Category Archives: Science

Back quackery: The dishonesty and ludicrous claims of chiropractic

My back has been fucking killing me. Evolution, the blind bastard, by shoddily adapting a quadruped’s back to serve a biped, has assured that most of us will have back problems at one time or another. But man…mine has really been hurting. All the time. Doctors tell me this is due to my pelvis slipping out of alignment and that there’s not much to be done about it except regularly manipulating it back into place, stretching, and exercise. I recently figured out how to put it back in place without assistance and hit upon a combination of the three that I think may finally be doing the trick (a little more time will tell for sure), but it’s been a long, uncomfortable pain-ride, and I, like many others, have looked to chiropractic as a possible path to relief.

A couple of years ago, I made my first two (and only) visits to a chiropractor I picked from a list of local practitioners because he was nearby. I knew there was some issue taken with chiropractic by the mainstream medical community in regards to the validity of some of their claims, but I figured a good back-cracking and a massage could at least lend me some temporary relief. And it did. But the almost religious zeal with which this guy told me what chiropractic was and how it was going to help me—not just with my back, but with practically everything else that might be ailing me—was off-putting from the start. First, though I was explicit and up-front about being there for my lower back pain only, the questionnaire I was given to fill out when I first arrived asked about every single health issue I had. What the hell do my allergies have to do with getting my back cracked? My bullshit detector was sparking and belching black smoke when, after that, he explained subluxations.

Subluxations, he tells me, are basically little blockages of the nerves caused by your vertebrae being out of whack, which prevent your body’s natural healing energies (see:  Innate Intelligence) to flow freely and properly. Sort of like a regular ol’ pinched nerve, except instead of just the obvious bio-mechanical effects of numbness and pain, the symptoms can even be things like stomach aches, allergies, depression, fatigue, and asthma. Actually, he told me, just about anything wrong with me would probably benefit from spinal manipulation. Nonsense, I thought, just crack my goddamn back, would ya? But before we could get on with it, he had another bit of woo for me:  the subluxation station.

The subluxation station is a device that purportedly “finds imbalances in your nervous system by measuring differences in heat and electrical stimulus through different vertebrae in the body via thermoscan and surface EMG.  When the left side compared to the right side of the body shows a significant difference, it means that is subluxated and there is a dysfunction at that vertebral level.”  He runs a useless thingamajig up my spine, stopping and clicking at each vertebrae, tapping on computer keys, then shows me the printed results and says something like “See there?” He points to a colored line on the left side of an illustrated spine that’s longer than the colored line on its opposite side. “That’s your T4 vertebrae. You know that fatigue box you checked-off on the questionnaire? I’ll bet if we work on that T4 it’ll reduce that fatigue. You can see it’s way out of balance here…”*

By now, I’m fiercely rolling my eyes on the inside. “I really just want you to do something about the back pain,” I say.

And he did, finally and thankfully, get around to the crack-job and a massage by a fabulous, manhandling mechanical chair. It felt nice. Afterward, he came up with a plan for me:  three times a week, possibly for several months, I should return for more of the same, as well as perhaps some lifestyle counseling. Lifestyle counseling? Yeah, see, chiropractic is a holistic practice; exercise and nutrition hand-in-hand with spinal manipulation. He seemed quite certain that with all three, anybody can be pain and illness free most of the time. No matter that I was just there because my back hurt. I left with the intention of coming once or twice more simply for the manipulation, but if I wasn’t on my way to recovery after that, then fuck this charlatan knob. I returned again later the same week. A few days after, I was still hurting and I couldn’t stomach all the voodoo anyway, so I never went back.

Since that close encounter of the woo-rific kind, I thought I’d left chiropractic behind for good, but my pain persisted and I considered going to another one just to have my pelvis tweaked back into place every now and again. I went online to see if I could find one who wasn’t full of crap and who’d merely provide bio-mechanical manipulation without the wacky claims. I didn’t get through all of them in my area, but I went through about a dozen before giving up. All were subluxation based, and many made other unsupported claims as well. Some even offer the utilization of something called a ZYTO nutritional scanner:

“a computerized scan (that) can help detect which vitamins your body needs to achieve maximum health…using the body’s natural energetic field, a communication link is established between the patient and the computer via the ZYTO hand cradle. Through this connection, ZYTO sends stimuli and then records the body’s response. This conversation is called biocommunication, and it provides insights into health and wellness.”

