South Bend could use a new news anchor for WNDU. This one fell for quackery.

When it comes to Twitter, I run hot and cold. I’ll frequently go weeks when I barely touch my Twitter account, and nothing gets posted there except automatic Tweets linking to my new posts. Then something will happen, and suddenly I’ll post 20 Tweets in a day. Rinse, lather, repeat. I guess I’m just too verbose for Twitter or I just don’t grok it the way I do blogging. Either that, or I do enough social media that adding Twitter is just one bit of social media too far. That’s why I tell people that Twitter is not a good way to get my attention if that is your goal. It might be days, if not weeks, before I notice Tweets directed at me. Or it might not. You can’t predict, and that’s the problem.

Still, sometimes I happen to notice Tweets directed at me in a timely fashion. Sometimes they’re even something interesting enough that I want to blog about them. Sometimes, they suit my purposes very well. For example, this is Quackery Week 2013. I declared it so in response to the U.S. Senate’s resolution declaring the week of October 7 to 14 to be Naturopathic Medicine Week. I figured that naturopathy is quackery; so it’s basically the same thing. Unfortunately, the link sent to me wasn’t about a naturopath, but it was about a quack; so we’re fine for Quackery Week. I’m sure I’ll get to naturopathy soon enough.

The link sent to me was to a story on a local news station in South Bend, IN, WNDU, which featured a story called Seeing health problems before they’re diagnosed. It’s part of something called Maureen’s Medical Moment. The “Maureen” in Maureen’s Medical Moment is Maureen McFadden, who is a reporter there. On her Twitter feed, McMadden touts herself as an “Emmy Award winning News Anchor and Reporter at WNDU.” It’s also there that she caught my attention, because several skeptics were disturbed by the news story she had done. Why is that? The reason is simple. Her news story was a completely credulous report about a “medical intuitive” named John Kortum:

Preventative medicine is your best strategy for long term health.

However, regular screenings can only catch so much, unless perhaps your doctor is a “medical intuitive.”

One man has received some national attention for his claims that he can diagnose your health problems, by simply looking at you.

Gabby Rodriguez didn’t know what to expect when she called medical intuitive John Kortum.

John told her something was going on with her blood.

“And I was able to take that and go back to my doctor and say, ‘could I have some further testing done?’” she said.

Testing by her doctor revealed an autoimmune disease.

John says much like how we know boiling water is hot without having to touch it, he perceives textured properties on the face, each linked to an organ system.

“This biological language lives within you and it’s your body’s way of expressing imbalances,” John explains.

“Biological language”? “Expressing imbalances”? Now there’s some serious woo-speak. What being a “medical intuitive” means is basically either doing cold reading or being very good at making stuff up. I don’t recall the last time I wrote about a “medical intuitive,” but one thing I do know is that medical intuitives claim to be able to diagnose and heal disease without all that pesky science- and evidence-based medicine. Rather, they function as, in essence, psychic healers. They claim to be able to tell what’s wrong with a patient simply by interacting with them or, as in the case of John Kortum, just looking like you and picking up what’s wrong with you the way a Star Trek tricorder does. I hadn’t heard of Kortum before, but apparently he’s been on—where else?—Dr. Oz’s show before. (Why am I not surprised to learn that?) So, to find out what Kortum is about, I wandered over to his website and blog. In particular, I was curious just what it was that McFadden was talking about when she noted in her story:

THE KORTUM TECHNIQUE: The body has a symbolic language to indicate health imbalances within the different organ systems. When the imbalance reaches a certain point, it activates the symbolic language and becomes visible and accessible through the Kortum Technique. The Kortum Technique is conducted in a conversational setting, with three essential components. During the first component, the technique is used to survey the indicators. Further discussion allows the patient to provide information on what they already know about their health compared to the indicator evaluation. The second component is dedicated to revealing what the body wants to communicate. The organs can describe past events in a person’s life. The third component will be the opportunity to consider what has been revealed in the session and how the patient can use this information to best support their recovery of health and vitality. (Source: www.johnkortum.com)

ORGAN INDICATORS: Organ indicators are the body’s natural way of creating awareness of health imbalances within the body system. The indicators have observable descriptions and each indicator relates to a specific body organ or system. The way the indicators are identified is by bringing awareness to qualities that can be perceived when looking at the physical presence of any person. John Kortum, developer of the Kortum Technique, says that most every indicator is perceived by aiming your blended vision at the human face. (Source: www.johnkortum.com)

So basically what Kortum is doing is no different than reflexology or traditional Chinese medicine tongue diagnosis. Both are systems that claim that all organs map to certain locations on another organ. In the case of reflexology it’s either the soles of the feet or the palms of the hand (unless, of course, you’re talking about butt reflexology). In the case of TCM tongue diagnosis, organs map to different locations on the tongue. It’s all prescientific superstition, of course, and so are Kortum’s claims, which are leavened with pure mysticism, namely the idea that organs can describe past events in people’s lives and that there is some sort of symbolic language of the body that lets you diagnose conditions simply from the face. Naturally, he has a back story through which he discovered his amazing abilities, plus lots of testimonials. Indeed, McFadden included another anecdote, a woman who realized after taking Kortum’s course that she had a “left breast indicator.” She went and saw her doctor and was apparently diagnosed with breast cancer. Of course, when thousands of people take your course, given how common breast cancer is, by sheer random chance alone you’re likely to “diagnose” breast cancer every now and then, just as it can appear by random chance alone that vaccines cause autism because millions of children get a series of vaccines around the age when autism is most commonly diagnosed.

