The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

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Full of Holes

The curious case of acupuncture
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John Marino was the most driven man I ever met, a monomaniac on a mission to break the U.S. transcontinental cycling record — which he did in 1980, covering the 3,000 miles in 12 days, three hours. I wanted to be like John, so that year I took up serious cycling. In addition to pedaling hundreds of miles a week with him, I followed his training regimen of vegetarian meals, megavitamin dosing, fasting, colonics, mud baths, iridology (iris reading), negative ions, chiropractic, massage and acupuncture.

Although most of the nostrums I tried were useless, I noted with interest (because he beat me) that Jonathan Boyer, the winner of the 1985 Race Across America (co-founded by Marino and me), had a Chinese acupuncturist on his support crew. Given the successes of Marino and Boyer, it seemed possible that there might be a biomedical connection.

Traditional Chinese medicine holds that a life energy called Qi (“chee”) flows through meridians in the body; each of the 12 main meridians represents a major organ system. On these 12 meridians are 365 acupuncture points, one for each day of the year. When yin and yang are out of balance, Qi can become blocked, leading to illness. Inserting needles at blocked points — believed to number about 1,000 — supposedly stimulates healing and health. (continue reading…)

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Hope Springs Eternal

Can nutritional supplements, biotechnology and nanotechnology help us live forever?
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As a skeptic, I am often asked my position on immortality. “I’m for it, of course,” is my wiseacre reply.

Unfortunately, every one of the 100 billion humans who have ever lived has died, so the outlook does not bode well. Unless you follow the trend line generated by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman in Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (Rodale, 2004): “The rate of technical progress is doubling every decade, and the capability (price performance, capacity, and speed) of specific information technologies is doubling every year. Because of this exponential growth, the 21st century will equal 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress.” Within a quarter of a century, the authors say, “nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence,” then “soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge.” Biotechnologies, such as designer drugs and genetic engineering, will halt the aging process; nanotechnologies, such as nanorobots, will repair and replace cells, tissues and organs (including brains), reversing the aging process and allowing us to live forever. (continue reading…)

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Magic Water & Mencken’s Maxim

Social critic H. L. Mencken offers a lesson on how to respond to outrageous pseudoscientific claims
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Henry Louis Mencken was a stogie-chomping, QWERTY-pounding social commentator in the first half of the 20th century who never met a man or a claim he didn’t like … to disparage, critique or parody with wit that would shame Dennis Miller back to Monday Night Football. Stupidity and quackery were favorite targets for Mencken’s barbs. “Nature abhors a moron,” he once quipped. “No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people,” he famously noted. Some claims are so preposterous, in fact, that there is only one rejoinder: “One horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” I call this “Mencken’s maxim,” and I find that it is an appropriate response to preposterous claims made about magic water sold on the Web. I offer as a holotype of Mencken’s maxim the following: Golden ‘C’ Lithium Structured Water. (continue reading…)

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What’s the Harm?

Alternative medicine is not everything to gain and nothing to lose
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After being poked, scanned, drugged and radiated, your doc tells you nothing more can be done to cure what ails you. Why not try an alternative healing modality? What’s the harm?

I started thinking about this question in 1991, when my normally intelligent mother presented to a psychiatrist symptoms of cognitive confusion, emotional instability and memory loss. Within an hour it was determined that she was depressed. I didn’t buy it. My mom was acting strangely, not depressed. I requested a second opinion from a neurologist.

A CT scan revealed an orange-size meningioma tumor. After its removal, my mom was back to her bright and cheery self — such a remarkably recuperative and pliable organ is the brain. Unfortunately, within a year my mom had two new tumors in her brain. Three more rounds of this cycle of surgical removal and tumor return, plus two doses of gamma knife radiation (pinpoint-accurate beams that destroy cancer cells), finally led to the dreaded prognosis: there was nothing more to be done. (continue reading…)

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Fools & the Wise of Heart

Whatever your religion or faith (or even lack thereof), there is no doubt that the Bible is a font of wisdom from which we may draw moral homilies. My personal favorite is from the wisdom book of Proverbs, in which Solomon warns those who would look outside themselves to assess blame for their own shortcomings: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind; and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”

As a long-time public defender of modern scientific medicine, I have commonly labeled medical scientists as wise of mind, and alternative medical practitioners as fools. The wind of quackery we have inherited, I reasoned, is surely the result of an uneducated public duped by the otherwise risible tactics of flimflam artists praying on the unsuspecting masses. I am no longer sure that this is the source of the headlong rush toward these New Age medical alternatives. “The fault,” Shakespeare correctly identified in another context, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” (continue reading…)

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