Tag Archives: skeptic

Indonesia’s smoking clinic featured on Al-Jazeera

I’ve written quite a bit about a bunch of Indonesians who claim they can treat cancer and all sorts of other ailments with magic cigarettes. It’s bizarre stuff. The Sydney Morning Herald and AFP news agency have picked up on the story. Now Al-Jazeera and the Global Post are joining in. The images tell 1000 words, but still the government has done nothing to intervene:

No Tobacco Day in Indonesia? Try a ‘health cigarette’

As the world marks No Tobacco Day, Indonesia is again in the spotlight and The Jakarta Post has again covered itself in infamy. On the eve of today’s event, the English-language daily published another installment in its bizarre campaign to promote “healthy cigarettes”. Using pseudo-scientific language, the author of an “opinion” piece claims that cancer patients are being successfully treated with scientifically altered cigarettes that vacuum up all harmful “free radicals” linked mercury.

If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny:

… apparently, a biochemist from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) has found a way to do just that — neutralise tobacco through a nanobiological process. i.e. a process characterised by the interplay between physics, materials science, synthetic organic chemistry, engineering and biology. The researcher has successfully treated a number of terminal lung cancer patients through a detoxification method that includes smoking the “healthy cigarettes” of her invention.

The unnamed scientist sounds suspiciously like Dr. Greta Zahar, of “Divine Cigarettes” fame. But Alita Damar, the writer of the opinion piece, seems to follow the template set by Australian contributor Murray Clapham last year and doesn’t name the mastermind behind this historic medical breakthrough. Best to keep all those desperate cancer sufferers guessing! She continues:

Indeed, the nanostructure molecular blocks of these health cigarettes remove the electrons of the free radical gases contained in tobacco smoke, in particular those promoted by mercury, thereby neutralising the ill-effects of smoking. Unlike regular cigarettes, this cigarette smoke is “odorless”.

So all the harmful effects of smoking, from impotence to stroke and heart disease and emphysema, not to mention cancer, are nullified by this new treatment. And what of the doubters? They’re dismissed out of hand:

Naturally, the controversial method has raised controversy [spellbinding wordplay here] in the wake of the anti-tobacco campaign here and around the world. Speculation has also been rife that she might work for the tobacco industry. It’s not true, of course. Years ago most patients would only survive in the next few months due to their poor prognostics, but many of whom are still alive.

And what, dare we ask, is the evidence that smoking such cigarettes cures or halts the spread of cancer? None. Unless you factor in the power of the placebo. In the absence of any evidence, we must conclude that the free radical, nano-engineering blah blah being touted here is just another form of “alternative medicine” which desperately ill people will try as a last resort. And as The Economist noted last week, there is very little evidence that alternative medicines work beyond the placebo effect, which may be considerable.

Damar claims that the mysterious researchers are part of the “complexity science” movement, and she notes that they have “presented” their findings at international meetings:

As controversial as it may seem, the detoxification process is based on meta-engineering, for example, the development of new knowledge…

This science, which includes the less popular quantum physics, deals with cells and interaction between cells. It thereby enables a better understanding on how the whole body system functions, thus leading to the achievement of “holistic health”. Hence, we are speaking of a science that potentially brings about breakthroughs in medical science which is generally based on reductionism, or a science that may well “revolutionise” medicine.

The detoxification method has been presented in a number of international forums attended by scientists working on Theoretical Physics and Nano or Computer Science, such as the recent ICEME (International Conference on Engineering and Meta-Engineering) in Florida, the US.

I looked up the proceedings of this conference (which one anonymous blogger described as “junk” ) and found the paper to which Damar appears to be referring. It’s by Sutiman B. Sumitro, identified as representing the Department of Biology and “Laboratory of Molecular Biology” at Brawijaya University in West Java.

The paper is titled “Study on Biradical Based Complex Structure: A PossibleWay to Find out Natural Nanoparticles from the Human Body”. A paper with the same name by Sutiman Sumitro  also appears on the fascinating website of something called the Indonesia Nanobiology Institute.  Take the time to read the 4-page paper and decide for yourself if it’s credible. I’m not a scientist so I can only guess.

