Mayo Clinic study: Rhino-horn extract killed Michael Jackson

That headline is not true. But given that the truth seems irrelevant to the problem of saving the world’s few remaining rhinos, I think it might just be necessary.

Rhinoceros are being slaughtered by poachers who sell the horns for as much as a $1 million for use in fraudulent “medicines” claiming to treat everything from impotence to hangover to cancer. NPR’s Frank Langfitt had a disturbing and depressing report on this today on All Things Considered,Vietnam’s Appetite for Rhino Horn Drives Poaching in Africa“:

Africa is facing a growing epidemic: the slaughter of rhinos.

So far this year, South Africa has lost more than 290 rhinos — an average of at least two a day. That puts the country on track to set yet another record after poachers killed 668 rhinos in 2012.

Behind the rise in killings are international criminal syndicates and global economic change. Poachers have gone high-tech, using helicopters, silencers and night vision goggles to meet the growing demand for rhino horn in East Asia, especially Vietnam.

Some newly rich Vietnamese believe rhino horn — used in traditional Chinese medicine — can now treat all kinds of illnesses. Last year in Vietnam, rhino horn sold for up to $1,400 an ounce, which is about the price of gold.

Rhinoceros horn has no medicinal value, but the false perception that it does is propelling the extinction of the species.

We have to attack that perception. And simply repeating the truth doesn’t seem to be an effective way of doing that.

It’s really a shame how damaging taking rhinoceros horn as “medicine” turns out to be.

So perhaps the solution isn’t to keep telling the truth. The problem is a pernicious and persistent set of legends, myths, conspiracy theories (“traditional” medicine is “being suppressed,” etc.). Maybe we need to counter that with a different set of legends, myths and conspiracy theories.

Rhino-horn extract causes liver damage.

Rhino-horn extract causes impotence. And baldness. Gout, flatulence, fatigue and lower-back pain.

And cancer. All kinds of cancer. Steve Jobs didn’t have cancer until he started taking rhino horn.

The shady dealers trading in rhinoceros horns all secretly work for big multinational pharmaceutical companies. They deny this because they don’t want to be legally liable for the damage that ingesting rhino-horn is doing to the gullible rich people buying it. The bankers are all in on it. And Wall Street. And, um, the CIA.

That sort of thing.

For this to work, of course, these counter-legends and counter-rumors will need to spread in places like China and Vietnam where most of the market for the illicit trade in rhinoceros horn is based. I’m not sure how to do that, exactly, but I think invoking names like Steve Jobs and Michael Jackson — people famous all over the world who are now famously dead — might help our counter-legends gain some traction there.

That’s a bit unpleasant, since it falsely connects those folks to callous behavior they had no part in during their lives. Seems like speaking ill of the dead — and like bearing false witness against those neighbors. But if such rumors could help to eliminate the demand for rhinoceros horn and thereby help to save these wonderful creatures, then I think both Jobs and Jacko would approve.

Sun Myung Moon might not have approved, but I still heard that he died from rhino-horn-induced liver failure. You’ll never read that in the “official” news reports, of course, because of the cover-up. But it’s true.

It’s not true, but that’s how this could work. Famous person dies, we blame rhino-horn poisoning.

Or we don’t even need to wait for them to die. You know why Angelina Jolie has all those adopted children? Brad Pitt took rhino-horn extract. Just once. And now he’s impotent. He should have known better, since George Clooney warned him when the same thing happened to him. And to Leonardo DiCaprio. (Ben Affleck denies it happened to him. He swears up and down that the rumors saying otherwise are untrue.)

Would this work? I don’t know. Nothing else is working and we haven’t got all the time in the world to figure this out.

Spreading falsehoods and rumors is unsavory, but it might help to end demand for a useless “medicine” by convincing would-be customers that trade in rhinoceros horn is fraudulent, foolish and deadly.

And that part is actually true.


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  • Boidster

    Spreading falsehoods and rumors is unsavory

    Little known footnote to the Ten Commandments: “…for these are unsavory.”

