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The following is an edited version of a speech I gave to a dinner meeting of the Australian Skeptics on Saturday, 22 February, 2003.
The speech also appeared as an article in the July 2003 edition of the Skeptic, the journal of Australian Skeptics.
An audio recording of the presentation is available on The Great Skeptic CD, available from Australian Skeptics. The recording immortalises my error when I attributed the statement "Because it's there" to Sir Edmund Hillary instead of George Mallory. You can see my apology to George Mallory here.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen
I am not a doctor. At least, I am not a medical doctor – I have a PhD from a fake American university – but I have been called a doctor. Apparently this is a derogatory term in certain circles.
I was continually harassed late last year by people demanding to know my qualifications to talk about alternative medicine, as apparently you have to use it to talk about it. My answer was:
My qualifications are that I am a scientifically-literate, concerned citizen with a particular interest in medical quackery. I am sick of seeing liars and thieves get away with their lying and thieving. I am sick of hearing stories about families being impoverished in order to pay for useless medical treatments for their sick children. I am sick of hearing about desperate people being robbed of their life savings by charlatans who only care about money. I am sick of hearing that murderers are heroes and heroes are murderers. Or, as George Mallory said about climbing Mount Everest: "Because it's there".
I am going to talk tonight about alternative medicine, but before I start I would like to point out that I don't like the term, because what I will be talking about is neither medicine nor an alternative. The word "alternative" suggests that a choice can be made from a selection of options which have similar outcomes. When you came here tonight you had the alternatives of coming by car, motorbike, pushbike, train, bus, or even walking if you live close enough. If you came by car you had alternatives when you bought it. For example, you can buy cars with four, five, six, eight, ten or twelve cylinders (or a second-hand Mazda RX7 with no cylinders); you can get diesel or petrol engines, automatic or manual gearboxes (or combinations of the two) with different numbers of gears. All these are alternatives which would cause no questions if you said you used them to get here tonight.
Some alternatives are a bit less likely. If you said that you came by boat, that is certainly possible because you can get boats of a certain size up the Lane Cove River to Fullers Bridge, although it is a bit of a walk up the hill from there. If you said that you came by helicopter it's still believable but you might be asked where you parked it. If you said that you didn't park it anywhere because you were winched down from it outside in Help Street and the pilot then flew it away people might be a bit doubtful, but I happen to know the man who runs the CareFlight helicopter service and they have winches on all their machines, so if he said that that was how he got here I would have to believe him.
If someone said, however, that they got to Chatswood in a 747 or by ocean liner or in an FA18 fighter or in a Formula 1 car that they bought from the Ferrari team after Michael Schumacher won his last World Championship you wouldn't even consider that it was possible. Some things simply cannot be true.
The types of alternative medicine that I'm going to talk about tonight aren't vitamins and massage and meditation and raw food diets and driving here in your family car. In fact, I'm not going to talk about medicine at all. I am going to talk about lies and theft and deceit and fraud and quackery. I'm going to talk about people who claim to be able to cure cancer and AIDS and asthma and autism and MS and arthritis and diabetes and any number of other diseases and ailments. I will just use the term "alternative medicine" as a convenient kind of shorthand.
There are some principles of alternative medicine that you might like to keep in mind throughout this talk and the demonstrations of devices and potions. One is that the body is incapable of regulating itself and consequently becomes polluted with many toxins. Some of these toxins are environmental, like mercury in fillings and vaccines, and some are just by-products of normal living. To get rid of these toxins you need to take things to flush certain organs like the liver, or to have chelation. (This is a process where chemicals are introduced into the bloodstream to capture certain molecules and remove them through the urine. It is a legitimate medical procedure in cases of true heavy metal poisoning.) One very common way of getting rid of toxins is the colon cleanse, which your grandmother would have called an enema except that she was too polite to talk about such things.
Another universal principle is that the body contains all that it needs to cure itself and is self-regulating but it just needs some help occasionally. Chiropractors call this "innate intelligence". This principle means that you just have to get everything in balance, preferably by using "natural" methods. Traditional Chinese Medicine adjusts the hot and cold winds that flow through us, and acupuncture aligns the qi in the meridians when it gets a bit out of kilter, but these are just ways of helping the body heal itself.
Another principle is that conventional medicine is just driven by the obscene, massive profits that can be made, with a common example being the $5.4 billion spent on vaccines throughout the world in 2001. This is contrasted with the related principle that the $17 billion spent on herbal supplements in the US alone in that year is evidence that people are voting with their wallets for the altruistic, profitless alternative alternative.
In alternative medicine there is no such thing as mental illness or somatization or anxiety disorders. It is not possible for the mind to make someone sick and there must be an external cause. If you point out to an alt supporter that Multiple Chemical Sensitivity looks a lot like agoraphobia or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder the reply usually goes along the lines of "You are saying that it is not real. You are saying that it is all in the head". Trying to say that things can be very real, very debilitating and still only in the head just attracts more abuse. Lying comfortably beside this principle is the one that says that the mind is a powerful curer of disease and can, by itself, work miracles. When the scientific absurdity of homeopathy is pointed out, for example, the response is often that the wonderful results achieved in anecdote land come from the amazingly powerful placebo effect, where the mind tells you to get better.
Another principle is that clinical trials of alternative treatments are not necessary, because all you have to know is that things work. Personal experience, that which scientists call "anecdotes", is all the evidence needed. A sub-clause of this principle is that there is no money anyway to do research. (Total sales of alternative medicine in the US are about $30 billion per year, which is about 50% greater than the cosmetics industry, about 4 times the sales of movie tickets and about equal to the entire world market for recorded music. In Australia the expenditure is about $2.3 billion, which is almost the same figure as that for our wine exports. Alt supporters like to say that this is four times the sales of OTC drugs, but it isn't really that bad. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme spends about $7 billion, so alternatives only account for about a quarter of the medication spend.)
Some principles are not so dichotomous. One is that the immune system is under constant attack and needs boosting all the time. Another is what George Orwell called "doublethink", which is the ability to hold more than one contradictory idea at a time and believe them all to be true. An example of this is that iridology, reflexology, acupuncture and chiropractic all assume the body to be filled with meridians or channels of information but alts have no problem in believing all of them at once. Another example is the collection of guaranteed cures for cancer which each offer a unique cause and cure. Another principle is the existence of energy fields (sometimes associated with the meridians and channels I just mentioned) which cannot be measured but which can be adjusted with machines and magnets. Allied with energy fields are vibrations, both in the energy fields and in physical objects such as parasites and cells.
A very important principle, of course, is that natural is better. Anything natural will be good and artificial things are bad. Artificial things contains chemicals. This nice bunch of flowers that I have here is an example. I picked these this afternoon from the creek that runs between my house and the local high school. It is a castor oil plant and the seeds contain ricin, which is one of the most toxic substances known to man. The seeds don't have very much poison in them, so each seed can only kill about three people. It's very natural, very available, and very deadly
The one overarching principle of alternative medicine, however, is that science is unnecessary, closed of mind, knows nothing and wants to know nothing. Science does not recognise the reality of the universe we live in but instead tries to force reality into a set of man-made rules. Science is also highly fallible, as evidenced by the way that scientists can disagree with each other and even change what is believed to be true.
Let's get on to some specific examples.
I have here a book called "The Cure for All Diseases", by Hulda Regehr Clark, Ph.D., N.D. The same author has followed this up with books called "The Cure for All Cancers", "The Cure for All Advanced Cancers" and "The Cure for HIV/AIDS". The author has a legitimate PhD degree earned in 1958 for physiology. The "ND" stands for Doctor of Naturopathy, a degree she obtained from a mail-order place called Clayton University. (Americans have difficulty understanding why Australians find this so funny.) Someone once suggested in a public forum that the "ND" stood for "not doctor" and attributed this witticism to me. I was flattered but I had to admit that I hadn't thought of it, although I wish I had. It's been estimated that Clark sold $7 million worth of books in 1999, and she owns the publishing company so she gets to keep more of the money than most authors. The US Federal Trade Commission has recently taken action against Clark, but she has protected herself well. Her son distributes her products in the USA, her brother does Canada, her web site is hosted in Ohio but run by a main in Switzerland. She has another site which says that all of these are independent of her. She employs a PR man and a lawyer to abuse and defame people, but she can throw any of these people overboard at any time. Her son is already claiming that the web site named "Dr Clark Research Association" (the name of one of her businesses) has nothing to do with her and the man who runs it can swing in the wind.
