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This is the text of a presentation I gave to the 2004 Annual Convention of Australian Skeptics on November 13, 2004, and to the 2004 Annual Conference of the Manly Warringah Division of General Practice the following day.
When I give these talks I introduce myself by mentioning the three parts I play in the skeptical world. I am the Vice President of Australian Skeptics, the Boss and Chief Decision Maker of the RatbagsDotCom Empire, and the Executive Officer of the Australian Council Against Health Fraud. One thing I have noticed over the years is that the followers of alternative medicine and the believers in woowoo and the paranormal generally seem to lack a sense of humour. An example of this is that there have been several comments about me assuming the title of "Boss and Chief Decision Maker", as this apparently indicates that I have a colossal ego and am extremely self-important. These claims may indeed be true, but most people would assume that the title was meant to be amusing. I always respond by saying that as I am the only inhabitant and employee of the RatbagsDotCom Empire, I can call myself whatever I like.
This lack of a sense of humour may explain the continued existence of some of the claims and cures of alternative medicine, simply because they are so ridiculous that it is almost impossible not to laugh when first meeting them. The sad thing is that not only do some people fail to see the humour, they actually take them seriously. The sites mentioned below illustrate this. These sites are drawn from the collection of oddities at Quintessence of the Loon, and all were alive on the web on November 11, 2004. (Some may have disappeared by the time you read this.)
I have spent a lot of time around racehorses. They are delicate animals, so delicate in fact that the merest hint of the weight of my money on their backs can cause them to run slower than usual. Like most gamblers, sorry, track investors, I like to go down to the saddling enclosure to check out the withers, hocks, fetlocks, gaskins and croups, and after I have inspected the jockeys I look at the horses. I must admit that I have never paid much attention to horses' eyes, except for those times when one of the animals gives me one of those superior, baleful looks to remind me that when I am walking home because I don't have the bus fare, he will be riding in an air-conditioned van. Not to mention how each of us are going to spend our retirement years.
Iridology is not the only quackery practised on horses. There are acupuncturists who somehow manage to thread their fine needles through the tough skin of horses to reach the vital meridians inside, but my favourites are horse chiropractors. A racehorse is a well-trained athlete, with all that means for muscle condition and density. The muscles between a horse's spine and the top of the horse are quite substantial, and seem to be adequate for supporting the spine even when the horse is carrying 55Kg of jockey, saddle and lead shot. Horse chiropractors claim to be able to manipulate the vertebrae of horses, but I certainly would not like to shake hands with anyone with that much strength in his thumbs. (Especially if he is a Mason.)
A couple of years ago I took a course to become a Reiki practitioner (it took three days), but I haven't been keeping up with progress in this healing modality. Reiki heals by the practitioner channelling some higher power, and apparently it can be done remotely, such as by telephone. As well as Reiki Healing, which fixes all the usual things that alt-med heals, like cancer, arthritis and piles, there is also Reiki Attunement which aligns the chakras and generally gets you feeling good. (This is best explained by analogy to a car, where replacing the gearbox is healing, but getting a tune-up is attunement.) The problem is that all the time and money spent at the attunatorium can be wasted if you get stuck behind a Volvo and in front of a road-rager at a red light on the way home, because what goes on after the light turns green can seriously disrupt the holistic you.
According to this web site, you can now have remote attunement as well as healing, although there seems to be some controversy in the Reiki community about this. The conventional orthodoxy is that healing can be done remotely but attunement needs physical proximity. The author of this site believes that the matter has been settled scientifically, and he presents evidence:
Some, like William Rand, (see his article on Reiki Distant Attunement at his site at www.reiki.org ) feel that distant attunements might work, but his clairvoyants feel that distant attunements do not contain all the "frequencies" of energy that the regular attunements contains. (Although how they could determine this I cannot imagine, especially there is no known or reliable method of determining the strngth or completeness of anyone's reiki. Perhaps they invented a Reiki-Om-Meter to measure the energy?) Clairvoyants that I know tell me that they have watched both Distant and Hands-On attunements and they see the same thing occuring in both. So is this a case of my clairvoyants are better than yours?!! Or perhaps we might take into account that clairvayancy has never been the most reliable of practices. If we through intent do an attunement hands on or distant, then we should trust that the creator, the source of Reiki will ensure that everything is exactlty as it is supposed to be! Many people in the Usui/Tibetan schools of reiki are taught that the "reiki guides" do the attunements (this is not a belief held by the majority of reiki practitioners). If your teachings/beliefs are that the "reiki guides" do the attunements, is it not an inconsistent belief to think that since they do them that they can certainly do them distantly?
Fundamentally it has to come down to a question of evidence, proof and faith. Where is the evidence to back up claims such as these? That is the problem with making such claims when they are unprovable. I can make claims. For example, i could claim that the space aliens started reiki millenia ago, buy shooting humans with their Reiki Ray Guns which focused cosmic energy on them. In reality when you doodle when talking on the phone you are subconsciously linked to the space guys and they are giving you new symbols! And i can say that i know cause i channeled them while on the phone and they told me. Barring objective evidence, this has exactly the same validity as anyone's claims regarding distant attunements. This is more about faith and belief than anything else.
However, having said that, we must evaluate what evidence we do have. Countless thousands of reiki practitioners and masters have been attuned distantly. In the final analysis - barring any way to objectively measure the energy or process - we must examine whether or not they can do reiki. From what i can tell, and alot of people with much much more experience than I, The answer to that is yes, they can.
It's a real nuisance when you need to get some pharmaceutical supplies late at night and the shop's closed. Of course, the inconvenience level depends on what you wanted to buy and what you planned to do with it, but we are talking about medical emergencies here. If it is something minor then perhaps it can wait, but if you have just discovered, for example, that your hippocampus is inflamed then something needs to be done real quick. Similarly, it is discouraging to turn up at the ER with a raging case of hangnail only to find that the victims of an explosion at a pickle factory are getting all the attention. Isn't it lucky, then, that you can carry a first aid kit around with you all the time? Not only that you can do it, but that you do do it. I'm relieved.
There seems to be a large overlap between those who believe that urine is good for trauma treatment and those who claim that humans have not evolved to eat cooked food of any kind, and we should all eat nothing but raw vegetables. The extremists of the raw food movement promote a system called "Natural Hygiene". It was one of these people who came the closest I have ever seen to getting supporters of alternative medicine to challenge an alt-med claim when he said:
[M]enstruation as most of us experience it is neither natural nor healthy. Ovulation does not depend on it. And it can be changed very much for the better - even to the extent of not experiencing it at all yet remaining healthy and fertile. How this can be done has been known and written about by health practitioners for centuries, and practised just as long by women willing to make the simple but significant lifestyle changes involved.
So why haven't most of us heard about this before?
It is because the lifestyle improvements involved, although simple, are quite a change from most modern women's habits of living and eating. No drugs or even nutritional supplements are required, but what is essential is the adoption of what health writer Leslie Kenton calls a "high raw way of eating"
That's right - women only have periods because they don't eat right! The cessation of menstruation seen in anorexics is evidence of an adequate diet! This really would be funny if it wasn't so stupid. As I said, this gave even hardened alternative supporters something to think about, although none of them in the particular forum where this was posted could actually bring themselves to declare it nonsense. I suppose getting them to ask "Are you sure about that?" was at least a step in the right direction.
The use of coloured lights has a long history in the annals of quackery. Sometimes it takes the form of shining lights on people to fix what ails them, but this is different. Biophotonic Therapy involves taking a sample of the patient's blood, exposing it to some exotic energy source and then putting it back into the patient's blood vessels. Once inside it increases the chemiluminescence of the red blood cells. This can only mean that it makes them glow in the dark. The value of this is not immediately obvious, but it could be that the glowing erythrocytes transport the magical healing powers of light to all the hard-to-reach parts of the body. One obvious side effect that I can see is that this would suffuse your body with a pink glow when the lights were out. I imagine that this therapy would require hospitalisation, as it would be quite disturbing to household pets and small children to have someone wandering about the house looking like a pink nightlight. In hospital, though, it would make it easy for the night nurses to check vitals, because they would just have to look over the curtains to see if your aurora was still reflecting off the ceiling tiles.
[If you think that this is nonsense and could only be on a web site and not anywhere in real life, consider this: after I gave this presentation to the Australian Skeptics convention, one of the interstate visitors told me that there was a Biophotonic Therapy conference taking place that very day in the hotel where he was staying.]
Do you remember the science you learnt at school? It doesn't matter if you have forgotten it, because it was probably all wrong. For example, did you know that the heart has seven ventricles and pumps air? I'll bet you thought those models of molecules you see in museums are just metaphors, but if you look through a microscope you can see real molecules, and they have little red, blue and black dots in them. The black dots are metals. Did you know that the liver chews things and then sends kelp or alfalfa to the thyroid gland and penicillin to the salivary glands?
Bertha is one of the great loons of the 'net. No collection of kooks and loons is complete without a reference to her, but she has the unnerving habit of occasionally disappearing. When this happens, calls are made to loyal web site visitors to find the new location of her site and eventually it is found and everyone can get back to normal. The other unnerving thing about Bertha is that she has followers who think that she knows something. Here is another quote from Dr, Bertha L. Veronneau, D.D.,D.Sc:
At this time of life of the intelligence of the Cosmos, we understand the Molecule (Ion, atom) to be the basis of all chemical substance, A chemical substance can be a monad, or a kenetic grouping. A determination of the quality of the substance is determined by the molecule as seen in the microscope. Is it of the human body, or is it toxic to the human body? This is important to know. Are we consuming foods and medicines, or applying lotions to our bodies that might cause deterioration. When a product has a side effect it is destroying something in your physical self. We need to learn to renew our bodies... rebuild. You cannot rebuild the body with toxic substance.
I should mention here that, just as I am a qualified Reiki practitioner, I also hold the degree of Doctor of Divinity. Well, I will after I send in the $25 final payment.
Another wonderful loon who shares with Bertha the quaint trait of vanishing without trace and then popping up again after everyone has despaired of ever seeing her again is Nancy Luft. Nancy doesn't have a lot to say about alternative medicine, but as she believes that the entire world is run by a network of conspiracies she probably thinks that the pharmaceutical companies are connected to the great CIA conspiracy. Her speciality is telling us about how the conspiracists use satellites (she always calls them "sputniks") to beam messages into our brains. She says that the explosion of Mount St Helens was not volcanic but was caused by a sputnik missing its target. I have seen the hole in the side of the mountain with my own eyes and all I can say is that the target brain must have been extremely dense or protected by a very good tinfoil helmet if that much energy was needed to rearrange it.
When I first saw this site it was talking about "beesting therapy". I misread this as "beasting" and thought for a moment that I had stumbled on one of those web sites from Belgium or Holland that the moralisers keep talking about. It now talks about Bee Acupuncture, which seems to have two possible modes of operation. One would be to grind up the contents of a beehive, smear the mixture of honey, wax, dead bees and bee excrement over the patient, and then stick needles through it into the flesh beneath. The other would be to train bees to sting patients at acupuncture points. A major problem with the training regimen would be that the bees die after stinging someone, so the training would have to be only up to the stage of the bee locating the relevant meridian and then walking along it to the desired acupuncture point. The bee could then be annoyed by an external stimulus to make it drive in the stinger. Perhaps it could be connected with a couple of tiny electrical wires and the therapist could press a button to give it a shock when stinging time came. It all sounds very complicated to me.
To get serious for a moment, many people have violent immune reactions to bee stings and even bee dander. Bee stings are comparatively rare (I have only been stung once in my life) and it is possible for someone to be highly susceptible and not know it until the first sting happens. I doubt that a naturopath's office is the location of choice for someone's first experience of anaphylactic shock. But, of course, alternative medicines are all natural and have no side effects.
One criticism directed at alternative medicine is that it is not backed by science. The usual response to this is to point to Dr Jacques Benveniste and his body of work showing that dilution beyond Avogadro's Number does not remove the effect of solutions of chemicals. I was saddened to hear that Dr Benveniste passed away on October 3, 2004. He was the man who came up with the idea of water having a memory, thus providing much encouragement to homeopaths who used this to claim that there was some scientific evidence for their fantasies. He later claimed that it was possible to extract this memory and store it in an electronic form, and to then transmit it to other places where it could be installed in different water. Almost exactly five years before his death, Dr Benveniste wrote to me to say:
Our experiments have been recently reproduced in a major American University and several labs in France. We should be launching momentarily the international replication by 10-15 other labs worldwide. ... Upon completion of the present replication job, a scientific report will be submitted to a major journal.
I am still waiting for the results to be published. I hope someone goes through his notes and gets his work into a form where it can be released to overthrow the current paradigms of physics and chemistry. Dr Benveniste is no longer eligible for a Nobel Prize, as these are only awarded to the living, but I am going to suggest to the appropriate authorities that he be immortalised by the concept of Benveniste's Number. This is Avogadro's Number raised to the power of Avogadro's Number, and represents a limit to dilution which could make even the most ardent homeopath start to think about what is possible.
Now things start to get personal. In August 2004 an item with the title "The Evil Works Of Peter Bowditch" appeared in an Internet forum related to alternative medicine. It quoted an article by an Australian journalist, Eve Hillary, and came from a site owned by a man named David Icke. He is famous for his theory that the central committee of the Illuminati, the world's most powerful and secret society, are all lizards and regularly change shape (the process is called "shape-shifting") to reveal their reptilian characteristics. Known members of this group are the British Royal Family and the US royalty of The House of Bush.
There are certain characteristics which help to identify the lizard people. One of them is Rh negative blood. I am AB negative, but there's more to the story. From the earliest I can remember, my favourite word has been "lizard". When I was a surfer, I always liked to sit on a flat rock at the end of the beach rather than on the sand. I was born on an equinox, the perfect time of the year for exothermic creatures because in summer your flat rock can get too hot to walk on and in winter you can become as sluggish as a creationist's brain activity. Not only was I born on a suitable date, but it was following a major flying saucer sighting, and one of the theories is that the lizard genes were introduced by aliens to establish a fifth column for when the visitors return to take over. (I have tried to discuss these things with my mother but she just looks embarrassed and tells me not to be silly.) I was a failure at catching games like football when I was at school, and apparently it had something to do with the articulation of my shoulders making it difficult for me to catch the ball.
David Icke Medical Archives
Not only does David Icke have web pages about the reptiles, but he also has a site about medical conspiracies. It was here that the article mentioning me was published (it is on some other non-Icke sites as well - you can read it here). At this point I should mention that Eve Hillary, who wrote it, often has material published in Australian alternative health and lifestyle magazines and is treated as if she is a serious journalist. In this piece she refers to research from 1995 showing that 18,000 people die each year from medical mistakes in hospitals, but a year earlier she had been citing a 2000 paper by the same researchers and saying that it said 10,000 (it didn't). She simply does not care whether what she writes is the truth or not, and she assumes that her readers will never check her "facts". (You can see more of my comments about Eve Hillary here and here.)
Here is a quote from the article:
The Australian Skeptics group has spawned a number of offshoots. Peter Bowditch, a ruddy faced man with a blunt military manner is the vice president of the group. He keeps busy running a number of websites, one of which is www.ratbags.com/rsoles. Not one to trifle with social niceties, he has compiled an extensive list of persons and organisations that he states on his website are, "a collection of a thousand arseholes". Among those targeted are Christian websites, anti-vivisection and animal welfare organisations, alternative medicine and environmental groups. He invites anyone to contact him by e-mailing "The Proctologist". His targets, however, are not accorded the right of reply. Bowditch makes no apologies; "owners of sites linked to from here may be offended and feel that I am holding them up to ridicule by calling them arseholes." Furthermore, he makes it clear that those displeased enough to consult a lawyer about defamation will have their law firms; "immediately placed on the arseholes list and linked from this site." Normally, Bowditch, the website and the Skeptics could be dismissed as just another group or a byte in cyberspace, were it not for the fact that their spur leads into the corridors of political power in much the same ways as Steven Barrett's Quackbusters do in the US.
My only comment is that the way that my "targets" are "not accorded the right of reply" can be seen at the mailbox pages on this site.
When I talked about my lizardness before, I assume that everyone took it as a joke. Remember how I said that alternative medicine believers have no sense of humour? Here is another quote from Eve Hillary's article:
Bowditch also has a link to a restricted access discussion group that is only open to "approved" members. The discussion group, QuackbustersOfTheIlluminati, states its purpose as being: "This is a meeting place for the anti-alternative-medicine committee of the Illuminati, where we can meet and consider our attack on health freedom within the broader agenda of world domination." It is not known what relationship Bowditch has with this group, why it is secretive or why it was formed.
I emailed Ms Hillary and invited her to join the secret society, although I told her that she would have to serve a probation period before I could introduce her to the Queen, the Pope and Bill Gates and that I was not high enough in the organisation to go further than that. She would have to speak to one of them if she wanted to meet Rupert Murdoch. She never answered my email.
I would like to finish on a serious note. The sites I have shown may appear to be ludicrous, but for every one of them there are people who believe what is written there. If people can be deceived by such obvious nonsense, or by the ridiculous conspiracy theories put about by people like David Icke and Eve Hillary, then it is no wonder that they can be taken in by the seemingly legitimate quackery sites which are full of scientific words and pretend research, or by the fearmongers talking about the dangers of vaccines, or by pseudoscientists who claim to have the only correct answer (which is suppressed by the orthodoxy to protect turf and income).
The people who are deceived by these quacks are not stupid - they simply do not have the scientific knowledge or even the critical thinking skills to separate truth from nonsense. It is the duty of doctors and skeptics to not only oppose quackery but to educate consumers and patients about what is possible and what is not. This will not be an easy task, but difficulty is no excuse for giving up the fight.