xkcd nails nonsense

By Phil Plait | October 20, 2010 2:00 pm

xkcd_altmoneyThe brilliant web comic xkcd is usually right, but he’s never been righter than in this destruction of alt-med nonsense.

Of course, some will argue that these things do make lots of money, but then those people probably didn’t read the text that pops up when you hover your mouse over the comic…

… or they aren’t used to making reality-based arguments anyway. I’m no fortune teller, but I predict this comic will get sent far and wide for years to come. Especially when someone gets that email from their Great Aunt about that one person who predicted that one thing happening because of that other thing they did.


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MORE ABOUT: xkcd

Comments (46)

  1. Brett from Canada

    But don’t you understand??? If faith healing provably worked, Big Health would squash it because it would threaten their profits and stuff! So they’re, like, hiding all the evidence and bribing all the researchers and stuff. You know, to protect their bottom line!

    It’s the same with antivaxxers and other alt-med quacks. You’re just not seeing the big picture, Phil. They want to keep you sick, not cure you. So they won’t tell you that the crystals resonate with your natural body rhythms, thus curing your erectile dysfunction while simultaneously unscratching all your CDs, removing that wart on your back, and repairing that squeaky floorboard you’ve been meaning to get to, but you just can’t seem to find the time, and when you get home from work you’re just too tired, and so your wife just nag nag nags you all the time, and so big surprise you decided to have a couple drinks and just zone out for a while…

    *cough*

    Err. Yeah. So, yeah, big conspiracy. That’s the answer. Pity the you and the xkcd folks can’t seem to just *get it*, ‘cuz you’re all in the pocket of Big Health and stuff.

  2. JoeZo

    The comic would have been more edgy (and better) if he left out ‘REMOTE’.

  3. Joe Alvord

    If they make this one into a poster, it’ll go right up into my classroom.

  4. Menyambal

    I have made a similar argument about oil companies before. I was interviewing for a job with an oil-locating firm, and I told the man that “Doctor Dino”, Kent Hovind, happened to be on campus that day and was an expert on Flood geology. The oil guy just laughed. (I didn’t tell him that Hovind quite happily thinks that oil is made from the bodies of people who drowned in The Flood.)

    xkcd does it a lot better, bigger and funnier.

  5. This makes me think of Escape to Witch Mountain (the older movie, not the weird 90′s remake). An oil tycoon kidnaps a couple of kids who have paranormal ablities because of the obvious money-making potential.

  6. It’s scary, but there are some wacko beliefs that are used in the business world. Just about every health insurance plan I’ve encountered pays for acupuncture for example. I’ve also have across a few people in the finance world that regularly consult psychics, one of these folks was very high up at Citibank. There’s also many companies, large and small, that have executives that are extremely religious; if you don’t go to church (usually their church) then your chance of advancing to the top management level is extremely limited.

  7. kurt_eh

    My sister once grabbed one of my mineralogy texts off the shelf and proceeded to tell me that such-and-such crystal would suck all the radiation out of the computer monitor if you placed the crystal upon it.

    Until that point I was unaware that some crystals found in Earth’s crust contained black-holes!

  8. Wacky people would be funny, if so many of them weren’t congress critters….

  9. “Science. It works, bitches.”

  10. kirk

    When Sarah Palin uses quantum electrodynamics to write a facebook snark against science and reason I die just a little bit. Her computer, cellphone, automobile, mother’s diabetes blood monitor and father’s pacemaker did not come from witches in Africa but from semiconductor foundries in Taiwan or Singapore. You can build a computer with science and engineering and god or just the science and engineering will work if you are all out of god.

  11. noen

    It’s nice snark but the argument itself is fallacious. It simply does not follow from the fact that corporations are not using some alternative medicines that they are therefore ineffective.

    There is in fact nothing wrong with complimentary care per se. The Mayo Clinic provides it’s patients with complimentary care if they request it. It is not a bad thing to make your patients feel more at ease and that you care about their emotional and spiritual well being in addition to their physical health.

    It is in fact the mark of poor bedside manners to be a jerk and be dismissive of your patient’s beliefs. Even when those beliefs are wrong. Who’d a thunk it?

  12. @noen
    There is in fact nothing wrong with complimentary care per se. The Mayo Clinic provides it’s patients with complimentary care if they request it. It is not a bad thing to make your patients feel more at ease and that you care about their emotional and spiritual well being in addition to their physical health.

