27 juillet 2008

A bad week for alternative medicine

On Monday, Radovan Karadzic was revealed to be working as a healer. On Tuesday, we learned that a woman suffered brain damage after a detox. Rose Shapiro explains how to spot a quack.

Could this be the moment when alternative medicine finally gets the reputation it deserves and is seen for what it is - a massive social and intellectual fraud? Everything that is wrong with complementary and alternative medicine is contained in the two stories that have dominated the news this week - the discovery that Radovan Karadzic had reinvented himself as a white-haired guru offering homeopathy, energy medicine and acupuncture, and the story of Dawn Page, a woman who is now brain-damaged after she went on a "detox diet". For alternative medicine is not only founded on lies and falsehoods, but it can be very bad indeed for your health.

This largely unregulated and unaccountable industry is worth an estimated pounds 4.5bn in the UK. It is used by one in three of us. There are more alternative practitioners than there are GPs in this country, reiki "healers" are employed by the NHS and every chemist has shelves stacked high with alternative remedies. Alternative medicine users - who are mostly middle-aged, middle-class women - are apparently prepared to suspend all normal critical faculties when they encounter an alternative practitioner, even one like Karadzic, who claimed to be able channel energy into his own head via his repulsive topknot.

You don't need to be able to speak Serbian to recognise Karadzic's website as a classic of the altmed internet genre. As well as listing the usual contradictory ragbag of therapies familiar from the windows of the high-street altmed clinic - homeopathy, acupuncture, aromatherapy, Ayurvedic medicine and the like - it is peppered with the universal language of what Americans call "Woo": wellbeing, harmony, bioenergy and, most revealingly, "quantum". There's the long list of ailments he claimed to be able to treat, everything from diabetes to sports injuries and asthma. There are the pendants that supposedly protect the wearer from negative energies and, disturbingly, phallic objects apparently employed to both diagnose and cure.

Under the name of Dragan David Dabic he gave lectures on meditation and yoga and was keen to promote himself in alternative health magazines and at conferences. As an alternative practitioner, he fitted right in.

There's no indication of his credentials, but then credentials in alternative medicine are pretty much worthless. Barbara Nash, the alternative practitioner who developed the "Amazing Hydration Diet" that allegedly ruined the life of Dawn Page, has a diploma from the College of Natural Nutrition, based in Tiverton, Devon. This college sees "human beings as part of nature's system within the enormity of the world and the universe" and its unaccredited correspondence courses cost more than pounds 1,000 a year.

But it's worthless because it is not necessary to stump up the fees, since in this country anyone can set themselves up as a "nutritional therapist" without any qualifications. If you want reliable dietary advice it is dietitians, not nutritional therapists, who are properly trained to provide it.

Page wanted to lose weight and claims that she was advised by Nash to drink four pints of water a day and to cut out salt from her diet. Nash denies any fault, and although she paid Page a settlement of pounds 810,000 last week, she did so without admission of liability. But whatever Nash did or did not advise, nowadays such advice to drink large amounts of water is found in every woman's magazine - and yet it has no scientific basis and is known to be dangerous, even fatal, if done to excess. Page began to feel ill and vomit soon after starting the regime, but claims that she was reassured by Nash that this was a good sign and showed that the diet was working. She now suffers from epilepsy and has severe speech, memory and concentration problems.

Many "nutritional therapists" offer so-called detox diets, despite the fact that they never seem to identify the so-called toxins they claim to be banishing from the body, or any proof that these substances have actually gone. They often use the detox as a marketing opportunity for additional treatments and dietary supplements and if any user complains of feeling unwell, they say that this is a "healing crisis" that shows the detox is effective. They often claim, with no supporting evidence, that their regimens "boost the immune system" or "rebalance energies".

So if these cases are not unusual, how can you protect yourself from dangerous quackery? Even a cursory exploration of the world of alternative medicine reveals that many quacks back up their ludicrous claims with the same old ideas, however different their supposed treatments. These common identifiers will help you spot a quack.

