanced, and I always explain my work. That’s why, rather than simply complaining that your piece is shallow, inaccurate, misleading, and, lets face it, a bit rubbish, I’m also going to explain why.


Thrilling news from Geneva. Scientists at Cern have captured some of those elusive antimatter atoms. We’re a tiny step closer to corralling the God particle. If, of course, its predicted existence is correct. I love that nomenclature, “the God particle”. It is a sign that scientists sometimes are unabashed about acknowledging what atheists are often reluctant to grasp: that “believing” in science involves faith too.

Faith in science is far more practical than faith in the idea that a big, omnipotent boy did it and ran off. Or I place my faith in that argument anyway. But it’s still faith, not fact, so sneering at faith per se is not a very reasoned or logical mode of argument.

Source: The Guardian, 9/6/11

  1. The God Particle – I’m glad that you enjoy the nomenclature, since an awful lot of real science nomenclature is rather stuffy, being based mostly Latin and/or Greek. I expect that someone else who’ll be glad is Leon Lederman, the author of the book “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question”. It is, of course, this book which has led to the media dubbing the Higgs boson particle the God Particle. In fact, take a brief look at the term (and in this instance, you need not look any further than another article from the Guardian) and you’ll find that, for the most part, scientists don’t use the term God Particle. They don’t like it, and tend to think that it portrays scientists as arrogant, and overstates the importance of the particle, which, funnily enough, is rather similar to what you’ve done in your piece. In short, it is people like you, with an extremely poor understanding of science, and 5 minutes to search the net, that keep propagating this term by using it, even though science never has.
  2. Faith – OED defines faith as:  Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine) and contrary to your apparent belief, there is no stipulation that faith is something which must be blind. While faith is most often used to describe the fact of belief in a religious context, that’s far from the only meaning of the word. Faith and belief are not dirty words simply because they are also used in a religious context. They both simply mean that you accept that something is correct, true, or trustworthy on the basis of the evidence that you have. Blind faith is just a little bit different, since that is accepting that something is correct, true, or trustworthy in the absence of evidence, or indeed, in spite of evidence which is proof of the lie.
  3. Faith in Science – Faith in science does tend to be a good deal more practical than faith in many other things. For example, I have faith that, should I jump off a bridge, gravity will ensure my speedy reunion with the ground. I have faith that if I combine hydrogen with oxygen, I will have water. Why? Because these things have been proven, demonstrably, to be true. Theories in science are rarely just flights of fancy – they are usually based on existing principles which have been proven to be correct. Additionally, a key difference between “science” and “blind faith” is that, while “blind faith” refuses to change, “science” redevelops its theories when new, more accurate evidence comes to light, even if that means contradicting something which was earlier thought to be true. For example, should there prove to be no higgs boson particle, scientists will not continue irrationally believing in it, but will instead accept that the hypothesis has been dis-proven, and move on.
  4. Logical mode of argument – As we’re conversing about modes of arguing, I suppose that I should bring up a construct known as a straw man. This is when someone sets up a falsely weak argument (e.g. linking science and God in a title by way of a particle named by the media and not scientists) and then proceeds to knock it over. While you may appear to have scored a point, you haven’t really tackled the core issue at all, merely the straw man which stands alongside it (and is loosely related to the argument, but is not the same). It’s considered a pretty poor technique, and is often used by people who don’t have a full understanding of the issues, but who just want to appear right.


Science is a popular target indeed. You can’t comment on people’s religious beliefs without being labelled a bigot, but mock someone for being a scientist, and you’re likely to wind up published in the Guardian. Science is based on fact. When scientists are trying to prove that something exists, that is not based on “blind faith”; it is based on evidence from previous experiments, established scientific principles, and facts which have been proven correct to the best of our ability.

It’s much easier to sneer at science than it is to sneer at faith, but perhaps you should consider the fallacy in your argument (one I expect was unintentional); if science truly is a faith, then aren’t you just as bad as the rest of us scientists?

With warmest regards,


Current Affairs Science

How much does hope cost?

How much would you pay for hope? £75,000? How about $140,000? Given a life-threatening illness, or a chance to completely change your circumstances, I’d guess that most people would say that hope is priceless, and that they would pay anything, and indeed, everything, for that chance at hope. The fact that hope is priceless often comes up when discussing medical treatments, particularly those for terminally ill people.

Skeptics are often decried as horrible people who aim to steal hope from people when they debunk various quack treatments, dangerous cults,  or weird beliefs; in many cases, these quack treatments have successfully preyed on very vulnerable people who are trying to fight something that we probably all fear – an early, or untimely, death. And who are we, the nameless, soulless skeptic, to come and tear this last hope from the hands of the dying?

