REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Here’s the second part of the pile I’ve accumulated in past months.


First, a couple updates from last month. In researching a possible article about Scott Adams’ recent stereotyping of skeptics in his Dilbert strips, a State Journal-Register reporter spoke to Adams about whether or not my review had anything to do with it. Unfortunately, I have to report that it did not. Adams said he works about four months ahead. The strips that appeared last month were done in response to the initial e-mail comments he received from skeptics about his book, not about the later comments I (and others) penned. So while his pokes at skeptics were certainly not a coincidence with respect to other skeptics, the timing was just that when it came to REALL.

On a more serious note, last month I reported several trials involving "healers" who allegedly harmed instead. Just as we went to press, Jeffrey Knapp, self-proclaimed psychic and reiki practitioner, was convicted of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for forcing a 14-year-old boy to touch him under the guise of spiritual healing (Chicago Tribune, 1/17/98). Knapp’s lawyer blamed the conviction on the jury’s lack of understanding of reiki (I’m sure it had nothing to do with his two previous similar run-ins with this type of behavior). The defense claimed that Knapp said he was merely trying to teach the boy a technique to transfer sexual energy into spiritual energy; Knapp admitted to being naked during these "lessons" but his intentions were purely innocent. The jury thought otherwise.

Other Court News: False Memories

While we haven’t heard much on the false memory front lately, the court battles have still been going on. In Chicago, a woman reached a $10.6 million settlement with Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, Dr. Bennett Braun (director of the hospital’s psychiatric trauma section), and another psychiatrist (Associated Press, 11/6/97). Long-time readers of this newsletter may recall that Braun has made several appearances in this column (Volume 2, #12 [December 1994] and "REALLity Checklist -- 1994 in Review," Volume 3, #2 [February 1995]). He was featured in a positive light within the Chicago Tribune at that time (Tempo section, of course) while they apparently did no investigation of his bizarre claims (this earned them my "award" for worst research in the "REALLity Checklist" mentioned above).

The woman accused the hospital of using hypnosis and drugs to convince her that she was a member of a satanic cult, had committed ritual murder, been tortured, and sexually abused her own children -- none of which were actually true. In addition to her own two-year stay in the psychiatric ward, doctors persuaded her to hospitalize her own two healthy children, then aged four and five, for almost three years!

Of course, the settlement involves no admission of wrongdoing on anybody’s part, and Braun says it was made over his objections. Apparently, there are still some people who have not learned the lessons of these past few years when it comes to "repressed memory" claims and the methods used to "recover" them.

Interestingly, the woman began to doubt her therapy when reading a critical article about it in a magazine. Anybody who doubts the media has the power to influence, both positively and negatively, needs to keep this incident in mind.

Study Finds Herb Ineffective

There are lots of claims floating around the alternative medicine realm, but few tests to back them up. Often, when the tests are done, they don’t bear out the claims. Such seems to be the case in a study reported by Reuters (12/29/97). This study, done at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, showed that a Chinese herbal "remedy," dong quai, used by some women to offset the symptoms of menopause, is no more effective than a placebo. While dong quai is traditionally used in China with other herbs, the majority of American women who use it do so alone. The study did not address the multiple-herb use, but concluded that when it is used alone, it is of no help.

Diet Claims Examined

Speaking of claim-testing, Consumer Reports (1/98) reviewed several of the top-selling diet books. The subtitle of the article was a good hint as to what to expect: "Lots of gimmicks, little solid advice."

Consumer Reports reported on the advice, safety, use, and (gasp) evidence for the claims made in each book. None got very high ratings in the evidence category -- not surprisingly -- and most got "poor," the lowest possible. The one book that got a "good" rating for evidence (which is actually the middle rating) was Eat More, Weigh Less by Dr. Dean Ornish. There was actually a study published in a peer-reviewed journal regarding the claims he makes. Meanwhile, the worst was Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, by Dr. Robert C. Atkins, which advises "a high-fat, high-protein, low carbohydrate diet that emphasizes nutritional supplements." Another poorly rated book was Eat Right for Your Type by Dr. Peter J. D'Adamo with Catherine Whitney. This one is based on the idea that your blood type determines how your body absorbs nutrients and was labeled "pseudoscience" by several of the reviewers.

I’m glad to see Consumer Reports tackling subjects like this. When they looked at alternative medicine a couple years back, they did an incredibly wishy-washy job, so I hope this article is an indication of a willingness to take a serious look at strange health claims.

The Obvious Item

On February 2, the Psychic Friends Network (the phone hotline that Dionne Warwick fronts for) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Oh, heck. This is just too easy. Insert your own joke here.

Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS!