Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What’s Kept the Society Against Quackery Going for 137 Years? - “We are trying hard to undermine this undeserved trust of quacks"

by Eric Grundhauser, Atlas Obscura:
Beware quacks.
Beware quacks. ARALLYN!/CC BY 2.0

Fakes. Cheats. Snake oil salesmen. Quacks. From time immemorial, people have been trying to sell poorly researched or just plain made-up remedies and medicines. Luckily, organizations like Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (VtdK), translated as The Society Against Quackery, possibly the world’s oldest skeptic society, have been exposing hucksters and helping to defend their marks since 1881.
“Quackery is the practicing of treatments and/or diagnostic methods of which the value has not been scientifically proven,” says Dr. Cees Renckens, former president of the VtdK, serving as head of the organization for 23 years. “This is usually accompanied by loudly praising its results.” While the rise of modern medicine standards and protections has eliminated some of the more blatant flim-flam that was once passed off as medical science, Renckens says that quackery is still as much of a problem as it’s ever been, and is in some ways worse. “[Today’s] quacks hide behind appeasing terms such as alternative medicine, additive medicine, holistic medicine, complementary medicine, naturopathy, integrative medicine,” he says.
The VtdK formed around the same time that modern medicine began to be professionalized in the late 1800s. According to a history on the Society’s website, the Dutch Society for the Advancement of Medicine, which was founded in 1849, was having trouble policing the unlicensed and unqualified medical practitioners of the day. In an effort to raise awareness of the growing number of quacks operating in the Netherlands, they published a pamphlet in 1878 detailing how to identify a quack, and what to do about them. From this initial bit of literature, the Society Against Quackery was born.
G.W. Bruinsma, one of the original founders of the VtdK.
G.W. Bruinsma, one of the original founders of the VtdK. ÛNBEKEND/PUBLIC DOMAIN

In the beginning, the group was mainly focused on rooting out fraudulent doctors and suspicious medicines (nostrums). Members of the association, mostly doctors and other educated men, would chemically test suspect cures and remedies, and if they were found to be placebos or otherwise ineffective, the Society would publish their findings in their journal, Nederlands Tijdschrift tegen de Kwakzalverij (Dutch Magazine Against Quackery). They developed a reputation for fearlessly calling out spurious practitioners just as vehemently as their bogus cures, using hard science to disprove and discredit their claims. According to Renckens, the first president of the VtdK, G.W. Bruinsma, once said, “It is useless to curse the cards and not mention the names of the cheat players.”
The Society continued to publish their magazine into the 20th century, but as laws around medicine became stricter and more robust, their focus shifted toward the world of the paranormal around the 1960s. “In the 1960s about 1 percent of the adult citizens in the Netherlands consulted a quack (mainly paranormal healers, manual therapists and phytotherapists), among which there were hardly any doctors,” writes Renckens in an email. It was during this time that belief in psychic abilities, mesmerism, crystal healing, and the like began to enter the cultural consciousness, and the VtdK was there to try and protect people from getting scammed by shining a light on self-proclaimed alternative healers and their unprovable methods.
From the 1980s on, the VtdK has shifted most of its focus back to the alternative quackery that they see as infecting attitudes toward modern medicine. In the early 1990s, they fiercely lobbied against homeopathic remedies, and in 2000 they released their list of the 20 greatest quacks of the 20th century. Included on the list were individuals whom the VtdK had tangled with over the years, including A.J. Houtsmuller, who claimed he could cure cancer with a diet, and the Dutch spiritual guru Jomanda, who claimed she could bless water and give it healing properties.
Cees Renckens, current chairman of the VtdK.
Cees Renckens, current chairman of the VtdK. VERA DE COOK/CC BY-SA 3.0

The VtdK may have been in the skeptic business for over a century, but it isn’t exactly getting any easier. “In the olden days we enjoyed the support of the recognized medical societies, which is unfortunately no longer the case,” says Renckens. “Nowadays they frequently maintain a more friendly attitude towards colleagues practicing what they call CAM (complementary and alternative medicine), which in our view is a sCAM.” Renckens says that as of 2015, some 35 percent of Dutch citizens believe in some form of alternative medicine, some of which are even covered under medical insurance. The VtdK finds this unacceptable. “We are trying hard to undermine this undeserved trust of quacks,” he says.
The Society is regularly sued for defamation and libel by the people they have labeled as quacks. But according to Renckens, they’ve won all but one case, and ended up with more members and support as a result of the exposure.
Today the VtdK has a membership of around 1,700, around half of which Rencken says are involved in the medical profession, although most of the work is done by the core group of about 16 chairpeople. The Dutch Magazine Against Quackery is still published four times a year, and they’ve also introduced a tongue-in-cheek annual award, the Meester Kackadoris Prize, which they bestow on people who support quackery. “[It] is awarded not to quacks, but to persons or organizations that support quackery, who seem to be reasonable and correctable, like broadcasters, journalists, politicians, leaders of medical colleges, insurance companies, etc.”
An issue of the <em>Dutch Magazine Against Quackery</>.
An issue of the Dutch Magazine Against Quackery>. NEDERLANDSE LEEUW/CC BY-SA 4.0

And it’s not just about raising awareness of quacks. The VtdK is still involved in more hands-on cases. “We are frequently called by victims of quackery or by people who are considering to consult an alternative practitioner but have their doubts,” says Renckens.
The VtdK only look at quackery in their native Netherlands, but spurious alternative medicines and their peddlers can be found all over the globe, so Renckens suggests a common sense approach to protecting yourself from shady remedies. “If you think you need medical treatment, then only consult practitioners with good training, registered medical diplomas, and who stick to regular medical practice,” he says. “Avoid in all cases quacks without diplomas or registration, and the same applies to MDs who have deviated from the right track and have forgotten how medical science distinguishes good medicine from quackery.”
Correction: Previously Dr. Renckens was listed as the current president of the VtdK, this has been corrected to reflect his leaving.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Learning From Zoos: How Our Environment Can Influence Our Health

File 20170517 24330 1j3hzlq
by Emmanuel Tsekleves, Lancaster University

We are told that we are a nation of couch potatoes, lacking the will and the strength to turn around the obesity tanker. We all need a little help in our quest for a healthier life and design can play a crucial part. If we designed our towns, cities, homes and workplaces more like animal experts design zoos, we could be one step nearer to reaching our fitness goals – as long as we can have some fun along the way. The Conversation

It is reported that British people will be the fattest in Europe by 2025 and that if we want to reverse this we should have a healthier lifestyle by exercising more and eating less. But we are often made to feel guilty for not sticking to theses healthy lifestyle plans. I would suggest that before we start blaming people for adopting sedentary lifestyles, we should be taking a step back to look at the design of the environments, towns and cities in which we live.

The link between the design of the built and natural environment and its role in our health and well-being has been well explored. Now new research, led by Lancaster University, on “design for health” suggests that the environment, including buildings, cities, urban spaces and transport infrastructure, is closely linked to the lifestyles we adopt.

What is abundantly clear is that, as we shape our environment, it is also shaping us. Our psychological, physiological and physical status as well as our interactions with other people and with the natural environment are all affected. A key challenge that governments and policy makers worldwide are facing is how our built environment and infrastructure should be shaped to support healthier behaviours to prevent disease.

First, we should stop focusing on methods that tell people what to (or not to) do and which attempt to change their behaviour simply through media campaigns and punitive measures, such as tax schemes. While seeking to minimise the barriers that prevent healthy behaviours, we should make sure that the design of new environments is taken into account.

Looking to zoos

A good model would be to look at how zoos are designed. Before a zoo is built, it is common practice for zoologists, biologists, animal psychologists, nutritionists, architects, designers and landscape architects to work closely together to create an environment that optimises the living conditions for the animals.

Important environmental elements, such as vegetation, habitat, lighting, materials and each animal’s requirements are taken into account. The ultimate aim is to design an environment that fully supports the animals’ physical, psychological and social well-being. Ironically, we do not seem to make the same demands when a town, neighbourhood or workplace environment for humans is planned and designed.

Another opportunity that has recently emerged is the healthy new town NHS initiative. The aim is to radically rethink how we live and take an ambitious look at improving health through the built environment. Ten demonstrator towns will be built across England with community health and well-being as their main focus. Clinicians, designers and technology experts will reimagine how healthcare can be delivered in these places. Although this is a step in the right direction, what it is currently missing is the more holistic approach we have seen in the design of the zoos.

A crucial element in designing these towns so they are places that people would want to live in, is to include community members in their creation. This strategy would help design-in health-promoting behaviours, such as access to healthy food outlets or green spaces in which people can walk and exercise.

Embracing playfulness

Playful design – the mapping of playful experiences from games and toys to other non-game contexts – can play an important role here in inviting and encouraging people towards healthier alternatives. For example, the piano stairs project in Stockholm, which converts the metro stairs into a giant functioning piano keyboard – much like the piano made famous in the Tom Hanks movie Big (1988) – demonstrates great promise. It encourages commuters to opt for the intriguing new stairway instead of the escalators to enjoy making musical movements as they go up and down.