 Mmmkay. And luckily for you, their offices just happen to carry an expensive line of vitamins to take care of the deficiencies “detected”. Also, why does this remind me of the E-Meter? For readers unfamiliar and too lazy to click the link, the E-Meter is famously used by Scientology to assess the “spiritual” progress of its adherents. This thing reminds me of it because it is it. It’s the same fucking technology, and equally useless. Unsurprisingly, the E-Meter was invented by a chiropractor.

They’re not joking.

To understand chiropractic, it’s important to know its origin. It was created in 1895 by one D.D. Palmer, a guy who claimed to heal people with magnets, and thought of chiropractic as a religion (again, see:  Innate Intelligence). He also claimed that in his very first chiropractic session, he cured a deaf man, simply by manipulating his spine. His son, B.J. Palmer, also in the family business, once wrote:

“Chiropractors have found in every disease that is supposed to be contagious, a cause in the spine…There is no contagious disease… There is no infection… There is a cause internal to man that makes of his body in a certain spot, more or less a breeding ground [for microbes].”

So much for germ theory, huh?

The American Medical Association denied all this madness, of course, and fought the legitimization of chiropractic for a very long time, calling them, in 1966, an “unscientific cult”. Many chiros have since tried to distance themselves from the more crackpot elements of the practice’s founding, desperately citing any legitimate study it can that even hints at its efficacy. And in another parallel with Scientology, they’ve been successful enough with lawsuits against informed naysayers to stay in business and become more firmly ensconced as an acceptable form of treatment. However, even at this date in 2012, there is zero peer-reviewed scientific evidence to show chiropractic manipulation is any more effective than placebo and/or already existing, mainstream methods of physical therapy.

This dubious origin and the tendency of chiropractors to supplement their practice with other unscientific flapdoodle are underlined by a very basic dishonesty, which almost always accompanies magical thinking. After my failure to find that rare orchid: a chiropractor who wasn’t a snake-oil salesman or a hippy-dippy believer in all the hogwash, I did some research and in the process stumbled across this chiro in California. He has a section on his website dedicated to the question “Who are the quacks?” where he attempts, by making stuff up and distorting facts, to show that it’s mainstream medicine who are the nuts, not the chiros. He prattles on about a conspiracy by the American Medical Association to maintain a “total monopoly of the practice of medicine”, then quotes a number of physicians who appear to be pooh-poohing science and medicine and confessing to acting as though they know more than they actually do. I chose this quote at random and decided to check it for accuracy:

“Medicine is a humbug! I know it is called a science, but it it nothing like science. We are ignorant, as ignorant as men can be. I know nothing about medicine, and I don’t know anybody in the world who does know anything about it.”

Frances Megendie, M.D.

What I found immediately was that the name was wrong. Frances Megendie never existed. There did exist, however, a 19th century physiologist named Francois Magendie. This “mistake” is likely deliberate obfuscation, because when I looked to see if Francois indeed said what is attributed to him, I quickly found this volume of The National Magazine from 1856 and the truth. See, Dr. Magendie did say those things, but not in that order. Put in order and context, we learn that the quote is second hand, from a very long time ago, and that Francois was trying to communicate that, though medicine had a long way to go, it was advancing everyday. And in the next century, he predicted in this passage from the same speech, medicine would be a robust science indeed:

“True enough, we are gathering facts every day. We can produce typhus fever, for example, by injecting a certain substance into the veins of a dog; that’s something; we can alleviate diabetes, and, I see distinctly, we are fast approaching the day when phthisis [tuberculosis] can be cured as any disease. We are collecting facts in the right spirit, and I dare say in a century or so the accumulation of facts may enable our successors to form a medical science… “

And he was correct.

