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:
— Maureen McFadden (@MMcFaddenWNDU) October 7, 2013
— Maureen McFadden (@MMcFaddenWNDU) October 7, 2013
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.
There is an Australian, Lynn Fraser who does honest cold reading demonstrations. In a podcast interview she described amazing a woman be "knowing" that she had endometriosis based on information the woman had unwittingly supplied her. Of course if she had been wrong she would have kept on going, knowing the miss would be forgotten.
This assclown has the added advantage of being able to cherry pick his successes. As for the reporter, a journalist being gullible and ignorant is about as surprising as water being wet. We pay so much attention to the good ones, that we forget they are outliers. Nearly every news story in an area where I have any knowledge is full of errors.
Medical intuitive is a career for someone who can't even be bothered to learn a system of woo like homeopathy, acupuncture, reiki etc. Too stupid for science - become an alternative medicine quacktitioner. Too stupid for woo - become a medical intuitive.
I just love how reporters disseminate disinformation and then claim no responsibility when it is shown to be false or misleading. Their argument is usually "well I am just reporting the news." I thought their was ethics in the media but alas I must be wrong. Reporters/talking heads should be held to the same standard as others when their stories are shown to be fraudulent, or downright dangerous. I am sure they will shout "free speech" and "free press." But just like I can't run into a movie theater and yell "FIRE!" she does not get a free pass to spout woo and not have to take responsibility.
"using a quantum biophysical model of entropy and information flows.”
They're giving the World's Greatest Bullshitter a run for his money. Any reader of this blog knows who that is!
If only there was a $1 million prize somewhere where people like these could put their claims to the scientific test?
Anyone heard of such a thing?
Geez, guys. Most reporters *aren't* quite this bad.
However, we *don't* tend to be heavily educated in the sciences, and that makes us vulnerable to exactly these sorts of stories. Most news staffs have been cut down so much that there are very few specializing reporters anymore, just generalists like me, so you never specialize deeply enough to become an expert.
The only thing we can do about this, really, is scan medical and scientific story ideas with an extra-sensitive BS detector, do research thoroughly and correct quickly and accurately if we do get anything wrong.
I guess I'd have to do the math on this myself, but I'd venture to guess that this is the outlier. You could count up all the news stories you read or see every day and find out how many of them include woo too, but you'd have to select stories across platforms, subjects, sources and forms of media to be accurate.
This is only an anecdote, so feel free to take it with a grain of salt, but: I've been proofreading newspapers now for years; I would say there's a woo-ish story once every few months at most, usually involving chiropractic--a new chiropractor opening his/her doors, mostly. Occasionally it'll be a new supplement/natural foods store opening instead.
However, there are multiple health stories every week that are not woo, and editorials often remind people to vaccinate, protect themselves against West Nile virus or pertussis or whatever is going around.
I suspect the bad ones stick out more, so you remember them more. That's fair enough, but please don't think that's representative. There are plenty of them out there, but it's still a tiny fraction of the whole media.
Shorter Maureen McFadden: Opinions differ regarding shape of Earth.
MA@1 nailed it: this is exactly how cold-read "psychics" work. We only hear about their successes; any failures get pushed down the memory hole. A competent journalist (Ms. McFadden appears to be neither) should have noticed this right away.
@ Eric Lund:
It's exactly how 'trend-casters"- faux economic forecasters, like Gerald Celente, operate: they repeatedly talk about the few predictions that did pan out whilst not mentioning their many errors.
Fortunately for us, some are not bright enough to carefully scour their past issues of forecasts.
Of course in UK English an Indicator is the flashing light on your car that warns others you are about to turn a corner. So a breast indicator brings to mind a unique ability for a ladies breasts to flash orange to indicate changes of direction.
To be honest that's not a bad idea given how crowded shopping precincts can be....
Khani: "I suspect the bad ones stick out more, so you remember them more."
What also sticks out is her reaction to criticism. Instead of supporting it, she says "look over there!"
Though the criticism could have been handled better. A few years ago I sent many emails to journalists explaining (with links) that the MMR vaccine never contained thimerosal. Most were ignored, and couple articles were corrected.
I would love to read more on the FDA approval of medical intuitives she's implying in her tweet
Those Twitter responses are incredibly unprofessional. Combative, authoritarian, completely lacking any citations. (That's one of the places where competent journos and scientists overlap: They understand how important it is to validate information.)
I haven't (and probably won't) dig into her body of work, but from this story and those Twitter responses, I'd be predisposed to ignore anything she said.
I've often thought that if I were a scum sucking quack bastard that I would be a medical intuitive. Think about it: If someone is showing up, basically looking for permission to see a doctor (and therefore, may have a reason for concern), tell them, you know, something is wrong with your aura/chi/genechtagazoink. When they go to the doctor who finds a problem, SHAZAM! you're an intuitive. If nothing is wrong, then you were just being cautious and you still got paid. Win, win!
