Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery Science

CAM and scientific terms

One of the great things about this blog is the community that has built itself up over the last eight and a half years of this blog’s existence. It’s a truly amazing an humbling thing to me. I can’t believe that such an incredibly smart and talented bunch of advocates, gadflies, and quackbusters. True, I’ve also had my share of trolls, most frequently of the antivaccine variety, but you guys all take care of them so well that I only seldom feel the need to intervene myself. That’s why, from time to time, I like to try to intentionally (rather than unintentionally) spark a bit of conversation and then sit back and see what you guys come up with. Besides, you might come up with something that I can blatantly steal to use as blog fodder. This particular idea came to me while I was working on today’s post for my not-so-super-secret other blog.

An important fundamental difference between CAM and real medicine is that CAM practices are not rejected based on evidence. Unlike science-based medical treatments found to be ineffective, they never go away. Take homeopathy, for example. It’s the ultimate chameleon. Even 160 years ago, it was obvious from a scientific point of view that homeopathy was nonsense and that diluting something doesn’t make it stronger. When it became undeniable that this was the case, through the power of actually knowing Avogadro’s number, homeopaths were undeterred. They concocted amazing explanations of how homeopathy “works” by claiming that water has “memory.” It supposedly “remembers” the substances with which it’s been in contact and transmits that “information” to the patient. No one’s ever been able to explain to me why transmitting the “information” from a supposed memory of water is better than the information from the real drug or substance itself, but that’s just my old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionistic, scientific nature being old, nasty, dogmatic, reductionistic, and scientific. Then, of course, there’s the term “quantum,” which has been so widely abused by Deepak Chopra, his acolytes, and the CAM community in general, while the new CAM buzzword these days to explain why quackery “works” is epigenetics.

Basically, whenever a proponent of alternative medicine uses the word “epigenetics” or “quantum” to explain why an alternative medicine treatment “works,” what he really means is, “It’s magic.” This is a near-universal truth, and even the most superficial probing of such justifications will virtually always reveal magical thinking combined with an utter ignorance of the science of quantum mechanics or epigenetics.

This got me to thinking: What other scientific terms do quacks appropriate to “explain” how their woo works? To me, “epigenetics” and quantum mechanics are the big two. Another is surely “energy.” But I know there are others. Who knows? I might—ahem—appropriate your ideas for a post on the use and abuse of scientific terms.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

300 replies on “CAM and scientific terms”

I’ll start here: magnetism is sometimes involved. Earth magnetism, for example, with some cool shoes.

Eventually there will be a long list.

Oh, I get to go first!

Hot off the presses of Medical Hypotheses…*”Iatrogenic Autism”

“Iatrogenic autism.
Hahr JY.

Childrens Hospital of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI, United States. Electronic address: [email protected].

Autism as we know it, is caused iatrogenically and occurs reportedly one in 88 live birth [3]. Now national survey pegs autism prevalence one in 50 school-age children and the incidence is rising much fast in recent years. The author is hypothesizing idiopathic autism is caused by feeding of infant formula. Majorities of formula in the world are milk based and the molecular weight of the cow’s milk is much higher than that of human breast milk. These increased solutes contributes to increased osmolality of the environment of the newborn infant, is directly affecting hemodynamics of normal homeostasis of the developing human brain cells. Formula makers fortified new substances in the process of formula making whenever they found previous unknown substances in the breast milk, for past several decades. When those solid substances were added in the process of formula making to make 20cal/oz of infant formula, this resulted displacing free water in the formula. When new substances were added, same amount of free water has to be displaced from the formula. That is why we are seeing more autism in recent years, compared to previous several decades.

Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

* “Iatrogenic Autism” also used by anti-vaccine parents to describe their “vaccine-damaged” autistic children.

I’ll be waiting for Dr. Jay to weigh in on this “Iatrogenic Autism”, caused by not breast feeding and feeding babies infant formula.

Oh, let’s not forget the immune system – quacks frequently evoke it without a clue, quite cheerfully & with great confidence. Immune stimulation of this or that – and mind-body stuff.

DNA was being woo-repaired before epigenetics hit the circuit.

Good one, lilady – what, that’s an Elsevier journal? The science pirate publishers have quackery under their purview as well as most other things? Do we have to pay for the full article?
Let’s see now – hemodynamics of normal homeostasis of the developing human brain cells – what is this meaning?
It won’t work with mice.

“Inflammation” – A term with a specific medical meaning, but one I’ve seen abused by quackupuncturers to explain how their magic voodoo pins work.

