Tagged: quackery

Facilitated Communication leads to sexual assault

Let’s start with the key point: Facilitated Communication (FC) is nonsense. In FC, a person who can’t communicate by speech, use a keyboard even with mechanical or electronic help, or otherwise produce words, is helped (facilitated) by a person who holds his/her hand and moves it toward what is perceived to be a desired letter. It’s described here: http://www.asha.org/policy/TR1994-00139.htm#sec1.3. There are variations on the technique as I described it, but they all involve a facilitator sensing subtle muscle movements by the person they’re assisting and using that to pick letters or symbols.

Also, it is nonsense–did I mention that? Facilitated Communication is identical to Ouija Board readings or automatic writing. Psychology and neuroscience class them all as ideomotor response. It is the “facilitator” who is communicating, not the person ostensibly being assisted. This has been tested by (for instance) setting up experiments in which the facilitator knows something that the assistee does not. In all such (well-designed) experiments, the results of the test have the “speech” produced match the facilitator’s knowledge.

The facilitators do not appear to be consciously faking. Like Ouija Board users, they’re unconsciously moving the other person’s hand. And because this is an unconscious process, they can produce messages they would never consciously write in their own names. FC has led to charges and convictions of child abuse, for instance. Recently one Dr. Steven Laurys claimed that FC (by speech therapist Linda Wouters) demonstrated that a brain-damaged patient was fully conscious but couldn’t control his own body enough to communicate. To his credit, Laurys did further tests that did indeed demonstrate the the patient was not communicating at all.

Now for the latest bizarre tragedy caused by belief in FC. Dr. Anna Stubblefield, a professor of Philosophy at Rutgers, has just been convicted of sexually assaulting a man who has cerebral palsy. She claims that he is not mentally disabled and that they fell in love, despite his lack of speech, by communicating through FC. A jury has found that “D. J.” is mentally incompetent and cannot therefore give consent. D. J. is not paralyzed and can move his arms, although his condition makes him less dexterous. It isn’t clear from the story (and in fact isn’t clear in many FC cases) why he couldn’t simply point at an alphabet board, if he really was mentally capable of literacy.

Apparently Stubblefield had sex with him multiple times.

Realize that any messages Dr. Stubblefield received were from her own brain–just not the parts that normally are thought of as “the conscious mind.” In other words, she literally fell in love with herself (or more fairly, with the story she was telling herself) and then had sex with this disabled man.

She was the chair of a respected university’s philosophy department at the time, but somehow didn’t manage to learn the central lesson of science, and of the skeptical movement: doubt your own judgement. A true tragedy.

Infuriated by Intelligence and Sincerity

There’s a guy I know. I’ll call him “Rick” because that is not his name.

Rick is a naturopath.

Naturopathy doesn’t work. It’s a combination of sub-Hogwarts magic with some training in real stuff. The leading US school of Naturopathy is Bastyr University. Here are some things in Bastyr’s course offerings:

  • Acupuncture
  • Homeopathy
  • Holistic Landscape Design
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Therapeutic Touch

There’s much more, that’s the result of a few minutes of flipping through their course descriptions. Interestingly, the curriculum itself looks incredibly medical. The “Physical Medicine” course sequence sounds like something a science-based physician would take, until you read the description and find out it it includes “muscle energy technique” and other woo-woo

There’s no good evidence that any of the topics listed do anything at all, except cost money and possibly delay getting real medical treatment. Well, OK, acupuncture can result in punctured lungs.

Now, here’s the thing about Rick that infuriates me. He’s not a fool. He has a science degree from a very prestigious university. He also has real medical training as a paramedic. I’ve spoken to him enough to know that he really cares about his patients, and that he doesn’t actually prescribe the stupid treatments like homeopathy, because he knows perfectly well that they don’t work.

Why would his not being a terrible physician bother me? Because by his being a sincere, caring, and intelligent guy he’s adding to the prestige of naturopaths. Naturopathy is nonsense. He’s endorsing what is frankly dangerous nonsense and because he’s legitimately a respected guy he gives it credibility. I don’t think Rick is dangerous to his patients himself–I am absolutely certain that if someone presents with symptoms of, say, heart failure he’ll refer to an MD or OD immediately. However … if he lends authority to naturopathy, he is indirectly promoting nonsense like anti-vaccine attitudes that can kill people. So I get mad.

What to do about it, I have no idea, except rant here.

Quietly Doing Nothing

Whenever I listen to the local news radio station, I hear ads for Quietus®. Quietus is a remedy for tinnitus. Tinnitus is a condition in which a person hears sounds, often roaring, humming or whistling, which are not perceptible to anyone else. In severe cases these sounds can interfere with hearing and understanding speech or enjoying music, or even prevent sleep. In many cases there is little medicine can do for tinnitus sufferers.

