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Heavy Metal

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The October 27, 2009  edition of  Wall Street Journal ran a story called “Metals: Panacea or Placebo?” by science reporter Melinda Beck that put a skeptical eye on claims of medical and health benefits to the use of metals (copper, silver, gold, titanium, and magnetic items) as adornments and “dietary ‘supplements.” The same week, a blog post by Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine discussed the recently published “Therapeutic effects of magnetic and copper bracelets in osteoarthritis: A randomised placebo-controlled crossover trial” from Complementary Therapies in Medicine (abstract), which documented a controlled test on the efficacy of magnetic or copper bracelets to help arthritis and other ailments. Unsurprisingly, any benefits from the different bracelets were no better than placebo. Readers are referred to his excellent write-up for a discussion of the study and links to other peer-reviewed work. In it, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a dollar-sucking entity foisted on the taxpayers by Congress, admits that it has found no evidence for beneficial effects on fibromyalgia, migraines, or other painful conditions, from the use of metal bracelets. The idea of people volunteering to put large amounts of metal and metal solutions into their bodies intrigued me, so I reviewed the current state of Metal Medicine.

A couple years ago, Paul Karason became briefly famous as the “blue man” whose skin turned blue due to argyria — a condition where silver collects in the skin and organs and reacts with light, much as the silver emulsion on film. He dosed himself with silver solutions that he created in his home, a procedure easy for anyone who has taken a basic high school chemistry class. “I did it all on my own,” he said. “Originally, I just saw an ad for a colloidal silver generator in a magazine and the picture stuck in my head like a song might stick in your head. I had a friend who had severe petroleum poisoning, and I heard colloidal silver was helpful for that, and that’s how I started.” In the same interview, he admitted that his original health problem, dermatitis, was not cured by ingesting silver, although he continued to drink silver solutions daily. Proponents of colloidal silver claim that ingesting silver can cure or treat colds, flu, cancer, diabetes, herpes, shingles, and HIV/AIDS, among other ailments. Silver solutions, such as silver nitrate, have been used as anti-microbial disinfectants for many years, and frequently used as eyedrops for newborns to prevent conjunctivitis (although most former uses have been supplanted by newer, less toxic treatments). The FDA has repeatedly stated that ingesting silver is not beneficial, is not even safe, and can cause kidney damage.

Of course, one man’s woo is another man’s scam. A company called Purest Colloids charges that Karason was not using the correct silver (he’s ingesting silver in an ionic solution instead of pure silver in a colloid form), and that the stories about his condition are a hoax on the American people. From their web site:

The Blue Man charade demonstrates once again that the mass media cannot be trusted to report anything that even resembles a truthful “news” story. All “news” today is propagated with an agenda just like the phony economic statistics put out the U.S. government.

In other words, a conspiracy to make people afraid to take silver supplements. Oh, yeah.

Silver is not the oldest “magic metal.” Magnets have been tried as treatments for thousands of years. Randi has written extensively about the Q-ray and magnetic bracelets, and those scams continue to be perpetrated on the public with the usual blather about aligning one’s auras, improving the blood flow by acting on the iron in hemoglobin, and other wishful thinking. Dozens of websites sell these items, and while I do not wish to drive traffic to their sites, it’s interesting to poke around to see the prices, claims, and testimonials. “I thought I could save money,” says one alleged testimonial, “by buying another magnetic bracelet from another company advertising them at half the price with 5000 gauss. Well, let me tell you, I was scammed! When that ‘other’ bracelet came in, I checked the magnetic strength by seeing how strongly it attaches to a piece of metal compared to your bracelet…Thanks for a great product!” To view the going prices for lumps of metal, see for example Ace Magnetics or AACopper, which warns you again those cheap Chinese copper bracelets that don’t leave a green ring on your wrist. By doing a search of various magnet proponents, you’ll find you can now buy magnetic mattress pads, cushions, hair brushes — and even styling gel! I suspect if you spend $30 for magnetic hair spray, you are going to see some effects. (These items are ubiquitous on the internet, and a new company pops up every time one is shut down. For instance, in 2002, Quackwatch reported that the California Attorney General sued European Health Concepts for selling magnetic mattress pads and cushions. They’ve been out of business since then, but Googling ‘magnetic mattress pad’ turned up a dozen sites, selling pads running upwards of $800.)

