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Australasian ScienceProgress? We don't need no stinking progress.

There are still people alive today who were born before Felix Hoffmann invented aspirin, so almost the entire history of modern medicine has happened in their lifetimes. My parents were born before the discovery of penicillin and before anything was known about the biology or reproduction of viruses. I can remember the first successful heart transplant, and in my children's lifetime we have beaten smallpox and now have polio staggering on the ropes. We now know the location of every gene in the human genome and we routinely talk about the genetic origin of diseases, but it is only just over fifty years since Watson and Crick showed us how DNA replicates itself.

While these advances in medical knowledge and science have been happening, there has been a parallel stream of medical non-science, nonsense and crackpottery. Every science has its fringe dwellers, outsiders and enthusiastic amateurs who challenge the orthodoxy, but medicine seems to attract more and the "science" can be even more bizarre and bewildering. There is no single word to describe someone who thinks, for example, that the laws of thermodynamics are flexible enough to allow a perpetual motion machine to be built, but everyone knows what a "quack" is.

One difference between science and pseudoscience is that science discards ideas when they become outdated or are shown to be false. Pseudoscience never throws away anything, and the usual reason given for outlandish ideas not being immediately accepted and used to change the world is that they are suppressed by the establishment. Nowhere is this belief stronger than in pseudomedicine. When Samuel Hahnemann invented homeopathy it made a sort of sense and probably did less damage than the actions of doctors at the time. The fundamental principle became meaningless a few years later when Avagadro showed the limit of dilution, but the nonsense of almost infinite dilution is still here more than two hundred years later.

Recent research looking at the most prominent alternative treatment for arthritis, glucosamine, has shown that it has little if any effect. The response of the alternative medicine community has been to reject the research on several grounds (prejudiced researchers and testing the wrong form of glucosamine were two of the complaints) and to increase the amount of advertising. Similarly, when real research was conducted on the herb Echinacea it was found to have no effect on the progress of colds and flu. The response was again to accuse the researchers of bias and to claim that the wrong part of the plant was being tested.

I have in my home several devices which, according to the people who sell them, can cure a wide range of diseases, including cancer and AIDS. These machines are available through a variety of mail-order and internet outlets and are advertised in magazines available at almost every newsagent. Practitioners using these machines advertise in mainstream papers and magazines, offering to cure all sorts of ills. The philosophy underlying these machines is that every pathogen has a unique vibrational frequency, and they can be destroyed by getting them to resonate at this frequency. They then shatter like Caruso's famous wine glass. Some of the machines use sound, but most use electricity. A few use pulsating magnetic fields. Their real power is the ability to extract money from wallets.

Much of the frequency medicine practised today descends from Royal Raymond Rife, who did his research in the early 1930s. Rife identified the virus that caused all cancers (!), which he named "BX". As this was before the invention of the electron microscope, Rife invented an optical microscope with a claimed magnification of 17,000x. A perusal of the web sites of Olympus, Nikon and Zeiss shows that the best theoretical magnification claimed today is about 1,400x, although practically it is about 1,250x. (Zeiss use an appropriate slogan to promote their microscopes: "Limited only by the laws of physics".) The secrets of Rife's microscope are lost, presumably suppressed by orthodox optical companies, but his method of curing cancer lives on.

Rife's 1931 demonstration of the microscope involved creating a non-filterable form of the typhoid bacillus, which appeared as small moving turquoise dots in a static background. Scientists looked through Rife's microscope and also saw these blue dots. Some astronomers once looked through Percival Lowell's telescope and saw canals on Mars; some scientists once saw evidence of the refraction of N-rays in René Blondlot's laboratory; some scientists were once convinced that deuterium could fuse at room temperature within the crystal matrix of palladium. All of them were mistaken. The difference between the last three delusions and Rife is that almost nobody believes them any more. The other difference is that a belief in Mars canals or cold fusion cannot kill anyone. A belief in a false cure for cancer can.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the September 2008 edition of Australasian Science
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