“Gene-targeted” – As per our Polish friend.

“Immune response” – I’ve seen that used by the Pin Cushion Posse I mentioned above.

It’s 6am and I’m running on two hours of sleep so I’ll leave it for now, but not before this piece of horror-woo:

I searched your blog archives and didn’t find any results for it, so I hope it’s as shiny and new for you as it is for me! Be sure to read the section called How Prolopuncture came to be. It’s crammed to bursting-point with woo-tropes.

I particularly enjoyed his recollection about treating the injuries he sustained in a motorbike crash by putting hundreds of acupuncture needles in each joint. Simultaneously.

That one front page alone misuses so many scientific terms that it’s like a decade worth of Christmas+birthdays in one go.


I am getting the feeling that”stem cell therapy” is the new frontier in quasi scientific woo.

The one I like is “food as medicine.” Eat the right food in sufficient quantity and you can cure any ailment!

Why the food, where the key ingredient is found in varying quantities and mixed with other stuff, is better than a drug that synthesises the key ingredient and delivers it in a measured dose every time, has never been properly explained to me.

elburto, don’t forget “inflammation” is really the cause of many ailments (that actually have nothing to do with inflammation).

I’ll take ‘placebo response’, and a “me too” on ‘toxins’.

My favorite is “frequency”. Every person has a unique “frequency” their body “resonates” at, and if you can find some quack nostrum that “reinforces” your natural “frequency” (or maybe “cancels” the “frequency” of whatever’s ailing you—they seem to go back and forth) you’ll be “in tune” with the universe again.

“Dr.” Nancy Malik was spamming a previous thread with drivel about how “Fourier transforms” of spectra of homeopathic remedies retained the “frequencies” of the original nostrum. Now if only like really cured like you’d really have some…no, no you wouldn’t.

Tricky, because the terms keep shifting as real science marches on, or they get called out for mangling the terms.

A good starting point is sci-fi buzzwords from pulp novels – in order to make something seem “sciency” you simply slapped a buzzword on as a prefix….

Some buzzwords over the decades…..
1910 – Electric!
1920 – Radio!
1930 – Tele!
1940 – Atomic!
1950 – Electronic!
1960 – Laser!
1970 – Computerised!
1980 – Nano!
1990 – Quantum!

So you can have a cure that works by “Nano particles” in the 1980’s, “Atomic snake oil” in the 40’s, and a medical device which works by adjusting “Radio waves” in the 1920’s.

How is it? Are quacks still for “vibrations”? I think that was certainly a big thing already decades ago. Above mentioned “frequency ” suggest that vibrations still have some appeal.

Frequencies. As a physicist, this rates right up there with Chopra’s “quantum” on my cringe scale.

Right on cue… one of the fibromyalgia FB groups has a big post with many !!!! extolling the benefits of turmeric. It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory (heart attacks caused by inflammation) and is an antidepressant too! The poster takes 3 turmeric tablets a day and no longer has to take anti-inflammatories and has less severe pain mood swings, so it must be true!!!

Fibromyalgia attracts the woo peddlers to a dangerous degree.

@lilady: Leaky Gut is a new one on me! Love the way it’s linked to IBD… which has a very distinct pathology, whereas this leaky gut thing seems to be a list of symptoms that could actually be the signs of a genuine, dangerous disease.

Paul Offit’s latest work was reviewed on Friday in The Star, a Johannesburg daily. I’m just waiting for an antivaxxer to spout lies and get published, and then it’s target practice time.
P.S. elburto, you win the internet. I enjoyed “Pin Cushion Posse”.

@Julian- Thank you, I’m here all week!

@ChristineTPS – Yep, “Inflammation” is $CAM-speak for “Hmm, dunno why this happens. Let’s put it down to inflammation or immune system deficiencies!”

Synergy – describes the holistic interactions between nutrients and thus explains why diet is more powerful than those ‘reductionist’ drugs.

@ Elburto
That prolopuncture site really looks like a target-rich environment. The guy seems to have been absorbed by every woo in the book. Sometimes he sounded a bit like a child with his: “when do I finally learn to heal people”.

@Renate – I know, right? Shades of “Mummy mummy, are we nearly there yet?”

The whole thing sounds like a kid writing a “What I did during the holidays” essay. “I went to China and it was AMAZING and I discovered the 10.000 year old art of acupuncture which was BRILLIANT, then I went to Germany (That’s in Europe!!!!) which was so COOL, and learned about mesotherapy which was AWESOMESAUCE, and then, and then, and then…

And then I invented the All American Bald Eagle Mom and Apple Pie Nevar Forget Land of the Free Don’t Tread on Me Therapy, and lived happily ever after.

