Showing posts with label quackery. Show all posts
Showing posts with label quackery. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Magic water

In the domain of magic, maybe the most celebrated liquid of all time was mercury.


Medieval alchemists looked upon this weird substance as primeval matter—in the spirit of Aristotle—out of which all metals evolved. As a schoolboy at Grafton High School, I remember well my first encounter with this amazing but dangerous metal, under the guidance of our aging chemistry teacher Jerry Spring. Once upon a time, it was used by dentists: a bit like installing a toxic battery in the patient's mouth.

Questing after miracles, modern believers in the supernatural seem to be placing their trust in a far more humble liquid: ordinary water.


Jacques Benveniste was a distinguished French specialist in immunology. In 1971, he discovered an organic chemical substance known as PAF [platelet-activating factor], which plays a basic role in the process of hemostasis (the stopping of bleeding) and other vital physiological functions. Benveniste—maybe with a Nobel Prize in the pocket of his lab gown—might have gone down in medical history as a result of this discovery. Alas, the curiosity of Jacques Benveniste led him into an esoteric field of research, inspired by the beliefs of homeopathy. Working under contract for the French pharmaceutical company Boiron [click here to see my article entitled Herbal and homeopathic products], Beneveniste published a controversial article in a 1988 issue of Nature in which he put forward the hallucinating idea that molecules of plain water might possess a mysterious "memory".

If so, then it would be quite normal (!) that the functions of an active ingredient within an enormously-diluted homeopathic preparation might in fact be "remembered". Quod erat demonstrandum. When shit of this superior nature hit the science media fan, it provoked a huge scandal that I won't attempt to summarize here. [See the Wikipedia article on Jacques Beneviste.] The discoverer of "water memory" retired from the French INSERM medical research organization, and the scientific community wondered whether their prestigious colleague might not have been led astray... into ridicule. Today, few serious scientists believe that Beneveniste's speculations incorporate the slightest grain of objective truth.


Whereas Jacques Benveniste obtained nothing more than an ignominious pair of Ig Nobel Prizes in Chemistry in 1991 and 1998, the French biologist Luc Montagnier was awarded a genuine (shared) Nobel in 2008 for his discovery of the Aids virus, HIV. Since then, at the height of his scientific glory, Montagnier has made astonishing claims that homeopathy works, and that Benveniste might have hit the nail on the head. Once again, I leave my blog readers to follow up this affair through Google and Wikipedia.

Let us move from "water memory" to the equally-exciting theme of "water fuel".


Agha Waqar Ahmad is a 40-year-old Pakistani engineer who operates normally in fields that are far removed from the Nobel domain. This employee of the police department claims to have invented an automobile that runs on ordinary water. Ahmad's scientific credentials: a degree in mechanical engineering from a technical college in Khairpur, in the southern province of Sindh. Water is water, universal and ubiquitous, and it knows no geographical, intellectual or cultural barriers. So, it is tempting to to draw parallels between the magic homeopathic memory of Benveniste's water and the magic power of water as the unique fuel in Ahmad's experimental cars. In both cases, we are faced with phenomena that modern science refuses to accept.

In Pakistan, there was intense excitement after the release of demonstrations of Ahmad's water-fueled automobile. TV journalists presented him as a savior of Pakistan, stricken gravely by the energy crisis. Once again, I invite my readers to use Google to learn more about Ahmad's miraculous invention.

Meanwhile, I remain an old-fashioned adept of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which I once learned in 1957, as a student at Sydney University, in the celebrated textbook of Mark Zemansky, which has accompanied several generations of science enthusiasts. I therefore refuse to believe that you can obtain an energy advantage by attempting simply to extract the oxygen and the hydrogen that compose water. The challenge is real, but Ahmad's alleged solution is surely chimeric.

An amusing detail of the Pakistani affair was the high-level support given by the Pakistani Minister of Religious Affairs, Khurshid Shah, who drove the engineer’s car during his demonstration and said he was amazed by the performance of the water kit.

