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Book Review: Do you believe in magic? The science and nonsense of alternative medicine.

26 Jun

The name Paul Offit is fairly well known in the autism communities. He has spent considerable time countering the false idea that the rise in autism diagnoses seen in the past is due to an epidemic of vaccine injury. He spends most of his time as Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He is co-inventor of a vaccine which protects infants against rotavirus. Dr. Offit has written a number of books including one on autism: Autism’s False Prophets and one on the anti vaccine movements, which includes large sections on autism: Deadly Choices, How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. And now he has a new book on alternative medicine: Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.


There are two phrases which come to my mind when I hear about alternative medicine. First is a question: what do you call alternative medicine that works? Answer: medicine. The second phrase is more dark: medical fraud is a multi billion dollar business, and the bad guys know about autism.

Alternative medicine is big. Big as in a large fraction of the populations partakes in alt med in one form or another. Big as in it is big business. And, in terms of the subject of this site, big as in alt med is strongly promoted to and popular with the autism communities. Particularly the autism parent community.

As with other books by Dr. Offit, Do You Believe in Magic gives both sides of the various stories presented. He usually starts by giving the pro side, in this case the pro side of alternative medicine. For example, he presents the success stories of various alt-med practioners like chelationist Rashid Buttar and faux cancer therapist Stanislaw Burzynski. If you know the background behind a given story (say, Buttar) it can be quite jarring. You know that the claims aren’t true but you read Dr. Offit presenting them like they are. But when you get to the rebuttal it makes it very powerful.

The media has focused largely on the topic of vitamins–which does get a lot of play in the book. Dr. Offit points out how they supplement industry got a major boost from legislation which removed oversight on the industry. He also points out examples of how the claims for many supplements are either false (they don’t work) or worse (people on supplements live shorter lives than those with the same conditions who do not take supplements). As this is an autism focused site, I’ll point out the two chapters which focus on autism. The chapters largely center around various personalities and for autism the chapter focuses on Jenny McCarthy–the “pied piper of autism”. The chapter goes into detail–as in three page–listing the various theories of what causes autism (heavy metals, vaccines, misaligned spines, etc.) and the various therapies which are purported cures. Three pages. It’s amazing to see it laid out like that–showing that the alt-med community doesn’t have a real idea of what causes autism. Instead, they have dozens of ideas, sometimes contradictory, sometimes disproved, sometimes just without scientific merit. The second chapter with an autism focus is that on Rashid Buttar. He is a chelationist who includes autism as one of the many conditions he “treats”. He also came to fame recently as the doctor (recommended by Jenny McCarthy) chosen to treat Desiree Jennings, whose story of faux vaccine injury became a YouTube phenomenon.

In case you don’t recall him, here is Rashid Buttar’s IV chelation suite for children, complete with Disney characters painted on the walls.


Yes, there is room for 10 kids to receive IV chelation at the same time. Which is a small example of how this is big business. Dr. Offit makes the point even more clearly, with Dr. Buttar as one example. Many millions of dollars have been spent by patients on Dr. Buttar’s concoctions–some of which have been clearly shown to do nothing. Some people are getting very rich in the alt-med business. Very rich. Rashid Buttar is one. Stanislaw Burzynski is another. His cancer therapies are amazingly expensive, make no sense and are a grand example of selling false hope.

Bookstores are filled with books on alternative medicine. There are very few books which take a critical look at this industry. Do You Believe in Magic is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, it will likely never sell as well as false hope.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Dr. Offit. One question I posed to him was simply, why does he stay at a teaching hospital? Given his successes, he could do pretty much anything he wants. His answer boiled down to simply–he is doing what he wants. He has the freedom to say what he wants. On more than one occasion this has led to frivolous lawsuits, and even those haven’t shut him up. In his latest book he takes on faux medicine, practitioners who are making huge profits from it and the leglistors who facilitated the industry. One could ponder who will sue him first except that facts are laid out so clearly as to make it difficult for anyone to do so.

