Tummy Ache

May 31, 2010

Spam is usually a nuisance, but sometimes it can be quite informative and even entertaining. Take this example received from one of my favourite spammers, Antoinette Pombo. She specializes in hawking dubious health products on behalf of an organization called Fleet Street Publications. It was Antoinette—by the way may I call you Toni? Antoinette is a fistful too far for my typing; in return you may call me Grumps—who provided me with first intelligence of the Q-link and the low-down on testicular cancer. Here is the start of her latest dithyramb, this time in praise of an individual called Jonathan V. Wright. I’ll try to preserve her HTML if possible to give you the taste and aroma of the sheer idiocy of her outpourings.

Shattering discovery

body’s worst enemy is…



Suffering from Asthma?

It’s your

you losing your memory?

It’s your

Are your arteries

It’s your

Or maybe you have
macular degeneration? Osteoporosis? Chronic Hives? Gallbladder disease?
Angina? Arthritis? Cockrot? Ingrowing Toenails?

all your stomach…

Here’s one simple
trick to tame your stomach and live healthier than ever

It goes on in much the same vein for another 2,000 words, so I won’t reproduce the whole thing here, but will share with you some of the more amusing quotes. I must state at this point that I had hitherto not heard of the good (or perhaps not) Dr Wright. In the course of my researches I discovered that he is the hero and blue-eyed boy of the arch-crackpot Suzanne Somers, which is not the right foot on which to be starting off. I am not qualified to know whether or not Dr Wright is a quack; I’ll merely point out that he is listed on Quackwatch with a red asterisk, indicating that he may very well be.

Toni begins by offering a series of anecdotes in which the hero, who is at death’s door, goes to see Dr Wright and within a few short weeks is totally cured. Take Hernando, whose legs were so knackered his doctors wanted to amputate. After seeing Dr Wright he was leaping like a hart (whatever that may be). Or John who had angina, or Sam who had macular degeneration, or…

All these people were allegedly suffering from hypochlorydria—too little stomach acid, which Dr Wright apparently knows how to cure.

After the “case studies”, Toni gives a truly boot-licking, sycophantic resume of Dr Wright’s career and qualifications:

“No other doctor of our time has crusaded harder or sacrificed more to bring the healing power of nutrition to ordinary people like you and me than Dr Wright.”

This is one impressive guy: he was awarded “the highest medical honour ever” which I must assume is an honour higher even than the Nobel prize. Well, Toni says it is, so who am I to argue? She is referring to the Linus Pauling Lifetime Achievement Award (LPLAA), of which I have never heard. I have, however, heard of Linus Pauling who is one of only two scientists to win two Nobel prizes, one for physics and the other for chemistry. (There is some speculation that he was in line for the Peace prize as well, but he was passed over.) In the latter part of his life he descended into crackpothood, though, advocating the consumption of staggering quantities of vitamin C.

A search of the internet reveals that the LPLAA is perhaps not what it’s cracked up to be: a google search for “Linus Pauling Lifetime Achievement Award” yields only three results, all of which are about Dr Wright. It seems no one else has ever been the recipient of this mysterious award, or indeed knows anything about it.

Then we are treated to the usual rants against “mafia-style pharmaceutical companies” and “the capitalist institutions that have a death-grip on our health and quality of life”, which Toni always inserts into her pieces. I’m sure she even sticks this stuff into her christmas cards.

And, at last, we get to the punchline. We too can be cured of just about everything if we subscribe to Dr Wright’s publication Nutrition & Healing which will cost a mere R57 per month. As is customary for quack remedies, Dr Wright’s snake oil is marketed as a substitute for not supplemental to science-based treatments, which means people will inevitably be harmed by falling for Toni’s nonsense. It doesn’t really matter though; if you’re dumb enough to buy this tripe, then you deserve your fate.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Quack Link

March 1, 2010

“No more stress-headaches, insomnia, hangovers or mood swings.” So read the headline of one of the latest pieces of spam to hit my inbox. Well, spammer, I’m interested. I suffer from chronic insomnia and the occasional hangover . What could this miracle drug be? I read on.

Oh. It’s not a drug at all. It’s a little McGufty you hang around your neck like a piece of jewelery. How is this supposed to relieve my hangover? Well, according to the marketers of the Q-link pendant (which is what this spam is flogging), my hangovers are caused by “…being blasted with radiation from work monitors, cell phones and giant electricity pylons, we’re being zapped at home by televisions, mp3 players and game consoles.” And all this time I’ve thought hangovers were caused by drinking too much. Silly me.