So how does he claim to do it? He attempts to explain it in this video on his website:

Again, there’s some serious woo here. There’s lots of fancy computer graphics showing what look like energy fields interspersed with shots of people looking at X-rays. Over on Kortum’s website, he has demonstrations of how he performs “sensory integration” and identifies disease. Here, he claims the ability to find a “breast indicator”:

This video made me laugh out loud because it was so ridiculous. Kortum points out “vertical lines” in a woman’s face as a “breast indicator.” The woman looks as though she were at least 70; so it’s not particularly surprising that she has some “vertical lines” on her face. He asks her about her health history and discovers that in the distant past she had breast cancer for which she apparently turned down conventional treatment and instead used Royal Rife technology (which is pure quackery, by the way). Kortum saw her and, we are told, noticed that there had been something in her breast but told her that she was fine. He also observes in the video that she has “good moisture.” Of course, if there’s one thing about “medical intuitives, it’s that they have an instinctive understanding of how to take advantage of placebo effects, regression to the mean, and confirmation bias, all combined with an ability not unlike that of cold readers, to make a convincing show of seeming to diagnose illnesses and then, if they get better, taking credit for the improvement.

There is also a claim in McFadden’s story that researchers “put the Kortum technique to the test” in a study in Bethesda in 2001 in which they took patients with documented diseases and had Kortum assess them. The claim was that he had a 93% accuracy rate. Based on what, I wondered? So I went looking for this so-called “study.” According to the Kortum website, the study was supposedly carried out thusly:

Preliminary research conducted by Leonard A. Wisneski, MD and Beth H. Renne’, MSN, ANP-C at Wyngate Medical Park in Bethesda Maryland, shows that disease processes in the human body can be identified without medical laboratory tests or technologies. Instead, visible health “indicators” identify health imbalances. John Kortum, who developed the new technique that translates the indicators, reported body organ and system dysfunction with 93% accuracy. These reports were subsequently confirmed by medical diagnoses established through conventional medical means.

Kortum observed patients without access to health histories or allowed to discuss their health complaints, symptoms, diets or lifestyles. His reports were not based on the usual manner of observable traits such as age, gender, or obvious symptoms such as coughing and nasal discharge. In fact, patients who participated in the study had no outward signs of health maladies, at all. Yet Kortum’s reports were comprehensive and he identified diabetes, breast lumps, ovarian cysts, diverticulitis, hypothyroidism, hearing loss, and high blood pressure using his technique of visual observation.

Naturally, I went searching PubMed for this study by searching for Wisneski’s publication record. There were only eight publications, and none of them appeared to have anything to do with Kortum. One purported to find “energetic physiologic basis for acupuncture electroconductance effects and for gas discharge visualization (GDV) assessment methods, using a quantum biophysical model of entropy and information flows.” The rest clearly had nothing to do anything even resembling Kortum. There are also no publications by John Kortum. So where was this “study” published? Clearly, wherever it was published, it wasn’t in the peer-reviewed medical literature. How was the study carried out? How was Kortum blinded what the patients’ had? how were patients selected? How was it determined that Kortum got a case right? How were correct answers defined? All these things matter a lot and can have a major effect on the interpretation of these results. The investigator matters, too. Dr. Wisneski is clearly into the woo, given that he was was Vice Chairman of the NIH Consensus Panel on Acupuncture and is Chairman of the NIH Advisory Board on Frontier Sciences at the University of Connecticut. He has also served on the board of the American Holistic Medical Association and was President of the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine.

Yeah, I wouldn’t exactly call him a reliable clinical investigator.

So we’ve established that there is nothing even coming close to resembling good scientific or clinical evidence that John Kortum can do what he claims to be able to do. What he does do is pure woo. Now here’s the hilarious part, and that’s the Twitter exchange going on between skeptics and Maureen McFadden. For example:

And:

I’m tellin’ ya, ya can’t make stuff like this up. It’s comedy gold. McFadden actually fell for Kortum’s line and believes that his “skills” represent some sort of “medical breakthrough.” More depressing, though, from the perspective of her being a journalist, is that she doesn’t realize she’s been fooled. Instead of considering the possibility that maybe, just maybe, she screwed up, she dismisses the possibility and tells her critic to go argue with the “researchers and the FDA and the doctors using it.” That’s some seriously burning stupid right there, given that there are no real researchers researching Kortum and the FDA is almost certainly not involved. One does wonder, however, if a state medical board could go after Kortum for practicing medicine without a license. Probably not. Like most “medical intuitives,” he’s Kortum appears to be smart enough to know when to stop short of making too grand a claim. In any case, I feel sorry for South Bend, at least when it comes one one local news station. Its anchor is completely clueless about medicine and unbelievably credulous about quackery.