The news: the good, the woo, and the quackery

July 25, 2014 • 7:24 am

Thanks to several readers, I’m kept up on the latest news about religion, cats, woo, and so on.  I’ve collected three items here, which I’ll describe briefly (you can read more at the links). I could post them separately, but that’s an unconscionable division of posts, and I’m also tired.

BBC Africa reports some good news about Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, the Sudanese doctor who was sentenced to death for apostasy—while pregnant, although she wasn’t to be executed until she had her child). As you might recall, she was married to a Christian man, and was herself raised Christian although she had a Muslim father. But that was enough to doom her.

Fortunately, Italian authorities (probably with U.S. help, since her husband was a U.S. citizen) intervened, and she flew from Khartoum to Italy. She’s free! You may remember that she almost escaped, but was rearrested, but now she’s out of Sudan for good:

The BBC’s Alan Johnston in Rome says there was no prior indication of Italy’s involvement in the case.

Lapo Pistelli, Italy’s vice-minister for foreign affairs, accompanied her on the flight from Khartoum and posted a photo of himself with Mrs Ibrahim and her children on his Facebook account as they were about to land in Rome.

“Mission accomplished,” he wrote.

A senior Sudanese official told Reuters news agency that the government in Khartoum had approved her departure in advance.

Mrs Ibrahim’s lawyer Mohamed Mostafa Nour told BBC Focus on Africa that she travelled on a Sudanese passport she received at the last minute.

“She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It’s the country she was born and grew up in,” he said.

Yes, but she is smart enough to know what awaits her if she stays. If the government doesn’t kill her, somebody else will.  Her husband, who is confined to a wheelchair, traveled with her.

. . . She was given South Sudanese travel documents but was arrested at Khartoum airport, with Sudanese officials saying the travel documents were fake.

These new charges meant she was not allowed to leave the country but she was released into the custody of the US embassy in Khartoum.

Last week, her father’s family filed a lawsuit trying to have her marriage annulled, on the basis that a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim.

And. . . the bestest news: she got to meet the Pope!

Mrs Ibrahim met Pope Francis at his Santa Marta residence at the Vatican soon after her arrival.

“The Pope thanked her for her witness to faith,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi was quoted as saying.

The meeting, which lasted around half an hour, was intended to show “closeness and solidarity for all those who suffer for their faith,” he added.

Spreaking of those who suffer for their faith, how about all Catholics?

To see the video of Ibrahim and  the screenshot below, if you can stand it, to get to the video (there are three in toto):


Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 5.23.21 AM


Also according to the BBC,David Tredinnick, a Conservative MP and a diehard believer in Indian astrology, wants to screw up British medicine by infusing it with his woo. Fortunately, it won’t fly, but the guy is on both the health committee and the science and technology committee:

A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine.

David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work.

The MP for Bosworth, a member of the health committee and the science and technology committee, said he was not afraid of ridicule or abuse.

“There is no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record,” he told BBC News.

Proven track record?

. . . “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told MPs.

. . . He stopped short of suggesting astrological readings on the NHS, but said he wanted to raise awareness of it as an alternative among patients and clinicians.

“I think it’s something that people should be aware of as an option they have if they are confused about themselves.”

He’s also prepared charts for his fellow MPs.  Although the NHS, I think, already provides coverage for homeopathic remedies (and why do you Brits tolerate that?), I hope they won’t consider astrologial diagnoses as well. “You’re a Pisces, eh? Right, well then it’s penicillin for you.”

According to Wikipedia, this guy has not only been an MP for over 20 years (one of its longest-standing members), but was suspended for 20 days for taking a £1000-pound bribe to ask questions in Parliament. That’s a pretty light punishment.  And he’s a long-standing exponent of woo (my emphasis):

He is a supporter of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). He has made supportive comments in Parliament on homeopathy, despite continued lack of evidence of its effectiveness. He has supported chiropractic and mentioned the influence of the Moon on blood clotting. In this same debate he characterised scientists as “racially prejudiced”. He has tabled several early day motions in support of homeopathy’s continued funding on the National Health Service. Tredinnick’s views continue to cause amused disbelief  in some quarters and a spokesman for the Royal College of Surgeons of England said they would “laugh their heads off” at the suggestion they could not operate at the full moon.

Why is this guy still in Parliament?


And, at long last, Houston cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski has been charged by the Texas Medical Board with misleading patients. I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about this guy, as medical scams aren’t really my beat, and people like Orac do it much more thoroughly than I ever could. (For Orac’s posts on Burzynski at Respectful Insolence, go here.)

For four decades Burzynski has been dispensing ineffective drugs (“antineoplastins”, his own invention) as chemotherapy for patients who have run out of hope, all under the aegis of a Food and Drug administration “clinical trial.” There are no data that these drugs work (so why has the FDA allowed the trial to continue for years?), and many people have died. Most would have died anyway, but without the toxic effects of some of these drugs and without spending the exorbitant sums that Burzynski extracted from his desperate patients.

