Student Questions: Fish Oil, Charities, and Rumors

Skeptoid answers some questions sent in by students.

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #114
August 12, 2008
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Today I'm going to answer some questions sent in by student listeners, on a variety of topics. I'll take any question about a skeptical topic from any student anywhere, and I will try to get to all of them eventually, so please keep them coming. Today's questions are about fish oil, charity fraud, rumors, non-falsifiable science, and osteopathy. Let's get started:

Hello, this is Austin from Northburgh, Illinois and I was wondering, what's your take on fish oil?

Fish oil is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, and these have been shown many times to have certain cardiovascular benefits. The American Heart Association recommends that you eat fish at least twice a week.

Where the pseudoscience invades is in the area of supplementation — basically fish oil pills. Generally speaking, healthy people gain no benefit from supplementation; taking pills when you don't need them amounts to what doctors call a "wallet extraction". However when you do have documented coronary heart disease or otherwise need to lower your triglycerides, your doctor may well recommend that you take supplements, along with whatever fish you might already eat, to reach a desired amount of daily intake, usually between 1000 and 4000 mg depending on your condition. Omega-3 fatty acids do carry risks such as blood thinning, so don't take it if you don't need it. Bottom line: If you're healthy, save your money, and enjoy a fish dinner now and then.

Omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil are often trumpeted as treatments for many other conditions, such as asthma, cancer, or as some kind of wonder food for the brain, but such claims as these have so far been found to be completely without merit.

Hello Mr. Dunning, my name is Tristan Johnson, a student from Sheridan Tech in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. My question for you is if there is any truth behind the claim that AIDS in African countries is being over-diagnosed for increased charitable donations from first world countries.

I have no idea. Probably in some cases it is, and in some cases it isn't. Certainly there are some people out there somewhere enriching themselves off charitable donations. Charity fraud is a very real thing, and it isn't unique to AIDS in Africa, it applies to all types of charities. Charity fraud comes in many forms; everything from exorbitant management and administrative fees leaving only a few percent of donations actually going to the cause, all the way to charity recipients (like in your scenario) defrauding honest charities. The only way you can know how well your charity dollars are being spent is to choose a specific case or a specific charity, and then do your homework. The Federal Trade Commission has a charity fraud website with lots of good information, including links to some charity watchdog organizations like the American Institute of Philanthropy and the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. Search the Internet and you'll find others like Charity Navigator. This is definitely an area where you'll want multiple opinions, and you'll probably only ever want to spend your charitable donation dollars on a foundation that gets unilaterally good reviews.

Just as a footnote on this subject: Charitable foundations run by celebrities, professional athletes, and even major companies are often just tax shelters, for whom they are their own largest contributors, and are legally required to donate only a tiny fraction of the money they take in. The rest they get back tax-free after a few years, so be especially careful of celebrity and corporate charities. When a celebrity or athlete donates a large winning to their own charity, they may well be a charitable person; but the bottom line is that they don't have to pay taxes on most of that income.

My name is Erika, and I am 8 years old, and my question is: Why do people believe in stupid stuff like rumors?

Well Erika, I'll tell you: There are as many different reasons people believe rumors as there are people hearing rumors. A rumor is a short little factoid that gossips pass from mouth to mouth, usually juicy and entertaining, and usually unverifiable. People pass them along because it's fun to be the one breaking the alluring news story, and having all your friends hanging on your every word. Many people who believe rumors often do so because they sound both plausible and enticing. We want them to be true and so we behave as if they are. Joining a raft of rumor believers is like joining a little insider's club. It's whole little mini-adventure.

Rumors, however, are notoriously unreliable. The original seminal research on rumors, a study called Psychology of Rumor in 1947, found three common processes that quickly distort the content of rumors: leveling, sharpening, and assimilation. Through these processes, which you can read about online, they found that 70% of the original information in the average rumor is lost by the time it's been passed along only six times. The practical result of this is that rumors, by the time you hear them, are very likely untrue, or at least grossly distorted from their original form which could have been completely made-up in the first place. Believe rumors at your own peril.

hi, this is Hugi Ásgeirsson from Iceland, and my question is as follows. Psychoanalysis is largely based on non-falsifiable ideas about the psyche, but there are very strong indications of it being effective. In light of this, are there fields where strict scientific method is not the most yielding or efficient way of thought?

Just because something can't be directly measured doesn't mean that the scientific method cannot be employed to learn about it. For example, we can't measure pain, and yet we are able to conduct clinical trials to test pain reduction techniques by having the subjects self-report their pain levels, and then employing controls in the testing methodology to cancel out errors and biases. In Skeptoid episode 72, we discussed the use of psychotherapy in treating patients complaining of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Some trials were cited that found psychotherapy was an effective treatment for those claiming to be electrosensitive. In this particular case, results were determined not only by the patients self-reporting their level of perceived electrosensitivity, but also confirmed through the use of blood tests to measure the reduction of stress indicators in the blood.

