Sunday, March 04, 2012

Weekend Post - The threat from pseudoscience

The threat from pseudoscience isn’t just to our bank balance. It also threatens our health.

The biggest pseudoscientific health threat is probably from HIV/AIDS denialists who dare to suggest that HIV has nothing to do with AIDS and that ARVs are the agents causing illness, not curing it. Personally I’m not too worried about that in Botswana because we are one of the great ARV success stories. You can’t really argue with the effects of ARVs that we’ve probably all seen. There can’t be many people who don’t know someone whose health and quality of life have been drastically improved when they started the drugs.

Then there’s the even more dramatic influence the drugs have when given to expectant mothers. Before the PMTCT program around 40% of HIV positive pregnant mothers gave birth to HIV positive babies. After the program was introduced that figure dropped to less than one tenth of that. Each of those uninfected babies is a pretty good hint that it works.

I suspect that HIV/AIDS deniers might actually be happier if more babies died.

But not all pseudoscience is as threatening as this. What about the less harmful examples like homeopathy and reflexology?

The idea behind homeopathy is quite simple. But silly. Homeopaths will tell you that an ailment can be treated with minute quantities of substances that produce similar symptoms to those of the ailment. There is, of course, precisely no evidence that this is true. In fact the evidence shows that it’s all hogwash.

Homeopathy can’t work for a very simple reason. Homeopathic remedies contain no active ingredients. Homeopathic "remedies" are produced by repeatedly diluting a sample of the supposedly active ingredient. A homeopath might take a 1% solution of the active ingredient and dilute it repeatedly. After being diluted to 1% dilutions times it’s easy t work out that only 1 atom in every hundred billion billion will be of the so-called active ingredient. The most common forms of homeopathic remedy are actually diluted in this way thirty times, not just ten. There is simply nothing left from the original ingredient, not a single molecule.

So how do homeopaths claim it works? Apparently the water in which this ingredient once resided "remembers" that it once met the substance in question. Homeopaths talk seriously about "the molecular memory of water".

Want another absurdity? Homeopaths believe that the more diluted the liquid becomes the more effective it is. And another? The principle of homeopathic "succusion" states that the remedy becomes even more effective still if you thump it against the heel of your hand or a leather pad. I promise you I am NOT making this up.

Homeopathy is nonsense. It flies in the face of all that we have learnt over the last couple of thousand of years in the fields of chemistry, physics and biology. And common sense.

Reflexology is just as absurd.

Reflexology is based on the idea that the soles of your feet somehow map the structure of your body. A reflexologist will tell you that if she applies pressure to various spots on your feet it will somehow affect your organs. Squeeze here and your liver will be affected, tickle here and your spleen will be in top-notch shape.

This is nonsense. Every time there has been serious scientific research into reflexology it has been shown to have no more of an effect that having your feet massaged. Of course some of us might like having our feet massaged. It’s not my thing but people say it’s wonderfully relaxing and feels terrific. But that doesn’t make it medicine. It doesn’t make it true.

Both homeopathy and reflexology have been around for years but somehow manage to survive, probably because of human gullibility. But there are newcomers to the pseudoscientific family.

There are places in Gaborone where you can be plugged into an electronic device called either the QXCI, EPFX or the SCIO. This is a box of fake electronics about which some astonishing claims are made. One web site I found describes it as “an incredibly acurate (sic) biofeedback stress reduction system, combining the best of biofeedback, stress reduction, Rife machines, homeopathic medicine, bioresonance, electro-acupuncture, computer technology and quantum physics”.

Apparently it’s “multi-layer faclity enables dysfunction unravelling”. It is also “Equivalent to radonic operation”. Best of all it explains that “Most computers are binary: 1 or 0. Quantum software is trinary - basis for artificial intelligence”.

This is, of course, utter tripe.

You might wonder what “QXCI” means? It stands for “Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface”. Here’s your free scientific and skeptical tip for the week. Anyone who uses the word “quantum” when they are trying to sell you something is a fraud or a fool. Or both.

All of these things have one thing in common. They’re nonsense and they are all ways that frauds, charlatans and fools can take your money and keep it for themselves.


For a comprehensive summary of our success fighting HIV/AIDS see here.

If you want to know about the silliness that is homeopathy click here, here and here. For a summary of reflexology see here. For the absurd and dangerous claims made about the QXCI fraud see here.

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