The recent rain has ensured the last sniffles of hayfever have subsided. It has been a bad few days and the antihistamines may have made things a little more comfortable – but it is the natural cure of a downpour that has really done the trick.
I know that many people have been suffering over the past week. The pollen levels must have been particularly high. And, helpful as ever, the Daily Mail offered its readers, “30 ways to relieve hayfever: From pills to nasal prongs, our guide to beating pollen”.
The article is a pretty good example of everything that is wrong with health journalism. Whilst, no doubt, amongst these thirty tips there is some good and reliable advice, it is also so full of unchecked quackery, nonsense and falsehood that it renders the whole article as unreliable and useless. It serves only as an advertisement for the suppliers of the products, pills and potions mentioned.
One product caught my attention, and it faced some stiff competition from the qu chi bands and ear candles. Magnetic Therapy Ltd, a Manchester based company, is selling something called the ‘Magnetic Water Wand’. The Mail explains,
The manufacturer claims that magnets are a powerful healing force and by placing the stainless steel wand with magnetic ball into a glass of water or any cold drink the ionising of the liquid can be healing, reducing the sufferer’s reaction to pollen.
A magnetic ball that ionizes water! The idea is simply preposterous. To ionize water would require extremely high energies. That a fridge magnetic could achieve ionisation in a glass of water is just not conceivable. If this were possible then patients in an NMR scanner face Star Trek like vaporization. For the water to become and remain ionised, through the effects of a cheap magnet, and then help your hayfever somehow, is just plain wishful thinking.
The web site of Magnetic Therapy Ltd offers little extra insight.
The unique innovation is that the magnetic WATER WAND is placed directly in the water or cold drink which means that it only then takes about 10 minutes to activate (ionize) the water.
So, basically, it is a magnet on a stick that you put in a glass of water. One can only marvel at the design engineering involved,
This newly designed Water Wand is manufactured in Stainless Steel and has a superb finish to it. With care this will last for many years. The Water Wand is Bi-Polar in effect. LOW COST MAGNETIC WATER FOR YEARS
As one wag on twitter put it, “I wasn’t going to buy one, then I saw it was made from ‘luxurious stainless steel’.”
The company offers no evidence for its claims beyond a few testimonials. Your magnet on a stick can be yours for the discounted price of only £14.95.
We are given some more insight by Dublin based chakra balancer, Rosemary Skinner SRN,
Most people now believe that the correct use of magnets can help eliminate symptoms and assist recovery from both sickness and injury.
You know. She may just be right.
Skinner goes on,
What of Magnetised water [?] Magnetised water has been used successfully since ancient times. However with the advent of modern magnets such as the neodymium magnets there has been renewed interest. Before we venture in to the area of manufacturing and using the water we have to ask one question. Does it work ?
That is a question that people have tried to answer since the first charlatans started to appear with their magnets and claims of cures. Whilst magnetic sticks have no scientific integrity, or even dare I say, ethical integrity, magnets as cures have a long historical integrity.
The Magnetisers and their tricks were documented by Charles Mackay in his 1852 book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. What is quite remarkable about this book is just how modern it is. As well as highlighting the folly of believers in magnetic healing trinkets, Mackay also looks at other similarly familiar delusions and modern obsessions such as stock market bubbles, witch hunts, serial killers and horoscopes. As the modern introduction states, “human folly changes only in detail and not in scale.” (You can buy the book here.)
Mackay explores the origins of magnetic healing fantasies. The first prominent proponent was the Swiss physician, Paracelsus, who promoted mixing magnetic stone with ground up mummy. The mixture should be sowed with some seeds of a plant associated with the disease (by the law of similars) and the growing plant will draw the disease out.
One fantastic proponent was Sir Kenelm Digby, son of an executed gunpowder plotter and inventor of the modern wine bottle. (I am not making this stuff up.) Digby was a big believer in the Powder of Sympathy – a ‘weaponsalve’ that could cure injury by being applied to the sword that caused the wound. Yes, rub the magic potion on the weapon and the wound would heal. In one extreme, magnetising the sword by simply rubbing it away from you could have the same effect. Rubbing the opposite way, and inducing the opposite magnetism would do harm and make you scream. So confident was Digby in this sympathetic magic that he allegedly proposed in 1687 that it could be used to solve the longitude problem. By taking a wounded dog aboard a ship and removing its bandages before setting sail, a timekeeper at the port would dip the bandage in the powder and cause the dog to yelp. Thus, sailors could know when midday was occurring at their home port and so be able to work out their local time and, hence, their longitude.
The most famous early proponent of magnetic healing was Anton Mesmer who believed disease was caused by a “maldistribution” of magnetic fluids about the body. Mesmer would magnetise water by immersing magnets and iron filings in jars of water and then spraying patients with the mixture. He used magnetic wands to touch people and they were convinced they were cured and sometimes even became hysterical over the experience. Mesmer invented the term ‘animal magnetism’ to describe the vital fluids surrounding living things that he was influencing with his wands and water.
Mesmer created something of a devoted following in France, not least Marie Antoinette, moving her husband Louis XVI to set up several Royal commissions into looking at the evidence for magnetic healing. The commissions consisted of some of the greatest men of their time: the chemist Antoine Lavoisier and the United States Ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, were among the team chosen to test the claims magnetic healing. A certain Dr Joseph Guillotin also joined in the fun – a man more famous for his invention that would end the life of several prominent members of this commission.
The final report was written by the Astronomer Jean Sylvain Bailly who became the first mayor of Paris after the revolution and restored French citizenship to Jews and gave them full rights and removed special taxes on them. The commission set up various tests to examine if the results of mesmerism were indeed due to strange magnetic influences, or whether the participants were just imagining it all.
One of Mesmer’s main disciples, Charles Delson was asked to magnetise a tree to see if it could influence a patient. Given a choice of five trees, an enraptured patient chose to faint at the foot of one of the non-magnetised.Using several such tests, consisting of sham treatments and deliberate subject blinding, Franklin, Guillotin, Lavoisier, Bailly et al. set the foundations of the modern clinical trial and concluded that the effects of magnetism were due to the natural course of illness or the patients’ imagination. Magnetic Healing was an inert treatment – a placebo.
Bailly concluded that “imagination without magnetism produces convulsions … magnetism without imagination produces nothing … The experiments are consistent and are also decisive, they allow to conclude that imagination is the real cause of effects attributed to magnetism”.
Franklin added “on things we cannot see or feel it is important to guard against the extravagances of imagination”.
And yet, over two hundred years later, we still have hundreds of people like Magnetic Healing ltd making a living from delusional beliefs about magnets.
There is one interesting postscript to this story. One of the commissioners refused to sign the report. Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu complained that ‘the physical influence of man on man must be admitted’. Jussieu was saying that it did not matter if it was just imagination, if an influence was taking place that induced a cure then we should not cast aside the therapy. The mesmerist Delson also wrote, “if the medicine of imagination is the best, why would we not use the medicine of imagination?”
We see here again a very common and modern response to enthusiasts being told that their favourite superstitious medicine is a mere placebo. Confusions about the nature of placebos are ubiquitous. Supporters cannot let go of the idea that the treatment actually works and so are (often) happy to embrace that the effects are due to some amazing mind-body interaction. However, the Franklin Commission was clear here. The reported benefits are the consequence of the beliefs of the participants and the natural course of illness, and not the result of the actions of the treatment. There is nothing to suggest that the course of illness has actually been diverted by the placebo. People may report improvements, but, as the commission might say, it is ‘hysterical’ and illusory.
Yesterday, in the Guardian, we saw Ed Halliwell, a “journalist and author who writes about health, psychology and Buddhism”, make exactly the same mistake as Jussieu and Delson. His article, “Let’s be honest about the placebo”, states that the placebo is the “healing ability of our own minds” and that “we might do better to more actively harness placebo”. The mistake is to assume that placebo treatments can trigger some “healing ability” within us rather than, more likely, to alter our beliefs, for good or bad, about our state of health, the treatment and our illnesses. To “actively harness placebo” is not to enhance some incredible healing power, but to deliberately misrepresent treatments and lie to patients in the hope for the best.
The ethical dilemmas of ‘harnessing placebos’ were thoroughly explored in the recent House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Evidence Check into Homeopathy. As it is beyond doubt that homeopathic treatments are inert and have no specific effects, then prescribing them risks “damaging the trust that exists between [doctors] and their patients.” Treating with placebos makes ‘patient choice meaningless’ as it involves an act of deception.
My prediction is that the Government in their reply to this report will invoke a Jussieu and Delson response by saying that despite the evidence, that if people say they are being made better by homeopathy, then the government should not get in the way of keeping homeopathy as a ‘choice’. If placebos ‘work’, why not? This is despite the report making it quite clear why this is a nonsensical and unethical stance,
We would expect the Government to have a proper understanding of the power and complexities of the placebo effect and the ethical issues surrounding its use in a clinical setting; otherwise it cannot hope to make good decisions relating to patients and public
Indeed, the chief parliamentary promoter of pseudo-medicine in the NHS, David Tredinnick, has recently urged the government to ignore the report by saying, “Whatever the science says-whether it is proven or not-those people believe that homeopathy works, and that is important”
Two hundred years after Louis XV1 and his Commissions into Magnetic Cures, as a society, we still do not understand the nature of superstitious medicine and its capacity to mislead. I would guess that in another hundred years time, we will still be seeing magnetic healing quackery being sold profitably to enthusiastic customers. And governments unable to grasp the issues.