The End”

Homeoprophylaxis. The arrogance, the self deception. Makes me intensely cross.

Heavy metal poisining that takes years to “detox”
“Other ways of knowing” instead of the patriarchal medical model, this one is usually used for childirth and women’s problems, but I’ve seen it used for mystical treatments too.
Any time a site speaks of adrenal fatigue, or strengthening the immune system or my favorite: natural immunity being far superior than an ebil vaccine.

“Healing” and “cure” have been appropriated by wooists to a nauseating degree.

“Die-off” is another buzzword, though it had limited applications in science.

There’s another term often used to justify the typically magical view that whole herbs are better than purified extracts – not synergy, though it’s a related concept. Maybe I’ll think of it after the morning coffee jolt sets in.

“Epidemic” is always a lovely word tossed about rather carelessly by the woo-inclined. Everything is an epidemic, which means we must, of course, panic about it. And those who don’t do anything about whatever the supposed epidemic is, well, they must be sheeple or in on the conspiracy.

Gadfly? I thought I was a magpie.

I like ‘protocol’ for woo routine.
Also anything with the prefix – ‘exito-‘
Putting the woo into ‘lay language’
‘tipping point’ used for either a physiological or ecological catastrophe
‘peer review studies’ ( sic)
‘scientism’ is another term used frequently but you’d probably never see it in any respectiable source,
phyto- anything..

“iatrogenic autism” from formula?

Good grief. Now “thinking moms” who can’t produce enough breast milk will become terrified to supplement with formula and instead go to things like cow’s milk and goat’s milk, which I’ve seen land some infants in the hospital gravely ill with the symptoms of food protein enterocolitis.

Also, JY Hahr (aka JY Harh) looks to be a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin who may have last published in 1975 (

“Allopathic doctors” or “allopaths.”

And don’t forget The Secret and the Law of Attraction.

You know the woo works if you get a Herx. A Herx in Woo-land is when their treatments make you much more ill than your pre-existing condition. A Herx effect is evidence that your body is fighting dis-ease. The more ill you become the better, as this is further evidence of the effectiveness and appropriateness of their treatments. Sustained levels of increased illness and pain are most desired, as chronic illnesses require chronic and aggressive treatment. Keeping the patient with ‘one foot out of the grave’ seems to be the goal of some practitioners.

In contrast, mainstream medicine defines a Herx as a Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction, which is a potentially fatal but short-lived response appearing within a few hours of initiating antibiotic therapy.

Woo uses:
natural, green, earth-friendly, chemical, NUTRITION, balance/ d, spiritual, health, science, statistics, RESEARCH, biased, pharmaceutical and quack/ quackery
all in its own idiosyncratic way

I should look at TMR: they have their own set of codewords

I’d say ‘traditional’ is the fundamental quackery magic word

To the rest the world it means “of long standing”, but to woomeisters it means “self-evidently beyond all doubt”.

LC @ 18 pretty much covered what I wanted to say.

I recall one old quack (Rife?) who had a machine that allegedly healed people by adjusting their electric vibrations or something like that, since electricity was the bee’s knees back then.

I also recall visiting a site that showed a lot of radioactive quackery with vita-rays and such.

How could I forget:
paradigm shift, psychoneuroimmunology, healing crisis

from TMR – skimming recent posts:
vaccine-injury, thinker, neuro-toxins, PTSD, detox, mainstream media, methylation

@ JGC:

what’s hilarious is that I’ve heard ‘traditional’ applied to woo, e.g. “traditional Chinese medicine” “herbalism”
but also applied to SBM (!) because it is old-hat and the incoming wave of futurity is of course, alt med.

-btw- they also say ‘tsunami’, ‘cascade’ and ( Lord help us)

And lately, both Adams and Null toss around ‘psychopath’ in reference to anyone who is recognised as an expert and/ or has governmental/ social/ financial power according to the mainstream.
similar usage: ‘fascist’


Whenever I see the word “Iatrogenic” I keep expecting something like “Cthulhu ftaghn!” to follow it…

Also, anything to do with balancing the “terrain” to “make it inhosptibale to cancer.”

anything said by a FABNO–a naturopath who has achieved the status of a specialist in cancer

new one orthobionomy

The still on-going fad in nutritional supplement quackery is anti-oxidant. Cox-10, krill oil, fish oil, krill-fish oil, anti-oxidants that are 10,1000, 1000000 times stronger than Vitamin E.