It's unlikely that that the inventor Ahmad might have been aware of, let alone inspired by, our Judeo-Christian beliefs, but there's a strong case for alleging a possible infringement of Roman Catholic patent rights concerning the power of water. After all, we've been using this powerful stuff for ages in baptisms, and we continue to sprinkle so-called Holy Water upon the coffins of our deceased.


In a nutshell, if ever Vatican lawyers were smart enough to demonstrate convincingly that the sacred Popemobile runs purely (as we all believe) on Holy Water, then this Pakistani heathen will be well and truly screwed. Here at home, in Pont-en-Royans, we are proud (?) of our Water Museum, imagined by the mayor Yves Pillet.


Don't ask me, though, what on earth this local museum is supposed to exhibit. Homeopathic health-impregnated water? Pakistani energy-impregnated water? Exotic shark-infested waters from afar? Maybe simply the water of the Bourne? Or the wind upon the waters...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ask for evidence

The British charitable trust Sense about Science has just launched a promotional campaign on the theme of the constant necessity to ask for evidence, about all claims.

Normally, among rational human beings, this necessity should itself be evident. Sadly, though, we know it isn't. Mindless believers, Taliban-like fundamentalists, quacks and snake-oil salesmen abound. Their common characteristic, which they often share unwittingly, is a total disrespect for evidence.

Last night, in the USA, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis.

There was no evidence proving that this man had ever committed the murder for which he was condemned.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Princely potion

Here in rural France, I buy groceries in plebeian places such as Leclerc and Intermarché supermarkets. On the other hand, if I were to settle down in England (which is not one of my current projects), I would make a point of residing in the vicinity of a Waitrose shop, because they have a reputation for offering top-quality foodstuffs. Besides, they have royal warrants to supply groceries and alcoholic beverages to both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. And, as I've always said, what's good enough for the Royals is bloody good enough for me.


The Scottish economist Adam Smith [1723-1790] once claimed—long before Napoleon appeared on the world scene—that Britain was "a nation that is governed by shopkeepers". Well, even Kate Middleton's father-in-law seems to have got himself involved in retail business activities, under a most regal name and logo, which look as if they've come straight out of Burke's Peerage.

The branch of Duchy that markets herbal products proposes a nice little black bottle containing a mysterious potion named Detox Tincture, made from thistles and dandelions. For the moment, I haven't got around to trying it out, and discovering its health-inducing benefits. On the web page concerning this product [access], there's an inspiring description of Prince Charles, who "has always been an advocate of a requirement for fundamental reappraisal of the way we view health. He believes poor health does not exist in isolation, but is in fact a direct consequence of our lifestyles, cultures, communities and how we interact with our environments. He is passionate about adopting an integrated approach to health, as well as exploring how safe, proven complementary therapies can work in conjunction with mainstream medicine."

Not everybody in the kingdom is convinced that Charles is acting correctly from a medical and ethical viewpoint. An article in the Guardian in March used the ugly term "quackery" [display]. A more recent article in the same newspaper introduces an even more down-to-earth expression: "snake oil salesman" [display]. All I can say is that, if Charles or members of his family happened to read my blog, I would be most grateful if they were to ask the Duchy company to send me a few samples of their health-inducing products, and I promise to try them out rapidly, both on me and my dogs, and to describe the outcome for my readers.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Spoil sport

In this delightful philosophical cartoon by the Australian comedian Tim Minchin, the heroine is an unknown female compatriot named Storm who has been invited along to a simple dinner evening among a few friends in a north London flat.



For the irritated narrator, Storm's loudspoken but antiquated hippy ideas are like shit thrown into a fan. Personally, I'm sure I've run into women like Storm, but I can't seem to remember when and where.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Positive thinking

Whenever I think back to the pompous emptiness of the Anglican church environment in my native town of Grafton, a sad anecdote jumps into my mind. I've already alluded in this blog to a ridiculous book I was offered when I was about 13 years old: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale.