Medical conditions that can’t be easily cured by medicine are a natural target for medical nonsense. Quietus is (in the writer’s sole opinion) a fine example of something that couldn’t possibly work but is making money for its makers.

Quietus is a “dual homeopathic” medication. This means it has two supposed ingredients. However, most homeopathic medications in fact contain literally nothing. Homeopathy is an antiquated and unscientific pseudo-medical system based on these premises:

  1. Like cures like–that is, treat a disease with medication or medications that cause the same symptoms, and
  2. The smaller the dose, the more powerful the effect of medication.

Both are silly, but the second is what makes it impossible for homeopathic “drugs” to work. In most cases, commercial homeopathic remedies are diluted so much that none of the so-called active ingredients are actually present!

Quietus’ web site contains a page titled “Quietus® Homeopathic Treatment A Study by Dr. Thomas Latino, Ph.D.” The contents are not a study in any academic sense, however, just a description of the product’s ingredients and their traditional uses.

Quietus contains:

  1. Apis Mellificais which is obtained by soaking honeybees in alcohol.
  2. Aristolochia Clematis, also called “birthwort”.
  3. M. Chamomilla, German chamomile.
  4. Lachesis Mutusis,  venom from the African Bushmaster.
  5. Thuja Occidentalis or arbor vita, more commonly known as white cedar or eastern white cedar (although it is not a botanical cedar).
  6. C. Officinalis (presumably the pot marigold, Calendula officinalis).
  7. K. Phosphoricum, which they also refer to as “Potassium of Potash”. This is chemical gibberish, presumably they mean just “potash”, which is potassium phosphate (and which some homeopaths call “Kali Phosphoricum” to make it sound more technical or mystical or techno-mystical or something).
  8. Salicylic Acid, a chemical found within some plant tissues (most famously willow bark).

[sic] for all the above organisms–in biology species names don’t start with a capital letter, but Dr. Latino consistently writes them incorrect. “Thuja Occidentalis” should be Thuja occidentalis, for instance.

It’s interesting reading the above-linked “Study” page because it says right at the top, “Homeopathic potencies accredit their strength and efficacy to the electromagnetic signatures of the original substrate. These are scientifically created dilutions and successions of medicines such that generally not even a molecule of the original substrate or medicine is present in the medicine.” They admit up front that their product has no active ingredients but claim that “electromagnetic signatures” of these nonexistent chemicals somehow cure tinnitus. I don’t think you’ll find any physicists or chemists who can identify what “electromagnetic signatures” even means in this context.

Notice the weird melange of ingredients, very typical of magic-mongers. It includes extracts from living things (an animal and several plants), a very simple chemical (potassium phosphate), and an organic molecule (salicylic acid).

The key single thing to notice on the “Study” page is this: the author doesn’t list any claims that any of the ingredients help tinnitus. Even accepting at face value all the claims of homeopathic effects listed, they’re for other, not-obviously-relevant disorders including asthma, pain, cancer, and arthritis! Want to see a classic example of misleading language? The author writes, “Derivations of C. Officinalis are administered to elderly patients to treat tinnitus and cardiac related disorders and have been found to have effective implications when taken to counteract swelling and other conditions that may adversely impact the workings of the inner ear.” Note that Dr. Latino does not claim this nostrum works for tinnitus! He says only that it is used for that complaint. (What the heck are “effective implications”?)

The author of this “Study” is Dr. Thomas Latino. PubMed reports that Dr. Latino has zero medical publications. A more general web search finds the same “Study” that’s on the Quietus site was also published by The Hearing Journal in 2010. HJ appears to be an industry trade magazine. It is certainly not a peer-reviewed, scientific publication. He is stated to be “a consultant” and no details are given of his degrees, or professional experience, anywhere that I can find. His only other publication that I can locate is promoting another homeopathic nostrum, this one for sciatica.

But surely the makers must have some evidence it works? Well, all they give is a bunch of testimonials. Anonymous testimonials. Testimonials are very convincing–we humans are easily persuaded by stories. Trouble is, testimonials are easily found for all manner of quack nonsense, including copper bracelets curing arthritis, Laetrile curing cancer, and stump water curing warts. To show that a medical treatment works, you need controlled and blinded experiments or carefully-conducted epidemiological studies, which simply don’t exist for this ludicrous treatment.

In conclusion: this stuff can’t possibly work (again, it has no ingredients), they present no meaningful evidence that it does work, and the only effect it’s likely to have is moving money from the sufferer’s wallet to the seller’s. Not recommended.