What is science? It’s not this stuff.


Recently in a Facebook post, two of us were squabbling in typical Facebook-fashion over “alternative medicine” and related treatments (many of which came into the discussion as links to pseudoscience and/or charlatan’s websites).

As is my wont, I continued to debunk these with links to actual medical sites and discussions on the topic from health services, universities and real doctors. The other person posted a link to a piece that had Dr. Nuzum – a naturopath*, not a medical doctor, who promotes himself and his products heavily on YouTube and social media – comment thus on fingernail ridges:

“…in oriental medicine, we have—there are ridges that go long ways down from the cuticle to the end of your fingernail. That is from gut inflammation, gut dysbiosis, and mineral deficiencies are what that points to.
Lines that go across the fingernail, those again, in oriental medicine, that would indicate an oxygen deficiency or not getting enough oxygen into your system.
“So, if you have the lines going from the cuticle to the tip of the finger, that typically, in oriental medicine, indicates gut dysbiosis, or gut inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies.
“And so, if you have lines going down your fingernails, the types of things you want to be looking at would be green foods, probiotics, minerals, multivitamin-type supplements. Those are the types of things that you would want to use.
…If there’s a line going across the fingernail, that points to an oxygen or breathing deficiency. And that would be something we’d need exercise and proper diet, and things that would support lung health and gut health at the same time to correct those.”

Caveat Emptor!The type of things he recommends are, of course, the very products he sells on his own website and promotes online (ka-ching!). But remember his advice about treating vertical lines:  vitamin supplements; and for horizontal lines (also known as Beau’s lines, a medical term which Nuzum doesn’t use – and may not even know): exercise and diet (spoiler alert: the latter is dangerous claptrap).

When I called it (and some similar New Age health posts that lacked proper scientific citation) baloney on Facebook, my verbal opponent posted this response:

…anything can be debunked! I agree science can disprove so many things. I am not encouraging ignoring allopathic medical care. I also believe choices in medical care should be presented.

Well, that’s not true. You cannot debunk gravity, for example. Or the speed of light. Or the body’s need for oxygen. Or a spherical earth, evolution, the electromagnetic spectrum, the temperature to boil water, photosynthesis and so on. Scientists may dispute the causes or effects of some phenomena such as climate change, or black holes, microwave radiation, or the extinction of the dinosaurs, the existence of a Higgs-boson particle, and supersymmetric string theory, but not to debunk them: to understand and more fully define them. Scientists endeavour to either fit new ideas into our existing knowledge or to revise that knowledge to accommodate new discoveries.

You can, however, debunk water having feelings, homeopathy, astrology, UFO abductions, chemtrails, detoxing, pH balancing, psychics, ghosts, healing crystals,  the anti-gluten fad, the anti-GMO fad, the anti-vaccination fad, magic, reflexology, iridology, reiki, channelling dead people, Donald Trump’s claims about immigration and a whole lot of other silly, New Age, sometimes dangerous, and always unfactual things.

And from every thing I’ve read so far, you can also debunk what “Dr” Nuzum says about fingernails. Quite easily, in fact. But first…

I shouldn’t have to caution readers about taking advice about food and diet from the people who want to sell you the methods, products and services they say you need. But just in case you missed it the first thousand times I warned you about it: don’t take medical, dietary or health advice only from the people who sell or manufacture the products they recommend you need to be healthy. Demand to see the peer-reviewed studies that prove the efficacy of what they promote BEFORE you shell out money for them. If the seller hasn’t got any proper in vivo studies to support their claims, you’re being conned.

I hope that will be the last time I need to remind you. And I really shouldn’t have to remind you about taking advice from people with diploma-mill certificates, either. So let’s move on.

Nuzum also promotes the debunked and often dangerous practice of “de-toxing,” for which he also sells his own book ($20 US plus shipping & handling) as well as his own supplements for said “detoxing” ($49.95-$69.95 US per bottle plus shipping & handling). But as real medical sites warn:

There isn’t any convincing evidence that detox or cleansing programs actually remove toxins from your body or improve your health… Some of the products and procedures used in detox/cleansing programs may be harmful to your health.

And here’s another warning signal: when oriental or ayurvedic healing is referenced as the source of information or treatment, instead of clinical studies and peer-reviewed research. And it’s not just because it looks like egregious cultural appropriation for a white guy to be talking about it. It’s because, well, even though some of it may be good, a lot of it just doesn’t work because it is based on woo hoo. As noted on Live Science:

Like traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda is a complex and sometimes insightful regimen for healthy living developed thousands of years ago. But perhaps even more so than its Asian rival, ayurveda can border on the bizarre, for it is deeply rooted in astrology and outdated beliefs…
At best, ayurveda is a healthy lifestyle that promotes a vegetarian diet and relaxation. As with traditional Chinese medicine, its insight into herbal cures is keen. Some of these herbs are being studied by Indian scientists and turned into reliable medicines. Herbs, after all, are the basis of conventional pharmacology.
At worst, ayurveda is a billion-dollar business of sham cures based on astrology, gem healing, psychic healing, mantras and pop culture, spun through either fraud or naiveté. One concern is the herbal concoction given for treatment. Heavy metals have long been part of the ayurvedic tradition, and a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found the 20 percent of herbal remedies sold around Boston had harmful amounts of lead, mercury or arsenic.

