Saturday, January 14, 2012

Weekend Post - The New Year is a bad time for science

The New Year is a bad time for science. Part of it is the ridiculous New Years resolutions that so many of us make each year. Most of them, and I confess I’m not immune to this, involve promising yourself that you’ll live more healthily. You’ll promise to cut back on the booze, the saturated fat and the chocolate.

Unfortunately the purveyors of pseudoscience know this and shamelessly exploit our good intentions.

A few days ago I saw an advertisement on TV for the completely nonsensical “Detox Foot Pads”. According to the advert you stick these pads to the soles of your feet at bedtime and they apply warmth to your reflexology points and "detox your body while you sleep". The advert claims that this boosts your immune system. According to the personal testimonials from a range of grinning faces you wake feeling refreshed and with "less toxins and impurities".

According to the various characters presenting these pads they generate "far infra-red radiation equivalent to a full cardiac workout". The graphics they showed of two glowing feet were apparently "Thermo X-Rays" that showed "the incredible effects". Actually it looked more like a kid's drawings of feet with wobbly orange spots but maybe I'm too cynical and perhaps "Thermo X-Rays" are a bit of medical technology I've missed over the years.

Unfortunately they fail to point out that everything they say is complete rubbish.

To begin with there’s the reflexology angle. Reflexology is based on the notion that the soles of your feet are somehow connected to every other part of your body. Reflexologists will tell you that stimulation of specific spots on your feet can remedy problems in related organs of your body. However, it overlooks the fact that these connections simply don’t exist. They’re not there. Nowhere. They are as imaginary as the supposed benefits that reflexology offers. Bring me an anatomy textbook and we can fail to find these mythical connections together. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that reflexology is anything more than just a comforting foot massage. If you like your feet massaged then good luck to you but don’t expect any medical benefits from it.

Then there’s the issue of “detoxing” through the soles of your feet. The advert shows some used foot pads and, amazingly, they are all blackened with what we are told are the toxins extracted from your feet. No chance that the dirt could just be from dirty, sweaty feet is there? Feet are actually horribly dirty things. Why do you think they smell so bad if not washed?

Then there’s the whole issue of detoxification in general. The whole detox industry is based on a series of lies and deceptions. A BBC news story a couple of weeks ago discussed this. A variety of doctors pointed out that thinking of “detoxing” your liver after the Christmas and New Year festivities was a complete waste of time. Despite the claims of the many detox remedies aggressively advertised over the break, none of them offer any real benefit. One of the doctors quoted by the BBC said:
“Detoxing for just a month in January is medically futile. It can lead to a false sense of security and feeds the idea that you can abuse your liver as much as you like and then sort everything else with a quick fix.”
In fact the best way to get healthy after the over-indulgence is just to stop over-indulging and to make a few simple lifestyle changes to protect your health. Your liver is a remarkable cleansing machine so long as you treat it with a little bit of respect. It will do all the detoxing you need if you let it. You don’t need silly footpads, reflexology or any other pseudoscientific claptrap to help get back to good health.

Although detox foot pads are certainly harmless, the danger is that they could be used when real medical help is called for, not just a placebo. They also spread lies about how your body works. That can only lead to danger.

While I think that satellite TV, newspapers and the internet are wonderful things they also have the ability to spread deception, dangerous conspiracy theories and outright lies. Detox foot pads may be a relatively innocent example but they are not that far from things that threaten our welfare, maybe even our lives. Sometimes the detoxing we need is not of our bodies, but of our brains.


You can see a version of the ad I saw on DSTV here. It's a US version of the ad with US contacts and prices but you'll hear that all of the "happy customers" are South Africans.

You can see an enormous variety of critical comments about these nonsensical foot pads as follows:
For a skeptical review of the utterly ridiculous concept of reflexology see the Skeptic's Dictionary article here.

The BBC story about the silliness of detoxing can be seen here.

1 comment:

Rob Silver said...

On that note, I think I'll just have another beer then.