(One of a series of reposts, for your enjoyment while I'm on vacation. First posted in April 2011.)
Just when I thought "alternative medicine" couldn't get any weirder, I came across a practice I'd never heard of before: "ear candling."
It's also called "thermo-auricular therapy," which is a little like an elevator operator wanting to be called a "vertical transportation technician." Basically, the concept is that many people suffer from impactions of ear wax, and so what you need to do is to lie on your side and stick a lit candle in your ear. The lit candle will create a suction that will pull the ear wax out.
Practitioners always cut open the candle stubs at the end, showing all the orange goop inside the candle -- but in a controlled experiment performed on himself by skeptic and brave soul Bobby Nelson, it was demonstrated that the orange goop was residue from the candle itself, and was there even if you let the candle burn while sitting on a cereal box. (We are assuming that the cereal box did not have an impaction of ear wax at the time.) You can read the account of his experiment here, and see photos of Nelson lying there with a lit candle in his ear and a very grim expression.
As I was reading about this, I kept thinking this was some kind of prank medical procedure, as April Fools' Day was last week, but tragically, it's not. People really do this, and some people swear by it. Never mind that if the candle actually was capable of creating a powerful enough suction to suck up ear wax, it would rupture your ear drum. Never mind that claims of the practice originating with the Hopi turned out to be lies -- the Hopis, when questioned, responding, "Of course we don't stick lit candles in our ears. Do we look like morons?" Never mind that dozens of people have ended up in the emergency room because hot candle wax ended up dripping down into their ear canals. Never mind that there have been two recorded cases of people performing ear candling on themselves, falling asleep while doing so, and burning down their houses.
I am always amazed at how far the placebo effect and confirmation bias can drive people. Now, don't misunderstand me; there are some types of "alternative medicine" that actually might work, and which are currently being studied by reputable medical researchers. Acupuncture and a few of the herbal medicines come to mind. But to quote Tim Minchin: "There's a name for alternative medicine that works. It's called... medicine." I'm much more willing to believe the dozens of controlled studies that have shown that ginkgo biloba doesn't improve your memory than the anecdotal evidence of people who say "it worked for me." But when not only is there no evidence for something, and controlled studies show that it doesn't work, and there's a good argument that it can't work as advertised, and people still believe in it... that I really don't get.
On the other hand, the obnoxious side of my personality (never very deeply buried) wonders if I might not be able to have a little fun with this. Perhaps I should come up with an alternative medicine therapy of my own, and create a website to promote it, and see how many people I can get to give it a try. How about this one:
Are you tired? Do you sleep poorly? Do you feel like you're not grounded, of late? Invoke the Earth Spirits and realign your Root Chakra by performing the CLEANSING DANCE OF THE SACRED CARROTS. Take two carrots, and bless them, saying, "Oh great Carrot Spirits, bring to me your sacred wisdom." Then stick the carrots up your nose. Then put on some nice New Age music (we suggest Yanni) and dance around in your living room until the carrots are Saturated With The Heaviness Of Your Soul and fall out. Wear gloves to dispose of the carrots so that the Tired Energy doesn't seep back and infect your chakras again. You'll feel better immediately. Trust me.