Bruce Gleason Examines Woo in Humanist Society Lecture
By Robert Bernstein
Humanist Society: – Bruce Gleason – Examining Woo – 8/15/20
The latest Humanist Society meeting was held via Zoom with almost 60 people participating.
Speaker Bruce Gleason's talk was "A presentation about all things magical, mystical, and absolutely, totally useless including non-scientific medical procedures, religion-based infomercial scams, homeopathy, GMOs, and gay conversion therapy."
Here are his slides which he has kindly shared with us.
As the Founder of the Backyard Skeptics, Bruce Gleason has placed numerous billboards supporting the secular community. He also creates 2 conferences: LogiCal-LA, a scientific skeptics’ event, and the Freethought Alliance Conference for atheists, agnostics, and church-state separatists.
In his talk overview he said he would talk about:
- Conspiracy theories
- Pseudo-science medical treatments
- Non-medical supernatural claims
- Why we believe weird things
- Why "woo" is dangerous
- How we can tell what is more likely true
He said that we might feel uncomfortable when our own currently held beliefs are challenged. We can only know what is true through investigation. And we continually must monitor our own confirmation bias.
The latter is a tendency that we all have to notice evidence that confirms what we want to believe and ignore evidence to the contrary.
Gleason gave the Urban Dictionary definition of Woo. I checked and it is actually from the definition for "woo-woo". It includes New Age theories such as energy work, crystal magic, bizarrely restrictive diets, conspiracy theories or supernatural, paranormal or psychic occurrences.
He defined Scientific Skepticism as a "practical, epistemological position in which one questions the veracity of claims lacking empirical evidence."
He went on to talk about conspiracy theories. He said these involve an illegal or harmful act carried out by a government or other powerful actors. He gave some examples of conspiracy theories involving: 9/11, who killed JFK, "chemtrails", the Moon landing, cell phones causing cancer, alien sex experiments and even flat Earth theories.It is important to consider what else would have to be true if these theories were true. In the case of the Moon landing, thousands of people worked at NASA and they would have to be in on it.People turn to such theories to have a sense of control and to express distrust for authority. It also gives a certain status to be in on something that most people don't know.
Gleason moved on to pseudoscience medical treatments. Pseudoscience has the appearance of science but involves practices that are incompatible with the scientific method.
He borrowed slides from a friend depicting "Foot Reflexology". This claims to map each organ of the body to a specific part of each foot. In general, parts higher on the body are closer to the toes; lower organs are closer to the heels.This may be harmless. But Railroad Therapy is a practice in India involving lying on railroad tracks and feeling the vibrations in the body as the train approaches. What could possibly go wrong?
Here people are practicing this in Indonesia:
He notes that he lives near Knott's Berry Farm where they sell crystals with claims of supernatural powers.
How about combining acupuncture and voodoo? From the Tong Ren web site: "In a typical session, the Tong Ren practitioner uses a lightweight, magnetic hammer to tap specific points on a small anatomical model of the human body, which serves as an energetic representation of the patient." Really.
Gleason said that Kinesiology is "completely useless". The claim is that "energy" can flow from a practitioner to a child or dog through a responsible adult. But two Chat comments indicated there is a version that has a basis in fact.
"Pyramid Power" was big in the 1970s, presumably based on the use of pyramids for burial in Egypt. The claim was that if you placed food under a pyramid it would be preserved like the mummies of old. It would also sharpen razor blades and grow plants bigger. I became aware of this from a spoof article by Martin Gardner in the June 1974 issue of Scientific American.
He quickly passed over Herbal Medicine while admitting this should get more attention. It has been said that there is no such thing as "alternative medicine". There are medicines that work and those that do not.
"Ear Candling" I actually experienced. As some of you know I was hit by a car in 2002 and had a long recovery with a lot of pain. My doctors sent me for a number of treatments, including acupuncture. The acupuncturist did this practice of burning a hollow candle in my ear, supposedly drawing out bad substances."Taping" of muscles is another "energy" treatment with no basis in fact.
He claimed that these oils were ineffective as treatments: Coconut, Palm, Fish and Cannabis. But he said Fish Oil may help heart patients.
Homeopathy is based on the claim that "like cures like" in a very special way: Diluting a substance is supposed to make it more potent. Their dilutions can be so extreme that there would not be even one molecule in a container the size of the Earth's orbit.Homeopathy claims to treat a huge list of maladies. This in itself is a "Red Flag". France is outlawing homeopathy treatments, even though a majority of the population uses them!
As with many ineffective treatments, real harm is possible. Some products are contaminated. Proper treatments can be delayed. And homeopathy proponents spread other dangerous false beliefs about valid treatments.
Notably, there are claims that vaccines cause autism. Sometimes based on correlations. But those same correlations will show that autism has increased with the rise in organic food sales! Measles and Whooping Cough are now on the rise as a result of anti-vax propaganda.
Gleason took special aim at celebrity anti-vax and pseudoscience promoters: Oprah gave us Dr Oz and the fake "Doctor" Phil. Gwyneth Paltrow, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey have also done harm."Naturopathy" comes from a distrust of traditional medicine and uses diet, exercise and massage.
Are Woo medicine people stupid? Some are smart; some are doctors. Hydroxychloroquine for COVID has been promoted by real doctors.
Listener Marilyn cut in to say that her son is in Pharma and says Hydroxychloroquine may be effective. Gleason answered that this is "anecdotal" and not evidence. Jim noted via Chat that it is evidence, just weak.
Gleason went on to discuss the Placebo Effect. A person will respond more to a ten dollar placebo than a five dollar placebo. Even if they know they are placebos!
Televangelist Peter Popoff claimed miracle cures. He roped people in by seeming to read peoples' minds. In fact, his wife was transmitting information via radio to him. Magician James Randi helped expose this.
Randi appeared on the Johnny Carson show to demonstrate fraudulent medical practices. Notably "psychic surgery". Randi offered a million dollars for any proof of a supernatural phenomenon. That offer has expired, but others do offer smaller prizes now.Randi also challenged water dowsing to find water.
Gleason mentioned the mythical vortexes in Sedona, Arizona. I was there recently and was invited to experience the vortexes personally. Maybe I am dull, but I did not sense them.
Gleason went on to talk about Gay Conversion Therapy. This is "really horrible". Some "pray the gay away". He talked of a group that had gay men play football together and shower together as a "therapy".He gave a list of other non-medical pseudoscience claims: Astral Projection, Mental Projection, Dimensional Awareness, Empathy, Mediumship, Psychometry, Telepathy, Precognition, Oneiromancy, Premonition, Astrological Divination, Numerology, Abacomancy.
GMOs (Genetically Modified Foods) have created a lot of attention. He said that there are no reports of ill effects from ingesting GMOs. GMOs are far more widespread than people may realize.
He noted that many involve single nucleotide changes. Jim pointed out this still could have a significant effect.
GMOs are engineered with the aim of using less insecticides. Having better texture and flavor. Using less water, soil and energy. Having better yields, better nutrition and longer shelf life.Humans are easily fooled to believe "weird things" due to a fallacy "post hoc, ergo propter hoc". We see patterns and make associations even when there is no causal connection.
He recommends the site http://whatstheharm.net/ to track the harm done by fake treatments in terms of deaths, injuries and economic damages.In some cases the fake treatment practitioners will tell patients that the pain they are feeling is a sign that the treatment is working!
How do you know what is true? Anecdotal stories can be misleading. In general, a consensus of scientists in a field will give something close to the truth. Unless the field is very new, in which case evidence is still coming in.
One valuable tool is to look at studies of studies. Gleason called these "mega studies" but Jim corrected this to be "meta studies". And it is always important to look at the size of individual studies.
He recommends snopes.com to check suspect claims. I personally will never re-post something I have seen online until I have checked it there first.
He also recommends the BBC podcast "More or Less" and the podcast Skeptoid. He also recommends the site https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/.
At this point he took questions.
I noted that we have to be careful not to reject real conspiracies. I pointed out that when I was a child there were many stories of atrocities being committed by the CIA including torture, assassination, overthrowing democratically elected governments and giving drugs to people without their knowledge. Senator Frank Church held Senate hearings in the 1970s that showed these conspiracies were real.
Gleason's answer is that the truth eventually comes out. But I noted that this gets ever more difficult. Reagan sold weapons to one group of terrorists in Iran in order to fund another group of terrorists in Central America in the Iran-Contra scandal. The result of that scandal: New laws that made it illegal to reveal such unlawful activity in the future.
Gleason replied again that eventually the truth comes out.
Marian asked about Prevagen for treating Alzheimer's. A participant pointed out that Prevagen had to pay money for false claims.
Antoni asked about psychedelics as medical and psychiatric treatments. Gleason noted that in his youth he had positive experiences with psychedelics. He has seen these claims of successful treatments but is not yet sure. He noted that "60 Minutes" recently did a story on this that showed great promise.