See? Quote mining. Clearly this sort of sneaky slight of hand wouldn’t be necessary if there were actual evidence that chiros were legit.

The bottom line is that chiropractic is a practice neck deep in horseshit. It may offer some minor relief for bio-mechanical discomforts, but none that can’t be obtained through your physician, physical therapist, masseuse, or sometimes even just a placebo. Why bother wading through all the feces?



For more on the subject:

*I have no clue what vertebrae is what and which corresponds to what ailment in subluxation theory; this is only an approximation of the actual dialogue and is essentially true.


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Colder than a witch’s tit, hotter than the hinges of Hell

There was a nice article at Salon published recently called “Rise of the Super-Earths.” It’s excerpted from the epically titled book, “The Life of Super-Earths:  How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet,” whose author, incidentally, has been quoted as once saying “Biology is the future of astronomy,” which is an awesome thing to say. So so far, so good, right? Anyway, the whole thing’s about planets outside of our solar system, larger than our own, that are within an hospitable distance from their respective suns;  planets that could probably sustain life. Super-Earths. Check out this wonderful bit discussing the formation of planets:

 “The preplanet structure—the ‘seed’ of a planet—consists of solids (mostly silicates) and volatiles (such as water and ammonia), with trace amounts of hydrogen and noble gases. Due to the energy of the accretion process and the constant collisions with large solid bodies, this seed is thoroughly molten. (Some of Earth’s internal heat is a relic of this process.) In this state the structure differentiates. Iron and siderophile elements (high-density transition metals that like to bond with iron) precipitate from the silicate mix and sink under their own weight to form the core in the center. The remaining silicate minerals will remain in a mantle with the less dense ones closer to the top. Volatiles that are left over after hydrating the mantle minerals will rise to the surface and atmosphere.

 “Differentiation is an orderly and predictable process thanks to our knowledge of chemistry and mineral properties under pressure. Some super-Earths, the rocky ones, develop quite similarly, although the pressure in the mantle is almost tenfold higher and different varieties of minerals form. Other super-Earths, the oceanic ones, are totally exotic beasts, with oceans that are 100 kilometers deep overlying a dense hot solid water, called ice VII.”

 Fucking hot water ice. That’s ice at temps of over 1,300°F. How about that? The rest of the article’s great, and you should read it, but that stuff about oceanic planets, and especially the ice thing, really peaked my interest. Not least because of my familiarity and love for Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel, Cat’s Cradle (see ice-nine), but mostly because it’s just plain fascinating on its own.

Vonnegut's drawing of Vanilla Ice.

After reading the Salon piece, you should then read the Wikipedia page for ice. For real. It’s a far deeper and more interesting subject than you’re probably thinking in your initial consideration of the topic. For example, there are apparently 15 different phases of ice, varied by a combination of pressures and temperatures. There are a few hot ices, and Ice-nine is actually a thing (but fortunately nothing like Vonnegut’s insidious, fictional variety). I also learned a bit about rotten ice, diamond dust, the lost, ancient practice of ice harvesting, and the existence of the term “ice famine.” And hey, did you know that at *super* high pressures ice is predicted to become a metal?

No shit.

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The fox that raids this coop will be in for quite a shock

Scientists at Harvard are reverse engineering chicken DNA to make dinosaurs. Well, sort of. But they can’t actually hatch the part-dino embryos because of some ethics restrictions. Why is hatching a genetically altered chicken with an alligator-like snout an ethical problem?

