Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Nonsense on Stilts 2017

Another year, another round-up of the dangerous and the daft. There was so much to choose from this year so this is just the tip of the iceberg of nonsense on stilts. As ever, it’s divided into health, diet and general craziness.

The Queen of Quacks, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop business has spewed out some terrible old cobblers this year, some of which is potentially very harmful. Here is her nonsense about toxic tampons debunked by the excellent Dr Jen Gunter.

Advice given at her ‘health’ conference can be fatal and just in case you thought it couldn’t get any more insane, she is now selling psychic vampire repellent. Yes, really. 

Also in America, anti-vaxxers offered $100,000 for proof that vaccines work. Oh dear. The fact that they’re alive to perpetrate such arrant nonsense is proof enough, isn’t it? One word, anti-vaxxers: polio. Ever been in an iron lung? No. Why is that?

If further proof were needed, the tedious and notorious anti-vaxxer Wakefield managed to cause a measles epidemic in the US.

Earlier in the year it looked like homeopathy would escape an NHS prescribing ban despite cutbacks and despite the Chief Medical Officersaying it’s ‘rubbish’But reason and science have for once prevailed. NHS England has called for homeopathy to be blacklisted as a useless waste of money. Very well done to the Good Thinking Society for their campaigning work on this.

Vets also joined the campaign against homeopathy and then later in the year the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons issued a new position statement on the veterinary use of complementary and alternative medicines, homeopathy in particular, saying that vets must offer treatments that "are underpinned by a recognised evidence base or sound scientific principles." The new position statement makes it very clear that homeopathy falls below this benchmark: "Homeopathy exists without a recognised body of evidence for its use. Furthermore, it is not based on sound scientific principles."

One of the newer health fads is turmeric. Eat it, drink it, medicate with it. Harmless nonsense for people with more money than sense? Not when a naturopath kills a woman with a turmeric injection or when claims are made for it curing cancer.

I had an awkward conversation not so long ago with a woman who swears by turmeric lattes every day and demanded to know how I dare challenge ‘all the thousands of research papers’ that show it works. To her I say: show me this evidence. It could be a long wait.

And while we’re on spices, cinnamon won’t help you magically lose weight either. Sorry. 

The long-enduring myth that women synchronise periods was debunked. There is no ‘dominant super uterus in a group of women that makes everyone adjust their cycles’. So Super Uterus won’t be making an appearance in the next DC movie, damn it. She’d be so much more interesting than Superman, the most boring of all the supers.

As if UKIP wasn’t bad enough, one of their ‘politicians’ now sells industrial strength bleach as a medical cure at £22 for 60ml. David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, said “You don’t absorb oxygen through your stomach. There’s not the slightest reason to think it works for anything.” Assemble your own joke using the words UKIP, toxic, liars and why is Farage constantly on the news when they have zero seats in Parliament?

A wealthy autism charity is risking children’s lives, offering to pay for them to attend clinics offering pseudoscientific treatments and bogus diets, and it appears to endorse links between vaccines and autism. One of the treatments promoted is MMS, which the National Autism Society describes as a “bleach banned for human consumption”. There are claims it has been linked to at least one death. The Food Standards Agency has warned about its use, calling it an “industrial-strength bleach”. Yes, we’re looking at you, Mr UKIP.

There is yet more evidence that chiropractic is harmful and potentially deadly, and now chiropractors trying to scare women about our clothes, saying skinny jeans, handbags and big fluffy hoods are wrecking our backs. Dr Mary O'Keeffe, a back pain expert at the University of Limerick, says their research is "complete scaremongering and there is no scientific evidence to support any of it".

Earlier this year, a quack claiming to cure cancer by Skype (for money, of course) was found guilty under the Cancer Act and is now facing jail.

The spread of fake health ‘news’ is putting lives at risk. Some of the claims may contravene the Cancer Act 1939: you can report any claims that break the law to Advertising Standards.