Magnets are cheap to manufacture, but for a classy scam you need something more exotic. Gold has an ancient history as a nearly-magical elixir to provide immortality. For many years, gold salts were used to treat lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, although the toxicity of the metal caused mouth sores, kidney damage, and occasionally, problems with the bone marrow’s ability to make new blood cells (a side effect that killed one of my engineering professors). One supplier, Optimox, carries colloidal gold in tablet form. Although their site states “For use as a source of colloidal metallic gold without medical or health claims,” the subsequent copy clearly implies that colloidal gold can detoxify the liver, act as a anti-oxidant, control joint pain and swelling, and promote resistance to infection. (Since my 50 hours of college chemistry is nearly 30 years old, I won’t embarrass myself with a critique of all their claims about redox reactions, but invite knowledgeable readers to comment.) Another alarming claim, among many, is that taking 30 mg of gold per day for one month increases IQ scores by 20%. In rough terms, that means a month’s worth of tablets could take a person of average IQ into the top 5-10% of the population.

A more recent trend in metal therapies is titanium, which started in Japan. Generally, companies market titanium bracelets or pendants, claiming that the material enhances the flow of energy and creates a positive charge that cancels out pain’s negative charge — i.e., neutralizing the pain. To my knowledge, this particular benefit of titanium has not made it into the anesthesiologist’s tool bag. Some sites sell titanium items to relieve stress or back pain, and feature testimonials from professional athletes. One company, Rob Diamond, explains how the bracelet causes ions in the blood to push against vessel walls, causing heat, which improves circulation and carries away toxins. One of the biggest hawkers of titanium products is Phiten, founded by a chiropractor in Japan. This company has taken the snake oil to a new level, infusing titanium particles into lotions, clothing, shoes, and bedding. Testimonials from Olympic athletes and baseball players spread the word, enforcing the placebo effects of the items. They also market a product called “G Water” which they claim will suppress fatigue of the brain when you spray it on the head.

As the author of the WSJ article remarked “Perhaps if consumers became smarter, they would be more skeptical of such claims.”

Written by Geek Goddess

March 4, 2010 at 9:50 am

Textbooks? Valentine Gifts? Buy from Amazon and Help the JREF

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Did you know you can buy many college textbooks through Amazon? Flowers? Chocolates? Power tools?

I know I appreciate a good table saw.

If you buy your Amazon purchases via the link, JREF gets a commission, and it doesn’t cost you anything extra.

To participate, go to the James Randi Educational Foundation  home page and look for the JREF Amazon link, on the lower left hand side of the page. It will bring you up into the selection of skeptically-themed books; however it you do not wish to purchase any book listed here, click on the “powered by Amazon” icon in the upper left corner. Although it won’t show a JREF link or any mention of James Randi, anything you put into your cart at this point will earn the JREF a commission, with very few exceptions.

Privacy: Amazon does not report any identifiable information in its earnings reports to the JREF, so your purchases are private.

Written by Geek Goddess

January 6, 2010 at 8:03 pm

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Holiday Shopping with Amazon? Help the JREF!

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As you probably know, you can buy nearly ANYTHING on Amazon, and frequently they have the best price, even when you include the shipping costs. When you do your holiday shopping, consider Amazon and help out the JREF.

If you enter the Amazon site via the link on randi.org, nearly anything you order results in a small commission to the JREF. This means big ticket items, like cameras and TVs, and small ticket items like a pair of socks! You don’t have to buy anything specifically listed in the JREF Amazon Library to earn comissions. Personally, I’ve ordered electronics, most of my son’s college textbooks, kitchen appliances, and a Kindle, as well as way too many books.  The commission also applies to items that are shipped from third-party companies that sell from within Amazon. There are exceptions, but they are rare.
When you go to the James Randi Educational Foundation website, you will see an advertising banner above the latest SWIFT blog post.  These rotate through several different subjects, so it you don’t see «JREF Amazon Library», refresh your page until it appears.  You can browse through the books, DVDS, and other items listed there, or you can proceed to Amazon to search and select for what you are buying, and log into your own account.  It’s that easy.

