The Flat Earthers Respawn

Flat earthWhile flat-earther might be a metaphor for a certain kid of myopic, political stupidity (think of your local council…), I learned this week that it’s also a thriving online subculture of rabidly pseudo-science wingnuts.

A couple of entertaining articles about the flat-earthers appeared on the UK’s Guardian paper site (here and here) this week (and in the HuffPost, too). They surprised, but also disturbed me. I hadn’t actually believed in flat-earthers as a modern reality: while I knew of their former existence, I thought the concept was simply a trolling mechanism to expose the silliness of other pseudo-science like creationism or anti-vaccination fears.

But, no, I was wrong. There are, apparently, people who actually believe passionately in this nonsense; a very active community exists online and right now they’re having a hissy fit over one of their own’s comments. Comments which, to an outsider, sound a lot like the gostak distims the doshes.*

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised: the internet has allowed all sorts of madness and wackiness to gain an audience, from Donald Trump to the Food Babe, from local bloggers to chemtrail conspiracists and anti-vaccination idiots. But a flat earth? Really? That’s pretty sad. The Easter bunny is more believable.

What’s disturbing is that anyone could believe such nonsense in this day and age. This stuff is seriously loony.

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Putting Homeopathy to the Test

HomeopathyHomeopathic products often make a lot of outrageous claims. Given that these products are just water, or sometimes water and sugar, anyone with a gnat’s worth of common sense doesn’t believe those claims. Nor are they backed by any evidence. It’s no wonder homeopathy is called the “air guitar of medicine:”

It should not be a shock to learn that homeopathy has no basis in scientific fact – should anyone doubt this I invite them to peruse Edzard Ernst’s systematic review of the practice.
Homeopaths have gone to incredible lengths to avoid having their air guitar of medicine tested in any rigorous fashion. Instead, they have created their own self-justifying means of establishing that it works. They call this “homeopathic proving”.
A “proving” typically involves a dozen people, who will take a homeopathic remedy and record their thoughts, feelings and even dreams. These diaries are then used to “discover” what the remedy can supposedly cure.

Ernst’s review of more than 2,000 studies, referenced above, noted (emphasis added):

Collectively they failed to provide strong evidence in favour of homeopathy. In particular, there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions.

Ernst’s study reviewed 225 research papers, 11 independent studies and 1,800 medical studies on the health effects of homeopathy and found no reliable evidence in them to back its homeopathy’s claims of effectiveness. It didn’t work any better than any other placebo. In fact, the study concluded, “homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are serious or could become serious.”

In simple terms: homeopathy is bunkum and don’t use it if you’re sick. It doesn’t work. It can’t work because it is not based on science, not on research, not on medical principles, not on chemistry or biology. It is based on magic and superstition.

That’s what you get when you buy a homeopathic product: magical pills.

But in any nation connected to the internet there are enough gullible folks that homeopathy manages to fool someone. Like alien abductions, 9/11 conspiracies, feng shui, acupuncture, crystal therapy, psychic surgery, angels, bigfoot, chemtrails, gluten-free fads, detox fads and other wacky notions and conspiracies, homeopathy has a ready audience of people willing to open their wallets, and close their minds.

As a writer noted in The Herald, it’s hard to combat superstition with science:

Many preventable deaths and serious illnesses have been caused by the use of homeopathy over real medicine. And qualified, caring, medical experts worldwide are at their wits ends trying to counter the hype and nonsense spread by many in the homeopathy business who are trying to increase the huge profits they make out of their sugar and water pills.

That’s what it’s really all about: that huge profit. Scamming the public out of its money.

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Apocalyptic Wingnuts At It Again

Not gonna happen
The end-of-the-worlders are again predicting the immanent destruction of the planet. This time it will happen on 22-23 September, 2015. You might recall the world ended in 2000, 2003, 2009, 2012 and again in 2013. So this is what it looks like after the end…

The latest wingnut theory is that an asteroid will land in the Caribbean that month, swamping Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It will create 300-foot tsunami waves up to the east coast of the USA. Florida will be completely inundated. As you might expect, the source of this fantasy is a religious wingnut:

Efrain Rodriguez a musician and a prophet for 41 years. A sound testimony’s brother .He belongs to the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, MI,(International Movement) a faithful and the first and oldest Pentecostal church in Puerto Rico

And the religious wingnuts* tie it all in with the zany Book of Revelations and the imaginary “Rapture” that has somehow avoided arriving for the last two millennia.  But, of course, you can buy their book or video, to get the whole picture (ka-ching!). Might as well spend your money on them now, since you’re about to die in a few months… or not…

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Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns

Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Extraordinary Claims

Extraordinary claimsAs the poster for the Centre for Inquiry notes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a popular catchphrase for the skeptical movement, but should be an intellectual policy for everyone.