    But seriously, I get the urge, but Ends something something Means. What is really needed is more of this.

  • Jereko

    I honestly clicked on that expecting cowbell…

  • Hexep

    Fact: Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known as TCM, is bullshit. Straight-up, no-foolin’ bullshit. It does not work. Five-elements theory doesn’t work. Acupuncture doesn’t work. Meridian therapy doesn’t work. Eating heart-shaped leaves to cure hypertension doesn’t work. Eating ground-up tiger cock to cure your ED doesn’t work. Eating ground-up chicken fetuses to cure your priapism doesn’t work. Eating donkey paste – what the ever-living fuck is donkey paste? – to regulate your menstruation doesn’t work. TCM had two and exactly two good ideas – that regular physical exercise is good for you, and that particular foods could be healthy in moderation but not in excess. That’s it. Two ideas.

    But it’s sacrosant over here, because TCM is an integral and indisputable part of Chinese Culture (TM), every tenant of which is holy beyond reproach. There are two medical systems in this country – the one that works, and the one that is bullshit. Real money that could be spent on antiseptic or on antibiotics or on real, actual, functioning scientific medicine is instead pissed away on 999 or herbal sorcery or bullshit hobbies for over-educated old people at the expense of actual human life.

    It is a real thing that is killing my country. It is a nonsense extravagance that is choking us. It’s enough to make a man wish that Chairman Mao had finished the job and beaten this garbage out of the country once and for all.

  • D Johnston

    My understanding is that Mao Zedong had a lot to do with the promotion of TCM. There were already modern hospitals in China by the time the Communists took over, and the old superstitions were fading out. That’s when Mao decided to take those beliefs, package them up as though they were a single branch (as opposed to a collection of religious and folk practices spanning some 2000 years), and slapping that “TCM” brand on them. It wasn’t because he thought any of those folk treatments worked, it was because he was promoting a form of cultural chauvinism in which anything Chinese was held to be de facto better than anything Western.

    So in a sense, TCM is Chairman Mao continuing to kill people from beyond the grave.

  • Hexep

    The fact that TCM is still going strong in both the SARs and the Tangshan suggest that it wasn’t just Mao’s doing. After all, he was Mr. ‘wash-your-hands.’

    But in my experience, the phenomenon that you’re describing has absolutely happened – just primarily over the previous 20 years rather than the previous 60. It is my consideration that this is a symptom of a larger, and sadly more complicated problem to which I have no easy answer; it is wrapped up in the essence of how the Chinese see themselves and the world around them, and how they can move onward into a worldview that will get them what they actually want.

  • hf

    I know that after we forced Japan to open its borders, the Meiji government modernized the country. And while they were going against tradition, they created a ‘traditional’ and ‘purely Japanese’ form of the Shinto religion, purging it of foreign Buddhist elements. Seems like they intended this as a smokescreen. They certainly made sure to claim that the Japanese Emperor was divine, and that they represented the Emperor. (Note that before and after this period, the Japanese people seem to grab and incorporate into their religious practice anything that’s not nailed down, “foreign” or not. So the Meiji’s approach seems ‘impure’ on another level, by its own lights. But that’s a foreigner’s view.)

    Seems to me the Chinese government is going against tradition in at least two ways – three if you distinguish Maoist and Marxist tradition. What would happen if people anonymously pointed out how the government is imitating Japan?

  • Lorehead

    There are some studies suggesting that acupuncture might do some good, although I have no idea why that might be.

  • Kirala

    I have a friend who swears it got her through severe nausea during her pregnancy. I mentally place acupuncture in the category of “probably doesn’t hurt, might help,” along with a number of more scientifically verified things which have not proven as useful as advertised. (I’m looking at you, over-the-counter allergy meds!)

    I would, however, require more verification if acupuncture deprived the world of something rare and wonderful. Like, say, a cool-looking endangered species.

  • Lliira

    For things like pain and nausea, yes. Those are things that are especially susceptible to the placebo effect and to someone else taking the time to show they care for you and what you’re going through. Merely being touched by someone else in a caring way can help pain in particular tremendously. And then there are the endorphins released both by someone else caring for you and by the fact that you’re having needles stuck into your body.