Many of the questions surrounding the idea of consciousness are really only non-falsifiable when you look at them from a metaphysical perspective, such as whether or not there's a soul. This is not a scientific question. But when you ask the right questions, like whether behavior can be modified, or can people feel happier, you find that applying the scientific method properly will indeed yield testable, falsifiable results that can be reliably repeated by other researchers following the same protocols. And presto, before your very eyes, we've just learned about something that can't be directly measured.

Hi Brian, my name is Tom and I'm from Australia, and my question for you is: Is the Doctor of Osteopathy, a D.O., offered in some US medical schools, a legitimate evidence-based medical education?

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

The short answer is yes, osteopathic schools include essentially all the same medical training as medical schools, and doctors of osteopathy do generally provide equally good medical care as medical doctors. Where they differ is in their inclusion of OMT, osteopathic manipulative treatment, which is an emphasis on musculoskeletal manipulation, invented by Dr. Andrew Still in 1874, a time in which little useful or true information was known about the human body. OMT posits that all illness is caused by displaced muscles, bones, or nerves, and Dr. Still said he could "shake a child and stop scarlet fever, croup, diphtheria, and cure whooping cough in three days by a wring of its neck." Central to OMT is craniosacral therapy, the manipulation of bones in the skull; even though, as we now know, the bones of the skull are fused and do not move independently.

Surveys show that increasingly few osteopaths practice OMT, preferring evidence-based medicine instead for most patients. Many osteopaths are critical of OMT, especially the younger osteopaths and many students at osteopathic schools; which raises the question: Why not go to medical school instead, when you're openly critical of the only thing that significantly distinguishes osteopathy from conventional medicine?

If you're a student and you want to hear my take on something, come to Skeptoid.com and click on Answering Student Questions. Get a quick answer on some urban legend, conspiracy theory, or paranormal phenomenon you're curious about. I'd love to hear from you, and answer your question on a future show.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Barrett, Stephen. "Dubious Aspects of Osteopathy." Quackwatch. Quackwatch, 24 Apr. 2001. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <http://quackwatch.org/04ConsumerEducation/QA/osteo.html>

DiGiovanna, Eileen L., Schiowitz, Stanley, Dowling, Dennis J. An Osteopathic Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment Third Edition. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2004.

Kris-Etherton, P., Harris, W., Appel, L. "Fish Consumption, Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease." Circulation. 28 May 2002, 106: 2747-2757.

Mizell, Louis R. Masters of deception: the worldwide white-collar crime crisis and ways to protect yourself. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997. 96-124.

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Fish Oil, Charities, and Rumors." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 12 Aug 2008. Web. 24 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4114>

Discuss!

I thought the treatment of osteopaths was very fair, except for the final question: "why not just go to medical school?" The unfortunate reality is that the US has many more qualified applicants its medical schools will accommodate. I know pre-meds who applied to and attended osteopathic medical schools despite having no interest in OMT because the standards for admission are slightly lower (though still high). The other frequent backup strategy is to attend a medical school in the Caribbean and hope to then get a US residency. Obviously both choices are less desirable than getting an MD from a US medical school, but it's a bit callous to say "why not just do that?" when acceptance rates are so low.

Tim, Newark, NJ
August 13, 2008 7:18am

Being a Teen I was always told to take Fish oil for weight lifting but Now it seems I have been wasting my money with these GNC "Memberships"

Derek Belanger, Uxbridge, Ma
August 15, 2008 7:07pm

Brian, I was very disappointed to hear such an expert on logical fallacies misuse (even though everyone else, especially in the media, does) the phrase "beg the question". Please be more careful.

Great podcast. I listen every week. Keep it up!

Erik R., Cantabria, Spain
August 18, 2008 8:30am

Your opinion on fish oil and the brain is questionable at best.
http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/fish-oil-to-treat-depression

Chris mankey, Saint Paul
August 18, 2008 11:01am

Chris, this is a fine reason not to trust headlines in consumer publications. From the article:

"A handful of small studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids can help smooth out the mood swings of bipolar disorder."

That's the same support claimed by homeopathy, reiki, and psychic healing. What doesn't make good headlines is that the vast majority of large, well-performed trials have shown NO benefit.

Eric Schulman, Corona, CA
August 18, 2008 11:07am

Brian,
Firstly, thank you for an entertaining and enlightening weekly podcast.
I would like to respond to the question on AIDS prevalence in South Africa: It is hard to believe that it is possible for someone to ver diagnose the number of people infected with AIDS when you can physically see cemeteries filling up faster than they can be built, and when a general practitioner tells you that the figure of 1 out of every 3 people being infected is very low, and when people you work with or who work for you have their entire families decimated by the disease.
I understand the reason for the question but, at least in South Africa, the problem as anything but overstated. It is more likely to be understated.

