top01.jpg (5523 bytes)

The Braunstein Chronicles

An Exercise in Frustration

Michael Braunstein, of Heartland Healing, which is a cable-access TV show and a weekly column in The Reader [and now an infotainment journal: See note at end], is Omaha s chief publicist of alternative medicine. Two things about him and his column:

a) By now he is an economic force at The Reader because of the advertising revenue he brings in from the purveyors of alternative medicine and New Age paraphernalia. A one-man commercial interest group, this places him above criticism, untouchable. And, as with talk radio, there is no requirement for fairness, accuracy or balance. His infomercials are presented as health advice (despite a prudent disclaimer) but most of them are sheer quackery, as I will demonstrate in a second. The only way the other side of his issues will reach readers is as letters to the editor, but don t expect them to be printed very often (offend advertisers?), and don t expect them to have any effect on Braunstein s column. As well bang your head on a stone wall.

b) Is Braunstein dishonest? Is he a con man, a promoter of quackery? I think you ll find it hard to avoid that conclusion when you read these letters. For example, he was provided with a detailed analysis of the JAMA article by Dr. David Eisenberg on the popularity of alternative medicine, which Braunstein clearly misrepresented a few years back. And, after it was pointed out to him that the evidence does not support his contentions about how popular alt med is, he is still blatantly misrepresenting the article (see his self-congratulatory anniversary column of 12/28/02). But perhaps a more charitable explanation is not that Braunstein is dishonest but that, like Bush, he never reads anything critical of him (or, in this case, of alt med,) or if he does read such material, he reads without comprehension. There was certainly never any evidence that he read any of my letters, which started out polite and factual, and remained factual to the end, if no longer polite, when I finally gave up on him as a lost cause. It s an interesting case study in self-delusion, at the very least. You be the judge:



From: "Jim Bechtel"
To: "The Reader
Sent: Sunday, April 19, 1998 4:51 PM

Michael Braunstein;

You are in error concerning the Hundredth Monkey (The Reader, 4/16/98). [This popular myth is that as soon as 100 monkeys knew a certain technique, ALL of them knew it, by a kind of telepathy, having reached a tipping point. ] The facts are as follows:

1952: The colony of macaques at Koshima numbered about twenty.
September 1953, a 1-1/2 year old female, Imo, learned to rinse dirt off her sweet potatoes in the Ocean. In October her playmate picked up the habit, in January two others. Older adults never --repeat never-- picked it up. The new generation learned it as they grew up, usually between the age of 1 and 2-1/2.

When Imo was 4, this genius among macaques also learned to separate wheat from sand by dipping the mix in the water. This spread more slowly than her previous discovery.   In 1960 a young male, Jugo, swam to a nearby island where he stayed for four years, and the technique began to spread there. Elsewhere other macaques eventually stumbled on the idea of washing off their food, just as Imo had done. Nothing supernatural occurred at any time. The whole process was closely observed by primatologists and reported as it happened, in their journals (below). It is not --repeat not-- "scientific evidence of the One Mind."


S. Kawamura, "The Process of Subculture Propagation Among Japanese Macaques." Journal of Primatology 2, 1959.
S. Kawamura in Primate Social Behavior, C. Southwick ed., NY, 1963.
A. Tsumori, "Newly Acquired Behavior and Social Interaction ..." in Social
Communication Among Primates, S. Alltman ed., UCP, 1982.

For a critical analysis of the myth spread by the Ken Keyes book, see Ron Amundson, "The Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon," in The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal, K. Frazier ed., NY, 1991.

This and many other excellent books on the paranormal are available at
You'll have fun browsing their titles.



From: "Jim Bechtel"
To: "The Reader"
Cc: xxxxx
Sent: Monday, May 18, 1998 1:25 PM

Michael Braunstein
The Reader

Dear Michael;

I have no problem in general with your article on improving health through stress-reduction (May 14) but I do have three short comments for your consideration:

1) You wrote: "Almost 3 billion Chinese are aware of tai chi as a ...road to health ...." A good trick, considering there are only 1.22 billion Chinese on the planet, and only a fraction practice tai chi.

2) A modest amount of effort researching the literature (Consumer's Guide to "Alternative Medicine," by Kurt Butler; Complementary Medicine, by E Ernst, Oxford; Health Quackery, by the editors of Consumer Reports, and the data from the National Council Against Health Fraud at the "quackwatch" website) pays off in the discovery of the depressing extent to which the alternative health movement is riddled with humbuggery, sloppy thinking, rip-off artists, frauds, hucksters, cults, con-men, and quacks, but an easy way to separate the good from the bad is: greed. Follow the money. Case in point: you mention Zen. The Nebraska Zen Center would never demand money from anyone for studying with them at their pleasant little gray house in Bemis Park. [Not strictly so; they do have nominal charges for some activities.] Compare that to your comment about Transcendental Meditation: "The initial fee is somewhat pricey ($1,000) but ..." "But"? A thousand dollars! And that's just the "initial" fee!! But what? But nothing! But! But ...greedy gypsters! That's what!

3) Yoga, self hypnosis and biofeedback are all legitimate disciplines, but you do your readers a disservice by throwing in nonsense like the Silva Method and A Course in Miracles. (See Chapter 23 in Martin Gardner's Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus, and John Koffend's analysis in the 9/80 Psychology Today.) Do you seriously believe Jesus spent ten years (1965-75) dictating half a million words to Judy Skutch (A Course in Miracles) and that in ten years God could come up with nothing more profound than "Nothing Unreal Exists"? It may be Judy Skutch's (or Jesus's) basic principle, but it also happens to be the essential philosophy of a Vulcan sage being studied by Spock in a scene in the third Star Trek movie.

"Nothing Unreal Exists"?  Can you endorse such b.s. with a straight face? Alternative Medicine needs reformers, skeptics and debunkers to weed out the rip-offs and quacks if it is not to sink into a mass of superstition and fraud. (Besides, exposing the b.s. is more fun than propagandizing it--more fun, AND a cleaner conscience!)


