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The outer limits of woowoo

This week I want to look at some examples of alternative medicine that are out there on the fringe of the fringe.

The first is Horse Iridology. I have spent a lot of time around racehorses. They are delicate animals, so delicate in fact that the merest hint of the weight of my money on their backs can cause them to run slower than usual. Like most gamblers, sorry, track investors, I like to go down to the saddling enclosure to check out the withers, hocks, fetlocks, gaskins and croups, and after I have inspected the jockeys I look at the horses. I must admit that I have never paid much attention to horses' eyes, except for those times when one of the animals gives me one of those superior, baleful looks to remind me that when I am walking home because I don't have the bus fare, he will be riding in an air-conditioned van. Not to mention how each of us are going to spend our retirement years.

Iridology is not the only quackery practised on horses. There are acupuncturists who somehow manage to thread their fine needles through the tough skin of horses to reach the vital meridians inside, but my favourites are horse chiropractors. A racehorse is a well-trained athlete, with all that means for muscle condition and density. The muscles between a horse's spine and the top of the horse are quite substantial, and seem to be adequate for supporting the spine even when the horse is carrying 55Kg of jockey, saddle and lead shot. Horse chiropractors claim to be able to manipulate the vertebrae of horses, but I certainly would not like to shake hands with anyone with that much strength in his thumbs. (Especially if he is a Mason.)

The next one is Reiki Attunement. A few years ago I took a course to become a Reiki practitioner (it took three days), but I haven't been keeping up with progress in this healing modality. Reiki heals by the practitioner channelling some higher power, and apparently it can be done remotely, such as by telephone. As well as Reiki Healing, which fixes all the usual things that alt-med heals, like cancer, arthritis and piles, there is also Reiki Attunement which aligns the chakras and generally gets you feeling good. The problem is that all the time and money spent at the attunatorium can be wasted if you get stuck behind a Volvo and in front of a road-rager at a red light on the way home, because what goes on after the light turns green can seriously disrupt the holistic you.

The conventional orthodoxy is that healing can be done remotely but attunement needs physical proximity. Apparently, however, there is scientific evidence that attunement can be done remotely as well, although there seems to be some controversy in the Reiki community about this. Further research is required.

The last one is Biophotonic Therapy. The use of coloured lights has a long history in the annals of quackery. Sometimes it takes the form of shining lights on people to fix what ails them, but this is different. Biophotonic Therapy involves taking a sample of the patient's blood, exposing it to some exotic energy source and then putting it back into the patient's blood vessels. Once inside it increases the chemiluminescence of the red blood cells. This can only mean that it makes them glow in the dark. The value of this is not immediately obvious, but it could be that the glowing erythrocytes transport the magical healing powers of light to all the hard-to-reach parts of the body. One obvious side effect that I can see is that this would suffuse your body with a pink glow when the lights were out. I imagine that this therapy would require hospitalisation as it would be quite disturbing to household pets and small children to have someone wandering about the house looking like a pink nightlight. In hospital, though, it would make it easy for the night nurses to check vitals, because they would just have to look over the curtains to see if your aurora was still reflecting off the ceiling tiles.

I would like to finish on a serious note. These idiocies may appear to be ludicrous, but for every one of them there are believers. If people can be deceived by such obvious nonsense then it is no wonder that they can be taken in by the seemingly legitimate quackery sites which are full of scientific words and pretend research.

The people who are deceived by these quacks are not stupid - they simply do not have the scientific knowledge or even the critical thinking skills to separate truth from nonsense. It is the duty of doctors and skeptics to not only oppose quackery but to educate consumers and patients about what is possible and what is not. This will not be an easy task, but difficulty is no excuse for giving up the fight.

A version of this article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on October 27, 2009
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