    Here is my experience of what Western medicine does for patients in pain, especially for women in pain: 1) Ignore completely. 2) Medicate with extremely strong prescriptions that cause as many problems as they solve. 3) Imply you’re exaggerating. 4) Wave you off, shrugging about how nothing can be done oh well. 5) Tests, tests, and more tests, many incredibly painful. 6) More medication. Never attention, never caring, and any medical professional who treats you as if what you’re saying is legitimate is like manna from heaven. And that’s not counting my emergency room experience, in which I was on a gurney sobbing, my chart reading 10/10 on the pain scale, and a male nurse told me to smile.

    So it’s no wonder so many people end up going somewhere else for help. Other people LISTEN. They act like you’re a human being and like something can be done for you! They act like something should be done for you, like it’s not just whatever to live your life in agony. And since pain is very susceptible to mood (and vice versa), a professional or pseudo-professional just acting like they care, and touching you like they’re not going to be burned with your icky disabled germs, is likely a pretty phenomenal experience.

  • Lorehead

    I believe you and I’m really sorry to hear about that. Hope a hug over the Internet helps.

  • smrnda

    Thanks for a great observation. I’m definitely not a believer in ‘alt med’ but I realize that bad experiences with commercial medicine (I prefer that label for what we have Stateside) makes people want any alternative that doesn’t treat you with total callousness and indifference.

  • Lliira

    Yes, commercial medicine is a much better term for it. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with Western medicine, just the way it’s practiced (or malpracticed), at least in the U.S.

  • arcseconds

    Unfortunately that sounds not unlike the two acquaintances of mine with chronic pain, and I live somewhere with a semi-sane health system.

    You forgot the “make you explain it all over again and justify every step all over again (including why you’re not going to try remedy 1 yet again) because who needs to read and understand case histories”.

  • Lliira

    Oh gods yes. Every time. And not just every time I go to a different doctor, every time I go back to the same doctor. My new pain doctor is much better so far though, and hopefully he will remain so.

  • ShifterCat

    And that’s not counting my emergency room experience, in which I was on a gurney sobbing, my chart reading 10/10 on the pain scale, and a male nurse told me to smile.

    And you would also have been in too much pain to lunge from your gurney and strangle the life out of him as he deserved.

  • Fusina

    I wish you lived in my area. I have an awesome doctor, and his staff is friendly and nice too. I left one awesome doc because the receptionist was always cranky.

    And try to explain that a trip to the grocery store exhausts you to the point of immobility, and that you are always in pain. Will be bringing that up at the next visit. Had to make sure I could trust this one first. But the first time he saw me, I was off my anti-D and was a bit paranoid (or totally psycho, one of them), and he was gentle and caring. So far, so good.

  • Persia

    I know it’s true in the US and suspect it’s true worldwide: Traditional physicians aren’t trained to deal with pain management, acute or chronic. And as a result many have no idea what to do when faced with it.

    I’m so sorry for your experience.

  • Random_Lurker

    Doctors are trained like mechanics, to fix what is broken. When you have a problem that doesn’t fit neatly into procedures and diagnosis, getting a doctor to care for the person and not the symptom is a bit like arm wrestling an octopus.

    And mental health care is even worse.

  • DMG

    The question isn’t “does someone experience benefit after acupuncture?” but “does someone experience benefit *because* of acupuncture?”

    You can test this by giving real acupuncture to a group of people, and sham acupuncture (basically stick needles in randomly) to another group, measuring the results of each.

    Whenever this has been tried, the two groups end up statistically indistinguishable. Acupuncture itself confers no benefit beyond the nice feeling that someone is doing something ostensibly for your health.

  • Lorehead

    But that’s the thing: in some studies, for example, real acupuncture relieves symptoms better than sham acupuncture. One limitation of those studies is that it’s possible to fool patients and the evaluating physicians, but not the acupuncturists themselves always know whether they’re giving real acupuncture or sham acupuncture. So, the placebo effect might sneak in that way.