Jim Bechtel




Hello again, Michael;

You state (5/21): ""Let's face it. There's enough good-intentioned (and often contradictory) advice out there ..." to be confusing. "How does one choose what to do or believe what is best? Wouldn't it be great if there were a system, a straightforward and logical way ...?" There are two systems. One is to listen to people (like Maya Tiwari on ayurveda) and believe whoever sounds the most convincing. Ideas that "sound good" and make people "feel good" will do well under this approach. With this system, reality is opinion. The other system is empiricism, basing beliefs on evidence, testing theories against facts. Originating with Locke and Hume in the 18th century, it works so well it has (as the "scientific method") enabled us to unlock the secrets of DNA, of the atom, of distant galaxies, and of the etiology of diseases. With this system, reality is what is verifiable. (The word "verify" comes from the Latin for "truth.") Opinions are verified by testing against the facts. It is not a popular system, because sometimes it exposes as false the ideas that people would prefer to believe, ideas that feel good.

Let us apply the second system to ayurveda.  "The beliefs and practices of Ayurvedic medicine fall into three categories: (1) some that are obvious, well established, and widely accepted even by people who have never heard of Ayurveda; (2) a few that proper research may eventually prove valid and useful; and (3) absurd ideas, some of which are dangerous."(*) The second category "is illustrated by the case of Rauwolfia serpentina, one of the few Indian medicinal herbs to find its way into Western medicine. Beginning in the 1950s, the main active component of the herb, reserpine, was used to treat psychosis and high blood pressure. Careful studies since then have shown that the drug can cause depression, headaches, nightmares, irregular heartbeat, diminished libido, aggravation of ulcers, and a variety of other adverse effects. At the same time, safer and more effective drugs were developed for treating psychosis and hypertension. The turnaround took place over a decade or two. Ayurvedic physicians, on the other hand, have used the herb for hundreds of years without a thorough understanding of its dangers and limitations. Because they don't evaluate the effects of their prescriptions in a systematic, scientific manner, the same is true for most of the herbs they use."

The third category includes various ayurvedic treatments that cause infections or other hazards, such as washing your eyes in your saliva, drinking your urine, having enemas of peacock testicles for impotence, drinking goat feces mixed with urine for constipation, and hundreds more, codified in the Caraka Samhita.  As for Ms Tiwari's remission of cancer, I'm happy for her. But Oncologist Dr. Saul Silverman, who has treated 6,000 cancer patients, has witnessed a number of spontaneous remissions in his 25 years. They are random, and there is no evidence of causal links to any "miracles." After sometimes seeing optimists die and pessimists survive, Dr. Silverman concluded that "positive thinking had nothing to do with it; nor did prayer, meditation, or visualization."

Some big-city ayurvedic centers are real money machines, putting modern hospitals to shame. A week in one Ayurvedic center costs $4,000. In another, performing a yagya, a sacrificial ceremony to please the Vedic gods, will run as much as $12,000! As I said in my last letter, follow the money. TM-EX is an organization of victims of Ayurvedic and former followers of gurus such as Deepak Chopra and the Maharishi: if you want to know about their experiences and sufferings, they can be contacted at:

POB 7565
Arlington, VA 22207.


Jim Bechtel

(*) Quotes are from A Consumer's Guide to Alternative Medicine.



Sent: Sunday, June 07, 1998 12:39 PM

June 4 issue:

" ..grass for health is ... as based on Nobel-prize-winning laboratory work as on anything else." That is intellectually dishonest, an untruth. You should not make statements that are so far from the truth. What is true is that Dr. Fischer won a Nobel for work on the properties of blood. But I'm sure he would be utterly astonished to be told that his work was about wheatgrass! You draw the connection between his work and your assertions about grass in a most deceitful way:  First you say he found that "chlorophyll and hemoglobin ...[are] nearly identical molecules." What does "nearly identical molecules" signify to you? Molecules can be nearly identical and yet be completely different, even opposites, in their effects. The LEAST possible difference between two molecules is a difference of just one atom. Yet if you tried drinking hydrogen peroxide in place of water (only one atom different) you would die. Psilocin and serotonin are virtually identical in molecular structure but their effects on the brain (wooppee) are as different as night and day. Chlorophyll and hemoglobin show a similarity because in evolutionary terms they reflect a common ancestor (ie, animals and plants have a common ancestor). But they are different, and even their colors reflect that difference (green from copper, red from iron). Hundreds of millions of years of specialization makes chlorophyll the essence of plant metabolism, and hemoglobin essential for animal life. They are as different as ... well, as plants are from animals. It is only pseudoscientific babble to try to make something out of their structural similarities while ignoring their functions.

The very next sentence is "Other researchers found that injections of chlorophyll" had various wonderful effects. Notice how we have cleverly slipped from specific Nobel winners to unidentified "other researchers."  Who are these people? Where did they do their research? Was it peer-reviewed? Is there in fact any reason to believe their assertions? The careless or gullible reader will associate the Nobel winners in one sentence with the anonymous "others" in the next sentence. Bamboozled again.

Then: "Supporters of wheatgrass believe [n.b.: "believe"] this research confirms what they already knew: drinking wheatgrass juice is good for you." It might indeed be moderately good for you, but we have been given no reason to think so by the dissembling in this article. Then we are provided with the usual snake-oil list of miracles the product being pushed will perform, from regenerating the liver to detoxifying the body. (Has anybody told UNMC about this?)

Wheatgrass juice can do all these things "because of its concentrated life force." I'm too rushed to go into the history of vitalism right now, but somebody has to speak up for the poor carrots. There's a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the old man, about to be thrown onto the cart of corpses, complains "I'm not dead yet!" and John Cleese says "Oh, yes you are." I was reminded of that by your comment about carrots, how the ones from the supermarket lack "life force." Hey, pal, just take some onions, carrots, radishes & potatoes from the store and stick 'em in the ground and watch 'em grow! Their way of saying "we ain't dead yet, really!" But Nobel physicist Chris Blobaum says "oh, yes you are." Having presumably measured the life force of the carrots with ingeniously designed tests (I'm always being astonished at the incredible experiments physicists devise) Blobaum says "they are devoid of life force." Oh wait, he's not a physicist, sorry, he's a Beverley Hills chef, that's right, I forgot. The truth is, the "life force" is a nonexistent phenomenon, a pseudo-religious superstition, and the fact that the veggies are still clearly alive and growing means no more to true believers than the old man's pleading did to Cleese's character. Like Superman, Beverley Hills Chef Man can see things beyond the powers of us mere mortals. Such nonsense.  Well, you're off the hook for the next two months; I'll be in Africa. (I should bring you some Devil's Claw --aka Grapple-Thorn, from the Kalahari. Cures cancer, AIDS, etc.)