Sumitro is a long-standing associate of Zahar, that “strange granny” I’ve mentioned before. They seem to be the driving forces of the “nanobiology institute” and co-author articles posted there. Check out the paper titled “Overcoming Cigarette for Health without altering the Flavor (Brief illustration of scientific background and evidences)”. Fascinating. It says Zahar is from the “Free Radicals Institute” of Malang. So many institutes I just can’t keep up. Here’s the abstract, or as the authors put it, the “Basic Concept and Philosophy”:

This is about technology to eliminate free-radicals and to transform particulates contained in the smoke having characteristic to develop order. The idea is based on the assumption that in the biological system, life is an ordered system with internal driven activities. We consider a complexity concepts cover self-organization and edge-of-chaos phenomena in the living systems. As may we know that in the basic process of life (called metabolism), there is ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions, which enables a living organism to continually generate, repair and perpetuate itself. Thermodynamically, the ordered structure of the living system is maintained by continually exert entropy to the outside of the system.

Pretty clear, yeah? They even include a diagram to illustrate “complexity in living system”:

So, we can rest assured the Nobel committee is on its way to Bandung or Malang (or wherever) to bestow its honours on Dr. Zahar (who has previously stated she has no interest in having her work reviewed by “Western” scientists), her colleague  Sutiman Sumitro and their groundbreaking team. When are all those silly Western evidence-freaks going to come to their senses?

Sadly, The Jakarta Post isn’t the only outlet for those willing to peddle this stuff. Take a look at this blog for more.

For a dose of reality, check out this story in the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday, with the depressing stats on smoking in Indonesia.

Or check the National Cancer Institute’s website and read what it has to say about free radicals (such as oxygen) and antioxidants (such as vitamin C). It says that while serious research is ongoing, recent “large-scale, randomised clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions” about whether antioxidants slow or prevent the development of cancer. As for actually reversing that damage, there seems to be no evidence at all.

There is also serious research being done into the use of nanoparticles to fight cancer. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, have sent gold nanoparticles into the nuclei of cancer cells and killed them (NB: sent particles into cancer cells, not used particles to hoover up free radicals). Their research has been cited as a communication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

I’d love to know who is behind these opinion pieces and features in The Jakarta Post, coming as they do on the eve of No Tobacco Day and as the government tries to improve its appalling record on smoking regulations. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the tobacco industry’s advertising dollars, would it?

Speaking of flying pigs …

… and divine inscriptions in cat fur, what about this?

Does anyone else see a flying pig in these clouds? We owe flickr-user fpharpua2002 thanks for sharing this miracle. I wonder where this revelation appeared? If it was over Indonesia’s police headquarters it would be a really spooky intervention, don’t you think?

What might god be trying to say, I wonder?

Indonesia’s Dr. Cigarettes thumbs nose at ‘Western’ science

Cancer cure, anyone?

The Jakarta Post has given the front page of its feature section, with a spill on the following page, to the claims of that “strange granny” Gretha Zahar about cancer cures and “divine cigarettes”. But instead of debunking her, the Post leaves its readers with the impression that Zahar might be onto something. The uncritical, unthinking headline says it all: “Divine cigarettes used to treat cancer”.

Journalists have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to reporting about science and medicine, but I still find it amazing that a metropolitan broadsheet in a major Asian capital could be so dismissive of the fundamental importance of the scientific method, and so blithe in its reporting on putative cures or treatments for a horrible disease that afflicts so many people. Maybe I just shouldn’t expect anything better.

I’ve already written about this in earlier blogs, but just to re-cap, Zahar claims to have found a treatment for cancer that involves asking her patients to smoke cigarettes. Yep, you got it. Patients who have never smoked, or who may have quit the habit, along with those who may have contracted cancer through smoking, are encouraged to light up cigarettes fitted with special filters which she has developed using “nanotechnology”. The filters, she claims, remove toxins from the “divine cigarettes”, and the subsequent smoke draws cancer-causing free-radicals out of the body through the skin. Combined with a bit of “traditional” massage using certain oils and residues, and some blowing of “divine” smoke over the skin by the good doctor herself, and hey presto goodbye cancer! Oh, and it works pretty well on autism as well!!

She reckons she’s treated thousands of people this way, but refuses to publish her research in peer-reviewed journals:

Gretha … was not interested in seeking acknowledgment [sic] from international scientists. She said the findings in her 13-year PhD research on bi-radical development had not been given any consideration.

“I say that’s a waste of time (seeking acknowledgement from international scientists),” she said. “What’s my purpose? I want to help people. Do I need to announce that everywhere?

