On Shamans, Charlatans, Snake Oil and Gullible People

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a skeptic. Whenever I hear of a new medical treatment, my first considered action is to review the research, both pro and con. I’m a proponent of evidence-based medicine, and I take my fair share of criticism because I’ll gleefully slaughter a few EMS sacred cows that are poorly supported by current research (see: Spine, immobilization thereof). When it comes to evaluating medical research, I’m no Rogue Medic, but I can occasionally tell my confidence interval from a hole in the ground.

And when people start talking to me about auras and energy fields and purging toxins from the body and chelation and how my misaligned vertebrae are causing my hair loss and erectile dysfunction (hypothetically speaking), I generally tend to run the other direction. If I can’t make a graceful exit, I smile and nod, all while mentally rolling my eyes and singing Karen Carpenter songs in my head.

So how, damn it, am I supposed to react when I see woo and snake oil work before my very eyes, and no logical scientific reason to explain it?

When KatyBeth was teething, she ran a constant low-grade fever, as teething babies will do. Despite removing excess clothing, rotating Tylenol and Motrin, yada yada yada…

… still, she ran a steady 100.2 rectal temp for four days. She was one cranky, miserable baby. And her Pawpaw kept telling us we needed some swamp root to hang around her neck. And I would mentally count to ten and give the Missus the stink eye whenever she even hinted at humoring him.

Finally, he became so insistent that I relented. So, he wades out into his pond, digs out a few handfuls of some aquatic plant that has vine-like, jointed stems. I’m no botanist, so I have no idea what it was, other than the common name of “swamp root.”

So my father-in-law cut a dozen or so joints of this plant, strung them on a length of cotton twine, and went in search of a wheat penny – a regular penny won’t work – to complete his redneck voodoo charm. So he hung this weird little necklace around her neck, and I’ll be damned if her temperature wasn’t 98.4 within an hour.

I still wasn’t convinced, but my skepticism eased a bit. Heck, maybe the 16th dose of Tylenol did the trick. Maybe swamp root is full of salicylates, like birch bark and strawberries. Maybe it contains some as-yet-undiscovered fever reducer.

Whatever it was, her fever came down, and right smartly, after four days of conventional treatment had failed.

Just today, I had a second WTF moment when it comes to woo and snake oil. Anyone who has ever met KatyBeth will tell you that she walks with a pronounced limp. Her cerebral palsy manifests itself as spastic diplegia, and she walks with her left arm tucked tightly to her side, and her left foot on tiptoe. We’re forever reminding her, “Put your heel down, and straighten out that chicken wing!” and she will for a minute or so, with limited success. It’s something she simply cannot help, and extensive physical therapy has only lessened the symptoms, not eliminated them.

Yet, for the past fifteen minutes, I’ve been watching her walk around the exhibit hall here at the fair, walking with a more-or-less normal stride, walking with a heel-to-toe stride, and her left arm relaxed and hanging loosely at her side, after The Ex put one of these on her left wrist and ankle? It ain’t placebo effect, either. As far as KatyBeth knows, they’re just cool costume jewelry.

From the product packaging, comes this bit of pseudo-scientific bullshit:

Power Balance Performance Technology is a mylar hologram that is embedded with a range of frequencies found in nature that react positively with your body’s energy field. It has been shown to improve balance, flexibility and strength as well as contributing to an overall sense of well-being among its users.

Shit, I can’t even type that without rolling my eyes.

Yet here I sit, watching it do everything that the package says it does, and no scientific explanation for it.

That just bugs the hell out of me.

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