For a start, quacks often use language that is abstract and subjective but is ultimately meaningless. Words such as "quantum" sound impressive to those of us with only a weak grasp of theoretical physics, but are in fact nothing but pseudo-scientific window dressing designed to lure a gullible public.
Their therapies are frequently based on "ancient wisdom" and their methods never change, regardless of any new evidence about their efficacy (or the lack of it). Sometimes this is not even true, as in traditional Chinese medicine, which claims to have been transposed intact over several millennia but in reality was fashioned from a ragbag of disparate therapies in post-revolutionary China because Mao could not afford to provide scientific medicine for the Chinese people. Similarly, the foot massage therapy called reflexology was invented in the US in the 1930s, and ear acupuncture by a French doctor in the 1950s.

Quacks will often tell you that feeling worse is a sign of getting better. Most detox regimes describe symptoms such as spots, bad breath, headaches and nausea as proof that the detox is working. Such a notion is central in homeopathy, which enables practitioners to rationalise away the worsening of their patients' symptoms.

Quacks often claim a success rate of around 80%, a figure not too high to be totally unbelievable but that is irresistible to prospective customers. In the name of "treating the whole person" they tend to diagnose the same disorder in every patient. One popular US therapist, Hulda Clark, in her books The Cure for All Diseases and The Cure for All Cancers, says that all illness is caused by either pollutants or parasites. Or you could put it another way: the orthodox doctor treats what you have, and the alternative practitioner says you have what she treats.

Quacks often say a powerful establishment is trying to suppress the discovery that they have made. They'll claim that doctors and pharmaceutical companies don't want you to know about natural cures because it would do them out of a job. At worst they accuse the medical profession of actively trying to make you ill and even of trying to suppress a cure for cancer. They like to say that drug companies aren't interested in remedies found in nature because these substances can't be patented, even though as much as a third of all modern medicines are derived from plants and many of the pharma ceutical multinationals are working closely with Chinese herbal medicine manufacturers, such as the company Chi-Med, to create new medicines for a world market.

Crucially, the evidence for quacks' claims is anecdotal and supported only by testimonials. Best of all is the practitioner who claims to have cured himself, who is often to be found in the area of problematic conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, for which orthodox medicine offers relatively little and in which desperate sufferers are easily encouraged to spend thousands of pounds on a myriad of useless alternative treatments, everything from vitamin injections to colour therapy.

Quacks are flattering and will appeal to your vanity. They tell you that you are unique and extraordinary and not like other people. On the rare occasions that they find nothing wrong they say you need maintenance treatment "in order to keep your energies in balance". One chiropractic guru, when asked what to say to the patient who asks how long they should have treatment, said the pat answer should be "only as long as you want to stay healthy".

Still, many aficionados, when they've finished saying "It works for me" like to move on to assert "What's the harm?" and suggest that even if the benefits of alternative medicine can't be proved, it is always wholly benign. The improvements may be due to the placebo effect, they say, but so what? It's true that many of these therapies won't do you any damage, particularly homeopathy, which usually consists to all intents and purposes of sugar pills or water with its active ingredients only in the name. Popular remedies such as "Coldenza," (sugar pills) or "Rescue Remedy" (small bottles of watered-down brandy sold at the equivalent of pounds 399 per litre) may be harmless, but problems arise with remedies such as "Malaria Officianalis" that has been sold as a protection against malaria to people travelling to at-risk countries. It may be harmless in itself, but encourages people not to take proven prophylactics. And many people are encouraged by alternative practitioners to defer or even avoid having orthodox treatment when they are ill, even those with conditions as serious as multiple sclerosis or cancer.

An estimated 25% of Chinese and Indian herbal medicines are adulterated with either heavy metals or by the deliberate addition of pharmaceuticals such as steroids, Viagra and banned amphetamines. Consumers have little or no protection in the UK from the worst kind of practitioners, with the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority helpfully advising us that it is not currently possible to distinguish between poisonous and adulterated herbal products and those made to acceptable quality and standards.

