You Are Not So Smart podcast 017: Alternative Medicine - Tim Farley

You are Not So Smart is hosted by David McRaney, a journalist and self-described psychology nerd. In each episode, David explores cognitive biases and delusions, and is often joined by a guest expert. David concludes each episode by eating a delicious cookie baked from a recipe sent in by a listener.

Where is the line between medicine and alternative medicine? Are Eastern medicine and Western medicine truly at odds, and if so, who is right and who is wrong? What harm is there in using complementary or integrative treatments in an effort to improve wellness?

In this episode we discuss alternative medicine with Tim Farley, creator and curator of What's The Harm, a website that tracks the harmful effects that result from seeking out alternative treatments and cures before or instead of seeking out science-based medicine. Tim also created the website Skeptical Software Tools, and he tweets at @krelnik.

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Who is still imprisoned in Guantanamo?


With Obama pledging in the latest State of the Union address to finally shutter the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay -- something he's been promising to do since his 2008 election campaign -- it's worth revisiting the people who remain imprisoned there, more than a decade after the GW Bush administration declared its War on Terror.

There are 155 men in Guantanamo. 77 have been cleared for transfer but there is no country to which they can be sent. 45 men are in "indefinite detention" -- unable to be prosecuted, often because of the brutal torture inflicted on them by Guantanamo's jailers, but unable to be released because the US government considers them to be a threat. 31 more are awaiting prosecution.

This month, the American Psychology Association dropped all proceedings against a member who designed, oversaw, and participated in the torture at Guantanamo. They had previously denied a request to censure other members who participated in torture.

The protocol designed by John Leso, the doctor that the APA will not censure, involved intravenously hydrating a victim until he urinated on himself; sleep deprivation; forcing the victim to bark like a dog; keeping the victim naked and subjecting him to extreme cold; spinning the victim in a swiveling chair to disorient him; putting the victim into stress positions; depriving the victim of mattresses and other bedding; keeping the victim in isolation from all human contact; and more.

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Lighting scars on eyes of man blinded by electric shock

A case study in the New England Journal of Medicine details the tragic story of an electrician who received a shock of 14,000V and was blinded as part of his injuries. Accompanying the article is this striking photo of the scars on his eyes, which resemble the plasma ball effects, the sort of thing you'd expect from a science fiction movie.

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Born without fingerprints

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Adermatoglyphia is a very rare genetic condition causing you to be born without fingerprints. In 2011, a small group of researchers pinpointed the genetic mutation behind it. One of them, dermatologist Peter Itin, was drawn to the mystery after he was contacted by a Swiss woman who found trouble at the US border when immigration agents couldn't take her prints… because she doesn't have any. "Adermatoglyphia: The Genetic Disorder Of People Born Without Fingerprints" (Smithsonian)

Hospitals will happily tell you the cost of parking; procedures, not so much

Fourteen-year-old Jillian Bernstein got herself published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by comparing the transparency of medical costs at Philadelphia hospitals with the transparency of parking rates at the same hospitals. Out of 20 hospitals, 19 were happy to provide information on the cost to park a car. Only three, however, were willing to tell her how much it would cost an uninsured person to get an electrocardiogram, and those prices were ridiculously variable — $137, $600 and $1,200, depending on the hospital.

Can a penis really get stuck in a vagina?

For once, the answer to a question in the headline is, "Well, quite possibly."

It's been 100 years since a well-documented case of penis captivus — i.e., penis-stuck-in-vagina syndrome — appeared in the medical literature. But that doesn't mean it's a total myth. The BBC's Health Check discusses the physiological mechanisms that could lead to such an unpleasant event and explains why there are lots of anecdotal stories surrounding something that's thought to be "vanishingly rare" from a medical perspective. Hint: While very, very, very few people end up needing medical treatment for penis captivus, there may be many more who get temporarily-but-disconcertingly stuck for a few seconds.

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The laissez faire world of dietary supplements

Every year, more than 2000 Americans experience a serious negative effect (either death or illness) from taking over-the-counter dietary supplements. Since 1994, it's been legal to sell supplements without prior safety testing. Even when someone gets sick, the burden of proof is on the FDA to prove the supplement caused it, rather than on the supplement company to prove it didn't. The Dallas Morning News reports on the lack of oversight and what it costs us.