The Reader 9/21/98

Got back from Africa (where traditional medicine still prevails, with the result that life expectancy is about 40 years) to find that you're still up to your same old hokum with your column, "Heartland Humbuggery." Is there no limit to your gullibility? This time it's the Bates Method, "an alternative to eyeglasses," in which you pretend to believe that the mean old medical establishment makes us wear eyeglasses even though we don't need to. If we rock our heads while looking toward the sun with our eyes closed, our eyeballs will change shape, according to William Bates, born 1865. (Always with this 19th century stuff, as if the hard-earned gains in knowledge of the last hundred years never happened.)

To review the facts: If the image in the eye comes into focus just short of the retina, you're myopic. A lens in front of the eye can easily correct this. Theoretically, changing the shape of the eyeball would also correct it. Now, it so happens certain raptors (eagles, hawks) are equipped with a set of muscles that can actually change the shape of the eyeball, giving them a kind of telephoto or "zoom" effect, a great advantage in hunting mice from a thousand feet up. However, in the vast majority of animals, including humans, no such muscles exist. Dissect cadaver eyeballs (like ophthalmology students do) and look for them if you don't believe it.  Here's what someone who's done the dissections and the hard work and the years of study had to say about this: "The material I just read about the Bates method at the website you listed reveals the author to have an incredibly poor understanding of ocular physiology and vision. Clearly they either stopped reading textbooks 50 years ago or they don't accept the scientific method. On the other hand, 'relaxation exercises' shouldn't be able to do any permanent damage, and may well make you 'feel' better, thru the placebo effect. In fact, if you have some persistent strabismic tendency (e.g., small-angle intermittent exotropia or exophoria), the convergent effort required to keep the eyes aligned may contribute to headaches, and orthoptic exercises to increase your convergence amplitudes may actually decrease symptoms. But, if you have high vergence amplitudes already, further exercises are less likely to be helpful."

The scientific method, basing beliefs on facts and logic, evidence and reasoning, doesn't stand a chance against  a) the enormous amounts of money to be made the easy way from quackery and fraud, and b) the appeal of believing whatever makes us feel good. Can't wait to see what next week's irrational nonsense will be.


Jim Bechtel




----- Original Message -----
From: "Jim Bechtel"
To: "D
Cc: "J
Sent: Friday, September 25, 1998 11:57 AM
Subject: Braunstein 6

> This time it was about chiropractic, so I sent him copies of my NFP essay
> (and the sequel), available in The Birth of Reason.





Michael Braunstein;

In your column of 10/1 you ask "is it true that the sequence of events goes something like the following?" Answer: no, it's not true.

Your sequence:

1) medical establishment says "that's quackery."
2) people find it helpful, establishment admits it has "some" merit.
3) it becomes so popular the establishment claims they invented it. 

The real world (example from last week's news):

1) manufacturers of herbal medicines finance political campaigns.
2) in '94 the GOP repays their contributors by passing a law reversing the burden of proof --now, instead of the manufacturers being required to show their products are safe, the FDA will have to prove they're unsafe (no extra funding is provided for this new workload, in fact, their budget is cut).
3) 9/98: Alarmed by steep rise in deaths from unsafe herbal medicines, the New England Journal of Medicine issues a warning about over-the-counter health food store products (a multi-billion dollar business "establishment").

Here's the sequence in medical science:

"A century ago it was no-holds-barred laissez faire capitalism in medicine as well as in industry. There were thousands of dubious "patent medicines" used indiscriminately by a profession with few standards. Then Sir William Osler at Johns Hopkins and the "Flexner Report" brought science into the practice of medicine, and by the 1920s well trained physicians were using a pharmacopoeia that had shrunk to only a few tested and proven medicines.  From that base, new remedies have been added one at a time as they passed muster. When that happens they cease to be "alternative" and become "mainstream." But testing has become so much more sophisticated (no one wants a repeat of thalidomide) that studies done in the 1960s would be unacceptable today. And so we get fresh studies finding new problems with old remedies. And that's how we should want it. (Does alternative medicine ever issue alerts or recall products? Fat chance.)"

(From Braunstein 6.)

An example of how it works:

Take "the case of Rauwolfia serpentina, one of the few Indian medicinal herbs to find its way into Western medicine. Beginning in the 1950s, the main active component of the herb, reserpine, was used to treat psychosis and high blood pressure. Careful studies since then have shown that the drug can cause depression, headaches, nightmares, irregular heartbeat, diminished libido, aggravation of ulcers, and a variety of other adverse efects. At the same time, safer and more effective drugs were developed for treating psychosis and hypertension. The turnaround took place over a decade or two. Ayurvedic physicians, on the other hand, have used the herb for hundreds of years without a thorough understanding of its dangers and limitations. Because they don't evaluate the effects of their prescriptions in a systematic, scientific manner, the same is true for most of the herbs they use."

(From Consumer's Guide to Alternative Medicine, quoted in Braunstein 3.)

You should read your mail.

See ya next week.





To: Michael Braunstein

Thank you for telling Omahans about Hinduism in Omaha. Your column was useful, for a change (sorry, but I believe in being honest). So you deserve thanks this once. As I said, I spent a couple years in India (I also enjoyed Molly Ivin's column in the same issue for that reason).  Now, I'm sure if you had questioned Dr. Joshi, he'd have explained the following to you (but you have to know a certain amount about a subject in order to know what questions to ask): After stating the Semitic religions have their holy books, you wrote that Hindus have the Bhagavad Gita. Actually, a better way to word it is that, where the Semitic religions have one, two or three holy books,** the Hindus have a whole huge library of holy books. The Vedas: the oldest is the Rig Veda, of 10,000 verses. The Upanishads, philosophical treatises. The Mahabharata, of 100,000 verses, the longest work of literature in the world, of which the Bhagavad Gita or "Song of God" is, in fact, just a part.  The Sutras, rituals. And more! On my bookshelf are a couple volumes (out of a cycle of thirty) of the scriptures originating with Sri Krishna Caitanya five hundred years ago. Although the Bhagavad Gita is a much-loved classic, it would be misleading to think of it as the equivalent of the Christian Bible. Hinduism is far too diverse to be so restricted.  The same day this issue of the Reader came out you may have noticed the article about the latest study of chiropractic. "The new research tracked 321 diagnosed back-pain patients, and did so longer than any previous large study ...After two years, chiropractic spinal manipulation was no more effective than physical therapy or benign medical neglect at reducing missed work or preventing a relapse."   As Homer Simpson says: "Facts!? Facts!? Don't talk to me about facts! Everybody knows you can prove anything that's remotely true with facts!"




** The 3 books:
Judaism: The Old Testament.
Christianity: The Old Testament and the New Testament.
Islam: The Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran (Koran). See, e.g., Surah II, verse 62, and Surah V, verse 46, for Koranic references to the Bible.

Do an article about Islam in Omaha! (But do your homework first.)





To Michael Braunstein

re: your column of 11/19/98

Michael, Michael, what are we gonna do with you?

1) You should have warned your readers not to imitate Michael Jackson's eating of Kleenex for fiber. Martha Stewart would tell you about paper products, how you should always set aside a pair of old scissors for paper products because of the abrasives they contain, which will ruin your good scissors, not to mention the traces of sulphuric acid in most paper, from the processing. So, eating Kleenex is not recommended. You have to learn to think critically about things people tell you.

2) Michael, we evolved in, and are adapted to, an atmosphere of 21% oxygen. Where on Earth did you get the idea that the atmosphere was 35% oxygen "a few hundred years ago"? Absolute nonsense. Shortly after Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen in 1774 it was measured in the atmosphere and was found to be 20.9 per cent. Meteorologists (or paleometeorologists) have done lots of research on the evolution of the atmosphere, analyzing the a ncient air trapped in ice cores from Greenland's glaciers, for example, and the composition of air has been remarkably constant ever since photosynthesis evolved. In fact, you may have heard of the Gaia hypothesis, that the total biosphere functions like a giant organism to regulate the Earth's atmosphere and temperature to keep the planet hospitable to life. (That hypothesis has its problems: see Chapter 5 of The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, by Scientific American editor John Horgan.) Of course, we are now testing Gaia's limits by our dumping of greenhouse gases, but that's a different story.

3) As far as hyperbaric oxygen therapy, if I have time I might research it later (I can be sure you didn't. Talking only to its supporters is not "research.") but I suspect there might be something to it. Athletes sometimes train in the Andes, where the air is thinner, so that their bodies will adjust and increase oxygen uptake. Then, when they return to sea level they have a temporary advantage over others who trained at sea level. Obviously, increased oxygen boosts performance. But then again, we all know how damaging too much free oxygen is internally (thus the importance of anti-oxidants like vitamin E and C, etc.) Anyway, I confess I have not researched this. But the point is, I would never be content to just take your word for anything, because of your track record of extreme gullibility. (See "Braunstein 1" thru "Braunstein 8.") 4) You state "90 percent of our body's energy comes from oxygen, only 10 percent from food and water." Where do you get this stuff? What is it supposed to mean? That's like saying "90 percent of your car's energy comes from oxygen, only 10 percent from gasoline." It's absolutely meaningless. The body's energy comes from a complex chemical reaction, which requires oxygen as one of the ingredients, certainly, but just look: In a series of reactions that break down lactic acid, pairs of hydrogen atoms are removed from intermediate substances by means of certain enzymes called "dehydrogenases." These hydrogen atoms are then combined with oxygen with the catalytic help of certain other enzymes called "cytochromes." The "Krebs Cycle" could be viewed either as the uptake of oxygen or as the removal of hydrogen (2 sides of the same coin). I can't draw the diagrams for chemical formulae on an email program, suffice it to say it fills pages. For every turn of the Krebs cycle, 18 molecules of ATP are formed, thru "oxidative phosphorylation." This is the actual energy cycle that fuels the human body. Any interference with it (like swallowing potassium cyanide) causes death. If you're going to insist on writing about human health, for starters you really, really ought to take a course in biology.



[Note: On oxygen, see the January 2004 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.]





for Michael Braunstein

re: "JAMA Meets the Shaman" in The Reader, 12/3/98

The Journal of the American Medical Association, 11/11/98 issue: Pretty impressive, isn't it, Michael? You sound like you were awed, and rightly so, by the thoroughness and fairness of the research; extremely detailed, rigorously logical, even giving the benefit of the doubt to alternative therapies where the evidence appeared to justify doing so. That's the nature of scientific research. You said (with a bit of a sneer) "data accumulation is a tedious and time consuming task." That does not mean it's a waste of time. Time consuming, yes: science is a discipline of patience and thoroughness; that's what gives it the prestige you covet. Now, what do the articles in JAMA really tell us? And have you misrepresented them?

1) Advice.

Although you mention Eisenberg's research about the growing spread of alternative medicine, I notice you didn't quote his conclusion: "most use of alternative therapies is not supervised by either physicians or alternative therapy practitioners." (If no one's watching it, how do we know how well it's working?) Thus Eisenberg's recommendations included "credentialing and referral guidelines, improved quality control of dietary supplements, and the establishment of post-market surveillance of drug-herb (and drug-supplement) interactions," the latter being virtually nonexistent at present.

2) The future.

So, what happens when alternative medicine (alt-med) becomes more widespread and, inevitably, more closely supervised? It seems to me you could have done a more interesting article from this issue of JAMA, one about the future of alt-med, but then I'm not an alt-med Public Relations guy like you, so what do I know? I just thought the JAMA essay by T. Delbanco, "Leeches, Spiders, and Astrology: Predilections and Predictions," was extremely thought-provoking, especially the predictions. A couple of highlights:

a) As alt-med becomes more "acceptable," the media will pay more attention to it. One consequence is that alt-med will suffer the same media focus on sensationalism that mainstream allopathic medicine already endures, with more stories of "missed tumors, substance abuse, and sexual misconduct," as the essay's author put it. (This trend is already beginning, with the increasing frequency of World-Herald stories about quackery.)

b) One of alt-med's advantages, spending more time with the clients, will dwindle. "Economic and regulatory constraints that now overwhelm allopaths will close in on alternative practitioners," with the same paperwork eating into their workday, and as they become more accepted (and busier, and more prosperous, and more expensive) "inexorably, time with each patient will shorten."

c) Despite claims to the contrary, surveys show most alt-med practitioners "do things to people," just as allopaths do (as opposed to changing clients' behavior, notoriously difficult). But as medical science continues its advances it is learning to address self-destructive behavior with, for example, medicines of increasing effectiveness for obesity, stress and addiction. Such successes will raise the mainstream's status even further.

d) During their "Grand Rounds," Delbanco reports, one "brilliant" researcher said "Why don't we form a center at Harvard for the scientific study of astrology?" His point: Even if a popular approach lacks any factual basis, why not use it anyway? Delbanco suggests mainstream medicine can learn to use the popular jargon of "organic" and "natural," [*1] and physicians can give their patients placebos as well as alt-med types can. (Better, in fact, since they understand human physiology and don't have to make up fantasy explanations for magic-potion placebos.) In other words, a doctor could say, if his patient appears to be the type who wants one, "Here is a placebo. We do not know how or why it works, but it makes some people feel better, and if you'd like, I'll be happy to prescribe it." The gap will narrow between alt-med and mainstream.

[*1] George Carlin points out that dog shit is "natural" and "organic," but "it's just not very good eating."


3) Misrepresentation.

Your rosy interpretation of the Nov 11 JAMA is not realistic. You ignored the articles (the majority) which did not support your views. For example, J.C. Shay et al., "Acupuncture and Amitripyline for Pain . . . A Randomized Controlled Trial," which found acupuncture gave no effective pain relief, or the research by S.B. Heymsfield et al., which found no results from Gascinia Cambogia as an anti-obesity agent. But more importantly, Michael, you conspicuously ignored the conclusions of the editors. Over 80 research studies on alt-med were published by them last month, in JAMA and its sister publications, and as usual, most alt-med fails to pass rigorous testing. (Thus alt-med's perpetual efforts to denounce and avoid such scientific scrutiny.) The editors' bottom line was this: "Alternative therapies must be evaluated by rigorous empirical testing." There are "no alternatives for knowledge and science" in the search to "separate the pearls from the mud." However, I'm afraid their caveats go in one ear and out the other with you.


a) You peddle the mud along with the pearls. For example, your column glorifying ayurvedic medicine failed to acknowledge that ayurvedic 'cures' include many "treatments that cause infections or other hazards, such as washing your eyes in your saliva, drinking your urine, having enemas of peacock testicles for impotence, drinking goat feces mixed with urine for constipation, and hundreds more, codified in the Caraka Samhita." (From my Braunstein 3, quoting A Consumer's Guide to Alternative Medicine.)

b) In regard to "rigorous empirical testing," rejection of empiricism is the core of your worldview. You put "scientific" in quotes. You wrinkle your nose at the idea of learning from mere facts and evidence. According to you, the "establishment" examines alt-med "in the only way they understand it: test it, tear it apart for 'scientific' evaluation and reduce it to statistics." How often does some shaman's cure work? Who cares? That's just "statistics." Is the success rate with homeopathic medicine the same as that of distilled water? So what? Just boring old "statistics."

4) Reality-testing.

You write "it seems completely absurd to read research done about acupuncture and not once read about chi or lifeforce or meridians," and you claim this shows how science can't "understand something that is almost beyond its ken." You repeat a similar comment later, about research on yoga. You just don't get it, do you, Michael? If I want to verify my neighbor's claim that there is an invisible unicorn in his garden, I will look for its footprints, listen for its breath, search for its heat-signature with infra-red, etc. If there's no evidence of it, what's wrong with concluding it's not there?   Science is not a body of knowledge, it's a method, the method that involves observing the world, gathering information, and testing hypotheses, the method known as empiricism. Without it we are reduced to mere opinion. ("I think there's an invisible unicorn in my garden." "I think there's not." "I think homeopathy works." "I think it doesn't.") It gives us a way to sort out the claims. It's the method that works, because it's based on evidence; it's rooted in the real world. Before we have the right to expect discussion of the role of chi (rather than endorphins) in acupuncture, how about we first see if there's any empirical evidence that acupuncture works, and if there's any reason to believe in chi. Why not start at the beginning? You show a vague sort of idea of what empiricism is, but how fuzzy and superficial it is can be seen in your comment that "control groups, charts and response tables [are] what the Western mind appears to want at this time." It's not a matter of wanting, it's a matter of what works.

5) Traditions.

"Alternative medicine" is the alternative to "Western" (science-based) medicine. You say we should call alt-med "traditional therapies," because they're used around the world in traditional societies (which outnumber us). Fine. And in our schools let's teach creationism as "traditional biology," since it predates evolutionary biology, and let's get Flat-Earthers to teach "traditional geography," since most of mankind throughout history didn't know the planet is spherical. But beyond that, you are simply wrong about the overwhelming popularity of alt-med. You ignored the survey information available to you in the JAMA issue under discussion. I refer you to page 1620e: "Only 4% of Americans use alternative therapies exclusively, and only 15% think these therapies are more effective than western medicine."

6) Casualties.

a) Testing safety.  Let's say 100 million Americans took prescription drugs last year (a very low underestimate). Fatal reaction in 106,000 would represent 0.1 percent, or a 99.9 percent safety record. There are other, nonfatal, adverse reactions as well, true enough. But note how we find out about these adverse reactions, through the very same mainstream methods of research that alt-med people denounce and avoid. This is really a non-issue. No one denies there are problems in health care in America. The question is what to do about it. And one answer is to make the testing of all treatments even more rigorous.  I remind you, a century ago it was no-holds-barred laissez faire capitalism in medicine as well as in industry. There were thousands of dubious "patent medicines" used indiscriminately by a profession with few standards. Then Sir William Osler at Johns Hopkins and the "Flexner Report" brought science into the practice of medicine, and by the 1920s well trained physicians were using a pharmacopoeia that had shrunk to only a few tested and proven medicines. From that base, new remedies have been added one at a time as they passed muster. When that happens they cease to be "alternative" and become "mainstream." But testing has become so much more sophisticated (no one wants a repeat of thalidomide) that studies done in the 1960s would be unacceptable today. And so we get fresh studies finding new problems with old remedies. And that's how we should want it. (Does alternative medicine ever issue alerts or recall products? Fat chance. Only when forced to.)

b) Thinking.