I’m happy to report that the backlash against the vile, smug, judgemental and dangerous clean eating movement is gaining momentum. But nature abhors a vacuum so as soon as one diet fad dies, another rises to take its place. But calling them diets is so last year. Now it’s all about Wellness. There are endless books, videos and evangelists promoting their own brands of ‘better living’ which are really just diets wrapped up in very expensive merchandising and ingredients. Because wellness means thinness. There are no overweight Wellness gurus.

Celebrity-endorsed fad diets (sorry, Wellness programmes) are nothing new. Lord Byron’s apple cider vinegar diet was taken up by his many fans in the early nineteenth century and now it’s back. But without the poetry. Which is a blessing.

The low fat versus low carb battle rages on with both sides claiming the other will kill you. Some of the research is very flawed and the screaming headlines don’t help.  There is more and more conspiracy talk about Big Sugar.  The sugar lobby is undeniably powerful but conspiracy theorists have attributed it god-like powers to ensure that we poor fools think saturated fat is the devil. 

As Anthony Warner, aka the Angry Chef, says, this would require ‘paying off the medical establishment, the World Health Organisation, numerous charities, public health bodies and nutrition researchers around the world, and keep producing systematic reviews that show links between consumption of saturated fats and increased risk of heart disease.’ 

The amount of rage generated by daring to question the low carbers should set off the alarm bells that this is not just about food – as Dr Margaret McCartney found out to her cost on Twitter when she dared to write this reasonable piece about the lack of evidence. This is my piece on the cult-like ferocity of the low-carbers.

What no one has pointed out is that if we care about the planet, we should be eating fewer animal products, not more. High protein/high fat means more eggs, fish/seafood, meat and dairy when we should be aiming for a more plant-based diet. And shouldn’t we give at least a moment’s thought to the fact that there are still more underweight 5-19 year olds in the world than obese ones?

There’s a myth doing the rounds that sugar and other carbs ‘feed’ cancer. They don’t.

Do artificial sweeteners cause dementia and strokes? No.  

Does sugar cause or worsen Alzheimer’s? According to the tabloids, yes it does. According to the Alzheimer’s Society “What we don’t know is whether changes in brain glucose metabolism play a role in causing or worsening Alzheimer’s disease or whether the changes are just a by-product of damage already occurring to brain cells.”

Another potentially dangerous diet fad is the Ketogenic diet, which claims to cure everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s to pretty much anything you can name. Here’s a good video explaining what it is and why it is not a miracle (yes, he is a vegan but everything he says about keto stands up).

Yet another bit of dangerous garbage is the idea that everything bad that happens can be cured with an alkaline diet. And while we’re at it, you can’t cure cancer with ‘alkaline’ baking soda either.

Back to the Angry Chef who this time gets quite rightly angry about PETA claiming dairy products cause autism.

The Pioppi diet has gained popularity this year. As the British Dietetic Association commented: “the authors may well be the only people in the history of the planet who have been to Italy and come back with a diet named after an Italian village that excludes pasta, rice and bread – but includes coconuts”. Here’s conclusive proof that coconuts have never been part of a traditional European diet.

Do we need more protein in our diets? Only if you want to make very expensive wee wee.

A Church says starve for three days to cure homosexuality and that people are just claiming to be gay to get attention because they see celebrities doing it. This really doesn’t help when nearly half of lesbian, gay, bi and trans young people are bullied for being LGBT at school and when homophobic attacks in the UK rose by 147% in three months after the Brexit vote.

On a more cheery note there’s the daftness of dopamine dressing – dress yourself happy with bright colours. Unless you’re me and hate them. It’s yet another case of if you believe something you make it true, like wearing lucky pants can make you feel more confident and so perform better.

For a change, a bit of abuse of history instead of science: why lazy journos comparing Trump with Roman emperors are wrong.

