Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Archive for March 2009

Chiropractic Practice Building Schemes…..

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Making it as a chiropractor is hard. Some do very well, but because of low demand and marketplace oversaturation many practices fail. In fact, chiropractors are more likely to default on student loans than any other health related profession. It is easy to see why so many turn to the practice building techniques taught in chiropractic school classrooms and seminars run by companies promising to bring more patients in.

Virtually everything you see on a chiropractic website or read about a chiropractor in a local publication, is part of a prepackaged practice building scheme. The wording is carefully chosed to have the biggest impact. Every flyer or handout found in a chiropractor’s waiting room is designed to indoctrinate you so that you not only come back, but you go out and spread the word. Here is a nearly ubiquitous example from a chiropractic website’s FAQ section:

“How long will you need chiropractic care?

You’ll need chiropractic care as long as you live in Hanover Park and encounter physical, chemical or emotional stress that you cannot adapt to or accommodate. Ready to get started? Call our office today.”
 
And another from a different chiropractic website’s “Story of Chiropractic” page: 
 
“Ultimately, the goal of the chiropractic treatment is to restore the body to its natural state of optimal health.  In order to accomplish this, I use a variety of treatment methods, including manual adjustments, massage, trigger point therapy, nutrition, exercise rehabilitation, massage, as well as counseling on lifestyle issues that impact your health.  Since the body has a remarkable ability to heal itself and to maintain its own health, the primary focus is simply to remove those things which interfere with the body’s normal healing ability.”  
 
Usually these practice building techniques come in the form of setting up information booths at local gyms or fairs, ads for free spinal exams, or pseudojournalistic press releases run in smaller local publications or on personal websites (1, 2, 3, 4). I’m sure you have seen these before, but you may not have realized something.

These seemingly personal stories always revolve around two things. The chiropractor always tells the story of how he or she, or a family member, was injured and could only find relief in the caring hands of a chiropractor, thus inspiring them to join the field. And they always involve the chiropractor making a confession about how they have been taking the credit for healing all those patients when really it was the chiropractic all along. Check out the links above and you’ll see, and trust me there are thousands more that are easily accessible online.

The reason why the general format is similar, and often exactly the same word for word, is because these chiropractors are using a standard template bought from practice building firms. The chiropractor simply puts in his or her name, practice location and hours, and some personal information such as a picture and a description of his or her beautiful family. I imagine that they choose from a list of personal tragedies that led them into the chiropractors office, and the testimonials typically placed in the ad are likely invented as well.

 Many of these ads disparage the medical profession, and I have come across a number which blame vaccines for SIDS and other health problems. I am constantly amazed at the audacity of placing these cookie cutter ads when the internet provides such an easy way to compare them to others and see through the charade. But I don’t think that anyone using such techniques ultimately care. It probably doesn’t take many suckers to fall for this tactic, and to sign a longterm maintenance contract, to turn a profit.

Written by skepticpedi

March 30, 2009 at 7:03 am

Prayer in the Information Age…..

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Now I am not a religions man. Far from it in fact. So I can claim no theological expertise. Regardless of my lacking Biblical fund of knowledge, I can’t help but think that Information Age Prayer, a new subscription prayer service, would be offensive to those who believe in the Judeo-Christian deity. IAP, which was founded in 2009, claims to harnass the power of technology to strengthen their subscribers’ connection with God, and to do away with the stress of worrying about forgetting to say a daily prayer (do Christians really worry about this?).

According to the company website,

“Information Age Prayer is a subscription service utilizing a text-to-speech entity (a computer) to incant your prayers each day. We use state of the art text-to-speech synthesizers to voice each prayer at a volume and speed equivalent to typical person praying. Each prayer is voiced individually, with the name of the subscriber displayed on screen. If the prayer is for someone else, then that name is displayed on screen instead. Your privacy is protected, all prayers are not audible outside of the Information Age Prayer location. While it is certain that God hears the prayers, we cannot guarantee that other supernatural beings do not overhear or otherwise obtain knowledge of them.”

Also,

“The omniscient God knows exactly who has subscribed and who each prayer is from when their name is displayed on screen and their prayer voiced.”

God is, according to the creators of IAP, omniscient but apparantly requires visual aids in order to know who to give credit for the prayer. But being omniscient, this God should know what a person needs help with before they even know that they need help for it. God, in fact, is the reason that person needs help in the first place. So it would seem that the content of the prayer should be irrelevant and that the physical act of performing it is what matters, leaving me to wonder how any Christian, Jew, or Muslim would think that this service is anything more that an attempt to make money off of credulous morons.