    Knowingly selling a product you know doesn’t work is fraud isn’t it?

  13. NthDegree256

    Complementary care? No, you’re right, there’s essentially nothing wrong with it (well, apart from any associated monetary or opportunity cost that could instead be going towards other types of care, but as you point out, the psychological and emotional benefits aren’t zero.) What’s wrong is relying on them in any way, shape, or form as an alternative to actual, scientifically-grounded medical care.

    The comic is supposed to be a joke, not a rock-solid logical refutation, but it does raise a very solid point – if any of the items in the list actually worked in a reliable fashion, it would be ludicrous to assume that someone wouldn’t try to monetize it. The fact that no one is should count as strong, if not conclusive, evidence against them.

  14. @12

    I think it’s only fraud if you claim it does. If you say “we offer this service because our customers have asked for it, but we do not vouch for its efficacy” you’re not committing (legal) fraud.

    And more generally, if you’re a hospital, it’s not crazy to make your patients happy if only to make htem nicer to the nurses, even if what you’re offering is merely, well, hospitality – rather than medicine.

  15. colluvial

    noen, There are many non-medical ways to make other people feel good when they’re sick. It mostly has to do with taking care of them. However, trying to convince them that crystals or homeopathy is really about taking care of them is beside the point and, well, just dishonest when you consider the lack of evidence that they’re effective. It may be better being a bit of a jerk rather than misleading people. Someone’s illness should certainly not be an opportunity to proselytize about unproven health fads.

    It’s probably not a sound hypothesis to assume that there’s much of difference between physical and emotional health. And care to explain the difference between emotional and spiritual? Or can I assume that the latter term has to do with the supernatural, and not something that can be addressed in the real world by either medicine or alternative ‘medicine’?

  16. J.G. Fellow

    As a corporate actuary, the mouse-over text offends me. I have hardly ever sold “hex and curse coverage,” and it has generally proven to be unprofitable.

  17. noen

    colluvial Says:
    “However, trying to convince them that crystals or homeopathy is really about taking care of them is beside the point and, well, just dishonest when you consider the lack of evidence that they’re effective. “

    Just to be clear I absolutely do not believe in unproven alternate therapies. But I did work at Mayo for 30 years (paramedical) and it is a fact that patients come to you with prior beliefs. As a care giver it is your duty to care for the whole person, not just the parts you agree with. So if your Native American patient has certain beliefs and would like his tribe’s medicine man to come in, maybe even perform a ritual, you do your best to accommodate them.

    I don’t see the harm in that. In no way would you ever permit an alternative treatment to interfere with the best standard medical care you can give though.

    “It may be better being a bit of a jerk rather than misleading people.”

    Outside of the context of being a provider of medical care then I guess one can be a jerk and tell others that their belief in Reiki for example, is not based in scientific fact. I was limiting my comment to my experience in the health care field as a care provider.

    I think the only real solution is education. We really really really need good science based education in our schools. Once a person is an adult their beliefs are pretty fixed. I think that good schools (what everyone here would think is a good school) are absolutely critical to having a sane society. Fix the schools (and I think they need fixing) and you’ll solve 90% of the problems we’re having these days.

  18. RawheaD

    I do think some of those don’t work, despite the caveat emptor popup. E.g., homeopathy, plenty of companies make big bucks off homeo pills, and homeo believers believe they work (and perhaps some do, on a purely placebo level).

    I’m not saying that makes homeopathy right (far from it; I’m adamantly against it), but the problem here is that this comic cannot be used as a way to persuade a believer to rethink his beliefs in homeopathy––which is, according to the caption, what it’s supposed to help do.

  19. Party Cactus

    With homeopathy, it’s not even just healthcare. If it worked, it’s silly to think that it would just have medical properties. Think of how much industry could save if, instead of using copper wire in buildings, they used wet threads covered in homeopathic rubber dilutions. Heck, dilute it enough, and wouldn’t you eventually end up with some sort of superconductor? I’m sure more than one industry could find use for that. Think agriculture would like it if they could stop buying pesticides and simply repel pests with homeopathic sugar (or whatever weevils like)? If you think about it, there’s got to be tons of uses in every sector for things imbued with non-medical homeopathic properties. Covering up an entire new branch of physics/chemistry would require pretty much everyone.