Finally, as USA Today reports, the quack has been corralled:

Once patients arrived at Burzynski’s office, the board says, he misled them in several ways:

• By making patients pay a retainer before receiving any diagnosis or treatment.

• By performing unnecessary tests and “non-therapeutic treatment” with no potential to help them.

• By imposing “exorbitant charges” for drugs and lab tests, without telling patients that he also owned the pharmacy and lab being used.

• By allowing unlicensed staff to treat patients, while describing the staff as doctors.

Burzynski also prescribed unapproved combinations of highly toxic chemotherapy in ways that caused harm to several patients, the board says.

Burzynski — who was the subject of a USA TODAY investigation last year — broke Texas law, the board says, through “unprofessional and dishonorable conduct that is likely to deceive or defraud the public.”

Oncologist Howard Ozer, who reviewed the board’s case, said the charges against Burzynski are medically sound. For example, the board says Burzynski tested one patients’ blood oxygen levels eight times in two weeks — at $35 a test, in addition to a $4,500 monthly case management fee. While these oxygen tests are common for patients in intensive care, they aren’t used for patients receiving outpatient treatment, Ozer says.

In Burzynski’s case, “these tests seem to me to be simply for generating extra revenue,” says Ozer, a professor at the University of Illinois Cancer Center.

Burzynski apparently also used unlicensed employees not only to dispense drugs, but to recommend treatments.  Richard Jaffee, Burzyngi’s lawyer, comments:

Jaffe says the board, which put Burzynski on probation from 1994 to 2004, is “under tremendous pressure to take away Burzynski’s license” because of negative publicity that Burzynski has received in recent years.

Jaffe predicts that this would be the last time that Burzynski, 70, will tangle with the medical board.

“One way or another, this is the last time that this is going to happen,” Jaffe says. “Either they are going to take away his license or the board is going to be humiliated, because we are going to ask a judge to decide whether this treatment works better.”

Read a few of Orac’s articles, and you’ll see that the only rational thing to do is take away Burzinski’s license. I’m still baffled as to why he was allowed to continue, since the 1970s, using a treatment which has never been demonstrated to work.

You can see the 202-page complaint against Burzynski by the Texas Board here, and Orac’s superb analysis of that complant is here

Burzynski: How could he be a quack with all those certificates?

h/t: Tony, Susan, Grania

45 thoughts on “The news: the good, the woo, and the quackery

  1. Reading about Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, I got chills. I’m so happy she made it out to the West. What an ordeal – figures they’d try anything to delay her (saying her documents are fake).

    I am also glad Stanislaw Burzynski has been charged. When my dad had cancer, someone pointed me to his site & I was so angry about it but managed to compose an email reply that pointed out why he is a quack.

  2. Tredinnick – Cornish name! Seriously though, in first-past-the-post elections, in some constituencies a goat could stand with the label Labour/Conservative, & get elected, so uneven is the balance in favour of one side.

    A goat would sometimes be preferable we might add – at least it would not have some zany belief system it wished to impose on others!

    1. On the contrary. It is the ideal _constituents_ that would be goats. They can stomach anything.

  3. . . . “I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier,” he told MPs.

    People who study anything for years will tend to believe in the truth of it, if for no other reason than since they have spent all this time and energy on it, it HAS to be true. Why would they spend time on it if it weren’t, after all?

    1. Yep. When I read that I was immediately reminded of our beloved Don McLeroy:

      After 29 years of studying the Bible,I am now totally convinced that the Bible and Christianity are true.

    2. This is the bias of “sunk costs” in an idea, or a project that is not visibly producing expected results. Overconfident individuals can’t abandon some work in which they have already invested so much. They will simply invest more rather than call it quits.

      This psychological bias is belabored at great lengths in Daniel Kahneman’s “THINKING, FAST & SLOW” (2011)

    3. I have to add that there is still one thing the sunk costs explanation doesn’t explain: How on earth does one decide the something as colossally implausible (i.e., stupid) as atrology or homeopathy is worth spending any time “studying” in the first place? A fifteen second synopsis of what these things are about should be enough for anyone to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

      1. I think that some will advocate the study of these things, not to help convince themselves (they are already convinced), but to give the belief an aura of public respectability. They can then say ‘See? study X by Dr. So-and-so has found that this homeopathic remedy really works!’

  4. > Although the NHS, I think, already provides coverage for homeopathic remedies (and why do you Brits tolerate that?),

    Mostly we don’t. E.g.

    Thankfully it is not universally available and AFAIK most GPs don’t refer patients to it. The official NHS advice is pretty plain too: “the principles on which homeopathy is based are scientifically implausible”and “There is no good-quality evidence that homeopathy is effective as a treatment for any health condition” (see

    1. I believe the Queen is a believer in homeopathy, which may be why that particular woo gets some sympathy in Britain.

      New Zealand’s public health system doesn’t cover any so-called alternative health remedies. All treatments must be accepted scientifically.

