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Penn and Teller: Bull*%&! Episode 2: “Alternative Medicine”

April 27, 2015 2 comments

So it’s pretty obvious that I haven’t been doing a great job of keeping any of my blogs updated regularly. I have a new job as a Nurse Assistant at McLaren Greater Lansing working the night shift (7 PM-7AM) and I’m still getting used to the new sleeping schedule. I’ve also been doing some work for the Clinton County Democratic Party, so the time I have for writing is a little slimmer than I’d prefer.

Still, I wanted to make the next post in my rewatch of Penn and Teller Bullshit and maybe get back in the swing of writing. I was upset that I completely forgot about the April 2015 A-to-Z Blogging Challenge, but I don’t think that I would have been able to keep up with it.

Anyway, let’s get to the good stuff:

Original Air Date: January 31, 2003
Production Code: 102

The second episode of Penn and Teller’s show is called “Alternative Medicine.” This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart as I am extremely skeptical of complimentary and alternative medicine. In fact, I’ve linked back to one of my favorite blogs, Science-Based Medicine, multiple times over the years on this very subject. I haven’t seen this episode in a long time, so I’m very anxious to see their treatment of the issue.

The show starts with Penn reciting a list of diseases that Teller is supposed to have, while Teller acts as if he’s afflicted by them (and he sneaks in a few tricks, too). It’s a very comprehensive list of maladies that most people have had some experience with, including cancer and eczema. Penn wants to try to cure Teller of these diseases without visiting a doctor, declaring, “Let’s try some bullshit!”

And I think he’s right on point, there: the thing about a lot of alternative medicine is that it doesn’t have a good basis of support. Often, the scientific studies that are done on alternative treatments show no better outcomes than a placebo, and when alternative treatments do have some kind of benefit, they become mainstream medicine. I think it’s rather fitting that Penn starts the episode with a brief history of medical quackery, including showing a picture of an advertisement for cocaine toothache drops.

Medicine used to be a hodge-podge of nonsense (though, to be fair, things outside of mainstream medicine are more than likely still nonsense). Modern medicine has added structure, regulation, and standardization to medical treatment in a way that has reduced mortality, stopped disease, and increased the lifespan. There’s still a rich, fascinating history of medical treatments before we achieved this, such as using radium-infused water as a health tonic. As you can imagine, drinking radioactive substances didn’t have many health benefits.

The first target that Penn lays his sights on is reflexology. Basically Penn says that “reflexologists believe that the foot contains pathways to every nerve ending and organ in the body, and that by putting pressure on various points of the foot, a plethora of diseases can be eliminated.” This is followed by a gag where Teller is trying to change the sparkplug in Penn’s car by tapping the tires. It’s not a bad metaphor, to be honest. There isn’t any anatomical or physiological reason to believe that manipulating the feet will have an impact on any organs.

One thing that the show recognizes is that these alternative treatments are huge cash cows. Not that mainstream medicine isn’t expensive–at least it produces verifiable results and is backed by numerous studies. The reflexologist that is shadowed on the show charges, according to Penn, $55 an hour to apply a pulsating machine to the foot that seems to be nothing more than a foot massage. It’s noteworthy that there is no consensus about how reflexology is supposed to work, even amongst reflexologists.

Next, Penn tackles magnet therapy, which he notes at the time of the show’s production was a billion-dollar per year industry. According to Quack Watch, “There is no scientific basis to conclude that small, static magnets can relieve pain or influence the course of any disease. In fact, many of today’s products produce no significant magnetic field at or beneath the skin’s surface.” This is backed up by links in the wikipedia article, which note that the magnetic fields produced by the magnets used are too weak to influence blood flow.

The doctor that they have promoting magnet therapy on the show is, to be frank, wrong on just about everything. Magnets do not produce an “energy field,” they produce a magnetic field–magnetic fields that are orders of magnitudes too weak to affect the body. This doctor also has no idea what magnets are and stumbles through a frankly embarrassing attempt to describe them which I won’t even attempt to repeat here.