  • Hexep

    Until someone can explain why it works, then I’m unconvinced it’s anything but the placebo effect.

  • Kirala

    Hey, don’t knock a good placebo. I used to be able to pull all-nighters on one cup of black tea. Then I realized that I frequently drank twice as much iced tea or Coke when I went out to eat, but felt just as sleepy at bedtime after. And thus I realized that I’m so desensitized to caffeine that the effect of the one cup of tea was mostly placebo. And that is precisely when the placebo stopped working.

    Stupid brain. I no longer bother distinguishing between placebo and other-benefit for myself. If it works, it works; as long as the benefits outweigh the costs, it doesn’t matter if the benefits arise from something benefiting my body or tricking my brain into helping itself. (Not that eliminating the placebo effect isn’t very important in figuring out the cost/benefit ratio when deciding whether to recommend something to someone else, or to a general population. But at an individual level, what helps, helps, right?)

  • Hexep

    Yes, but acupuncture isn’t self-medicating; it’s a service that people charge money for, using paraphernelia that people charge money to make. It’s an industry, with serious wider ramifications.

    There is one good – knowledge – and only one evil – ignorance. I can’t accept or condone anything that leads to the conclusion that ‘I was happier not knowing.’

  • Mark Z.

    We can’t really explain why alcohol gets you drunk, either. Must be the placebo effect.

    If acupuncture is “just” a more effective technology for inducing placebo effects, then what’s the problem? That it’s not actually going to cure your stage 4 cancer? Well, yeah, we knew that. But for pain management we do what works, and for some people that’s acupuncture.

  • Hexep

    It can’t be a placebo, because people can be intoxicated without their knowledge.

    Acupuncture is an integral element in a system that has continuously stymied the pursuit of real medicine in the world. It’s on par with homeopathy and crystal-waving, and it’s junk science. The explanations as to why it works – the whole metaphysical system that underpins it – lead to and have led to serious public-health crises and the deaths of human beings. Acupuncturists trick people, and that deception has serious human consequences. It’s preying on the vulnerable.

    If I came on here saying, ‘hey, I have a business where I sell people analgesic pills that say I’ve treated with healing radiation because I wave a mobile phone over them,’ would you really have no problem with that? What is the difference, and if there is one, where’s the boundary?

  • Ross

    It bugs me how people are so willing to throw empiricism out the window when it comes to alternative medicine. Works in tests? Who cares; the scientific principles underlying it are invalid, therefore it can’t work, and if a study shows it does, that only means there’s something wrong with the study.

  • Hexep

    I find your attitude admirable, and wish that I could imitate it. I wish that I had the capacity to see this as a discussion about individual freedom, and about the human capacity for and ultimate need to surrender oneself to the notion that the universe is essentially unknowable, that the final frontier of knowledge will never be reached, and that we should just take it with a grain of salt and accept it for what it is, and Heaven and Earth, Horatio, and here are people in pain and we shouldn’t begrudge them what helps them get through the day.

    But I can’t. Much as I’d like to, I can’t. I can’t do it because I am Chinese, and because I regard my adoptive motherland with a strange mix of revulsion and devotion that nevertheless runs very deep. Sham medicine is a massive phenomenon here, and it infiltrates every aspect of culture and society. ‘Spiritual wellness’ and ‘health freedom’ are the very tissues of the vile cancer that is destroying my country and killing my people.

    I live in a traditional Chinese neighborhood block, and my neighbors are all traditional extended families, with the elderly parents and grandparents living with their adult children. My apartment number is 11/205. Apartment 6/101 is a Geriatric Medical practice, where our friendly local “doctor” dispenses treatments to aid the elderly with their arthritis and enteritis and onset blindness and osteoporosis, all the traditional signs that a human life has reached its twilight in good order and will shortly shuffle off the mortal coil.

