Friday, July 13, 2007

Exposing some quacks

Updating: James the Amazing Randi has replied to my letter and said the Olalde is ellegible for the one million dollar prize, besides he kindly corrected my letter and translated it to proper English.

It's been a long time since I wrote something about my first intellectual passion, Skepticism. I became a skeptic 7 years ago and became an activist on the field six moths later. I founded the only skeptic association of Venezuela and happily, we are still on the road and we even have a weekly radio show of 15 minutes every thursday.

I haven't written about the subject in a while, I have been too excited about the future, and worried abouy MY future. But now it's time to change that.

What would you think about this:



I am not making this up. It is actually a peer reviewed paper indexed in Pubmed, one of the most trusted databases in science. And this crap is in. How can this be?. Well, I have a theory: That happens when peer review is not made by peers, but by quacks. Yes. On the board of the Evidence-based Compl. and Alt. Medicine (eCAM) (no wonder why all the letters are capital but the e) there is at least a person who is neither biologist, doctor or has any training related to Health Sciences, a tycoon of the alternative health who has shown no respect for the healt of his victims and abuse of them, emitting tv spots of "cured" patients who turn to be dead by the time the spot is aired.

I will post here a letter I just sent to several leading skeptics and quack busters:




My name is Guido David Núñez-Mujica. I am the founder of the only sceptical association in Venezuela (www.geocities.com/escepticosvenezuela). We have been involved for the last six years in promoting scepticism and rational thinking among Venezuelan society. To date, we have dealt with several traditional kinds of quackery. One particular case of quackery in medicine is remarkable not only for its economic success in Venezuela, but also for its virulent, shameless, slanderous promotion, its international projection and success, and -- more dangerously -- its infiltration of the peer-reviewed literature.

I am talking about "Adpatógenos Internacionales," a company founded by José Olalde, a self-proclaimed "Engineer in Artificial Satellites" and a Scientologist. The basic claim of Olalde is that he has devised a new theory of living systems, based on a triangular scheme, a so-called "triangle of life" in which each side represents Biologic Intelligence, Biological Organization and Energy. Check for yourself: www.systemicmedicine.com/. They also claim to be able to diagnose "140,000 diseases" with yet another version of an aura-reader, their "energimeter." Unfortunately, all the rebuttals we have produced are still in Spanish and our English is not good enough to attempt a proper translation, nor are our resources enough to get a professional translator.

What is more worrying here, is not the usual quackery. We have seen quacks before and we will see quacks in the future. What is actually dangerous is that this crook has in fact gotten into the board of the journal "Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine," despite the fact that he hasn't any training as a doctor or biologist, or in any field related to Health Sciences. If you check closely the first paper published by Olalde, you will find that something smells pretty foul there. At the bottom of the paper you will see: Received January 13, 2005; accepted January 14, 2005.

I have not published any paper yet, but I do work in research and I am aware of the painfully long process of submitting a paper to a journal, of the time the referees need to evaluate it and often suggest new experiments and further research, besides wording and graph issues, and yet here you have a completely new theory of life that quotes L. Ron Hubbard and you have not even a tiny correction to the Author? That is suspicious, but when you see Olalde's name on the editorial board of the journal, the mystery is solved: www.oxfordjournals.org/ecam/edboards.html

I think that is VERY dangerous, since these people claim to cure everything from cancer to arthritis and diabetes, and they often boast about their "paper in Oxford" and point to the people who criticise them, saying we have no papers at all and we are "jealous" and at the service of evil pharmaceutical companies. You know, the usual quack stuff. Even more outrageous, their "papers" are indexed at Medline! I think it is necessary to denounce this travesty of science and make Oxford Journals come to terms with the Ecam, closing the journal or retracting all these papers and expelling the fraudulent people from their board. This is different from most of quacks, since it now is part of the accepted and peer-reviewed knowledge. And this journal has not stopped at publishing this quackery, they have also published other "papers," like the influence of the pyramids on stress in rats. These papers not only give very extraordinary results, but also quote as a fact the existence of a kind of "energy" responsible for the observations. And this rubbish is published as peer-reviewed and indexed in Medline. There is another paper (http://tinyurl.com/2tcnox) published in another magazine that seems more fact-based, however, I see some things that do not fit, but since I am not an expert at interpreting microarrays, I cannot say anything, but, fortunately they have produced a video ( http://tinyurl.com/2lfuwm) where they boast a lot about heir product Circulat, claiming totally unrelated things, even if their results are correct and fraud free. In the video you can see Olalde's business partner, Anatoly Antoshechkin, is the Director of R+D of a company named Genext (www.genextresearch.com/), whose mission is to patent and eventually put on the market tested herbal "adaptogenic" compounds. But wait, those plants were already being used here, before the paper was released! We in Venezuela are the guinea pigs of Genext, Nulab and International Adaptogens, who are not only selling Circulat but scores of other products -- never tested -- that they claim can cure almost everything.

