REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

It’s been quite a while since I’ve pulled together all my clippings and notes for an article (I did the special report on the acupuncture fiasco a couple months ago, but not a full column). On the plus side, that means we’ve had lots of other articles to fill the pages of The REALL News. On the minus side, that means I have a huge pile of clippings to sort through! So, I’ll give you the first part of the high(low)lights from the past few months now, and then you’ll get the second part in our next issue.

A Highlight Showing Lowlights

One of the few recent highlights was Tony Cappasso’s State Journal-Register review of some "dubious medical advice" from the past year (1/5/98). Some of these were:

Cartoon Metaskeptics

Scott Adams has apparently been having some fun stereotyping skeptics lately. After his response here (which was really the culmination of discussions with a number of skeptics who had talked to him in e-mail when the book first came out), Adams has penned several strips which stereotype skeptics.

The first, and less obvious, came with the introduction of "Dan, the illogical scientist." Dan was in three strips, and in each he would walk up to somebody and make assumptions that their idea would fail or that something wouldn’t work. When he was told that he hadn’t even looked at it yet, he would reply something like, "You obviously don’t understand science." Yes, Dan was illogical, but Dan was also a stereotypical version of a skeptic, as often portrayed by proponents of various paranormal claims.

Coincidence? Maybe.

But more recent strips (starting January 12) took even more direct aim at skeptics. Ratbert starts showing psychic powers, and Dilbert is out to debunk him. At one point in a coin-flipping test, Dilbert is confronted with an occurrence that is obviously beyond normal explanation (a coin hovering in the air after Ratbert had predicted it would), but Dilbert refuses to admit that this is some sort of weird occurrence. Again, a stereotypical portrayal of a skeptic -- saying that a skeptic would refuse to believe a paranormal incident even if the evidence were obvious. In another strip, Dilbert calls the "Skeptics Association" for help. The association grills him to prove that he is, in fact, Dilbert (going so far as to ask if he can prove he’s never been cloned). This is another stereotype taken to even further extremes.

So is this Adams’ way of making fun of skeptics rather than debating their points? Perhaps. In his latest collection, Seven Years of Highly Defective People, Adams says he wrote several strips making fun of scientists after a scientist had written to him to complain. He adds, "I’m not smart enough to be a scientist, so I make my living by mocking them." Was he joking? Perhaps -- partially. But I’m beginning to see a pattern.

With cartoonists, it’s difficult to tell just what they really are saying (for example, Ratbert is discovered to have psychic powers because he is so dumb that another character says his brain must make up for it in other ways -- just as stories claim that blind people have improved senses; so is Adams implying that all psychics are dumb rats? I doubt it, but who knows?). I do, however, find it oddly coincidental that these columns appeared so soon after he obviously got upset at what skeptics thought about the final chapter of The Dilbert Future.

Three "Healers" On Trial

Within four days, there were two articles in the Chicago Tribune about two different "healers" who have been charged with differing crimes; and just a month earlier, there was an article about a suit filed for a false cancer "cure."

The first (12/3/97) occurred in Wisconsin, where a cancer patient died after buying almost $2,000 worth of "bogus treatment" instead of having chemotherapy. The lawsuit accuses Shelvie Rettman of claiming she could cure cancer with a Rife generator (claimed to provide electromagnetic treatment when you put your feet on metal strips that have been sprinkled with water), "foot zoning" treatment, and a radionics machine (supposedly detects cancer through the patient’s aura, which is read from a photo), among other things. One of her patients died of colon and liver cancer a month after Rettman claimed she was cured. In addition to the lawsuit, she has been charged with practicing medicine without a license.

Speaking of licenses, the second (1/8/98) dealt with an Arlington Heights (IL) doctor whose license is on the line. William Mauer used "living energy water," liquid silver, and other bizarre treatments for a variety of ailments from sore throats to cancer. The medical board of the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation moved to revoke his license for using this unapproved methods on patients, including some with serious illnesses. One patient had lost a leg to vascular illness before coming to Mauer. Mauer charged him $7,500 for "treatments" on his remaining leg, but the other leg became increasingly gangrenous and eventually also had to be amputated.

The Department of Professional Regulations prosecutor for this case said, "This is not an indictment of alternative medicine. This is an indictment of a particular practitioner and the treatments he used." I suspect he felt the need to say this due to pressure from the many people who now use alternative medicine, but perhaps he and the rest of that department should seriously consider the impact of this wide acceptance. How many others are out there using bizarre "treatments" without being found? The case in question here dates back to 1994! Mauer has been practicing for over 3 years after the incident occurred! This department needs to keep a closer watch on those who may be using "alternatives" to good medicine -- or, alternatively (pun intended), it should be left to the proper law enforcement arena with such practitioners being charged with fraud when such fraud occurs.

Speaking of the law enforcement angle, the third healer, a "reiki" practitioner, has been accused of molesting a boy he was supposed to be healing. (1/12/98) For those unfamiliar with reiki, it is somewhat similar to therapeutic touch, based on the idea that some mysterious energy that flows through everything can be channeled and manipulated to heal people.

Jeffrey Knapp, the supposed healer accused of this crime, had lost two previous positions due to allegations of improper conduct with children, and had his teaching certificates in Illinois revoked in 1986 for "taking indecent liberties with a child." Yet this didn’t stop him from founding the Inner Journey Institute for the Healing Arts in Elgin, Illinois. Indeed, he claimed to be a psychic who could talk to the dead (which is, prosecutors say, how he gained the trust of the boy he is accused of molesting).

Perhaps the most interesting part of this case is that prosecutors expect a number of high-profile authors and lecturers who are "well-known in the metaphysical arena" to be called as defense witnesses to explain reiki and defend Knapp (reiki practitioners often lay their hands on certain parts of the body, but they are supposed to stay away from the genitals).

Smoke & Mirrors

On December 2, 1997, the State Journal-Register ran a photo with a small caption. The photo showed the house on MacArthur where you can go to get "Readings by Martha." It seems the Psychic Studio had a fire. And, wouldn’t you know it, "the point of the fire’s origin was unknown Monday, and the cause remained under investigation."

No wonder the sign out front offers 50% off…

Fountain of Youth

This last bit really isn’t about a fringe claim, but rather a prediction on my part. CNN and the State Journal-Register had articles on January 14 about an enzyme that helps avoid cell aging, which could lead to a way to help people stay healthy longer (though not necessarily live longer). My prediction is that within six months, we will see ads for "dietary supplements" containing this enzyme (telomerase) and making grand claims about keeping people younger and stopping the aging process, despite the fact that the current research involves specifically adding the gene that makes telomerase directly into cells in the laboratory.

Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS!