I vaccinated my kids, this is why I care when others don’t.

I would like to answer a query I come across often when discussing vaccination on public forums – why it is that parents who vaccinate their kids are concerned when other parents make the choice not to vaccinate theirs. Sometimes it appears as this image meme:


It was posed this morning by Pauline Hanson on Sunrise (link to video), so I figured I’d write to her and explain. I have left this message on her Facebook page, and will leave it here also in case anybody else is interested in an answer.


Hi Pauline,

This morning on Sunrise, you asked “If the other kids have had their vaccinations, what’s the problem here?”

I’d like to take the opportunity to explain some of the reasons that parents who do vaccinate their kids are concerned about other parents choosing not to vaccinate.

First of all, some kids are too young to be vaccinated. Fortunately we’re able to offer babies some protection from whooping cough with maternal third trimester booster shots for pregnant mums, but until a baby has had their third pertussis vaccine at six months old, their vulnerability to catching whooping cough is significant. Here is a link to the Australian Immunisation Schedule, where you can look up the ages at which children can be protected from various diseases.

Secondly, some children cannot be immunised for medical reasons – think kids with cancer undergoing chemotherapy. We can help protect these kids from further illness by keeping vaccine preventable diseases out of our communities by immunising those that we can.

Third, unfortunately no vaccine is one hundred percent effective. This is why we need to have as many people as possible vaccinated – the more people are immune to a disease, the less chance that disease will have to progress through a community.

And fourth, and I am speaking for myself here though am sure many parents who do vaccinate their kids will agree with me, I don’t want to see any kid catching whooping cough, measles, or chicken pox, regardless of their parents’ beliefs about medicine. I don’t want the parents who’ve placed trust in anti-vaccination campaigners to go through the pain of having a critically ill child, a child who lives with a permanent disability due to a preventable disease, or a child who has died.

Thanks for your time, Pauline – I hope that I’ve answered your question. Please let me know if I can clarify any of this further.

A Facebook commenter has rightly pointed out that adults with compromised immune systems are also placed at risk by low vaccination rates, and that shingles is an incredibly unpleasant and painful experience for older people to go through.


Black Salve is No Answer to Cancer.

When you spot something that’s of concern, it can be worth spending a couple of minutes filling in a report, or noting it publicly via social media. Little actions such as these are greater than no action; they do add up, and can be the starting point for greater change.

This week, I went and had a minor procedure to remove a lesion after having a skin cancer check performed. It’s highly unlikely that the lesion is a potentially problematic one, but that can’t be completely ruled out unless it’s sent to pathology and examined.

This experience had me thinking about skin cancer and alternative medicine… namely, Black Salve.


Black Salve for sale from a UK ebay seller.

For those of you not familiar with Black Salve (also known as ‘Bloodroot’ or ‘Cansema’) it is a herbal preparation which proponents claim can “draw out cancer cells” when applied to the skin.

Black Salve preparations typically contain zinc chloride, and chaparral – also known as creosote bush, and bloodroot – the extract of which is called sanguinarine, an ammonium salt which attacks and destroys living tissue.

Black Salves are corrosive substances, classified as ‘escharotics’. Escharotics are substances which cause tissue to die and slough off. Black Salve proponents believe that when this escharotic destroys tissue, it is somehow targeting cancer cells – and that when scabs form and fall off, the cancer is being removed from the body.

This is sadly very wrong – there is no mechanism by which black salve can mobilise and destroy cancer cells in a targeted manner; the salve merely damages tissue, healthy or not.


Cansema (Black Salve) preparation from Alpha Omega Labs.

Use of Black Salve can result in ulceration, infection, skin damage, deep tissue damage, and muscle damage. If you are feeling not too squeamish and want to see the extent of damage Black Salve can cause, Google Black Salve and have a look at either the Google image search tab, or the Black Salve Facebook page. Be warned though, you’ll see people with huge ulcers, large scabs, and people who have literal holes in their faces and large areas of tissue missing from arms, necks, and breasts. It’s fairly disturbing, frankly – both that people believe that they’re doing themselves good by using Black Salve, and that they feel that damaging themselves in this way is less traumatic than going to a doctor, being examined, and undergoing evidence based cancer diagnosis and treatment.

And here’s another thing which is troublesome – many users of Black Salve hear of it via word of mouth – from other Black Salve users, naturopaths, and other alternative medicine proponents. Some decide to use Black Salve after a diagnosis from a GP – my own skin cancer doctor has had people ask him about its use, much to his dismay – while others self-diagnose skin cancers, or act on the opinions of unqualified people online.

There is a reason we have doctors who are specially trained in skin cancer detection and treatment, and pathology labs who conduct histological examination of tissue samples. Diagnosis of skin cancer is by no means as simple as looking to the opinion of somebody unqualified to do so.

Of course, do keep a close eye on your own skin, but make an appointment with a GP or skin cancer clinic if you notice anything unusual or concerning – and speak with them about how regularly it would be appropriate for you to have your skin checked by a professional.

Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, so this is really worth keeping on top of – to find out more about reducing risks and screening, there’s a lot of useful information on the Cancer Council’s website.

Back to Black Salve. Self or internet diagnosis and the use of Black Salve don’t allow for accuracy. Some lesions and skin spots are benign and don’t require any treatment at all. Conversely, those that do need their progression assessed – Black Salve can leave behind cancerous cells. The use of Black Salve can lead to pointless injury, and a false sense of having cancer treated.

Why do people choose to use Black Salve? Well.. mistrust of evidence based medicine is a factor, alongside the belief that Black Salve is somehow ‘safer’ because it is ‘natural’. As with many other dangerous beliefs, getting accurate information into the public sphere can help, but it can also further polarise those who are heavily invested in the belief – there’s a substantial number of Black Salve adherents who believe that Black Salve is a cure for cancer being suppressed by Big Pharma, the goverment, Lizard People and what have you.

Publicising the dangers of Black Salve is one way to reduce its use; another is via regulation. This is a difficult one, as while the TGA have deemed it ‘unlisted’ on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods, there is no effective ban on Black Salve products.

The TGA has, however, issued an alert recommending people do not use Black Salve and associated ineffective cancer cures, which is useful, as we can then report those selling Black Salves or products recommending their use (such as the notorious DVD “One Answer to Cancer”) to the TGA.

In 2013, the TGA responded to a complaint made regarding the Australian Vaccination Network’s promotion of Black Salve and sale of the One Answer to Cancer DVD, citing several breaches of the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989. The TGA ordered the removal of any promotion of Black Salve from the AVN’s website, and that a retraction be posted, including a link to the TGA’s consumer alert on its use.


One Answer to Cancer pro-Black Salve DVD, image via oneanswertocancermovie.com

Personally, I would like to see regulatory agencies come down harder on dangerous products such as Black Salve, but their consumer alert can be useful when approaching third parties.

The night before my minor procedure, I decided to have a quick look online to see whether I could find anybody selling Black Salve in Australia. Unfortunately I didn’t have to look too hard – there were several listings on ebay for Black Salve, posted by sellers based in Australia.

I filled out reports for each one on their item pages, then decided to have a go at contacting ebay publicly via Twitter, with a polite tweet:

I didn’t have a great amount of confidence that anything would come of it, but thought it worth a try nonetheless.

The next morning, I awoke to a reply from ebay’s Australian account:


And a few more listings did appear, from the same sellers, with words slightly changed in order to try and evade detection and deletion. I sent links to them back to ebay via Twitter, and they promptly deleted these also. When I let ebay know how much I appreciated their help, the person handling their Twitter account replied,


I suppose for most people, the images of Black Salve use speak for themselves… and I feel very fortunate that I happened to come across somebody in a position of power to virtually get it off the shelves who was eager to assist when making a complaint.

Such people are out there. We don’t always find them (or they can’t always act) when trying to alert businesses, organisations, or dare I say government run health websites to dangerous misinformation or products they’re involved in the promotion of – lobbying against quackery is often a more time consuming and complicated process than a couple of ebay forms and some tweets.

It really is worth taking that first step though – whether it results in a small and immediate success or is the beginning of a greater campaign. And if you don’t feel that larger scale complaints, lobbying and publicising are your thing, get in touch with other skeptics, let them know what’s going on, and see whether they’re inspired to take action.

There are days when I feel rather overwhelmed by the amount of dangerous quackery out there, and helpless to do much about it. I’m acquainted with some people who accomplish amazing things; medical researchers, doctors and nurses, journalists, SAVN and the Good Thinking Society, and individuals who utilise their expertise and passion to expose and formally complain about charlatans, quacks, and dangerously misled proponents of woo. I’ve had the privilege of meeting great activists and educators, dedicated communicators, those who engage with the media, the public, and with bodies creating policy, and their efforts completely blow me away.

Over the past few years that I’ve been involved with skepticism, I’ve become convinced that we can all be doing something useful. Whether it’s as simple as sending a complaint to an e-commerce website, engaging politely on social media with those in a position to help stop quackery being spread, sharing evidence based information when somebody makes an inaccurate claim, letting people know that David Avocado Wolfe makes some very dangerous claims about medicine and suggesting they stop sharing his memes on Facebook, publicly or financially supporting campaigns run by other skeptics.

Many great skeptical triumphs which have helped diminish the proliferation of woo began with a single person noticing something was wrong, perhaps discussing it with other skeptics, and acting upon it. That said, don’t discount the tiny triumphs – they definitely add up. If there’s a chance that an action you could take may bring about any measure of good, please consider going ahead with making that complaint or politely engaging with somebody. It may well be worth it.

This post initially appeared as a report on The Skeptic Zone podcast #337, 10th January 2016 {permalink].

The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich and Orgone Energy Theory

What do Sigmund Freud, English space rock group Hawkwind, and metal filaments encased in resin pyramids have in common?

They’re all connected to Wilhelm Reich and his pet theory of Orgone Energy.

I first became fascinated with Orgone energy when I was sitting at my laptop looking for websites which made false claims about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation, and came across somebody who was selling interesting looking coloured translucent pyramids and stones which were speckled with metallic filaments, called orgonites. They looked like gemstones or polished crystals of some sort, and I thought that perhaps they’d make amusing paperweights.


… shiny? Orgonite pyramid made by etsy seller VioletFlameOrgoneLA.

Unfortunately, when I looked into orgonites a little further, I was disappointed to find that they’re made of resin and not at all heavy enough to make effective paperweights. I continued to read, and fell down a rabbit hole of strangeness… of orgone energy and the man who devised its existence, Wilhelm Reich.


Wilhelm Reich in his mid-twenties. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1897 and graduating in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1922, Wilhelm Reich rose to prominence as an influential second wave psychoanalyst with some rather radical ideas.

As an undergraduate, he met Sigmund Freud and the two became close, with Freud being so impressed with Reich that he allowed him to see patients while still an undergraduate. Unfortunately, this confidence was misplaced – Reich began an affair with a nineteen year old patient, a habit he continued throughout his career.

Freud and Reich did not see eye to eye for long – while Freud was concerned with what a patient said, Reich became much more focused on inflection, body language and facial expression, and reportedly subjected his patients to harrowing sessions to break down what he percieved as being their resistance and inhibition.

One of the ideas that Reich developed was that of “body armour”, or “Charakterpanzer” in which he contended that a there was a strong link between the character, emotional blocks and tension in the body. He suggested that repression of memories and emotion was the cause of physical illness, this being a theory which pops up with alarming regularity in the world of alternative therapies even today.

In 1930, Reich moved beyond psychoanalytic technique, onto touch therapy, sometimes painful, aimed to retrieve a repressed memory from his patients’ childhood. His goal became to trigger a whole body response with this touching, free from repression and inhibition, which he referred to as “orgasm reflex” – a full body convulsion, distinct from regular climax.

That said, Reich was a great proponent of regular climax also. His promotion of underage sex, emphasis on the importance of orgasm, and his sexual involvement with his patients saw the International Psychoanalytical Association request his resignation, to which Reich responded by camping in a tent outside their conference, while wearing a large knife on his belt.


Sometimes a large knife on your belt is just a large knife on your belt. Photo via Wilhelm Reich Trust.

From there on, his ideas became even more unorthodox – he became convinced that there must be an additional element beyond the physiological which contributes to human orgasm… and this is where orgone energy was born – orgone taking its name from the word ‘orgasm’.

Orgone energy, Reich felt, was everywhere – a biological and cosmic energy which was linked to libido and potency, cancer, frogs, the aurora borealis. He began building contraptions to harness orgone energy… faraday cages made with plywood lined with rock wool and sheet iron, which he referred to as orgone accumulators. He believed that different materials – organic and inorganic, concentrated and reflected orgone energy, and that his orgone accumulators concentrated orgone energy to levels which could be used to treat cancer, experimenting with animals, then using them to treat humans.

Living in the US by this time, in 1940, Reich wrote to Albert Einstein, explaining the hope he had for his orgone accumulators in curing disease and outlining a claim that he could use his accumulators to raise temperature without a heat source. Amazingly, Einstein spent ten days examining an orgone accumulator for evidence of its temperature raising capacity, before dismissing it as the result of ambient temperature gradients. Demonstrating increasing paranoia over the years, Reich believed that Einstein’s dismissal was part of a conspiracy against him.


Woman demonstrating Orgone Accumulator. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Reich continued his persual of orgone theory, applying it further in his therapy, creating more machines – notably, the ‘cloudbuster’ – a series of metal pipes grounded in water and pointed at the sky, which he believed could unblock orgone energy in the atmosphere and cause rain.

His claims about curing cancer were investigated by the FDA, who put an injunction on his literature and orgone machines, which reportedly triggered a further deterioration in his mental health. By the mid 1950s, he was convinced that UFOs were attacking earth with deadly orgone radiation, and would spend nights scanning the skies with binoculars, convinced he was fighting an interplanetary battle, shooting down UFOs with his cloudbusters.


Reich with Cloudbuster. Photo via “New Illuminati“, a fine example of writing by modern Reich believers.

In 1956, an FDA inspector posing as a customer requested an orgone accumulator part be sent over state lines. The part was sent and Reich and an associate were charged with contempt of court. Reich was sentenced to two years imprisonment, his literature ordered to be burnt, and his machines destroyed. Psychiatric assessments were unfavourable, but he served eight months in prison, where he experienced sudden heart failure and died. He was sixty years of age.


Wilhelm Reich, 1897 – 1957. Image via versobooks.

Orgone theory has made its way into popular culture over the years… or at least, popular counterculture. William S Burroughs was convinced that a home built orgone accumulator box greatly assisted him during times of withdrawal from heroin.

