Pseudoscience and Amber Necklaces: Just Say “Magic”

In my previous post I poked fun at people who believe an electronic box can detect allergies, enzyme deficiencies and underperforming organs simply by running a mild electrical current through the skin (electrodermal testing). In this post, since a girl turned up my daughter’s birthday party wearing one the other day, I’m turning my attention to a favourite medical intervention of the tie-dyed parent: the amber necklace.

Amber necklaces, for those fortunate enough never to have procreated, are strings of amber beads you make your infant wear from the age of three months to seven years, usually around the neck but sometimes around the wrist or ankle, to soothe their teething pains and whatever else happens to ail them. If you question the wisdom of tying something around a baby’s neck, fear not: they are designed to break at the slightest pressure, so you only have to worry about your child choking to death on amber beads and not being strangled.

Now, I’m not going to say that amber necklaces don’t have painkilling properties, mostly because I’m afraid of getting lynched by the Mumsnet mob, but also because debunking every nonsense health fad gets tedious after a while. Instead, I’m going to focus on an aspect of the marketing of amber necklaces that really gets my goat: pseudoscience.

I hate pseudoscience, I really do. It’s the hot chick in the porn film who puts on a white coat and glasses to pretend she’s a professor when we all know she’s wearing nothing underneath.

Exhibit A: succinic acid.

While some of the advertisers go all airy-fairy, citing ancient wisdom and claiming amber is a bio-transmitter that contains an electro-negative charge that activates the root chakra to promote natural healing, a surprising number of others drape themselves with the veneer of scientific credibility. Baltic amber contains succinic acid, they say. Succinic acid is rich in antioxidants that combat free radicals, they continue. Occurring naturally in the body, it’s a key intermediary in the Krebs cycle, a stimulant to the neural system aiding recovery, and a boost to the body’s immune response in fighting infection.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? I don’t know if any of that is true or not – I suppose I could find out – but there’s no need, because it doesn’t matter. All that matters is: does the mechanism for getting that succinic acid from the amber into my child sound plausible?

According to the intellectual behemoths behind amber necklaces, the infant’s body temperature dissolves the succinic acid from the amber, allowing it to be absorbed into the baby’s skin.

Wow. Just wow. After dazzling you with medical jargon, they drop the ball spectacularly with that one.

You don’t need to know anything about succinic acid to realise how extraordinarily unconvincing that explanation is – it only takes a soupcon of logic and the distant memory of your basic chemistry lessons at school. Are they really suggesting succinic acid is so incredibly stable and unreactive it can remain in fossilized tree sap for millions of years, yet so amazingly unstable and reactive it will dissolve with the barest application of warmth? Really?

Furthermore, the reason most alternative health advocates avoid mainstream medicine is because they dislike the idea of putting chemicals (i.e. medicines) into their children’s bodies. Yet they seen strangely fine at allowing an unknown strength or dose of a natural chemical to seep into their babies. Wouldn’t you want to know more? How much succinic acid is too much? What happens if they OD? Are there any side effects? What if it’s a really hot day?

Frankly, if someone told me that chemicals were leaking from my children’s accessories into their bloodstream through their skin, I’d be somewhat worried about that. I certainly wouldn’t go out and buy one specifically because it can drug my kids. And if succinic acid is so useful, why not buy it in pill form? Then you could control exactly how much they’re getting. Doing it via a necklace seems a little reckless to me.

Most advocates of alternative medicine claim to be inquisitive, discerning and sceptical people. Instead of blindly accepting the word of mainstream medicine like the rest of us sheep, they aren’t afraid to question the orthodoxy and seek out the Truth (with a capital T). Strange, then, that people who reject the scientific proofs of mainstream medicine appear so ready to believe anything that alternative medicine tells them, no matter how much it goes against basic logic. In fact, the more it flies in the face of accepted medical doctrine, the more they seem to accept it.

Ironic, don’t you think, that so many non-conformists choose to non-conform in exactly the same way?

Anyway, I don’t have a problem with people giving their kids amber necklaces, or wearing copper bracelets or magnets or whatever other unscientific fad they choose believe in. For one thing, it makes hippies easy to spot; and for another, so long as they’re using them in addition to regular medicine, rather than instead of, and they’re not hurting anyone, it’s nobody’s business. If it makes them feel good, helps them get through the day, then more power to them.

All that I ask is that people are honest about them. Don’t say it works because of some pseudoscientific claptrap you’ve pulled out of your ass. It’s patronising and offensive to anybody who understands basic science. Just say it works by magic. I would respect that far more.

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Magic Allergy Testing Rubbish

I have mentioned before, many, many, many times, that I am a sceptic. I don’t believe in ghost hunting, conspiracy theories, psychokinesis, homeopathy, UFOs, or the the anti-vaxxer movement. I don’t suffer fools gladly, and I most certainly don’t appreciate people with zero knowledge of medicine or healthcare offering me medical advice. Indeed, I think I’ve made it pretty clear to not only my readers but everybody in my life that if they come at me with pseudo-scientific, superstitious nonsense I’m going to cut them off at the knees.

So why do some people never learn?

My eldest daughter has asthma, for which she uses an inhaler. I don’t have a problem with that, because why would I? A certain person in my wife’s family, however, has a different view.

‘You want to cut her reliance on that inhaler,’ she said. ‘It’s very bad to use it long-term; it causes so many health problems and it’ll give her bad teeth.’

As someone who has asthma and has used an inhaler for around half my life, I have never heard something so absurd. But she doubled down on the ridiculous by suggesting we send my daughter for an allergy test to see what we should avoid, the implication being we can ‘cure’ her asthma by going gluten-free and eating more quinoa.

She then offered to put us in touch with her nutritionist for an allergy test, which would involve connecting my daughter to a box that measures the electrical resistance of her cells and organs (a.k.a. electrodermal testing). Knowing I’m a sceptic, she offered the ‘proof’ that this same nutritionist had used the machine to diagnose a friend’s one-year-old as having too few digestive enzymes, and suggested the foods that would remedy this.

The first warning sign was when she said ‘nutritionist’. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person is a crank, but while ‘dietician’ is a registered, protected title, like doctor, ‘nutritionist ‘ is not, meaning anybody can claim to be one. That’s not to say that there aren’t professional nutritionists out there – you can probably trust a ‘registered nutritionist’ with a BSc in Nutrition who is voluntarily regulated by the Association for Nutrition, for example – but if they wear a beanie hat and smell of yoghurt, it’s probably best not taking lifestyle advice from them.

The second warning sign was when she said the nutritionist would perform an allergy test. While dieticians are qualified to give advice about diet with respect to specific medical conditions, such as coeliac, nutritionists are not – they give more general advice about diet and healthy eating. So why would a nutritionist be doing an allergy test and then giving advice about the results?

The third warning sign was, of course, the magic box that somehow diagnoses every problem in your body. I mean, seriously, do people really believe that? Have they never visited the doctor for a mystery ailment and been sent for further tests? Why would he give you a blood test, refer you for a gastroscopy, do a stool culture or dip stick your urine if he could just hook you up to a machine and know you inside and out, lickety-split?

And the suggestion that running a very minor electrical current through your body can tell a machine that you are lacking in digestive enzymes is so ludicrous, it’s not even worth discussing. All I will say is that when the NHS, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the Australian College of Allergy, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and the Allergy Society of South Africa all advise against electrodermal testing as it has no scientific basis whatsoever, it doesn’t take a genius to work out it’s a pile of BS. Yet still people believe it! Why are so many so ready to turn their backs on reality and common sense to live in a world of make-believe? I just don’t get it.

Yet despite my pointing out the absurdity of the suggestion, and stating in no uncertain terms that we would not be doing it, my wife took it seriously and is now worried about the dangers of long-term use of inhalers, and keeps asking me if there’s any harm in having the test done. The harm, dearest, is going to a snake-oil salesman instead of a medical professional in order to get fake medical advice about a chronic respiratory condition that is already being dealt with by the asthma nurse. The harm is that we’re being encouraged to turn against inhalers, the very medicine designed to treat asthma, in favour of magic beans. And the harm is that if you go down that road you lose my respect because you reveal yourself to be a gullible idiot.

But she won’t see things my way, which is so frustrating, her response being that I am entitled to my opinion and she’s entitled to hers. Oh for crying out loud, I replied – it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. The sky is blue; water is wet; electrical boxes can’t tell you how much bacteria lives in your gut. And when it comes to the safety of my children’s health, her opinions don’t matter one jot.

I reminded her that I had one of these tests done myself, around twenty years ago when I was young and stupid, and was highly dubious of it even then.

‘It didn’t work because you’re a sceptic,’ she said.

‘So you need to believe in it for it to work?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then it’s a placebo, and the bare minimum standard you can expect of a medical intervention is that it performs better than a placebo, so what good is it?’

But you can’t win them all – there’s no arguing with stupid.

For the record, steroidal inhalers can slow the growth of children, but this only affects 1 in 10,000 sufferers. And that’s with high-dose, long-term use, while my daughter’s dose is entry-level low. The risks of not treating your asthma are considerably higher, and I know this from personal experience.

As a baby, my parents were adamant that I had asthma. The doctors were adamant that it was whooping cough. By the time the doctors realised their mistake, my asthma had been untreated for so long that I was left with scarred bronchioles. Bronchioles are the tubes in your lungs that carry the air you breathe to the different regions, and they are designed to be elastic, expanding to increase airflow when you’re exercising and need more oxygen and contracting when you’re at rest. Guess what? Scarred bronchioles don’t stretch.

What this means is that no matter how fit I get or how healthy I am, I become out-of-breath very quickly during exertion because my tubes just won’t open up. When I get stressed or anxious or ill, I can’t take the deep breath needed to make me feel better, and if I ever do yoga or tai chi, I have to take two breaths for every one that you’re supposed to take. All because I didn’t have an inhaler when I should have.

So, no, I don’t take it lightly when somebody advocates replacing tried and tested and scientifically proven medicines with sugar pills, especially when my wife is unduly influenced by her family members.

I just can’t comprehend why seemingly rational people so often switch off their critical thinking skills when it comes to their health. But maybe my wife is right, and it comes down to belief. They put their faith in the nutritionist and his mysterious box the same way they trust the tarot card reader and her pack, the fortune teller and her crystal ball, the astrologer and his birth charts – because it offers certainty, however false, in an uncertain world.

You know, I think it might be fun to send my wife to have one of these tests herself. Since her hands are always sweaty, and the tests work through skin conductivity – or galvanometric skin differentials that signal energy imbalances along meridians, apparently – she’ll probably test positive for every allergen and health problem programmed into it. Then we’ll see if she continues to think it’s real, or if she’ll admit it’s a con to sell her nutritional and dietary supplements!