    Except it’s TCM. It’s herb pills, it’s meridian massage, it’s moxhibustion and jade infusions. It’s acupuncture – he doesn’t actually perform it, but I’m sure he can prescribe it and knows someone who will perform it. And it doesn’t work. Let me repeat that until it settles in – it does not work. It is a placebo.

    This “doctor” is an educated man. He has attended university and has a Ph.D from BUCM. He is well-read and erudite. He speaks Russian. His calligraphy – a sure sign of the Chinese intellectual – is among the best I’ve ever seen. By all accounts, he presents himself – effortlessly – as the sort of person that the guileless and unlettered can trust to have their best interests at heart, especially when they place themselves under his diagnosis.

    He is no such person. Every day, my old ladies bid their descendants good day as they go off to work and study, set about the day’s washing, and sit in the shade to drink tea and play mah-jong. When one of them is sick, they go to him to help them. He does not help them. He takes their money – and my money, because his work is subsidized by the state – and gives them fairy tales.

    Every time he prescribes some powdered tortoise or some wolfsbane or some st. john’s wort, he is letting them wither on the vine and discouraging them from finding a real doctor who can actually help them. Because of his ministrations, they sicken and get worse. One of the ladies who was here when I arrived has already died; one of the others cannot be far behind her.

    When this doctor was young, he was a Red Guard. His work continues to this day, whether or not he knows it. Either he is a flim-flam man of the highest order, in which case hanging is too good for him, or he genuinely believes in what he does – in which case, should he ever discover the massive harm and abrogation of his medical oaths he has conducted on a daily basis, I imagine the only honourable way out for him will be to hang himself.

    I cannot take this impersonally, because this is personal to me. To me, this is the lives, and the deaths, of real people.

  • Riastlin Lovecraft

    Placebo effects are still actual effects.

  • Hexep

    I am starting a new business, Riastlin. I have entered the pharmaceutical industry. I have a pill mill in Shenzhen that will press out empty pills – perfectly clean tablets, ready to be filled with rare chemicals and medicines, but mine are totally empty. Maybe a few grams of sugar.

    Then I take my mobile and put a soothing song on it, and wave it over the pills in their jars before they go out. The idea is that the healing power of music infuses the pills in the form of radiation. These pills can be used to re-align the body, like a shock treatment of listening to lots and lots of soothing music. They will cure frazzled nerves, vague malaise, a sense that not all is right with the world, and – my favorite illness – an old-fashioned case of having more money than sense.

    The best part is that there’s no side-effects, so my pills are guaranteed harmless (although somebody out there might be allergic to the gelatin pill-stock, but I clearly post a warning on the side that that’s what the pills are made of). These pills will cure what ails you, whatever it is – or, at least, it won’t make things worse. Nobody can take me to court for failing to cure them, because I didn’t promise that I would.

    I’m going to be very careful about this, of course. I’m going to print lots of literature that will talk about the power of healing musical radiation, and I’m going to mass-mail it to people – especially older people, who often suffer from chronic health problems. But I’m not going to print ‘these pills will cure your diseases’ on the packaging itself; all my claims about what healing musical radiation does will be in separate literature, not involved with the product itself.

    For my first run of HMR pills, we had our fixed costs with the factory, label-makers, distribution, printing, had to hire someone to write the pamphlets… Let’s say that each bottle of these pills cost me CNY25 to produce. So I’ll sell them for CNY288. They have to be expensive, because everyone knows that good medicine is expensive and if I give it away cheaply then they won’t believe in it.

    After all, can you put a price on wellness?

  • Riastlin Lovecraft

    Let’s just say I’ll be ready in 20 years when the patent runs out.

  • Hexep

    What is the ethical principle at play here? ‘It’s okay to lie to desperate people for your own financial advantage if you’re technically lying by mental reservation rather than doing so explicitly and if you’re reasonably sure that, absent them being poorer for buying your thing, your treatment won’t make them worse?’