Believe it for not, one of the biggest 'scum sucking quack b@stards' around ( see PRN), claims to indeed *be* a medical intuitive, a gift which he inherited from his mother who also healed people: thus when he sponsors "health retreats", " health studies" or "counsels" people in his office, he "reads" their "energy" patterns and intervenes by manifesting an "energy exchange" wherein their dodgy,crappy energies are cleansed and healed by his own perfect energy- he even calls this procedure "healing" as do his clients ( see testimonials by health retreat participants lately.) I understand that it's a "laying on of hands" and people attest to feel the flow or the power or whatever.
Yep, that old time religion is alive and well in 2013.
@Mewens I concur. Her responses even to my tweets boiled down to "people have the right to know." which of course I retorted they have the right to know accurate truthful information.
With the whole "people have a right to know" stuff, I wonder if she is referring to her other story on breast cancer prevention, which has nothing to do with medical intuitives. One of her recent tweets suggest she's thinking of a completely separate topic.
about a year and a half ago, one of the tv news stations aired an article about a "cure" for Downs Syndrome that involved putting them on zoloft and ginko as infants/toddlers. They totally bought it because it was being pushed by a local orthopedic surgeon who had a 2 year old with Downs who he claimed was doing amazing on this. Of course there was a quackpot web-based group with a rather for-profit web site behind all this, and when I wrote the station as a pediatrician telling them none of this was FDA approved and how I'd never put a child on those meds and how none of the pediatric neurologists in Tucson would either...well I received profuse apologies from the senior editor for the station, but no formal retraction of the story.
Khani: "I’ve been proofreading newspapers now for years; I would say there’s a woo-ish story once every few months at most"
I agree that most newspapers (most of the time) are pretty responsible about quackery-tinged reporting. However, most of _any_ professional group behaves responsibly - it's how they respond to misdeeds that matters (professional oversight/shaming of outliers in journalism is minimal, out of a combination of laziness and the perception that reprimanding peers is somehow a freedom of the press violation). For what it's worth, I am speaking as a former reporter who in part covered science/medical issues.
Also, the same newspapers that run occasional stories alerting readers to dangerous woo, tend to run ads for bogus supplements and dubious practitioners* on a near-daily basis. I have previously noted USA Today's tendency to run worthwhile stories highlighting the dark side of alt med, while featuring half or full page ads for the latest miracle supplement, complete with quack Miranda warning.
*ever noticed that chiropractors are a dying breed? They seem to all be morphing into "chiropractic physicians", "chiropractic neurologists" etc., all the better to promote their mad skillz in internal medicine and various subspecialties.
This one fell for quackery.
"Fell for" implies that this is a lapse from the reporter's standards, and that the promotion of magical thinking and childish, uncritical acceptance is not actually part of her job description.
#9, 11 Yeah, that's pretty awful.
However, I certainly wouldn't generalize to *all* reporters, or even all television reporters, or even all television reporters at that specific station in that specific city. It would be a lot like generalizing to all doctors based on the actions of the bad apples Orac has written about.
If you'll remember, I also objected to all male OB/GYNs being characterized as perverts.
Both strike me as unwarranted generalizations based on small sample sizes with no randomization.
#16 That's terrible too. Not professional, not responsible. My news outlet would correct the online version asap and run a correction in print the next day.
#17 Well, you'll be paying a lot more for the paper if you take away the ad revenue. A lot of people aren't willing to do that. Some are, mind you, but a lot aren't. I'm not sure how that would come out, business-model wise.
My office does talk about bad reporting from time to time, as it comes up. We don't run things from other news outlets if they're bad, either.
#18 It's certainly not part of my job description.
Khani @19: No criticism of other journalists is intended. But in this case of "Maureen’s Medical Moment", I do not get the impression that rigour or skepticism are high on the list of desiderata.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article!
I realize that this is just one of many lame-brained credulous woo-pushing reporters. As a breast cancer patient, though, it hits a nerve for me, especially during this disgustingly pink month of silly games and breast jokes.
The thought of this dingdong influencinge even ONE patient to see a "medical intuitive" for any type of health concern is absolutely appalling, and as unpopular as it tends to make me, I prefer calling it out rather than ignoring it.
Maureen McFadden has a history of promoting all sorts of woo:
Vitamin infusions, IPT, and copper detox to treat cancer.
GAPS diet to cure autism.
And then there's this one from her:
It's a recycled press release from Dr Kathleen Ruddy that's been flung far and wide for YEARS among cancer patients in an attempt to raise funds for a "100% effective!!!!" (in mice) breast cancer vaccine from Dr Vincent Tuohy. This has bothered me since I heard about it, because there are so many questions and vagaries surrounding it. Why is there no peer-reviewed confirmation of the results? Why have they been unable to obtain funding from usual sources? Why do they resort to using paid "interns" to spam message boards, blogs, and news outlets trying to drum up support instead of focusing on the research in a legitimate process? Perhaps the research has potential, but the way it's spamvertised via credulous "reporters" like Maureen McFadden do little to add credibility to the project. ACK.
