Cults are bad for your health

Cults kill. It’s really that simple. But different cults kill in different ways. It’s not just Jonestown and Killer Kool Aid (OK, Flav-r-Aid). The so-called mainstream cults that are particularly dangerous, because we tolerate them.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own brand of craziness. It’s not bad enough that they come to your door to annoy you in person, but they forbid their members life-saving medical interventions—for no good reason.

Christian Scientists decline medical care because some lady 150 years ago got better despite the interventions of 19th century quacks.

Then there’s Scientology. This is a particularly pernicious cult. It preys the most vulnerable—those least able to make rational decisions, and often denied access to health care—the mentally ill. Instead of offering real mental health care to those in need, they inculcate them into their cult, convincing them to avoid modern psychiatry, often with tragic results.

Look, I’ve got nothing against religion. I’m not religious, but I know it’s possible to be a rational thinker and still be a believer. Unfortunately, it’s also possible to be religious and avoid rational thought completely.

We often hear that “religious education belongs in the home”, a sentiment with which I’d agree. What’s less often said, but needs to be, is that critical thinking belongs in the classroom, even if it insults a family’s religions sensibilities. Kids need to learn to evaluate evidence and make good decisions. If this means they learn about evolution against their parents wishes, good. If it means they learn to doubt their parents beliefs on transfusions, that’s good too.

Religion can be comforting, uniting. But in the marketplace of scientific ideas, religion is bankrupt.

Look, Ma! Interesting mercury news—based on science!

As the anti-vaccine mercury militia’s limited credibility shrinks even further, actual scientists are investigating real mercury-based toxins.

Remember how followers of the mercury militia were getting all their old mercury amalgam fillings pulled? It turns out that maybe that’s not the greatest idea.

A group from the U of I found that once you dig out the fillings, under the right conditions, mercury can become exposed to certain bacteria that methylate it, forming toxic methylmercury compounds.

If this pans out, it may change the way mercury fillings are removed and the waste products disposed of.

Look! Science!

University of Illinois at Chicago (2008, March 27). Dental Chair A Possible Source Of Neurotoxic Mercury Waste. ScienceDaily.

Finally Free

At long last I have finished my surgical requirements. After 12 weeks of nonstop surgery rotations, despite enjoying it thoroughly, I’m ready to try something else for a while. Or at least I’m looking forward to waking up at 6AM rather than 4AM for a few months. It seems like such a small difference, but it’s literally the difference between night and day. Especially during the winter, starting at 5 on the wards and finishing usually well after dark, you begin to wonder if you’ll see the sun again. Being able to walk into work when it’s actually light out is very appealing.

My traffic has, of course, slowed. But I’ve still been thinking about good topics to write about this whole time. At the end of most days I’ve just been passing out rather than taking the time to mock crankery. Now I think my schedule will be a little more amenable to extramural writing, I have a backlog of things to discuss, and the first thing we’re going to be dealing with is this polling-based nonsense about ignoring denialism I’ve been hearing about lately. I’ll also talk some more about the fun things I’ve done, and if various people can avoid getting their panties in a bunch over little old me, I might be able to relate some more amusing things about medical education.

An update on cult murder of diabetic girl

It had seemed at first that there would be no help for the living children of the killer parents in Wisconsin. But, in a fit of rational behavior, the authorities removed the remaining children from their parents care. I hate to see families broken up, but until the parents are deprogrammed, it simply isn’t safe for kids to live in that house.

The parents apparently have ties to the “Unleavened Bread Ministries”, who admit to eschewing medical care in favor of prayer. The cult has been unenthusiastic about claiming the family as members. As quoted by ABC news, David Ells, the cult leader of the “Matzoh Ministry” (at least, that should be their name, due to the alliteration):

“We are not commanded in scripture to send people to the doctor but to meet their needs through prayer and faith. As anyone here in the ministry will tell you, we are not against doctors for those who have their faith there and never condemn or restrict them in any way,” Eells writes. “But we know that the best one to trust in for healing is Jesus Christ. The foundation for receiving this benefit from Him is repentance and faith in His promises.”

So, unless they have somehow proven to themselves or their leader that their faith is strong, doctors are out.

According to Unleavened, these are “America’s last days.” It’s not surprising that an apocalyptic cult would focus more on death than life.

Unsurprisingly, the dead child was pulled out of public schools. Maybe home-schooling should raise a red flag for authorities. Or maybe these death-cults should be monitored more carefully. Or maybe we should make an example of the parents, and lock them up, although I’m not sure that would really help anyone.

It’s too bad their minister can’t be held responsible. But then, he probably speaks for God, so maybe the buck stops there.

Balance your energy for only $1 a minute!

I am not pleased. I am not pleased at all. Of course, hospitals need to make money, and in my part of the country, that’s getting damned hard. More and more people are jobless, without insurance, and broke. Hospitals are focusing more on customer service—and that includes providing what the customer wants whether or not there is any evidence to support it. Orac maintains a database of such atrocities occurrences. This is from a table card at a large, local hospital.


Energy Work is a calming technique
in which the body’s energy field is
eased into relaxation.

$1 per minute (15 minutes=$15)

For an appointment call
Integrative Medicine at (redacted)

This service can be billed to your room.

Arghh!!! Here we are, well into the evidence-based revolution, and a hospital is offering the Reiki-equivalent of a 900 number. I wonder if they also try to drag it out. I can just see what’s going to happen when I come in with my next kidney stone:

Pal: How is my energy field doing?

Obi Wan: I can’t tell yet. You must continue.

Pal: How are you measuring the effect?

Obi Wan: I’m trained. You must continue.

Pal: Are you done yet?

Obi Wan (checking watch): I should be finished in another 45 seconds. You must continue.

Pal: Is this really gonna cost me 10 dollars?

Obi Wan: No. We’re up to $15. Tip isn’t included.

I really, really hope my patients aren’t being offered this service. It seems to me that if anyone is claiming that this treatment has an effect, there must be a doctor’s order for it. And this doctor ain’t ordering any.

Detoxification–the pinnacle of quackery

In another fit of sloth, I am migrating one of my favorites over from my old blog. If you haven’t read it, it’s new to you! –PalMD

Many of my patients ask me about it; the TV is full of ads for it; you can’t avoid it. “Detoxification” is apparently the pinnacle of modern health care, if you believe folks like Joseph Mercola and Gary Null, and the dozens of adds on late-night TV.

For me to explain to you why even the very idea is laughable, I have to teach you a bit of human biochemistry—just a little, I promise. My scientific readers will find this grossly oversimplified, but hopefully they will forgive me.

Continue reading “Detoxification–the pinnacle of quackery”

So much anti-vaccine crankery, so little time

It’s amazing that anti-vaccine crankery persists. I went over to Joe Mercola’s woo-palace again, and what should pop up but an article by Dr. Woo himself, Russell Blaylock. Apparently Russ and Joe are “good friends”, which is appropriate, since both are doctors that aren’t welcome in the profession. Blaylock believes that vaccines kill your brain. How does he know?

“A tremendous amount of research has now demonstrated the link between chronic low-level brain inflammation, elevated brain glutamate levels and major depression”


“A great number of studies have shown that when you vaccinate an animal, the body’s inflammatory cytokines not only increase dramatically, but so do the brain’s inflammatory chemicals.”

OK. This is a load of bubkes. You can read the article if you’re bored, but let me at least parse out his citations for you. To summarize, his hypothesis is that vaccines somehow make the nervous system all cranky, and local glutamate toxicity in the brain is induced, leading to neuropsychiatric problems. Here’s a few of his supposedly supporting citations:

1) McGeer PL and McGeer EG. Local neuroinflammation and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. J Neurovirology 202; 8: 529-538. This is an article about the role of the innate immune system in brain inflammation from autopsy specimens. The innate immune system is not the arm that is specifically activated by vaccines.

2)Tavares RG, et al. Quinolinic acid stimulates synaptosomal glutamate release and inhibits glutamate uptake into astrocytes. Neurochem Int 2002; 40: 621-627. Interesting basic science about glutamate metabolism. Irrelevant.

11) Anderson T et al. NMDA-receptor antagonist prevents measles virus-induced neurodegeneration. Eur J Neurosci 1991; 3: 66-71. Irrelevant

13) Renault PF, et al. Psychiatric complications of long-term ineterferon-alpha therapy. Arch Internal Medicine 1987; 147: 1577-1580. Irrelevant

Basically, none of his citations support his hypothesis in any way. It’s an interesting hypothesis. It just isn’t supported by his data.

If this is the best “evidence” the uber-cranks can come up with, it’s no wonder they aren’t getting lots of grants and tenured academic positions.

So what are some other strategies employed by the anti-vax cults? How about fear? Lies?

Continue reading “So much anti-vaccine crankery, so little time”

God in the exam room

My profession does not allow me the luxury of suffering fools, but neither does it allow me the luxury of always being blunt in my beliefs.