I have spent some time on Clark because she epitomises quackery. She has no science, she gouges money, she runs from any request for evidence and her only responses to criticism are ad hominem attacks and lawsuits.
Here's something from her book that might be of interest to anyone with diabetes.
Diabetes Can be Cured
By killing this parasite and removing wood alcohol from the diet, the need for insulin can be cut in half in three weeks (or sooner!).
Be vigilant with your blood sugar checks. The pancreas with its tiny islets that produce insulin recovers very quickly. Even if 90% of them were destroyed, requiring daily insulin shots, half of them can recover or regenerate so insulin is no longer necessary. The insulin shot itself may be polluted with wood alcohol (this is an especially cruel irony -- the treatment itself is worsening the condition). Test it yourself, using the wood alcohol in automotive fluids (windshield washer) or from a paint store, as a test substance. Try different brands of insulin until you find one that is free of methanol.
Artificial sweeteners are polluted with wood alcohol! Instead of helping you cope with your diabetes, they are actually promoting it! Do not use them.
Drugs that stimulate the pancreas to make more insulin may also carry solvent pollution; test them for wood alcohol and switch brands and bottles until you find a pure one. You may not need them much longer, so the extra expense now may soon reward you.
And what about cancer
In this book you will see that all cancers are alike. They are all caused by a parasite. A single parasite! It is the human intestinal fluke. And if you kill this parasite, the cancer stops immediately. The tissue becomes normal again. In order to get cancer, you must have this parasite.
How can the human intestinal fluke cause cancer? This parasite typically lives in the intestine where it might do little harm, causing only colitis, Crohn's disease, or irritable bowel syndrome, or perhaps nothing at all. But if it invades a different organ, like the uterus or the kidneys or liver, it does a great deal of harm. If it establishes itself in the liver, it causes cancer! It only establishes itself in the liver in some people. These people have isopropyl alcohol in their bodies.
All cancer patients have both isopropyl alcohol and the intestinal fluke in their livers. The solvent, isopropyl alcohol, is responsible for letting the fluke establish itself in the liver. In order to get cancer, you must have both the parasite and isopropyl alcohol in your body.
There is no alternative medicine. There is medicine that works and there is something else that doesn't. If some folk remedy can be proved to be effective and safe then it will be assimilated into medicine and no longer be an alternative. What makes it work can be identified and isolated, and may even be synthesised so that it can be produced in a reliable fashion (aspirin is an example).. Much of what is called "alternative medicine" has the same relationship to real medicine as pornography has to love making. Actually, porn is more honest because the participants aren't pretending to be doing anything else.
I never blame the people who are sucked in by the quacks and frauds. If you are desperate with a terminal or chronic condition it is only natural to look for answers anywhere. Some medical interventions are unpleasant, and doctors are rushed and harassed at times. Sometimes there is no answer. The average person doesn't understand science and may even distrust it, so they are easy prey for scamsters who abuse science (in both meanings of the word "abuse"). The bottom line is that the frauds steal not only the money of their victims, but their hopes and their lives.
None of this is new. The following words come from a publication called Pseudodoxia Epidemica, written by Sir Thomas Browne in 1646. In between paragraphs ridiculing urine therapy and astrology (both unfortunately still with us), he had this to say about "Saltimbancoes, Quacksalvers, and Charlatans":
For their Impostures are full of cruelty, and worse than any other; deluding not only unto pecuniary defraudations, but the irreparable deceit of death.
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