The ingestion of poisons and dangerous drugs may be one of the greatest risks of alternative medicine, but is not the only danger. People have suffered strokes and even died after having chiropractic neck manipulation, a risk downplayed by the General Chiropractic Council which is confident that the incidence of this kind of stroke "is no more than would occur naturally within the general population". Some risks may be negligible, but are still not worth taking when there is no apparent benefit, such as chiropractic x-rays.

"Chelation therapies" employed to detoxify the body of supposed mercury poisoning have caused serious illness and death. Spurious cancer cures have caused terrible suffering and a cruel dashing of false hope in those at the end of their lives. A BBC TV documentary told the story of a woman with cancer who was instructed by an alternative practitioner to have all her teeth removed by a "holistic dentist" as part of a "toxin/pathogen removal process" at a cost of pounds 2,500. She died five weeks later.

Now websites such as whatstheharm.net and skepdic.com/refuge/harmarchive have begun to catalogue cases of injury at the hands of alternative practitioners, including that of Rosemary Jacobs, whose skin was allegedly turned permanantly grey by the daily drinking of a silver supplement and of those whose ear drums were severely burned by hot wax dripping from an ear candle. Frances Denoon, who claims that she suffered a severe stroke and nearly died after a chiropractic neck manipulation, is campagning in the UK to publicise this risk.

Just because Karadic was a war criminal, it doesn't follow that all alternative practitioners are genocidal maniacs, and indeed many practitioners sincerely believe in what they are doing and want to help their clients. But there have surely been enough cases now of blatant recklessness if not outright deceit to confirm that practising alternative medicine is very often the last refuge of the scoundrel.

25 juillet 2008

La «mémoire de l’eau» a 20 ans


L’été 2008 marque l’anniversaire d’une des recherches scientifiques les plus controversées des dernières décennies. Il y a 20 ans, au cours de l'été 1988, la revue Nature publiait un article dans lequel l’équipe de scientifiques français que dirigeait Jacques Benveniste affirmait que l’eau peut mémoriser des événements longtemps après que toute trace de ceux-ci soit évanouie.

La controverse fut si grande qu’elle est à l’origine de ce qui, quelques années plus tard, valut au célèbre médecin et immunologiste français son éviction de l'Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (INSERM)


La fameuse «mémoire de l’eau», fut baptisée ainsi par les médias qui firent écho aux recherches que Benveniste entreprit à partir de 1984 alors qu’il travaillait pour les laboratoires Boiron.

En juin 1988, lorsque John Maddox, rédacteur en chef de Nature, décida de publier l’article de Benveniste, il a vite compris que cette recherche allait provoquer l’ire du milieu scientifique. Pour protéger sa crédibilité éditoriale de l’agitation médiatique qu’il pressentait, Maddox ajouta à l’article du chercheur français, une mention de non-responsabilité semblable à celle qui accompagne l’article sur les pouvoirs surnaturels de Uri Geller que fit paraître également le magazine scientifique.

Malheureusement pour Benveniste, les chercheurs qui ont tenté par la suite d’établir la preuve que les molécules d’eau conserveraient le souvenir des éléments chimiques avec lesquels elles ont été en contact en sont venus à la conclusion que les résultats qu’avait obtenus en laboratoire le scientifique français n'étaient pas fiables.

Parce qu’il considérait l’eau comme un liquide intelligent, Benveniste s’est mérité en 1991, le premier Prix Ig Nobel décerné chaque année par l'université Harvard et la revue humoristique en science Annals of Improbable Research.

De la mémoire de l’eau à la biologie digitale

Bien qu’exclu de l’INSERM en 1995, Benveniste continua ses recherches et créa, à la fin des années 1990, le laboratoire DigiBio (fermé depuis 2001). Il affirma alors que non seulement l’eau avait une mémoire, mais que cette mémoire pouvait être numérisée, transmise par téléphone et Internet et réintroduite ensuite dans un nouvel échantillon d'eau. Cette autre théorie lui a valu en 1998 un deuxième Prix Ig Nobel.

Intéressée par les assertions de Benveniste, la US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) a vérifié en laboratoire les expériences effectuées pas DigiBio. L’agence est parvenue à la conclusion suivante: «Notre équipe n'a trouvé aucun effet reproductible de signaux numériques dans l’eau.»