For $4.95 a month, for instance, you can pay to have a computerized voice decrease a loved one’s time spent in purgatory with a daily Prayer for the Deceased, or for a bargain at $19.95 a month you can choose the lengthy Catholic Morning Prayer. There are also options for those of Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and unaffiliated persuasions as well. I could find none that called for the smiting of enemies however.

The company makes no claims of efficacy, but honestly I don’t think it will matter. I’ve met enough people that tout Pascal’s Wager as a reason to believe to know that this company will do just fine.

Written by skepticpedi

March 27, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Posted in Religion

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Nation’s Cosmetologists Baffled by Exotic Pulsar…..

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Knoxville, TN- Baffled by the unusual finding of a rapidly spinning pulsar locked in an elongated orbit around a star similar to our own sun, something deemed highly improbable according to current models, cosmetologists across the nation are scrambling to explain the phenomenon.

“What really concerns me is that this goes completely against everything we thought we knew,” cosmetologist Scott Riddlemark explained during a press conference held in the shampoo lab at the Tennesse School of Beauty, the planned future site for a Generation II Super Large Hadron Collider. “I’ve spent the past 6-months studying hairstyling, skin care, cosmetics, manicures, pedicures, and even electrology, with an additional 30 hours of online research in Seasonal Color Analysis, and I have never encountered a pulsar in anything but a perfectly circular orbit.”

As the dust slowly settles, theories are beginning to emerge that may answer the questions raised by this suprising discovery and advance our understanding of the universe considerably. Riddlemark, a master stylist with an advanced degree in theoretical cosmetology, believes that it all boils down to split ends. “If reality is composed of hairs 10−20 times the diameter of a proton, each vibrating at unique resonant frequencies and collectively determining the different fundamental forces of nature, perhaps some events can be explained by the stripping away of a hairs protective quantum cuticle thus resulting in a cosmic split end.”

Written by skepticpedi

March 25, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Satire

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And you thought that intelligent design was bad for Texas education

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It appears that there are more efforts to undermine the quality of science education in Texas.  First we have the whole teaching of “strengths and weaknesses of evolution” debacle.  Now, some in the state government are trying to bypass higher education boards to allow unqualified and illegitimate institutions to grant higher degrees.

This news comes form the good people at the NCSE:

House Bill 2800 (PDF), introduced in the Texas House of Representatives on March 9, 2009, would, if enacted, in effect exempt institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from Texas’s regulations governing degree-granting institutions.

The timeline is clear.  The Institution of Creation Research (ICR) moves to Texas in 2007.  The Texas Higher Education Coordination Board denied the ability of the ICR to grant masters degrees on April 24, 2008.  Now, less than a year later, Leo Berman introduces a bill (HB 2800) that would allow the ICR to again offer masters degrees in creation science (I am not sure about PhDs).

So what has changed with the introduction of this new bill?  If qualified, certain “institutions” would not require the board’s approval to grant degrees.  House Bill 2800 will provide exceptions for institutions that don’t accept state funding, don’t accept state-administered federal funding, are nonprofit, and have substantial coursework.  As the NCSE points out, the ICR would fulfill these requirements.

In my opinion, these are pretty loose guidelines.  Undoubtedly, the ICR will be the first to benefit from these changes, but who is next?

Written by bort901

March 13, 2009 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Acupuncture for Pets…..

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Making the rounds last week was another example of the poor quality medical and science reporting that has come to saturate the mainstream media. The article in question, on the benefits of acupuncture for animals, is fairly typical. The situation appears to be rapidly worsening as more dedicated science reporters are being replaced with generalists, although as a skeptic I must recognize that a certain degree of selection bias may be coming into play. I do tend to go out and look for this sort of fluff pseudojournalism. But as I continue to read report after credulous and poorly researched report on topics like vaccine safety, alternative medicine, and even ghost or UFO sightings my expectations continue to steadily decline. If not for blogs like Science-Based Medicine and Neurologica, I feel I would have very few places to turn. I do like to tell myself, in an attempt to feel just a little better about the current state of affairs, that the blame falls primarily on inexperienced journalists, but even seasoned reporters with significant exposure to scientific topics are dropping the ball, as was the case in E.J. Mundell’s March 3rd HealthDay News report.

