Holt promotes quackery to high-school students

Editor's Introduction -- If you're not feeling well, maybe you should take a magical tonic, or get someone to fiddle with your "meridians," or hire a witch doctor to put your "elements" into "harmony." That's what the student learns from Holt Health, a high-school book that preaches superstition, peddles mumbo jumbo, tricks the student, and undermines the student's ability to think rationally about biomedical matters.
from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1994

Leading Students into the Clutches of Quacks

William J. Bennetta

Part 1: Don't Ask -- Just Swallow

[U]ntil the year 1500 any attempt to get power from nature had inherent in it the idea that you could only do this if you forced nature to provide it against her will. Nature had to be subjugated, and magic was a form of words, actions, and pictures which forced nature to do something which she wouldn't of herself do.

Let me note here that science does exactly the opposite. But it is important to realize that the subjugation of nature is the theme of all magical practice. We must get her to do something for us which she wouldn't do for everybody else -- which means we must make her disobey her own laws. Of course, people before 1500 didn't really have much of an idea of what a law of nature was. But insofar as they conceived of nature following a natural course, magic was something which reversed it.

Jacob Bronowski in Magic, Science and Civilization,
published in 1978 by the Columbia University Press

One of the grim spectacles created by the recent tribal war in Rwanda was the plight of the Hutu refugees who, during a few chaotic days in July, fled from Rwanda into northeastern Zaire. More than a million Hutus swarmed to a makeshift camp near the Zairian town of Goma -- and there they were overrun by a fierce epidemic of cholera.

Cholera is a bacterial infection. Its effects include severe, continual diarrhea, which entails such a massive loss of water that a typical victim soon suffers fatal dehydration. For as long as the victim survives, however, he discharges copious feces that are laden with cholera bacteria; and if such feces get into a source of drinking water, the bacteria can spread rapidly and can infect many new victims. This is how most cholera epidemics arise, and this is what happened, with fearsome results, in the Goma refugee camp. At its peak, the Goma epidemic -- which was aggravated by outbreaks of measles -- took hundreds of lives each day.

The United Nations, several national governments, and some private organizations quickly began efforts to stop the spread of diseases at the camp, and those efforts involved various tactics. To control the propagation of cholera, relief workers built latrines that would sequester the feces of infected individuals and keep the feces out of local water supplies; they also used reverse-osmosis equipment to provide drinking water that was free of bacteria. To treat individual victims of cholera, they used oral or intravenous rehydration. And to control measles, they administered vaccines.

All of that was straightforward and comprehensible, because all of it was based on knowledge of the relevant organisms (i.e., humans, cholera bacteria, and measles viruses) and on physical, chemical and biological methods of dealing with those organisms. In short, all of it was based on natural science, an intellectual enterprise, developed in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s, that is quite unique: Natural science is the one and only intellectual system that lets us understand nature, make reliable predictions about nature, and use the laws of nature in attaining our own goals.

All educated persons are aware of natural science, aware of its unique status, and aware of how the practical use of scientific information has changed much of human life during the past 500 years or so. Hence no educated observer could have been surprised to learn that the disease-control campaign at Goma was a multifaceted application of science, and no educated observer could have been surprised to see the particular things that were done as that campaign took shape.

Similarly, no educated observer could have been surprised to see that a lot of things were not done. The relief agencies did not import any squads of shamans, witch doctors, faith healers or mojo men. There were no global appeals for chiropractors, acupuncturists, homeopaths, naturopaths, Eddyists, crystal mystics, or practitioners of "color therapy." There were no airborne deliveries of magical herbs, magical magnets, magical candles, magical pictures or magical crucifixes. And there was no international attempt to thwart the cholera epidemic by singing mystical chants or by manipulating some desiccated scraps of departed holy men.

That, too, was straightforward. The notion of promoting health or curing disease by using magic and mumbo jumbo is a relic from the distant past, when the prevalent approach to dealing with nature was to seek formulas that would override or reverse nature's laws. It was tried for millennia, in countless forms, and it is still employed by ignorant people today, but to no avail. The only approach that has worked is medicine based on science -- and science is the very antithesis of magic.

I have been appalled and disgusted, therefore, to find that a high-school "health" book issued by Holt, Rinehart and Winston teaches the student that science and magic are interchangeable. The book -- Holt Health, dated in 1994 -- explicitly endorses superstitions and magical rubbish, and it depicts magic as an equivalent alternative to scientific medicine. I consider this to be a grave matter indeed, for I believe that Holt's claptrap is dangerous not only to the student's intellectual development but to his health as well.

Let me acknowledge immediately that Holt Health is not the first health text to be written by charlatans, nor is it the first to use falsity, unsupported claims and double-talk to sell superstition and quackery. But I can't recall any earlier book that endorsed the utterly nonsensical notions that are promoted in Holt Health, nor can I recall any earlier book that tried so hard to confuse and deceive the student. The Holt writers have gone to unprecedented lengths in their efforts to attack rationality and to undermine the student's ability to think rationally about biomedical matters.

These efforts are embodied in two feature articles printed under the rubric "Cultural Diversity." One of the articles appears on pages 6 and 7, the other on pages 578 and 579. In both cases, Holt's writers promote ignorant fallacies, cast superstition in the guise of fact, and pointedly refuse to tell what they really are talking about. They load their prose with bafflegab and unexplained terms, including quackish words and phrases that are entirely meaningless, and they lead the student to think that such inane stuff should be taken as information about "health." Their essential message to the student is this: Don't think, don't try to understand, don't ask -- just swallow.

The student who learns that lesson, I assert, will be prey for quacks of every sort.

Tricking the Student

The article on pages 6 and 7 is called "Being Healthy -- What Does It Mean?" After stating that "Health -- like beauty -- means different things to different cultures," the writers soon begin to sling tommyrot. Their first item is merely stupid: "Before the fall of the Soviet Union, those who opposed the ruling government were considered insane, and many political dissidents were sent to mental hospitals." False. Dissidents were committed to hospitals after being labeled as insane, but the label was a pretext, not a diagnosis.

Now the writers start to use "cultural" nonsense for endorsing magic and tricking the student:

A bank clerk in Milwaukee who hears voices makes an appointment with a mental health therapist, but an Inuit shaman expects to hear voices and relies on sage advice from the invisible world.

That comparison is bogus. The clerk's hallucinations are presumably spontaneous and pathological; the shaman's are induced, by well established techniques, during the shaman's magical doings. But what is more important here is that the writers don't define shaman and don't disclose that they are talking about magic. They present the "invisible world" as if it were a matter of fact rather than superstition, and they leave the student to imagine that claims about "sage advice" from "the invisible world" should be accepted as information. This is unconscionable, but there is worse to come.

Turning their attention to something relatively mundane, the writers of Holt's "health" text tell the student that garlic has been "relied upon as a medicine" and that the use of garlic as a "medical remedy" spans many cultures. A "medical remedy" for what? -- and to what effect? Is there any evidence that garlic serves any therapeutic purpose? The writers refuse to say; they evidently want the student to imagine that garlic must be a valuable, universal curative agent simply because many people believe in it. Here the writers are promoting one of the grand fallacies on which superstition thrives: the notion that if something is widely believed, it must be valid (or "there must be something to it"). That is nonsense, of course, and health textbooks should take pains to refute it. Holt Health does the opposite. The writers' attack on rationality is well under way now.

As the attack continues, the writers begin the outright promotion of magical quackery: They present the use of "ginseng root" as an alternative to taking vitamins or to consulting a physician. They do not, however, tell what "ginseng root" is. They don't even give a hint; nor do they disclose that ginseng root is medically worthless, or that belief in the therapeutic powers of ginseng root is based on a long-discredited superstition. I can't imagine that this performance is due to mere ignorance and incompetence. I conclude that the writers are engaging in calculated deception, and I decline to let them get away with it. In Part 2 of this article, therefore, I'll quote their entire passage about ginseng, analyze it, and give essential information about ginseng quackery.