Well, in answer, I’d first like to turn my initial question around – we all probably have a good idea of exactly how much we’d pay for that last dash of hope, but how much do you suppose you’d charge for it? An assertion oft put forward by proponents of alternative medicine, for example, is that there are cheap and effective treatments available for many life-threatening conditions, such as cancer and AIDS, but that because the molecule can’t be patented, “big pharma” can’t make a profit, and therefore isn’t interested. It is lucky for us, therefore, that these renegade magicians are available to offer this cure, at this extremely cheap price, to everyone, profit-free. Oh, wait. That’s not quite right. Actually, each “cheap and effective” cure that “big pharma” ignores because it can’t turn a profit is usually bundled up with some appropriate pseudo-science sounding nonsense, perhaps tacked to someone with a dubious qualification, and usually offered to the public at the phenomenal price of approximately $your life savings$…

One such treatment recently brought to light is provided by the infamous Stanislaw R. Burzynski. While his name is often followed by a string of letters indicating credentials, I won’t include them here. Their legitimacy is questionable at best:

Burzynski’s claim to a Ph.D. is questionable. When I investigated, I found:

  • An official from the Ministry of Health in Warsaw informed me that when Burzynski was in school, medical schools did not give a Ph.D. [1].
  • Faculty members from at the Medical Academy at Lubin informed me that Burzynski received his D.Msc. in 1968 after completing a one-year laboratory project and passing an exam [2] and that he had done no independent research while in medical school [3].
  • In 1973, when Burzinski applied for a federal grant to study “antineoplaston peptides from urine,” he identified himself as “Stanislaw Burzynski, M.D, D.Msc.” [4]

Quackwatch, Nov 2006

This treatment, involving an unproven substance derived from human urine, will allegedly cure numerous forms of cancer with virtually no side-effects, and far fewer damaging effects than the standard treatments of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It’s a treatment that one British woman, Laura Hymas, is saving hard for, because both she and her family are banking on it giving her back her life.

It is at this point that skeptics tread a very narrow line, and agonise over writing posts like this. Do you tell this young, photogenic woman with her adoring husband, and their adorable son, that their last hope is hopeless? Or do you let them scrimp and save for the treatment, knowing with a good degree of certainty that it’s likely to result in her spending her last days away from her husband and son, squandering both time and money on a treatment that will do nothing good, and may even worsen her condition.

Many people adopt a hard line, saying that if people are gullible enough to be sucked in, then, as the saying goes, fools and their money are soon parted. That’s a bit too hard for me; when you are desperate, the blinkers must surely be hard to shake off, and the drive to see only the information which gives you hope must be immense. And often, these charlatans are convincing. Burzynski’s website is not a laughable hack-job – it’s full of official looking documentation, attractive patient before and after photos and stories, and pages full of pseudo-medical jargon that could easily mislead anyone who is not looking to disprove the treatment (and, after all, if it’s your last hope, are you looking to disprove it?)

Whenever skeptics debunk pseudo-science, nonsense treatments, or other questionable beliefs, there is always someone who will say “what’s the harm” or “why does it matter if someone believes that <insert treatment here> will cure them”. It’s true that, in a lot of cases, there’s little harm; your headache will go away whether you do nothing, take aspirin, or take homoeopathic belladonna, and the only difference is likely to be the time it takes to go away. But what of those who don’t just spend a few euro on sugar pills to rid themselves of a headache? What becomes of those people who spend their last months receiving IV urine derivatives, or forcing down juices while receiving coffee enemas, all while their life savings dwindle away? They die, and often, their families are left in severe debt, paying for the treatment that “big pharma” doesn’t want you to know about.

Earlier, I asked how much you would pay for hope. £75,000? $140,000? £75,000 is the cost of one 12-month cycle of Burzynski’s “life-saving” treatment, not including transport and accommodation costs, etc. This is the amount that will not be covered by the NHS or by health insurance, because the treatment is not sanctioned, and is, to date, completely unproven.

$140,000? This is the amount of money recently paid by one Robert Fitzpatrick to spread the message that the Rapture was coming on May 21st. He is a retired American man, and it represents his life savings. On May 21st, he stood in Times Square, clutching a bible and handing out leaflets explaining what would happen, and when nothing did, he was left dumbfounded, saying “I did what I had to do. I did what the Bible said. I don’t understand why nothing has happened.” Unfortunately for Mr. Fitzpatrick, life goes on, and he’s now broke, and likely, a broken man. The Rapture was a joke to many, but some people invested heart and soul, and significant finance, in it, and now, they have been left with nothing.

Pedalling false hope is a charlatans game, practised by the lowest of the low. They prey on people who have found themselves in desperate situations, and who have found themselves low on hope. They take advantage of vulnerable people, and leave them financially destitute, and once again, hopeless. Sometimes, the nonsense they sell (whether it is a physical product, or the promise of the metaphysical divine) is so laughable that it’s easy to forget that it’s not a victimless crime.

I can only suggest that anyone who truly wishes to help cure the diseases which rob us of friends, relatives, and loved ones, should donate to a respected and established charity or trust, or even donate time to help care for those who are dealing with these illnesses. Medical science is making huge advances, and diseases once thought deadly are now treatable, and in some cases, curable. As for the rest, we’ll get there. I hope that Burzynski doesn’t get a cent of that money, and that instead, the Hymas family can use the money to ensure that the time Laura has left is as amazing as it can be. I hope that she is the outlier, and that she does recover with conventional treatment. I hope that Robert Fitzpatrick manages to find some solid ground to stand on, and that he is not now rendered so hopeless as to consider his life meaningless. Mostly, though, I hope that people who pedal false hope are found out and stopped.

While writing this post, I was reminded of a poem by Emily Dickinson, which I studied in school. It is called “Hope is the thing with feathers”, and for me, it has always spoken right to the heart of hope itself – it never stops, it is not abashed, and it asks for nothing.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me


Update (28/11/11): You may be interested in another, more recent, post about Burzynski.