“Do we need proof from abroad that this country is special? If people consider you as tempeh [simple soybean cake], that’s good enough,” she said, lashing out on the Western medical sector’s perception of Indonesian scientists.

It would be laughable if it wasn’t so sad, sad for Indonesian scientists who understand the value of evidence and sad for all those cancer sufferers who might be desperate enough to light up a “divine cigarette”. If the PhD-holding nano-doctor truly wants to help people, why doesn’t she encourage critical international examination of her theories so that all those millions of cancer sufferers around the world can benefit? If you want to help people, good doctor, you should announce your potential cure everywhere.

Note the perverse nationalism that she uses to justify her unscientific attitude, as if any request for evidence to back up her claims is just a manifestation of the “Western medical sector’s” prejudices against Indonesians. It’s so absurd I almost don’t know why I’m writing about it, except that smoking kills 400,000 Indonesians every year and the country has turned itself into a playground for Big Tobacco.

The Post’s website carries comments by one of her disciples who claims to have received incredible health benefits from Zahar’s magic cigarettes. The 71-year-old’s biggest backer appears to be Australian businessman John Clapham, who says “divine cigarettes” helped his battle with cancer.

Whatever the truth behind Zahar’s claims, whatever her motives and the motives of those who trumpet her activities, we should be very suspicious until there is credible scientific evidence to prove that “divine cigarettes” treat or cure anything. And until then, The Jakarta Post should be mindful of just how harmful false hopes can be.

(Photo courtesy of MartijnL via Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t mention ‘Blue Energy’: Indonesian president meets US science envoy

Sometimes it’s just surreal. When it goes beyond annoying and infuriating and becomes so damn weird it’s funny, and you come face-to-face with the idea that certain people, including some very powerful people, may not occupy the same reality that you do, and that the world you know might just be a figment of your imagination.

I’m sure Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono lives in an alternative reality, one where dreams and facts blur into one miasmic vision of the world, and where truth and fiction are almost the same thing. Whether it’s better or worse than the reality most people share is hard to say, because it’s very difficult to gain even the faintest insight into the head of “SBY”.

I was confronted by this queasy feeling of disconnected reality last week when SBY met US science envoy Bruce Alberts. Dr. Alberts is a biochemist, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, professor emeritus in the biochemistry department at the University of California, San Francisco, twice president of the National Academy of Sciences and has co-chaired the InterAcademy Council, an advisory institution governed by the presidents of 15 international science academies. Despite the batik shirt he chose for his meeting with SBY, he’s a very serious dude.

SBY is an ex-general with a doctorate in agricultural science and a penchant for writing sickening ballads about  love and patriotism. Doctor Yudhoyono’s scientific credentials are best illustrated by the “Blue Energy” hoax, in which he was famously fooled into throwing the Indonesian government’s support behind a product that was supposed to turn water into fuel.

Djoko Suprapto demonstrates 'Blue Energy'

Indeed, Yudhoyono was so impressed with the mysterious new fuel source he named it “Blue Energy“. He met the “inventor”, East Java villager Djoko Suprapto, who claimed to be able to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water to create fuel.  Yudhoyono set up a “Blue Energy” research centre which he visited several times, and reportedly allocated more than a million dollars to the project. He even set up a “Blue Energy” exhibit for the edification of international delegates attending the UN climate change conference in Bali in December, 2007.

It took far too long, but eventually the ruse was exposed by genuine scientists in Indonesia. For a start, they noted that Djoko had published nothing in peer-reviewed journals about his miracle new fuel source. The inventor subsequently disappeared, reappeared in hospital, and then launched a campaign to clear his name culminating in a bizarre public demonstration of his “fuel” which he now claimed was a mix of 70 percent water and 30 percent diesel.

But the game was already up. Muhammadiyah University had already declared his “invention” a hoax and lodged a complaint with the police seeking the return of about $135,000 it had spent on research.

Unlike the university’s rector, who resigned over the scandal, Yudhoyono simply pretended nothing had happened. Amazingly, he went on to win a second term last July and his role in the “Blue Energy” fiasco wasn’t mentioned once by anyone concerned with his fitness to govern.

So that’s the background you won’t read on the US State Department website about Yudhoyono’s meeting with Dr. Alberts. You also won’t read about the appalling state of Indonesia’s education system, where cheating is rife and professorships are routinely bought and sold, or the disaster that is the country’s hospital system. You also won’t read that Yudhoyono sat back and did nothing while an innocent woman was jailed and harassed in the courts for daring to complain to her friends about being wrongly diagnosed by a private hospital. In fact, he presided over the passing of the libel law that was used to prosecute her.

