Pseudoscience, Part 1

Johnny Carson famously mocked psychics, playing “Carnac the Magnificent.” He exposed psychic Uri Geller’s claims on his show.

For the past ten years my interest in diminishing the impact of psychics and pseudoscience has grown. I wrote a newsletter about scary psychics earlier this year.  Few groups stand up for reason and truth – there should be more. The good ones, like the one mentioned below, needs and deserves our support.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) recently launched the Office of Consumer Protection from Pseudoscience, and I love that they’re doing that.  Science and Pseudoscience are, of course, directly opposed to each other.  The LA chapter of CFI offers a $250,000 Paranormal Challenge. They promise $250,000 to anyone able to demonstrate a paranormal, supernatural, or occult ability.  They work with the applicant to design a test procedure, the conditions, and when the test will take place.  They even administer the actual test! This would seem to be easy money for anyone with “a gift.”  Most recently an applicant claimed he had telepathy skills and was able to plant the name of a specific playing card into a friend’s mind in a nearby room.  Probably not a surprise, but under controlled conditions, he couldn’t do it. There were 43 applications for the prize in the first quarter of 2022 and the money, so far, appears to be safe. That said, if you do have a friend with psychic capabilities who could use $250,000, the application can be downloaded here.  

Debunking psychics and discrediting this sort of fraud can be entertaining, fun, and satisfying on several levels. However, beyond tricking gullible people out of hard-earned dollars, it can sometimes get very serious – even deadly.  This is especially true when people are persuaded to trust claims of medical remedies that haven’t undergone rigorous scientific testing.

In my work with the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA), we often deal with innovative companies in the medical space. An important investment success hurdle for many of them is FDA approval or being on a path to FDA approval. Companies typically construct tests with ever-increasing levels of rigor, knowing the FDA takes its role in protecting public health seriously.  Getting the science right and proving the case for products isn’t simple and I admire business innovators who take up this challenge.

But there are some companies, thankfully never seen at the ACA, whose objectives are more nefarious.  Let me repeat a story Robyn Blumner, the President and CEO of CFI, related recently. After periodontal surgery, her periodontist sent her home with a StellaLife “intelligent healing” kit, including a product called “BEGA Oral Care Recovery Kit,” with an “antimicrobial” rinse to promote “oral health.” When she got it home she noticed the word “homeopathic” on the front and thought, “I’ve just been handed a box of placebos.”  On closer examination, she noticed that every single claim of efficacy had an asterisk.  After diligent searching, she finally found where the asterisk was defined, and it said, “Claims based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence.  Not FDA evaluated.” For Robyn, not paying attention (and how many of us are super observant after oral surgery?) would have meant hours of pain and discomfort when proven medicines no doubt would have worked far better. I suspect traditional medicine would have included pain-relievers like Tylenol and a scientifically tested antimicrobial oral rinse.

To the credit of her periodontist, once informed of the issue, they cut their ties with StellaLife, although the company continues to pedal its wares to dental offices across the United States. Organizations like the Center for Inquiry counter this horse-pucky, along with all the nut cases recommending cow urine, bleach, and cocaine as COVID-19 cures.  As intelligent and caring human beings, we must work to end anything we see that legitimizes or tolerates health pseudoscience. It’s not a small issue. The vitamin and supplement market, another category recent science has called into question, generated $50B in sales last year (2021).  Fifty billion dollars for products science is telling us are largely unnecessary and useless.  Many readers of this newsletter have no problems calling “Bullshit!” when they see it.  So, be on guard and don’t be afraid to take a stance.

End note:  After writing and reviewing this draft, I feared I might be being too critical of homeopathy.  After all, my mother, a long-time nurse, was someone who avoided homeopathic remedies, but was a big believer in supplements, especially her glucosamine and chondroitin and urged me to try them, which I did, but they did nothing for me.  And Maggie frequently reaches for arnica gel for bruises and Sssstingstop for bug bites and itches.  As a result, I spent several hours researching Homeopathy.  I began with Wikipedia’s extensive section,  and used it as a jumping off point.  I learned a great deal, some of it rather scary.  For instance, Scientific American in 2017 documented hundreds of babies being harmed and some of them dying from homeopathic remedies.  I also found the Journal of Medical Ethic’s well-researched and documented paper titled “Homeopathy is where the harm is: five unethical effects of funding unscientific ‘remedies.’  There are many more sources, but if this interests you, these are a couple of good places to start. Of course, not everything in the universe can be explained and we’re surrounded by mysteries.  But the best way to uncover and understand those mysteries is conscientiously applied scientific effort.

Post Script:  My Minnesota daughter, as opposed to the NYC daughter, read this most recent blog post and wrote me asking if I was familiar with the JAMA Network.  I was not, but have since spent a few hours exploring it over the past two days.  It is a superb site for the latest medical information, covering dermatology, internal medicine, neurology, oncology, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery and more. The sites editors follow and report on recent medical research studies by area.  Each issue (48/year and online) contains a host of articles, each providing short abstracts about a particular medical study, when it was done, number of participants, where, etc. and then the entire text and often a downloadable PDF as well.

The breadth, level of detail, authenticity and timeliness is astonishing.  They’ve got all the most current studies.  Think of it as a searchable, easy-to-access medical journal of peer reviewed studies.  Any fears about its credibility were eliminated when I learned it was published by the American Medical Association and saw that, JAMA stands for Journal of the American Medical Association. Highly recommended.

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