Three Quack Stories and Santa’s Quantum Sack

The December issue of the nation’s most dangerous quack magazine, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, is hitting the magazine shelves of your local supermarket and newsagent now.

The greatest merit of the magazine is that it serves as a condensed example of all the ways alternative health reporting seeks to mislead you and drive you away from your doctor and into the clutches of your friendly herbalist, vitamin salesman and homeopath. It uses a few basic tricks to do this: quote research and figures out of context; examine only one (unlikely) interpretation of research; ignore completely conflicting research; assume the only alternative to imperfect mainstream medicine is alternative medicine; uncritically promote all forms of quackery (which then advertise in the magazine.)

Just about every story and advert in this magazine is problematic. It would take a month just to highlight the most gross errors and distortions in each issue. So for the sake of time and sanity, let’s just look at two stories and advert in the current edition.

Page 10 warns us that being X-rayed is not as safe as you are led to believe. “There’s no such thing as a safe X-ray.”

Doctors have assumed that standard X-ray technology, including CT (computed
tomography) and angiography, are safe because they involve very low levels of
radiation. As a result, they are regularly used for routine screening and scans and when patients are recovering from a health

This is simply not true. Doctors know that there are health risks associated with x-rays and they are capable of inducing cancer. Very conservative safety assumptions are use to estimate how likely that risk is. Medically and legally, when giving X-rays, a doctor is required to ensure there is a medical justification for that exposure that will inform treatment with likely benefits that will outweigh the risks.

So how do WDDTY come to this conclusion?

They refer to research where people who have had heart attacks and subsequent X-rays go on to develop cancer. WDDTY tell us,

But they’re not safe at all, researchers from McGill University Health Centre in Montreal discovered when they tracked 82,861 heart patients who had been scheduled for at least one scan following a heart attack. Of these patients, 12,020—nearly 15 per cent of the total—went on to develop cancer, with two-thirds of these being cancers around the abdomen and chest areas where they had been screened.

The original paper  (Eisenberg et al 2011, Cancer risk related to low-dose ionizing radiation from cardiac imaging in patients after acute myocardial infarction) looked at Canadian patients who had had imaging scans of their hearts after a heart attack. It examined their patient records in order to determine how many scans they had received and hence were able to estimate their radiation doses. The study then looked at how many patients developed cancer over the following five years.

As the author’s themselves note, such a study will always have problems. At best, it will show a correlation between X-ray dose and cancer induction. One big problem from the start is that there may be a ‘confounder’; that is, a hidden cause that correlates with both your measurements. It is easy to think up confounders in this case. A person who has had a heart attack may have an unhealthy life-style and smoke, drink or have a bad diet. Such a lifestyle could also lead to cancer. The more ill a person, the more likely they are to receive more X-ray examinations and also the more likely they are to get a cancer. X-rays may have little or nothing to do with it.

But WDDTY warns us,

Of these patients, 12,020—nearly 15 per cent of the total—went on to develop cancer, with two-thirds of these being cancers around the abdomen and chest areas where they had been screened.

This statement makes it look like there were thousands of induced cancers as a result of the X-rays. But we should remember that this was not a controlled study – many thousands of these people will get cancer anyway. What is being looked for is a slight excess that correlates with dose. The observed extra risk was small.  There are many problems with interpreting these results. For one, it is not clear how a dose from a heart imaging X-ray could induce cancer in organs not exposed.

WDTTY make no attempt to explain the figures and put them in a context that would help people understand the risks from X-rays. The authors of the paper do a much better job when they say,

The potential increase in cancer-related death associated with exposure to radiation from cardiac imaging and therapeutic procedures has to be weighed against the potential risk of death from cardiovascular diseases for which these procedures are indicated and the resulting decrease in mortality expected with their use.

That is, if there is an extra risk, then this risk may be acceptable given that the information from the X-ray could help save your life from a heart attack. Yes, there are important things that come out of such studies such as the need to ensure we are not using X-rays when they are not medically required. The authors note that the study was done in Canada. In the USA, diagnostic imaging may be much more prevalent  for reasons associated with their health care culture and not medical need.