Si de nombreux points d'interrogation demeurent à propos des théories de Benveniste, il ne fait pas de doute qu’elles fascinent toujours 20 ans plus tard.

Le seul véritable point d'interrogation qui subsiste sur le sujet est de savoir pourquoi un scientifique du niveau de Benveniste s'est enfermé dans cette voie sans issue et s'est obstiné en dépit de toutes les preuves à charge.
On peut néanmoins prédire à la "mémoire de l'eau" une longue vie artificielle: l'astrologie, pseudo-science morte il y a des siècles, continue de fasciner les plus crédules d'entre nous.

22 juillet 2008

Karadzic lived as New Age doctor

By Ivana Sekularac Reuters

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Radovan Karadzic, one of the world's most wanted men, lived for years in a Belgrade suburb posing as a doctor of alternative medicine, hiding his famous face behind long hair, a bushy beard and thick glasses.

Pictures given to Reuters by people who knew him as his alter ego show his face, ruddy in his heyday as the leader of Bosnian Serb forces, now sunken and shallow. His eyes are dull behind old-fashioned, tinted frames.

The slightly curved nose is the only obvious similarity.

The trademark salt-and-pepper mane, perfectly coiffed throughout the 1992-95 war, had turned from sleek to frizzy. He wore it in a plaited top-knot, pure white mixed with flashes of black.

In another picture released by Serbian authorities, he looks tired and bespectacled, not the robust politician charged with orchestrating the murder of 8,000 people in Srebrenica and being responsible for the death of 11,000 in the 43-month siege of Sarajevo.

Karadzic lived quietly in New Belgrade, a sprawling suburb of massive, anonymous tower blocks that can house dozens of flats. Officials say he used the name Dr. Dragan David Dabic, and made a living as a practitioner of alternative medicine.

Last October he showed up at a wellness convention organised by 'Healthy Life' magazine, and introduced himself to the editor as a neuro-psychiatrist who wanted to contribute articles.

That part of his new identity was closest to his old self: Karadzic had studied in Sarajevo and qualified as a psychiatrist specialising in neurosis and depression.


He liked to write, sometimes morbid and surreal poetry, sometimes children's poems.

"He was a kind man, with good manners, quiet and witty," Goran Kojic," the magazine's editor told Reuters.

"He said he was a psychiatrist who does energy therapies. I told him we were not able to pay him and could only give him an issue of the magazine for free.

"He was not physically fit, but I would say he was mentally fit."

Kojic said Karadzic did not have a Bosnian accent.

"I asked where he was from and he said he was from the Krajina region. I think he told me he had children. I doubted he had a degree because he didn't specify where he was working. He never showed me his diploma, he said his wife left it in the United States."

As the soft-spoken Dr Dabic, Karadzic held lectures and wrote articles comparing popular meditation techniques with 'Orthodox Meditation' a silent technique practiced by monks in Orthodox monasteries.

He was also interested in healing through the optimal use of 'vital energy', a quasi-mystical, non-physical dimension of the body, similar to the Chinese notion of 'Qi' and the Indian concept of the 'chakra' centres of energy in the body.

"He was very religious," said a woman who works at the magazine and knew him. "He had his hair in a plait in order to be able to receive different energies. He was a very nice man."

Karadzic appears to have lived comfortably within his new identity and to have moved freely. He liked being with people and getting attention.

An anti-cancer society in the northern town of Sombor still has on its website the announcement of an April lecture of Dr. Dragan Dabic on "similarities between meditation and orthodox meditation".

In another lecture programme, he described himself as a "researcher in the fields of psychology and bio-energy".

"I cannot believe it was him," Kojic said. "He was walking freely in the centre of the town. We talked a lot about family life. I am very sorry to find out that the man I knew is Radovan Karadzic, and that he was arrested. I feel miserable."

(Additional reporting by Ljilja Cvekic; Writing by Ellie Tzortzi; Editing by Janet Lawrence; ellie.tzortzi@thompsonreuters.com; Belgrade Newsroom))

Comme souvent, charlatanisme et idéologies extrêmes (de 'droite' ou de 'gauche') font bon ménage.