    Remember that scene in the movie Tremors when the two main characters see one of the monsters and the one says ‘Ever seen anything like this’ and the other replies ‘Sure, everyone knows about them, we just haven’t told you!’ If the rest of the movie followed that premise, we’d think it stupid. Odd that some people think real life is just that way.

  20. amphiox

    noen, the names say it all.

    Complementary care, as in care given in addition to actual medical care, and as care, not medicine.

    Alternative medicine implies replacement of real medicine, and actual medical efficacy. Therein lies the fraud, and the harm.

  21. Mike

    Already got it printed and hanging up in my cubicle at work. :)

  22. Astrofiend

    15. colluvial Says:
    October 20th, 2010 at 5:43 pm
    “Someone’s illness should certainly not be an opportunity to proselytize about unproven health fads.”

    But nor should it be a time for skeptics to jump in and inform people that their beliefs are total BS.

    I’m not having a go at you – just providing the flip-side of your good point. I guess as always it all comes down to degree and circumstance, and a liberal dose of common sense…

  23. Charles Sullivan

    You sound kind of militant, saying that they don’t use reality-based arguments.
    Many could be offended.

    I hope you’re not being a Dick.
    Alt-Med seems no better than liberal Christianity.

    How can one not be a be a dick by publicly criticizing the Alt-Med arguments (basically calling them delusional, not based on reality), but then be dick if one criticizes Liberal religion?

    Every alt-med practitioner doesn’t claim a cure for cancer; some are more humble.

    Every Christian isn’t a biblical literalist; some are more humble.

    You see the pattern here?

  24. Another Satisfied Customer

    I think it was Ben Goldacre (http://www.badscience.net/) who put it something like this:

    There’s a term for alternative medicine that works. We call it medicine.

  25. khms

    # 22. Astrofiend Says:
    October 21st, 2010 at 1:05 am

    15. colluvial Says:
    October 20th, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    “Someone’s illness should certainly not be an opportunity to proselytize about unproven health fads.”

    But nor should it be a time for skeptics to jump in and inform people that their beliefs are total BS.

    You mean, the one time that is important is when you should not tell them?

    Tell me, do you also think you shouldn’t yell “stop!” when you see someone about to step into a chasm (or into heavy traffic, if you prefer)?

  26. sophia8

    Uri Geller claims that most of his fortune came from remote viewing/dowsing for oil companies in the 80s. Naturally, commercial confidentiality requires that he keep forever silent about which companies, and where.
    Apart from him, how many rich dowsers are there?

  27. sophia8

    neon @11: “There is in fact nothing wrong with complimentary care per se. ”
    Of course not. Most people react well to being told they have wonderful taste, nice clothes and beautiful children.

  28. tommy cooper

    “There is in fact nothing wrong with complimentary care per se. ”

    So I was getting into my car, and this bloke says to me “Can you give me a lift?” I said “Sure, you look great, the world’s your oyster, go for it.”

  29. Georg

    Books
    like “How to become a Millionaire in no Time” were around
    since at least hundred years.
    All that time intelligent people asked why those authors
    wrote such books instead becoming millionaires by their
    “proven” method.
    Nothing new under the sun :=(
    Georg

  30. 6. The socialised medical insurance provider in NZ (That is they pay for basically all medical costs associated with injuries obtained in NZ) pays for accupuncture, chiropractic, and will reimburse you for costs incurred purchasing homeopathic remedies from time to time. For all the good the company does in every other area it’s associated with, it could do a bunch more if it stopped wasting money on useless treatments.

  31. Best part is, because of time zone advantage, I had this on my blog before Phil!
    I agree with Joe (#3), I would put a poster of this up in my classroom.
    I wonder how to do a mouse-over on a poster…

  32. There is in fact nothing wrong with complimentary care per se.

    True, but most doctors have to get a paycheck from somewhere.

    The Mayo Clinic provides it’s patients with complimentary care if they request it.

    You can get free care at the Mayo Clinic by just requesting it? That’s awesome!

  33. @Carey

    The Mayo Clinic provides it’s patients with complimentary care if they request it.

    You can get free care at the Mayo Clinic by just requesting it? That’s awesome!

    No, if you request it, they’ll say nice things to about you to your face while treating you. (“That’s a great shirt! You look like you’ve lost weight!”) This replaces their usual non-complimentary treatment. (“Get over here you fat &*@^ and take off your ugly shirt so I can get this over with quickly. I don’t want to be around your ugly, smelly body any longer than I need to be.”)

  34. Bad Albert

    I’m confused about “Relativity | making a killing in | GPS Devices” being on the list. Has this term been hijacked for some form of woo I haven’t heard of? If they are referring to Einstein’s relativity, it actually is used in GPS devices. The GPS satellites have their atomic clock frequency set to 10.22999999543 MHz before launch so that once in orbit our receivers will measure it as exactly 10.23000000000 MHz. The frequency shift is due to gravitational time dilation. Other relativistic compensations are also made.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPS#Relativity

  35. Cmatherly

    @ Bad Albert

    I think the point XKCD is making is that relativity is counter-intuitive, and to the average layperson as mysterious as dowsing and remote viewing. However, the fact that it is successfully used in GPS to make a boat load of money supports the hypothesis that real phenominon will be used to make serious profit.

  36. Sadly the cartoon is also wrong. Lots of rich folks and corporate heads DO use psychic and other nonsense to make business decisions. The oil companies have been known to entertain homeopathic additives and methods virtually the same as dowsing to find drill sites. Often real estate companies do hire water dowsers.

    @bad albert,

    Notice the two bottom lines have check marks, the woo lines do not.

  37. noen

    “You can get free care at the Mayo Clinic by just requesting it? That’s awesome!”

    Actually, this is true. For some their bill is adjusted according to ability to pay. If you are truly indigent and can prove it that can translate into “free” care. You wouldn’t want to be one of those people though. They are truly hardship cases.

  38. Calli Arcale

    RawheaD @ 18:

    I’m not saying that makes homeopathy right (far from it; I’m adamantly against it), but the problem here is that this comic cannot be used as a way to persuade a believer to rethink his beliefs in homeopathy––which is, according to the caption, what it’s supposed to help do.

    No, the comic isn’t supposed to help persuade believers. It’s a comic. Its sole function is to make people laugh, and that goal appears to have been achieved. ;-)

    Some have talked about the Mayo Clinic offering CAM. This is something which greatly disappoints me. It is true that proper bedside manner means you need to respect your patient’s beliefs, and not contradict him/her unless it’s a matter critical to their health care. But respecting a patients beliefs is not the same thing as hawking dubious remedies. If a patient has a yoga coach they want to help during labor, fine! Let the yoga coach in, as long as he/she will stay out the way when medical stuff has to happen. The patient wants their pastor to pray over their surgical wound? Staff should not stand in the way of that. But selling their own alt-med takes things to another level. They are not merely allowing the patient to practice their beliefs at that point; they are actively influencing those beliefs, and profiting from it. I realize as noen said that you can get free care at Mayo, but this depends on poverty, and their main business actually comes from wealthy patients. I’ve been there; it’s a fantastic hospital complex, but it’s also strongly targeted to the rich and famous — those with a lot of disposable income.

  39. Turboblocke

    A flowchart for selecting an alternative therapy is available here: http://crispian-jago.blogspot.com/2010/10/handy-alternative-therapy-flowchart.html

    Enjoy;)

  40. Chris Winter

    Kent_Eh wrote: “Until that point I was unaware that some crystals found in Earth’s crust contained black-holes!”

    Especially the ones found near Calcutta. ;-)

    (ducking…)

  41. Chris Winter

    Noen wrote: “There is in fact nothing wrong with complimentary care per se. The Mayo Clinic provides it’s patients with complimentary care if they request it.”

    Four messages already beat me to it. Let me just say to TommyCooper, It’s a good thing that bloke didn’t ask you to call him an ambulance. :)

    COMPLEMENTARY versus COMPLIMENTARY — probably the longest common words frequently interchanged with each other by mistake. ’nuff said.

  42. Bad Albert

    @ techskeptic

    Ah, now it makes sense. Thank you.

  43. paradoctor

    xkcd is brilliant as usual. I particularly liked the idea of military hexes. Soldiers cuss anyhow, but if cussing worked, then General Dynamics would already be selling the DOD their new line of super-cusses.

  44. paradoctor

    If military hexes worked, then we wouldn’t have a Pentagon; we’d have a Pentagram!

  45. MaDeR

    In fact, world where something from this list is real, would be very different – and accomodating these things in same way like we now use everywhere electricity etc. And people would STILL believe in some other made up nonsense.

  46. robhoofd

    It’s a good thing God isn’t mentioned. That would be totally dickish.

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