By Matt Carey

Another anti-vaccine rally fizzles

24 Feb

A handful of “outraged” anti-vaccine activists occupied part of the sidewalk at the corner to 6th Ave. and 52nd St. today and listened to other angry anti-vaccine activists promote an anti-vaccine book and denounce Bill Gates.

Witnesses report 18 participants at an event which promoters predicted would draw “tens of thousands” of parents supposedly angry at the portrayal of the people they follow. One New York-based anti-vaccine group’s press release  proclaimed “Bill Gates: We are not Child Killers” and read:

The protest and press conference against Microsoft founder and Chairman Bill Gates challenges his controversial remarks on national TV that those who question vaccine safety “kill children.” The attendees are demanding an immediate apology from Gates. The press conference will take place outside the Microsoft Executive Offices at 1290 Avenue of the Americas (corner of 52nd Street) in Manhattan. These groups will hold additional protests in Manhattan, Long Beach and Omaha where Gates will be speaking publically.

Gates’s actual words, spoken in a February 4 CNN interview, were aimed at leaders in the anti-vaccine movement who mislead parents into leaving their children vulnerable to dangerous diseases.

Well, Dr. Wakefield has been shown to have used absolutely fraudulent data. He had a financial interest in some lawsuits, he created a fake paper, the journal allowed it to run. All the other studies were done, showed no connection whatsoever again and again and again. So it’s an absolute lie that has killed thousands of kids. Because the mothers who heard that lie, many of them didn’t have their kids take either pertussis or measles vaccine, and their children are dead today. And so the people who go and engage in those anti-vaccine efforts — you know, they, they kill children. It’s a very sad thing, because these vaccines are important.

At least one anti-vaccine press release called on “tens of thousands of outraged parents” to participate in a multi-city event.

The rally was organized by Louise Kuo Habakus and Mary Holland, authors of Vaccine Epidemic, which has sold about 1,300 copies. Holland is an anti-vaccine lawyer. Habakus is an anti-vaccine activist who can be seen here on stage with a guy who sang “Vaccine Gestapo” at last year’s anti-vaccine rally in Chicago’s Grant Park. Sample lyrics:

They have swastikas on their shoulders
They’re such patriotic soldiers
They’re like a militia in Montana
They’re a government agency in Atlanta
Vaccine gestapo! Vaccine gestapo!
Vaccine gestapo! Vaccine gestapo!

That event drew about 100 participants to hear disgraced former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield denounce vaccines.

A spokesperson for Gates emailed us today to say “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes in the strong evidence behind the efficacy and safety of vaccines. There is overwhelming medical consensus that autism is not caused by vaccines.”

The southeast corner of 6th Ave. and 52nd St. in Manhattan where not much happened today.

SafeMinds retaliates against skeptic blogger

7 Dec

SafeMinds is an organization with the stated purpose to “…to restore health and protect future generations by eradicating the devastation of autism and associated health disorders induced by mercury and other man made toxicants. ” SafeMinds has stayed with this purpose even as the years have gone by and the evidence has mounted that the SafeMinds hypothesis was incorrect (autism is not a form of mercury poisoning). Recently, SafeMinds produced an advertisement, framed as a public service announcement, focusing on mercury in the flu vaccine and tried to get these shown in movie theaters. As we discussed here recently, Elyse over at Skepchick started an effort to inform the movie theaters about SafeMinds. Her effort snowballed into a large petition and resulted in the movie theaters deciding to not show the SafeMinds advertisement.

Recently, SafeMinds has chosen to leave the discussion of ideas and take on Elyse in a personal attack, through their media effort at the Age of Autism. SafeMinds is not only a key sponsor of Age of Autism, but Mark Blaxill (SafeMinds board member) is one of the three principle editors of the Age of Autism blog.