19 juillet 2008

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity: A Systematic Review of Provocation Studies

Psychosomatic Medicine 67:224-232 (2005)

Objectives: The objectives of this study were to assess whether people who report hypersensitivity to weak electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are better at detecting EMF under blind or double-blind conditions than nonhypersensitive individuals, and to test whether they respond to the presence of EMF with increased symptom reporting.

Methods: An extensive systematic search was used to identify relevant blind or double-blind provocation studies. This involved searching numerous literature databases and conference proceedings, and examining the citations of reviews and included studies. The results of relevant studies were tabulated and metaanalyses were used to compare the proportions of "hypersensitive" and control participants able to discriminate active from sham EMF exposures.

Results: Thirty-one experiments testing 725 "electromagnetically hypersensitive" participants were identified. Twenty-four of these found no evidence to support the existence of a biophysical hypersensitivity, whereas 7 reported some supporting evidence. For 2 of these 7, the same research groups subsequently tried and failed to replicate their findings. In 3 more, the positive results appear to be statistical artefacts. The final 2 studies gave mutually incompatible results. Our metaanalyses found no evidence of an improved ability to detect EMF in "hypersensitive" participants.

Conclusions: The symptoms described by "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.

09 juillet 2008

Crânes de cristal: ceux des musées de Washington et Londres sont également faux

PARIS (AFP) - Les crânes de cristal de roche dits aztèques ou mayas du British Museum à Londres et de la Smithsonian Institution à Washington sont des faux, comme celui du musée du Quai Branly à Paris, selon une étude publiée mercredi dans la revue Journal of Archaeological Science.

"Les crânes (de Londres et Washington) ne sont pas pré-colombiens. Ils doivent être considérés comme étant de manufacture relativement moderne", selon les auteurs de l'article qui estiment qu'ils ont "probablement été réalisés moins d'une décennie avant leur première mise en vente" au XIXe siècle.

Les scientifiques qui ont analysé les crânes ont conclu qu'ils avaient été taillés et polis par des outils datant de l'ère industrielle.

Il existe dans le monde 12 "crânes de cristal" répertoriés, dits aztèques ou mayas, apparus sur le marché des antiquités à la fin du XIXe siècle. Neuf d'entre eux appartiennent à des personnes privées.

Celui du Quai Branly, qui présente "des traces d'abrasion et de polissage effectuées avec des outils modernes", date "du XIXe siècle, et vraisemblablement de sa seconde moitié", avaient conclu il y a trois mois les les scientifiques qui l'avaient examiné.

Le crâne de Londres, de 15 cm de haut, acheté par le British Museum en 1897, a été travaillé avec des tours pour lui donner son aspect, et avec une foreuse pour les orbites et les narines. Du diamant et du corindon ont par ailleurs été appliqués avec des outils en fer et en acier pour lisser sa surface, a révélé son examen avec un microscope électronique.

La Smithonian Institution a acquis son crâne de cristal, haut de 25,5 cm, en 1992. Des "légères traces" d'outils, comme des meules - des outils qui n'existaient pas en Amérique Latine avant l'arrivée des Européens -, ont été notées à sa surface. Par ailleurs, du carbure de silicone - un composé trouvé uniquement dans des météorites et utilisé dans les abrasifs modernes - a été décelé dans une petite cavité.

Enfin, des petites irrégularités dans le quartz montrent que celui du crâne de Londres provenait des Alpes, du Brésil ou de Madagascar, et celui de Washington peut avoir "de nombreuses sources potentielles", dont le Mexique et les Etats-Unis.

Le crâne du British Museum était passé au XIXe siècle, comme celui du Quai Branly, entre les mains d'un marchand très controversé, Eugène Boban, soupçonné de supercherie.

Le premier achat connu pour celui de la Smithonian Institution remonte à Mexico en 1960, et les scientifiques pensent qu'il avait "probablement été usiné peu de temps avant son acquisition".

