REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Wow! There are some months when almost nothing happens, and then there are months like the past one – where everything seems to hit the fan at once.

Discover’s Failure

Discover magazine, usually dedicated to imparting knowledge of science to the public, plastered Dr. Andrew Weil’s face on its cover this month (August 1999) and asked the question, "How good is the medicine of America’s favorite doctor?" I quickly opened to the article on Dr. Weil to find out what the answer was, hoping for the best while simultaneously feeling it unlikely they’d put somebody’s picture on the cover just to say bad things about him. Alas, the answer to that question was nowhere to be found.

Also missing from the article is any semblance of scientific review. In fact, in the 15 or so years I’ve subscribed to Discover, I cannot recall any article so devoid of scientific content. I felt like I was reading a "human interest" story from any random newspaper, where they cover science as a "he-said, she-said" issue. I expect better from Discover, and in the past I have almost always gotten it. I hope this is not the beginning of a new trend.

There were so many problems in this article that I can only address a few major ones here.

To start, the author, Brad Lemley, knew of Dr. Arnold Relman’s article about Weil in The New Republic, and even mentioned it (see "REALLity Check," Vol. 7, #1, January 1999). But I have to wonder if he actually read it. Rather than picking up on the major scientific problems that Relman brought up, Lemley ignores most of them. That article exposed many of the strange beliefs of Weil and showed that one would not necessarily be wise to rely on him for medical advice. For example, in one on his books, Weil wrote, "I would look elsewhere than conventional medicine if I contracted a severe viral disease like hepatitis or polio, or a metabolic disease like diabetes. I would not seek allopathic [conventional] treatment for cancer, except for a few varieties, or for such chronic ailments as arthritis, asthma, hypertension,…" I have not seen Weil repudiate this statement, and it certainly would have been worth mentioning in an article that purported to discuss how good Weil’s medical advice is.

Weil "responded" to Relman’s article in a short note on his web site mostly devoted to arguing semantics about the term "anecdotal." He repeats that argument in this article, and Lemley seems to have followed him along without asking for anything further. Whether you call it anecdotal evidence or "uncontrolled clinical observations," the fact of the matter is that he is not referring to proper scientific studies (although with the latter description, Weil seems to want to make it sound more scientific). Should a science magazine spend more time on semantics than science? I don’t think so.

This only scratches the surface. On his web site, he has written about his support for "Therapeutic Touch" and other similar forms of unproven nonsense. Yet Lemley says Weil has "claimed the middle ground" and somehow tries to separate him from the "much of alternative medicine" that he terms "a nut farm."

Weil claims, "The peer-reviewed research is coming." Great! Then the proper scientific thing to do is to wait and see what it says, not decide ahead of time that this herb or that method of mind-body energy control works when there is no good evidence for it. Lemley then makes an egregious error by using the National Institutes of Health (Office of Alternative Medicine) review of acupuncture as an "example" of such evidence. In fact, if he had done even the most basic research, instead of just using the press release, he would have found that the report was put together by a planning committee and consensus panel that were both heavily weighted with proponents of alternative medicine rather than unbiased, objective observers. The report came from a three-day meeting of presentations, with no balance given in the form of inviting researchers with opposing viewpoints. Finally, the audience often cheered when the presenters attacked the scientific method — the method on which medicine is based, and the method acupuncture proponents should be striving to use to prove their claims. (See a special "REALLity Check," Vol. 5, #11, November 1997 for more details on the OAM report.) Does Discover really want to claim that scientific evidence comes out of three-day meetings of biased proponents? Again, I hope not.

As an editorial in a recent medical journal noted, and I have repeated before, there really is no such thing as alternative medicine — there is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t. Too often, Dr. Weil has been on the side of medicine that just doesn’t work.

I expected more of a thorough study from Discover. I sincerely hope they return to their usual exemplary job, because right now I am sorely disappointed.

If you’d like to share your opinions with Discover (and I encourage you to do so), you can write to them at 114 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10011-5690 or e-mail at

Springfield Saucer Mania

"Two From City See ‘Flying Saucers’" was the headline in the Springfield paper. Don’t worry, though, you didn’t miss something in the State Journal-Register – this was a headline back in 1947. And it’s news now because Doug Pokorski once again hit upon a topic of interest to skeptics in his "A Springfield Century" series (7/5).

Pokorski reports that Springfield was not a "community to miss out on the excitement" of saucer-mania that was sweeping the country at the time. The Illinois State Register reported a number of such sightings in early July, but they soon ended as there were "discoveries of several hoaxes and a general return of clear-headedness to the nation."

The end of Pokorski’s article refers to the 1897 airship hysteria in Illinois, more about which can be found in the REALL archives (March 1998; Vol. 6, #3), and from which Pokorski got the original idea to mention it as part of this UFO article. Ok, it may not be much, but I’m always happy to hear that information from REALL made it into the media.

Court Tells Claimants to Forget It

As mentioned previously in this newsletter (October 1998; Vol. 6, #8), a number of former altar boys had accused Lincoln’s Monsignor Norman Goodman of abusing them while they were children. The papers filed with the court said they had "recently recovered memories" of these actions.

On July 2, Peoria County Judge Rebecca Steenrod dismissed all the suits except the one filed by one who is still a minor and apparently did not use "recovered memory" within the suit. According to the State Journal-Register (July 3), Judge Steenrod described "their arguments of delayed discovered of the abuse as ‘incredible.’"

This case is somewhat different than most recovered memory cases, because the plaintiffs were trying to walk a fine line. A source close to the case originally had told me that it was not a case of repressed memories (contrary to what the court documents filed by the plaintiffs indicated), but one in which they knew they’d been abused, but hadn’t known of the psychological damage it had done to them. This same argument was apparently used in court before the judge threw it out.

While the Catholic diocese did settle out of court, apart from Monsignor Goodman, and while I received an e-mail from (apparently) one of the plaintiffs who claimed this proved his accusations to be true, I must point out that the church did this against Goodman’s wishes and also must point to the Dow Corning case in which the large company settled a suit by people with breast implants because fighting the suit would have cost more than settling, even though the scientific evidence showed no cause and effect relationship. In other words, contrary to what the e-mail said, it proves nothing unless there is some actual evidence involved (I responded and asked about such evidence, and even though he offered to debate me, he has not replied back at all).

The dismissal of these cases apparently moves the accusations out of the realm of recovered memories, since I do not believe the one remaining altar boy claimed to have repressed anything. However, I will continue to follow the case and report as it develops (remember that the various claims of horrible child abuse rings at daycare centers did not involve repressed memory either, but many were still found to have pseudoscientific bases and were caused by adults unwittingly influencing the memories of children).

Desperate Times…

CBS’ 48 Hours had an hour-long episode on "Desperate Measures" (6/24). The promotional clips for it looked like it would be completely believer-oriented. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a bit of skeptical reporting included as well. Not as much as I’d have liked to see, but they slipped it into the show in interesting ways.

Much of the hour was taken up talking about Audrey Santo, a 15-year-old semi-comatose girl in Massachusetts. It is reputed that miraculous healings can work through her, and there is a steady stream of believers who file into the garage-turned-chapel and past a window cut in her bedroom specifically for such viewing purposes. (See "REALLity Check," May 1999; Vol. 7, #5 for more on Santo.)

Her bedroom is filled with pictures and statues that cry or seep an oily substance – a miracle, to be sure (tests show the substance is a mixture consisting mostly of olive oil). Interestingly, a volunteer caretaker noted that the miracles seem to know when to appear, as there is more oil on the days people are expected. Hmmmmm…

As mentioned in the previous "REALLity Check" piece, the church undertook an "investigation," but they didn’t include the right types of (objective) people.

The family made sure to note that they give away the miraculous oil for free. 48 Hours additionally noted that the family also accepts donations and sells books and videotapes.

The family also maintains a "miracle committee" who examines letters to Audrey thanking her for the supposedly miraculous healings that took place after the person visited Santo. Audrey’s mother claimed there was "no other explanation" for some of these healings. But 48 Hours took a look at one anyway.

Andrea Pearson had breast cancer that had spread to her liver and bones. When she found out about the spreading, her doctor started her on a new treatment, but Pearson also went to see Audrey. Two weeks later, a CAT scan showed no liver cancer, although there was still some in her bones. The doctor was unsurprised, saying that her Taxol treatment is aggressive and he had seen the response begin before she visited Audrey. But Pearson told 48 Hours, "I know that there are some medical explanations, but I know in my heart that I had a miracle." The Santos put Pearson’s letter in their miracle file.

