Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Sam Specious, Private Eye: The Case of the Curious Vampire*…..

with 2 comments

Detective Sam Specious is famous for using his brain to solve cases, or at least for attempting to solve them. What Sam doesn’t realize is just how easily the human brain assigns causation where none exists, finds patterns in random noise, and quickly jumps to conclusions that don’t add up. See if you can use your arsenal of critical thinking skills to take aim at Sam’s errors in thinking.

It was another long day here in Space City, and the seconds passed like flies swimming in blackstrap molasses. I was watching dust bunnies roll across the hardwood floors when the phone rang. A gentleman by the name of Vincent wanted answers to an unusual problem. Unusual or not, he had come to the right place.

I believed that the guy’s name was Vincent like I believe we landed on the moon. When a client uses an alias, I know that there is usually more to the story than meets the eye. Usually it’s a secret lover or an offshore bank account, but this time I was entering uncharted territory. I just hoped that I wouldn’t be taking a fall like some plane over the Bermuda Triangle.

I arrived at Vincent’s mansion just after sunset. The place was enormous, ancient, and in bad need of some feng shui. And though Vincent couldn’t have been a day over thirty-five, his dark and deep set eyes betrayed a far greater life experience. I suspected that Vincent was different when I noticed his pale skin and the way he kept looking at my neck. The jig was up when I noticed the exaggerated incisors and the blood smeared across both cheeks.

After reassuring me that he meant no harm, Vincent described in detail his desire to drink human blood, something which had begun in early childhood. He revealed how invigorated he became with each blood meal, and how he attributed frequent consumption to his seemingly preternatural good health. He even introduced me to his girlfriend, and willing supply of hemoglobin, Esmerelda. After the pleasantries, we got down to business.

Vincent believed himself to be a vampire, but he wanted to know for certain if a medical condition might be to blame for his lust for human blood, sensitivity to sunlight, and heightened senses of smell and hearing. He admitted that although he would never change who he was, even if a cure were to be found, his curiousity regarding a natural cause had gotten the better of him. Frankly, I thought that he was more than a few cards short of a full deck but I knew just who to call.

Arnold Van Helsing is a world renowned chemist with an interest in blood disorders, and he agreed to lend us his considerable expertise. The next morning Van Helsing arranged for as many blood tests as he could think of, and with his brain that’s more than you can shake a dowsing rod at. He checked Vincent’s complete metabolic profile, liver and kidney function, iron level, complete blood count, and red blood cell indices. He even looked at his bone marrow under a microscope. Imaging of Vincent’s brain, a urine analysis, and spinal fluid studies completed what was only the first round of tests. 

The next day, after a breathless Vincent called me with the exciting news, I celebrated with an ice cold glass of Noni juice. Van Helsing had discovered that Vincent wasn’t a true vampire after all, but was merely deficient in iron and magnesium, two components of human blood. A simple vitamin supplement would be all that was necessary to cure him of his vampiric cravings. Vincent said thanks but no thanks, but at least I still got paid for solving the case.

But did Sam and Van Helsing solve the case? Should they be so sure that iron deficiency and hypomagnesemia are really to blame for Vincent’s odd behavior? It sure sounds like a plausible etiology, and lab values don’t lie, right? What do you think? Where has Sam’s reasoning gone wrong?

*This case was inspired by an episode of the excellent National Geographic program Is It Real. I highly recommend the show to everyone.

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Written by skepticpedi

December 4, 2008 at 7:37 pm

2 Responses

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  1. To solve a case depends on what the operating definition of “solve” is. If by solve, they mean, resolve it to a point where the patient in question is satisfied with the conclusion and does not have further, pressing questions, then yes, they did solve it. If by solve, they mean completely figuring out all the parameters and nuisances to the case, then they did not solve it.

    Pertaining to the lab values not “lying,” this really begs the question of whether lab values tell you anything at all. Chemical assays and tests merely show the levels of certain molecules and compare those with known levels based on the average population. There are a variety of ranges, from large to small, depending on the particular molecule being assayed. But what is important is the [i]context[/i] in which these molecules are being counted. If it is determined that a person’s iron is deficient compared with “normal” levels, then by no means is this sufficient to explain the patient’s condition. More tests need to be done to find out [i]why[/i] it is deficient. Same goes for magnesium. By simply throwing vitamins at Vincent, they are only avoiding the hard work now at the risk of something major and possibly life-threatening developing later. Thus, they need to find the [b]underlying cause[/b] of the low levels of blood vitamins.

    Now to my own speculation: Vampires have been historically linked with several porphyrin disorders, called [a href=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyria”]porphyrias[/a]. These defects in the biosynthetic pathway of heme are known to cause deficiencies in several or many enzymes involved in hemoregulation (blood maintenance). I suspect that Vincent suffers from a form of porphyria, specifically that of the cutaneous erythropoietic variety based on his “sensitivity to sunlight.” Many patients with this disease suffer from photosensitivity and may develop blisters after exposure to sunlight. However, I do not fully understand his thirst for blood. Besides fulfilling the iron and magnesium deficiency with exogenous supplies, what else could cause the desire, I have not a clue.

    mike D

    December 10, 2008 at 1:24 pm

  2. Should’ve looked like this (I think):

    To solve a case depends on what the operating definition of “solve” is. If by solve, they mean, resolve it to a point where the patient in question is satisfied with the conclusion and does not have further, pressing questions, then yes, they did solve it. If by solve, they mean completely figuring out all the parameters and nuisances to the case, then they did not solve it.

    Pertaining to the lab values not “lying,” this really begs the question of whether lab values tell you anything at all. Chemical assays and tests merely show the levels of certain molecules and compare those with known levels based on the average population. There are a variety of ranges, from large to small, depending on the particular molecule being assayed. But what is important is the context in which these molecules are being counted. If it is determined that a person’s iron is deficient compared with “normal” levels, then by no means is this sufficient to explain the patient’s condition. More tests need to be done to find out why it is deficient. Same goes for magnesium. By simply throwing vitamins at Vincent, they are only avoiding the hard work now at the risk of something major and possibly life-threatening developing later. Thus, they need to find the underlying cause of the low levels of blood vitamins.

    Now to my own speculation: Vampires have been historically linked with several porphyrin disorders, called porphyrias. These defects in the biosynthetic pathway of heme are known to cause deficiencies in several or many enzymes involved in hemoregulation (blood maintenance). I suspect that Vincent suffers from a form of porphyria, specifically that of the cutaneous erythropoietic variety based on his “sensitivity to sunlight.” Many patients with this disease suffer from photosensitivity and may develop blisters after exposure to sunlight. However, I do not fully understand his thirst for blood. Besides fulfilling the iron and magnesium deficiency with exogenous supplies, what else could cause the desire, I have not a clue.

    mike D

    December 10, 2008 at 1:26 pm


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