More quackery at–where else?–The Huffington Post

I apologize to my readers.

I apologize for continually blogging about the pseudoscience at The Huffington Post. Of late, it seems that I can’t go more than a day or two without some new atrocity against science being tossed out from Arianna’s happy home for antivaccinationists and quacks. Be it antivaccine lunacy, Deepak Chopra’s “quantum” woo, or the latest quack stylings of Kim Evans, no woo is too woo-ey, no quackery too quacky, no pseudoscience too far out for HuffPo. In any case, HuffPo is a lot like blogging about the antivaccine movement. As I’ve characterized it again and again, it’s just like what Michael Corleone said in that weakest of the Godfather movies, The Godfather, Part III:

That’s right. I’ve been pulled back in again.

But why? What’s done it? You’ll see. It’s a post by someone named Matthew Stein entitled When a Superbug Strikes Close to Home, How Will You Deal With it? (also published in a patently unreadable form on Stein’s own website). Between the fear mongering and the advocacy of quackery, it seems to me that Kim Evans had better watch her back. There’s a new woo-meister in town at HuffPo, and he can match her woo for woo.

So who is Matthew Stein? After all, I had never heard of him before. According to his bio, he’s very, very smart:

Matthew Stein holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from MIT. An engineer and building contractor, Stein has built hurricane resistant, energy efficient and environmentally friendly homes, and has designed commercial water filtration systems, photovoltaic roofing panels, medical bacteriological filters, computer disk drives, portable fiberglass buildings and automated assembly machinery, among other things. He is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green, 2008. For more information visit, www.chelseagreen.com.

He even holds a number of patents and brags about having been a National Merit Scholar! I guess that means he must know what he’s talking about, right?

Wrong.

Before I examine the quackery, let’s look at the fear mongering that foreshadows it first. After going on about how SARS failed to reach pandemic status but the swine flu is very much on its way to achieving that unfortunate mark, Stein then uses that background to describe what may be a more horrific threat:

The current swine flu may run its course, like SARS did, never reaching pandemic proportions, but that does not mean that one of a number of existing antibiotic resistant superbugs won’t come knocking at your family’s door some day. There are a host of antibiotic resistant superbugs that are already well established in our world, each with the potential for bringing great tragedy to an individual, or to explode into a global pandemic. In this article, I am going to provide several examples of the former, but also balance that fear with knowledge and hope gained from stories of individuals who have used a variety of alternative medicines, procedures and herbs to heal when the high-tech pharmaceutical arsenal of mainstream western medicine had failed to work its magic.

He then discusses the incredibly sad case of Mariana Bridi da Costa, the young Brazilian model who died of overwhelming sepsis after having had to have her hands and feet amputated due to the infection, a desperate move that failed to save her life. I’ve written about da Costa before, because Stein isn’t the first booster of quackery to use and abuse her sad, sad story. Everybody’s favorite alkalinization quack, Robert O. Young did it when it first happened. He then mentions the case of the American man who had contracted the Extreme Drug Resistant (XDR) form of Tuberculosis (TB) and was quarantined upon returning to the U.S., pointing out that millions die of TB every year. He then starts laying it on thick:

Imagine a Hurricane Katrina-sized catastrophe occurring in 50 major U.S. cities at the same time, and you have some idea of the worst-case scenario for a crippling global pandemic. Medical centers, essential services, and government personnel would be overwhelmed. If there were no viable vaccines, or if one was only available in limited quantities, most healthcare workers would desert medical facilities to care for the sick in their own homes or to simply get out of the cities to improve their own chances for survival. When things get real bad, most buses, trains, trucks and planes stop running, causing food and fuel deliveries to slow to a trickle. If this sounds far-fetched, realize that this was exactly the scenario when the Spanish flu hit the United States in 1918-1919, killing more people in a few short months than had died in all of WWI.