Sigh. The doctor is nuts and thinks that stress builds up in your body and that magnets can…do something? I think. To relieve that stress, apparently. It’s a big pile of nonsense. Teller does another gag, this one involving blood and magnets that I won’t give away, to demonstrate it.

I think that the highlight of the episode is a gag that they put on in a mall to show how gullible people are, and how responsive they are to the power of suggestion. An official scientist-looking person will demonstrate how effective the magnets are at treating them (even though, as they reveal, the magnets were completely demagnetized). It’s a pretty fantastic experiment.

The third target is chiropractic. This is harder to tackle because it’s so widely accepted and there are several different lines of thought on it. The quack chiropractors are the ones that agree with the nonsense idea of subluxations (and that most health problems come from the misalignment of the spine–hey, screw germ theory of disease, am I right?) and skew anti-vaccine to others that are nothing more than glorified physical therapists. It’s not hard to see that I don’t have a high opinion on chiropractic and I try to steer people clear of it if I get the chance (why go to an expensive chiropractor when you can go to a physical therapist and get the same, if not better, outcomes?).

And, again, the show finds the perfect avatar of the extreme side of chiropractic in a man who makes claims about chiropractic spinal adjustments that are irresponsible and unfounded, and in a perfect world a few would be criminal.

One of the things I appreciate about Penn and and Teller Bullshit is that they don’t shy away from showing things that will be controversial and disturbing. They show the chiropractor cracking the necks of children, along with the cracking sounds. Anyone with any knowledge of human development would know that children, especially young children, aren’t even fully developed or grown. Spinal and neck manipulations are dangerous–extremely so! This chiropractor then goes on to tell the story of how he treated a baby, and boasts that the youngest he ever adjusted was, in his words, a minute and a half old.

Yes, a baby. Spinal and neck manipulation of a baby. Let that sink in. The fact that this man isn’t in jail speaks volumes about how permissive we are of bullshit alternative medical treatments. The bones of a baby’s body aren’t fully formed. Any kind of manipulation of the spinal chord or neck could be fatal.

I just don’t have the ability to spend any more time on this bastard. I sincerely hope he never seriously injures anyone.

But the bottom line here is that all three of these alternative treatments are about salesmanship. We’re talking money pumped in to create the illusion of legitimacy, advertisements, and political lobbying to feed million and billion dollar industries that produce very few, if any, positive health outcomes. Tell the people what they want to hear: don’t like vaccines? Say that you don’t need them with this magical herb. Don’t trust “Big Pharma?” Sell essential oils and claim they can heal disease, when in reality they do nothing more than make things smell better.

The show moves back to the reflexologist, who trains people to be reflexologist in a sort of “pay as you go” setup, where the people will actually start “treating” people before they even start to “learn” his methods so that they can pay him for more. If you think that this is a scam, well, you’re not alone. Imagine if they let medical students practice medicine before they got their medical degrees.

I think that this was a great episode, when the dust settled. It was hard to watch the chiropractor manipulate the neck of a child, but that’s the kind of thing you can’t shy away from if you want to see how dangerous these people can be. I don’t have a problem with new ideas in medicine getting a fair shake. If the doctors or whoever can come up with an idea, and it can stand on its own after tests and experiments and criticism, that will advance medicine.

But the examples of alternative medicine demonstrated in these episodes have been tested. And they don’t produce good results. Often, you have people who are trying to sell you something you don’t really need if you just go to the doctor regularly and take care of yourself. The lesson to learn is to be skeptical. Ask questions. Do this for doctors and people in mainstream medicine, too. If a doctor can’t answer a question, or deflects, then you have good reason to seek another opinion. I would be good money that none of these alternative medicine practitioners could satisfactorily answer questions put to them. For instance, “What is a meridian, and how does rubbing a foot draw ‘energy’ from the brain to these meridians?”

The safe bet for health is always the treatment that has a mountain of credible data to back it up. Alternative medicine lacks that.

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