What is it with alt-med kooks and legal threats?

I have a general rule of thumb that says that the sooner someone starts threatening legal action, and the less actual evidence they present for their views, the less likely their views are to be correct. It's not an inviolable Law of the Universe, but it seems to be pretty reliable. So when one Ralph Chisnall, who says he's a Listen System operator, sent me a e-mail saying he'd be consulting with his "legal representative...with the view to taking civil action against you" regarding My Clash With The Quacks, and did not provide so much as a ghost of an argument in defence of the usefulness of the Listen or any other similar electrodiagnostic device, I was not terribly impressed.

I gave him the benefit of the doubt, though, and asked him if he'd care to explain why he believed what he believed. We exchanged a couple more e-mails each, and then he went quiet. It's been years now, so I think it's safe to say that he's given up. As part of my contribution to the gaiety of nations, I'll tell you what he told me. It's better than the usual alt-med rants.

Ralph started out with something rather amusing, in view of the arguments he later put forward for his beliefs: "There is a saying of which you are undoubtedly aware which states that it is better to be thought of as a fool and keep your mouth closed, than its is to open your mouth and remove all doublt." Errors his. His later e-mails were much richer sources of novel spelling and grammar, but I shan't bother bringing those errors to your attention, gentle reader. What he said, rather than how poorly he said it, is the funny part.

In Ralph's three messages to me, he made the following assertions.

He has the following qualifications: "P.K.P., B.T. (dip), L.T.C.L., E.D.S (dip)". He is very proud of these qualifications, and pointedly observed that I have no letters after my name. Well, I am a reverend in the Universal Life Church, but then, so's my cat. Unfortunately, Ralph's pride in his qualifications didn't extend to actually telling me what they stood for, and what institutions awarded them, although I asked him twice. Various whimsical suggestions have been made by my friends.

The electrocardiogram (ECG) is, according to Ralph, fundamentally identical in its method of operation to electrodiagnostic devices like the Listen System. This is news to me, and to the medical profession. Both devices involve measuring differences in electrical potential between electrodes applied to the body, but the ECG measures impulses from the heart and produces repeatable, clinically useful, conclusively proven results, whereas Listen System-esque devices measure electrical resistance between a held electrode and various "acupuncture points", whose usefulness and very existence has not only not been proved but has been disproved, by such simple means as seeing if two different operators who use the same machine on the same person get the same results. The ECG is to the Listen System very much as astronomy is to astrology.

Operators of electrodiagnostic devices are well known for pronouncing the detection of a laundry-list of Diseases Du Jour, and can therefore achieve reasonable inter-operator repeatability by simply making sure they include as many as possible of the usual suspects - focal infection, mercury poisoning from fillings, lupus, Lyme disease, candida albicans overgrowth, chemical sensitivity, leaky gut syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, parasites, you name it. Some of these diseases have at least a reasonable grounding in reality, but the mark of the electrodiagnostic quack is that he'll find a goodly selection of them in whoever he sees, the precise combination being determined by the guru he happens to follow. This is a common feature of alternative medicine; take a patient, sick or not, to a Hulda Clark fan and you'll find he's got parasites. Take the same person to an acupuncturist and you'll get a diagnosis of chi imbalance, with nary a mention of those elusive little worms. An orthodox chiropractor will find subluxations galore; a fan of Betty Martini's Mission Possible International will be convinced it's aspartame poisoning.

But I digress. When I pointed out the differences between ECGs and Listen Systems, Ralph simply asserted that they were basically the same and I had thus destroyed my argument.

According to Ralph, Reinhold Voll, the originator of the modern enthusiasm for electrodiagnostics and the creator of the original Electroacupuncture According to Voll (EAV) system, was a "Nobel Peace prize finalist for his work with electrodermal readings". There is a fairly big thing wrong with this statement, and there's also a rather bloody enormous thing wrong with it. The fairly big thing is that the Nobel committees do not release details of their deliberations. No list of nominees or finalists is ever announced, or has ever been announced. Various kooks like to try to lend authority to their claims by asserting that they or their favourite guru are or were a Nobel nominee or finalist. Technically, I suppose, anybody can be a nominee; write a letter to the Nobel organisation nominating yourself or your friend for the Prize in Literature for an unusually inventive Post-It note message and bingo, one Nobel nominee. But if you think you're a finalist, I want to know how you found out.

The rather bloody enormous thing wrong with the statement is that in his enthusiasm to bolster the reputation of his hero, Ralph seems to have neglected to note that he picked the wrong prize. The Nobel Peace Prize does not go to doctors, unless they've done something extraordinary to advance world peace. Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk won it in 1993, for instance. The Prize in Physiology and Medicine is the one doctors win. You can look up all the Nobel winners, by the way, here.

As I said, nuts frequently claim nonexistent Nobel distinctions, but they usually at least get the prize right. Sheesh.

The fun didn't end there. Apparently, scientists at NASA use a Listen System "to measure the effects of space travel on the Human body". I found this rather implausible, and asked Ralph to tell me exactly which scientists at NASA these were. He promised to look it up, but asserted he had plenty of documentation to prove it. I'm not holding my breath.

Ralph told me he could point me "to M.D.s in Australia who are using this system in Their practises with far more conclusive results than those who are using the so-called proven methods of diagnosis"; I found this interesting, since to my knowledge the Listen System is not so much as Listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic goods and so cannot be legally sold in this country. Nonetheless, I'd love him to show me all of these medical doctors who have abandoned the techniques they were taught in medical school, but I doubt it's going to happen.

Here's a good one. "Did you also know that allopathically a Drug is considered safe if it does not kill 50% of the population who take it? It can kill 49.8% of those who are prescribed it, but it will still be deemed safe."

It took me a while to figure out what planet Ralph had got this one from; the best I could come up with was that he seems to have terribly misinterpreted the meaning of LD50 tests, in which the dose of a drug sufficient to cause the deaths of 50% of a group of test animals is determined. If that's not it, I'm flummoxed.

A similar detachment from reality was evidenced when Ralph said "Another publication which would open your eyes to the ways of those you have consulted with to write your article and their absolute disregard to the failure of their precious allopathy is to get your hands on a book called the Physicians Desk Reference. I will be very intrigued if you are even able to ascertain there is such a publication..you see Doctors guard them with their lives. They may even deny such a thing exists, but it does and is very enligtening to the side effects of drugs they use."

The Physician's Desk Reference, or "PDR", is most certainly not a deep dark secret. PDR '99's Amazon.com ASIN is 1563632896. There's also a raft of PDR-branded titles for people who don't want or need the monstrous bulk of the full thing; just search for "PDR". All of these deep dark secret evil books are published by Medical Economics Company Inc, whose Web site is here. You can access the whole thing online, if you're willing to pay for a site subscription. And do feel free to call your general practitioner and ask him or her about the PDR. I'll lay odds you'll be told anything you want to know. Maybe all the doctors that keep it secret live in New Zealand, or something.

I asked, over and over, for any scientific references Ralph might care to direct me to which established the usefulness of the Listen System, but answer came there none. He had no problem with explaining to me that I was clearly too stupid to see the Truth. I suppose he must be right, because I can't comprehend how he arrived at his beliefs.

Ah well. I shall continue to muddle along with my miserable little brain, in awe at the wisdom of people with incomprehensible letters after their names.