Next, Holt's writers take a stab at promoting acupuncture. Acupuncture is a kind of Oriental nonsense that involves sticking needles into a person's body to influence his "life force" -- but the writers don't mention any of that. They dispense bunkum, and they try to boost acupuncture by making bogus claims, but they never say what acupuncture is. Again, they simply refuse to say what they are talking about. What they are talking about is quackery; this too will be explained in Part 2, where I'll quote their entire acupuncture passage and show how deceptive it is.

After peddling their Oriental magic, the writers uncork a long paragraph that can properly be described as a quack's delight. Here is the paragraph, in full:

Good health is a matter of mind, body, and spirit working together in balance and harmony. Hozro, or harmony, is the aim of the Navajo hataali. The Blessing Way ceremony to bring patients back into balance using chants and meditation. Harmony is also the aim of holistic healing methods, in which all levels of an individual are brought into balance. Thus, health becomes a connecting flow of vitality throughout all parts of an individual's life and thought.

"Mind, body, and spirit working together in balance and harmony"? What does that mean? The answer is: Nothing at all. The words "balance" and "harmony" have no meaning in medicine or biology, and claims dealing with "balance" and "harmony" are pure mumbo jumbo -- a style of mumbo jumbo that turns up regularly in advertisements used by quacks. By putting such stuff into a schoolbook, and by treating it as if it were meaningful information, Holt's writers are setting the student up for crystal-peddlers, "psychic healers" and all of the other quacks who invoke "balance" and "harmony" in promotions for useless products and services.

The rest of Holt's paragraph is more of the same: ". . . . Hozro, or harmony, is the aim of the Navajo hataali." [Whether it's called "hozro" or "harmony," it's still mumbo jumbo. And why don't the writers tell that a "hataali" is a Navajo witch doctor?] ". . . . The Blessing Way ceremony to bring patients back into balance using chants and meditation." [A verb isn't the only thing that's missing from that pseudosentence. Just what is this ceremony that brings patients "back into balance"? And how can we observe this "balance"? Again, the writers tell nothing. Again, they require the student to accept goofy bafflegab as if it were information.] ". . . . Harmony is also the aim of holistic healing methods, in which all levels of an individual are brought into balance." [That word "holistic" is another favorite of quacks, and another that shows up often in quacks' advertisements. It is meaningless.] ". . . . Thus, health becomes a connecting flow of vitality throughout all parts of an individual's life and thought." [That is pure quacktalk, of course. If it means anything at all, it means that Holt is promoting vitalism -- a moldy doctrine which asserts that living things have preternatural properties and faculties, transcending the laws of physics and chemistry. There has never been any evidence to support that notion, but there is a huge body of knowledge, including the entire discipline of organic chemistry, to refute it. Vitalism was definitively rejected by science during the 19th century. Today it persists only among the ignorant.]

The article on pages 6 and 7 ends in utter absurdity:

Cultural diversity can add a rich, new dimension to your view of health and wellness. But you must remain open to new ideas.

"New ideas"? There is nothing new about the grubby magic that the Holt writers are peddling, and there is nothing new about deceiving students and teaching them to be dupes.

Mysterious "Power"

Holt's "Cultural Diversity" article on pages 578 and 579 is titled "Native Americans and Health Care," and it starts by telling that some people seek "sources of treatment" known as "alternative" health-care systems. Not surprisingly, Holt's writers refuse to define alternative. Let me give the information that they've omitted: The term alternative, in phrases such as alternative health-care or alternative medicine or alternative treatment, means unproven or fanciful or just bogus. An "alternative" treatment is one that has not been shown to be safe and effective; it doesn't possess the basic features that rational people demand in any therapeutic procedure.

To promote such fanciful stuff in their "health" book, Holt's writers drag out some unspecified American Indians (whom they call "Native Americans," in accordance with a fashionable pretension). They use these nameless Indians as the focus for an astonishing exhibition of bafflegab, complete with witch doctors, "harmony," mysterious "power" and animism! Here it is:

Native American cultures are examples of cultures that provide alternative health systems for their people.