  • Riastlin Lovecraft

    Where’s the lie, exactly? If someone is saying “This ancient technique ends your mild discomfort by rearranging your chacra the same way Windows defragments a hard drive”, then said person is either lying or a fool, and I agree, neither of those things should be mixed up in medicine. But if you’re just selling gelatin and sugar and making sure you’re not exaggerating the effect, then I do not see the lie.

    tl;dr – I’m not actually sure what I’m arguing, to be frank. I don’t want people to lie about the effects of medicine, but if people with more money than sense wanna buy sugar-pills, I say let them.

    Somewhat connected random triva: I recall a lecturer at my university mentioning last year that studies have shown the placebo effect is not just real, but also still there even if the patient is made aware the drug is a placebo -before- it’s administrated.

  • Hexep

    If you’ve said all that, then, if you knew somebody who was suffering from such a malaise, would you recommend that they buy my pills? Would you buy them for them? And if not, why? Will it or won’t it help them?

  • Riastlin Lovecraft

    I suppose I would buy it for them, and if they asked what was in them, I would inform them it was a placebo (and direct them to studies into the very real effect placebos do have).
    And I thought we both agreed that it would, indeed help? My apologies if I’ve misinterpreted you.

  • Lorehead

    I don’t have your understanding or experience of Chinese-American culture, but what you describe does sound exploitative (whereas the Mayo Clinic offers acupuncture with a warning that its effectiveness is unproven and only for those purposes for which there’s some evidence it might work).

    I would respectfully point out that some things work even though quacks prescribe them.

  • DMG

    Nice try, but see the link posted by Mrs Grimble below, copied here for convenience:

    Summarizing the problems with that study:

    1. It included studies with no sham acupuncture, relying on no-treatment or regular treatment controls

    2. It had no restrictions on the types of outcome measure

    3. Many of the component studies were not double-blind (the researchers evaluating the patients knew who had received real vs sham acupuncture)

    4. The component studies were highly heterogeneous and not directly comparable

    5. The authors used a non-standard and unexplained approach to estimating the effect of publication bias, using arbitrary parameters that could be tuned to give a desired conclusion

    6. Even given all the statistical wiggle-room above, the difference identified between “real” and sham acupuncture was not clinically significant

    It’s not particularly uncommon for all kinds of non-working medical treatments to have studies showing benefit over placebo – generally the small and poorly-controlled trials (eg. not double-blinded). As one looks at larger and better-controlled studies, the effect gets smaller and smaller until it vanishes into the statistical noise.

    This is the typical pattern for placebo treatments, so we should not consider the results of poorly-designed trials or meta-analyses as flawed as the one above to be particularly compelling.

  • Lorehead

    I’m not going to go out on a limb here and defend any particular medical study; it’s just not my area of expertise. My understanding is that some studies, including some of the ones aggregated in that meta-analysis, do compare real acupuncture to sham acupuncture and find better results from real acupuncture. My understanding is also that many experts consider it at least possible that acupuncture might work better than a placebo, albeit not for the reasons Chinese people have traditionally thought. Go back four hundred years, and the reasons why anybody thought anything worked were substantially wrong.

  • Mrs Grimble

    Well, last year there was a meta-study – an analysis of all acupuncture studies – that appeared to show that it produced good results. But closer examination of the individual studies shows up serious flaws; for instance, several of the trials didn’t include a placebo group or weren’t double-blinded.
    Personally, I think that acupuncturists have had more than enough time to demonstrate that it works. How many centuries has it been going?

  • Wednesday

    Is it even possible to do a double-blind study of acupuncture? It’s easy to do a double-blind study of, eg, a vaccine or a medication, because then the person giving the vaccine or distributing medicine doesn’t know if they have the real version or not, but they do at least know how to correctly administer whichever it is. But a double-blind study of acupuncture necessitates the practitioner not knowing if they’re performing actual acupuncture or just sticking needles in random places.

  • Persia

    Yeah, and if the health benefit (if there is one) is actually from low-level stimulation of the skin through needles…you can’t placebo that, I don’t think.

  • Dawn Low

    They actually have done studies where they put one group on a standard set of prescription pain meds and had another group receive acupuncture instead. Acupuncture in those studies does better than the prescription medication without the side effects. So for pain management, there is a scientific basis to say that it works. Why? We don’t really know. But we have no idea why half the medicines we use (especially ones that affect the brain) truly work either.

