Beware! The Health Water Pushers Want You Dead!

Well, brain dead, anyway, because how else are they going to transfer money from your wallet to theirs?

Take water.  Just yer basic water.  Now, I’ve fallen for the SoBe Lifewater scheme, not because of its supposed health benefits but because they add things to it that make it very tasty, and so I can drink something like Strawberry Dragonfruit and pretend I’m not really drinking water whilst still getting hydration.  And did I mention it’s so tasty?  There’s an adorable lizard, too.  So there we have added value I can taste and see.  But for other water needs, tap water run through a Brita filter works just fine.  It is healthy and cheap, a winning combo.

However.  It seems no item we put in our mouths is free from quacks.  I need to get Chaos Lee back here to tell you about that time he worked for a call center that took orders for infomercial products.  One company that contracted with them were selling “ionized water,” claiming all sorts of incredible health benefits.  During the meeting in which the company was extolling said benefits in order to make order-takers all excited about it, Chaos asked them unnerving questions based on basic chemistry, which ended in them claiming it was ionized because it had an extra neutron.  “That’s not ionized water,” Chaos said.  “That’s heavy water.”  Upon which the sales rep became upset, perhaps because health nuts might be hinky about buying something used to cool nuclear reactors.

But these days, “ionized” may sound a little too chemical, and we live in a society so obsessed with going chemical-free that some people market, with a straight face, a “chemical-free chemistry set.”  Deborah Blum had Things to say about that.  And this.  After that last episode, I really hope she doesn’t hear about this newest craze, because she might do herself an injury.  Still, the resulting blog post would be entertaining.

The newest craze, it appears, is for “organic water.”

Perched on a white tablecloth we noticed some very sleek water bottles, labeled Illanllyr SOURCE. A serious guy named Eric Ewell eagerly offered us a taste, “Try this pristine organic water.” We choked back a giggle. Organic? Really?

As the company’s website says, “Illanllyr … comes from our sources beneath certified organic fields in west Wales in the UK.” So, Ewell says, the water has never been tainted with chemicals, making it organic as it as it emerges from the ground.

Now, when I hear the word “organic” combined with “water,” I’m thinking of organic matter like cow shit floating around in it.  Especially since it’s beneath “certified organic” fields.  Already not really getting the super-healthy vibe.  And while the website touts the water’s location beneath a farm that’s never been farmed any other way than “organic,” thus supposedly ensuring the water is “organic” by proxy, those of us who know our geology are wondering about the details of the aquifer it comes from.  Water has this distressing tendency to travel, and who knows what non-organic ickyness it’s toured through?  I mean, really.  Never?  Never ever tainted with a single chemical?  Not in the whole history of the earth?  The gentleman has as much to learn about the water cycle as he does chemistry.

I notice Mr. Ewell or his staff have very carefully not put those “not tainted with chemicals” claims on their website.  Someone seems to have realized that their water does, in fact, contain chemicals.  They call them “minerals,” so as not to scare the anti-chemical crowd away, but it’s loaded with ’em:

As for his “never been tainted with chemicals” claim made in person, I hate to break it to him: minerals are chemicals.  So, in fact, is H2O.  That’s two hydrogens and an oxygen, bonding into a water molecule, which is (cue scary music) a chemical!!!eleventyzomgwe’reallgonnadiiiiieeeee!!!!!!!

And if you purchase it from Mr. Ewell, a very expensive chemical it is, too.

But let’s get back to this “organic” claim.  Those of us who aren’t instinctive chemists have skimmed that word, thinking of it in the colloquial sense of “what you tell people something is so they’ll pay twice as much for it, believing it’s all-natural and much better for you than that non-organic shit.”  But of course, chemists are already prone on the floor, pounding their fists in the carpet and laughing helplessly, and Ed Yong is horrified:

When I read that tweet, I fell on the floor pounding fists into carpet, etc.  I may not be as well-versed in chemistry as I should be, but I do know that in chemistry, “organic” means “it’s got carbon in.”  Now, let’s see what we get when we add a little C to our  H2O, hence making it organic:

So, my darlings, remember: no water on earth is organic, and if you ever have the pleasure of someone trying to sell you “organic” water in person, you are now free to ask them why they think one of the main ingredients in embalming fluid is so much healthier than plain ol’ dihydrogen oxide.

Gorgeous.

Where to Go Before You Go Woo

I’m constantly amazed by the crazy shit people will believe.  Comes to that, I’m constantly amazed by the crazy shit I used to believe.  There was a time, for instance, where I believed that there might be something to Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).  That, of course, was before I began reading about it.

Really, people?  Really?  You really believe water without a single bloody molecule of active remedy in it can cure you?  Or that ear candling works?  Or that shooting coffee up your butt’s a cure rather than a fetish?

Some of the people I know IRL, otherwise sane and sober people, fall prey to this crazy crap.  They drop way too much money on woo.  And they believe in all sorts of nonsense, like vaccines causing autism (they don’t).