Les 12 crânes de cristal ont toujours été entourés de mystère. Ils auraient été apportés sur terre par un peuple venu de la mythique Atlantide, pour faire don de leurs connaissances aux hommes, puis gardés dans une grande pyramide par les Olmèques, les Mayas, puis les Aztèques qui les auraient dispersés.

Les crânes pouvaient manger ou parler et bénéficiaient de multiples pouvoirs une fois réunis. Et si on les aligne le dernier jour du calendrier maya - le 21 décembre 2012 - la Terre ne pourra pas basculer, raconte encore la légende.

06 juillet 2008

Quand la publicité avance masquée sur internet

Quelques grains de maïs qui se transforment en pop corn sous l'effet des ondes de téléphones portables : cette vidéo truquée de quelques secondes, déjà visionnée par 15 millions d'internautes, est le dernier exemple marquant d'une publicité déguisée.

Les ingrédients du succès sont simples : au moment où les effets supposés nocifs des mobiles inquiètent les consommateurs, cette vidéo «pop corn» a intrigué, alarmé ou amusé les internautes qui l'ont donc diffusée à leur entourage et ont ainsi contribué au succès de la publicité d'une société fabriquant des oreillettes.Cette technique publicitaire, appelée marketing viral, s'appuie sur un principe: de cible, l'internaute devient relais gratuit du message publicitaire et les annonceurs comptent sur l'effet démultiplicateur d'internet.

«Pour nous, c'est un succès incroyable. Nous ne pensions pas réussir un tel buzz», a avoué Frédéric Chast, concepteur de cette campagne virale. «Et pour notre client Cardo, c'est également une réussite intégrale : pour pas très cher (environ 90.000 euros, ndrl), la vidéo a touché énormément de monde».

L'an passé, pour le lancement de la nouvelle formule de l'hebdomadaire Choc, l'agence Buzzman avait elle réalisé une fausse vidéo du dérapage de Jean-Luc Delarue dans un avion. En moins de 24 heures, cette vidéo est devenue culte et par la suite l'audience du site du magazine a bondi de 250% par jour.

«Avec l'internet à haut débit, l'explosion du web 2.0 et la multiplication des sites participatifs (YouTube, Dailymotion, Facebook...), le marketing viral prend une place de plus en plus importante et permet un retour sur investissement plus intéressant pour les marques», explique Nicolas Tracz, consultant en stratégie marketing.

Internet est ainsi un amplificateur très puissant qui peut permettre à une marque d'émerger, d'autant plus que les internautes sont moins méfiants quand les vidéos sont recommandées par des amis.

Mais avant d'atteindre le grand public, les agences marketing effectuent un véritable travail de ciblage. «A la différence des campagnes dans les médias traditionnels, c'est une fois la campagne lancée que le plus dur reste à faire», indique Emmanuel Vivier de Culturebuzz, spécialisée dans le marketing viral.

En fonction de la campagne, il est pour les agences primordial de bien choisir leurs premiers relais. Les webmasters, les présidents d'associations étudiantes, les blogueurs influents sont des cibles de choix pour être le premier maillon de la chaîne.

«Le plus difficile est de convaincre les blogueurs qui sont les plus méfiants. Mais, si eux marchent, alors, derrière le grand public s'engouffre et la propagation prend un tour exponentiel», détaille M. Chast.

Ensuite, les agences qui suivent quasiment heure par heure la diffusion de la vidéo, peuvent relancer les envois par mails et poster eux même des commentaires sur les sites pour «faire du bruit» autour de la vidéo.

Autre point intéressant de cette technique virale pour les annonceurs : la durée de vie de ces publicités par rapport aux campagnes classiques. Une vidéo peut ainsi être vue des mois après son lancement et l'on peut sur internet connaître, dans le détail, le nombre de personnes que la publicité a touchées.

Toutefois, les annonceurs se font parfois prendre à leur propre «jeu» : l'internaute participatif se rebelle parfois et certaines marques ont du mal à contrer l'effet dévastateur des parodies qui circulent aussi sur la toile.

En attendant, ce sont plusieurs milliers de personnes qui ont réellement cru à cette vidéo et au pouvoir de nuisance du portable.