Readers may have noticed a slight tendency toward snarkiness, especially when dealing with woo. I refuse to pull punches when it comes to people peddling quackery. Religion is different.

In my work, my religious beliefs (or lack of them) are irrelevant, and I don’t intend to “confess” to either belief or non-belief to my patients. Being a physician is not the same as being an academic scientist. As a bench scientist, your cell cultures don’t really care who you are—not so with patients. Patients are acutely interested in their doctors–their marital status, if they have kids, where they grew up. I spend quite a bit of time just chatting with my patients. Mrs. S. always likes to see the latest pictures of my daughter, and I oblige her.

Not that I don’t enjoy showing off my kid, but there is a greater purpose to these activities. Patients who know you and like you are more likely to trust you and follow your advice. That’s why I usually go along with whatever my patients say regarding religion. That’s not a cop-out, it’s real medicine.

People are different from primers and test tubes. They require comfort and trust. I never mock (or even contradict) their religious beliefs (I save that for cafe arguments). Telling a cancer patient that God is a fairy tale is not only wrong, it’s cruel.

Patients believe, and nothing a doctor says is going to change that. Yes, sometimes these beliefs get in the way of good medical care, but more often they are benign, strongly attached to the patient, and their removal would cause more harm than good. Primum non nocere.

There are lots of things in this world that I don’t believe in—fairies, God, good Chinese food in the Midwest—but my patients can believe whatever helps them get by (except the Chinese food thing). It’s my job to heal, not evangelize.

That being said, whenever my patients show me the latest bottle of get-well potion they’ve purchased, I gently explain why it won’t do them much good. I won’t take God away from a patient, but I’ll happily separate them from Gary Null.

Out, pesky engram!

I think I made clear that Scientology is a wacked-out cult. The primary concern from my perspective as a doctor is their denialist position on psychiatric illness.

Given the toll mental illness takes on society, and the amount of influence exerted by Scientology, everyone should be shouting from the rooftops (in a perfectly calm and sane way), “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

The Church of Scientology has a little friend called the “Citizens Commission on Human Rights“. It’s motto is “investigating and exposing psychiatric human rights abuse”. Who is this “commission” and what is their beef?

A good place to start is on their info page. Hardly a paragraph goes by without a falsehood or logical fallacy.

Continue reading “Out, pesky engram!”

You say pranic, I say panic–let’s call the whole thing off

I was thinking about poor Orac and his death crud, so I thought I’d do a little research for him.

I did a quick google search for holistic healing (call a doctor? Are you kidding?) and immediately found my answer–Pranic Healing.

First, I gotta tell you, it’s a deal–a steal, really–because you get knowledge, and no one can take that away from you. I mean, penicillin, you take it, you’re cured, and that’s it–nothing left, just “wham bam thank you ma’am”.

The Level One class is under $400.00. Compared to the expense of a doctors visit (about $80.00), and some online research from reputable medical sites (free), it’s, well–I’m crying, really.

Let’s look at the course description. Starting at the bottom:

This course is intended for Energy Healers, Physicians, Nurses, Chiropractors, Acupuncturists, Massage Therapists, or anyone interested in a safe and powerful energetic healing system.

Basically, anyone can take the class, as long as they are interested in a “safe and powerful energetic healing system.” What in the world?

Reduce Stress — Support Physical and Emotional Healing
The Pranic Healing Level 1 class teaches energetic scanning to balance the chakra system for healing simple and complex illnesses. A person’s energy field holds the template for the physical body. When the chakras in the energy field are balanced, the physical body is healthy.

MCKS Pranic Healing is taught directly and succinctly so that anyone, with or without energy training, or previous knowledge of energy healing can effect and support healing for oneself and for others.

Sweeping and energizing are taught as powerful healing techniques.

Energies are taught to be directed with intention.

Protocols are provided for healing many specific ailments from simple headaches to chronic disorders.

Learn distance healing and energetic hygiene.

Lovely, just lovely. Sounds so–weird.

Pranic Healing is an advanced form of energy medicine based on energy centers lying along the major acupuncture meridians.

So, to summarize, this is a “healing modality” based on ayurvedic ideas (chakras), and acupuncture meridians. Both ideas are complete bullshit. Recent studies have invalidated the already bizarre theory of acupuncture meridians, and ayurvedic medicine is just another untested, unproven “alternative” to real medicine.

So, should you take a class in Pranic Medicine? It seems obvious from where I sit, and I hope you feel a little closer to the answer.