A project in The Netherlands, meanwhile, illustrates how everyday street furniture, such as lampposts, benches and bollards, can be inexpensively converted into impromptu exercise devices, inviting people to engage in casual activity and socialise with their neighbours. We could therefore envisage several other contexts were playfulness can transform mundane everyday activities into fun ones that encourage people into a more active and social lifestyle.

We could convert building walls into activity walls to encourage stretching of arms and legs through touch; redesign public squares and walkways into interactive dance floors that invite movement and guide you through a city; and transform workplace spaces and public places into “playgrounds” that boost movement and productivity and decrease lethargy.

So there you have it. If we want to be a nation of lean, mean and healthy citizens we need to learn from zoos and the animals that live in them. And we need to embrace playfulness and enjoy the place where we live. That way, we can tackle life with a hop, skip and a jump.

Emmanuel Tsekleves, Senior Lecturer in Design Interactions, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Sharing Stories in a Broken Culture: Respectful Relationships are a Prior Condition for Persuasion

Credit: Shutterstock. All rights reserved
by SIMON HODGES, Open Democracy, Transformation:

In late-April 2017 the French Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron stunned supporters of Marine Le Pen, his opponent, by directly engaging with them on a picket line. Macron handed the microphone to union members whilst arguing that closing borders would do nothing positive for the economy, and might well harm it.

This was a rare act of engagement in western politics, where debates are characterised by the frothing of deeply divided sides. If Macron’s argument had been transmitted indirectly via the media it would probably have fallen on deaf ears, dismissed as more ‘fake news’ or standard ‘liberal bias.’ But he managed to create a relationship with people directly who he knew might disagree with him, and this direct engagement made all the difference. Physical presence has a power that goes beyond any argument. By showing that he was ready to listen, Macron also helped to diffuse his opposition. The crowd quietened and a dialogue began.
The gatekeeper of our intellect - the emotional limbic system - relies on relationship. No matter how potent the arguments, that system won’t allow more information to be processed rationally by the ‘higher’ faculties of the brain if there is no emotional connection. That means that respectful relationships are a prior condition for persuasion—a point that is lost in much current political campaigning, still more in the nightly ridicule of President Trump and his supporters by comedians on late night television shows in the USA.
The polarised cultures of Western democracy alienate one other not just through what they say, but also by how they live. These divisions are having a crucial effect on how we address issues of migration, welfare and trade. The problem is that both sides are so busy trying to fix the other that no genuine communication is taking place.
The blogger Andrés Miguel Rondón offers Venezuela’s experience as a prescription for healing this situation. It took liberals there years to realise that they themselves had become de-humanised, while in the mindset of those who saw ex-President Hugo Chavez as a champion, all talk of justice and freedom of the press fell on deaf ears because it seemed to come from an alien group.
When two sides of an argument are so entrenched, a simple exchange of facts no longer produces any forward movement. The clash is not one of opinions but of radically-different worldviews. A worldview is an emotional commitment to certain attitudes and beliefs. Most of us spend our entire lives accumulating evidence to justify a worldview. Our lives and actions then seek to express it. “We tend not to see our worldview as a perspective” says researcher Annick de Witt, “We see it as truth.”
The fundamentals of our own worldviews are no less shaky than those of the opposition, but our respective commitments run very deep. Long-time Greenpeace activist and storyteller Brian Fitzgerald puts it another way: “What is being expressed might seem crazy, but the feeling it expresses is a true experience for that person.” We may deny or reject what we see as a nonsensical argument, but in doing so we are denying what someone else experiences as truth. It’s this dynamic that feeds mutual alienation.
So what does it take to reach across our different worldviews?
First, “it takes a lot of humility” says de Witt, “We need to be willing to explore the limitations of our own worldview.” But this is a step, she admits, that few of us seem willing to take. The theatre director Peter Brook puts it like this: “hold on tightly, let go lightly.” “For a point of view to be of any use at all,” he says, “one must commit oneself totally to it, one must defend it to the very death. Yet at the same time, there is an inner voice that murmurs: ‘Don’t take it too seriously.’” It would be wonderful if more of us were willing to commit to our values, but even more powerful if we had the grace to let go. Only then could we find more common ground.
Secondly, the stories that shape our worldviews are very powerful. In the information age it’s tempting to think of the whole world as a story. If the world is a story then the perfect world is only a story away. We need only spin a message, an advert or campaign to bring about successful change.
We all know of indigenous tribes whose worlds are shaped by the stories that they’ve heard, so we believe our own storytelling will shape society too. The trouble is that the kind of stories that are told in such societies are part of a network of mythology—not media to be consumed but realities that are lived. Such stories aren’t just heard; they are enacted through ritual. Listeners become participants in ways that shape and sharpen their psyche. They don’t simply receive information; they learn new ways of seeing and being in the world. Their intuition is moulded so that they know how to act.
It will take the work of centuries to restore our present-day cultures to anything like that level of dignity and imagination. However, we can draw one vital lesson: what we are looking for is not a story but a ritual. By creating experiences that embody the world we want to live in, we allow others to participate and create their own meaning.
“It took our leaders ten years to figure out they needed to actually go to the slums and to the countryside” says Rondón, “And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed.”
To see how these different elements combine—relationship, humility and ritual—here’s a recent example that comes from Italy.  In 2016, a group called GoDeep! hit the streets of Grottaglie in Puglia to explore—and potentially transform—local attitudes towards migration from North Africa.
At the heart of the process was what they call the ‘appreciative gaze,’ an attitude similar to the unconditional positive regard that was practiced by the psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Rather than arriving with pre-set judgements on what needed to be changed, the group spoke to local people on their own terms. Sometimes this meant receiving openly racist abuse, but gradually ties with the community were forged.
At the end of the enquiry, a celebration of diversity was held in which both local culture and the cultures of the new arrivals were included. Those seen as ‘the other’—in this case migrants and liberal activists from GoDeep!—steadily became more of an ‘us.’ By starting with direct contact and open conversation with local people, the group established a relationship. This relationship then served to create an experience that told a deeper story of unity than words alone could tell. This story of unity was then ritualised in celebration.
First-hand experiences of this kind create more information, conversation and connections than conventional media campaigns, and they help to reduce the likelihood of judgmental behaviour and artificial separation. “In a few days we created the possibility for people from diverse backgrounds to take ownership of their local space” says Niels Koldewijn, a GoDeep! participant and the director of Elos Foundation. “It generated recognition for migrants from the locals, and importantly, migrants for locals as well.”
This approach might not be enough to persuade political hardliners, but it can help to create the right conditions for those who are ready to make a jump across the lines of difference. As one of Hannah Arendt’s favourite poems from Walter Benjamin puts it:
“…the soft water’s movement will
defy the strongest stone in time.
The hard ones, you see, are more easily undermined.”
We could imagine a wave of ritual actions similar to GoDeep! taking place worldwide, each one a potent demonstration of the open, tolerant world we want to create. Enacting unity through public works, participatory theatre and even cups of tea would mean that we’re not just telling a story but creating it together—and doing so in ways where everyone’s invited.