You also won’t read about how Yudhoyono’s Indonesia closed the United States Naval Medical Research Unit-2 for alleged non-scientific activities including espionage. The NAMRU centre was staffed largely by Indonesian scientists and was doing research, among other things, into malaria and bird flu that could have benefited the world. Indonesia essentially accused it of plotting to steal samples of viruses it claimed proprietary rights over, for the purpose of enriching US pharmaceutical companies.

What you do read on the US State Department website is how, during his meeting with Dr. Alberts, Yudhoyono “expressed his vision of Indonesia as an ‘innovation nation’ and how expanded science and technology cooperation can spur such innovation”. In SBY’s head, like a Slavador Dali painting, it appears that visions and dreams and reality are all the same thing.

To Dr. Alberts’s credit, he steered clear of publicly endorsing such drivel. Instead he expressed far more modest ambitions for America’s scientific exchanges with Indonesia, starting with some Science 101 which the good Dr. Yudhoyono should carefully note. People in countries like Indonesia need to learn how to use evidence to determine courses of action, he said. This simple scientific principle is “important for democracy”, he said, because it helped to ensure citizens were “not fooled by politicians”.

(Photos of Alberts and Yudhoyono courtesy of US Embassy, Djoko via Java Pos, and Dali courtesy of Raul Villalon via flickr)

Indian yogi passes test, no food or water for two weeks!!

Indian yogi Prahlad Jani has just spent two weeks under examination in hospital to verify claims he doesn’t eat, drink or go to the toilet. And guess what – he passed the “scientific” examination and is indeed a freak of nature!

According to this news report out of India today, the 83-year-old holy man (not pictured here) was “blessed by a goddess” when he was a child and doesn’t need the stuff that science says is necessary for survival. In fact, the Bearded One claims he has not taken food or water for 70 years. Even more incredible, there are people who are actually stupid enough to believe him!

The report by a Western news wire states as a matter of fact that the yogi…

… spent a fortnight in a hospital in the western India state of Gujarat under constant surveillance from a team of 30 medics equipped with cameras and closed circuit television. During the period, he neither ate nor drank and did not go to the toilet.

Constant surveillance, eh? Didn’t eat or drink a single thing? In that case he should be dead. Oh yeah, I forgot, he was blessed by a goddess!

But hold on, later in the story we’re told that the magic man did have access to water during the experiment.

“(Jani’s) only contact with any kind of fluid was during gargling and bathing periodically during the period,” G. Ilavazahagan, director of India’s Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS), said in a statement.

So it’s not exactly a very rigorous, controlled kind of experiment, is it? The yogi’s “mysterious” powers were being tested by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) with a view to enhancing soldiers’ survival techniques.

I hope the same organisation isn’t testing the safety mechanisms on India’s nuclear arsenal, or we’re all screwed.

Divine Cigarettes: are these Clapham’s scientists?

Last month I wrote about an article in The Jakarta Post by Australian businessman Murray Clapham, who claimed to have discovered a form of healthy smoking. The amazing technology, combining ancient wisdom with nanotechnology, was the work of a group of unidentified “Indonesian scientists”, he said.

Clapham is a director of the Victor Chang Foundation, a charity named after pioneering Australian heart surgeon Victor Chang. Fellow directors quickly disowned Clapham and rejected any suggestion that they endorsed any form of tobacco smoking.

It’s worth having another look at some of Clapham’s bizarre claims:

Tobacco and smoking cigarettes were regarded as healthy and a successful part of medicine in many countries without a clear scientific explanation long after Columbus. Only in the last 40 years the link between poor health and cigarettes has become a focus. Why did it change and what should we do about it?

The Indonesians working on this project suspect it’s a combination of factors. Environmental pollutants affecting the tobacco leaf, pesticides and the fertilizers, together with some of the handling techniques and the chemicals placed in cigarettes…

There is growing evidence of the major impact of mercury in our environment and particularly dental interventions affecting our health that need study in the context of the smoking issue.

More exciting is the combination of ancient knowledge of tobaccos healing properties, new developments in science and nano technology providing the possibility of placing nano particles into cigarettes. The smoke then acts as a conduit to reach all parts of the body quickly to fight disease.

To conclude, let’s ban unhealthy cigarettes and promote healthy smoking. This will serve many purposes, the pro smokers can have their cake and eat it without fear, the anti smokers are likely to have a new cheap readily available healing tool.

So you see, tobacco is really good for you. The health concerns raised in the past 40 years are really just a matter of “focus”, and much further research is needed before we can settle this controversial “issue”.

All this left me wondering what motivated Clapham and where he got these strange ideas. Who are these scientists he so emphatically endorses and what research have they conducted?

Then I came across an Indonesian “doctor” called Gretha Zahar and her cohort of “meditative” scientists. They are peddling various cures and treatments for everything from cancer to autism, based on free-radical theory, traditional Indonesian herbs and massages, and “divine cigarettes” which use “nanotchnology” filters to transform, they say, ordinary cigarette smoke into fumes with quite incredible healing powers.

One of Zahar’s treatments includes blowing the “magic” cigarette smoke into the ears of children to cure them of autism. Packets of nano-treated cigarette filters are being flogged on the Internet for just over a dollar each. She is described as a nuclear scientist but neither Zahar nor her accomplices  (including a “Budist with six sence”) seem able to reveal their breakthroughs in cancer research in normal English, hence the google-translater English on their website:

Not easy to understand explanation Gretha bu. Modern physics, nuclear chemistry, combined with nanotechnology, when incorporated into the description, the menus are pretty hard to digest. But apparently everything is very simple in practice. Medicine for all diseases it turned out there in our own kitchen: no eggs, coffee, salt, garlic, coconut milk, fermipan … Only one drug is unusual: a cigarette! Cigarette therapy is mixed specifically, the smoke blown into the ear canal, nose, and mouth of a patient through a tube. Patients placed on a copper board, dibalur with 7 kinds of potions, while smoke therapy conducted at the sidelines of the process. It is strange to see a sophisticated invention is practiced with so easy and simple, as simple as an old school era of village-style treatment.

There are also a few disciples willing to spread the word with uncritical blogposts:

Foundations for future growth of science that has been prepared by the bu Gretha and friends. This is a multidisciplinary science that not only holistic, but also unique, because it brings and realize the ultimate dream of mankind since the classical period. Me and my friends endlessly amazed to see a scientist who once ‘healer’, a moment to talk about advanced science in a mixture of Indonesian and English languages, and then he blew membalur and patients with bare feet, without gloves and caps nose. In the morning, dusk and midnight, ‘healer’ This took him membalur themselves with coffee, coconut and egg white mixture, or salt.

In her spare time she only needs to just lay down the floor, while blowing smoke into the ear klobot Divine. “The floor good for your health, because the Earth to neutralize the excess electric current that causes the rhythms are not in harmony in our body. Salt is good for capturing free radicals in our bodies. The best treatment is to use their bare hands, not the gloved hand, let alone machines, because … knowest thou not that the human body are molded nano greatest in the world? “, he said, smiling, as if to justify the ritual of our traditional healers have long used salt, eggs, bare hands, also floors in their medical practice. It is very appropriate to its name: Gretha means pearl, Zahar’s brightness, Revealed, grounded.

I wonder whether the elderly Ibu Zahar – or “strange granny” as one of her admirers affectionately refers to her – is among the eminent “scientists” of Clapham’s article. They surely deserve Nobel prizes for medicine if their claims are true! Clapham himself didn’t name them, so he leaves us with no choice but to speculate.

Anyone curious about the latest credible research into cancer and free radicals can check out the National Cancer Research Institute website. Basically there is no reliable evidence that antioxidants (such as Vitamin E and A) can prevent or even slow cancer, let alone cure it. And, ahem, the institute seems unaware of the fascinating Indonesian research into nano-treated filters on “divine cigarettes”.

Zahar and her friends also make claims about the causes of autism related to vaccinations. These have been floating around for some time but again, there is no reliable evidence of any connection. There is also no evidence that mercury in dental fillings can cause cancer or any other disease. The US Food and Drug Administration last year said: “While elemental mercury has been associated with adverse health effects at high exposures, the levels released by dental amalgam fillings are not high enough to cause harm in patients”.

For more information on mercury scaremongering, check out this article at Quackwatch called The ‘Mercury Toxicity’ Scam: How Anti-Amalgamists Swindle People. People with a special interest, like Clapham, might also be interested in this article: How Quackery Harms Cancer Patients.