The man who gave me this book was a prominent Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Arthur Edward Warr, dean of the Anglican cathedral of Christ Church.

I can hear parishioners saying: "Well, that was nice of him, wasn't it!" My contention, retrospectively, is that it wasn't nice of him at all. In suggesting that I should read a best seller penned by an American snake-oil evangelist, published in 1952, Dean Warr (who knew me well, since I was a server in his church) was deliberately shirking his spiritual responsibilities as our pastor. He was acting lazily, saying to me (as it were): "I don't know what to say about Christianity to a local boy who appears to be more interested in science than in other pursuits. So, why don't you take a look at this."

The gist of the Peale book might be summed up tersely as follows: Ideally, Christian believers should be happy individuals, with an optimistic outlook on their personal existence. [Recall that, timewise, we were just a decade after Auschwitz and Hiroshima.] Now, the best way to become a contented and optimistic individual is to force yourself, through personal discipline, into "thinking positively" about every aspect of your life and your expectations. To put it bluntly, you should delude yourself by deliberately avoiding to recollect or cogitate upon anything of a harsh (negative) nature.

You don't have to be a profound thinker to realize that advice of that kind does not really belong to the traditional domains of science, philosophy or religion. It's what you might categorize as popular psychology, on a par with self-hypnosis. These days, many young people might even interpret this advice as a justification for the consumption of various kinds of "instant happiness drugs", from music, alcohol and hedonistic sex through to hard chemicals. Others, of a more introspective nature, might see it as an incitation to adopt Buddhism. Peale himself probably intended his "theology" as a good reason for dropping in on, and maybe donating cash to, the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.

Since settling down in France, I'm annoyed most of all about this Yankee preacher and pop psychologist named Peale [May his soul rest in peace!] because I now know that he stole all his clunky theories from a notorious Frenchman: the pharmacist and quack therapist Émile Coué, generally considered today as the founder of a school of so-called autosuggestion. Everybody in France is accustomed to hearing of the celebrated "Coué method" of solving problems: Abracadabra! Simply force yourself to imagine that the problem no longer exists!

Must we therefore imagine that a worldly and cultivated American named Norman Vincent Peale, in the course of his peregrinations in the Old World, would have met up with the ideas of Coué, in French, and set about translating and expounding them into English? Don't be silly. A Yankee bumpkin like Peale wouldn't have known enough about Europe to protect his ass. It was Coué who got invited to the USA, where he was received personally by the president Calvin Coolidge. He presented his theories to enthusiastic crowds in New York and elsewhere… and it's quite possible that Peale heard summarily about his future spiritual guide, not in a lecture theater, but on radio or through newspaper cuttings.

In any case, today, I've lost interest (if ever I had any) in mesmerizing myself into believing in the remedies of the original inventor Coué, and certainly not in the Christian snake-oil variations of his Yankee imitator Peale. As for the clergyman Warr of my youth: Dear Dean, you might have been a little bit more inspired, as a spiritual mentor, back in Grafton in the '50s.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Village medicine

An inevitable consequence of my growing old while persevering in my solitary existence in the relatively harsh environment of Gamone is that, from time to time, I make an abrupt bodily movement that results in my waking up the next morning with unexpected aches. This happens so often that it hasn't worried me greatly up until now, because afflictions of this kind hang around for a couple of days, and then they disappear just as rapidly as they arose. But the sudden pain in my left knee that hit me last week was particularly vicious, since it made it difficult for me to walk correctly and even to drive the car (which, incidentally, is the worst menace of all for me, since I'm obliged to drive a dozen or so kilometers to buy my supplies). This time, I had the impression that my affliction resulted surely from the fact that I had been scrambling around a little too much, over the last few days, up on the steep embankments above the house, in the vicinity of the patched-up hole in the fence where the horses had escaped.

On Friday, I drove down to Pont-en-Royans to post a letter. A friend living opposite the post office noticed that I was limping, and he rushed across to ask me what was wrong. For want of a better explanation, and instead of describing how I might have stumbled on a rock up behind my house at Gamone, I told him (without being at all convinced that this was the truth) that it was an unexpected attack of arthritis. I thought that this would satisfy his curiosity, since I'm old enough to suffer from this standard ailment… and it's even possible that I do, already. Instead of that, he was eager to tell me all about his miracle cure for all kinds of aches in the joints, particularly the knees. It was a gel named Geldolor. He told me I could find it at the local pharmacy (we happened to be standing just outside the door), and that it was both inexpensive and amazingly effective. So, I assured him that I would buy this product just as soon as I had posted my letter.

Inside the pharmacy, I told the young female pharmacist that a kind friend had given me the name of a wonderful ointment that would almost certainly relieve me of an annoying pain in my left knee. When I told her the name of the product, she said that the pharmacy didn't stock it, but they could have a tube delivered for the following morning.

PHARMACIST: You don't need to tell me the name of your kind friend, because there's only one individual in Pont-en-Royans who would recommend this phytochemical product for the treatment of knee pains.

I was trapped! In a flash, I grasped what had happened. William—who raves on regularly, on his blog, about the stupidity of homeopathy, astrology and other forms of quackery—had been caught out by a friend. Here I was ordering a magic plant-based thing in the hope of healing my sore knee joints. And even the pharmacist considered me now as the kind of guy who would believe anything. I'm sure she must be thinking that I'm a naive Anglo-Saxon sucker. And she probably imagines, to top it all off, that I go along to mass in the village church of a Sunday morning, and that I no doubt think the universe was created in a week, a few thousand years ago.

WILLIAM: Maybe, in place of the Geldolor, you could propose some kind of regular pharmaceutical product. After all, I've simply got a sore knee.

PHARMACIST: No, I wouldn't do that. If your friend has advised you to try the plant-based product, then you should do so.

I was well and truly trapped. The pharmacist saw me no doubt as the kind of guy for whom my friendship with the fellow across the street, and my respect for his judgment and wisdom, were surely far more important to me than modern medicine, science, technology or even truth.

The next morning, I picked up the product. When I returned home, I discovered that driving my car to the pharmacy had aggravated the pain in my knee. So, the circumstances were ideal for testing the product. It smelled good. I learned from the packet that the two active ingredients in the ointment were red pepper and an African plant known as Devil's Claw, containing alleged anti-inflammatory agents named harpagoside and beta-sitosterol. Half-an-hour later, the pain was just as intense as ever, so I swallowed a paracetamol tablet washed down by a cup of tea. Within five minutes, the pain had eased. But was this due to Geldolor or the paracetamol?

Over the weekend, I repeated the treatment a few more times, while saying to myself that I would go along to my doctor on Monday morning. Meanwhile, I made the mistake of not washing and drying my hands sufficiently after handling the red-pepper product, which gave rise suddenly to a horrible pain in my eyes… rapidly chased away by flushing with warm water.

When I crawled out of bed early on Monday morning, with the intention of visiting the doctor, the first thing I noticed was that the pain in my knee had disappeared. Now, don't expect me to conclude that this was due to the Geldolor. As I said at the beginning of this post, my aches and pains are always fleeting. They come and go, and I've learned to live with them. I cannot, of course, exclude the possibility that the charming young pharmacist had been so moved by my tale of suffering that she had visited the local church, at the end of her working day, and prayed for my rapid recovery. In that case, I would have to thank the fellow on the other side of the road for sending me to this pharmacy (which is not where I usually go for my prescription medicine), along with the girl herself, and—last but not least—Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Be that as it may, I felt that there was no longer any point in dropping in on my GP.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Good heavens, the heavens are changing!

As soon as I glimpsed the postage stamp on the missive from Ron Willard, I sensed that my agent in the Antipodes—who has links with Asian communities, no doubt in China itself—was contacting me to inform me of some kind of Major Happening in that distant corner of the planet. Sure enough, as soon as I opened the envelope (cautiously, as always, to verify that there were no hidden microphones or deadly traps), the facts leaped out at me: 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit !

And Ron, with his typical inventiveness, had disguised this information cunningly in the form of a Happy New Year card.

Purists might complain that the beast illustrated here is a hare, not a rabbit. But that's neither hare nor there. Apparently, within the category of rabbits, Chinese astrologers include, not only hares, but cats. (That's a bit disturbing for somebody like me who has got into the habit of eating out in Asian restaurants.) Dogs, though, are out, since they have their own category… like rats, oxen, tigers, dragons, snakes, horses, sheep (and goats), monkeys, roosters and pigs. I haven't checked yet, but I would imagine that the dragons category would surely incorporate other everyday beasts such as unicorns (unless they're housed with horses), griffons (maybe with tigers), Loch Ness monsters, etc.

It's sad to see that certain uncouth heathens (probably atheists) detract from the solemnity of our sacred Year of the Rabbit by raising out-of-place questions such as whether or not it's correct for a girl to wear a bit of furry stuff on certain parts of her anatomy.

At least, I think that's what disturbing them, judging from the fluffy white tails in the above photo… but I'm not sure I see what they're getting at.

Here in the Western World, we're faced with a much greater astrological disaster. Eminent specialists have just revealed that the entire system is totally screwed-up, because somebody got the dates wrong, or didn't know how to count, or something like that.

Instead of a dozen signs of the Zodiac, it appears that everybody has to shift over a bit to allow in a 13th fellow, named Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer, who operates in a busy pre-Christmas time slot from November 29 to December 17. And, talking of a serpent-bearer, I reckon there must be some subtle connection with the protester guy alongside the bunny girls in the above photo.

Personally, I'm infuriated, because I was born a Libra, I've lived my entire life as a pure Libra… and these idiots are now trying to tell me that I'm in fact a Virgo! Shit, what utter rubbish. If ever I had been a Virgo, even just a teeny-weeny bit of a Virgo, I would have been the first person in the world to realize it. You don't just change overnight from Libra to Virgo like catching the flu, or getting a sudden attack of rheumatism. I mean, if this had really happened, I would have felt it coming over me… and maybe tried to do something about it.

Don't quote me on this, but I have a vague suspicion that this whole affair has something to do with the arrival of Obama at the White House. Or maybe it's an atheist conspiracy. One thing is certain. When Sarah Palin gets elected, she'll make sure that people throughout the world get back to their senses. I'm convinced she'll restore good old-fashioned astrology.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Never been hugged

OK, I'm a frustrated outsider. How can I possibly lead a happy life when I've never been hugged by 57-year-old Mata Amritanandamayi, aka Amma, the Mahatma (honorific title once applied to Ghandi)?

[Click the photo to access a Wiki article.]

She was in France for a week in October, and it's said that she hugged 38,000 individuals. That's a massive amount of cuddling, and one hopes that the results justified such a mammoth grizzly act. And what exactly is the fallout that Amma seeks to produce by means of her powerful arms? Somebody said that she's a saint who's capable of fending off evil. That suits me fine as an explanation, because me, too, I've never liked evil, and anybody who's good at fending it off will get my votes all the time. But an underlying question remains to be answered. Is this lady truly good at fending off evil with her hugs?

In my article of 4 March 2010 entitled Autosuggestion [display], I spoke of the necessity of using a well-organized double-blind trial to settle questions of this nature. We would only need to gather together a few hundred subjects who feel that they're beset by some kind of evil. These days, that shouldn't be too hard, particularly since the global financial crisis. As I explained in the above-mentioned article, they would be split into an experimental group, who would be hugged by the authentic Mahatma, and a control group, who would be hugged by a plausible but inauthentic Indian guru of the following kind:

We must, of course, anticipate the possibility that various hot-blooded male subjects might be exhilarated by the placebo effect of being cuddled by the fake guru. These deluded individuals might be led to believe momentarily that the Devil had indeed abandoned them. But a statistical analysis would soon reveal where truth lies, and the outcome of this trial would surely cast light upon Amma's marvelous powers.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Oral's spout

Oral Roberts [1918-2009] was a US TV-evangelist, and this is a recent cover of a magazine on miracles published by his followers.