As far as privacy concerns: The JREF receives a general report of items ordered with the estimated revenue, but Amazon does not send any personally identifiable information, only quantities ordered under the JREF icon.

It costs you nothing extra, and really helps out the JREF!

Thank for your support. Your JREF Librarian….

Written by Geek Goddess

November 28, 2009 at 10:12 am

A Rush to Forward – email chains and critical thinking

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(This article first appeared in slightly different form on the SWIFT blog of the James Randi Education Foundation.)

Opportunities to expose people to critical thinking occur frequently. Last week I received one of those emails we all get on occasion, one that had been forwarded several times, each time with a dozen or so addressees. The oldest email in the chain was dated November 16, but referred to an event that occurred mid September, 2009.   I’ve posted it below, with the copy exactly as it appeared:

I hope this makes it to every person in Texas….we need to shut this store down FOR GOOD!!

Today I went to the Harwin Central Mall to pick up some crystals. The very first store that you come to when you walk from the lobby of the building into the shopping area had this sign posted on their door. The shop is run by Muslims. I couldn’t stay in the building, it made me so sick.


Feel free to share this with others.

Imam Ali flew one of the planes into the twin towers. Nice huh?

The first thing I did when receiving this was to Google for a list of the 9-11 hijackers, which I easily found on several sites, including an FBI press release. Of course, Imam Ali was not on the list. Since I’m a bit of a history buff (although by no means an expert), I knew that “Imam Ali (A.S.)” was the assassinated fourth Caliph, and the son-in-law of Mohammed. Disputes regarding the successors to Mohammed and Ali’s murder contributed to the conflicts that led to the split of Islam between the Sunni and Shia sects.

Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the anniversaries change dates as related to the Western calendar, and this year the anniversary of his murder happened to fall on September 11. This is a holy date to the Shia community, and each year millions gather to mourn and commemorate. This is a religious event, but it is also important historically.

I’m not a fan of any religion. However, I am against discrimination, stereotypes, ignorance of history, and a failure to check out facts. The news story was carried on Houston affiliates, such as the local ABC station, who covered the story : “The sign was posted on a store…What it said caused so much controversy it’s been blogged about on the Internet and store managers have been threatened and harassed.” (Emphasis added). Other news articles, referred to angry Internet bloggers, but also people who expressed apologies for overreacting without knowing the facts.

Those reactions, and the threats received by the store owners, were based on ignorance. Most Westerners have little or no knowledge of world history in anything but general terms, and that tends to be dominated by northern European or western hemisphere political events. History about religions is not typically addressed. Like everyone, I also get many emails forwarded to me that contain warnings, urban legends, and other false information that can usually be quickly verified by checking on  online – in fact, Snopes covered this within days. Warning someone about flesh-eating bacteria on banana peels probably doesn’t cause anyone harm, but threats to boycott and false information that leads someone to be threatened or abused, can cause injury.

The store owner, Imran Chunawala, closes his shop every year for this anniversary, and was surprised by the reaction. When informed about the controversy regarding the date, he issued an apology and posted a new sign explaining who Imam Ali was, and the coincidence on it occurring on September 11 this year. (Note: The Christian holiday of Easter is also based in part on a lunar calendar, which is why it falls on a different date each year.)

The brouhaha was based on a misunderstanding, which has been cleared up, at least locally. However, the email came from a friend in another part of the state, two months after the incident. When I received it, I wrote a “reply all” to my friend, explaining the significance of the date, asked her to not forward it again and to send my note back to the person from whom she had received the email. Reactions were mixed.  From her, a reply that ‘how could she possibly know about Imam Ali’ and from one other person, a thank you. I wonder how long that email will be passed along without being critically reviewed, researched, or even questioned, and what continued anger it may generate.

Written by Geek Goddess

November 25, 2009 at 8:46 am

Sam scores an interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson!