They’re not stupid.  It’s just that there’s so damned much misinformation out there, and the snake-oil salespeople have silver tongues.  So I think it’s time to put up, in one post which I can then point them to, a nice set of resources that might keep them from falling prey.  Especially now that homeopathic “remedies” are finding their way onto supermarket shelves, right alongside legitimate medicines, as if they belong there (they don’t).

Those of us who already like our medicine science-based could still use these sites.  They’re always good for a belly-laugh.  Sometimes for a primal scream.

Respectful Insolence: Orac’s delicious blog, in which all manner of cranks, woo-meisters, and ridiculous nonsense gets smacked down at length and without mercy.  His main focus is anti-vaccine nonsense, but he’ll battle any woo that strikes his fancy, and he’s especially useful for combating cancer woo, seeing as how he’s a surgeon and breast cancer researcher.

Science-Based Medicine: A blog on a wide range of woo-tastic topics by a stellar stable of medical bloggers.  It’s not as insolent as Respectful Insolence, but it’s solid stuff and sometimes hysterically funny.  There’s nothing quite like a science-based physician expressing their frustration at the more obstinate sorts of woo.  It’s also a good place to learn how science-based medicine works, how it could be improved, and why it’s different from evidence-based medicine.

Quackwatch: This should be your first stop in your quest to avoid all things quack.  It’s a tremendous resource.  No false balance, just facts.  Relentless, uncompromising facts.  Woo does not stand a chance here.

What’s the Harm?  The definitive answer to that question is contained in these pages.  Woo’s last defense is claiming that, even if it can’t cure absolutely everything just like it claims, it at least does no harm.  Wrongo.  You’d be amazed at the harm even the most harmless-seeming woo can do.

I See Sedona’s Still Silly

For a brief and all-too-memorable two years of my life, we lived in Sedona, Arizona.  It’s a beautiful place, red rock country that will dye your white socks a nice shade of rust whilst hiking.  It’s also a total magnet for oddballs.

When we first moved there, back in the late 80s, an alarming number of the populace was convinced a space ship was going to emerge from Bell Rock, which to those who don’t think it’s shaped like a bell believe it’s shaped like a UFO.  This, of course, meant there was a UFO in it, and if you had the right crystal, you could summon the space ship that was to emerge on an auspicious day, and the aliens who had (for reasons I never learned) parked their ship under that mass of old sandstone would pick you up and give you a lift to some sort of very spiritual destination somewhere out in the universe.

Vendors set up roadside markets where quartz crystals lay on tables, sparkling in the sun.  I found myself browsing at one on a fine day, because I love crystals and was hoping to find a bargain.  Alas, all I found were overpriced rocks and one woman waving a fistful, exclaiming to her friend, “This one was cold, and this one was kind of warm, but this one’s hot!”  The fact that relative warmth may have been due to the fact there was a sun shade over part of the table didn’t seem to occur to her.  No, she was after something that would vibrate at just the right frequency for thumbing a ride with extraterrestrials. 

I gave it up as a bad job and left.  Perhaps that day in my tweens was a harbinger of my future skepticism.  Or maybe I’d just been exposed to too much New Age schlock.

The Great Day came, but the spaceship didn’t, and all those who had paid far too much for some decent quartz, sold their earthly belongings, and camped out in the desert waiting for Bell Rock to open would have had to slink despondently home if they hadn’t sold said home.

But even that rather spectacular fail didn’t shake their faith.  They still babbled on about wise aliens from other worlds and crystal magic and vortexes like the one by the Post Office that caused all the horrible car crashes.  No, cars didn’t crash because it was a badly designed, extremely busy t-shaped intersection with the worst visibility in town.  No, silly skeptics!  It’s obviously the malign influence of a bad vortex, not at all like the good vortexes out in the hills, where one could – well, do whatever it is New Agey folk do when communing with good vortexes.

Psychics and so forth continued selling their New Age kitsch downtown.  I should have got round to telling them to aim a sun lamp at the trays of crystals so they could sell more “hot” ones.

Years later, after I’d moved away, a pagan friend came to visit from parts east.  His friends had told him he had to see Sedona.  “It’s so spiritual,” said they.  They babbled on and on about its mystical powers and so forth, and sent him out on a mission: he just had to go, and report back.

He’s skeptical enough he took my warnings to heart, and tried to steel himself against disappointment, but his jaw still dropped when he saw what the spiritual mecca really was: no more than commercial kitsch slathered thick along the main drag, a tourist trap laid for the sensitive soul.  Nothing I’d said could quite capture the shock of the reality.  It’s really that bad.

Sometimes, I wonder if it’s still that bad.  And to my vast amusement, I discovered that it most definitely is (h/t):

On December 21, 2012 Mr. Peter Gersten plans to hurl himself off of Bell Rock in Sedona, AZ. It is his belief that a cosmic portal will open at this time and in this place, and that he will be delivered into a new, unfathomable opportunity. He is fully willing to die if he is wrong about the portal.