    Acupuncture for things other than pain management? Not so well documented.

  • Hexep

    I have /gotta/ see a citation for that.

  • Lliira

    In my opinion, it works for pain management as well as it does because someone is paying attention to you and physically touching you in a calming and kind way. And it’s a professional, someone removed from your personal life. Getting help from people who care for you personally is great and necessary, but you constantly know that your pain hurts them, and there are all these responsibilities toward them you can’t fulfill now and etc. A stranger, in the sense of someone who cares for you because you’re a human being in pain in front of them, but doesn’t give a toss about you on a personal level, can do things for you that a friend can’t.

    It’s the same principle as talk therapy or Catholic confession or the local bartender. We’ve (mostly) acknowledged the good that can do. What we haven’t acknowledged is the good a physical equivalent can do, because we as a society are so bound up in thinking touch = sex.

  • Hexep

    If a practitioner can approach their practice with that kind of attitude, then I have no problem with it. I’m all for it. But once they bring in the woo-woo about meridians and cakras and five elements, that’s when it’s time for me to call bullshit.

  • DMG

    Yes, it’s possible to double-blind a study of acupuncture. The person putting the needles in does not need to be the person evaluating patient outcomes.

    Think of the acupuncturist as the medication, not the researcher. ;)

    (Separating the researcher from the person who has spent many years and dollars learning acupuncture also reduces a significant potential source of bias)

  • whengreg

    So you train a few practitioners, and just don’t cover the part where you tell them the needle locations.

  • David Policar

    Or, rather, you teach them false locations, since they can’t know that they don’t know the locations. But of course the instructors know that they’re teaching false locations. Double-blind tests of skills are tricky.

  • arcseconds

    Bizarrely enough, and quite unfortunately it’s also meant that unknowable quantities of China’s earliest records have been ingested in the mistaken belief that they were dragon bones.

  • Hexep

    Ohhh, man, that’s the real tragedy. Farewell, oracle bones; you were a vital source of historical information until someone with a limp cock thought you had magic powers..

  • aim2misbehave

    …ground-up chicken fetuses? Isn’t that, basically, fertilized chicken eggs?

  • Hexep

    Sincerely, I have no idea. i just liked the symmetry of the thing. I do know that a common medicine for menstrual problems is ground-up tortoise shell, which is made into a gelatin.

  • AnonymousSam

    I probably shouldn’t say that some people consider partially developed chickens still within the egg to be a delicacy, although balut (partially developed ducks still within the egg) is more common.

  • Hexep

    Ehh, if you can eat them fully-grown, you can eat them as babies.

  • AnonymousSam

    Whole, though?

  • Hexep

    De gustibus.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I totally knew a kid in high school who tried just a little bit of rhino horn to enhance his athletic performance. He got a boner that lasted for three days before his genitals turned gangrenous and they had to amputate.

  • FearlessSon

    I would not suggest sharing that. Someone might actually try it thinking “Yeah, that happened to him, but I will be lucky enough to actually pull it off.”

  • Jared Bascomb

    Yeah, well, after it becomes gangrenous, he might just be able to do that himself.

  • Lectorel

    You have a sick mind, my good sir, and I salute you for it.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Oh my god, did that actually happen? D: SO MUCH DO NOT WANT.

  • Hexep

    The technical term is a ‘priapism.’ Don’t go looking for a picture of it.

  • Panda Rosa

    Sounds like an urban legend, but entirely possible.

    I do promote the idea of Rhino-Horn Ingestion as lethal, if not to one’s life, then to the most sacrosanct of all things, THE MALE MEMBER. If the threat of losing THAT doesn’t spur men into leaving the rhino alone, then nothing will.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Why is anyone still bothering with rhino-horn now that we have Viagra?

    I remember reading an article… a decade ago, maybe? That rhino-horn-style ‘aphrodisiacs’ were becoming obsolete now that we really do have working boner-pills. Guess it was too optimistic…

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Why is anyone still bothering with rhino-horn now that we have Viagra?

