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!

My Psychokinetic Child

The oddest thing I’ve ever experienced happened this afternoon. I’ve spent my life hoping to encounter something supernatural that I couldn’t dismiss out of hand as the result of some highly improbable yet entirely possible set of circumstances, and I very nearly got it today thanks to my psychokinetic child.

The facts of the matter are these: My mother-in-law treated us to pizza for lunch. Lizzie, my wife, drank a glass of Coke during the meal. While we were waiting for the bill, my daughter leaned over and lightly touched the empty glass with her fingertip. And the glass literally exploded.

This is one of the few occasions in which the word ‘literally’ is used accurately, because we’re not talking a slight cracking here, no; we are talking about an incredibly loud bang that shattered the glass and sent a thousand razor-sharp fragments flying in every direction across a circle with a diameter of six feet, one of which cut open my mother-in-law’s finger, but luckily left the rest of us untouched. Bewildered, confused and a little bit apprehensive, but unharmed nonetheless.

It didn’t sound or behave like a glass on a table top falling over and breaking, and nor did it sound or behave like a glass being knocked off a table to smash on the floor. Instead, it sounded and behaved like a glass being dropped onto a table from the ceiling. Every conversation in the restaurant instantly died as fifty diners turned as one to work out what could have caused such a violent breakage. A waitress who saw it happen was shocked and seemed wary of approaching the table, casting sideways glances at my daughter as she helped us clear up.

My first thought was that somebody had shot the glass, such was the energy of the explosion. My second thought was that my child has psychokinetic powers and released a burst of energy that shattered the glass. As I said, it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced.

Alas, being something of a sceptical rationalist, a saner head started to prevail. The glass had contained ice, which caused it to contract; as the restaurant was on the quayside at Portsmouth, the sun reflecting off the sea and pouring in through the window caused the glass to expand; and the resulting tension between these two opposing thermal forces created a wellspring of potential energy awaiting the tiniest impetus to release. When my daughter touched the glass with her fingertip she exerted just enough physical stress to trigger all the pent-up tension, which caused the glass to explode. Nothing supernatural or special. Unusual, granted, but not beyond the realms of scientific possibility.

Damn it.

So I won’t have to check my daughter’s scalp for a suggestive birthmark when I give her a bath this evening.

Unless it happens again, of course…

MMR and Autism

I’ll lay out my position right at the start so those who have already made up their minds to the contrary are prepared for my vitriol: MMR does not cause autism. The MMR/autism link has no basis in reality. As an autistic father of a neurotypical child who has her MMR tomorrow, I am sick to death of people telling me that vaccinations cause autism, and I will therefore be disparaging towards the anti-vax movement and, by extension, anti-vaxxers as a whole. You have been warned.

There. Now we can get started.

To the average man on the street, the letters MMR and the word autism have been inextricably linked since the early noughties. The media had a field day whipping up a national health scare, frightening parents and misreporting the facts. As a result of this, there seems to be a general undercurrent of feeling that MMR might cause autism, that scientists don’t really know the answer, and that the jury is still out on whether it’s safe or not.

Not true. The jury is in. The jury has been in for years. But news stories about all the studies published in the past decade showing how MMR doesn’t cause autism are far less newsworthy than sobbing, guilt-ridden parents with shattered lives bewailing the fact that a vaccination might have damaged their baby. Thus the one highly questionable, discredited and fraudulent study suggesting a link between MMR and autism has received massive amounts of media coverage, and the rest have received pretty much none at all. And that makes the press equally culpable in the propagation of the anti-MMR scam.

The fact is, the jury should never have been out in the first place as there has never been any evidence to suggest MMR causes autism beyond gut feelings and anecdotes. The thing is, I understand the parents jumping on the anti-vaccination band wagon. To discover your child has autism is obviously a big thing, and when life deals you a random blow, it’s human nature to look around for someone or something to blame. Thanks to a man named Andrew Wakefield, the object of blame became the vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella.

‘Who is Andrew Wakefield?’ I hear you cry. It might surprise you to learn that he was the lead author of the paper published in the Lancet in 1998 suggesting the link between MMR and autism. Surprising, because perhaps you thought there were numerous studies and a body of evidence that pointed towards this link, rather than one solitary paper based on a test group of a whopping twelve subjects. One paper describing twelve autistic children, eight of whose parents blamed MMR for their autism, provoked a total of 1257 news articles in 2002 alone. That’s like responding to the neighbour’s kid throwing a snowball at you with a full nuclear strike.

Now, I don’t need to tell the intelligent reader that a sample of twelve children is ridiculously small to extrapolate a global theory of cause and effect. Nor do I need to point out that one study, the results of which were never repeated and which were outright contradicted by various meta-analyses of massive data sets, should be described as ‘unreliable’ at best. What I do feel I ought to point out is that not only was Wakefield’s study an anomaly, it was also found to be fraudulent.

There are two key facts you need to know about Andrew Wakefield that might help you judge the efficacy of his work. Firstly, he was paid £435,643 by trial lawyers who wanted evidence to suggest MMR was unsafe, with payments starting a full two years prior to his paper being published. Secondly, he applied for patents for his own vaccine to rival MMR. Therefore, he was paid lots of money to try and prove MMR caused autism, and if he succeeded, he would make tens of millions from his own vaccine. This is what we call a ‘conflict of interest’, something he hid from the Lancet, who said that, had they known, they would never have published the paper.

What’s worse, it was discovered that many of the results in the paper had been manipulated. Diagnoses were adjusted and dates were moved in order to strengthen its conclusions that autistic symptoms started directly after the children received the MMR jab. Furthermore, the parents of eight of the twelve children in the study were already seeking compensation for MMR damaging their children before the study took place. Indeed, they were represented by the same lawyers who paid Wakefield to prove MMR was unsafe. Thus the selection of subjects for the study was far from random. That’s before we mention that Wakefield formed a partnership with one of these parents to market autism tester kits on the back of an MMR scare to rake in a predicted $43 million a year. To say the conclusions of this paper were ‘unreliable’ is an understatement.

Long story short, the General Medical Council said Wakefield had acted dishonestly and irresponsibly, and that his study was improperly conducted. He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct on four counts of dishonesty and was struck off the medical register. The Lancet then fully retracted the paper. Case closed.

Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The damage was done. In people’s minds, MMR might cause autism, and so rates of vaccination fell. According to the Psychiatric Times, as a result of Wakefield’s paper the number of cases of measles in the UK rose from 56 in 1998 to 1348 in 2008, with two deaths. Similarly mumps, very rare before 1999, was up to 5000 cases in January of 2005 alone. The MMR scare therefore caused some very real consequences for thousands of families.

I don’t want to ram the evidence down your throat since it’s ridiculously easy to Google any number of studies rejecting the link between MMR and autism, so I’ll just mention two. A study in Denmark including all children born between January 1991 and December 1998, covering 440,655 children vaccinated with MMR and 96,648 unvaccinated found no difference in the rates of autism or autism spectrum disorders between them. Likewise, a 2012 meta-analysis by the Cochrane Library covered 14,700,000 children and found no causal link between MMR and autism. Which is much more conclusive than a study carried out on a sample of twelve.

Yet despite this evidence, anti-vaxxers still maintain a link between vaccination and autism. They claim that rates of autism are increasing and that their child’s or their friend’s child’s symptoms started around the time of the MMR jab. There must be a link, right?

It’s true that rates of autism are increasing, but not because of an increase in the actual incidence of autism – rather, better screening methods and increased public awareness of autism mean more people are being diagnosed with it. And autistic symptoms often kick in around twelve months – right at the time they have the MMR jabs. As I said before, it’s understandable that parents of autistic children might want to blame something for their child’s condition, however inaccurate that might be.

What I find wholly unacceptable, however, is for celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Charlie Sheen , Billy Corgan, Robert De Niro and Donald Trump to repeatedly preach about the dangers of vaccination, ignoring any and all scientific evidence to promote scare stories and misinformation, which has led to epidemic levels of measles and mumps. Why people would choose to listen to a Playboy model, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a drug addict, a Smashing Pumpkin, a man who strapped a boob to his chestand an orange-skinned capitalist who makes sexually suggestive comments about his own daughter, rather than doctors, scientists and the National Autistic Society, is beyond me. In regards to their views on vaccination, these people are more similar to Boko Haram and the Taliban than they realise.

Now, in order to provide balance, I have to point out that no medical intervention is 100% safe. Around 1 in 5000 children who have MMR will suffer febrile seizures, while 1 in 40,000 will develop immune thrombocytopenic purpura and 1 in a million will contract meningitis. However, if you compare this to rates of complications from measles, mumps and rubella – 1 in 1000 with measles will get meningitis and 1 in 5000 will die, while 1 in 40,000 with mumps loses their hearing and 1 in 10,000 will die – then MMR is much safer than the alternative.

I have no qualms or doubts about having my daughter vaccinated. If you’re undecided, that’s okay. All parents have the right to choose what is best for their child. Do some research, weigh up the benefits and the risks. But make sure you choose with your head, not your media-induced irrational fear of giving your child autism. Because MMR does not cause autism.

And don’t get me started on ‘Why can’t we have them as three separate vaccinations?’…