If you’ve seen the video to Kate Bush’s 1985 song Cloudbusting, you may remember Donald Sutherland playing a character who created a large metal vaguely steampunky machine with four long tubes, which he wheeled up onto a hill to point at the sky and create rain. Donald Sutherland was portraying Wilhelm Reich, and Kate Bush his son, the song based on a view of Wilhelm Reich through the eyes of his son Peter.

Then there’s American New Wave band Devo’s Energy Domes – the iconic terraced round ziggeraut style plastic hats worn by band members! One of the stories that has been told about the origin of the energy dome.. and there are several… is that the energy domes recycle the wasted orgone energy lost from the top of the head.


Are they not men to be taken seriously? Photo: Jay Spencer

Space Rock group Hawkwind wrote a ten minute long song titled “Orgone Accumulator”, Dr Durand Durand in Barbarella was loosely based on Wilhelm Reich, orgone energy was mentioned in the BBC comedy Peep Show when Jez and Super Hans joined a cult, the orgone accumulator box was parodied in the Woody Allen film Sleeper… but what is the relevance of orgone theory today?

(I dare you to listen to the whole thing)


Doctor Durand Durand’s Excessive Machine


Close enough, automatic subtitles. Video here.

Well, there are still the true believers out there, who pen missives defending Wilhelm Reich, claim he was assassinated as part of a grand conspiracy to suppress the truth… and there are also people selling products based on orgone theory. In 2000, a couple in America who had been studying Reich’s work, decided that layering metal filaments and quartz crystal in catalyzed organic fiberglass resin created an item which harnessed the power of orgone energy, much the way Reich’s accumulators were meant to, with their layers of plywood, rock wool and sheet iron.

Orgonites are quite the cottage industry.

Orgonites: quite the cottage industry.

At the last Mind, Body, Wallet Festival we went to, I came across two seperate groups selling orgone related paraphenalia – and one was selling a variety of orgonites! They weren’t directly referring to Reich’s theories, but were going down the electromagnetic radiation fearmongering path, claiming that their orgonites could protect against damaging negative energies.

With a pang of regret as I handed money over to a Mind, Body, Wallet vendor who wasn’t located in the cafeteria area, I bought myself a souvenir.

Protected from weird energy!

Protected from weird energy!

Online, there are also many orgonite selling businesses, including those who’ve gone further and sell cloudbusting machines, which would make perfectly serviceable but expensive trellises for growing beans on, if you’re into that kind of thing. There are orgonites made specifically for using to protect against energy emitted by computers, phones, and mobile phone towers, against nuclear energy, against bad vibes from neighbours.

It’s a little strange though – that the people I’ve encountered selling items based on orgone energy don’t tend to mention Wilhelm Reich and the kinda sexy roots of his theory. I haven’t quite had the audacity to ask an orgonite salesperson where orgone energy theory came from, but perhaps one day.

This post is an adapted version of a report I gave on The Skeptic Zone Live Show, episode #355 {permalink}.

Michael Leunig, Conscience, and The Choice to Vaccinate

Popular whimsical Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig has again raised controversy with a cartoon published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on the 19th of August on the topic of vaccination.

The cartoon, depicting a close-up of the hands in Michaelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam”, with the hand of Adam holding a syringe is titled, “Fascist Epiphany”, and states, “The God of Science grants politicians the divine right to enforce mass medication upon babies and children”.

Michael Leunig's August 19 cartoon, via his website

Michael Leunig’s August 19 2015 cartoon, via Leunig’s website.

Criticism via social and online media was prompt, with several news outlets running stories that morning – one of which was Mamamia, who contacted me to discuss the cartoon.

Speaking to Mamamia, Alabaster said she believed the cartoon to be “highly problematic”.

“It sends the community a message of fear and mistrust, based on ideas that simply aren’t truthful. Science gives us the knowledge that vaccines are the safest and most effective way we can protect our children against vaccine preventable diseases.”

She argues that reframing the Government’s policy as “forced mass medication” is disingenuous at best, and at worst, could put children in danger.

“We need to be reassuring parents with the facts, not scaring them with emotive cartoons about fascism,” she said.

Leunig has made several statements in response to the public’s reaction to his cartoon, in which he’s refused to disclose his personal opinion on vaccination, nor acknowledge the science supporting them, instead diverting the conversation to his opinions on the government’s decision.

From The Age:

“I was conscripted for military service in Vietnam when I was young,” Leunig said.

“I felt the full weight of that kind of authoritarianism for a futile and sad tragedy that took place in Vietnam.

“I am weary of compliance in the name of civic responsibility.”

I feel immense compassion for those who experienced the tragedies of the Vietnam War – any war – and thoroughly support conscientious objection to military conscription. However, I take great issue with comparisons being drawn between conscientious objection to taking part in war, and so-called “conscientious objection” to vaccinations.

Vaccination is in part a matter of conscience, but not in the way the vaccine refusers would like to think. Conscience is involved in making the moral decision to vaccinate, to protect not only our own children, but the wider community… especially those who cannot be immunised due to compromised immune systems, being too young to receive vaccinations, or other legitimate medical reasons.

It is inaccurate to frame parents’ decision not to vaccinate their eligible child as a matter of conscience, in any way similar to a person’s refusal to participate in a war; it’s a matter of fear-driven misinformation – not morality – influencing a decision, which tragically robs children of protection against disease.

I have sympathy with the urge to mistrust something which is being perceived as a direction from the government (I am a skeptic after all – blind acceptance is not one of my fortes), but we’ve got to stand back and look at the evidence here. While some might find the tactics of “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies heavy handed, their goal is to protect lives. I urge people to please not let their feelings on our current governments and these policies influence their view of the science supporting vaccination.

I’d also like to add that throwing around emotive and hyperbolic words such as “fascist” and “enforce” aren’t adding much reason to the narrative, to be frank – and they’re both inaccurate. While Leunig argues that:

… he was not saying that the government was fascist, but that every government could have a “fascist moment” or make “fascist decisions”.

The cartoonist argued that “fascist” was just another word for authoritarian.

“Why can’t we name something for what it is?,” he said.

“Fascist is just another name for totalitarian. What are we afraid of about this word?

“I am a cartoonist who uses the words that are real. I don’t want to pussyfoot around here.”

I would argue that “fascist”, while used colloquially as a denigration to suggest authoritarianism, is inescapably linked to fascist regimes, in the same way that “nazi” recants the National Socialist German Worker’s Party and Hitler. It’s an incredibly strong word to use, with specific connotations. Leunig is welcome to invoke such connotations of course, but I think it disingenuous for him to defend “fascist” as being “just another word for authoritarian”.

I also take issue with the suggestion that the “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies are equivalent to enforced mass medication. Putting aside the pedantic point that vaccines are preventative biological agents and are not technically classified as medications, I think that “enforced” is too strong a word for these policies. Parents still have a choice to refuse to vaccinate their children, though the consequences for not doing so (risk of disease, disability and death aside) will be somewhat harder to live with. Alternative arrangements will need to be made by the families of preschoolers in Victoria whose parents refuse vaccination but require childcare. Vaccine refusing families nationwide who rely on the family benefits which are to be revoked under “No Jab, No Pay” will do it tougher financially. It could be argued that there’s some coercion involved in both of these policies, but it isn’t mandatory enforcement.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m actually with Leunig to a degree; I do think that the ethical issues surrounding “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies need to be examined carefully. At the risk of being quoted out of context by anti-vaccination campaigners, I am somebody who is very firmly in the pro-vaccination camp and there are parts of these legislations that I am a not comfortable with. In an ideal world, parents would not require any loss of benefits in order to be prompted to vaccinate their children, they’d do so because they understood the importance of protecting both their kids and the wider community from disease.

Indeed, with the proposed policies requiring children to be vaccinated (unless medically exempt), before being permitted to attend preschool services, or their families granted government payments, we could invoke the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, which determine that children have the right to access education and social welfare. When discussing the rights of children, I think that it is important to note that the treaty also recognises the right of children to access quality healthcare, including preventative healthcare. This is an obligation that the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are failing to meet.

I think that we also need to consider the right of children who attend preschool services to do so in a safe environment, particularly those children who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical reasons. I cannot fathom the experiences of parents of children with cancer, who on top of dealing with their children’s illness, have the added worry that they will be exposed to a vaccine preventable disease when participating in community life. I imagine that knowing that the children their kids interact with on a daily basis were offering them as much protection as possible would alleviate some of the stress in their lives, and it would certainly reduce the risk of potentially fatal illness.

One of my concerns is that strong government policies such as these run the risk of further polarising fringe groups who oppose vaccination, removing them from discussion and reinforcing their fear and mistrust. Conversely, these policies may shift some people from closer to the middle ground, those who are merely a little hesitant, over the fence – and I very much hope that these people have compassionate GPs, or contact with people such as the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters, who can listen to their concerns and reassure them about the decision they’re making.

A previous Leunig cartoon which may be interpreted as being anti-vaccination, via Leunig's website.

A Leunig cartoon from April 2015 which may be interpreted as being anti-vaccination, via Leunig’s website.

So while there is certainly discussion to be had on the ethics of immunisation legislation, I think that it needs to happen very carefully, with full acknowledgement that vaccination is the safest and most effective way to protect our children from vaccine preventable diseases. Without stressing the importance and efficacy of vaccination, we risk giving people an incomplete message on the issue, and providing anti-vaccination campaigners with cartoons and quotes which they can frame with misinformation and use to try and further their cause.

It would be a terrible thing to use your freedom of expression on a nationwide platform to espouse the virtues of freedom of choice, then express yourself in such a way that some people may become focused on the ethics of policy without being mindful of the science supporting vaccination.

To be clear, I support Michael Leunig’s freedom of expression, just as I support parents’ freedom to choose whether or not to immunise their children. But with those freedoms come consequences; and I want both Michael Leunig and parents who refuse to vaccinate to be aware of the facts about immunisation, the potential outcomes of their actions, and for them to make conscientious decisions.

RACGP on homeopathy, the Good Thinking Society, and Homeopathic Owl – O Rly?

The following is a transcript of Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone Podcast #346 {Permalink}.

This week, news about that continual thorn in our side, homeopathy!

First up, I’d like to read you a media release from the Royal Australian College of General Practicioners, which was picked up as a news story by several media outlets this week.

From racgp.org.au,

Homeopathy treatment not effective and should not be prescribed

3 June 2015

GPs should not prescribe homeopathic remedies for their patients and pharmacists should not sell or recommend the use of homeopathic products, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

Releasing its position statement on homeopathy, RACGP President Dr Frank R Jones said GPs practiced in evidence-based medicine and there was robust evidence homeopathy had no effect beyond a placebo as a treatment for various clinical conditions.

“Given this lack of evidence, it does not make sense for homeopathy products to be prescribed by GPs or sold, recommended or supported by pharmacists,” Dr Jones said.

The RACGP position statement maintains that homeopathic alternatives should not be used in place of conventional immunisation.

“It is irresponsible to claim that homeopathic vaccines are a proven alternative to conventional vaccination. The reality is that these alternatives do not prevent diseases or increase protective antibodies and there is no plausible biological mechanism by which these alternatives could prevent infection.

“Individuals and the community are exposed to preventable diseases when homeopathic vaccines are used as an alternative to conventional immunisation,” Dr Jones said.

Another risk of homeopathy is that people delay or avoid seeing a GP – exacerbating their condition through delayed care – and reject conventional medical approaches.

“Spurious claims made by homeopathic practitioners and retailers can mislead people about the effectiveness of conventional medicine and this can result in serious health consequences,” Dr Jones said.

The position statement also outlines that many private health insurers subsidise homeopathy through ‘extras’ cover when alternative evidence-based treatment methods are available.

“Whilst we appreciate and recognise the right of patients who may choose or seek homeopathy, unfortunately all taxpayers are funding homeopathy via the Federal Government’s private health insurance rebate,” Dr Jones said.

“The RACGP is concerned that health insurance premiums continue to rise as significant subsides are paid for homeopathy and other natural therapies. In 2013-14 health insurers paid out $164 million in benefits for natural therapies, an increase of almost 60% from 2010-11.”

Earlier this year the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) analysed the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating a range of clinical conditions. It concluded that homeopathy produces no health benefits over and above that of a placebo, or equivalent to that of another treatment.

While all of this is really good – and an excellent public statement to be making to help the population become more aware of issues surrounding homeopathy… the fact that it doesn’t work, that something that doesn’t work is being sold in pharmacies, that something that doesn’t work is being included in taxpayer subsidised private health cover and is driving up premiums… I can’t help but feel a little stunned that doctors and pharmacists would ever need to be told not to recommend homeopathy. How anyone who has studied medicine – pharmacology in particular – could give a moment’s thought to even allowing patients to select homeopathic treatment without an explanation as to its lack of efficacy – let alone
recommend it – is quite beyond me.

Still, the RACGP’s position statement is, like the NHMRC’s findings, more weight coming down on homeopathy.

Homeopathy in pharmacies is one of my greatest bug bears. It’s easy for people to consider its existence alongside evidence based treatments to be an endorsement for its efficacy, particularly given the credibility of pharmacists.

One argument as to why pharmacies stock homeopathy is that they’re being run as businesses, and there’s a public demand for homeopathic products. Which is frustrating, as they’re businesses which we rely on for vital health information and products (and discount glitter nail polish, an integral item for my personal well being). Pharmacies are businesses, but
they’re also an essential service – one that most of us need to use from time to time, one through which we rely on the services of a university trained professional.

Accepting the business model though, makes me wonder whether part of the push for change could come from consumer demand. Perhaps one day we could get a large enough percentage of the public to say no to homeopathy… and if a pharmacy chain removes it from its shelves, reward them with our custom.

This is highly idealistic, I realise. In the meantime, we do have groups such as Friends of Science in Medicine lobbying for the removal of non-evidence based products from pharmacy shelves – you can see what they’re up to and if you’re so inclined, lend them your support by going to scienceinmedicine.org.au.

"Dilution" by xkcd

“Dilution” by xkcd – https://xkcd.com/765/

Across and up to the UK now, where the Good Thinking Society have been campaigning to have homeopathy struck off of the NHS – that’s the National Health Service, akin to Medicare down here, which funds homeopathic hospitals! The campaign has had a great success so far, with extensive media coverage and Clinical Commissioning Groups – local area groups which organise the delivery of NHS services – reassessing their support for homeopathy – some
announcing that they will no longer be funding such.

As part of the Good Thinking Society’s efforts to examine and publicise what’s going on with NHS funded homeopathy in the UK, our eminent friend Michael Marshall investigated precisely what’s being sold by homeopathic pharmacies which supply the NHS… and came across something rather bizarre… an owl remedy!

