The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Trick or Treat or Pseudoscience?

When a charity organization that works to support families and children dealing with childhood cancer partners with a race organization that promotes pseudoscience, this scientist gets upset.
When a charity organization that works to support families and children dealing with childhood cancer partners with a race organization that promotes pseudoscience, this scientist gets upset.

Every year, Jodi and I run a local Halloween-themed 5K race together. Recently, the race became a charity for an organization that tries to help children and their families deal with particular cancers. It’s nice that the race goes to support a good cause; to be honest, I don’t run it for the cause, but for the run itself. That said, for the past 2 years I have been fairly horrified by some of the “goodies” in the race bag that you get at registration.

Cancer is a serious issue. Most people will have to deal with it themselves at least once during their life, whether it’s a benign skin cancer or something more serious; certainly, considering that cancer will affect most people, it will affect all people – we will all either have it or know someone who does. Scientific medicine has consistently offered the best answers on the cause and treatment of cancers, and even for some of the very worst cancers of the bunch has helped to extend life or improve the quality of life.

So when I open the race goody bag and find a whole bunch of pseudomedicine and pseudoscience nonsense inside, I get pretty pissed. As a scientist who is also a runner, I take personal offense when the organizers of a race – a race meant to support the families and children dealing with childhood cancers – stuff into a goody bag a handful of dangerous pseudoscience.

For instance, both last year and this year they allowed a local chiropractor to offer a “free consultation” card as part of the goody bag. Chiropractic is essentially a faith-based practice, since its core claims – that there is an energy or life force whose “flow” is interrupted by dislocations of vertebrae in the spine – were all debunked a very long time ago. Chiropractic is, therefore, the most significant non-scientific medical intervention system in the United States. Its practitioners get trained at Chiropractic Colleges, get their own made-up internal degree (they are NOT medical doctors, M.D.s, but rather Doctors of Chiropractic, D.C.s – they are not recognized by any major medical body as legitimate physicians), and start their own practices and recruit new students into the practice. When they perform research on their own claims, it’s shabby because these people are not trained scientists; those trained scientists who have investigated their claims, including actual Chiropractors who also learned how to investigate questions scientifically, have been convinced there is nothing to the claims of the Chiropractor.

What kinds of claims do Chiropractors make [1]? Since they claim to restore the flow of a life force only they can detect by fixing abnormalities only they know how to fix, they claim to fix more than aches and back pain. They claim to cure colds, influenza, polio, and even cancer. Most people mistake Chiropractors for “back doctors,” especially because Chiropractic is often branded as “sports medicine” (though sports medicine is, in fact, something entirely different). But that’s a misconception most Chiropractors are happy to allow to spread. In fact, once you are in the care of a Chiropractor they will try to treat any of your diseases . . . even major ones that only vaccines can prevent and that, once caught, only the immune system can actually fight. Many Chiropractors actively oppose vaccination, because they believe only their form of medicine can prevent disease.

And before you leave a comment on this post and say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about – I go to a Chiropractor and I feel great!” – please go and do some homework on the Placebo Effect [2] and forms of evidence (hint: anecdotal evidence is the weakest form of evidence known to humankind) [3].

So to find a “free consultation” offer stuffed in the goody bag is an affront to the very charitable organization to whom race proceeds are donated. Why? Because Chiropractors are false prophets who offer baseless hope, banking on the placebo effect to offer relief when there are, in fact, real caring and loving M.D.s out there who offer actual evidence- and science-based treatments.

This was the biggest offense in the bag. There was also “energy powder” – a potentially dangerous mix of caffeine and various compounds not approved for medical usage that is billed as giving you more energy. But this same product also bears a warning label suggesting users with various medical conditions not imbibe the powder (such people probably shouldn’t be running a hard 5K, either).

I run this 5K every year because I use it as a benchmark for my own personal achievements in physical activity. That it helps a good cause is an ancillary benefit. But that good cause is besmirched by the race organizers, who partner with non-sense faith-based medical practices and food supplement peddlers to sneak pseudoscience into the lives of people who don’t know better.


[2] Some resources on The Placebo Effect:

[3] Some resources to get you started on forms of evidence: