REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Change Your Channel TV

Oprah Winfrey has modified her show to be what she calls "Change Your Life TV." Unfortunately, much of what she is promoting should be called "New Age Claptrap TV." Steve Johnson, a Chicago Tribune television critic, recognized this in a recent article (11/23/98).

While many of her guests are touchy-feely, make-your-life-better types, they don't say anything that would normally be addressed here. However, one of her frequent guests has been Caroline Myss, a "medical intuitive." She essentially claims to be able to look at somebody and figure out what's wrong with them. As Johnson said, her "assertion of mystical powers [is] backed up by her mother, so it must be true." He also notes that Winfrey backs her because "Myss had correctly intuited that Winfrey was worried about joint pain."

As another example, Johnson said Myss told a man with chronic migraine headaches that he thinks life owes him an explanation. "That thought is burning in your liver…. And what happens from the liver is there's an energetic circuit and it goes right up to the brain channel. And that starts the fire neurologically and that's why you have your migraines." Johnson, a bit more skeptical than Winfrey, comments, "Is there a phrenologist in the house?"

Actually, it seems Myss' claims are more akin to some of the followers of mesmerism than phrenology. In an upcoming segment detailing Dr. Kreider's views on mesmerism, Randy Alley briefly discusses a group who claimed to bring patients to a state of clairvoyance, allowing the power to diagnose illness and prescribe remedies. Amusingly, not only was mesmerism in general debunked long ago, but the claims of this particular group were too much even for some who otherwise believed in mesmerism. Now we have essentially those same claims being promoted by the queen of talk shows!

Just more evidence that few of these claims ever die…

A Wild Weil Ride

People have occasionally asked me what I think about Dr. Andrew Weil, the latest alternative medicine guru. I haven't had much to say until now. Arnold Relman, editor-in-chief emeritus of The New England Journal of Medicine, wrote a long cover story for The New Republic (12/14/98) on Dr. Weil and his string of books (I can't even begin to do it justice, so check out their web site,, to read the entire article).

Relman uses Weil's own words to show how anti-scientific his views are. "Weil is not bothered by logical contradictions in his argument, or encumbered by a need to search for objective evidence." Weil prefers intuition over observation, and even refers to his own experimentation with drugs — he calls it "stoned thinking."

Oddly, Weil does occasionally talk about evidence for his claims. But Relman notes, "he almost never gives us anything more than the claim itself." Evidence apparently has a different meaning to Weil. Indeed, Relman discusses several examples of Weil making sweeping statements based on letters he received. No evidence. No scientific studies. He got a letter saying somebody healed from this particular disease, so there you have it.

Illness seems to have a different meaning to him as well. In one book, he said: "Sickness is the manifestation of evil in the body, just as health is the manifestation of holiness. Sickness and health are not simply physical states… They are rooted in the deepest and most mysterious strata of Being." Huh? Apparently he missed his medical school classes on viruses, bacteria, etc.

Perhaps the scariest thing Weil discusses is his opposition to "regular medicine." He admits that it's okay for some problems, but goes on to say, "I would look elsewhere than conventional medicine for help if I contracted a viral disease like hepatitis or polio, or a metabolic disease like diabetes. I would not seek [conventional] treatment for cancer,… or for such chronic ailments as arthritis, asthma, hypertention (high blood pressure), multiple sclerosis, or for many other chronic diseases."

By saying he wouldn't seek conventional medical treatment in these cases, he is essentially encouraging people who read his books to do the same (after all, they are reading these books for advice). I can only wonder how many people will take his advice and end up paying for it with their health or life.

After Relman's lengthy and detailed article was published, Weil responded to it on his "Ask Dr. Weil" web site. Actually, calling it a response grants it too much credit. Weil discussed one small part of the article — he said he wished Relman would remove the word "anecdote" from his vocabulary. As if this is the most important aspect of the entire article, Weil went on to say something that no scientist would object to: anecdotes can lead to experiments which can lead to evidence. Fine. Great. But that didn't contradicted anything Relman said—these things can happen, but in Weil's case they haven't! Weil says he will be working on a recently-funded study involving one alternative practice for possible use against ear infections in children. I'll be interested to see these results, but I hope he remembers to take into account previous studies that have shown that often such ear infections will go away on their own accord, treated or not. In other words, I hope he remembers to use the proper scientific method, including double-blind tests. But I'm not holding my breath.