Freeman’s homeopathic pharmacy in Glasgow lists all sorts of weird and wonderful remedies on their website, including three different remedies labeled “Owl”! Marsh decided to find out more about the owl remedy, and called Freeman’s.

What followed was a slightly surreal conversation, in which the pharmacy assistant informed Marsh that the remedy was made from owl feathers, and was prescribed by homeopathic “doctors” and practicioners not for owl allergies, but for people who were taking on the characteristics of owls, such as… not sleeping.

The entire conversation is available as a YouTube video, I’ll put a link in the show notes, as it’s well worth a listen – and a watch.

During the conversation, the homeopathic pharmacy assistant stated that homeopathic owl was for doctors and practicioners to prescribe, and not sold over the counter – yet the Good Thinking Society was able to purchase it online without a prescription, nor a warning that one is required. Hmm.


Discoveries such as this, while disturbing in a sense, are also incredibly useful. The strange combination of absurdity and bulldust in the homeopathic owl expose caught not only the attention of skeptics and the like on social media, but also that of the Daily Mirror, which ran a story on the Good Thinking Society’s work around homeopathy and the case of the
owl remedy. A huge well done to the Good Thinking Society!

And you know, if you find something similarly bizarre… pursue more information and consider going public! Weirdness can be an excellent way to draw public and media attention to pseudoscience.

Finally, here’s a fantastic tweet which caught my eye from Andy Lewis, whose Twitter handle is @lecanardnoir:

Too right!

You can read more about the Good Thinking Society’s amazing work at goodthinkingsociety.org.

Until next week, have a hoot of a time!

A transcript of this report with links has been posted at my blog, which can be found on evidenceplease.net.

Slapping Therapy – Hongchi Xiao’s ‘Paida and Lajin self-healing’

The media has been reporting that a very sad and rather distressing event has taken place in Sydney this week, in which a seven year old boy whose parents brought him to the seminar of a visiting practitioner of alternative medicine has died the evening following his attendance of a ‘Paida and Lanjing self-healing’ workshop.

The boy, who it is understood had diabetes, attended a workshop run by practitioner Hongchi Xiao, who advocates some rather worrying methods for the treatment of medical conditions.

Hongchi Xiao in Australia in 2013. Photo: Facebook

Hongchi Xiao in Australia in 2013. Photo: Facebook

Hongchi Xiao developed what he refers to as ‘Paida and Lajin self-healing’, which can be used for almost all diseases, in which slapping and patting the body, and stretching tendons, is claimed to promote healing. Xiao claims that repeatedly slapping one part of the body “builds heat, causing blood vessels to expand, and ‘chi’ to flow strongly. Yang rises, yin melts and long-held toxins and blocks are released”.

Video testemonials from Xiao’s website show people slapping themselves until they are bruised – there are reports of people vomiting and falling unconscious. Testimonials also include mention of parents using the slapping technique on their children.

Xiao, who is from China, has been touring Australia and presenting workshops on his method – reportedly the week long Sydney workshop cost $1800 to attend. He is believed to have left Australia after being questioned by police regarding the death of the seven year old boy.

Obviously, we’re not in a position to say precisely what happened to the boy, beyond reports that he and his parents attended the workshop, that he was very unwell afterward, and that he passed away in an ambulance that evening.

For any details beyond that, and before we go forming any certain conclusions on this specific case, I think that we must await the coroner’s investigation and subsequent report.

Based on the news reports though, it’s very difficult not to have an emotional response to this story – I certainly have. The Telegraph have reported that the boy was made to fast for days before the workshop, it is possible that his insulin was
withdrawn as part of Paida and Lajin protocol, and the notion of repeatedly hitting a young child is frankly incredibly sickening to me.

I’ll check in again on this case after the coroner has performed an investigation and their report has been made public. Until then, a note for our overseas listeners… Hongchi Xiao is scheduled to conduct workshops in Salshausen, Germany
later this month, in Hong Kong in June, in Bandung in Indonesia in June and July, then in Seattle in the USA in August.

Should his tours still go ahead, please keep an eye on him – unfortunately he slipped under the radar for us here in Australia, but perhaps if he’s scheduled to visit where you live – if you’re in Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia or the United
States, you’d be able to let people know what Xiao’s methods involve and their potentially dangerous outcomes.

This post is a transcript of Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone Podcast, episode #341 {Permalink}.

Reading Signs Skeptically – The Toxic Talc Myth

There’s an inner city suburb in Sydney called Newtown, which is a fantastic place to spend a few hours, wandering up and down the main street, looking at shops and stopping for a coffee or a snack.

Newtown is around four kilometers south-west of the Sydney CBD. In the 1960s and 70s, affordable share-housing and the suburb’s close proximity to the city and universities drew in a large student population and Newtown became something of a bohemian centre, with a thriving cafe and live entertainment culture. Currently, Enmore Road and King Street host over 600 shopfronts… and some of the retailers who have set up in the area make some rather questionable claims.

