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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Medicine vs. Magic

When you’re a parent, people never tire of telling you what to do and how to do it, not in the form of advice, but in the form of judgement. And when it comes to health, they’re bloody insistent. With everything else you have to contend with, it’s damnably unfair to hear veiled criticisms of your parenting, especially when you’re in the emotionally vulnerable position of wanting to do the right thing with a screaming and thoroughly unhappy baby.

The best response is to bite back your annoyance and say, ‘Thank you for your advice, but as the mother/father of [insert baby’s name], I will make the decision as to what is best for my child.’ It’s short, polite, to the point, and reminds them where the power truly lies.

But it doesn’t stop you wanting to throttle them with their condescending attitudes and ridiculous ideas.

It’s like a friend of mine who is on a personal mission to stop me giving Calpol to my baby, because paracetamol is bad, it’s bad for babies, it damages their liver, it’s unnatural, and all that jazz. Whenever she discovers I still use it, she turns into an evangelical preacher and acts like I’m slowly and deliberately poisoning my child.

With Calpol.

I’m not saying that paracetamol is safe – overdoses do damage livers – and nor do I advocate dosing kids up on paracetamol as and when you feel like it, but when it’s necessary, and when it is administered carefully, at the right doses, then there is nothing wrong with it. Izzie has an ear infection and a high temperature, as I discovered yesterday afternoon when I rushed her to the doctor’s after she projectile vomited all over Lizzie. The doctor prescribed Calpol to bring down the fever. Simple.

But, according to my opinionated friend, I’m practically killing the baby by giving her paracetamol, and I should avoid using it until I’ve tried some alternatives.

‘What alternatives?’ I asked. ‘Child Ibuprofen? Because I have that too.’

Nope, lectured my forthright friend. Homeopathic remedies.

Ah. Magic water and wishful thinking, then. Glad we had this conversation.

Until a few years ago, I thought ‘homeopathy’ was simply another way of saying ‘alternative medicine’. I figured it was herbal remedies like St John’s Wort, cinchona bark, and suchlike. But that’s not homeopathy at all.

Homeopathy is a medical system invented in the late 1700s that posits that ‘like cures like’ (hence the ‘homeo’ part of the word). Its essential belief is that if you put something that causes an illness into some water – say, something that causes a headache – then dilute that water down almost exponentially until there’s unlikely to be a single molecule of the original substance left, that water is somehow energised and imprinted with the ‘memory’ of that substance and will therefore be able to cure headaches.

There’s another word for water that contains no molecules of any other substance:

Water.

Homeopathic remedies contain precisely zero active ingredients and are therefore precisely useless. And ‘like cures like’ has no basis in science whatsoever. That’s not just my opinion – the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does not recommend homeopathy is used to treat any ailment, the NHS say there’s no good evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any health condition, while a 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report concluded homeopathy is no more effective than placebos (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Homeopathy/pages/introduction.aspx).

No matter how much you talk about Nature with a capital N, or the Law of Similars, or how substances leave a quantum imprint behind, I do not believe in homeopathy. I will take science and evidence over magic and fairy dust every time.

Then there’s the close relative who has this crazy notion that the best way to cure a cold is to consume vast quantities of vitamin C, and so tries to get us to overdose every time we have the slightest sniffle. The fact the human body can only absorb a finite amount of vitimin C before excreting it out, and excessive amounts give you diarrhoea, means it’s not the best advice, ta.

And don’t get me started on amber necklaces helping with teething. This whole ‘Baltic Amber contains up to 8% succinite, an anti-inflammatory and analgesic that will be absorbed into the baby’s skin to ease pain, cut drooling, and stimulate the thyroid’ is pseudoscientific claptrap. You show me a substance that is strong enough to exist for millions of years at excessive temperature and pressure, yet is weak enough to leak out when brought to a baby’s body temperature. I’d respect them more if they went right ahead and said, ‘It works by magic,’ or even, ‘We don’t know why it works, but it does,’ than duping people into thinking there’s a scientific basis for this. And since the same people who advocate amber necklaces also disparage modern medicine as ‘dangerous’, aren’t they worried that they have no control over the dose of succinite their baby receives?

I’ll end by paraphrasing GK Chesterton: it’s good to have an open mind, but don’t open it so much that your brain falls out!