Search your local AM stations on weekend mornings and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Oh, random pickings of smelly words: innate, wave (of innovation/research/breakthroughs), balancing the dynamics, proper proteins, nutrient purity, multiplier and (maybe this is too localized) a weird return of “body wisdom”.

Good grief. Now “thinking moms” who can’t produce enough breast milk will become terrified to supplement with formula and instead go to things like cow’s milk and goat’s milk, which I’ve seen land some infants in the hospital gravely ill with the symptoms of food protein enterocolitis.

Oh no my dear; it’s camel’s milk. Really, check out AoA.

Cleanse! Colon cleanses, those stupid pads you put on your feet to draw out the toxins….Also the obsession with regularity and “probiotics”. The National Bureau of Standards will now set its atomic clock by Jamie Lee Curtis’ bathroom schedule.

Embedding scalar energy into herbs with custom energetic imprints to alter and heal your DNA. Proof can be seen with Kirlian photography.

“xxXXXxx” protocol (insert Woo Guru name). My favorite is the “Shoemaker protocol” for treatment of Mold Toxins. Dr. Shoemaker is also fond of using “Innate Immunity”.


My new favorite one that keeps popping up everywhere is ‘probiotic.’ This term has basically no meaning when you look into it.

The newest meme I’ve see from the anti-vax crowd is that anesthesia causes autism!

As a former structural vibration engineer, one of my favorite are: vibrations and healing frequencies.

I keep wanting to know both the eigenvalues and eigenvectors of the stuff that “heals.”

I once went several rounds with a chiropractor over “innate intelligence” that the body was supposed to have. It apparently meant that because the body functioned, it must be conscious, which was proven because it functioned. Or something.
“Personalized” is another one.
I also love the “high ORAC” thing. I have always wanted to eat breakfast cereal made with Tariel cells.
Gluten is a popular buzz lately. So are shamans (Shamen? And are there shawomen too? And is it “shah-man” or “shay-man”? I still don’t know.).
Of course there’s the ever-popular “boost” as in “boosts the immune system”, but also boosting other things. It sometimes gives way to “promotes”.
“As used for centuries by the [name of some tribe or defunct civilization] people of [name of remote region]”, which gives the eye a break from “traditional”.
And “superfoods”, we can’t forget them. My daughter brought home some “superfood of the Inca warriors”; I asked how come with such a superfood on their side a few dozen malnourished scraggly Spaniards could defeat thousands of them in one day of fighting. No answer has been forthcoming.
Let’s not forget how many things must not only be natural and organic, but also GMO-free, gluten-free, without high-fructose corn syrup, zero trans-fats, cage-free, cruelty-free, without antibiotics, and without growth hormones.

Any time there are testimonials, and testimonials that are taken as absolute fact and that are valued even more highly than data.

Or, someone who, to quote Dara O’Briain, says something to the effect of “There’s more to life than evidence.”

Or, even better, a news clip that goes from a doctor or professor to a quack in the name of “balance”. My arse.

Infections are where it’s at. Everyone’s chronically infected.

MSIDS – Multiple Systemic Infectious Disease Syndrome

The new money-making ailment to replace “chronic” Lyme dis-ease.

Woo weasel words?

QUIP (quantum inseparability principle) gets thrown around as an explanation for telepathy, consciousness and healing.

Zero point energy is also misused as an explanation for the hypothetical bioenergy that so many talk about (qi, orgone, prana, od), but which is apparently impossible to measure consistently (probably because it doesn’t exist).

Then there’s alkaline ionized water, with allegedly free electrons floating about in it, which can be measured with an ORP meter – I’m pretty sure that what they are really measuring is chlorine or hypochlorite from electrolyzing salts in the water used.

Gadgets that use skin conductivity to measure pretty much anything you can imagine, through alleged acupuncture points to diagnose specific conditions, allergies especially, get my goat.

Resonance is my pet peeve. What is resonating with what? Vibrations too. Everything at above absolute zero is vibrating, it’s called temperature. Higher vibrational frequencies on my planet are called ‘heat’. Is Brownian motion a carrier frequency for some other signal modulated on it, or is something other than matter vibrating?

How about the appropriation of quasi-medical terms from pre-industrial cultures to ‘splayn phenomena understood perfectly well by SBM:
xi, chi, ki, prana, mana

as well as talking about “tribes”,”healers”, “shamans”, “medicine men/ women”,”loss of soul”, “vision quest” et al

I’ll second “boosts” or “promotes” followed by Some Good Thing such as the immune system or joint health. I know that’s not technically an *explanation* of how it works, but it’s part of the sciency word salad SCAMmers use.