Ah, yes, I can say with some certainty that “he will be delivered into a new, unfathomable opportunity.”  It’s not every day the local coyote population has a smorgasbord plop down from the top of Bell Rock.

Let’s just hope all of the negative vibes from all the skeptical people laughing at him cause him to change his mind.  I mean, you know what negativity does to portals.  I mean, look what happened when a few locals poked fun at the idea a spaceship would emerge – no spaceship.  You can’t tell me that’s a coinkydink. 

We’ve already broken your portal, Mr. Gersten.  I’m sorry.  It won’t open due to all those bad vibrations.  You might as well stay home.

Hey! I Practice Alt Med, Too!

Kimball Atwood’s been kicking the arses of all those who like to babble that because alt med’s popular, even the most implausible, most wootastic woo should be studied.  We’re talking folks who think that homeopathy should be studied, despite the fact the basic science isn’t behind it at all – you’d have to overturn pretty much all of physics and chemistry for it to qualify as anything remotely possible to actually work as more than a placebo mixed with willful idiocy.  The people who back randomized, double-blind, clinical trial after clinical trial for the wooiest of woo despite assloads of evidence already available showing it doesn’t, can’t, and will never work are the same ones who would probably demand said trials for butt reflexology if enough dumbfucks fall for a hoax.

But I digress.  I was about to tell you about the fact that I, too, practice complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM).  I found this out while reading Kimball’s lovely smackdown.  Here’s the passage that revealed all to me:

In addition to the ethical fallacy just discussed, there is another fallacy having to do with popularity: the methods in question aren’t very popular. In the medical literature, the typical article about an implausible health claim begins with the irrelevant and erroneous assertion that “34%” or “40%” or even “62%” (if you count prayer!) of Americans use ‘CAM’ each year. This is irrelevant because at issue is the claim in question, not ‘CAM’ in general. It is erroneous because ‘CAM’ in general is so vaguely defined that its imputed popularity has been inflated to the point of absurdity, as exemplified by the NCCAM’s attempt, in 2002, to include prayer (which it quietly dropped from the subsequent, 2007 survey results).

By these standards, I so totally do practice CAM!  Yep, it’s that slippery of a definition.  Y’see, sometimes, when I feel like I might be coming down with a cold, but it might just be allergies or too much smoking instead, I run this little litany through my head: “I hope I’m not getting sick!  I hope I’m not getting sick!  I hope I’m not getting sick!”  And sometimes, when I wish really hard I won’t get sick, sometimes I don’t get sick!!!

So imagine me getting surveyed:

Survey Person: Do you pray for wellness or healing?

Me [sarcastically]: Well, I’m an atheist, but I sometimes hope really hard.
SP: Great!  We’ve got you down for prayer, then, you alt-med lover you!
Me: Wait, what?  Hey!  Come back here and erase that right now, you fucking bastard!
SP: [vanishes into the distance at a brisk run]

And that, my darlings, is one of the great many reasons why you should always treat the argumentum ad populum with grave suspicion.

Just like you should butt reflexology.  Or is that butt-print astrology (ass-trology!)?  It’s so hard to keep all this butt-related woo straight!

I Shall Never Look At a Catalog The Same Way Ever Again

Dr. Crislip’s outdone himself.  He very nearly got me in trouble at work – riotous laughter in the call center isn’t strictly forbidden, but it draws attention.

I dare you to read this title without at least a chuckle: “Sky Maul.”

It’s the best takedown of the products in the SkyMall catalog I’ve ever read in my life, and that’s not just because I haven’t read many.  Even if I read thousands after this, it shall always be among the top 5.  It’s full of tasty bits, but here are the two I forced upon my coworker because they were just too good not to share.

After the segue into a truly hideous Lancet paper babbling about tattoos on ancient mummies and their correlation to acupuncture points, Dr. Crislip says,

“I think they all have it wrong. Look carefully at the location of the tattoo points. There mark the intersections of the webbing on Spiderman’s costume. These are not acupuncture points, but rather reflect the ability of both Ötzi and the Peruvian mummy to see into the future imaginings of Stan Lee. I think it makes as much sense based on the data.”

My darlings, no comic book geek and connoisseur of fine woo can read that and not die laughing.

And while I usually avoid quoting a writer’s closing remarks, preferring to leave those delights for the reader to discover, I cannot as a Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fan refrain from quoting his close in full:

I was originally going to discuss the Head Spa Massager, the X5 HairLaser and others, but the Aculife took me down many unexpected pathways and I am the slowest writer at SBM. They did have numerous cool gadgets and products on SkyMall. Me? I really want Voldemort’s wand and the One ring. Both work using the same mechanism as acupuncture and mummy medical tattoo’s. I have ordered them and soon I will be invincible.

I welcome our future Science-Based Medicine overlord!