According to his bio, Mundell, the Senior Assigning Editor for HealthDay News, has 10 years of experience writing (among other things*) on health related topics for a variety of outlets such as Reuters Health and The Scientist. At one point he was even the managing editor for the consumer health news division for Reuters. Yet despite this experience, he penned a sloppy piece of pseudojournalism entitled Animals Respond to Acupuncture’s Healing Touch.

In the article, it is clear that Mundell did not seek out the scientific or skeptical viewpoint on acupuncture or its use in animals. But instead of the more common error made by journalists who, because of some seemingly pathologic need to provide a sense of balance,  write as if there were two legitimate sides to a scientifically one-sided issue, Mundell has written what reads more like a press release from The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. A vet who teaches one of their certifying courses is quoted in the piece along with a pro-acupuncture private vet and a “skeptical” pet owner who is amazed by her animal companion’s miraculous turnaround. There isn’t even the typical misquoted straw man one-liner from a skeptic included so that a believer might easily shoot it down. The two vets in the piece are allowed to spread blatant misinformation unchallenged. Why would Mundell write such thoroughly false information as if it were gospel truth and pass along such worthless anecdotes and testimonials?

There is so much wrong with this story that it is difficult to know where to begin. I think I’ll start, as so many reports on alternative medicine miracles do, with the standard anecdote about how a suprising therapy changed a patients life. In the article, Mundell cleverly describes the medical problems of a patient named Nelly in a way that is meant to fool readers into thinking she is human. Status post spine surgery, weak, lethargic and with poor appetite, Nelly’s friend takes her to a specialist for a seemingly last resort attempt at recovery. After just a few sessions, Nelly the dog is restored to her vibrant former self, all thanks to acupuncture. That’s right, animal acupuncture.

“Almost immediately after the first treatment, Nelly’s energy went from zero to 100,” recalled that friend, Annie Washburn, who works as a community organizer in New York City. Nelly became more mobile, ate more and resumed regular bowel movements. “She bounced back in a way that seemed miraculous,” Washburn said.

This anecdotal experience is unreliable and unable to effectively establish that Nelly truly experienced any improvement secondary to the acupuncture. In the many months that have passed since those initial treatments, Washburn’s memory could easily have been altered over time by multiple retellings of the anecdote. Also, humans tend to exaggerate positive outcomes over time. In reality, the actual events could have been very different than what we are being told without Washburn actually lying. All memories, even those that have evolved over time or were implanted by another person, feel real to us. And the more dramatic a so-called flashbulb memory is to us, the less likely it is going to be accurate weeks, months, and years down the road. This is why we are such poor medical historians and a big part of why properly designed studies are necessary to answer questions regarding efficacy of treatments.

What is more plausible is that the dog improved slowly over time and would have recovered eventually regardless of what therapy was being provided. Many proponents of inert therapies make a fuss over animals as patients because of their supposed inability to be effected by placebo. This notion is entirely false, however, as the placebo effect does have an impact on animals as well as on the owner’s perception of their pet’s recovery. The primary error is in thinking of the placebo as a single entity, that being some kind of mind-over-matter effect stemming from the expectation of the patient. If that were the case, then I would agree that animals are not susceptible to placebo. But that is a straw man manifestation of it. Instead of simply being mind-over-matter, the placebo effect consists of a number of different components, some of which are pure artifact, which can lead to the appearance of a true improvement. Among these components are the tendency for symptoms to regress to the mean, which is probably the largest component of any placebo effect, investment justification, a novel therapy or more complicated therapy effect, or the desire to please an authority figure to name just a few. None of these have anything to do with an actual physiologic effect from the intervention and they only require the pet owner’s biased and subjective personal experience.

It is easy to imagine how a dog lover might interpret their pet’s behavior differently secondary to a placebo effect. It usually takes Rosco a whole week to get over his flare ups but with acupuncture it only takes 7 days. In addition to pet owners and the potential for biased evaluations, it is equally easy to see how an animal might act differently because of how their owner interacts with them. Rosco might actually act more energetic and appear to be feeling better simply because his owner is paying more attention to him in anticipation of a postive therapeutic result. Perhaps other changes, like an improved diet or a new and more interesting location, may lead to positive changes in behavior that do not stem from any new therapy. It is foolish to think that the placebo effect can’t be applied to animals, particularly our doting animal friends.