Remember, to learn from the world around us and base our beliefs on that knowledge is a radical new phenomenon, not widely shared. "Until recently most U.S. citizens (and most humans) believed a thing to be true because of faith, tradition, revelation, or authority. Such an attitude might be summed up in the bumper sticker 'God said it, I believe it, that settles it.'" This is the attitude people are most comfortable with here and around the world (substituting 'Allah' or 'Rama' and so on). We can call it Cultural Traditionalism. "A second subculture derives from the epistemological principles of the Enlightenment," the eighteenth century ideal of evaluating ideas through evidence and logic, facts and reason: Cultural Modernists.  "A third, and emerging subculture (or better, collection of subcultures) within US society opposes a return to traditionalism but views modernism as having led to rampant militarism, consumerism, pollution, and global warming." These Postmodernists span "orientations as diverse as New Age followers, holistic health practitioners, and even the far left of academe (certain philosophers and feminists)."  The words are those of Raymond Eve who, with colleagues at the University of Texas, has been studying the three subcultures and their worldviews for more than a decade. Susan Carol Losh of Florida State University estimates that the number of people who seriously misunderstand or consciously reject the methods and findings of science is approaching half the population. And Paul Kurtz of SUNY worries that the result is an eroding of the teaching of critical thinking and objective analysis. (See the report on the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Science News, 149:23, and also see P. Gross and N. Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science.)

c) The mystique of tradition, and the real casualties. You gush about the wisdom of traditional ways, versus evil Western ways. It's true that traditional village life enjoyed a close network of emotional support and other qualities that we could benefit from. Sociologists have known about this sort of thing for generations (see the discussions of the pros and cons of "gemeinschaft" versus "gesellschaft" societies in any sociology text. Space does not permit analysis of the problems of urban, industrialized civilization; suffice it to say the cures require the use of reason). But in regard to traditional ways, biologist Steven Austad puts it nicely: "Installing indigenous people as cardboard saints, supremely wise stewards of the natural world, strikes me as unfair to them. . . . Indigenous people are like us. Some are sagacious, intelligent, compassionate, and altruistic. Others are treacherous, lecherous, lying, and imbecilic. And there are all types in between. I've seen these stewards of the environment deforest an acre to make camp for a night. Where the impact of Western medicine has allowed populations to grow dense, indigenous peoples tend to devastate their forests, just as we do, for short-term gain. . . . Although Western scientists no doubt underestimate some of the benefits of traditional healing, we have no credible cases that stack up to those in the annals of modern medical treatment. Why else am I besieged for the simplest medicines when I venture into a new village [in New Guinea]? Why else does life expectancy leap when the crudest sort of Western healing is suddenly available?" The real casualties are all the millions of people around the world, with little access to anything besides traditional medicine, who die young. Austad again: "Indigenous people --in spite of their natural food diets, daily exercise, and shamans-- have life expectancies that wouldn't get many of us through college." I tell you what, pal, let's test your commitment. When I was in Kenya four years ago, I read in the English language newspaper about a medicine man, witch doctor, shaman, whatever you prefer, who was raising hell about how the government was trying to suppress his cure for AIDS (ground-up river rocks). So here's the deal: if you really believe your own hype, let's inject you with live Human Immune Virus and you can choose between this traditional healer's powdered quartz and the latest chemical cocktails of Western science to keep you alive.

7) Put your money where your mouth is. The most outrageous of your absurdities was this: "Since it [western medicine] represents only 10 percent of the medical care given in the world, how about we give it about 10 percent of our dollars and attention?" Gut our world-class medical establishment in favor of a return to the shaman. Do you really want to present yourself as a clear and present danger to the human race?  Laurie Garrett, in her book The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, identifies four main threats to human survival:

a) Newly discovered diseases, such as the hantaviruses that appeared among the Navajo after an explosion in the deermouse population;

b) Diseases migrating to new areas. In 1991 a Chinese freighter flushed its bilge into Peruvian coastal waters, bilge that carried a strain of cholera new to South America. Soon millions were sick and thousands dying. A shrinking world creates endless opportunities for microbes, new environments in which to evolve.

c) Diseases exacerbated by technology or transformed by human lifestyles. Water towers incubated Legionnaires Disease, tampons created Toxic Shock Syndrome. Overuse of antibiotics creates resistant strains of "killer bacteria."

d) Diseases escaping from animal vectors into the human populace. As we spread into once-remote areas, we come into contact with Lassa fever, Ebola, HIV, Machupo, etc. We need to realize we are not alone at the top of the food chain, we swim in a sea of constantly evolving microbes.

The point is we will need every ounce of our brainpower to "figure things out." We must understand how the real world works, and retreating into the ignorance and superstition of the Dark Ages will be about as much help as self-flagellation and burning incense was to our medieval ancestors in the face of the bubonic plague. So I think we need to add a fifth threat to Garrett's list: Quackery and its advocates. Rather than gutting our medical establishment, as you propose, I have a counter-proposal. Go live in those countries that practice traditional healing. I'll bet you have never been outside the borders of the United States, have you? You haven't the faintest idea what life is like in countries that lack western medical establishments, do you? I don't want to spoil the surprise, so all I'll say is: Go! Stay a while in Zambia or LeSotho. Drink Grapple-thorn tea in the Kalahari. See how long you last. Africans are the warmest, loveliest, nicest people on the planet, in my opinion. But, boy, would they like to have some of that western medicine you sneer at. Or go live in Bolivia and buy your medicine from the Mercado do Los Brujos in La Paz. Colorful and exciting, for sure, but ...lama fetuses?

Finally, some more boring old statistics:

Life expectancy, developed nations (with western medicine): 73 years.
Pakistan: 54 years.
Mali: 43 years. (Current.)

1970 figures (traditional healing more prevalent than now) by continent:
44 years for Africa
47 years for South Asia
58 years for Latin America
70 years for North America
70 years for Europe

Write all you want to about magic potions. Believe whatever you want. Have fun. Go ahead and do your PR work for the multi-billion-dollar Big Business of alt-med, but please, please just leave "science" out of it, OK? You don't know what the word means.


Jim Bechtel




Braunstein Eleven: Kudos.