Oh yeah, as for the "...people have a right to know..." excuse, that translates to "...I'm too lazy or incompetent to bother fact checking or providing any skeptical/critical viewpoints for a truly balanced report."
(unless, of course, you’re talking about butt reflexology)
Is that a thing? It does seem to be the source of much of their ideas...
#20 Yeah, you're right there.
The sad thing is, think of all the good things that could be done with that moment.
"Flu season is coming, and 1-2 people in every 2,000 who get it die! Get your vaccines and wash your hands! Stay home from work if you're sick!" or "Researchers are working on a malaria vaccine! So far it's not as effective as they would like, but even 27 percent efficacy could save 162,000 kids every year!" (The math on that might be wrong, just to warn you; I just woke up from a nap.)
#22 People have a right to know, but they also have a right not to be fed boloney.
#21 100% effective? That's a giveaway right there...
I admit to promoting 'anusology' as a logical extension of iridology, but so far the concept has not caught on.
I just posted a comment at Maureen's Medical Moments website, which supposedly went into moderation.
Wanna bet, my comment will never come out of moderation?
http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/integrative-medicine-is-the-butt-of…. Butt Reflexology
I don't want much TV news but still get a daily paper as well as local weeklies. I do my daily woo review and its a rare week goes by without some AltMed nonsense appearing in The Vancouver Sun and this in a paper that has an "award winning" medic reporter. I don't trust journalists at all anymore as when there has been a story I actually know something about they get it wrong. It's all about selling papers or ads and sensationalism and miracles sell.
@26 I'm not a betting type, but I bet you're right!
What'd ya say?
I didn't save a copy of my comments, but I stated that Maureen McFadden had brought a carny barker to the station to discuss his quackery (medical intuition).
I also stated that some women are fearful of breast exams and mammographies and that this "alternative" to breast exams and mammographies did them and other viewers a great disservice.
At the end of my comment, I stated McFadden and the Station owed their audience a retraction and an apology for promoting that charlatan and his quackery.
Yes, "Butt reflexology" certainly is "real".
It was even presented at an international conference of Integrative Medicine, so it has to be legit!
Erratum - "accepted" for the conference,, but never presented.
Not to forget the link therein to Asstrology, as practiced by Jacqueline Stallone.
Many thanks Herr Doktor, As soon as I saw the 'arse reflexology' reference a distant memory was tickled about Sylvester's Mother.
Lilady, excellent comment but yeah, the article still shows zero comments. Sad but so typical.
@ thenewme: I "don't do Facebook", but if/when you spot an article which contains cancer quackery, you could just post a link in a comment on RI. I'm certain, some of the RI Regulars would be interested and possibly comment on that article.
I appreciate your trying to have it both ways--defending your fellow journalists and trying to appear science-savvy as well, but I would beg to differ with you about the frequency of such journalistic claptrap.
I read the NY Times (online) every day. Almost every day usually in the "Health" section there are terrible renderings of recently published studies that do nothing to preface the article with any information on the type of study. There may be a link, but the majority of the readership wouldn't be helped by that.
In addition to the "Health" section there are various "Wellness" Blogs that while not touting psychics, often discuss flimsy diet research and popular faddish books without the slightest criticism.
Comments that accompany these articles are often filled with anecdotes and gross misinformation. Efforts to contact writers result in a range from defensiveness (usually falling back on false equivalency arguments), to admission of ignorance. Look, if you have no science background and cannot learn, stop writing about health and medical matters. At least go to a decent source or credible expert before you do.
In addition to the above, the op-ed page frequently runs very woo-ish pieces by people, while they may be MD's, are heavily involved in CAM, which the paper never reveals. I followed up on one of these once and found that the MD practiced some kind of extreme alternative psychiatry.
Of course, what is not acknowledged at all by any woomeisters is that ordinary, everyday healthc care peeps like doctors and us nurses can already look at people and 'intuit' something is amiss and what may be wrong. The good, old clinical assessment. Signs and symptoms.
Of course, if you don't want to go to uni and then spend years at your profession developing your clinical acumen, then just make sh*t up and say you've discovered and developed a New Technique TM.
#36 I'm not defending this particular "journalist," no.
I *am* saying that generalizing from a small sample size that's not randomly selected from a group that's ill-defined is probably not going to yield a well-reasoned conclusion.
You read *one* newspaper in *one* city in *one* country in the world. It's still a massive generalization from that to think that most reporters are *anything*--good, bad, ugly. That would be a lot like visiting a handful of bad doctors all at the same clinic and believing that therefore, most doctors are bad.
I'm not trying to "appear" science-savvy, either. I'm a regular commenter here, and I don't claim to know much about science. I'm not here because I know a lot. I'm here because I don't know, and I know I don't know.
I think the other regulars would back me up on this.