Slimming pants! This is hilarious. There is no way that any of these claims stand up – detox, lose cellulite, lose weight, all the usual suspects. Plus, you look like a twat. No wonder they're on offer.

Men are better at understanding projection and therefore physics because they have to learn to pee standing up, according to three 'scientists'“Playful urination practices – from seeing how high you can pee to games such as Peeball (where men compete using their urine to destroy a ball placed in a urinal) – may give boys an advantage over girls when it comes to physics,” the academics wrote. They said this is significant, since the physics curriculum often uses projectile motion as the starting point for more sophisticated mechanics concepts such as force, energy and momentum.

If only the average man's aim was that good. And I’m not sure about the phrase ‘playful urination practices’. Oh, and correlation, causation, yadda yadda.

Not so funny is this: the United Nations pulled staff out of two districts in southern Malawi where a vampire scare triggered mob violence in which at least five people were killed.

No werewolf sightings this year but belief in ghosts is on the increase in America. Add your own Trump-based joke.

Eight out of ten UK water companies still use dowsing rods to 'find' water. Yes, really. I often consult the spirits of the dead for cooking tips. Who doesn’t? 

A lot of the media and some skeptics have dismissed dowsing as mediaeval. Here’s a good explanation of why that’s a lazy assumption. Have they looked at a cathedral or an illuminated manuscript lately? Mediaeval people were not morons, they just had less access to information than we do – although some of us still choose to ignore it. What’s more, ‘records of dowsing do not begin until the 16th century, and its popularity does not appear to have peaked until the 19th and 20th centuries’.

DNA sampling reveals that nine yeti specimens were in fact eight bears and a dog. Damn. 

Finally, an ancient fairy curse causes dips in the road in Ireland, according to an Irish MP. I love this one and really wish it were true. He said “if someone told me to go out and knock a fairy fort or touch it, I would starve first.” The council’s road department said the dip was due to an “underlying subsoil/geotechnical problem.” They’ll be sorry when their socks go missing and their cows’ milk dries up.

That’s it for another year. To help inoculate yourself against nonsense, this is a very good primer on how to read and understand a scientific paper and this is a handy 12 point guide to spotting bad science. Happy hunting.

Join us at London Skeptics in the Pub for a monthly dose of sanity. 


  1. Thank you for brightening up my evening!

  2. Ditto! :-)

    Oh dear... I admit to being hoodwinked in the past by some of these...

    Sugar addiction: I remember reading about how the sugar molecule is similar in shape to alcohol or something (citation needed), or maybe it was explaining the reverse; that alcohol is addictive, in part, because it is similar to sugar? Note to self: stop reading random magazines in dentists waiting rooms

    Turmeric curing any inflammatory disease - I was listening to a BBC radio interview of the guy who wrote a book on it and I assumed he wasn't talking bollocks cos he was on proper radio and wrote an actual book and everything. Note to self: Sometimes people who write books might be making stuff up

    Men having a head start in physics because they pee golden arcs of playful moments - I'm still clinging on to this hypeethesis (see what I did there? :-)but I haven't actually read up on any facts about this. Note to self: Really liking a made up 'theory' very much doesn't make it true

    Super Uterus Woman - that was so compelling when I first heard it that I thought it was an actual thing and quite disappointed to realise it wasn't true. I imagined groups of hen-pecked (sorry, not PC) cavemen being hounded out of the cave to go a-hunting by angry hormonal cavewomen, each synchronised to ovulate by all-pervading pheromones from some Alpha Female. Sadly, it's just another window into my unreconstructed caveman mentality

    The thing I enjoy most about being a self-labelled skeptic is being shown, again and again, how easily we can be fooled into believing made up stuff if we let our guards down

    ( Skeptic thought for the day: Sometimes, we can be 'wrong' twice. Discuss)

    Hats off to TK for another superb blog! :-)

    Recovering Fuckwit :-S

  3. I'm very pleased about the fairies, it beats believing in Carol Kaplin!