To: Michael Braunstein


Thank you for this week's column. It's only fair that I praise you when you get something right, since I so often whack you when you stray from reality. I liked your comments on resource depletion ("How many more [Ford Explorers] do we need?"). Although you never actually used the term, "overpopulation" is obviously the underlying cause of most of the planet's problems. (E.g., Nepalese strip the Himalayas for firewood --the burning of which releases carbon dioxide-- and then the bare hillsides won't hold the rains, resulting in massive floods in Bangladesh.)[1*]  Global warming is the most critical immediate crisis, and I appreciate your comments about it, Michael. We're going to need all the help we can get: The corporate polluters and their spokespersons like Senator Chuck Hagel disagree with you and me and the scientific community about global warming. How will we be able to convince them? You would think the facts speak for themselves.[*2] Every month for the past 18 months global temperatures have set new record highs. Human activity is clearly the culprit. In developed nations we rich folks add 100 million tons of methane a year to the atmosphere from fossil fuels while the rice paddies of indigenous folks in traditional societies add 60 million tons per year (Ibid.). But facts and reason, evidence and logic, are of no interest to most people; humans believe whatever they want to believe, whatever makes them feel good.[*3] Warnings perceived as cries of doomsday will naturally be rejected. The American Petroleum Institute's rosy propaganda will be welcomed by many, whereas harsh words of reality from environmentalists like Vice President Gore will be denounced as the grumblings of "naysayers." "The scientists have just made up this nonsense about global warming to get money, for research grants." Have you heard that one yet? It's coming from the API and their allies. Don't you just love it? As ridiculous as it is, this tripe will be believed because, for one thing, people are ready to believe anything bad about science. Come to think of it, Michael, you contribute to that attitude every week, don't you? You can't see that science is neither good nor bad. It's simply rational knowledge. How can it be "bad" to be curious, to want to know things? This week your attack takes the form of implying science is behind our problems (confusing science with technology --and if you don't know the difference, ...well, then, that's precisely your fatal flaw), and so you state: "The scientific mind asks only the wrong question: 'Is it possible?' ... It forgets to ask the more important one: 'Is it appropriate?' "Questions about what to do with knowledge are answered by the society as a whole. This is fundamental. When Otto Hahn and Lisa Meitner discovered that atoms could be split, no military leader anywhere in the world asked them whether or not they thought it would be a good idea to build a bomb. It was a political leader, President Truman, who made the decision to build it and drop it (to shorten the war, he said), and it was his chief scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, who opposed Truman's decision (it was immoral, Oppenheimer said).  The scientists who were curious about the hormone cycle of female reproduction were not asked to decide for the United States whether or not the birth control pill should be manufactured and marketed, with all its enormous impact on sexual morality. It was a dream come true, for most women, to be able to control reproduction. It was also profitable for the corporations that held the patents.  In the real world, scientists "find out stuff," while other people, political leaders, consumers, businessmen, decide what to do about their discoveries. For years, scientists have been warning about the overuse of antibiotics and the resulting superbreeds of bacteria [4*] but who listens? Politicians ignore scientists at will; the global warming "debate" is a perfect example. There are endless such examples. I hate to disillusion you, Michael, but scientists simply do not run the world. I repeat: Questions about what to do with knowledge are answered by the society as a whole. (This is so basic!) You cannot stifle curiosity and you cannot censor knowledge. If we humans lack the wisdom to make good use of our knowledge, the cure is not to revert to ignorance and superstition. The cure is to make wise decisions. And for that, we'll need to understand what's going on, we'll need to "find out stuff," we'll need science.


Jim B

[1*] See Joel Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support? Norton Press, 1997. (Also see Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World.)

[2*] "No one doubts the reality of the natural greenhouse effect, which keeps us over 20 degrees Celsius warmer than we would otherwise be. The science of it is well understood; it is similar science which applies to the enhanced greenhouse effect." John Houghton, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1997. Fascinating book (e.g., global warming was accurately calculated and predicted a century ago, by Svante Arrhenius in 1896), it should be required reading for every political "leader." 

[*3] Alan Cromer argues that the ability to think logically is so rare as to be regarded as unnatural, that the development of scientific reasoning by the ancient Greeks was a fluke, and that even today few people reach what Piaget called the "formal operational" stage of mental development. Several studies show that most Americans "never reach the stage of formal operations, meaning that they can't analyze a situation with several variables or understand a simple syllogism." Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, Oxford University Press, 1993.

[4*] See Evolutionary Medicine, by Marc Lappe, Sierra Club, 1994.





A quickie about your column of 2/25, "You can't afford the luxury of a negative thought." A couple things to ponder:

1) You ask of critics "are your thoughts truly ones of love or of fear?" How about neither? Where, in this dualistic, either/or, black & white cosmos of yours, is a place for simple, honest, child-like curiosity? How about asking: "How does this work? How can we be certain this is really true? What does this mean?" Can't we be curious (as opposed to gullible) about homeopathy, A Course in Miracles, or magnets? Why should curiosity brand us as "nay-sayers"?

2) "Attack breeds attack." In the fable of the Emperor's New Clothes, the innocent child merely points out what he sees: the emperor has no clothes and everyone has been fooled. Is this an "attack"? If the emperor has problems with the child's observations, and if the crowd gasps in horror, does not the "attack" exist only in their minds? They were not under "attack," they only had their gullibility exposed.






For Michael Braunstein (and Eric McKillican);

I've got an idea; why don't you two talk to Dr. Chartrand (below) while he's in town?


March 14:

World-Herald article "India Remains Obstacle To Stamping Out Polio." India expected to be polio-free by 2002 despite a late start. Number of cases already cut in half. The W.H.O. is sending polio the way of smallpox.

March 15:

Cable access program with Braunstein & McKillican telling us vaccines and immunizations don't work.

March 16:

World-Herald: "Experts Want to Keep Smallpox Specimens," for research. Smallpox, which destroyed the Aztec empire and devastated the indigenous peoples of North and South America (with their "traditional healing") was wiped out by 1980 by the W.H.O.'s global inoculation program.


The "Metro Omaha Immunization Task Force" is an organized group of healthcare professionals (pharmacists, doctors, nurses, health education professionals, etc.) who are fighting for the same cause - getting the word out about the importance of immunizing children and the benefits to doing so. Dr. Stephen Chartrand who is an infectious disease specialist will be speaking on behalf of the group and about the importance of immunizing children during National Immunization Week, April 18-24. He will be making appearances on local news shows as well as offering interviews to other mediums. The Task Force will also be hitting hard the weeks leading up to and directly following Immunization week with bus board advertising, speaking engagements and PSAs.