Recently, The Skeptic Zone took a walk down King Street, Newtown, and in the window of a natural cosmetics shop, noticed this sign:


“TALC is closely related to ASBESTOS.
talc particles have been shown to cause tumors in the ovaries + lungs of cancer victims…
TALCUM is often the No. 1 ingredient in cosmetics. Its cost is ⩷ $50 PER METRIC TONNE! $ $ $ $ DO THE MATHS!!


nano particles are the ticking time bomb of this generation – along with G.M.O
these particles cross the brain/blood barrier.
The Rave of ‘invisible sunscreens is not so glamorous!



So that’s a rather scary claim, that talc causes cancer… and I’m very happy reassure you that it is a myth. It’s an interesting one though, as it did originally have some basis in fact.

The shop window sign claims that talc is closely related to asbestos. This sounds rather alarming, given that most Australians are quite familiar with asbestos fibre inhalation related illnesses, including malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, and the controversy surrounding and closing down of the asbestos mining and manufacturing industries.

As far as mineral composition goes, talc it fairly closely related to asbestos – talc is hydrated magnesium silicate, asbestos constitutes a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. However, this does not suggest that talc is a danger. A parallel claim would be to suggest that water, H2O, is dangerous because it has a similar chemical composition to hydrogen peroxide, H2O2. Unlike water, hydrogen peroxide is an oxidant, corrosive and creates localised capillary embolism on contact with human skin. That one extra oxygen molecule resulting in an unstable peroxide bond makes a heck of a lot of difference.

So where’s the fact?

Because of their similar composition, talc deposits are often found close to asbestos deposits. As such, talc deposits can be contaminated with asbestos. While the talc itself is very much innocuous, talc products produced prior to 1973 were sometimes contaminated with asbestos. In 1973, regulation of talc products was introduced, resulting in prior risks associated with contaminated talcum powder being abolished.

Modern talc refining processes are stringently monitored and there is no risk of lung disease associated with modern talcum powder or talc products.

The ovarian cancer claims are based on studies which found an increased ovarian cancer risk associated with the use of talcum powder, but relied on self-reports over a large time period and as such, were unable to measure either the purity of the talc used by participants, nor the frequency and dose at which it was applied. As such, no causal link has been drawn between talc and ovarian cancer, and studies have been deemed inconclusive.

Now… nanoparticles! There is no known health risk associated with products containing nanoparticles applied to the skin. In 2013, the Therapeutic Goods Administration published a review of relevant studies, which concluded that nanoparticles do not penetrate the skin beyond the outermost layer. Systemic absorption of nanoparticles is unlikely. Zinc oxide nanoparticles in particular have been studied; when exposed in vivo to human immune cells, the immune cells absorbed the nanoparticles and broke them down.

Claims regarding the dangers of nanoparticles in skin products are not based on any credible evidence… nor, for that matter, is the other suggestion slipped in on the sign that GMOs pose a health risk to humans, (despite the public successes of anti-GMO campaigners).

You know… I get the impression that the people who run the natural cosmetics store very likely believe that they are doing good. I could be cynical and come to the conclusion that they’re knowingly using bnon-evidence based fear tactics to sell their products, but that’s something I rarely come across when encountering people who manufacture products based around naturalistic fallacy and false dangers.

I think that it’s far more likely that perhaps at some point the store owners came across misinformation on the dangers of talc and nanoparticles, took it as fact, and built a business around something that they felt was going to be good for people. Likewise, the vast majority of alternative medicine practitioners, crystal sellers and other assorted woo-peddlers strike me as genuinely wanting to and believing that they are doing good.

Does this excuse the fact that their practices are not based on solid scientific evidence? Not at all – I feel that everybody has a responsibility not to spread misinformation and pseudoscience, particularly when such can cause people to forego evidence based medical assistance or advice, be seriously out of pocket buying magic beans, or place faith in myths rather than facts.

However, I still try to remain somewhat charitable in dealing with the people who make these claims… they’re rarely made with malicious intent. Likewise, I hope that people are able to understand that when we question their claims and ask for evidence, we’re not doing so to be malicious, smug or dogmatic.

Anyhow – I think that it’s worth keeping an eye out when you’re passing by shop windows or public notice boards, particularly in areas with higher concentrations of alternative lifestylers, alternative practitioners and the like. It can make for a good opportunity to keep on top of the sorts of claims being made, and prompt some interesting fact-finding and discussion!

This post is an excerpt from Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone #335 {Permalink}. Also included in the podcast report, are Richard Saunders and Ian Bryce discussing another sign spotted in Newtown, which made claims regarding “crystal bed” therapy, which was in a new age shop window.

Further reading:
American Cancer Council Fact Sheet on Talcum Powder and Cancer
Cancer Council Western Australia: Cancer myth: Talcum powder and cancer
Cancer Council Australia: Nanoparticles and Sunscreen