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Houston Skeptics Society member, Skepchick Blogger, and snappy dresser Sam Ogden recently interviewed Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in Houston.   Dr. Tyson is a well-known scientist, host of PBS’s Nova Science series, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, former keynote speaker at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s The Amaz!ng Meeting, and once voted “sexiest astrophysicist” by People, sat down with Sam for a few minutes.  Enjoy!

Part one:

Part two:

Written by Geek Goddess

October 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

Interview with Dr. Eugenie Scott

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Skepchick blogger and Houston Skeptic Society co-organizer Sam Ogden recently sat down with Dr. Eugenie Scott last month when she was in town to lecture at the Houston Natural Science Museum.  Society member Chris of Dropframe Video (cmalachi@hotmail.com) did a fantastic job of capturing and editing the interview, which is presented on You-tube.  Part one of the series can be found here, from where you can link to the subsequent parts to allow for easier uploading. Enjoy!

Written by Geek Goddess

October 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

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Below is an adaptation of a talk I gave as part of a panel at DragonCon, called “How to Combat Woo”.  My fellow panelists included Phil Plait, PhD, also known as the Bad Astronomer, D.J. Groethe of the Center of Skeptical Inquiry and host of the podcast “Point of Inquiry”, Jeff Wagg, Communications and Outreach Manager of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and Maria Walters, founder of the Atlanta Skeptic Society and columnist on the Skepchick.org blog.

My son attended the Naval nuclear power school a few years ago, including a crash course in chemistry, physics, electronics, thermodynamics, other subjects needed to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant. The students tend to be top achievers, interested in science and math, and would frequently ask for the theory. They wanted to know WHY not just how. The instructors would answer “this is outside the scope of this course, please just accept this so we can move on.” So my son and his classmates drew large black dots on the backs of their calculators, with Sharpies. When they were told to accept information for the sake of expediency, they’d ‘push’ this button and say “I believe.”

I told you that story so I can tell you this story. All of us have a button labeled “I believe” that we push. The button may be as simple as “I believe that my spouse loves me.” Or “education is a positive thing for society.” But most people of the world have other buttons that they push. I believe in magic, ghosts, witches, homeopathy, aliens, psychics, conspiracy theories, or one of a hundred versions of a god. And that button might as well be drawn in Sharpie, because it doesn’t work anymore, it is ALWAYS pushed.

I’m an engineer by training, and like to draw diagrams and pictures. I can’t think without a pencil or marker in my hand. If you’re like me, you think that if you can just explain something, a scientific topic for example, clearly enough, that your audience will nod their heads and say ‘oh, yes, now I see! You’re right, and I will adjust my thinking.”

The problem with those buttons that are painted on, they have to wear off. We, as skeptics, want to slice right through the armor that believers have plated up around themselves, which have built up by custom, upbringing, anecdotes, personal experiences, fuzzy thinking, and from lack of exposure to the scientific method.

It took me almost three years to get my own mother to check Snopes before she forwarded emails to me. I’m her daughter, you think she would trust me, but I still have to carefully work with her on issues with her health. Just this week, she told me, rather reluctantly, that she had gone to a chiropractor for some lower back pain, because ‘she was desperate”. This, from a woman with chronic kidney disease that reads my blog posts. I had to persuade my aunt to throw away her bowel cleansing kits and pills to ‘improve her liver function” even though she couldn’t tell me what her liver function was supposed to be functioning as. But, now they check Snopes, and were at least embarrassed to tell me about the chiropractor. These are intelligent women, but they have been told their entire life that these things work.

And, indeed, they DO feel better after a visit to the chiropractor. It’s a bit harder to explain the concept of ‘regression to a mean’ to them. But I could not do it AT ALL with a single clear, simple, unemotional explanation.

Rather than creating the Grand Canyon in a 40-day flood, presenting skepticism to those with a painted-on “I Believe” button is more a process of rain beating the mountains down into the ocean, of the weeds splitting the foundations. It is slow, it is one-on-one, and it can be frustrating. However, this is how we teach, one person at a time.

Written by Geek Goddess

September 6, 2009 at 3:47 pm

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