Can’t cure stupid, part II

Not too long ago, I opined about how you can’t cure stupid. It turns out that there is no herbal remedy for stupid either:


You will see that this is true. In fact, given the quality of arguments advocates of “natural remedies” use to support their favored woo, I have to wonder if herbs actually make them stupid.

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]

42 replies on “Can’t cure stupid, part II”

Herbies have been vaccinated against intelligence. The newsgroups are getting messages regarding a Gregory Caton who the herbies claim was kidnapped by the FDA from his mountaintop fortress in Central America, where he fled after being convicted of introducing unapproved drugs into interstate commerce (from the FDA website, search on “Gregory Caton”:

Numerous misbranded and unapproved new drugs were seized during the search at Lumen Food Corporation, as well as items deemed as hazardous materials by chemical engineers. Also seized were 16/55 gallon drums of a liquid corrosive material at the industrial site owned by Caton. This liquid was subsequently identified as sulfuric acid and was mislabeled as non-corrosive. All of the hazardous materials seized were subsequently destroyed by a hazardous materials disposal company.

On May 26, 2004, Caton was convicted of violating Title 18 U.S.C. 1341 – Mail Fraud; and Title 21 U.S.C. 331(d), 355(a) and 333(a)(2) – Introduction into Interstate Commerce of Unapproved New Drugs. Caton also forfeited 2 buildings and his residence in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

On August 24, 2004, Caton was sentenced to 33 months incarceration to be followed by 3 years supervised release.

Note that he previously had been convicted of fraud and was a felon.

given the quality of arguments advocates of “natural remedies” use to support their favored woo, I have to wonder if herbs actually make them stupid.

No, it’s their obstinacy in adjusting their views to empirical evidence.

I used to think that homeopaths could stumble onto an effective cure because they used herbs with potential medicinal properties, so homeopathy was worth a try if standard medicine wasn’t working well.

Then I learned about succussion.

My views changed when I realized that there’s a very remote chance of even a single molecule worth of remedy left in the entire issued supply, much less a dose. Reading studies which compared homeopathy against placebo in double-blind studies just sealed the deal.

Herbs don’t just equal homeopathy. Sheesh.
You just need to get up, get out, and research everything. Some of the Big Pharma claims are just as ludicrous (and often more dangerous) than the “herbies” as you call them.
Be as skeptical as you like, but realize that many doctors who advocate for specific drugs are paid to do so.

In my case, I am doing a lot of movement therapy to help my little boy get better brain skills, improving his ability to sit still for longer periods of time, get better handwriting skills, and hopefully learn to focus. I’ll keep measuring, but in the meantime, I’m using and ALTERNATE approach to just putting him on speed, as suggested by the helpful big pharma folks.

Furthermore, “herbies” recommend things like vitamin B6, B12, magnegium, etc. etc.

Herbie drivel vs big business? Yeah, that’s a hard one. Good thing we all have brains and can research specifics, rather than just name calling.

kate sanford:

Herbie drivel vs big business? Yeah, that’s a hard one. Good thing we all have brains and can research specifics, rather than just name calling.

1) Saying “Big Pharma bad” in no way makes herbalism valid.

2) You really need to do more research, especially when you say “Herbs don’t just equal homeopathy. Sheesh.”, because it is clear you have no idea what homeopathy is.

kate sanford, homeopathy is not the same has herbalism, actually very few homeopathic magic sugar pill remedies involve herbs. Homeopathy involves diluting a substance to one part (sometimes salt for Nat Mur, duck bits for Oscillococcinum) to something like 1060 parts of a solvent (yes, that number is a “1” followed by 60 “0”s, a ball of solvent with the radius of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun). Oh, and Oscillococcinum is usually 200C, which is diluted to one part of duck stuff to more atoms that exist in the known universe. To make the pills, a drop of the uber diluted solvent (water or alcohol) is put on a sugar pill. There is as much real medicinal substance in a tiny Boiron pill as there are in the cookie decorating candy sprinkles.

Mrs. Sanford,

None of your attempts at pulling the wool over our heads with stories about your little boy is going to convince anyone. This is a common tactic.

We are sorry that you have to deal with this, but one anecdote is not data.

It is important to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance can be cured; but stupidity can only be managed or mitigated.

No herb can cure stupid? Let’s hope the bottle doesn’t contain any blockbuster drugs. No botanical will do this to your brain:

“Neurontin and its newer more potent version, Lyrica, are widely prescribed drugs. A shocking new study shows that they block the formation of new brain synapses, drastically reducing the potential for rejuvenating brain plasticity – meaning that these drugs will cause brain decline faster than any substance known to mankind.”

Oh, man… Jeff, I read that as “Neurontin and its newer more potent version, Lycra…” Which, hey, would probably be great in the whole plasticity department.

