Monday, July 21, 2008

What, ME? Worry!

This is the second in the series of medically themed posts that I will be venturing. This time, instead of focusing on a bogus intervention, I'll be looking at what is largely a bogus diagnosis: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis AKA Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Before I begin, I want to remind you that I am not a qualified physician. I'm just a blogger with an interest in science and a fairly good baloney-detector. My comments here should not be taken as medical advice, but rather as something to think about. If you have any questions about this, please consult your doctor. And by "doctor", I mean your MD, not your Homeopath, Accupuncturist, Dietician or Reflexologist.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) is a poorly understood disorder that makes life pretty difficult for a great many people. As the alternate name 'Chronic Fatigue Syndrome' suggests, it manifests itself in the form of severe and ongoing tiredness, often associated with some sort of mild respiratory distress.

You're probably thinking "Hey, I'm tired all the time, and I had that cough the other day... maybe I have ME!"
And this is exactly the problem.

These symptoms are so common that many physicians call them "symptoms of life". In other words, they are states that everyone experiences from time to time as a simple result of possessing a human body. This is what makes ME so difficult to diagnose. But it's the very vagueness of the symptoms that makes it easy to misdiagnose. And anyone who has only a passing familiarity with the condition can easily mistake a slight cold, bronchitis or even depression for ME.

Enter the quacks.

Because the symptoms of ME are so common amongst other lesser pathologies (or no pathology at all), CAM practitioners (Complimentary and Alternative Medicine practitioners - also known as "quacks") have a perfect opportunity to move in and exploit a fancy-sounding term. Quacks like words with lots of syllables: they scare customers (note, I said "customers", not "patients") into spending money on all manner of quack remedies in order to clear that horrible word from their psyches.

How does this happen?

Let's say Jane Doe is feeling really tired. She feels exhausted most of the time, and often has coughs or sniffles. Her friend, who once had similar symptoms, tells Jane that she may have ME, and recommends her favourite quack. Jane visits the quack, and after waving his magic stick around, he tells her that she does indeed have ME. He gives her some magic water, pricks her with magic pins or tells her to change her diet unnecessarily and sends her on her way. A week later she feels much better.

So what happened?

What I didn't tell you at first is that Jane is in her mid thirties, has three children and runs her own business. Her daily stress-levels are pretty high, and it's been years since she's gotten a good night's sleep. The reason Jane was tired all the time was not because she had anything physically wrong with her, she was simply a victim of the stressful society she lived in. She was tired all the time because she was tired all the time! Coughs and sniffles happen to everyone.

When she received her magic intervention, she believed she was receiving good treatment for an actual physical problem. Once she believed the physical problem was fixed, there was no more need for the symptoms, and she expected to start feeling better, Because she expected it, she started feeling better. Thus she was miraculously cured of a condition she never actually had.

So what's the harm?

In our example, Jane Doe was having a hard time of life. She saw a service provider who sold her a product that made her feel better. She was "cured". So what if the quack used some fancy words and bogus treatments? The end justifies the means, doesn't it? Well yes, in cases like Jane's it probably does. And that's fine. The problem is that not every case is like Jane's.

What about Jack who is suffering from depression? He feels tired and ill all the time because he's depressed, but he lacks the ability to self-diagnose. So he hears a buzz-word and seeks treatment for a condition that isn't the one he's suffering from. The placebo affect alone might be enough to get him over his depression, but what if it doesn't work? Jack is likely to fall even deeper into depression because he has an apparently incurable disease.

Or what about Stacy who is suffering from something even more dangerous like Insulin Resistance? Stacy feels tired and ill most of the time, receives a quack treatment for ME and convinces herself to feel better. In the mean-time, Stacy's undiagnosed and untreated Insulin Resistance turns into full-blown Diabetes and Stacy's life is changed forever. If Stacy had visited a real doctor instead of an Electrodiagnostician, she may have been able to treat the Insulin Resistance before it became a problem. But she spent unnecessary time and money on useless nonsense interventions, and fell victim to the fraudulent marketing messages of quackery.

And there's another class of victims here: the few people who are genuinely suffering from ME. What if such a person were to visit a quack, who honestly (albeit incorrectly) believes that he can treat their condition. They pay over heaps of money for bogus therapy that does nothing for their condition. Such a person, who, under the influence of such a debilitating condition, would find it difficult to earn a living, and would therefore be at the mercy of whichever ineffective practitioner they selected to help them with their problem.


ME is one of a number of actual pathologies that have come into fashion with the quack movement. The quacks latch onto the current fad diagnosis and ride it for all it's worth, until the public becomes too well informed, Oprah's producers decide it's not helping their ratings anymore, and the next fad begins.

The positive feedback loop part of the cycle is currently in full effect for ME. Hopefully in the coming months, real information about the nature of this illness will start to become more widely known, and quacks will have to find a different fancy word to hang their hats on. When that happens, we'll be waiting to expose that one too.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Part 2 of the Number Portability Saga

As I reported several weeks ago, I underwent to port my number from one service provider to another.

This is what has happened so far. (Names of the companies concerned are hidden to protect the innocent... for now)

My contract with Provider A was set to expire on the 25th of June. This is a little ambiguous. Does that mean that from the 25th of June it is no longer in effect, or does it mean that after the 25th of June it is no longer in effect? None of the documentation I had provided any clarity on that question.

So, in the first week of June I called Customer Support at Provider A to find out how to go about porting my number to Provider B. Provider A told me that all I had to do was sign a form indicating my intention to port, and to fax the signed form back to them before signing my contract with Provider B.

This raises an interesting question: Provider A is a telecommunications company that claim to pride themselves on their Internet solutions. Why, then, would they insist on a fax, as opposed to a scanned email? I asked. A scanned email wasn't even an option. No explanation was given. This is not surprising, and this level of service is why I decided to leave Provider A to begin with. But I digress.

To be sure, I called Customer Service at Provider B and asked them the same question. They gave me a similar answer... that all I needed to do was inform Provider A of my intention to port, and it would magically happen. Also that I should wait until closer to the time to process the documentation.


So, on Friday the 20th of June, I got my forms ready. I had the port notice to Provider A printed, I signed it and had it faxed to their offices. I then went to Provider B and signed up for my new contract. Provider B told me that when the port went through, I would be notified to come in and fetch my new phone.

On Monday the 23rd, Provider A called me. Probably for the first time ever. They informed me that if Provider B pushed the number port before my contract with Provider A expired on the 25th, I would be liable for a R4000 penalty to ICASA.

I made it clear that I was not happy about not having been informed about this little detail beforehand, but that I would contact Provider B and ask them to delay the port, if possible. I contacted Provider B, and they told me that the process had already been set in motion, and could not be stopped. But that it usually took several days to process, so it shouldn't be a problem. I then sent Provider A an email to their Customer Service department informing them that I was not able to change the date of the port, that I was not happy about this lack of information, and that under no circumstances would I pay any penalty. I have yet to receive a response to that email.

On the morning of the 25th I awoke to find my old phone no longer working. This was good news, as it meant my old SIM card had been deactivated, and I was to go to Provider B to fetch my new one. So I did. And it is awesome. But that's a story for another post.

Since then I haven't heard a peep from either Provider A or B until last week. I received an automated text message informing me that my last month's phone bill was payable, and the amount of it... which was considerably less than a normal month, which told me all was well with the world. Until yesterday.

Yesterday I received an automated email from Provider A informing me that my electronic statement had been issued. Guess what I saw on it. R4000.

So I, once again, wrote an email to their Customer Services department informing them that under no circumstances would I pay it, and that they were to adjust the balance on my account.

So far no response. It will be two weeks before the automated debit order deducts the money from my account. If I haven't heard from them by Monday, I'll cancel the Debit Order. I'm going to assume that this has been a simple clerical error. I'll give them the benefit of that doubt and see whether or not they cooperate.

If they don't, you guys will be the first to know. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Knock it off!

Over the past few weeks, two of the videos in my Homeopathic Suicide Attempt series have been flagged as inappropriate by YouTube users.

Fortunately none of them have yet been taken down by YouTube, and well they shouldn’t, because I haven’t violated their terms of use.

But it’s curious that some folks out there think it’s necessary to flag them. I wonder why.

Is it because of the “suicide” in the title? If they watched the videos, they would see that in fact no suicide takes place... that despite my best homeopathic efforts, I am still none the worse for wear.

Is it because the videos are depicting drug abuse? Again, watching them should tell you that I didn’t actually take any drugs. All I took was 48 placebos!