According to the philosophy of these cultures, all elements of the world -- inanimate objects as well as living things -- have life, spirit, power, and specific roles to play. Each element is related to the others, and each affects the entire universe. When there is harmony among these elements, a state of well-being results. But an imbalance among the elements can cause illness.

When such an imbalance occurs, a Native American may seek the help of a traditional healer. Healers are trained men and women who perform ceremonies to right the imbalance and in so doing heal the illness. Such healing ceremonies may include prayers, rituals, special medicines, and the use of visual symbols.

An "imbalance among the elements" indeed! I needn't point out that the writers have again presented superstition as if it were fact, but I must note that the whole passage is rather unfair to the Indians. The writers haven't told that purveyors of "alternative" treatments can be found as easily in urban shopping centers as in Indian communities. In most big cities you can take your pick of from a veritable regiment of quacks who will offer to tweak your "elements" and correct your "imbalance" (though they won't be able to tell you how the "elements" can be detected, or how the "imbalance" can be measured). You can even find magic-makers who will promise to adjust your "life energy" and fix your "aura"!

The nadir of Holt's article on "alternative" health-care comes as the writers make their final, outrageous attempt to convince the student that magic-makers and practitioners of scientific medicine are comparable: "Like medical doctors," they say, "Native American healers must undergo years of special training. . . ." Of all the writers' efforts to delude the student through false analogies and false implications, that one may be the worst. When I recited it to a physician friend of mine, she commented: "Pianists have to undergo lengthy training, too. I guess that means that when you are sick, you should just have somebody play Chopin at you."

Responsible educators will never lead students to believe that magic is interchangeable with scientific medicine, nor will they promote the superstitions and fallacies that are endorsed in Holt Health. On the contrary, responsible educators will try to ensure that students can see through the very kinds of nonsense that the Holt hacks are promoting. Here are some basic points that students should understand:

  • The mere fact that a belief or practice arose in a distant land or in an unfamiliar culture does not mean that it has any validity.

  • The mere fact that a belief or practice has persisted for a long time, or enjoys great popularity, does not mean that it has any validity. Even after a superstition has been scientifically discredited, it can persist indefinitely among the ignorant.

  • The fact that a medical claim is couched in undefined terms and inscrutable lingo does not mean that the claim is valid. In fact, the occurrence of murky phrases is a rather good indicator that quackery is afoot. Contemporary quacks are especially fond of claims that include the word "holistic," or refer to unidentified, undetectable forms of "energy," or promise to create some undefined, unexplained sort of "balance."

  • "Alternative" treatments are, by definition, practices that have not been shown to be safe and effective. Indeed, many practices that go under the "alternative" label are known to be worthless, harmful or both.

  • Among "alternative" treatments, the use of herbal concoctions imported from the Orient is especially dangerous. Far Eastern governments do little or nothing to regulate the manufacture of such products, and the concoctions may contain heavy-metal compounds or other poisons.

  • Some proponents of herbal quackery like to tell stories about botanical materials that were used in folk medicine before their pharmacologic activity was demonstrated scientifically. These stories often are false, and even those that are true can be highly misleading if the listener does not know about the folk-medicine picture as a whole: Of the folk botanicals that have been tested pharmacologically, most are worthless or even harmful.
There is one more thing that students should understand, and it is the most important point of all. We have learned much in the 500 years since the advent of science, and we should rejoice in this. We have come a long way in comprehending nature and in liberating ourselves from ignorance, and we should be proud of this. We have no need to pretend that superstition is anything but superstition, or that rubbish is anything but rubbish -- whether it is dispensed by witch doctors, by street-corner quacks, or by hacks who write "health" books.

Part 2: Secrets Revealed

Holt Health endorses acupuncture and strives to dignify the use of ginseng root, but it never tells what "acupuncture" means or what "ginseng root" is. The answers are interesting and will give educators some insights into two classic forms of quackery.

Ginseng Root

Here is what the Holt hacks say about ginseng root. I quote their passage in full:

An accountant in Arizona might buy a bottle of vitamin tablets or make an appointment with her doctor for a checkup if she is feeling run-down, while her Chinese counterpart might rely solely on ginseng root as a tonic. A housewife in West Virginia has her choice of these, but might choose the ginseng because her mother and grandmother both dug the roots themselves and prepared them for use by relying on an old family recipe.

Now here are the facts that health educators should know:

The word ginseng has two meanings: It is the common name for any of several herbs that belong to the genus Panax, and it is the commercial name for the root of any such herb. Panax roots are used in making solutions and powders that are sold as magical remedies, and various species of Panax are cultivated, in various parts of the world, to supply roots for the remedy trade.

The idea that a ginseng root has magical, therapeutic powers is one of many beliefs based on the old notion that there are mystical correspondences among parts of the cosmos. This notion has given rise to a superstition called the doctrine of "signatures" or "signs," which holds that there is a correspondence between an object's physical appearance and the object's usefulness in curing disease: If a plant (or some part of the plant) resembles a human liver, it can be used for relieving liver disorders; if a plant (or some part of the plant) looks like a human stomach, it can be used for curing stomach trouble; and so on. According to this superstition, ginseng root is a sort of cure-all, because the root resembles (to some extent) an entire human body. A typical root has ramifications that can be interpreted as arms or legs, and it may even have excrescences that can be interpreted as a head and a penis.

Ginseng roots play a prominent role in "Oriental medicine," and a root that looks especially man-like can command an exceptionally high price. Oriental quacks dispense ginseng concoctions as remedies for specific illnesses, as aphrodisiacs, and as panaceas that allegedly improve overall health. The commercial use of ginseng is not limited to the Orient, however, for ginseng products are promoted to superstitious customers in other parts of the world as well. In the United States, such products are sold widely in "health food" stores and are advertised on radio, on television, and in mass-market "health" magazines.

There is no evidence that ginseng concoctions have any therapeutic value. At best, a ginseng extract may act as a mild stimulant, comparable to coffee or tea. If the sale or promotion of a ginseng product involves a claim that the product can produce a specific therapeutic result, such sale or promotion constitutes quackery.

Because ginseng products have no therapeutic value, the writers of Holt Health are engaging in gross deception when they lead the student to believe that taking a ginseng "tonic" is similar to taking vitamins. Ginseng products are medically worthless. Vitamins, on the other hand, are known to be necessary to health, and specific vitamins are known to have specific preventive and therapeutic effects. (Laymen, of course, may use vitamins in frivolous, superstitious, and even harmful ways, but that is another matter.)

When Holt's hacks depict the use of a ginseng "tonic" as an alternative to consulting a physician, they further deceive the student and they promote a hideous misperception that can directly endanger the student's health and life. Any person who imagines that ginseng is a substitute for a medical checkup is entertaining a dangerous fantasy, whether the person is a superstitious Chinese accountant, an ignorant housewife in West Virginia, or an unfortunate student who has believed the tommyrot in Holt Health.


In attempting to promote acupuncture, Holt's hacks combine obscurity with delusion. Here is their acupuncture passage, in full:

The ancient Chinese healing art of acupuncture is now being used in the West to relieve pain. Many western physicians and scientists refused to accept acupuncture as anything more than mind over matter until first-hand observations of the results changed their opinions. Now several kinds of treatment apply the meridians and pressure points of acupuncture for pain relief.

And here is what health educators should know about that ancient "healing art":

Acupuncture is a Chinese craft whose practitioners allege that they can manipulate a person's physiology by sticking needles into various sites on the person's body. These sites, or "acupuncture points," are said to lie along pathways, called "meridians," that carry a "life force." Acupuncturists claim that their needles alter the flow of the "life force" and produce various physiological effects, from anesthesia to the curing of specific diseases.

The whole thing is, and always has been, nonsense. Acupuncture arose as an outgrowth of astrology, and it originally recognized 365 acupuncture points -- a point for each day in the year. Since then, many new ones have been dreamed up, and there are now more than 2,000 sites that supposedly can be jabbed to influence the "life force."

That "life force" is completely imaginary. Belief in such a force is a vestige of vitalism, a doctrine that was discredited long ago. (See Part 1 of this article.)