@FreeSpeaker:I assumed that Caton was most likely “problematic” because Mike Adams is championing his cause (see NaturalNews,12/16/09 article; podcast 84). Since Adams believes that FDA and the federal government are “out to get us”, it’s entirely consistent that he would admire Caton.Interesting that these libertarian-spouting woo-meisters reside in Central or South America(Adams is in Ecuador).Come to think of it: the FDA and the feds *should* be out to get some of these guys.

The sign actually says:
There is no medicine that will work for the fool.

Yet we throw antibiotics, cough medicine, antihistamines and the like at ourselves by the tons. Since they don’t work, we must be the fools.

jeff, lots of natural compounds will totally screw up your brain. i study two that impair learning and memory. lots of us studying them, too. but hey, whatever you want to believe.

Sabio, I believe this sign may be intended for you. All of those things you’ve listed do in fact work, but no matter how efficacious a medication, the fool will deny it to the bitter end.

I know that I would personally not be alive right now if not for antihistamines, and the cough medicine I’m taking right now has quelled my cough….huh, you’d almost think….nah, no it couldn’t possibly be that you’re wrong?!?!?!

Great Poster Pareidolius @9

It is much more acceptable than my motto regarding TCM – “Save a bear, shoot a Chinese TCM practitioner.”

I think the endangered species argument is an excellent way of dissuading the organic food / herbal medicine crow from using TCM.

While I agree with the skeptics that it’s wise to be skeptical, it’s also wise to be open to the idea that we don’t know everything and never will. The history of science is one of skepticism overturned.

Ah, yes. The “science was wrong before” argument:

Yes, science has been wrong before, but because science has been wrong before is insufficent, in and of itself as an argument, to show that science is wrong now. Then there’s also the matter of its being good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.

Yes, science has been wrong before, but because science has been wrong before is insufficent, in and of itself as an argument, to show that science is wrong now.

We should be clear on this, that “that is not an argument that the science is wrong in this case.”

The “science has been wrong before” gambit is basically a correlation of the gambler’s fallacy. Moreso, it is the mistake of “picking the upset.”

The thing that makes an upset an upset in sports is that it is not the expected outcome. Upsets happen all the time, just as their are plenty of places where science has been found to be wrong. In fact, because of probability, it is inevitable that upsets MUST occur in sports, just as it is inevitable that some things in science must be wrong. If you do enough things, even if they all have a 99% probability of being right, that means that 1 in 100 will be wrong. Similarly, with 100 football games, even if there is a 99% chance that the better team will win, that means there still will be 1 upset, on average.

Now, the fallacy arises in picking the upsets. On one hand, it is useful to know that about 1/100 games will be an upset. However, the problem comes in when trying to figure out WHICH game that upset is going to be. The “science has been wrong before” gambit is the equivalent of a football bettor saying, “We know upsets happen, so I am going to bet on the underdog in this game.” Unfortunately, that is a losing proposition.

Consider a game where there is a die with 5 sides are blue, and 1 side is red, and the game is to predict which side will come up when the die is rolled. It is trivial to show that, even though we know that the red side will come up 1/6 of the time, the most successful approach is to always bet on blue.*** The problem is, even though you know that sometimes, that prediction will be wrong, you don’t know which rolls it applies to. Similarly, just as you know that science can be wrong, that is no basis for predicting it to be wrong IN THIS CASE. That would be a fallacy, and, in fact, that approach is less than optimal.

In the end, it comes down to the old saying: the battle does not always go to the strongest, nor the race to the fastest, but that’s the way to bet.

***Suppose we do 36 rolls of said die. If we bet blue everytime, we will be correct 30/36 times. If we throw in a bet on red 1/6 of the time the outcome will be:

25/30 correct when we bet on blue
1/6 correct when we bet on red
total 26 correct

Sure, it feels good that we predicted one of those upsets, but it was a huge cost

Brain fitness Pro doesn’t seem to realise that the science of the day was overturned by …. better science.

Science has been wrong before. But making shit up is almost always wrong right now and has never overturned science.

Kate Sanford is probably a Big Homeopathy shill and a Big Herbal shill at the same time.


brain fitness pro

While I agree with the skeptics that it’s wise to be skeptical, it’s also wise to be open to the idea that we don’t know everything and never will. The history of science is one of skepticism overturned.

As others have pointed out, the science that has been overturned has been overturned by science.

Science has not been overturned by witchcraft, shamanism, psychic powers, astrology, homeopathy, herbalism, Reiki, or other shams that misrepresent science.

Science is a means of learning. Science is the most effective way to learn what works and what does not work. Science is not perfect, but it is the best method we have for learning the truth.