So, that leaves me with two hypotheses:

  1. People watching the videos think they’re so awesome that they try to mark them as Favourites, but click the wrong button by mistake.
  2. People are somehow ideologically offended that I would deign to debunk the world-wide fraud that is homeopathy. Because they’re offended, they assume that I must be breaking a rule somewhere, and they flag it as inappropriate in the hopes that I am. (I’m not).

I prefer Number 1. Which do you think it is?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


I tend to shy away from posts dealing specifically with medical topics and quackery. I have no medical training of my own, so I have little option but to rely on the expert opinions of others when dealing with it. The only notable exception being my recent suicide attempt, which I could conduct in the safety of my own home.

But it seems that this is a side of scientific scepticism that I can't, in good conscience, continue to avoid. People in my life are being harmed, to varying degrees, by various forms of medical quackery. I, as an outspoken sceptic, can't continue to stand by and watch it happening around me.

So, in the interests of furthering this objective, I present to you what will be the first in a series of medically themed posts. I would like to stress very firmly that I am not a doctor. I have no formal medical training in anything more complicated than first aid, and you should always consult your qualified physician before taking any actions that could affect your health. All I claim to have is a wealth of knowledge that I have accumulated from various expert sources that I believe to be credible. I leave it to you to judge the reliability of those sources for yourself, but I urge you to carefully consider my arguments before disregarding them.

As the title of this post indicates, I want to start this series by discussing Electrodiagnosis.

Electrodiagnosis has more names than I could possibly list here, and there appear to be more of them popping up with increasing frequency. The name under which I first encountered it was SCIO (although SCIO seems to be an acronym, I couldn't find what it's supposed to stand for. Please let me know if you happen to have that information). But it can appear in the form of just about any random combination of pseudoscientific buzzwords you can imagine: Quantum Testing, Allergy Resistance Meter, Bio-feedback Agency Detection... you name it.

The concept is the same throughout. Electrodiagnosis practitioners employ a device called a galvanometer to measure slight variations in the electrical conductivity of the human body. A similar mechanism is employed in some lie detectors (and even by the Church of Scientology), as the galvanic response is affected by autonomic nervous system activity.

The Electrodiagnosis paradigm dictates that medical diagnoses can be made by measuring these galvanic responses. They will often refer to specific pathologies "vibrating" on particular "frequencies" which they can detect using their device. This is, of course, a meaningless statement. By saying this, they are trying to invoke the New Age definition of energy, which is inaccurate and misleading. When someone uses "energy" as a noun on its own, and not as a property of matter (in terms of E=MC2) then what they are really describing is magic.

A galvanometer can only detect galvanometric effects. It cannot detect mystical vibrations, and it certainly cannot detect magic.

After "diagnosing" your illnesses, the Electrodiagnostician will probably employ a number of other quack diagnostic techniques such as applied kinesiology, remote viewing, aura reading or waving of hands in order to "confirm" their diagnosis. They will then go about prescribing any number of interventions to treat those illnesses, such as homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, aural cleansing, ear candling, detox footpads, colonic irrigation, reflexology, dietary restrictions, happy thoughts or pixie dust.

In other words, they use a machine incorrectly to derive a bullshit diagnosis. They then treat the bullshit pathology with bullshit medicine. And who suffers? You do... because the only thing they have actually succeeded in doing is surgically removing your money from your wallet.

For the most part, this is yet another money-making scam that doesn't represent much physical danger to the victim. To some true believers who are suffering from psychogenic or psychosomatic problems, the placebo effect may be sufficient to make them feel all better. For those people's sake, this sort of thing is just fine.

But then there are the exceptions... the true believers with actual medical problems that require actual medical treatment. These are the real victims of quackery. They are the ones who delay seeking valuable (sometimes life-saving) medical intervention by seeking out these "alternatives" instead.

I've said it many times before, and I'll say it again: there is no such thing as "alternative medicine". There is medicine and everything else. If electrodiagnosis worked, it would have become part of "mainstream" medical practice ages ago. But it doesn't, so it hasn't.

Let's call Electrodiagnosis what it really is: quackery and fraud.

For more detailed information on Electrodiagnosis, take a look at Dr Stephen Barrett's treatment of it over at Quackwatch.

Have you encountered this scam before? Tell us about your experience in the comments!