Regards

Andre Labuschagne, Johannesburg
August 19, 2008 12:59am

Hey, other people from Iceland. See, we do have more then one internet connection ;)

I love the idea of a "call in" podcast, and the questions are really good as well.

Though I wanted to add a little thing on fish-oil. When you don't eat any fish, there's nothing wrong with taking the occasional omega-3 capsule. It's even beneficial to your health, just skip the meat and take a fish-oil capsule. Of course, taking one every day is pure nonsense.

Same with vitamin pills. If you don't follow a good diet, take a vitamin pill every week, but taking one daily is similar to just throwing your money into the ocean. Except that you can't watch it float away.

Marcel, Reykjavik, Iceland
August 19, 2008 5:41pm

Brian,

Always enjoy your podcast and look forward to each new topic.

I offer one possible clarification.

I teach (basic sciences) at an osteopathic medical school and am always concerned about pseudoscience. Craniosacral manipulation is considered by many DOs to be pseudoscience and they do not teach it or use it in there practice. I don't think any Osteopathic school considers it central to the practice of OMT even though many do include it in the curriculum.

DP Gardner, Phoenix, AZ
August 24, 2008 7:02pm

Brian's comments on corporate charities as tax shelters piqued my interest. These comments came up in discussion with some coworkers as we are in the middle of a large annual fund raising drive for my employer's corporate charity. I was hoping that somebody could provide me some more information with regards to taxation of these non-profits, and limits upon administrative overhead.

Matt M, Kansas City, MO
August 26, 2008 6:23am

You stated that if a person doesn't agree with OMT, why become a DO in the first place? This is exactly the reason that I did not apply to any DO schools. However, during the harrowing admissions process that lasted well over a year filled with tests, endless applications, interviews, waiting lists and uncertainty, I began to feel that perhaps I had made a mistake. If I had not been accepted into my current MD school, I would have applied to DO schools the next year. There are many reasons to go DO even if you don't agree with the last remnant of anything that distinguishes them from MDs, namely OTM, which doesn't interest me. I don't buy their claim to be more "holistic", this is just marketing. But there are not enough MD schools in the country for the many that apply and the powers that be have not been expanding the number of seats to reflect demand or need. The DO schools fill that need. I believe the lack of seats is mostly because the US can import already trained MDs and not have to pay for their training, since, even at private schools, the government finances most of medical education through government loans. Yes, DOs are stuck with a silly and meaningless name for historical reasons. But they are still doctors in this country and I would not begrudge a DO his degree choice even if he is opposed to OTM. What irks me is the growing trend to actually use the term "allopathy" for MDs. We don't need to have a silly name as well

Matthew Akin, Saint Louis, MO
September 13, 2008 7:41pm

Hello Brian. First let me say that I love your show and hope that you go on until you reach 1500.....

On your student questions podcast (#114) just the following remark: Take a short look on this webpage on omega3 fish oil (http://www.omega-research.com/research.php?catid=7). I do not know anything about this page's background, but the information offered seems valid and pinpointing towards cognitive and ageing advantages when comsuming enough omega3. Agreeing on eating fish towards buying pills, one also has to consider the low daily intake of fish in western diets, plus the high price of fish, plus recent discussions about overfishing etc... Maybe promoting omega3 fatty acids (even available in forms other than from fish) might not be such a silly idea after all ....

Michael Levin, Stockholm, Sweden
February 6, 2009 4:06am

Can you elaborate on how a celebrity or corporation can create a charity to avoid paying taxes on most of a large income? From my understanding of the tax code, one can use a shelter such as a charity to help distribute an income over multiple years, effectively "earning" that income the year they withdraw the money. Because of our progressive tax system, this allows them to more effectively align their tax burden with their actual consumption and not the arbitrary year of the lump sum. However, if my understanding is correct, I don't think it's fair to say that they avoid paying taxes on most of the income. They in fact pay taxes on _all_ of the income that they ultimately take. The tax rate they pay might be lower, but probably on the order of 33% instead of 40%, or possibly as low as 27%. They probably don't reduce their income to the point they're in the 15% tax bracket or lower.

Maybe I'm wrong about this, so I'm eager to hear what other insight you might have.

Jason R. Coombs, Washington, DC
June 25, 2009 3:05pm

Jason,

free advertising by association with a charity established by an organisation that is franchise only is a beauty.

You have had only twenty years to notice. I know its new on the radar.