Led by a Lamb

Speaking of repressed memories, I wanted to point out that while the Texas fraud case against several therapists (see "REALLity Check," Vol. 6, #9) has been called the first criminal trial involving false memory implantation, there was at least one previous case of a similar prosecution. This case was pretty close to home, and I'm surprised I'd missed it originally (thanks, Doug!).

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (6/26/98) that Geraldine Lamb, a hypnotherapist in Creve Coeur, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for insurance fraud and practicing psychology without a license. This sentence was handed down after she pleaded guilty and had a hearing involving former patients. Some testified about how Lamb's suggestive therapy caused them to believe they'd been sexually abused as children by cult members; others still supported her and claimed she had helped them heal from childhood sexual abuse. The Post-Dispatch compared parts of the hearing to an episode of The X-Files, with testimony about Satanic ritual abuse and spirit communications.

While she did plead guilty, the prosecutor noted that she showed no remorse for what she had done to her patients, and she even said those who testified against her continued to be members of the Satanic cults.

As I've noted before, some people just never learn…

Innocent Implants?

As I mentioned here a while back (Vol. 5, #1 and Vol. 6, #3) a federal court in Alabama appointed a panel two years ago to provide expert, independent testimony on the validity of claims that silicone breast implants cause a wide range of diseases.

That panel has issued their report (you can read it at, which concludes that there is no good scientific evidence to back the claims (this should come as no surprise to skeptics who've been following these claims, but may come as a shock to many members of the general public).

In the Chicago Tribune article reporting this conclusion (12/2/98), a founder of an advocacy group for women with implants criticized the panel. According to the article, "She said it focussed too much on scientific studies and had not paid enough attention to the experiences of individual women with implants."

Unfortunately, that is often the attitude we see with these things (and alternative medicine claims as well). People want to focus on the anecdotal claims of each particular case. Unfortunately, they don't seem to understand that scientific studies are a more accurate method of investigation for this type of claim. There is no good way to look at a single person and say, "These implants gave me X disease." We have no way of knowing if she'd have gotten X disease anyway. However, by scientifically examining a wide range of such people, and comparing those to others who did not have implants (for example), we can see if there is a greater incidence of X disease in those with implants. If there is not, then it is unlikely the implants cause X disease. Focussing on "individual women" simply cannot give us those results.

The major manufacturer of silicone implants recently reached an agreement for settling the mass of lawsuits they faced, so while this report will help settle matters scientifically, it is unlikely to help a company that faced bankruptcy because of unscientific claims made against them.

Repression or Fiction?

Repressed memory believers frequently claim that repression occurs because reality was too horrible to deal with. An counterpoint often made by skeptics is that people imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps didn't "repress" the horrors they went through.

Now, an example of just such an incident has come out, but if believers point to it as support, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.

This example comes from a previously celebrated book about a child's inside view of Nazi concentration camps. Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski, won numerous awards since its 1995 publication. Unfortunately, this past summer questions were raised about the veracity of these memories.

It seems that Wilkomirksi actually "recovered" these "memories" through therapy. What's worse is that there is a wealth of information that contradicts them. For example, according to The New York Times (11/3/98), Wilkomirski is Swiss and was born in 1941 in Biel to an unmarried Protestant woman; he was then adopted by a couple in Zurich. This is quite different than the supposed memories, which date back to 1939, saying he was a Latvian Jew who saw his father beaten to death, and then was imprisoned in two concentration camps for medical experiments (supposedly explaining his lack of a tatoo). Another strange claim is that Wilkomirski said he'd been circumcised, but both his ex-wife and girlfriend denied it. There are school records showing he attended first grade in Zurich in 1947 and photos showing him there in 1946, but he claims to have moved there after 1948.

Alas, all of this and more hasn't been enough to convince his publisher and other backers of his story that it is untrue. Wilkomirski has removed himself from the public eye and is making excuses in the few communications he puts out. For example, he acknowledged that the Swiss documents about him were not fake, but suggested that another person "who is no longer alive" had manipulated or replaced them. Not only do we have contradicted recovered memories, but a conspiracy as well.

Presuming Wilkomirski does indeed believe that his memories are true — and I have no reason to doubt that — it must put him in a very difficult position. His memories say one thing, other information says another. But if all of these pieces are true (especially the circumcision part), it is difficult for me to believe that he can continue to deny everything in the face of the evidence.

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