In short, we have an article that does nothing to inform readers, is likely to mislead, and avoids important aspects of how a patient might understand the risks and benefits of diagnostic imaging.

Next, the editor of WDDTY, Lynne McTaggart, tell us that “Neutral Switzerland is partial to homeopathy”.

Taken directly from the HuffPo Dana Ullman book of idiocy, Lynne tells us that,

While the British government has been busily attempting to curtail the use of homeopathy (to date unsuccessfully), the most comprehensive  assessment ever conducted by any governmental body into homeopathy has concluded that not only does it work, but it’s also far more cost-effective than conventional medicine. In fact, it works so well that patients should be reimbursed for it on the Swiss National Health.

Everything in that statement is wrong.

The UK government had stated they are neutral about homeopathy and are letting NHS commissioners decide whether it should be paid for. As a result, the number of homeopathy prescriptions made on the NHS has collapsed. In contrast, the Swiss government has not remained neutral on the issue, as we shall see.

The report was not the most comprehensive study of homeopathy conducted by any government body. Firstly, the Swiss government did not write the report. A group of Anthroposophists wrote it. They work at the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany, a private university set up to promote the  occult medical teachings of Rudolf Steiner. They train homeopathic doctors and so would benefit immensely from German speaking public support of homeopathy. They submitted the report in the hope that it would influence policy. One researcher has published a review that calls this report “a case study of research misconduct“.

The Swiss government was not accepting of the findings of the report.

The positive interpretation of the current evidence seems understandable, as long as one does not require especially high evidence standards, given the low plausibility of homeopathy in the light of established scientific knowledge. Very skeptical people will regard the reviewed evidence as not very convincing.

Specifically on cost-effectiveness the reviewing panel said,

Due to insufficient data, no reliable statements on the cost-effectiveness of the 5 complementary therapies are possible based on the HTAs.

The Swiss government, after reviewing these reports and taking into account a referendum agreed to continue funding homeopathy only until 2017 with the expectation that these therapies will comply with demands for evidence of efficacy, appropriateness and cost-effectiveness by end of 2015.

What Doctors Don’t Tell You don’t tell you this.

Finally, lets look at an advert.

I would love to examine the full page advert of Glastonbury quantum flapdoodle company Harmony United that asks, “What has Santa got for you in his Quantum Sack?” The answer, it would appear, is a quantum pendant that can cure of all known illneses, treat your pets and your car.

The Realm of unlimited Possibilities obviously includes being able to sell worthless tat at inflated prices in a magazine that claims to be a health champion.

But instead, let’s look at how Stetzer is going to save you from the menace of dirty electricity.

This company claim to provide you with mains filters at £55 (minimum three per order) that will rid you of something called ‘Dirty Electricity’. It can treat ADHD, diabetes, fibromyalgia, ME, MS and tinnitus.

Those are some claims.

It also claims to save 30% on your electricity bills.

Their web site goes on.

Obviously their pack of 3 filters at £165 is a minimum required if you want to have any hope of sleeping well. “During the development of the filters and the following medical research it was shown that having too few filters is a false economy.” They advertise a ten pack so you can better live a life free from the menace of dirty electricity. They recommend up to 15 for most households.

They tell people with diabetes that

Research has shown that diabetics can need lower doses of insulin when electropollution is reduced, so be prepared to monitor glucose levels especially carefully.

So, after misrepresenting life-saving diagnostic techniques, misleading about the Swiss government’s views on homeopathy, WDDTY are now prepared to take advertising revenue from someone selling cheap mains filters at vastly overinflated prices to protect against a problem that does not exist whilst giving dangerous advice to people with life-threatening illnesses.

Very good work.

I understand the Advertising Standards Authority are in receipt of a challenge to the advert and its ability to comply with advertising codes of substantiation, responsibility and truthfulness.

In the meantime, here is Chris Morris and his hard hidden news item on the danger of the related problem, Heavy Electricity.

15 Comments on Three Quack Stories and Santa’s Quantum Sack

  1. “Maddox award for standing up for science: Haters gonna hate.”

    Andy Lewis recently tweeted this on the subject of patient advocacy of myalgic encephalomyelitis (and Melanie endorsed it) .  The tweet thread referred to one ‘noodlemaz”s blog, where the awarding of the Maddox prize to controversial ME researcher Simon Wessely, for ‘for Standing up for Science’,  had been discussed.

    The blog contains dozens of entries, almost entirely from patients or advocates decrying the award of this prize to Wessely (the awarding of which noodlemaz defends, instead boasting of the record number of entries to her blog the controversy has generated). These are the people Lewis is calling ‘haters’. 

    One story, of a young woman called Sophia Wilson , described by her mother, is particularly poignant (she lived, and died at just 22 from the disease, just up the road from me in Eastleigh). She apparently developed her symptoms after returning from a trip to Africa. Her physical condition soon deteriorated but her GP diagnosed her as suffering from a psychological illness. Over time, as her condition deteriorated, her mother, who resisted the diagnosis,  was judged unfit to look after her daughter. The resistance from the mother eventually caused her daughter to be forcibly removed to a locked room in mental hospital. The mother took the case to tribunal and got her daughter released two weeks later. After this the young woman’s health deteriorated further and within three years she was dead. As the mother says:

    “On Friday 25th she died.  I did not cry.  I gave thanks that I had been able to keep my word that she would never be locked-up in a mental hospital again.  All my grieving had been done during the previous 6 years and especially during the last 9 weeks, when I used to walk the streets with tears streaming down my face, knowing that there was nothing that I could do to help or comfort Sophia.”

    This is the testimony of one of Lewis’ ‘haters’. As I’ve said, Lewis’, in his project,  is no force for medical justice, progress or compassion; rather it is his personal crusade, defined in opposition to his own inadequate conception of ‘science’. As for his self designation as a humanist – the lack of humanity, of compassion, in that tweet says all one needs to know about that.

    Rather than supporting Lewis’ self conception of a defender of freedom,  I perceive him as an enemy of freedom, someone who wishes to restrict people’s right to have the kind of medical care they wish. His tightening campaign of censorship against dissent on his blog (only two paragraphs are allowed, at his discretion, to some commenters) confirms that his project is directed at increasing *his* kind of freedom, with little concern for the wider concept.

  2. My ‘attack’ on you is actually an attack on your position – surely if you dish it, you can take it? And it’s a little more complex than that, Andy, as I’d hope you’d know after labelling *all* advocates ‘haters’ in your tweet. If Simon Wessely does get harassment and threats that is unfortunate and wrong, as the posters on noodlemaz’s blog almost uniformly agree. Furthermore, it seem likely that Wessely is playing to the gallery to a degree with at least some of these claims – I’ve spent no great time researching this but see e.g. for a counter-view to your article, which I notice does lump ‘freedom of information requests’ and ‘complaints to university ethics committees’ under it’s title of ‘researchers face death threats from militants’, just as my reference notes:

    “Legitimate actions are cynically juxtaposed with alleged acts of criminal harassment to construct non- criminal parties as harassers”

    Finally, you misrepresent Wessely’s position. This is a complex issue, which if you were really interested in unmasking poor thinking you would have spent time investigating before calling advocates and the patents suffering from the illness ‘haters’. Briefly, the problem is that Wessely accepts that there may be physical triggers to ME but that the aetiology from then is mainly psychological – it is not merely a case of ‘ see[ing] if psychological treatments may help’, which none of the posters on that blog would have objected to. As the leading figure in ME research for a decade his position on the issue has, for instance, driven the allocation of research funds predominantly into psychological interventions. This general bias toward a psychological aetiology has created a culture where a patient’s *physical* condition may not get heard and can lead to tragic stories like that of the young woman in my post.

  3. So, the comments have started off on an attack on me and my alleged mockery of people with ME/CFS.

    It is important in the world of quackery that people who suggest elements of this illness might have a psychological component are attacked. The reason for this is simple. There is a huge industry of quacks who make a living selling nonsense to desperate people. The power filters I write about above are a classic example of how quacks need desperately to convince the people with ME/CFS that their illness has a physical origin and that their special widget and pills can cure them.

    It is utterly exploitative of these desperate people.