The Franken Berry Stool (aka red poop)

NewImage 300x404 In 1972, Franken Berry cereal, then a brand new product, was the subject of a paper in the medical journal Pediatrics because it caused a 12-year-old to have red poop. He had been hospitalized for several days for what appeared to be rectal bleeding but turned out to have been the red dye (FD&C Red No. 2 and No. 3) in the Franken Berry. In related news, Booberry can turn your stool green. "Benign Red Pigmentation of Stool Resulting from Food Coloring in a New Breakfast Cereal (The Franken Berry Stool)" (Pediatrics via Smithsonian)

A moving long read about a medical school dissection class

Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has put together an amazing four-part story about medical students entering a human dissection lab for the first time. Interweaving the stories of the students, their teachers, and people who have chosen to donate their bodies to science, the series really gives you a sense of how emotionally intense the experience can be for students, and how it brings together all these different lives. Powerful stuff.

Why we pay $1000 for a $20 medical test

Pap smears — the pre-cancer-screening that most women get annually when they visit a gynecologist — should only cost about $20 or $30, writes Dr. Cheryl Bettigole in The New England Journal of Medicine. So, why then, are more women (and/or their insurance companies) paying much, much more — sometimes upwards of $1000? A big part of the problem is add-on tests — extra screenings that haven't been shown to make women healthier, but do add a lot to the cost of an annual exam. Turns out, medical laboratories have started marketing these pap+ tests, using some of the same techniques pharmaceutical companies have long used to sell more expensive treatments to doctors.

Nobel Prizes 2013: The shipping machinery of cells

If the cells that make up your body are little factories, then the shipping department just picked up a Nobel Prize this morning with the award for physiology or medicine going to researchers Randy Schekman of the University of California at Berkeley, James Rothman of Yale University, and Thomas Südhof of Stanford. These scientists don't work together, but their research does overlap and play off each other in important ways. In fact, this isn't the first time some of these men have shared major research awards.

What makes their work so important? It's really all about increasing our understanding of how individual cells operate and participate in major bodily systems like immunity or hormone control. If you built little models of cells back in grade school, you probably have a mental image of them as a sort of lumpy sack with a couple of things inside — a big fat nucleus and some squirrelly little mitochondria, mostly. But it turns out that there's a lot more happening in the interior of a cell than that. Much of that activity is centered around vesicles — bubbles in the fluid that fills a cell. There are many different kinds of vesicles doing many different jobs, but one of the important things they do is move molecules, either within the cell or from the cell to the outside world.

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Why letting a pregnant woman's heart stop could save both her and her baby

I've been describing this Slate piece as the most awesome thing I really should not have read at 38 weeks pregnant. For decades, doctors thought that a pregnant woman whose heart stopped had pretty much no chance of survival. After trying to resuscitate her, attention would shift to rescuing the baby. But recent research suggests a better solution: Spend less time trying to get the mother's heart pumping again. Not only does it give the infants a better shot at survival, it also, insanely enough, saves more mothers. Turns out, once somebody removes the other human from your body, your failed heart will often just start pumping again on its own.

Man has replacement nose on his forehead

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Chinese surgeons constructed a replacement nose on a patient's forehead to replace his own that was injured. It will eventually be moved to the center of the man's face. This may look unusual but it surprisingly is fairly common practice. "The forehead is a traditional place to get extra tissue from to rebuild a nose," says Shehan Hettiaratchy, Chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS, who the BBC quoted as an expert on the matter. "The skin from there is a good match for nose skin. Most importantly, the forehead skin can be moved to the nose and keep its blood supply, which is essential otherwise the skin would die." This reminds me of body artist Stelarc's ear on his arm.

The One True Cause of all disease (All 52 of them)

A few years ago, Harriet Hall googled "The One True Cause of all disease", just to see what the Internet would come up with. She counted 67 One True Causes before she got bored (52 of them made it into the handy chart above).

Besides making for an amusing anecdote, this little exercise also helps illustrate why there's a problem with ideologically driven medical treatments — the sort that comes from people who are pushing a lifestyle or a philosophy along with ostensible healthcare. It's both intriguing and convenient to think that, if we just open the right secret door, we can find the thing that's actually causing all our problems. The truth, unfortunately, seems to be that our bodies and the world they inhabit are complicated and messy and that lots of of things can lead to disease (doctors typically learn to divide these things into nine different categories, Hall says). In fact, a disease we think of as a single entity can have its roots in more than one thing. All of this is pretty obvious but it's the kind of obvious that's worth rubbing our noses in on occasion. If somebody tells you that everything from obesity to bipolar disorder to allergies to cancer all stem from the same root and can be treated or prevented with the exact same treatment, there's probably good reason to question what they're telling you.