Student Questions: Fish Oil, Charities, and Rumors
Skeptoid answers some questions sent in by students.
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:
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.
AIDS in Africa
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.
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 a 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.
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.
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? One reason is that medical schools often fill up first and are hard to get into; so osteopathic schools are sometimes an easier option.
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.
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