Don’t Let the Big Idea Hit You on the Head

by Rick Austin July 25, 2011 03:18 PM

 Today, it’s a hop, skip, and jump from link to link until we land on The Big Idea.

Thanks to Tracy at Evidence Soup for pointing here to an interesting article by Kathryn Shulz in New York magazine. Shulz’ article is about The Big Idea, and how it sells millions of books by cramming the complexity and unpredictability of life into one all-encompassing template. Shulz says: “What troubles me about the Big Idea Book Club is the way ideas often slide toward ideologies—grand unifying theories of culture,  cognition, happiness, talent, the Internet, the future, you name it. ‘The Hidden Side of Everything,’ ‘The Story of Success:’ the italics are mine, but the emphasis is theirs.”

What does this have to do with knowledge translation and public health? It illustrates how Big Ideas can cut both ways, and be wrong either way. It’s a Big Idea, supported by hundreds of thousands, that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism. It’s a Big Idea, supported by thousands of influential professional athletes, that Phiten titanium necklaces do… something  … to improve performance during, and speed recovery after an athletic contest.

Big Idea books and theories help us simplify, manage our lives, reassure us that the universe is not a runaway steamroller headed straight for us. When we surrender our own individual ability to organize, analyze, and make informed decisions, we lose our individuality. That may sound trite, but it’s an enormously seductive impulse.


Shulz explains this in the conclusion to her article: “I’m hugely sympathetic to the impulse to explain ourselves, including to explain ourselves with reference to our peers. We are bound to society the way we are bound to biology, in ways both known and unknown. But the bonds are slack, and the ‘unknown’ (including almost everything about the human mind) matters. Gregarious, solitary, predictable, idiosyncratic, rigid, creative, fundamentally very confusing: Those are human beings as we recognize them from, you know, life. It’s not always clear how to square the inner world with the outer one, the shared humanity with the outrageous particularity. It’s not even always clear how to keep them on the same page.”


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Three Products that Cause Health Communicators to Go Postal

by Rick Austin September 22, 2010 10:17 AM

Talking with Shannon about her background research on these Phiten necklaces got me curious, so I did some research of my own, and with every rock I turned over, another crazy crawled out. Have I been living a sheltered life? A couple of these I had never, ever heard of.


It turns out that the great-grandchildren of the Wild West patent medicine salesmen have abandoned alcohol-laced elixirs for what ails you, and turned instead to magnetism, “intrinsic energies,” and ionic balance. And apparently, the great-grandchildren of the poor suckers who bought all those 100-proof patent medicines at county fair sideshows are now surfing the Internet, looking for the latest miraculous fix for all of their problems. Here are three of the more egregious examples:


Lifewave – These are adhesive patches distributed through multi-level marketing, with different patches for different effects. There’s an energy patch, a pain relief patch, a restful sleep patch, etc. Per the company’s website: “This is a non-transdermal patch with a new technology that gently stimulates acupuncture points to improve the body’s energy flow…” The Lifewave folks appear to be the only ones in this racket who have gone to the trouble to generate publications that resemble clinical research. They are a marvel of quasi-technical obfuscation: “When they (the patches) receive the infrared from the body, containing the information relating to the condition of the organ to which the acupuncture point is connected, the crystals vibrate and consequently bring about the rotation of the amino acids.” Rotating your amino acids sounds painful to me, but never fear, all you need to know is that the company founder, David Schmidt, “…was presented with an honorary doctorate by Dr. Alexander Marinaccio of the International Hall of Fame.”


CieAura – Another multi-level marketing scheme. Here, we’re purveying transparent holographic chips imbued with “intrinsic energies.” Similar to Lifewave, the chips are on adhesive patches. Okay, where to start? A hologram is an optical illusion created by illuminating an object with laser light and recording the scattered light on film. The three-dimensional illusion has no independent existence of its own. As for “intrinsic energies,” let’s go to the CieAura website: “The CieAura Chip contains a unique blend of intrinsic energies that are formulated to affect certain conditions of the human body. Since the CieAura Chips are non-transdermal, nothing enters the body.”


If you ask specifically how it works, you get this: “Our formulas are comprised of 5 to 250 different (intrinsic) energies that encourage the optimization of the body’s natural energies. The method of determining and embedding these energies into the chip and the formulas are proprietary information and is patent pending on the equipment, and methods and chip presentation… How our chips are made and work with the body is proprietary. Years of research and development have yielded an outstanding product that works.” Interestingly, no one on the executive team of CieAura appears to have anything to do with the conception, design, or production of the CieAura holographic chip. Most of them come from prior multi-level marketing backgrounds. Contrast this with Lifewave, which goes to great lengths to cast CEO/inventor David Schmidt as a guru and thought leader for the Lifewave troops.


Qray –Okay, this one I had actually heard of. Here, we’re dealing with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), “bio-energy,” acupuncture points, ionization, and Chi. Sold on late-night infomercials and a now-defunct website, the Qray bracelet supposedly taps into the energy meridians and acupuncture points described in TCM, creating balance.  After getting dinged by the Federal Trade Commission in 2006 to the tune of an $87 million judgment, and a double-blind, placebo-controlled study by the Mayo Clinic (which revealed significant pain relief for both the experimental group and the placebo group), Qray no longer makes claims about pain relief. I’d be curious to know if the company’s founder, Que Te Park, was featured on the company website prior to 2006, because he’s nowhere to be found now.


So, this is what we’re up against, fellow health communicators: an abundance of magical thinking, and a frightening scarcity of critical thinking. Two questions for you: What have you seen in the way of herbal, holographic, magnetic, bio-energized, magical trinkets and amulets that need to be exposed, if they haven't already?  How do we persevere in the face of indifference and inertia? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

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You Say Titanium, I Say Worthless

by Shannon Rasp September 20, 2010 11:06 AM

I am a baseball fan.  Check that – I am a long-suffering Houston Astros baseball fan.  You couldn’t pay me to sit through a Yankees game … unless, of course, they were playing the Astros.  Everyone who follows baseball knows that baseball players are incredibly superstitious.  They brush their teeth between innings, don’t wash batting helmets all season, jump over baselines, etc.  Over the last couple of years, more and more players have begun wearing these incredibly ugly necklaces and bracelets.  They aren’t indicative of a secret “Bat & Balls” society. The necklaces, made out of titanium, purport to use magnetic properties to relieve fatigue and increase vitality by stabilizing the electric flow that nerves use to communicate actions to the body, thus regulating the body's "bio-electric currents." Riiiiiiiight …


I am not a believer in magnets being the magical cure-all.  We hear about them all of the time, and lots of magnet-pushing hucksters have made a ton of money off people’s aches and pains and gullibility.  But I’ve worked in the Texas Medical Center for over 10 years, and I have yet to hear any legitimate doctor claim that magnets will cure whatever ails you.


“There’s no science and physiology,” said Dr. Orrin Sherman, chief of sports medicine at the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases. “There’s just no way the chemical structure of the body can be influenced by magnets that small. It’s all superstitions with no scientific basis.”  (I lifted the quote from this article I found online.) 


Sherman added that when people are exposed to magnets far more powerful than the necklaces, like the magnets in an MRI machine, they don’t emerge refreshed and raring to go.  Good point.  I know I never have.


So what benefit, if any, do the necklaces and bracelets have?  Well, if wearing a necklace will make Hunter Pence think he can hit 30 homers a season, that’s enough of a benefit for me.  But until I start earning major-league bucks for my mad baseball skillz, I think I’ll save my money.

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