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Bjork + Science = Neato

Bjork may not be your cup of tea (she’s usually not mine), but you have to admit she’s almost always interesting. Her videos are consistently fun to watch, and she’s constantly pushing and exploring in her music, imbuing it with an infectious sense of wonder and otherworldliness that marks her as a true visionary. Whether you find her art pleasing enough to consider yourself a fan is beside my point. Hers is unquestionably the work of an authentic, singular artist with boundless ambition and creativity, and that by itself is worthy of admiration. Which brings me to her sprawling, new multi-media project, Biophilia, with songs about stuff like DNA, the birth of galaxies, and plate tectonics, featuring such left-field instruments as pendulum harps and Tesla coil synths. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

 Yes, there will be an album, which will be released in two versions – one sonically stripped-down and one of more traditionally produced pop music – but that’s only one small part of the full Biophilia experience. Notably, there will also be an iPad app suite, a documentary, a series of live shows encompassed by three years of six-week musical residencies, new custom-made musical instruments, and a music video for lead single ‘Crystalline’ by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry.

The suite of iPad apps alone is pretty amazing:

Each track will contain ten “levels”: the song, an interactive game themed around the song, musical animation, an animated score, animated lyrics, a graphical interpretation of the score, an academic essay on the unusual things going on in the song, archival footage from National Geographic and the BBC, unique content specific to each song and different from every other, and special photographic content. There are ten songs, so that’s 100 levels of things going on in this app. Furthermore, Björk promises that since the levels can be navigated between in a non-linear manner, there are actually 1,000,000,000 ways to experience the album.

Anyway, it all sounds fantastically artsy, and the mega dose of science adds a whole other layer of awesome if you’re a dork like me. You can read more about it here (my source for the italicized snippets above), and here.


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PZ’s open letter to a creationist kid

Yesterday, krazy kreationist Ken Ham (who I recently mentioned here) posted a short letter on his blog from some poor, brainwashed 9-year-old who believes—thanks to kooks like Ken—that the universe was created just 6,000 years ago by a magical space lord:

I went to a NASA display of a moon rock and a lady said, “This Moon-rock is 3.75 billion years old!”  Guess what I asked for the first time ever?

“Um, may I ask a question?”

And she said, “Of course.”

I said, in my most polite voice, “Were you there?”

Love,  Emma B

And of course Ken is pleased as punch that this child is being taught to be a smug ignoramus just like he is. But what’s nice is this open letter to the little girl, written by renowned atheist and biology professor PZ Myers. In it, he gently explains that the question she learned from Ken, “Were you there?”,  is a poor one, and dispenses some wise advice:

…we live in a big ol’ beautiful world, far older than your 9 years, and there’s so much to learn about it — far more than you’ll ever be able to see for yourself. There’s a gigantic universe beyond South Carolina, and while you probably won’t ever visit a distant star or go inside a cell, there are instruments we can use to see farther and deeper than your eyes can go, and there are books that describe all kinds of wonders. Don’t close yourself off to them simply because you weren’t there.

I‘d like to teach you a different easy question, one that is far, far more useful than Ken Ham’s silly “Were you there?” The question you can always ask is, “How do you know that?”

Right away, you should be able to see the difference. You already knew the answer to the “Were you there?” question, but you don’t know the answer to the “How do you know that?” question. That means the person answering it will tell you something you don’t know, and you will learn something new. And that is the coolest thing ever.

It’s a great response. You can read the whole thing over at PZ’s excellent blog, Pharyngula.

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Ignorance rich pageant

If this were a republican presidential debate I could understand, but I expect better even from a bunch of swimsuit mannequins:

It’s small consolation after that spectacular display of fuckwittery, but at least none of the creationist fools won the title. The new Miss USA is a self-described “science geek.” Problem is, the bible-y dim bulbs outnumbered the smart ladies 49 to 2, and they all think imaginary bullshit should be taught alongside–and as equivalent to–factual evidence. It’s not just the fringe, folks.

This country’s becoming such a laughing-stock.


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The half-empty honeycomb

Honeybees. They don’t really bother me, but a lot of people I know will overreact to one’s close proximity by turning into a panicked, swatting idiot. In addition to coming off like total candy-asses, new research suggests these people might also be hurting the bee’s feelings. Biologists from Newcastle University in England published a study in this month’s Current Biology which shows the busy, buzzy bastards exhibiting what looks like pessimism and depression. This suggests they might actually have emotions, and gives a tragic new dimension to the phrase “sting like a bee.”


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