So how does it work? It is alleged to contain a “resonating cell, (nature’s microchip)” which neutralizes all these pernicious “rays” we are constantly bombarded by. Oh wait, this is wonderful! I can “go on using my cellphone, watching TV and working on my computer”. I’m so relieved.

And it must really work because Tiger Woods wears one. Perhaps it should come with a warning: Do not drive or operate heavy machinery whilst wearing this thing. But they still haven’t really explained how it’s supposed to work.

OK, we’ve got there. Here comes the science:

Tuning YOUR body to the perfect frequency

It works like this. The Q-Link contains a resonating cell (also known as ‘nature’s microchip’) which works to counteract the effects the tools of modern life have on your body.

Put simply, it ensures your body is operating at its perfect frequency – a bit like the human equivalent of a tuning fork.

Your body is made up of trillions of cells. Now, each and every one of these cells has a frequency. Unfortunately every time your body experiences any stress, all these frequencies go out of synch…

This is where we come in. Q-Link’s proprietary technology ensures that all these frequencies are resonating harmonically.

Wow. Just wow. I’m overawed, flabbergasted at the scholarly erudition of this. How can I argue against what you say when you haven’t actually said anything?

But all this is quibbling. Priced at a mere R1,599 I’d have to be mad not to try it. Who knows, perhaps I’d be able to drink as much as I liked without suffering the morning after consequences. I wonder how much that would cost.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Good News!

February 3, 2010

Good news!  The Lancet has retracted Dr Andrew Wakefield’s paper linking the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine with autism and bowel disorders.  This is not before time; the damage done by this particular paper in a journal as respected as The Lancet has been enourmous.  The journal has admitted that it should never have published the flawed research in the first place, which implies that in this case there was a failure of the peer-review process and that steps should be taken to avoid a repetition of that failure.

The retraction of the paper was not a spontaneous decision to do the right thing on the part of The Lancet, however.  It came in response to an editorial in the rival British Medical Journal that was to have been published today calling for its retraction.  One hopes that The Lancet will be more careful in future.

The vaccine-autism debate has raised a lot of issues that now need to be ingested, digested, mulled over and taken into the public conciousness.  As with all scientific subjects that become politicised, this one has raised questions about the quality of scientific journalism, the lack of science education and the inability of the public to understand, even in the most superficial way, the scientific process.

Firstly, there is a profound misunderstanding of the very nature of science.  The man in the street seems to be under the misapprehension that science consists of “proving”  things.  We only need one exception to disprove a rule, but in order to prove a rule we must prove it for every case, which is usually impossible to do.  So when a paper appears in a medical journal statistically linking autism with vaccines, newspapers immediately run headlines like “VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM, STUDY SHOWS”, even if the original paper made no such claim.  The fact is that science very rarely proves anything—that is the sphere of mathematics.  Science can only pile up evidence in the form of data that may or may not support a particular hypothesis.  In this case almost all the non-fabricated evidence did not support the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism.

So why the statistical link?  Well, there are other explanations than that vaccines cause autism.  The age at which the diagnosis of autism can be made is about the same age as the MMR vaccine is administered.  A parent who has his child vaccinated and then the child is diagnosed as autistic a few weeks or months later may be forgiven for thinking that the latter may be caused by the former.  But, as we all should know, correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Why has the incidence of autism been increasing as vaccination has become more widespread?  Again, there are other factors that may be at work.  The diagnostic criteria for autism have changed: a child who may, a few decades ago, have been regarded as merely shy may today be diagnosed as autistic.  The anti-vaccination factions originally blamed Thimeresol (which was used a preservative in the vaccine) for causing autism.  Thimeresol was duly removed wihout having any affect on the incidence of autism, strong evidence that it was not a cause of autism.

There is strong psychological need for people to aportion blame for any misfortune that may befall them, so parents grasped at the vaccine explanation as a drowning sailor would clutch upon a passing liferaft.  I sympathise with such parents, but their actions have consequences among the wider community.  Once a sufficient proportion of the population are vaccinated against a particular disease, the pathogen can no longer be propagated and the population as a whole develops “herd immunity”, even those who for other reasons (allergies, for example) cannot be vaccinated.  When parents decide not to vaccinate their children they put herd immunity in jeopardy, which places all unvaccinated children at risk, not just their own.

Will The Lancet’s decision have any effect on the anti-vaccination lobby?  Probably not for the die-hards—their minds are incapable of change.  It will have an effect on the medical fraternity, though, and those doctors who are advising their patients not to vaccinate their children may undergo a change of heart.  We can only hope that the anti-vaccination lobby becomes a part of the lunatic fringe like the moon-landing-hoax crowd: not taken seriously by anyone with any vestige of sanity.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Bally Ache

November 17, 2009

Lance Armstrong -- Survivor

I am not a doctor. I do, however, possess a body heir to the usual ills, so I take a keen interest in the medical sciences. One thing I have noticed is that genuine medical research is published in medical journals such as the Lancet or the New England Journal of Medicine and doesn’t make it into the mainstream media at all for the most part. If it does, it is often sensationalized by journalists who do not understand how the scientific method or the protocols of medical research work. The result is often something similar to what is reproduced, in all its ghastliness, here.

The treatment is worse than the disease!
Christine O’Brien
Contributor to Nutrition and Healing

The number of problems that survivors of testicular cancer are facing is much higher than previously thought. Simply because mainstream medicine just didn’t bother to take a look until now.

Clinicians only report treatment problems that are life-threatening or require medical intervention. And they only monitor most patients for five to ten years after treatment, meaning that many men suffering the after-effects of toxic cancer treatment have simply fallen through the cracks.

But researchers are finally getting a clue and took a look at data from the past 20 years.

Of course, what they’ve found is more or less all bad news. In a study that appeared in the Journal of the British Association of Urological Surgeons, researchers detailed an alarmingly long list of long-term effects.

Details like: Sensory nerve damage in 10-30% and hearing loss in 20% of patients on cisplatin-based (a platinum-based drug) chemotherapy. Pulmonary complications in men over 40 who are treated with bleomycin (an antibiotic) before surgery. Premature thickening of the arteries. Chronic fatigue in 17% of survivors (that’s nearly twice the normal population). And survivors are nearly TWICE as likely to develop secondary cancer.

This laundry list of threats to your health didn’t keep researchers from reaching for some good news. They reported that, “on a more positive note” up to 80% of men who try for fatherhood after treatment are successful.

I’m sorry, but with the possibility of permanent nerve damage, secondary cancer and hearing impairment, that doesn’t just seem to be enough of a silver lining.

Let’s hope that this serves as an example of why a close look at the long-term is so critical. I couldn’t help but think of the recent swine flu vaccine studies – they gave the drug the seal of approval after only a month of safety trials.

And now there are promises of protection from the pandemic – but who knows what long-term risks are waiting around the corner? And are we willing to sacrifice our lives for short-term benefits?

Let’s start with the title. Is a 20% chance of hearing loss or a 17% chance of developing chronic fatigue years or decades in the future really worse than dying of testicular cancer now? Perhaps Ms O’Brien’s cavalier attitude could be traced to the fact that she, presumably, does not possess testicles, cancerous or otherwise. Or perhaps the nonsensical headline is merely a means of grabbing eyeballs and the actual article might make some sense.

Alas, the first paragraph puts paid to that optimistic hope. The horrible ogre “mainstream medicine” couldn’t be bothered to “take a look until now”. Codswallop. If Ms O’Brien has a means of foretelling the side effects of a treatment given now which will manifest themselves decades in the future she should disclose it now; the medical fraternity will, I’m sure, be agog to hear it and the Nobel Committee will fall over themselves to honour her. Or perhaps she thinks clinical trials should last for a minimum of the average human lifespan before a drug is approved for use.

I think it was Benjamin Disraeli who first referred to “lies, damn lies and statistics”. The problem with statistics is that, whilst they are incredibly useful if properly used, they are extremely easy to misinterpret through ignorance or to misrepresent in an attempt to shore up a shoddy argument. Ms O’Brien has made extensive use of the latter technique here. Let’s have a look.

Firstly, the quoted statistics have little or no relevance to current treatments. Ms O’Brien neglected to tell us that “Some relevant observations, in particular those referring to long-term effects, are from survivors treated with ‘outdated’ therapies, although many of these survivors, treated after 1980 are still alive and with a life-expectancy of 20–30 years.” We are not told this because it makes the whole thesis of the article irrelevant.

17% chance of developing chronic fatigue? Well, unless we read the actual paper we would never know that this is in contrast to 9.5% of men who do not have testicular cancer and that “Compared to those not fatigued, the survivors with chronic fatigue were older, had less education, more unemployment and economic problems, hazardous alcohol use, somatic comorbidity, neurotoxic side-effects, mental distress after treatment, depression, anxiety, and cancerrelated distress, poor HRQL, high level of neuroticism, and a less satisfying sexual life.” Just reading that gives me chronic fatigue.

22% hearing loss? No, 22% ototoxicity, ranging from tinnitus to hearing loss, no other information provided. And so on.

A truly horrifying statistic that Ms O’Brien chose not to present is that 10% more testicular cancer survivors marry than their cancerless brethren. This is where I expect people to point out that correlation does not necessarily mean causation and that some other factor may be at play.

Ms O’Brien concludes her ridiculous rant with the question: “And are we willing to sacrifice our lives for short-term benefits?” But that is precisely what she are asking her readers to do. Sacrifice their lives for fear of long term consequences that may or may not arise in the face of the mortal peril they are facing now.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

Flax and Cheese

November 6, 2009

Flax seed oil

“Honey, I’m home!”  Fred Bakelite was in his late forties, tennis fit and looked young for his age.  His polyester leopard-skin suit was still immaculate, even after a hard day at DuBridge Industries.  “Where aaaarrree yoooouu, sweety?”

“Right here, light of my life, floater of my boat, churner of my butter.”  Margeret Bakelite kissed her husband tenderly on the lips.  They wrapped their arms around each other, stood cheek-to-cheek awhile, sighed, then split apart, she to the kitchen and he to the drinks cabinet.

“How was your day?” she called from the kitchen.

“Not Bad,” he replied. “That Barney Nylon dropped the ball on the PolySyne contract.  I’ll probably get the promotion when old Yurethane kicks the bucket.  It’ll mean a big increase.”

“Wonderful.  Did you have your medical?”

“Oh yes, I forgot to mention.  I’ve got the body of a twenty year old except for bowel cancer.  Doc Multistix says I must have an immediate operation or it’ll spread and kill me.  Well, you know what a sceptic  I am, I did my own research and you know what?  I can easily be cured!  Without an operation!”

Margeret came rushing through from the kitchen.  “What are you talking about?  Good grief Fred, this is the time to take expert opinion and to hell with these weird ideas of yours!”  Her gorgeous green eyes were humid with concern.

“Ha ha,” Fred laughed. “I understand you’re worried about me, you silly thing, but just look at this.”  He whipped open his briefcase and extracted a thick folder.  “Look, I printed this out to show you and that old fool Multistix.  There’s this woman from Germany, her name’s Johanna Budwig.  She’s been nominated for the Nobel Prize six times!  Actually some of the sites I got from Google show she’s been nominated nine times.  She has this treatment for cancer that is just cottage cheese and flax seed oil.  It has a 100% success rate!”

Margeret looked doubtful.  She took the folder from Fred and perused it, biting her lips.

“I thought nominations for the Nobel Prize were secret.  How does anyone know who was nominated, or how many times?”

“Well, I don’t know.  The people who put these sites up are probably on the committee.  They’d know, obviously.  Why  don’t they come up with the same answer?  I don’t know, how could I?  This is just typical of you—tryng to shoot down my every idea.  You really aren’t being very supportive at a hard time for me.”

“Oh, Fred, you know perfectly well I’m not trying to be nasty.  It’s just that if this was really a cure for cancer, wouldn’t everyone have heard of it?  Wouldn’t she actually have been awarded the Nobel Prize instead of just being nominated for it?”

Fred sighed.  “Well, that’s what people would say.  As you can see from this document here, the reason she hasn’t had the recognition she deserves is that the big pharmaceutical companies are making too much money selling standard chemotherapy drugs to allow this simple cure to become known.  The ingredients are not patentable, therefore no one can make money from them.”

“What’s flax seed oil?”

Fred grinned.  “I thought you might ask that, so I got some.”  He reached into a pocket in his brief case and produced a small blue bottle with what appeared to be a ghost depicted thereon.  He unscrewed the cap and wafted it under Margeret’s nose.  “Ring any bells?” Fred asked, his head bobbing idiotically in anticipation.

“Oh.  My.  God.  You’re mad.  Now I know it.  I haven’t smelt that since our schooldays.  How many years ago?  Yes, that day you shagged me in the pavilion.  I was only fifteen you bastard.  What’s that thing?”  She indicated a thin folder in Fred’s open briefcase.

“Oh.  That’s a life insurance policy I took out months ago.  I’ve been meaning to give it to you for filing.  You’re the beneficiary, obviously, it’s for two million bucks.  Thanks to Johanna you won’t be collecting. ”

“I’ll take it in any case and put it away.  I’ll be off to bed.  Enjoy your cottage cheese and cricket bat oil.  See you later.”

There was a small smile on her face and a wicked gleam in her eye as she left the room.


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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.