      Patients are very strongly advocated for here to the extent that a ridiculous situation arose at the hospital in my very small town (5000). A psychologist had to stop referring to himself as ‘doctor’ because patients were assuming he had a medical degree. He has a PhD and never pretended anything else, but because many couldn’t understand the difference, he was requested not to call himself a doctor. It wasn’t compulsory, but he complied.

      1. My understanding is that the medical title of “Doctor” is honorary whereas the PhD is the real deal.

        1. What amuses me (I’m easily amused by trivial paradoxes) is that my heart surgeon was referred to as ‘Mr’ because surgeons are not, in fact, doctors.

  5. David Treddinick’s wild ideas only help the Conservatives: if the ideas are ignored, no harm done; if they are taken up and implemented, the effectiveness and credibility of the NHS will drop like a stone & the Tories get their life-long dream of pushing for privatisation. At least this method of hobbling it will have some public support.

  6. What is interesting about the photo of Burzynski is that if you put your hand over all the certificates you could easily believe the guy’s a regular bloke. Put all the certificates behind him and he looks like an insecure, rabble-rouser whose agenda is hidden from reason.

          1. When I was a university student I briefly had a part-time cleaning job in an insurance company building. I noticed all the partitions were covered in framed certificates that said stuff like “James Blaagh is awarded the Gold Star of Merit for selling $30,000 of insurance in June 1967”. They *framed* these things! I decided never to buy insurance from that company.

    1. Well, if the certificates don’t convince you of the efficacy of his treatments, the shiny dark brown hair on a 70 year old should.

  7. Treddinick shouldn’t give his fellow MP’s their horoscopes. He should give them each five unlabelled charts, only one of them corresponding to each member’s sign. Then, he should ask them which of the charts matched up to their experience the best. If astrology has any value, significantly more than a fifth of them should pick the one corresponding to their star sign.


      1. A French guy had a scam about 30 years ago. He provided personality profiles based on astrology which people swore by. Then it was discovered he was sending exactly the same profile to everyone. It said things like ‘most people don’t understand the real you’ that could apply to anyone.

  8. I guess Tredinnick is representative of my numerous fellow citizens who also believe in astrology, homeopathy, etc.

  9. David Tredinnick: “I think it’s something that people should be aware of as an option they have if they are confused about themselves.”

    Confused? … Oh, the irony!

  10. I’m glad for Meriam and her family, even though the catholics had to make a dog and pony show of the extraction procedure.

    [astrology] has a proven track record


    … I mean, it has a proven track record of being pure bullshit.

    Maybe Tredinnick should study that some time, starting with the Wikipedia articles. Who knows, maybe actual study could save someone 20 years of sunken cost now and then.

    1. RE: astrology. A co-worker read what her Chinese horoscope says about her personality then ended with “that’s not anything like me” to which I excitedly got to reply, “you mean the placement of stars at your birth *doesn’t* influence your personality?! Shocking!”.

      heh heh.

  11. I had heard about the Burzynski story years ago, and I am surprised he was still allowed to ‘practice’. I hope that the families of his former patients, and surviving patients, join together in a massive lawsuit against him. And the Texas Medical Board has questions to answer as to why he was allowed to practice so long when the nature of his scam has been widely reported for many years.

    1. If you read Orac’s account, you get the impression that it isn’t really the fault of the TMB – Orac thinks they have tried very hard within the constraints they are forced to work by dumbass Texas politicians.

    1. Yeah, I was twiddling with stuff and accidentally turned it off. It should be working now; thanks for telling me. Let me know by email or a comment if something like this ever goes awry.

  12. Reminds me of a Punch magazine cartoon from years ago:

    TV news announcer:

    “And in other news today, astrology as a science took a huge step forward when, as predicted, everyone born under the sign of Scorpio was run over by a milk truck”

  13. “he characterised scientists as ‘racially prejudiced'”

    Yep, that must be it. Has nothing to do with your total lack of evidence. It’s that you don’t like Indians. Yeah, right.

    1. It’s just as likely he has, but is arrogant enough to consider they wouldn’t effect him.

  14. a treatment which has never been demonstrated to work.

    That’s just from the patients’ point of view. For Burzynski, it has been remarkably successful for a very long time.

  15. Those of us who take a more nuanced view of Catholicism will understand the difference between suffering for one’s faith and suffering through one’s faith.

    Eh, nevermind, fuck the nuance. I suffered for it and through it for long enough. I still have a hellish dream once in awhile, but they are much rarer than they were when I spent my teenage years obsessing about every lustful thought I had.

  16. “Burzynski: How could he be a quack with all those certificates?”

    The good[?] doctor seems to have a pathological obsession with credentialism.

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