Often, it is not science being overturned, which carries the suggestion that the results of scientific inquiry were completely wrong. It is science being modified, which is the only intelligent thing to do, when presented with more information. Learning more about a subject, then adapting to that information, is not overturning the previous knowledge. Not learning from mistakes is just an example of stupidity. Not adapting to what is learned is just an example of stupidity.

Science is an alternative to stupidity.

Science is like driving a car down a dark and unfamiliar road. As our headlights provide more information, we use the steering wheel to adjust our direction of travel. We steer to stay on the road, rather than keep driving in the same direction, just because the appearance of consistency is more important, than dealing with reality. Science actually is consistent in that it regularly self-corrects.

Herbalism is all about appearing to be consistent, in spite of abundant evidence of the errors of herbalism. The best that can be said about herbalism, and it is a common defense, is that it is harmless. Unfortunately, this is a lie. Herbalism is not harmless. Every herb that we take has effects, herbs have side effects, the herbalists are not interested in the truth, but in pretending that their alternative medicines are not dangerous. They are interested in selling herbs. Herbalism is just a part of the multibillion dollar alternative medicine industry.

Where is the regulation of herbalism, or any other alternative medicine? Without any kind of organization to assure that what the herbalist claims is in the package, we have no idea what is being sold. We have no idea of the strength of the herbs, if they even are herbs, being sold. We have only the word of the herbalists selling the ineffective, but harmful herbs to trust about what is being sold to us.

On the other hand, we have the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the US, and similar organizations in other countries, to demand scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness of medications being sold to people. While there will be mistakes, there is oversight and accountability.

Where is alternative medicine’s oversight?

Where is alternative medicine’s accountability?

Science is regularly correcting itself.

Why do critics of the multibillion dollar extensively and independently regulated and evidence-based pharmaceutical industry distrust the pharmaceutical industry, while they trust the unregulated, multibillion dollar alternative medicine industry that has no evidence of safety and no evidence of benefit?

Science is the alternative to stupid.

Alternative medicine is just perpetrating a fraud. Since there is nothing to justify the risks involved in taking alternative medicine treatments, the pushers of these treatments attack real medicine in stead. You can get some people to believe in nonsense by baffling them with bull, and the alternative medicine claim is nothing other than being an alternative to real medicine.

There are many people who do not understand science. There are many people who do not understand medicine. The media do a bad job of reporting on science, which only makes it harder for many people to understand science and medicine. It is easy to appeal to the ignorance of these people and sell them something as an alternative to what they find confusing. This is not ethical. Alternative medicine is not ethical.

There are some in science, who behave unethically. There are some in medicine, who behave unethically. When unethical behavior is discovered in science, it is punished. When unethical behavior is discovered in medicine, it is punished.

When unethical behavior is discovered in alternative medicine, there is no punishment. Excuses are made, the unethical troops are rallied to defend the fraud, the unethical behavior is compounded.

Alternative medicine rewards unethical behavior.

Alternative medicine depends on unethical behavior.

Alternative medicine is unethical behavior.

Alternative medicine is an alternative to treating patients ethically.

Alternative medicine is an alternative to treating patients intelligently.

Science is the alternative to stupid.

Often, it is not science being overturned, which carries the suggestion that the results of scientific inquiry were completely wrong. It is science being modified, which is the only intelligent thing to do, when presented with more information.

For example, keep in mind that any new scientific explanation that replaces an old one will have to account for everything the explanation did. It doesn’t change any observed facts, just how they are interpreted.

Rogue Medic needs to get his facts straight.

1. Dietary supplements, including herbs, are regulated by the FDA. This article provides an accurate explanation of how supplements are regulated. It’s a pdf file.

2. The recently implemented Good Manufacturing practices will, according to the FDA, assure consumers “that the dietary supplement they use has been manufactured to ensure its identity, purity, strength, and composition.”

3. The FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting law addresses the issue of safety. This inceased post-market surveillance means any problem will be identified quickly. The data already shows that supplements have an excellent safety record, especially when compared to pharmaceuticals. The Food Safety Bill, now before Congress will, for the first time, give the FDA mandatory recall authority over dietary supplements.

Certainly there is a problem with a few supplements being adulterated with drugs (like steroids). But the FDA has the legal authority to seize such products and bring criminal charges against the manufacturers. The FDA needs to enforce these anti-adulteration laws more vigorously.

And I’d add, for those of us who are actually familiar with the modern science that supports some “herbalism,” that we are not going to feel increasingly compelled to forget what we’ve read proportionate to how many times we’re called “stupid” by people who aren’t familiar with that science and plainly have cultural or ideological reasons to wish it didn’t exist.

An open mind is a good thing, but your mind should not be so open that your entire brain falls out.