Regardless of what is being claimed, it requires evidence at the same level of the claim.

Anecdote is not evidence, please note, especially personal anecdote even with the corroboration of other witnesses. People often “see” what they choose to see, and interpret events and objects according to preconceived ideas. Seeing UFOs instead of ordinary aircraft, or chemtrails instead of mundane contrails are examples of this. Evidence is something concrete; a body of facts, not simply interpretation or disingenuous claim.

The Centre lists many claims as the poster indicates – a list that continues to grow – along with a brief introduction to each: claims, evidence and conclusion. Some like leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, dragons and Xenu seem pretty obviously mythological or (like Xenu) totally fabricated. Others will certainly raise an argument among some religious believers  or the superstitious – angels, magic, Heaven, hell, the afterlife and similar religious topics included (it does not yet list Santa Claus, but I expect it will come)..

As RationalWiki puts it,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence was a phrase made popular by Carl Sagan. It is central to scientific method, and a key issue for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.

The actual phrase was coined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi, but it has been around in other forms for several centuries. In his 1748 work, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (chap. 10.4.), David Hume wrote:

In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence… No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

Simply because a lot of people believe in something, or accept it as factual doesn’t mean it is true. In a letter to Adam Smith, Hume wrote:

Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude…

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Lucy and the 10% Brain Myth

LucyWe watched the film Lucy on iTunes last night and, while reasonably entertaining, its plot is founded on a persistent bit of pseudoscience: that people only use 10% of their brain capacity. It’s so widespread a myth that Wikipedia has a page on it that opens:

The 10 percent of the brain myth is the widely perpetuated urban myth that most or all humans only make use of 10 percent (or some other small percentage) of their brains. It has been misattributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. By extrapolation, it is suggested that a person may harness this unused potential and increase intelligence.

Sure, we all know people who don’t appear to use much of their brain’s potential power, but the simple truth is that we all use all of our brain’s capacity. We evolved a big brain to handle the growing demands of increased consciousness, speech and sophisticated motor control, and that’s what it’s for.

Sure, not all of it is used in a conscious manner. Much of the brain’s function is taken up in processing, storing and interpreting the huge bandwidth of information that is fed to it every second of every day. Even acts we do daily and take for granted – like walking upstairs with a cup of tea in one hand while talking – take a huge amount of processing power. Sight, balance, motor control, memory, logic, vocalization, muscles control… the brain takes care of it all without spilling a drop.

Your consciousness – the ego – doesn’t see all this work going on and never will because you would quickly be overwhelmed by the huge amount of data being managed by your unconscious. Yes, yes, a lot of people don’t appear to even use the whole capacity of their conscious brains – anti-vaxxers, chemtrail wingnuts, creationists and some local bloggers come to mind – but that’s just a portion of what the brain does. Critical thinking is a skill one has to acquire and practice, not an inherent brain function.

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It’s Official: Homeopathy is Bunk

Still Bullshit
“Homeopathy not effective for treating any condition, Australian report finds,” reads a headline in The Guardian this week. Well, that’s hardly news. But it repeats saying anyway. It’s a story about the latest in a series of studies that again and again debunk homeopathy as a treatment and conclude it is useless.

Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) “…thoroughly reviewed 225 research papers on homeopathy to come up with its position statement,” the paper reported.

And on Gizmodo they said:

An analysis of over 225 medical studies and 1,800 scientific papers has found that homeopathy is ineffective as a health treatment. Its authors urge that “people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments.”

The scientists waded through a total of 1,800 reports; but only found 225 were actually controlled studies that lived up to the rigorous scientific standards required to make any claims of benefit stand up. So if any of them concluded homeopathy wasn’t bunk, it was because they failed the basic test for scientific rigour.

As The Smithsonian reported:

After assessing more than 1,800 studies on homeopathy, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council was only able to find 225 that were rigorous enough to analyze. And a systematic review of these studies revealed “no good quality evidence to support the claim that homeopathy is effective in treating health conditions.”

Homeopathy is called an “alternative medicine” – which is bafflegab for claptrap. There is medicine or alternatives, and they don’t meet in the middle. It’s up there with the likes of iridology, reflexology, reiki, aromatherapy, healing crystals, naturopathy and magic incantations for utter medical buffoonery.

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Bad News For Balderdash

Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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The Pinnacle of Homeopathic Stupidity

Toilet medicine“Have Homeopaths Reached Peak Stupid?” asks the headline on Quackometer.net. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting dumber than a belief in homeopathy (aka The One Quackery to Rule Them All), but apparently there are higher levels within their madness that homeopaths continue to scale. This, however, looks like their Everest of stupidity.

The story in question is about the plan by homeopaths to “heal the oceans” last week. Admirable goal, but it’s the implementation that will make you laugh so hard you’ll snort your morning tea right out of your nose. You have been warned. I speak from experience.