Michael B:

3/18: Color Therapy.

Yeah, yeah, we all know about matter being empty space laced with energy vibrations. It's the kind of real-world wonder that science offers us. Pursue it: Here's the energy spectrum, running from the teeniest & fastest vibrations at one end, the cosmic rays (wavelength in meters, 10 to the minus 16th; frequency in Hertz, 10 to the 24th), down through X-rays, UV, visible light, infrared, microwaves, all the way down to the longest & slowest, the long wave radio end of the spectrum (wavelength 10 to the 6th, frequency 10 to the 3rd) and eventually gravity. Now, where's your chakra energy? What's its frequency & wavelength --above the cosmic rays or below the long radio waves? Whaddya mean it's nowhere, it can't be measured?  Back when you were a sound engineer, what if someone came to you and claimed to be able to make music using secret frequencies of a "special kind of sound" that no one could hear or measure by any instrument? Naturally you'd have shrugged and walked away from the poor burnout. (Or, omigod, maybe you wouldn't have!) The difference between science and pseudoscience is that science deals with the real world of real facts, endlessly collecting detailed observations and analyzing them for testable theories. Hard work. Pseudoscience is just disguised personal opinion, and is based on believing whatever makes you feel good. Pseudoscience uses the language of science ("subtle energy centers," "frequencies"), but with nothing that can be verified. Pseudoscience wants to share in the prestige of real science without the hard work, so it dresses up its pretenses in a science costume: wishes and fantasies in a lab coat. But on close examination we find it is empty verbiage, meaningless jabber. A clown underneath the costume. No hard facts, no testable theories.  You want to speculate? Fine, that's cool. And fun. Just honestly admit that it's speculation. Drop the pseudoscience.

Think well,


PS: Have editor Max Sparber or somebody explain to you the difference between China (Kublai Khan) and India (Sanskrit). It's no trivial matter to the Chinese & Indians, I assure you. Mai jantaa hu, kyonke mai wahaa tha zyaada waqt.





Michael B;

Just a quickie:

1) Last week's recommendation that people drink their urine: Seems irresponsible. It's true that water-soluble vitamins are passed through, and could be recycled, but it's also true that the kidneys remove harmful salts (that's their job, without which you're kaput). Now, you don't want to recycle those salts, because if you go on concentrating and reconcentrating these excretions you will reach the point of kidney failure. This is why people die of thirst in life rafts while surrounded by an ocean of salt water.

2) This week's magic rubber ball to clean clothes: So Ms. Gunderson's ingredients are secret? And you want to put these unknown ingredients into our ground water, without knowing anything about them? Seems irresponsible. All your budding entrepreneur will reveal about her product is that it is an "organic mineral blend." Well, so is the motor oil in my car's crankcase.

If you've ever thought about retirement, maybe this is a good time.

Jim B




Feb 17 2000 called him on Yellow Emperor but in 8/26/04 issue he repeats the same myth as fact. Also cites Diane Simmons, DVM, and her pet acupuncture. (Same as Whoopi?)



(Published as a letter)

Sent: Saturday, March 29, 2003 11:28 AM

Contemplating one's navel can have a calming effect, but the idea of Oneness is irrelevant to the current challenge of war and peace, even harmful. Michael Braunstein's philosophy that the only reality is thought, not physical, has led him to a career consisting of promoting "alternative medicine" with reckless disregard for empirical reality (drink your urine, 7/1/99) and of bashing evidence-based medicine (JAMA vs the Shaman, 12/3/98). But this philosophy, as we see in his column of March 27, offers no real comfort in our present situation. It is essentially a New Age version of Hinduism. If "All is One" (and it may be, who knows?) then relax, there are no good guys, no bad guys, it's all illusion, so why struggle? If we just realized our Oneness, all would be peace. He says "the idea of separateness makes attack possible." The problem with that lies in its real-world consequences. I can't put it any better than the founder of the idea, the Hindu god Krishna. In the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous dialogue in Hinduism occurs as the warrior Arjuna is about to go into battle, and he expresses his fears to his companion, who reveals himself to be the god Krishna. Krishna, like Michael, tells Arjuna that reality is thought, not physical, and that all is One, and therefore don't hesitate to kill your enemies, "your sorrow is for nothing" because they aren't really separate physical beings who can be killed but just part of the One: "Dream not you do the deed of the killer." Neither Saddam's Republican Guards nor our Marines would find anything in this to discourage them from killing their fellow man. Michael's personal version of Hinduism may be a fine tool for his own private meditation, a retreat from the world outside, but it can offer us no more help in the politics of war (killing is OK) than it does in the field of health (clinical evidence doesn't matter).

Jim Bechtel
member of REASON:

At this point I ceased reading his nonsense. But then ...

Note added over a year later, 7/18/04:

(Also see note at end of Healing Arts Expo. )

Despair, all ye who care about the well-being of your fellow human beings! In a depressing reminder that no bad deed goes unrewarded, Braunstein and his army of quacks have outgrown their space in The Reader and now have a publication of their own, called, of course, Heartland Healing. Randall Bradley, the homeopath, is on the board of advisors (see essay The Birth of Reason). In the premier issue of Heartland Healing, Christine Zorad writes about Chiropractic: Not just for back pain any more. Indeed, it was never just about back pain. In his very first case the founder of chiropractic claimed he cured deafness by wiggling the spine. This is the same Christine Zorad who wants parents to stop vaccinating their children, since she rejects the germ theory of disease. The social consequence of her philosophy would be increased mortality and reduced lifespans. Her quackery threatens the lives of our children.

Ironically, their premier issue came out at the same time as news of the international AIDS conference, which reported there is a widespread myth in Africa and parts of Asia that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, which has resulted in an increased number of child rapes. Hey, if it s OK to create your own definition of evidence (Bradley), to ridicule critical reasoning (Braunstein), and to advocate policies with disastrous social consequences (Zorad), then the belief about curing AIDS by raping virgins is just another form of alternative medicine. Why not believe in this folk cure for AIDS if you believe the rest of this crap? What s the difference? There is no difference. Thanks, Michael and the rest of you.