THE ATTRACTION OF WOO

Many of us might have faint recollections of the first time we played with a magnet. Most of us might have tried in vain to hold the opposite poles of two magnets together, and felt amused by the impossibility of holding two tiny magnetic poles together. But only few of us go on to understand the beauty of magnetic fields, the wonderful experiments we can do to understand the nature of magnets. For the rest, magnetism is only a funny little magic of nature and only a few things are known like “like poles repel” and “opposite poles attract”. But the sad part is that even this area of nature’s fascinating mystery is used by charlatans to fool people, especially at times when they are most vulnerable, most emotional, the times when one of your loved ones is fighting a formidable illness.

Evidences of use of magnets for healing and luck goes as far back as any alternative system of medicine, from the use by ancient Chinese to mention in the atharvana veda, to use by Socrates, Aristotle etc.  The long history of magnetic therapies often allows the proponents of magnetic therapy to use the common technique of appealing to antiquity, a logical fallacy that is sadly hard to grasp for the common man, given the human tendencies to specifically look for and get mesmerized by the ancient marvels. Showing that a method was practiced all over the world in ancient times somehow gives it a status of an ancient treasure of knowledge that was lost due to modernization. What is forgotten is no matter how prospering an ancient civilization was, making pyramids and forts from scratch is still possible whereas figuring out the causes and cures for diseases without the aid of microscopes, imaging techniques could never have been achieved.

Apparently the charlatans were smart enough to learn a few scientific facts and distort them to give the magnetic therapy a basis out of nowhere, something which the homeopaths have consistently failed to. (It is another thing that the global homeopathic drug market is 200 times more than the “therapeutic magnets”,perhaps because it mimics the scientific medicine to some extent)

One of the most popular myth backing magnetic therapy is that the magnets placed over the skin influence the iron in the haemoglobin. Read a chapter in modern medicine textbooks about wound healing and there you know the words to add after “magnets affect the iron in the haemoglobin …..”. The difficult part is that one needs decent knowledge of both physics and medicine to refute this, unlike the case of homeopathy, where a basic knowledge of chemistry establishes the quackery crystal clearly in front of the eye. The iron present in the haeomoglobin is not ferromagnetic. A little bit of reasoning compensates if we don’t know about the nature of iron in the haemoglobin:- If iron in Hb would get attracted by magnets, then nobody would ever come out of the MRI machine alive. MRI machines have magnetic strengths of the order of Tesla whereas the magnet bands used in magentic therapy have their strength in order of gauss. MRI is so commonly used for diagnostic purposes that the therapeutic effect of magnets 
would have been apparent, if there were any http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/safety/index.cfm?pg=sfty_mrEven the red blood cells don’t separate from other cells when magnets are taken over the collected blood.

Other common, perhaps related, purported mechanism of therapeutic action is improvement of blood flow. Ant significant improvement in blood flow should be visible clinically, but no such demonstration has ever been made. They have also been claimed to alter nerve impulses, decrease fatty deposits on artery walls, decrease toxic substances in blood, correct acid-base imbalance and realign thought patterns to improve emotional well-being. Some go out and announce mechanisms that are incompatible with the vast knowledge of human anatomy and physiology. They suggest that the magnets can restore the body’s “electromagnetic energy balance”, an entity of their own imagination, just like the miasms, chakras, vital force, pressure points, nadis, reflex points etc., of other alternative systems.

Proponents of magnetic therapy cite a few double blind randomised control trials for supporting their claims, which have shown modest benefit over the placebo. But each of them had their major flaws apparent even on superficial scrutiny. The basic problem with any trial studying magnetic therapy is that its too easy for a patient under study to figure out whether what one is using is a magnetic band or a non-magnetic one (placebo). For example, a study examining the effect of magnetic therapy on knee pain had apparently shown modest benefit. The study was small in size and the group that got the magnetic bands contained double the no. of  women (who show greater degree and incidence of placebo effect) and younger people, whose ability to fight off the disease is likely to be higher. There was no following up of patients to know how if the effects stood the test of time. On the other hand, properly conducted large trials have shown over and over again that magnetic therapy is not better than placebo.