Monday, May 1, 2017

How to Care for Your Brain

Your body isn’t the only thing growing older, your brain is aging too. Do yourself a favor and care for it – you won’t regret it. These articles will help you out!

Your Brain Ages Just Like Your Body—Here's How To Keep It Young

“Humans spend a lot of time trying to slow down aging from the outside—we buy expensive face creams, spend hours primping in the mirror, and even turn to plastic surgery. But the fact is our brains age just like our bodies do—only the mental side effects can significantly erode our quality of life. And according to Reader's Digest, our brains start slowing down at the tender age of 30. On the bright side, the magazine also offers up some tips for delaying or even reversing this aging process, as informed by various doctors, psychologists, neuropsychologists, and more. To stave off memory loss and cognitive decline, make a point to do the following three things for brain health every day:”

What Is The No. 1 Way To Keep Your Brain Sharp?

“Every week, there seems to be another new study reaffirming the neuroprotective brain benefits of physical activity and aerobic exercise. This week is no exception.
For anyone who reads The Athlete’s Way blog posts regularly, I apologize for sounding like a broken record when it comes to the cognitive benefits of exercise. I know you've heard it all before.
That said, as a public health advocate, finding empirical evidence to motivate people to be more physically active is my raison d'être and the ultimate goal of this blog. In my mind, there is no greater motivation to exercise than the power of physical activity to keep your brain sharp.”

Scientists Discovered A Simple Way To Keep Your Brain Young As You Age

“We all want brains that function at their best, today, tomorrow, and — we hope — for the rest of our lives. What can we do to make that happen?
To try and answer that question, scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital studied 17 ‘superagers,’ people over 65 who have the mental function of those in their 20s.
The goal was to find out if there were any observable differences between superager brains and normal brains, and if so, whether the rest of us could use that information to give ourselves better brain function through the years.
The answers are yes and yes.”