Science & Pseudoscience Review in Mental Health

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Archives of Xenomedicine Medical Misconceptions and Deceptions

Author:

Tim Gorski, M.D.
Council Against Health Fraud

"What does it matter if the healer is able to tell left from right?"
-- Louis Sportelli DC, Dynamic Chiropractor May 4, 1998, page 35

PRESIDENT'S COMMISSION LOADED WITH QUACKS

Earlier this year, President Clinton announced the creation of a White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. It was stated then that the group "shall provide a report, through the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to the President on legislative and administrative recommendations for assuring that public policy maximizes the benefits to Americans of complementary and alternative medicine." Mr. Clinton has now announced the names of 11 members of that commission and his intention to appoint two others. None of the appointees are known as having expressed any criticism of "alternative medicine." Most are enthusiastic promoters and practitioners.

These include:

James S. Gordon, MD, the commission's chairman, is a Georgetown University psychiatrist who, after discovering in traditional Chinese medicine what he calls "a whole other system of medicine operating under completely different laws" in the 1960s, became a true believer in "alternative medicine." Then, while receiving his training in psychiatry, Gordon says, he has decided that schizophrenia and other disorders "did not seem like diseases to me … [but] instead like different ways of being." He is also a sometime follower of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and is now mixed up with Jungian mysticism, which preaches the reality of various "psychic" experiences. He has written about UFO visitations and, like his Harvard colleague John Mack, who he has defended in print, practices "alien abduction" therapy. Inexplicably, Gordon also involved himself in the Oklahoma bombing trial of Terry Nichols, where he testified that Nichols should not receive a long prison term! He is a fellow of the Fetzer Institute, which funded the dishonest 1993 report by David Eisenberg and others that claimed that a third of Americans were using "alternative" methods. One of his many books, Manifesto For A New Medicine, is in the genre of others that predict the transformation of medical care along new age lines.

Wayne Jonas, MD, is a homeopath and former director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine which Congress created in response to industry lobbying. Jonas has repeatedly demonstrated hostility towards any and all criticism of "alternative medicine."

George DeVries runs at least three different companies. American Specialty Health and Wellness sells supplements over the Internet. American Specialty Health Plans and American Specialty Networks "provide chiropractic and acupuncture managed-care services." One can only guess what sort of guidelines are used in such an improbable undertaking. As might be expected, his chief mission in life seems to be getting employers and insurance companies, as well as ordinary people, to pay for unproven methods. His next target would seem to be taxpayers.

Sister Charlotte Rose Kerr is an acupuncturist, who is said to "integrate" theology into her methods.

Tieraona Low Dog, MD, practices "herbal medicine" in New Mexico when she's not lecturing physicians and medical students on the benefits of herbs, which seems to be a great deal of the time. Even the TMA has hired her to speak.

Dean Ornish, MD, is well known and respected for his diet recommendations for preventing athersclerosis. He would appear to be the nearest thing to a level head on the commisssion. On the other hand, he also has recklessly claimed to be able to prevent breast cancer by dietary methods.

Thomas Chappell is the CEO of a supplement company in Maine. He and his company are also said to be involved in the "animal rights" movement.

Effie Poy Yew Chow is an acupuncturist and "Qigong Grandmaster." "Qi," of course, is the traditional Chinese counterpart to psychic "life energy," the "flow" of which is said to be modified by acupuncture.

The other appointees consist of three obscure physician-dabblers in unscientific methods, a medical ethicist, a health administrator for an Indian group, and a former official of the Children's Defense Fund, which just happens to be Hillary Rodham Clinton's favorite charity. How these particular people were nominated or chosen for this commission is uncertain, but it is certainly consistent with the secrecy and exclusivity of government support of "alternative medicine." Clearly, the composition of this commission is not conducive to providing sound advice to the President concerning questionable and unproven claims and those who make them. Almost certainly, it is not intended to be.

UTMB TRAINING NURSES IN QUACKERY

Many nursing schools, including those in Texas, have been incorporating the absurd and discredited "therapeutic touch" methods of Dolores Krieger and her followers. But other forms of quackery have been inroads into schools of nursing just as they have in schools of medicine. The University of Texas Medical Branch, for example, offers nurses-in-training a deceptively named course entitled "Critical Analysis of Research in Alternative and Complementary Health Care." The description for this course, as well as for another, states that students are expected to develop "skills … to apply in their clinical practice," which include "Herbal medicine: 8-10 common herbs" and "Homeopathy: 8-10 formulas for common conditions."

The latter is particularly curious in that the essence of classical homeopathy is that treatment is selected on a highly individualized basis from among a large number of possible remedies to suit the exact symptoms and temperaments of patients. It is not the reflexive use of a handful of "formulas for common conditions." It goes without saying, of course, that there is no research data to support these clinical practice objectives. Even if there were, the idea of nurses independently prescribing herbs and supplements is problematic, to say the least.

ANIMAL PRODUCTS IN "HERBS"

Chevy Chase, Md. physician Scott A. Norton, MD, noted in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine that many "dietary supplements" and "herbal" products actually contain offal of animal origin. "One nationally distributed product," he wrote, "lists as ingredients 17 bovine organs, including brain, spleen, lung, liver, pancreas, pituitary, pineal gland, adrenal glands, lymph node, placenta, prostate, heart, kidney, intestine, and thyroid." In other cases, terms like "orchis" or "thymus" obscure the true nature of the ingredients. Moreover, complained Dr. Norton, the Department of Agriculture's ban on the importation of materials that could contain the causative agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy--and which has been associated with a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans--does not apply to the ingredients of "nutritional supplements." Nor can the FDA, under current federal law, prohibit the sale of these products.

QUACK TALK FROM DR. WEIL

Among the hallmarks of quacks is that they attach a disproportionate and usually unreasonable amount of weight to their own personal experience and prejudices. Besides taking the form of promotion-by-testimonial, quacks often express indignation that anyone would dare question what they saw with their own eyes that they know cannot be explained in any other way. Often, it takes the form of the "Galileo ploy." This is when quacks claim to be misunderstood or persecuted geniuses who represent the future of medical science, while their critics are nothing but the remnants of a soon-to-be-outdated past.

The notorious Dr. Andrew Weil demonstrated this approach very well in his response posted on the Internet at pathfinder.com/drweil/qa_print/0,3008,1418,00.html to the cogent and well-documented critique of his work by Arnold Relman, MD, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus of The New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Relman's remarks were published as "A Trip To Stonesville," in The New Republic Dec. 14, 1998. Dr. Weil defended himself as follows:

"First, I would ask Dr. Relman please to strike the word 'anecdote' from his medical vocabulary. It is offensive and trivializes important information. If he wants to call the case reports I have published 'uncontrolled clinical observations,' I will not object. Scientific method starts with raw observation, proceeds to hypothesis and then to experiment."

Yet "anecdotes" are a form of observation. No one has ever disputed that. But Dr. Relman and other sensible physicians know that it is usually dangerous to attach much significance to anecdotal information. Dr. Weil continues:

"I have spent much of my professional life observing phenomena outside the world of conventional medicine that most physicians know little about: the effects of medicinal plants, the therapeutic systems of other cultures, healing responses in patients. Based on these observations I have presented a number of hypotheses that challenge the dominant medical paradigm."

This may be, but Dr. Weil has not distinguished himself as others have by systematizing, reporting or otherwise sharing scientific information about these "phenomena" with his colleagues. Nor has he presented scientific "hypotheses." Rather, he has and continues to make speculative claims, which he promotes in his books, newsletters and other popular media, that have little basis in fact beyond his own interpretations of the alleged "phenomena" he claims to have witnessed. He continues:

"Until very recently the research community has not responded to those challenges. That is, the people with funding, facilities and the inclination to conduct experimental research have not shown interest in studying botanical medicine, alternative medicine or healing."

Dr. Weil, it is to be noted, does not care to engage in the painstaking process of gathering and analyzing reliable information or designing and conducting medical research that could offer support for or undermine his ideas. He prefers the easy job of dreaming up "challenges" to others in the apparent belief that the real world of medical science is for lesser beings. And finally, from Dr. Weil:

"It is important to note that paradigm shifts, in medicine as in other fields, are not quiet affairs. They occasion much screaming and kicking. Dr. Relman would like to believe that the popularity of alternative medicine is a fad. In my view it is a fad the way the Renaissance was a fad, and I welcome the coming of the new era -- kicking, screaming and all."

Here is the Galileo ploy in all its glory, missing only a reference to the great astronomer and physicist! Of course, Galileo didn't just make speculative claims. Nor did he insist that it was the job of others to prove or disprove his claims. Rather, Galileo backed up his ideas with demonstrable facts. Time will tell which is truly the fad: science, which is to say Galileo's approach, or Dr. Weil's sinecure of "alternative medicine."

PROTEIN BREAKDOWN

Nutri-Health Products of Cottonwood, Ariz. is promoting Seacure® as a cure-all remedy for everything from inflammatory bowel disorders, arthritis, stasis ulcers, cancer, AIDS, migraines and multiple sclerosis. Yet the product is nothing more than an enzymatic hydrolysate of unspecified portions of fish.

According to the company's 12-page promotional mailing, which is printed to look like a health-related newsletter, virtually everyone needs to use this product regularly because of the supposed widespread prevalence in the U.S. of "protein malabsorption." Says Nutri-Health, "The problem is this: We eat lots of protein but it's NOT properly absorbed and we're suffering from head to toe!"

Donald G. Snyder, the CEO of the company said to manufacture Seacure®, is quoted as saying that "the key thing here is the quality of the protein and the pre-digested factor which make the supplement so utterly available to the body." Of course, like any other protein hydrolysate, this one does not consist simply of amino acids but includes many short-chain fragments. But even this is supposedly a miraculous benefit, because peptides "are involved in virtually all biochemical functions and are the true POWERHOUSES OF PROTEIN." The promotional materials go on to cite corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRF) and endorphins, both of which it alleges are unmitigated blessings to those subjected to stress.

Curiously, the company fails to mention that excessive CRF can be a cause of Cushing syndrome and that other peptides such as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) can induce infertility. Neither these nor other possible untoward effects should be of concern, though, since it is hardly to be expected that random fragments of fish protein will include CRF, endorphins, GnRH, or any other peptides that will have any kind of effect at all besides lightening the victim's wallet. Nevertheless the company claims, without any competent scientific basis or any credible evidence whatsoever, that Seacure® "restores proper function to the digestive tract as well as aids in wound healing, tissue repair, immune system response, hormone response and neurotransmitter function."

Hydrolysates of fish, casein, egg albumin or other protein sources undoubtedly have their place in specific clinical circumstances. But the idea that many or most Americans suffer from "protein malabsorption" is utter, fatuous nonsense.

In fact, there are far more people who consume too much protein and, indeed, too many calories of all kinds, than those who suffer from malabsorption. A bottle of 180 half-gram capsules of Seacure® costs $39.95 plus $4 shipping from Nutri-Health Products. But a whole gallon of Elmer's Glue-All® can be purchased for about $10 from the office supply store.