Student Questions: Fish Oil, Charities, and Rumors

Skeptoid answers some questions sent in by students.

by Brian Dunning

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?

Tip Skeptoid $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. 1 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4114>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 23 comments

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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