But wait, there’s more. In April, Pearson found that the cancer had spread to her brain. She does not know how much more time she has left, but continues to credit Audrey with giving her a miracle.

We see this type of belief time and time again. "X healed me," a believer claims. "So you say," the skeptic replies, "but weren’t you also undergoing standard medical treatment at the time?" The believer replies, "Yes, but I know it was X that healed me." How does one argue against that kind of illogic?

Speaking of illogic, the show later addressed the issue of a miraculous healing for Audrey herself. But her parents are not just leaving this in the hands of God – they have turned to a coma expert, who is trying to enable her to communicate basic concepts. The family believes Audrey is aware of what’s going on around her, but there is little progress to be seen. If all of these healing miracles happen through Audrey, why doesn’t one happen to Audrey herself?

The next topic on the agenda was "energy healing," which looked rather like Therapeutic Touch. Gene Egidio is the healer in question, and said he has had strange powers throughout his life – to the point that his parents put him through an exorcism and electric shock therapy when he was a child. So he kept his mouth shut about his powers until he was in his 50s, when he moved to California (where else?) to ply his energy healing.

According to Egidio, he moves his hands over people (again, like TT) and gives them energy so they can heal themselves. For more information, 48 Hours "went to the experts," but I question just what kind of experts these were. The two they referred to were a couple of clinical psychologists (not doctors or scientists, mind you) who they say have done extensive research on energy healers. Their words of wisdom? Nobody really knows how it works. Gosh, thanks. But they claim an energy healer’s brain can generate 200 volts of electricity! Well, there is a testable claim, and I, for one, would love to see where it was published in a peer-review journal and replicated. Alas, no mention of that. But they did mention several other things that Egidio says he can do, including healing over the phone, healing by just having a photo of the person, and even pet healing.

While 48 Hours filled most of the time with positive comments from patients, they ended this part by saying they tracked down 56 people who’d been at one of Egidio’s healings. Only 13% reported any relief of physical pain. And, as we all know, pain is a very subjective thing anyway, and can often be "cured" by the placebo effect alone. But even without worrying about that, I wouldn’t call 13% a stellar review.

The last of the pieces dealt with a 12-year-old girl, Katie Huntley, who had a cancerous tumor the size of a baseball in her left sinus four years ago. She went through the standard regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, but the tumor was still there. It didn’t look good for her.

The family heard about a teenage boy, Billy Best, who had run away from home to avoid chemotherapy, and only came home when his parents agreed he wouldn’t have to go through it any more. Instead, they turned to an illegal drug called 714X, whose manufacturer claims it can cure cancer. Since it had supposedly worked for Best, Katie’s parents decided to try it as well (in both cases, they had to go to Quebec, where a French scientist mixes it in his basement).

Katie is now cancer-free, and her family attributes it to 714X. With such a wonder drug, what about testing? Well, the French scientist has refused all offers to test it and has even neglected to provide any information on survival rates (though, again, he claims it works). Personally, if I had found a cure for cancer, I’d be doing my best to get it tested and approved so I could give it to the world. That is, after all, one of the criticisms so often leveled by alternative medicine proponents – that standard medicine doesn’t want to find cures to some diseases because it would cut into their cash flow. But here we have an alternative medicine practitioner who is keeping his "cure" out of the hands of those who could benefit – if, of course, it was actually a cure…

A Canadian doctor interviewed by 48 Hours talked about how he has seen patients take 714X instead of standard cancer treatment, and they have died. As for Billy and Katie, the doctors say their cancer would have gone away anyway, due to the previous treatments they’d had. As with the woman who attributed her cancer’s retreat to Santo, the people here underwent standard treatment but then attributed success to the alternative.

The show ended with Dan Rather noting that scientific proof is hard to come by for alternative medicine. He also talked about "integrative medicine" becoming more common, though, and more or less did the standard newsie thing of leaving it somewhat up in the air.

As I said, I was pleasantly surprised that the show wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It could have been better, with more skeptical content, but we need to take our minor victories where we can get them.

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