OK, we get it. A new flu pandemic due to a flu strain like that of the Spanish Flu could be very, very bad. We also get it that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are A Very Bad Thing that could cause no end to havoc in an epidemic. In the war between human and microbe, it’s not beyond the pale to think that the microbe could win through antibiotic resistance. So what’s Stein’s solution to these real, if exaggerated (by him) problems? Think about it. This is The Huffington Post, after all. The solution must be woo, and that’s exactly what Stein lays down:

The good news is that there are many alternative medicines, herbs, and treatments that can be quite effective in the fight against a wide variety of viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to which mainstream high-tech Western medicine has little or nothing to offer. The bad news is that 99 percent of the doctors in our hospitals are not trained in these alternatives, and don’t have a clue about what to do when their pharmaceutical high-tech medicines fail to heal. If you wait until a pandemic starts, you will have only a slim chance for locating an available health practitioner familiar with alternative herbs, medicines, and methods. In the words of Robert Saum, PhD, the typical attitude amongst most of his medical colleagues in this country is, “If I didn’t learn it in medical school, it can’t be true.”

That’s right, according to Kevin Trudeau–I mean Matthew Stein–there are all of those “natural cures ‘they’ don’t want you to know about” for all those nasty, horrible, resistant bacteria. And, of course, those nasty, close-minded “allopathic” physicians are too clueless or prejudiced against them to learn about them or offer them to you. Even better, they will heal when the products of big pharma fail. So says Stein, who even cites an article Could Homeopathy Prevent a Pandemic?:

Do we have alternatives? During Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, homeopathic physicians in the U.S. reported very low mortality rates among their patients, while flu patients treated by conventional physicians faced mortality rates of around 30 percent. W.A. Dewey, MD, gathered data from homeopathic physicians treating flu patients around the country in 1918 and published his findings in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1920. Homeopathic physicians in Philadelphia, for example, reported a mortality rate of just over one percent for the more than 26,000 flu patients they treated during the pandemic.

Today, a number of homeopathic remedies for the flu are available, including oscillo, or oscillococcinum, which has been shown to shorten the duration of symptoms when taken within 48 hours of onset. Homeopaths have been given this remedy since 1925. Interestingly, it’s made from the heart and liver of ducks, which carry flu viruses in their digestive tracts.

“Based on clinical studies, homeopathy produces some of the fastest results in relieving flu symptoms,” says Dana Ullman, MPH, the author of nine books on homeopathic medicine.

Anyone who’s been a regular here for a while probably remembers Dana Ullman, the homeopath who seems to have a lot of time on his hands to Google himself for new mentions on blogs and then infest blogs that criticize him and homeopathy. I have little doubt that he will show up here. If you want the best deconstruction of Ullman’s nonsense, check out the new Internet law that Kimball Atwood laid down about him:

In any discussion involving science or medicine, being Dana Ullman loses you the argument immediately…and gets you laughed out of the room.

How true. Moreover, Stein’s falling for the same old claims by homeopaths that were trotted out during the avian flu scare that somehow patients treated with homeopathy only suffered a 1% mortality compared to conventional physicians, whose patients supposedly suffered a 30% mortality. Of course there’s a big problem here. No doubt homeopaths reported low mortality, but was there any objective evidence that this was true? How do we know that patients who got sicker under the homeopaths’ care didn’t go to real physicians or die without being followed up. Do we know that the homeopaths’ patients were comparable to the patients treated by “conventional” medicine? We don’t. Finally, if the peer review of the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy is anything like the peer review of homeopathy journals in 2009, I don’t have high hopes that Dewey’s article was subjected to anything resembling rigorous peer review. That hasn’t stopped it from being trotted out in the intervening 90 years since the Spanish flu pandemic by homeopaths every time a flu pandemic or flu scare comes up. Truly, it is a zombie study that just won’t die.

And truly, homeopathy is The One Quackery to Rule Them All.

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Too bad the same can’t be said for Stein’s brain. First, he proves that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data” by laying down about a woman with a urinary tract infection with a resistant bug who gave up ciprofloxacin and embraced woo and allegedly got better, a Malamute with a kidney infection Stein treated with a homeopathic remedy directed at specifically formulated to help heal Enterococcus D, and a man with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus who allegedly used colloidal silver to heal himself:

When Robert Saum, PhD, checked himself into a medical clinic due to an ugly swollen painful mound on his leg that looked like the bite from a poisonous spider, it was diagnosed as being caused by a Methicillin Resistant Staph infection, commonly known as MRSA (also known as the “flesh eating bacteria”). The attending physician discussed the diagnosis with Dr Saum, and the potential need to surgically remove the infected tissue. Saum instead requested that the attending physician lance the infection, allowing the wound to drain. Saum then proceeded to pour colloidal silver based ASAP antiseptic gel, from American Biotech Labs, into the open wound, and drank a couple tablespoons of their broad-band SilverBiotics solution, several times a day. Saum relates that the pain totally disappeared within two hours, and this potentially deadly infection was mostly healed within the next 48 hours.

This is potentially true, but irrelevant to whether colloidal silver “works” as its proponents say. Remember one thing first: MRSA is not necessarily the “flesh-eating” bacteria. That’s a specific kind of infection, which can be due to MRSA but can also be due to run-of-the-mill staph that responds to standard antibiotics like vancomycin–or, more frequently, can be polymicrobial. Also remember that various silver salts are already used for superficial infections. For example, silver sulfadiazine (Silvadene) is a routine treatment for burns to prevent infection. No one has argued that silver salts or even colloidal silver couldn’t be useful for superficial infections, and by Stein’s account what Saum appeared to have was an abscess. The abscess was drained, and he got better. Whether the SilverBiotics solution had anything to do with it is impossible to say, but, even if it did, it was like using superficial antibiotics similar to Silvadene. In other words, Saum’s testimonial means nothing, and Stein’s apparently down with turning people into Blue Men.

So what, according to Stein, can protect people? He recommends the Beck protocol:

  1. Blood electrification
  2. Colloidal silver
  3. Magnetic pulsing
  4. Ozonated water

Does the Beck protocol sound familiar? If you’re a regular reader, it should. It was less than two months ago that I featured Bob Beck in an installment of Your Friday Dose of Woo. I’ve also dealt with some of the elements before, such as colloidal silver and various forms of ozone woo before.

But that’s not enough for Stein. Oh, no. He then goes on to list a a veritable panoply of herbal medicines and outright quackery as though they might be effective against either swine flu or the deadly superbugs whose threat he’s hyped. But to me the fact that Stein thinks that there is anything at all to the 200 year old über-quackery known as homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies are water. Period. They are diluted to the point where it is incredibly unlikely that even a single molecule is left. Homeopaths make up all sorts of hand-waving pseudoscientific nonsense to claim that somehow the “memory” of water holds the “potency” of the original remedy or that the vigorous succussion (shaking) that occurs between each serial dilution somehow imbues homeopathic remedies with magical potency.

Did I mention that homeopathy is pure quackery?

Stein concludes:

I am not suggesting you turn your back on regular medical diagnosis and treatments. A wise course of action is to become familiar with several of the alternative therapies and herbs that have proven themselves by helping thousands of people to heal, many times only after high tech western pharmaceutical based medicine had failed to heal. Since my primary concern is with getting and staying healthy, and not with performing scientific studies on myself or my loved ones, I tend to go for the “shotgun” approach (combining multiple alternatives). I suggest you have a variety of these materials on hand, in the event that western pharmaceutical medicines are either unavailable, or ineffective.

I have a better suggestion. I suggest that you stick with scientific medicine and eschew the kind of woo. I also have a suggestion for Arianna Huffington. She recently published an article about President Obama’s first 100 days in which she praised him for his reversing the Bush Administration stand on embryonic stem cell research, in particular Obama’s statement that it is “about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” I agree. It’s a fine sentiment, long overdue after the Bush administration.

Too bad Arianna doesn’t apply President Obama’s sentiment to her own blog and kick out the quacks and pseudoscientists.

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