Again, rather than discuss the issues, they pulled Elyse’s facebook photo

and posted this message

This is the woman who fought to pull the SafeMinds PSA’s from the theatres. It’s her FB profile page photo. She is anti-choice and wants to tell you that mercury is safe and that Thimeosal is good – according to her blog. She trolls AofA regularly. As do all the pro-vaccine-injury bloggers.

It was a call to mock and insult Elyse. A perfect example of cyber bullying. Amongst the comments to that FaceBook page was one extreme enough that one of the Age of Autism editors noted it and promised to remove it. “While I agree that the broken thermometer comment was out of order (the blog does not condone violent speech, so that comments is going.”

It took a while for them to make good on the promise. As in many hours later, after Elyse reported the abuse to the police. That comment does appear to be gone now. Many other abusive comments (but not all) also appear to be removed.

Rather than apologize for inciting the bullying effort, SafeMinds/AgeofAutism are defending themselves by claiming that Elyse was standing in the way of choice.

Stopping Americans unable to understand? What is she St. Skepchick? She interefered with medical choice and commerce. That’s her right to make the attempt. We dis not use her name. We pulled her public photo that she used here on FB. We ran it on FB, not the main site – our readers deserved to know who was behind (at the outer level anyway) the AMC campaign to stop the ads. We provide news. This was news.

No. It wasn’t news. And, no, Elyse was not interfering with medical choice or commerce. She was quite simply providing the theaters with information–allowing them to make informed consent about the SafeMinds advertisement.

The idea of SafeMinds being pro-choice on vaccines is rather ironic. Again a story from their outlet blog, the Age of Autism makes this clear. Two years ago, a theater in New Mexico was going to show the movie “Horton Hears a Who” combined with a free vaccination clinic. At that time, they had a connection to Horton star, Jim Carrey. Instead of allowing choice, providing information, they got Jim Carrey to force the cancellation of the event:

Following a long discussion with his representatives at Fox Entertainment – Who-ville – once again through Horton – was heard. The New Mexico test market of drive thru vaccines while at the movies with your children was stopped. Halted by Horton himself because he heard “we are here, we are here, we are here!” once again.

The bullying attack on Elyse wasn’t about choice, it was just a childish attempt at some sort of petty vengeance. Unfortunately it got out of control. I thank SafeMinds and the Age of Autism for editing the comments, but even what is left is unacceptable. It’s time for apologies, not excuses.

Facebook is the new vaccines

11 Mar

I thought I’d maybe travelled a couple of weeks forward in time and was reading a particularly stupid April Fools joke news report when I saw the Daily Mail were reporting:

Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,’ she added.

‘She’ in this instance is Professor Susan Greenfield of Oxford University, which just goes to show that even a massively intelligent person can also be a monumental idiot on occasion too. Some other gems of wisdom include:

‘My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.’

Buzzing noises and bright lights. I think these opinions reflect the lack of experience Professor Greenfield has with computers rather than any accurate reflection of how a PC or Mac actually works.

Note something about this totally ridiculous piece of journalism. They use buzzwords like Twitter and Facebook that the average uninformed Daily Mail reader might’ve seen but have no real idea about. They also clearly are talking about the opinions of one woman. At no point is any study or science referenced to support this Professors opinions.

In the eighties the Daily Mail was one of those newspapers convinced that ‘video nasties’ (straight to video low budget horror movies) would bring about the end of civilisation. In the nineties they were of course standard bearers for antivaccination beliefs. In the noughties they’ve published a few pieces on the evils of the nasty Intraweb.

But of course what really annoys me about this is the fastening on to autism. Its explained how naturally autistic people function online is a possible example of how the online environment (Facebook, Bebo, Twitter etc) are (oh dear god!) rewiring the brains of our children and making them autistic.

Never mind the fact that most new cases of autism are diagnosed in kids under three whos only interaction with a PC up to that point would be to try and push a rusk into the DVD tray. Never mind the fact that adult autistics are pretty wary of social networks at first. Lets just find another way to demonise autism and blame it on something else for which there is no supporting science whatsoever.