I am sorry if I am being too vehement, or my language is rude, but I am furious, as a scientist, to see this kind of stupid quackery as relevant and true as real papers – and precisely at this time. Now, when stem cells are said to do marvels, when implants are made that allow paralysed people to move things with their help, when things really astounding are happening in science and technology, precisely now, when a lot of people are confused about what science is, and what isn't, about what science is able to do and what it isn't able to do, because the limit of possible things seems to expand, precisely at this time a dishonest (yes, dishonest, not simply naive) journal has allowed crooks and liars on its pages not only giving them space for their ridiculous claims, but also giving them scientific respectability in the eyes of unaware people who trust in the high standards of peer-reviewed publications and in the self correction of science.

This is not only utterly dangerous and a cruel joke for the general public, as Olalde's company makes a lot of money here in Venezuela, and is beginning to spread to other countries. There are several cases of deaths due to his products or to the lack of proper medical treatment. In one of these cases a woman on a TV spot claimed to be cured from cancer, while in fact, she died 9 months before the date the spot was released. This is also an affront to all of us who try to understand how things work, and for those of us who work hard to turn abstract knowledge into useful products and a better quality of life.

I think that this situation must be acknowledged and we have to do something about it. There must be a strong reaction from scientists to stop this, analogous to cases of fraud in papers. I am writing this to you because I am sure you will be interested in this case and maybe Olalde's claims may win him the $1,000,000 prize if he can prove them, for instance diagnosing diseases with his "energimeter," or maybe you would be interested in "Dr." K. G. Korotkov, who claims that there exists "Evidence of the mind-body activity after death."

In 1993, Dr. Korotkov and his associates obtained strong experimental evidence of human life energy for up to 6 days after physical death. Characteristic patterns emerged according to the manner of death, i.e. peaceful death, sudden unexpected death, suicide. Details are described in the book by K. Korotkov in Russian and English (Email: leonidt@erols.com)

Korotkov is the creator of the energimeter and one of Olalde's close allies.

I have already written to Dr. Stephen Barrett on this issue, I hope that you can help us to debunk this dangerous quack and expose him and his partners.

Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely

Guido David Núñez-Mujica

Undergraduate student of Biology and Computational Physics, sceptic

Mérida, Venezuela


If any of you, dear readers, can help to spread this meme and begin to complain to withdraw this silly "papers" from Mdeline, I will be eternally thankful to you.

Suggestions are needed.

PS: These weeks are hectic indeed. Yesterday I submited my first abstract to a traditional science conference and we are working on a paper in bioinformatics. Nothing edge-cutting, but it is fun as hell. And I just finished the preliminar model of my thesis in Fortran, but as my Ubuntu's X crashed, I have still to check if it runs properly.
Ps: Again, forgive my awful English. I hope it improves next month! ;)

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

12 comments:

Animesh Sharma said...

Painful, I guess the 'e' in the eCAM should be replaced with 's'.

Guido said...

I laughed until my stomach was sore, Animesh.

You made my day today!

Al said...

When a belief get part only in the inner life of a person, i.e. pray to, whatever god they believe or make whatever rituals they practice, to have their diseases cured, I have nothing to say against it.

But when people made money and a lot of it, taking people's ignorace, to do it, It make my furious....

I do believed that science can't explain everything and hope and dream of some other kind of existance. But the fact is, that as a man of science, I'm only confident on what is proved.

Magaly said...

Dear undergraduate Nuñez (seems to me that for your age you should have achieved a little bit more in academic terms...than just "exposing" your favorite quack of the moment....)
Your role as a quack exposer seems to include being a sitting duck...for some useful and illustrating thoughts...the article which you seem to doubt so much (one of four such articles) was worked on during 5-6 months with 2/3 reviewers to get it to the required level for inclusion in such a prestigious journal...But then how can you know this...you have still not published your "undergraduate" dissertation...let alone a full scientific article...Another interesting fact is that you mention the presence of Olalde in the editorial board...of the journal...yet you choose to ignore or fail to mention that his inclusion in the board occurred 6 months after the publication of his fist article...
This quackery as you name it has attended more than 800k patients during the last 5 years ...how can this be? ...no one can maintain a lie...for so long...and deceive so many people...it seems to me that you should get your facts straight and understand that technology and the advance of mankind is sometimes related to issues that we do not like or accept...that does not mean that they are not true...so do not be upset with someone that does not have a doctor's degree that provides his thoughts or theories on medicine...or a non-physicist in the theory of relativity (which mind you does also include "energy" concepts)....after all you seem to be doing very well without any degree at all...

By the by...my native tongue is Spanish...so if you feel more comfortable...we can have this discussion –if this is ever published- in Spanish as well...one thing is to doubt and another is to slander for the sake of doubt…

Guido said...

As usual, ad hominem attacks are the resource of the people without arguments.

It is true that for my age I should had my degree... if I had lead a normal course. But, I chose to take two additional years of mathematics, physics and programming courses. Currently I am Teacher's Assistant of a course in Bioinformatics of a Master's Program in my Faculty. Teacher's Assistant of graduate students without getting my degree. And I have won national and international essay contests and I have been invited to several international conferences as a speaker, including one organized by Nature, the science journal. So, even without having completed my degree I have demonstrated my competence in several subjects. Currently I do research in three subjects in Computational Biology.

You claim that the paper was reviewed during months, however, the paper clearly states that it was accepted without revision ONE DAY AFTER BEING RECEIVED. When we pointed that fact, the next paper was conveniently dated. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Concerning the naming of Olalde as advisor, as far as I know he has been advisor for a long time and he has not any training in medicine, biology or health sciences. And I do not know the exact date when he became and advisor to the Board of the journal, could you please present any proof of it?

Yes, it is possible to maintain a lie for long times. History can prove it. The Emperor of Japan was no son of Heaven, millions had to die to prove it. Billions of people believe in astrology.

Again, another cliché: Relativity and Energy. Please, Magaly, show us where in relativity is used some formaula that acknowledges the spiritual energy of pyramids. And that machine, the "energimeter" is pure fantasy and has not proven in any sense to be useful (besides making money for Olalde). And in the Adaptogenic Science there is not further tracing of pacience. Remember the case of Nataly Lemus, who had died 9 months ago when a spot was aired, in which she claimed to be cured of the cancer that killed her.

Magaly said...

The "Ad hominem...attack" expression you wrongly interpreted...means (as you may find in a worthwhile dictionary) the use of somebody's (in this case your) words and acts (including arguments) to confuse the adversary...it does not refer to attacking another fellow man...

I see no purpose in attacking (or rather refuting) anybody...only those... that deem themselves to be capable of judging others according to some self-awarded higher moral (or intellectual- which is clearly not your case)...ground…

Allow me to illustrate you (again)...let's assume you want to publish a theory (to which you have dedicated some years of your existence)...thus you send it to the editors of many journal's until one of them… is somewhat interested...his (the editor's) feedback turns out to be something like..."this has potential but needs to be seriously worked upon and better referenced...if you accept to undertake serious criticism and suggestions this theory might be taken to the required scientific level"...then you go on and work your %^&* off during 5/6 months to accomplish this...and send the final version to the journal...does this mean that you put it together the day before it's published? No! It only means what it means...You -on the other hand- interpret things as you wish... and to your own convenience...

As for the example of the Sun Emperor in Japan...although true...it's a terrible but obscure and irrelevant example...if anything... it can be termed an anecdotic (and bloody) historical example...do you compare this last to the successful application of a Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) protocol in close to one million patients ? ...because… you have the sad and unfortunate death of a patient (or that of 10 or 100)....

How many people die out of chemo-radio or other orthodox cancer treatments...has this stopped cancer treatments with these protocols...no! Have you compared the results of these orthodox treatments with the combined use of these therapies and a CAM such as Systemic Medicine? NO!

Yet you have already chosen to judge somebody's life work (with or without 'relevant' academic titles) in an article... based on one (or X statistically irrelevant) example (undeniably sad and terrible)?... would it be not more appropriate to evaluate the effectiveness of anybody’s theory based on the whole body of the work and its significance?

As for the energy healing...I will not bother to explain this to someone who promotes food engineering ...yet overlooks the waste and destruction of millions of tons of food in a hungry world because…of economic reasons...Now that is really sad ....first things first!

So... as the French saying goes: 'une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps' (en español ´una golondrina no hace el verano´).

Yours truly, Magaly

PhysicsVenezuela said...

Hey Guido, I was just perusing your blog looking for your (mis)adventures at Googleplex and found this gem of a tête-à-tête. Your replies have been brilliant.

Now on to Ms. Magaly: I'm a Teaching Assistant in the Physics Department at Simón Bolívar University while currently working on my Doctorate in Theoretical Physics. I hold a Licenciatura and already have published a paper on Quantum Field Theory (the free version is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/0704.2429). So I do have the academic credentials you seem to desire (though I envy Guido's extracurricular activities, my field is far too demanding to even come close to his worldly curriculum).

I'll address just two subjects that Guido did not elaborate on in his well written replies: the energy issues and the peer-review issues.