Henk van der Gaast, Sydney
October 7, 2010 5:19pm

I was under the impression that schools of osteopathic medicine tend to have lower admission requirements and possibly tuition fees. And of course, since there's at least a little bit of a stigma surrounding their degree, one would face less competition.

As for fish oil, here's the information I have so far:
- too much omega-3 inhibits inflammation (bad)
- too much omega-6 causes excessive inflammation (bad)
- too much omega-6 increases needs for omega-3
- ideal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is most likely around 1:2 to 1:1
- most people in North America have far too much omega-6 (due to the refined vegetable oils in our diet)
- our actual needs for either type of fatty acid is a couple grams per day, more may oxidize within the body and become harmful

So fish oil is good for those who rarely consume omega-3-rich foods and don't actively try to avoid high-omega-6 fats. Other people are not likely to gain much benefit from taking it.

The use of omega-3s in treating certain diseases is not necessarily baseless. If too much omega-6 can cause diseases via excessive inflammation, surely omega-3 supplementation (or dropping omega-6-rich foods from the diet) could help alleviate those diseases. I don't think this is something that has been studied in great enough detail at this time.

Jonathan S., Toronto
October 14, 2011 6:09pm

personally, from the australian experience..there is no such thing as osteopathic "medicine".

For the rest.. your standard diet gets you over the 75 year line on average.

With modern medicine it is hoped that the first sesquicentenarian has been born.

Mind you, If football and beer is the only true outlet for empty nesters..That last hundred years has a lot of mid down advertisement breaks.

Mud, Sin City, Oz
November 3, 2011 9:19am

Surviving that long is great, but only if you're still in excellent health by that time...

The standard diet is going to have some problems accomplishing that.

Jonathan S., Toronto
November 3, 2011 5:07pm

Just to remove that final bit of woo conjecture...

Presto!

Mud, Sin City, Oz
November 29, 2011 5:10am

Please research the proper use of "begs the question". :-) What you meant in the next to last paragraph was "raises the question".

Cassie, Germany
June 13, 2012 12:04am

You know I just wish I wasnt so polarised at the time of Jonathons post.

Yes, a normal oily fish diet is just as good as any other meat inclusive diet and frankly any normal "vegetarian" diet.

The taking of supplements normally irks most paying for them for the little evidence for benefit (even if vitalogogies such as those that jonathon supports take these scientific snippets).

Please, learn to cook and enjoy life. A tablet or capsule is no replacement for a great varied diet that is well prepared.

There is one corrollary... no meal is better than the one that is praised.

All of you, learn to cook well and wisely. Get an ego pat on the head daily!

Oh yes, I have an ego!

Sure, cook eco-wise. Just enjoy your food

Life is too short to be eating supplements.

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
December 17, 2012 11:18pm

Your discussion of osteopathy where you asked why someone would become a DO when the early foundations of the practice were unscientific, fail to take into account the possibility that some of its practices not taught in medical school may have value.

While I'm aware that anecdotal reports are suspect, I have twice had good experiences with an osteopath.

Ever since hurting my back a couple of decades ago, I get debilitating back pain any time I lift something too heavy for me. I've gone to chiropractors out of desperation, and received only very temporary relief. But while living in Spain I hurt my back severely and went to an osteopath, who began by massaging my back to loosen the muscles, and then folded me up and twisted me in a manner reminiscent of chiropractic, but without the snap. When I asked when I should return, she told me that was not necessary (very different from chiropractors!) and the relief I got was significant and the pain did not return, until a year later when I hurt my back in a new incident, went back to the same osteopath, and had similar results.

On the assumption that much back pain is due to stress on soft tissue, it seems reasonable to think that proper stretching may help.

Just because the inventor claimed that OMT would cure a ridiculous number of illnesses, does not mean that it cannot treat back pain, which is what this DO used it for.

I love your show, even though occasionally I find an argument of yours unconvincing.

Daniel, Spokane, WA
February 14, 2013 4:55pm

Severe injury Daniel?? Severe injury??

You have a bizarre idea of severe injury. Maybe its a severe self focus, but not a severe injury.

Mud, Pho's Slave palace, Gerringong the Brave, NSW
March 14, 2013 2:50am

I have to agree with Daniel.
I went to chiropractors desperately to cure and solve my back and neck problems.
I finally went to an osteopath and, after 3 very weird feeling sessions, I feel fine and my posture is definitely better.
There is no cracking but you fell the weirdest physical sensations EVER!
I'm a very skeptical person and I went there because It was covered by my insurances. So, I had nothing to loose.
I would recommend A GOOD AND QUALIFIED osteopath to anyone.

Allan Beaupré, Montréal
April 3, 2013 8:58am

Is there one?

Mud, sin city, Oz
August 6, 2013 7:49am

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