Also watch for “alignment” of some thing or another.

*Farmacy*. All of the health you need to treat dis-ease is in healthy, locally sourced, non GMO, organic, cruelty free, food raised by virgin bi-sexual wood elves.

What other scientific terms do quacks appropriate to “explain” how their woo works?

Well, they’ve also taken physicist David Bohm’s hoary and highly speculative holographic model of the universe and run blithely into the woo with it.

I’ve had this one expounded to me by some proponents — they thought it would satisfy my urge for ‘science’ and help me get an answer to “how?” The Hologram Universe idea is used to explain the supernatural nature of reality in general and the paranormal in particular and boy, does it ever sound science-y.

As one woo-ster puts it:

The universe is a consciousness hologram. Reality is projected illusion within the hologram. It is a virtual experiment created in linear time to study emotions. Our hologram is composed of grids created by a source consciousness brought into awareness by electromagnetic energy at the physical level. The hologram is created and linked through a web, or grid matrixes based on the patterns of Sacred Geometry. The hologram had a beginning and it has an end, as consciousness evolves in the alchemy of time. As the grids collapse, everything within the hologram will end, helping to understand what is going on in the world today.

Apparently “today many physicists are researching” this. Yeah. I’ll bet they are.

So there’s another example for you: Hologram Theory.

@Science Mom #48:

Oh no my dear; it’s camel’s milk. Really, check out AoA.

Q:How did the AoA member get killed drinking camel’s milk?
A: The camel slipped and fell on his head.

Zero point energy is also misused as an explanation for the hypothetical bioenergy that so many talk about (qi, orgone, prana, od), but which is apparently impossible to measure consistently (probably because it doesn’t exist).

Funny thing that this brings to mind for some reason: In sci-fi, it seems to me that a lot of the technology works “harder” where in real life, we’re generally stuck with trying to work “smarter.” Sci-fi machines get generators with absurd output to do mundane tasks, like anti-gravity hoverboards and forcefield prison cells. Meanwhile in the real world, we’re generally trying to squeeze out just a little more efficiency from the devices and materials we’ve already got.

In a way, I think woos have partially caught onto that problem, since scientists are very good at detecting stuff. So, they try to come up sneaky “smart” ways to do what they claim with “subtle” things. Of course, it’s mostly to produce unfalsifiable hypotheses in an effort to avoid easy refutation.

@ Rebecca Fisher: Not only has Age of Idiocy featured an article on the…they have a huge ad for that group and that group is now a “sponsor” of AoA:

Then there is the head of that organization, who is the proprietor of, which appears to be a one man/one quack operation run by Theo Theodalakis, MS, PhD, MD, who sells supplements over the internet and who has teamed up with the luminaries of the anti-vaccine world to lecture parents about iatrogenic autism treatments:

The expensive food movement appropriated the scientific term “organic.” I’d wager most people who buy the stuff don’t know what the term means in either context.

My first thought was “Herxheimer reaction”, but I see that Daisy at #34 was there long ago.

“xxXXXxx” protocol (insert Woo Guru name).

A good revealer of the cargo-cult mentality there. Let’s dress up in white coats and recite the language of the oncologists we hate so much, and surely the Cargo will come!

I see it far more amongst the anti-evolutionists, but many alties also seem to misuse the word “theory” a lot. If they disagree with a scientific theory than “theory = totally unproven hypothesis” in their minds, but if it’s their own wackadoodle ideas we’re talking about their definition suddenly changes to “theory = OMG I had this great idea that is automatically COMPLETELY true and anyone who disagrees with me is a stinky stupid-head” or something of that sort.

Oh sweet, sweet hypocrisy.

Camel Milk?

Donkey Milk?

Water Buffalo Milk?

All excellent alternatives to “recover” your kid from autism, “recover grandma from Alzheimer disease, and “recover anyone from diabetes or Lyme disease”, according to this naturopath:

I find lotsa Woos plagued with “Parasites” and “Candida /Fungal Overgrowths”! Many claim that veggies like potatoes and tomatoes are related to deadly nightshades and therefore should not be eaten. Sugar appently feeds their “Overgrowths”, and is religiously avoided–sadly, no desserts for those afflicted.

Camel Milk? Donkey Milk? Water Buffalo Milk?

It’ll be Venezuelan beaver milk next.

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