So how does a system that is total quackery, survive over the ages, even taking a surge in modern times where modern medicine is clearly the dominant system? How do the charlatans together manage a global market worth a billion dollars, 300 million alone in U.S, especially when the buyers are likely to be self-sufficient and educated? Its survival,  just like the survival of any pseudoscience, lies in the demerits of science, rather than its own merits. In this case, medical science is both costly and risky and the risk of getting looted with or without treatment is sensible worry, given that money minded practitioners and quacks in the realms of EBSM are not very rare. If someone is convinced that he can treat himself using magnets at home, why on earth would he go for a heart surgery? We are living in times where people want to get everything online and everything shortened and simplified, because each of us has too much to do to give time to regular costly visits to a physician. There are websites selling magnets that will go with the tempting lines “now there is no need to go out for cures and depend on others, buy our magnetic bands, straps etc, follow simple instructions and treat yourself at home, no complicated regimes, no timing, no dosing, no side effects!!”

Let us examine this article meant to attract customers into believing in magnetic therapy. It follows a bit of understanding of human psychology.

http://www.lifepositive.com/body/new-age-therapies/magnet-therapy/magnet-healing.asp

We tend to remember the first and last bits of a list better than the rest of it. This article begins and ends by attacking the scientific medicine.

//Trust your feelings // (in bold)

They want you to “feel” so that this “feeling” makes the memory of the advertisement stronger. //………random story………..//

Next, they introduce you to some random person and his/her story (real or fake) who got kicked like a football from doctor to doctor, tried all sorts of risky and painful treatments (it is here whe the gullible reader starts thinking that the article was written for unfortunate lot like himself/herself) and then finally hit the doorsteps of the simplest solution of all. Wear a magnetic band, and there your cancer cells start dying. Its worse than an anecdotal evidence, it’s a fake story meant to emotionally stimulate the gullible audience so that their reasoning skills are compromised while reading the remainder of the article.

//no expectant surrender to an all-knowing doctor’s abilities//

//over years of being callously bounced around hospitals and clinics. She has also regained a virtue as tangible and medically essential as the cessation of pain—her self-esteem. //

You obviously cant be superior to the doctor in his expertise, so lets abandon the system of medicine in which the doctor makes u feel inferior, and lets give you a short paper on how to use the magnetic bands, and there you are, the master of a system of medicine. The self confidence of the reader is now effectively coupled to the confidence in the therapy.

//curative system that is unobtrusively infiltrating the medical mainstream//

Yeah, let this gift turn my destiny from that of a chronic hopeless patient to the first one in my circle of friends to try this revolutionary therapy

//This is empirical Einsteinian physics, not wishful thinking for the credulous.//

Use the name Einstein and then even the guy who doesn’t know anything about physics is in your pocket, because if it is Einstein, then it must be revolutionary.

Then speak of gravity (without the use of the word), because it is the attractive force the lay man understands better, and there they are validating their theory with a cosmological argument. Basing on physics to astronomy, what more proof can one expect?

//One, it is a painkilling system and, two, people are tired of medicines// And then the reader resonates, “Yes, I m tired of them too”

Then introduce someone who is otherwise respected and has no direct relation with medicine, if he says it is right, it must be right, why else will he go all the way to opening a clinic?

Then comes their favourite argument, the appeal to antiquity. So, what does a common man, not so much of a reader, know and remember from history as famous? Egyptian civilization, Socrates, Aristotle, the vedas, etc. Say all of them used magnetic therapy and suddenly it becomes a treasure of the past that is being revived. So I must go for it.

Then bring in the founding fathers of other famous systems, and that adds up to the brainwash. Then the appeal to simplicity and “if it is safe, then it must be superior”

And after all this manipulation (from emotional appeal to the appeal to antiquity and safetly), it is finally safe for them to put up plain lies, which has a high chance of going unquestioned, now that the reasoning skills have been compromised. They first pick up the pseudo-scientific lies, distorting scientific facts at will. Then carefully, they talk more bold lies as //not a single documented contraindication so far //

//And you know that you have arrived when medical instruments turn into virtual fashion statements //

Then the appeal to fashion, something that is probably confined to this sole quack system.

//A magnet can also be used without looking like an awkward prosthesis—a hearing aid, or worse still, a crutch. //

Now, not only does it work good and feel good, it also looks good. Seriously, they have the magnet for deafness?

//You can go jogging wearing a magnetic headband (improve your memory on the run)//
Yeah, we know that, everything fights hair loss, improves memory and treats autism. And just when “too good to be true” sparks in your mind….

//There is, of course, a catch to magnet therapy: outside of orthopedics, it is an unpredictable, sporadic success//

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