Clever quip for a bumper-sticker there, OleanderTea, but unless it’s delivered to a particular target in response to a demonstrably false belief on their part, it’s just a cutesier way of saying “You disagree with me, you’re stoopid.” I wonder if you and like-minded souls realize with what amusement – and even pity – readers who are confident of their own intellectual adequacy may view this kind of argument.


It is good that some regulation of alternative medicine is beginning, but it is only a small step.

Does this baby step at regulation even begin to address effectiveness?

The problem is less the adulteration of the contents that are claimed on the packaging. The problem is that the whole concept of drugs that are immune to oversight is corrupt.

Why haven’t the alternative medicine drug pushers been the ones demanding accountability?

Why have the alternative medicine drug pushers been working to prevent accountability, by claiming that the drugs they push are dietary supplements?

You state that these minor changes to the way alternative medicine drugs are regulated is significant.

Are these alternative medicine drugs being regulated as drugs?

If not, this is just a continuation of the alternative medicine fraud.

Actual accountability to patients is not a part of the alternative medicine practitioner’s scope of practice.

It is good that there is movement toward actual regulation of alternative medicine drugs, but until they are classified appropriately as the drugs, this is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.

How would you feel if the pharmaceutical industry started campaigning to have their drugs regulated as dietary supplements? You would be appropriately outraged.

For the alternative medicine drug pushers to commit this fraud is just as outrageous.

You claim that the safety record of alternative medicine drugs, and herbal remedies are alternative medicine drugs, is better than the safety record of real medicine.

Prove it.

Show the research that demonstrates that these alternative medicine drugs are both safe and effective.

If they are not effective treatments, is there anything less than 100% safety that is acceptable?

If alternative medicine drugs are not effective treatments, there is no ethical reason to give them to anyone.

If there are any alternative medicine drugs that you claim are effective, show the research, including the number of patients in each group, the way they were blinded, the side effects in each group, et cetera.

Of course, once an alternative medicine drug is shown to work, then real doctors are going to start prescribing it, because it now falls into the category of real medicine.

Real doctors need to consider what is best for the patient. Alternative medicine practitioners only need to consider whether they are putting on a good enough show for the patient to come back and buy more.

Of course some herbal remedies are effective. I’m using one right now: a decoction of Camellia sinensis.

Also known as a cup of hot tea. Black tea, in this case, with milk and sugar, but the medicinal effects are from the herb (which contains caffeine and theophylline) and maybe the hot liquid.

The FDA is willing to make sure that if I buy a box that says it contains 40 grams of orange pekoe tea, it contains that. The medicinal effects of the caffeine and theophylline are beyond their remit (especially the caffeine, which is grandfathered in “generally recognized as safe”).

As it happens, my doctor is entirely willing to consider this as a drug, and we have discussed appropriate dosages. Because if it’s medicinal, and has effects, it can have side effects, and quantities are relevant.

Rogue Medic,

A recent post over at Abel Pharmboy’s blog dealt with some of the issues you raise (especially safety). I wrote comments #9 and #11. If you have time check it out.

Dietary supplements are not drugs. Dietary supplements are naturally-occurring substances, already present in the food supply. This is probably why they have a much stronger record of safety than lab-created pharmaceuticals.

Just a thought on “science has been wrong before”. While it is true that specific details are found to be wrong, it is really more accurate to say “science has been not exactly right before” – which will likely always be true. New scientific discoveries rarely cause even a portion of a previous body of knowledge to be tossed out – they just provide a more exact picture.

Einstein didn’t prove Newton wrong; he just gave us a more precise look at our universe. Even Ptolemy was not so much wrong as less precisely correct than Copernicus, and Ptolemaic astronomy is no less useful today than it was in his time. It just doe not do as much as we can do with our state of the art.

That is the beauty of the scientific approach – it builds and refines and finds the pieces of the puzzle that fit best, and it does it in spite of the imperfections of the humans who perform it. Rarely do we have to remove a piece, and we’ve never had to throw out the whole puzzle and start over.

@37 Jeff, wrote “Dietary supplements are not drugs. Dietary supplements are naturally-occurring substances, already present in the food supply. This is probably why they have a much stronger record of safety than lab-created pharmaceuticals.”

If they are effective, dietary supplements are drugs as designated by science. Your statement is arguably correct as a distinction made by ignorant legislators.

Supplements are not tested for safety, so you don’t know how safe they are; being ‘natural’ is not an indicator of safety. You should read Dan Hurley’s book “Natural Causes.” The title refers to the harm caused by natural products.

Naturally occurring substances can kill you just as well as manufactured substances. The range of natural substances include mushrooms, to oleander, to foxglove, and on all the way up to botulism.

“The sign actually says:
There is no medicine that will work for the fool.”

薬 =Medicine
効 =Effective

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