As for Chinese-oriental medicine, as noted on the The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health‘s website**:

An assessment of the research found that 41 of 70 systematic reviews of the scientific evidence (including 19 of 26 reviews on acupuncture for a variety of conditions and 22 of 42 reviews on Chinese herbal medicine) were unable to reach conclusions about whether the technique worked for the condition under investigation because there was not enough good-quality evidence. The other 29 systematic reviews (including 7 of 26 reviews on acupuncture and 20 of 42 reviews on Chinese herbal medicine) suggested possible benefits but could not reach definite conclusions because of the small quantity or poor quality of the studies.
In a 2012 analysis that combined data on individual participants in 29 studies of acupuncture for pain, patients who received acupuncture for back or neck pain, osteoarthritis, or chronic headache had better pain relief than those who did not receive acupuncture. However, in the same analysis, when actual acupuncture was compared with simulated acupuncture (a sham procedure that resembles acupuncture but in which the needles do not penetrate the skin or penetrate it only slightly), the difference in pain relief between the two treatments was much smaller—so small that it may not have been meaningful to patients.

The NCCIH’s page concludes with several warnings:

  • Do not use TCM to replace effective conventional care or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem.
  • Look for published research studies on TCM for the health condition that interests you.
  • It is better to use TCM herbal remedies under the supervision of your health care provider or a professional trained in herbal medicine than to try to treat yourself.
  • Ask about the training and experience of the TCM practitioner you are considering. You can find information about the credentials and licensing of complementary health practitioners on the NCCIH Web site.

It’s also worth reading what the NCCIH says about ayurveda: “There is little scientific evidence on Ayurveda’s value for other health issues.” You have to be very, very careful about anything that impacts your health or your wallet in an age when online charlatans and con artists abound. Make sure you speak to a REAL doctor about using any sort of “alternate” supplement or taking any non-medically-approved treatment.

But I digress a bit and need to return to the topic: was the information provided in the interview was factual or bogus? Let’s look first at what the Mayo Clinic says about fingernail ridges:

Vertical nail ridges, which are fairly common, extend from the cuticle to the tip of your nail. They often become more numerous or prominent with age, possibly due to variations in cell turnover within your nail. If your fingernails change color or you develop horizontal nail ridges across your nails, talk to your doctor. These changes could indicate an underlying health condition.

McGill University’s Office for Science and Society is a bit more in-depth:

A question that often comes up is why fingernails have ridges (parallel lines) running in the direction of nail growth, from the cuticle to the tip of the nail. It turns out that such longitudinal ridges (like some other nail anomalies) are usually benign nail artifacts, probably a manifestation of the nail’s structure: the nail bed, on which the nail rests and to which the nail is attached, is arranged in parallel ridges running in the direction of nail growth. The vertical ridges become more visible with increasing age, so if they become more prominent over time it’s likely nothing to worry about (unless one finds reminders of advancing age deeply troubling)…
… serious illness and physical or emotional trauma can hinder or even fully arrest nail growth, resulting in horizontal ridges in the nail (called Beau’s lines) marking the period of disease. Beau’s lines become visible as the nail grows out, and the approximate timing of the illness/trauma that caused the lines may be calculated from their ‘height’ in the nail: it can take three to six months to grow a fingernail and a year to a year and a half to grow a toenail, so a Beau’s line half-way up the nail indicates a trauma or disease that occurred a few months before.

Medical News Today adds:

Beau’s lines might be a sign of:

    • acute kidney disease
    • diabetes
    • thyroid disease.

Beau’s lines may also appear in people who have undergone chemotherapy. People who have had mumps or syphilis may also get horizontal ridges in their fingernails and toenails. Anyone who develops horizontal nail ridges should see their doctor for a diagnosis as soon as possible.

So, contrary to what Nuzum claims, vertical ridges on fingernails are normal, harmless and NOT “gut dysbiosis, or gut inflammation, and nutritional deficiencies.” But horizontal ridges are not from “an oxygen or breathing deficiency” and instead require a proper medical diagnosis because they could indicate serious problems that require treatment.

Consider his claims debunked. See how easy that was? Took me five, maybe ten minutes to get the correct information.

I didn’t know anything about Nuzum until I read this interview. I decided to look him up. Others have already done a good job of debunking and shredding his claims of academic and other achievements (spoiler alert: diploma mill certificates, not real schools, and “pay-to-play” organizations… nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Nuzum was also arrested and charged with practicing medicine without a licence in 2005. Hasn’t stopped him, though.

Nuzum is closely associated with Ty Bollinger who might be politely described as a quack, and whom others have called “irresponsible,” “unethical” and worse. Aside from peddling his own wacky and possibly lethal ideas about cancer therapy, Bollinger sells Nuzum’s nutritional supplements online. Some of Bollinger’s claims are debunked here at SkepDoc (written by an actual medical doctor who also has a free online course on science-based medicine).

All the alarm bells should have gone off for you by now if you’re still thinking about Nuzum and his claims. But let me get back to that lines in the post that read, “..science can disprove so many things.” Yes, but the purpose of science is not simply to debunk woo hoo, but to come to a realization of the truth.

I think many people misunderstand what “science” is. It’s not an institution: it’s a process based on a body of accumulated knowledge.  A scientific claim comes after developing a hypotheses, then using both testing and evidence, highly-controlled experimentation and measurable observation to turn it into a theory that helps explain how things work (or don’t work).

Then everything is published, peer-reviewed and re-tested to look for flaws and holes in the evidence and reasoning. This is often done simultaneously by scientists in different institutions and even different nations.

It’s also not a monolithic group but rather a wide-ranging number of disciplines spread around the world, often very competitive with one another. There is no entity called “science” that disproves things nor some international conspiracy called “science.” Nor is there any big-pharma or big-medicine conspiracy to hide cures or treatments from the public – that’s just paranoid balderdash spread by the people who want to sell you their own supplements, books and treatments, none of which have gone through the rigorous gamut of scientific analysis.

Rather there are specialists such as physicists, biologists, medical researchers, paleontologists, virologists, geneticists and so on who examine something within their discipline then test its validity in a rigorous, repeatable, and transparent manner. Those results get published in reputable media for others to review and comment on (scientific debate is often very clamorous). The conclusions are tested by others in their community who also try to replicate the results and either confirm or challenge the conclusions.

While some disciplines overlap (genetics and virology, for example), most are focused on specific areas of study (paleontologists don’t usually peer-review astrophysicists, for example). Many scientists or doctors are involved along the way, not just one or two. Few if any claims go by unchallenged in the scientific community.

CrapolaWhen there are multiple studies on the same area of interest, there are those in that discipline who review the collective results and publish THEIR findings with a consensus of what everyone else has concluded. For example, when the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in Australia recently assessed the evidence of the effectiveness of homeopathy based on 225 controlled studies of homeopathy and found homeopathy to be useless in treating anything. That was just one of several peer reviews of studies done on homeopathy (one of which reviewed 2,000 other studies), all of which came up with the same conclusion: homeopathy is bunk:

…there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions. Similarly, there was no homeopathic remedy that was demonstrated to yield clinical effects that are convincingly different from placebo. It is concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.

And all of this gets published in places where both other scientists and even the public can read and question. The point is not to disprove things just to score points over someone, or to protect their turf from outsiders. It’s to establish a universal truth in which we call partake.

The point of this rambling piece is simply that sloughing off a report that doesn’t agree with your preconceived views by saying “science can disprove so many things” does not show a good appreciation of the scientific method or the results that it produces in the lengthy and highly-structured process required to get those results.

More importantly,  while it may not be a perfect system, science has the checks and balances that these alternative approaches lack. It is backed by research, peer-reviews, and challenges. It is not simply the invented and seldom challenged claims made in the woolly language of pseudoscience that many of these “alternatives” offer.

We live in a word filled with people pushing claptrap and the only defence is a good education combined with a healthy dose of skepticism. As Sam de Brito wrote, “…a knowledge of science is indispensable for scattering silly fantasy and its sillier disciples.”


* As Quackwatch defines it:

Scientific research has identified measurable, causative factors and specific methods of preventing and/or treating hundreds of health problems. Naturopaths have done little more than create glib generalities. The above theories are simplistic and/or clash with science-based knowledge of body physiology and pathology.

** “The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is the [US] Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on the diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine. NCCIH was formerly known as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.”

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One comment

  1. Some readable items on healthcare vs the alternate stuff being peddled online. Some of this looks like dangerous fraud to me:

    There’s an epidemic of bogus health claims online, and no easy cure

    “In the last two months, CBC reporting has revealed a number of healthcare workers who’ve spread some of this misinformation, including chiropractors suggesting vaccines are dangerous or ineffective, and naturopaths claiming to eliminate autism with homeopathy.”

    Naturopaths still making ‘unacceptable’ number of dubious claims face minimum $500 fines

    “Fifty chiropractors in this province refused to remove unproven claims from their advertising and websites about treating everything from autism to cancer and were referred to the college’s inquiry committee for investigation and possible discipline.”

    Why can naturopaths mislead the public about their credentials? Because no one bothers to stop them

    “And just like “dentistry” and “nursing” are clear and unambiguous ways to describe one’s background, so too should “naturopathy” be a sufficient descriptor. The only reason to start throwing the term “medical” around is to deliberately sow confusion about your education.”

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