Sharyl Attkisson's long history of anti-vaccinationism

1 Aug

As blogged by Mike, Liz, Autism News Beat, Kristina and Orac, CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson seems to the prime suspect in the matter of how a fax sent to CBS News by Voices for Vaccines turned up on the Age of Autism blog less than 1 day later.

This matters. Reporters are supposed to be independent. They are supposed to give a balanced view. The very act of forwarding this fax to Age of Autism simply confirms that someone at CBS News, mostly likely Ms Attkisson, is deeply affiliated with Age of Autism. This makes her conflicted and she is totally the wrong person to be investigating the autism/vaccine hypothesis.

I went looking to see what else I could find to support my opinion that Ms Attkisson is someone who is not a reporter, but someone presenting her opinion in the name of investigative news. I found plenty.

Take this ‘interview‘ with Rep. Dave Weldon about the Poling case. I put the word interview in single quotes because it really isn’t an interview, its more a series of questions to allow Weldon to trot out a series of inaccuracies supportive of the idea vaccines cause autism. This is the sort of journalist who would ask God ‘tell me God, do you believe in creationism?’ And then give God a five minute run to explain how he does.

She was also the CBS employee (it seems wrong to keep saying she is a reporter) who interviewed Bernadine Healy in which the former Philip Morris shill said we should re-examine the autism/vaccine idea.

Over on the ‘No Mercury’ website, there is a long list of videos of Ms Attkisson (35 in total, dating back to March 2002) of which all seem to be ‘investigations’ into vaccines and other pharma related activities.

This piece which relates some of the most common and mind-numbingly stupid antivax canards around is just about the clearest indication of her loyalties. Anyone who states the following is not impartial and should not be investigating this story:

Non-profits which dispel any vaccine/autism/ADD link have ties to vaccine makers.

How urban legends get started

27 Jul

Its not often we in the autism/bad science community (you’ll know who we are, just look for the Reptiles who guard our huge mansions paid for by big pharma, or our Black Helicopters parked outside said mansions) get to see the actual birth of a brand new urban legend. When we do, we must tread warily, lest we scare off the fledgling nuttiness like bird watchers creeping up on a White-rumped Sandpiper.

But here we are, presented to you courtesy of two genuine, grade a mouth-frothers from those hallowed fori of all things anti-vaccine JABS (not, as some think an acronym for Just Awful British Silliness).

First, lets meet ‘Guss the Fuss’ – a person who ends each post with the legend ‘MMR RIP’, he seems to be under the delusion that the MMR is in some way dead. Or maybe that its pulled off a spectacular fart.

Second, is ‘Truthseeker’ who is non other than the owner of, one John Scudamore, a strange person who features anti-Semitic material on their site along with ‘The Illuminati Formula Used to Create an Undetectable Total Mind Controlled Slave’. Also apparently a man who thinks that satanic ley lines burnt his bottom. In fact, so impressed was I with Mr Scudamore, I decided to create the first in a series of Bad Science tarot cards, commemorating his ass-related event.

John Scudamore - Tarot

Anyway, on this occasion, these two paragons of anti-vaccinationism managed to start an urban legend that fullfilled the prime directive of anti-vaccinationism; its bullshit.

Gus The Fuss started a thread entitled: Sainsbury’s to offer holiday MMR jabs.

Oh no, the horror….except when Guss (the Fuss) linked through to the story, well, there was absolutely no mention of MMR whatsoever. When this was pointed out to him, he answered:

Dr Thomas P again you’ve proven to take articles at face value…


Someone else attempted to gently remonstrate with Guss (the) Fuss:

Gus, this is a story about getting vaccines against diseases you may encounter on holiday. Have you not read it?

There’s nothing about scheduled vaccines, is there? Eh? Is there?