    What is astonishing is how a lobby has now grown up that is violent and brutal in its attacks on people who question the nature of these illnesses. Researchers are sent death threats. Above, Ted tenuously tries to link me to this stance and then attacks me. It is astonishing.

    And the people who suffer are those who still have illnesses that are unexplained. The terrible possibility is though that if psychological treatments can help these people then this lobby is doing them a terrible harm.

  4. During the 60s I worked for the then Post Office Engineering dept and was involved in reporting of both telephone faults and radio interference. The high number of people who believed that they were either being bombarded by radio waves or were being subjected to electricity leaking from power sockets always surprised me. It was usually fruitless to tell them they were deluded, they then, usually, saw me as part of the problem and it just reinforced their conspiracy theories.
    These people are ripe for exploitation by cynical companies like Stetzer. Also I am pretty sure that the claim to reduce power consumption by anything let alone 30% is fraudulent.

  5. Ahhh, psychology… the last medically acceptable refuge of pseudoscience. You just can’t beat the idea of claiming any disease not thoroughly understood on a laboratory standardised form MUST be self-induced via psychological means. “Tell me how you feel about this sudden muscular wasting and loss of sensation you’ve been experiencing…” You GO – Andy Lewis! 😉 [purely meant tongue in cheek… or is it?] nb; most people reporting with symptoms of Lyme Disease in Canada are routinely diverted to expensive and unproven psychological interventions rather than sending samples off to laboratories capable of performing the testing at a relatively minimal cost. Lest we forget – this was also the bog-standard approach to early suggestions of a viral cause to AIDS and anyone reporting such symptoms was directed to seek psychological help.

    Although I may strongly question the reality of ME/CFS, I feel it warrants further research to define the mechanism – long before I would suggest anyone submit to the pseudoscience of psychological intervention to remedy their obvious poor health.

    On a more technical note… that dirty electricity will get ya every time! Apparently everybody should live within an envelope of Faraday Cage’s throughout our lives. *eyesrolling*

    Thanks for presenting/revealing such literary silliness as WDDTY for the money-pilfering misinformation rags they truly are.

    • No one claims that “any disease not thoroughly understood on a laboratory standardised form MUST be self-induced via psychological means”. People do claim that many of the symptoms and experiences of such people may have a psychological component. There is nothing controversial about that or pseudoscientific. Indeed, I would go so far to say as that it is actually a compassionate view.

      Many physical causes are put forward for ME/CFS/Lyme/Electrosensitivity. It would appear to be a characteristic in many cases that people cling stubbornly to beliefs about the causes of their ailments when there is no good evidence for this to be true, and even when there is significant counter-evidence. We do these people no good by reinforcing what may be delusion. Their illnesses and experiences are real. Their interpretations may well be very faulty. But their interpretations of their illness lead them into the hands of quacks. That is why it is worth standing up for the science and why Wessely is thoroughly deserving of the award.

  6. YOU SHOULD BE SCARED OF DIRTY ELECTRIX AND HEAVY ELECTRIX. It is made fom heavy water and is also radiationed!!!!!!

    National Treasure Richard Briers would not lie about this stuff. My gran never unplugged her things in case DIRTY ELECTRIX leaked out. She left her radiogram unplugged ONCE and got poisoned by dirty electricity when the molecules leaked out of the plug hole. Four years later she died on the toilet. TRUE STORY !!!!

    I am going to clean all my plug holes out with soapy water and a wire brush.

  7. Interesting review from J Clin Pathol. 2007 May; 60(5): 466–471 that relate the nebulous nature of ME/CFS:

    “Myalgic encephalomyelitis: a review with emphasis on key findings in biomedical research” by M Hooper


    “This review examines research findings in patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis in light of the current debate about this chronic multiple‐symptom, multiorgan, multisystem illness and the conflicting views in medicine. These issues cannot be separated from the political opinions and assertions that conflict with science and medicine, and will be part of this review as they have enormous consequences for scientific and medical research, patients, clinicians, carers and policy makers.”

  8. thanks Andy Lewis for pointing out that my interpretation of my illness may be y faulty and this makes me vulnerable to quacks .With this information i can now avoid CBT and GET and the lightning process all psychological quack cures which do not cure

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