The article is overflowing with misinformation and contains the expected pseudohistorical mention of how acupuncture is an “ancient healing technique.” Perhaps I employ too narrow a definition of the word, but I would not consider a therapy that has in reality only been practiced for at most  a few hundred years as ancient. It is a commonly accepted myth that acupuncture as we know it has existed for thousands of years. I’ve even read one source which claimed that acupuncture dated back to the dawn of man. I have to wonder where our primitive primate ancestors would have acquired not only the steel used to fashion such thin needles but also the paper upon which to bill insurance companies for their use. According to Mundell,

“Experts point out that animals have been treated with acupuncture therapy from the very beginning. In fact, Chinese records that go back thousands of years describe the use of healing needles on horses and other livestock.”

This is simply false. Needle like instruments considerably larger than what are used today were used to drain pockets of infection in animals but there is no historical record from that time period of the placing of thin needles in special areas of the body in order to remove obstructions to a mystical healing energy force. This concept, as mentioned above, is probably only a few hundred years old and did not even become popular in China until the 1960’s when it was forced on the public by their government. And it has become steadily less popular as  scientific medicine has come to play a larger role in Chinese society.

Mundell further reveals his ignorance of the subject, or perhaps his purposeful covering up of the rather silly underlying mechanism claimed by acupuncture believers, in the following explanation.

“The points, referred to as loci, represent important locations for nerves and blood vessels that, when manipulated, somehow aid healing, experts say.”

Acupuncture, as it is promoted by the near totality of practitioners and patients, involves the shoving of thin needles into specific points on the body in order to relieve the obstruction of a vital, yet undetectable by any modern scientific techniques, energy force. There is no legitimate evidence, anatomic or otherwise, that these loci have any special relationship to nerves or blood vessels. They are, in fact, completely arbitrary. There isn’t even agreement over the number or location of these loci, or over which should be focused on. Some proponents claim that only the ear requires needling while others only care about the bottom of the feet.

One of the experts in the article reveals that “veterinary acupuncture has proven effective in healing or easing the symptoms of arthritis, acute injuries, hip dysplasia, respiratory disorders, immune system ailments and a host of other problems” This is also entirely false. There have been, over the years, a number of small and poorly designed studies, typically unblinded and uncontrolled, that have shown a weakly positive effect. But, as is the case with inert therapies, as larger and better designed studies are performed, particularly studies that are appropriately blinded and have a placebo control group, it becomes increasingly evident that there is no effect. This is certainly the case with acupuncture.

Animal acupuncture is only one very small step above pet psychics on the list of the most absurd jobs in the pseudosciences or the paranormal.

* E. J. Mundell was the production secretary for 1990’s Prom Night III: The Last Kiss

Written by skepticpedi

March 10, 2009 at 10:28 am

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Trick or Treatment


I finished this book on the same day that the Point of Inquiry podcast interview with author Simon Singh.

The first nugget in this book is the discussion of science, evidence, double-blind testing, and historical accounts of how medical science has moved forward, ranging from the story of how George Washington was one in a long line of people killed by excessive blood-letting, Florence Nightgale’s work on improving sanitation in hospitals, and Dr. John Snow’s tracking of the cholera epidemic in Victorian London. They then explain the placebo effect, how it works on tested medicines such as aspirin, and how it works with tested but ineffective remedies.

The authors also set about explaining the history of several alternate treatments (homeopathy, chiropractic, herbal remedies), how clinical trials have been conducted, and what the outcome has been. If you expect a book thoroughly dismissing every type of alternative treatment, you will be disappointed, but neither will you find unqualified support. In general, they report several herbal remedies that have been successfully tested (but warn of both unknown efficacies, dangerous side effects, and high costs); that some chiropractic seems to help minor back pain (but you can also suffer severe injury from neck manipulations); and that acupuncture has limited effect in minor pain (but is largely placebo, and the films of Chinese doctors doing open-heart surgery on ‘anesthetized’ patients are hoaxes).

Two particular parts I enjoyed reading for new information: First, the history about acupuncture having been largely discarded in China until Mao pushed traditional Chinese treatments both from a standpoint of national pride as well as a way to cut health care costs. Second, I appreciated the story about Randi’s involvement with investigating Jacques Benveniste’s Nature paper claiming prove of the efficacy of a particular homeopathic treatment.

My opinion is that the authors did a thorough investigation of the evidence upholding alternative treatment therapies, researched the history, provided documentation supporting their claims, discuss enough science so that the casual reader will understand the concept of evidence-based medicine, and were fair and unbiased in their conclusions.

Written by Geek Goddess

March 7, 2009 at 6:18 am