Of course, the "meridians" that bear the "life force" are imaginary too. They were contrived by people who knew nothing about internal anatomy, who did not try to study internal anatomy, and who relied on utterly fanciful conceptions of how the human body worked. When we view the meridians in the light of our modern knowledge of anatomy and physiology, we find that the meridians have no anatomical or physiological basis whatsoever.

Along with many other absurd, traditional practices that figure in "Oriental medicine," acupuncture lost favor in China when the Chinese learned about scientific medical and surgical techniques developed in the West. The traditional practices were revived, however, for political and economic reasons, under the Communist regime led by Mao Zedong. This revival included some bizarre "demonstrations" that were staged during the 1960s and 1970s to convince visitors from the West that acupuncture could be used to anesthetize patients during surgery. We now know that the demonstrations were shams: In typical cases the patients were decorated with acupuncture needles but were anesthetized, secretly, by chemical methods. When gullible Western observers went home and told about the demonstrations, acupuncture gained a specious credibility and became a prominent and fashionable form of quackery in the United States and some other Western countries.

All of that information is useful in analyzing the deceptive passage about acupuncture in Holt Health. Consider Holt's last claim first: "Now several kinds of treatment apply the meridians and pressure points [i.e., acupuncture points] . . . for pain relief." Horseflop! No one can "apply" the meridians, because the meridians are fictions; no one can "apply" the pressure points either, because they too are fictions -- as Holt's hacks surely know, if they have looked into acupuncture at all.

Next, consider Holt's claim that "Many western physicians and scientists refused to accept acupuncture as anything more than mind over matter until first-hand observations of the results changed their opinions." I assume that "many western physicians and scientists" is Holt's name for those gullible persons whom the Chinese fooled with phony demonstrations, and I hasten to report what Holt's hacks have concealed: No study of acupuncture has shown that acupuncture produces any medical result other than a placebo effect. This brings me to Holt's opening claim, the claim that "acupuncture is now being used in the West to relieve pain." To the extent that acupuncture may function at all in the relief of pain, it merely functions as a placebo.

I have been interested in quackery for some years, and my files contain various articles that deal with acupuncture in one way or another. Among my favorites is a story that appeared in the Los Angeles Times for 14 January 1989. Written by a reporter named Ashley Dunn, it was a pathetically credulous account of how two California acupuncturists, Cho Sheng-gung and Wu Li-hsia, claimed to have used acupuncture to cure a skin infection that afflicted some goldfish! Ashley Dunn swallowed their nonsense whole. He informed his readers that "Acupuncture involves harmonizing life forces in the body through the insertion of needles at strategic points," and then he recounted the tale of how Wu Li-hsia was able to "stimulate" each goldfish's immune system:

In human beings, the treatment to stimulate the body's immune system involves three points . . . . The first, on the shin, about three inches below the kneecap, is called zu san li, or "three measures of the leg." The problem, of course, is that fish have no shins. So, Wu picked a spot near the fish's tail and hoped for the best.

So much for all those notions about meridians and precisely located insertion points!

To top his story off, Dunn quoted a comment by one Hwang San-hong, president of something called the Acupuncture Medicine Association of Southern California. This luminary said there was no reason why acupuncture shouldn't work on fishes, and he explained this by invoking his deep knowledge of biology: "Most animals," he said, "have a spine and nerves and a blood system. They're almost the same as humans."

Maybe Hwang San-hong really believed that. But even if he didn't, his silly pronouncement was no worse than the rest of the twaddle that acupuncturists serve up.

To learn more about acupuncture, and to read about some of the dangers that it entails, educators may consult Arthur Taub's essay "Acupuncture: Nonsense with Needles." The essay appears in The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America, issued in 1993 by Prometheus Books (Buffalo, New York).

I thank William T. Jarvis, Paula Benedict and Earl Hautala for providing information that I have used in writing both parts of this article. William T. Jarvis is a professor of preventive medicine (at Loma Linda University, in Loma Linda, California) and the president of The National Council Against Health Fraud. Paula Benedict is the Council's secretary. Earl Hautala is the Textbook League's manager of research.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


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