So first energy: none of the publications of these systemics nut-jobs have any grounding on the physical concept of energy. They seem to follow the woo-woo definition of energy, a nebulous feel-good entity that provides spiritual oneness (whatever the hell that means) and a faux sense of wellness (read placebo).

In physics one considers energy in very specific contexts; mass-energy (the energy in matter: remember E=mc^2) and potential energy (the energy in the fields of the 4 fundamental forces). Energy has nothing to do with healing, so called 'human energetic fields' (a clear rip-off of Mesmerism) or the 'cellular intelligence' of any organism.

You can have a new scientific theory, but if it doesn't have a way to explain the success of its rivals and of previous theories, it's useless and it is deservedly called out as pseudoscience.

On the peer-review side I must note that when one sends a paper for publication, one has a pretty good idea of its possibilities of acceptance: one does not send a small review paper to say Nature or any of the many flavors of the Journal of Physics, that is why we have small journals for peripheral, non-ground-breaking works. For the really big, revolutionary ideas (e.g. String Theory, Quantum Electrodynamics, Special Relativity) we have a set of well-respected journals that go through papers carefully and thoroughly... in far more than 24 hrs.

Olalde is pushing his pet revolutionary theory; why not send it to the Lancet or any other prestigious medical journal? short answer: because it doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell. It's little surprise he had to send his pablum to a journal that accepts such 'proven' science as Reiki, homeopathy or pyramid power.

This is not my blog so I'll keep it short and blunt: if you have proper scientific evidence, put up or shut up and go back into the night of the snake oil salesman and the shaman. We don't need any more ignorance.

What I find truly alarming is that the woo-woo crowd is mounting a parallel peer-review process that confuses the public and poisons the well of scientific research.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I guess you just found the prove to something that one of my supervisors once (ironically and in a different contest) said:"Anything can be published, you just need to send it to the right journal".
It is really worrisome that this type of "research" gets puplished in indexed journals, I haven't look it up in the SciCitation index, but if it is in PubMed it is already a big something. I guess my theory is that this kind of articles are really peer reviewed, meaning that whoever advise this crap for publishing are also scamers!!
Good luck on your skeptical battle

Cheers


PS. being a scientist myself, this issues really bother me (I'm compliant with the last paragraph of physics Venezuela's post). On other topic, are you currently at The ULA? I'm an Alumni :) (Theoretical/Computational Chemist) currently overseas pursuing a PhD. You mentioned that you are working on Bioinformatics, would you mind telling me with whom are you working?

Guido said...

Thanks for your comments, Quantum Skeptic (Hey, you know about quantum stuff, therefore, everything you say must be right! lol)

You really addressed the energy subject in a vehement and didactic way.çççYou said: "

This is not my blog so I'll keep it short and blunt: if you have proper scientific evidence, put up or shut up and go back into the night of the snake oil salesman and the shaman. We don't need any more ignorance."

My friend, this is your blog, feel comfortable here and start slashing heads... heads of the pseudoarguments used, of course. Write as much as you have to.

I agree with anonymous that the dangerous thing is the indexing of this paper on the peer reviewed literature.

Anonymous: I liked your comment about peer reviewing. And yes, that must be the answer, is pretty shady what's going on there.

Yes, I am still at the ULA. I am woring under the supervision of Dr. Juan Luis Concepción and Dr. Antonio Parravano in modelling the glycolysis of Trypanosoma cruzi with Ordinary Differential Equations and Metabolic Control Analysis. I also work with Dr. Luisana Avilán, coding some programs for data mining the genome of the trypanosomatids. When did you studied here, anonymous? Maybe we have friends in common.

Anonymous said...

I thought you might like to know that your good friend Jose Olalde has just had his first application for a US patent published: Go to US patent office's search pages (http://appft1.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/srchnum.html) and enter application number 20080069909.

It's my job to monitor and comment on patent applications and who's filing them, so I must thank you for the useful links and insights on your blog!

Anonymous said...

Edit: My mistake, he's appeared (under a different variation of his name) on US applications 20070104728, 20070275008, 20080026082, 20080044496 and 20080063658, too. The first one's actually been granted already, as US patent 7303772. Apparently he's living in Florida now...

Guido said...

Thank you very much, Anonymous II.
I did not know that he was living in Florida, it is the next big step, try to use the lack of regulation of supplement in the US to make even more money and fund more ill research. I just can hope that somebody is willing to stop him before it is too late and more people is harmed and swindled.


I am really glad that you got useful information here, that is the reason I created this entry, as i think that this guy is a very dangerous crook and deserves more attention from the skeptic community. Setting a parallel research system with the looks of legitimate peer review is not a mild issue to me.