Sainsbury’s are NOT offering the MMR vaccine.

And thats when John ‘Truthseeker’ Scudamore turned up:

Who is mentally ill and showing sociopathic tendancies out of you or Gus. The bad science PHD Doctor who is happy that allopathic mnedicine is still killing 750,000 americans each year and you still condone it? The bad science PHD who will not even attack the indusrty that commits this genocide? You are either a Sociopath or you are mentally ill as you can not see reality as is or you condone genocide.

All this about a total non-story.

This, Dear Reader, is how anti-vaccination/autism bull gets started and spread. Someone makes up a story, links to a news story that has a slight relationship to it and then….away we go!

Thanks JABS, for making sure misinformation grows. Thats really helpful!

The Great Autism Rip-off

1 Jun

I had to pinch myself to check I was actually awake and not dreaming when this landed in my inbox this morning.

This is a truly excellent piece of journalism on autism and the growing CAM (Complimentary and Alternative Medicine) industry (Small Pharma?) that surrounds it. And its in the Daily Mail.

I can imagine many people choking on their cornflakes this morning. A little JAB of reality.

In this burgeoning market, private doctors and clinics have sprung up across the UK claiming they can treat or even ‘reverse’ the disorder.

Recent research published in the Journal Of Developmental And Behavioural Paediatrics found that a third of parents of autistic children have tried unproven ‘alternative’ treatments.

Worryingly, the study claims one in ten has used what the experts class as ‘a potentially harmful approach’.

I’d personally say the figures were a little lower than that now. As MMR fear in the UK has tapered off, parents turning to CAM has (I think) dropped off. One only has to take a look at the slackening number of posters on the various anti-vaccine pro-CAM autism websites such as JABS to see this in action.

Parent to four autistic children, Jacqui Jackson explained how many of us try something silly before coming to our senses:

‘I bought enzymes and supplements from America, which cost a fortune. I even paid thousands for a special mattress, blankets and pillows with magnets sewn into them that the sales people promised would do wonders but, of course, didn’t work.

‘Autism is seen by some people as big business.

‘I meet parents who want a cure and spend money in the hope they’ll have a normal child. I try to warn them that there is no evidence any of these things work, but they’ll often go ahead.’

I hold my hands up and admit we tried a bit of quackery – fad diets and even homeopathy (its all on this blog somewhere) – because we didn’t know any better basically.

In his exposé the Mail reporter claimed to have an autistic child so he could ask some CAM autism practitioners over here what to try:

During my investigation, I was recommended expensive tests, vitamin supplements and special diets, ointments, suppositories and injections to ‘flush out toxic heavy metals’, bizarre-sounding high-pressure oxygen chambers and intravenous infusions of hormones – and told in each case that they could bring about a complete recovery from autism.

Yet medical experts say there is no evidence to support their claims, and in fact many of the treatments I was offered were potentially harmful, and even possibly fatal.

The experience left me disturbed at the lack of regulation surrounding these practices.

Its nice to hear someone from the mainstream media stating what some of us have been stating for the last few years!

The report mentioned how:

This week, new legislation aimed at protecting consumers from ‘rogue traders’ came into force, prohibiting businesses from making ‘false claims’ that a product is able to cure illness.

Its about time. Hopefully, some of these CAM artists will be investigated under the auspices of this new law.

The reporter went to see a few DAN! registered UK docs. The experience wasn’t pretty. One made outlandish claims for Secretin but didn’t ask for any medical records. One pushed chelation and never mentioned Tariq Nadama. Another said the reporter would have to commit to a year of rubbing in a skin cream chelator of dubiouis eficacy. Dr Lorene Amet failed to disclose that she wasn’t actually a doctor of medicine (its not uncommon for DAN! ‘doctors’ to not actually be doctors).

Its a highly revealing piece of a grubby, grasping little world that preys on the parents of autistic people. Thanks are due to the Mail for reporting on this so accurately and thoroughly.