Those poor lemurs

A reader writes:

Thought you'd get a laugh out of this one:

The best part:

Healing Frequency Resonation: These oils have been imprinted with the
universal healing frequency of 728 Hz using a modified Lakhovsky/Tesla
multi-wave generator embedded with oscillators made from large
double-tipped lemurian crystal mined from Minas Gerais, Brazil.


Dear god, the "Ascended Health" site seems to be genuine. Well, if you click on their "Buy Now" links you do at least get a PayPal page, not a "Ha! We fooled you!" message.

The danger here is subtly greater than that usually posed by using holistic universal healing frequencies, which is to say a placebo, to treat illness. The Ascended Health people claim to be able to treat the usual long list of diseases, but this one page, about treating brown recluse spider bites, is subtly pernicious in an unusual way.

It is generally known that brown recluse bites are Bad News. Especially among Internet-comic fans who know that the exceedingly grody picture on the Wikipedia article for loxoscelism - the results of a decent dose of brown-recluse venom in humans - is of the leg of Jeffrey Rowland, the Wigu/Overcompensating/TopatoCo guy. His depiction of himself in his comics has had a leg-scar for as long as he has.

(Rowland's story was, of course, recently severely beaten by what happened to Peter Watts. Oh, and anybody who at this point is thinking about complaining about links to scary spiders and nasty medical pictures should bear in mind the way in which I have responded to such complaints in the past. I got a million of 'em, kids.)

The thing is, though, that the brown recluse is not actually very dangerous, and even if one bites you, placebo treatment is likely to be effective. And it's an excellent ailment for sellers of useless woo-woo treatments in other ways, too.

Brown recluse bites, you see, often hardly hurt at all at first. It's actually quite difficult to persuade a brown recluse to bite you at all; about the only way for it to happen unless you are a lunatic doing it on purpose is if you put on clothes with a spider inside and thus press it up against your skin. Some spiders are aggressive (including a few of those for which my country, Australia, is so famous), but brown recluses really aren't.

(The Australian version of the forcing-the-spider-to-bite-you situation is redbacks in your boots, or, classically, lurking under the seat in the outside dunny. Redbacks aren't tremendously aggressive, but they're still likely to become quite cross if you sit on them.)

Even if you are bitten by a brown recluse, though, most bites inject little to no venom and do little to no harm. Treatment of such a bite with prayer or reiki or homeopathic antimatter will be entirely successful.

If a brown recluse manages to envenomate you only slightly, the bite will over days develop into a nasty sore that'll take forever to heal, but will heal. Unless you were already rather frail, or the sore gets badly infected, or some other complication develops, you'll once again be fine in due course no matter what treatment, genuine or woo-woo, you get.

If a brown recluse manages to envenomate you really effectively, though, you're in trouble. But the symptoms will still take days to develop.

So what we've got here is a bite that's hard to receive and detect, which may or may not do you any harm at all, and which will be separated from the actual illness it causes, if it causes any, by a significant amount of time.

This is immensely fertile ground for people to fail to correctly figure out what's going on, in both illness and treatment. A given "brown recluse bite" may actually be a bite from some other, less dangerous spider or insect. Or it may be an infected wound, or it may be some random mosquito bite or pimple that's grown in the worried mind of the patient into a terrifying situation, on account of how they're pretty sure they saw a spider yesterday and it may have been brown.

And even if you do have a real and highly envenomated recluse bite, it's not going to eat your entire body in an afternoon like necrotising fasciitis (which, again, is what Peter Watts was lucky enough to get). Hospital treatment for recluse-bite loxoscelism is basically supportive medicine to keep the patient as healthy and happy as possible, and removal of any particularly distasteful dead flesh. If the necrosis is serious enough to threaten a whole limb then the whole necrotising area will be surgically removed, but this is seldom necessary. Basically, you just keep the wound clean and wait for it to go away.

OK, so now let's suppose you've got genuine loxoscelism and you decide to treat it with mental telepathy and the singing of hymns.

Well, if you've got the rare kind that'll take a limb, you'll lose a limb, and possibly your life, because having your arm rot off is not good for you.

If you've got the much more common, much less dangerous form of loxoscelism, though, you'll just be in a lot more pain than if you were doped up in the hospital, and you'll probably wind up with a worse scar. You may manage to get blood poisoning or something, but most likely the disease will follow its natural course, and you'll recover. And believe that you were cured, unpleasant though the process was, by whatever pointless placebo treatment it was that you tried.

(There's also the possibility that woo-woo alternative-medicine treatment will actually be bad for you in and of itself. A significant subset of folk medicines are actively poisonous in one way or another. The Ascended Health "powerful synergistic mixture of special natural magnetic minerals and oils" doesn't sound very likely to be toxic if you're only rubbing it on a wound, but who knows.)

This is the great problem with unscientific medicine, which was all medicine up until the late 19th century. You don't know what the disease is, you don't know how it works, you don't know what the treatment does, you don't know what the confounding factors are, and in the end you may by pure chance actually manage to do some good, but that's not the way to bet.

This is why homeopathy was such a success when Hahnemann invented it in 1796. "Conventional medicine" at the time was likely to involve almost nothing that actually stood a chance of making the patient better, and several things that could kill people who weren't even sick. Compared to that, harmless homeopathic placebos were a giant leap forward.

Today, though, we've got treatments for a vast array of diseases that're much better than placebo. Even when you've got something like a recluse bite for which there is no direct treatment (antivenoms for recluse toxins do exist, but they have to be administered very soon after the bite, which almost never happens when the bite is hardly noticeable), there are still numerous evidence-based things you can do which are proved to make the disease less severe, or at least less unpleasant.

It is, once again, vitally important to take pains to avoid fooling yourself, because you are the easiest person to fool.

(I am aware, by the way, that Lemuria does not really have anything to do with lemurs. Lemuria, hypothesised to be the homeland of the lemurs which Philip Sclater knew of in Madagascar and India but not places logically in between, is yet another new-age trope for which the world can thank the regrettably-not-inimitable-at-all Madame Blavatsky.)

4 Responses to “Those poor lemurs”

  1. Johnny Wallflower Says:

    Wait, so are you saying that the Four Humo(u)rs Theory of medicine is not valid? I shall have to consult Dr. Maturin.

  2. TwoHedWlf Says:

    Reading that guy's blog, it's kind of funny. The thought of having a giant open wound on my leg like that doesn't bother me. The thought of stuffing long strips of dressing into the crevices around it and then yanking them out later? That makes me feel like going, "eeeeee!" then run off to curl up in a corner somewhere and cry like a little girl.

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