Jeez, Oral's spout might indeed be miraculous, and some folk might find it fun to get underneath for a taste of glory, but they sure have a weird way of healing in Oklahoma!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Quackery

You may have heard of the kid who told his teacher that the equator was "an imaginary lion running around the Earth".

As far as imaginary lines are concerned, a famous system was invented by the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. He suggested that a flat surface could be crisscrossed by a set of evenly-spaced vertical and horizontal lines, enabling us to indicate the exact location of any point on the surface by a pair of so-called Cartesian coordinates.

Before the time of Descartes, geographic coordinate systems had been applied to the surface of the globe, materialized by circles of latitude and longitude forming a grid.

The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator [1512-1594] had even invented a handy trick for projecting these circles onto the surface of a cylinder, which could then be flattened out to give the illusion that the surface of our globe could be thought of as a big rectangle. And all that remained was for perspicacious Australians, located at the center of the world, to point out the sense in which this rectangle is to be viewed.

Now why—you might be wondering—have I got carried away with this pedantic talk about coordinate systems? Well, it appears that some people are even dumber than the above-mentioned school kid, because they seem to forget that a grid enclosing the globe is necessarily an abstract entity, which might be described as virtual, rather than a material structure on which you might bump your head. That aspect of the global grid would seem to be so obvious that it's hardly necessary to mention it… were it not for the fact that, some fifty years ago, a German physician named Ernst Hartmann posited the existence of a real grid, above our heads, composed of "naturally-occurring charged lines, running North-South and East-West". Today, naturopaths (individuals who believe in alternative systems of medicine) speak of the invisible Hartmann Net, and they are prepared to indicate the exact dimensions of this grid. I don't intend to pursue this subject in greater depth… for the simple reason that I have no idea whatsoever of what the hell these naturopaths are talking about.

I'm not sure why I seem to be targeted as a possible patient by a few French naturopaths. I once built an aviation-oriented website for a fellow who now works as a naturopath, and I created another website in an attempt to sell the ancient house in the village of St-Antoine belonging to a female naturopath. Those could well be the associations that led to my receiving a spam email this morning from a French naturopath who has apparently been operating in the small Swiss city of Yverdon-les-Bains, at the southern extremity of Lake Neuchâtel.

It so happens that Yverdon has a fascinating tourist attraction: a park of 45 prehistoric standing-stones, known as menhirs in French. Well, I'll let you imagine the excitement of our naturopath when he dishes up an exotic salad whose ingredients are the Hartmann Net at Yverdon and the "geobiological" effects of the standing-stones. Apparently, some of the menhirs happen to be located at "geopathogenic nodes" of the Hartmann grid, whereas others stand at "positive Hartmann nodes". Now, don't forget that the alleged goal of all this tripe is to provide patients with health treatment.

Funnily enough, the naturopath forgot to mention the origin of these menhirs. They were dragged there by a legendary beast, in the remote past, and installed at precise points on the Hartmann grid. Dragged there by what archaic animal, you ask? By the imaginary lion that spends its time running around the globe...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

His Royal Quackness

This photo shows Prince Charles visiting a laboratory of a British company that markets various kinds of natural salts.

I'm sure that Charles is a nice chap, like his dad. But, from an intellectual viewpoint, I've never held him in high esteem. And, if he knew me, His Royal Highness would no doubt be in a position to inform the kingdom that this feeling is mutual. At a medical level, I'm not convinced that the future king would be able to take care of a pimple on his bum. But this has never prevented him from promoting would-be solutions such as herbal medicines and homeopathy.

I evoked British homeopathy in my article entitled Snake oil [display]. It's a pity that a charming celebrity such as Prince Charles, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, goes out of his way, in a great scientific nation such as the United Kingdom, to support quackery. He should know better.