Here’s how they plan to heal the oceans: flush their pseudo-medicines down the toilet. Yes, I agree that’s ALWAYS the best thing to do with homeopathic nonsense. But according to a UK homeopathic wingnut, this is supposed to fix the oceans.

Okay, you’re wondering how a vial of homeopathic magic potion – which is simply water – can heal the pollution of the massive oceans? Well, so is everyone. It can’t. But that didn’t stop them. Wait, it gets more amusing.

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Reflexology: another daft New Age idea

BunkumAs medicine, reflexology is bunk. Just like iridology and phrenology. Of course, you knew that. But not everyone does.

Reflexology popped up recently in a shared post on Facebook (a popular venue for moving codswallop and cat photos from one user to another at the speed of light…). Coincidentally it appeared right after a post promoting a piece in the New York Review of Books called, The Age of Ignorance.

How apropos. (I’ll get to that NYRB piece in another post, along with some comments about Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows.)

As a massage, reflexology offers the same benefits for your feet as any other type of massage. It’s just not medicine.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary says:

Reflexology is based on the unsubstantiated belief that each part of each foot is a mirror site for a part of the body. The big toe, for example, is considered a reflex area for the head. As iridology maps the body with irises, reflexology maps the body with the feet, the right foot corresponding to the right side of the body and the left foot corresponding to the left side of the body. Because the whole body is represented in the feet, reflexologists consider themselves to be holistic health practitioners, not foot doctors.

They’re not doctors at all, but let’s not dwell on correspondence-course graduates handing out medical advice.

The National Council Against Health Fraud has an article on reflexology that warns,

Reflexology has almost no potential for direct harm, but its ability to mislead well-meaning people into believing that it can be used for screening for health problems, or that it has real therapeutic value could lead to serious problems…

Penn and Teller chime in on this and related quackery with their usual, acerbic wit:

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The Food Babe and other nonsense

Food BabeShe’s been called the “Jenny McCarthy of food.” That’s not a compliment and should warn anyone with half a brain to beware of her. She’s a New Age wingnut helping turn the public from science to superstition.

She’s also been described as the “latest quack making a name for herself on the Internet by peddling pseudoscience” and a “meme terrorist.”

Meet “Food babe” Vani Hari. The latest darling of an increasingly lame and ill-educated national media that focuses on spectacle and controversy. She’s an attention-seeker who knows how to work the media and get coverage and ratchet herself to celebrity status through cunningly techniques.

Forbes magazine writer, Trevor Butterworth noted that her methods never get the headlines, only her allegations, and rebuttals and corrections often get ignored:

Unfortunately, this kind of clarification, where a blogger takes something commonplace and gives it a nefarious social media friendly twist to advance an agenda, did not make the Financial Times, Business Insider, USA Today, NBC News, and undoubtedly many more news stories that uncritically reported the Food Babe’s victory.

Cancer surgeon David Gorski wrote,

…her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective: Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names. However, if you have any background in chemistry, much of what Hari is doing is almost painfully transparent, a veritable insult to one’s intelligence and training.

The Independent Women’s Forum says of Hari:

The Food Babe has one clear mission: to scare moms so bad that they stop buying all that convenient and reasonably priced food they’ve grown to love and which makes their lives a little easier. Because progress is your enemy, ladies!
She’s not asking much…just that you do your best to act more like her: eat only food produced by raw, whole ingredients that you cook yourself. Oh, but wait, it can’t be just any whole ingredients; they have to be organic and non-GMO. The evidence she provides to her readers that this strategy will lead to a healthier life? Exactly nothing.

The Neurologica Blog says:

The Foodbabe… wants to replace careful analysis and evidence with, “Yuk, that sounds weird.” She feels this is a superior process to that used by world organizations that go through the bother of having experts review scientific evidence.

I first learned about Hari from Facebook posts warning about “dangerous” and “secret” ingredients in beer. Like fish bladders and antifreeze.

Woah, I said to myself. This ain’t right. These aren’t dangerous chemicals.

I was a homebrew beer maker for a decade, and still make my own wine. Isinglass – made from fish bladders – has been used to clarify both for almost three centuries. Isinglass is a colourless, tasteless collagen – like gelatine – made from fish swim bladders. It is a flocculate, or fining agent, used at the end of the fermentation process to cause solids like yeast in the beer to settle on the bottle where they can be more easily removed removed, and allow the clear beer to be bottled. It’s approved for this use in dozens of countries. I used it myself many times over the last three decades.

It’s not harmful – centuries of use have shown that – and it’s no less a “natural” animal product than gelatin, since they are both made from collagen, or animal connecting tissue. Very little isinglass remains in the beer after its use. Vegans may object (I object to gelatin in yogurt since I don’t eat meat), but anyone who eats fish or meat won’t. Isinglass is also used to help wounds heal.

As the Smithsonian describes the process:

Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.

However, it is predominantly used by small and craft breweries making cask beers, not by the big companies which filter and pasteurize their high-volume beers (leading to the ubiquitous “fermented cardboard” flavour of most commercial beers). As Wikipedia tells us:

Non-cask beers that are destined for kegs, cans or bottles are often pasteurized and filtered. The yeast in these beers tends to settle to the bottom of the storage tank naturally, so the sediment from these beers can often be filtered without using isinglass. However, some breweries still use isinglass finings for non-cask beers, especially when attempting to repair bad batches.

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Talking to water, yelling at rice

Hidden MessagesDr. Masaru Emoto thinks you can hurt water’s feelings by shouting at it. No, really. Stop laughing. He’s written a bestselling book about it – The Hidden Messages in Water – and he’s convinced a whole lot of people that he’s right. But of course, the sheer numbers of believers doesn’t mean he is.

Dr. Emoto has a degree in “alternative medicine”* from the Open University of Mumbai. According to CSICOP, “the only requirement for this degree are one year of study and completion of one research project.” Other sites call it a “diploma mill.” Well, that’s at least a year’s more education than most of the people selling “alternative medicine” appear to have. But it’s not comparable to a degree in science or medicine.

Dr. Emoto believes water has feelings and you can affect it by using positive and negative words, and even music. You can make it happy or sad.

Really: stop laughing. You won’t get this piece finished if you don’t.

Some folks gush over Emoto’s work and babble on about it in distinctly New Agey-pseudoscience manner, with hot-button words like Chi, Reiki, crystals and angels tossed higgledy-piggledy into the text to make the New Agers’ eyes glaze over in delight:

Could water respond directly to people’s consciousness? Apparently yes. Crystals reflected the panic during an earthquake and also the recovery period three months later. Tap water of Tokyo, which was formless, responded to the transmission of “Chi, Soul and Spirit” of 500 people to give a distinctive crystal. And, certain specially gifted individuals could make the most polluted, formless water respond to the “Chi of love” or to prayer, to give remarkable symmetries of perfection. The Reverend Kato Hoki, chief priest of Jyuhouin Temple, Omiya city, was able to change the six-fold symmetry of the ice crystal to a previously unknown, seven-fold symmetry. “Water is the mirror of the mind”.

He’s the darling of the spa set, too, awarded a “Special Prize” as an “outstanding example of a professional who lives the Spa philosophy, or a person who has made an extraordinary contribution to cultivating and promoting the Spa philosophy.”

(Until today, I didn’t even know there was a Spa Philosophy. I must have had my nose too deep into the writings of the Epicureans and missed this major philosophical movement. It is described on the award site as, “Holistic Spa concepts translate our age-old bond with water into applications that, in the best case, leave us with a sense of purity and authenticity. This absolute harmony between body, mind and soul is the purest experience.” Sadly, Dr. Emoto lost first prize to 3 LAB Perfect Cleansing Scrub. Must have been quite a stiff competition…)

And taking from Emoto’s beliefs, some folks are selling “emotionally charged” water – magically transformed from ordinary water by “positive emotional intentions.”  Others are selling “blessings” to turn your water into “liquid prayers.” Who thinks this stuff up?

The codswallop meter is in the red zone on this one. Water woo, it’s called. Woo hoo, I say.

New Age Retailler magazine called his work “pioneering” in a lengthy interview with Emoto, who in turn was described as a “New Age rock star.”

In The True Power of Water, Emoto explores the power of the lessons of the first book as they apply to healing. In particular, Emoto describes working with hado, the subtle energy or vibration inherent in all things, drawing upon his experiences as a practicing doctor of alternative medicine. He also emphasizes humankind’s stewardship role in protecting pure water sources — and making pure water available to all.
“If you speak negative words, that leads to destructive matters, and if you speak positive words, then some positive and beautiful thing will occur.” — Dr. Masaru Emoto
Emoto’s first two books both reached The New York Times’ extended bestseller list. The Secret Life of Water, a fall 2005 release, emphasizes the power of prayer and facilitating the flow of hado.

Hado? Sounds suspiciously like Obi Wan Kenobi talking about The Force. Emoto himself describes it:

Hado is a vibration that cannot be seen, because it is so small. It is so subtle that it cannot even be measured. I believe that we should move toward vibrational medicine. The starting point of that is people’s hearts. When you have a stressed or damaged heart, then your body becomes damaged, as well. I believe that how the God, or something great, created this world is with love and gratitude. Love is an active energy, and gratitude is a passive energy. I believe when you deviate from this law, this balance of love and gratitude, a person is destined to have illness.

Just use The Force, Luke…  I wouldn’t want anyone who believes this to be my doctor, but then I’m a skeptic about this sort of balderdash, so my hado’s probably pretty mixed up anyway.

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