    I remember reading an article… a decade ago, maybe? That rhino-horn-style ‘aphrodisiacs’ were becoming obsolete now that we really do have working boner-pills. Guess it was too optimistic…

  • FearlessSon

    It is for this same justification that you will hear fundamentalists bang on and on about how [person they do not like and is now dead] had some dramatic deathbed conversion that they only ever told those intimates who were with them near their deathbed who now keep quiet about because [unflattering reasons].

    It comes down to what is more important, what a person knows is true or what they want to think is true? This is a subject you have written on quite well, Fred. The people buying rhino horn snakeoil want to believe that it gives the benefits it does. After all, why would so many admirably wealthy people sink so much money into getting it if it did not work, right, right?

  • Alan Alexander

    You’re not doing it right. “Rhino-horn extract turns you GAY!” is what you should be saying.

  • Jon Maki

    Years ago I read a book – I forget the title and author – in which there was a minor plot point about how one of the main characters in it had made his fortune.
    Basically, he started cloning endangered and recently-extinct animals and rebuilding their population.
    The way he made money from this seemingly philanthropic endeavor was by selling some of the cloned animals for use in “traditional” medicine.
    More on-topic, even setting aside the unsavory aspect of spreading falsehoods, I’m not really certain it would work. There is some perverse element to human nature – in the aggregate – that allows people to be selective about the kind of bullshit they’ll swallow. Pernicious, harmful bullshit that causes harm and negatively impacts the overall quality of life on this planet? They’ll not only swallow it, they’ll ask for seconds.
    But if you offer them bullshit that has the potential to be beneficial, they’ll turn their noses up at it and order pernicious bullshit takeout instead.

  • FearlessSon

    To give another Altemeyer quote, “Authoritarian followers are highly suspicious of their many out-groups; but they are credulous to the point of self delusion when it comes to their in-groups.”

  • Lliira

    Amusing, but lying won’t work either. In this, I think Americans just don’t have much power. That’s something Americans hate to be told.

    We can donate money if we have it, and we can populate the internet with as much truth as possible, but to a large extent, as the particular terror (fear of impotence) driving the trade is not a serious problem for our culture, I don’t know if we can even imagine a solution. We can’t grok the root of the issue, and we certainly can’t control it. I suppose we can buy up as much land with rhinos on it as possible. And breed them in our own wildlife parks or something. Or maybe encourage Viagra to market aggressively in the places where the market for the trade is.

  • Bill

    Buying Rhino horn is a status game. ‘Oh look at me, I’m so rich, I can afford Rhino horn!’ What’s needed is to make cheap knock-off imitation Rhino horn, maybe from horse hooves or bits of fingernail, and make sure all the poor people can buy as much ‘Rhino horn’ as they want. Then it won’t be so cool for rich people and they’ll find something new to buy to show how rich they are.

    or else consider donating to the WWF or a more specific Rhino conservation charity. They’re doing the best they can.

    (It’s a shame Rhinos can’t be farmed for their horns, really. Or maybe Rhino horn could be grown in labs, with tissue culture?)

  • J_Enigma32

    Ivory is nothing but dentine and a few other chemicals, which is really nothing but calcium grown over certain tissues. Cloning it might not be as practical as just creating fake ivory using human teeth, though. There’s plenty of human teeth out there. Since we’re already talking black market trade, there’s something like 90% of the human species so far that’s dead. They aren’t using those teeth for anything.

    An alternative is using Siberian Mammoths. They’re still buried and their ivory is still good, too. But I like the idea of using dead people’s teeth and lying to stupid and arrogant rich bastards who are destroying the world in a pissing contest.

  • Launcifer

    Possible point of pedantry: I think that rhino horn is entirely composed of keratin, so you might be better off using hair or fingernails(?) instead of teeth. ‘Course, I may well be mis-remembering something I saw at half-one in the morning, once upon a time.

  • Riastlin Lovecraft

    Even better. Fairly certain both of those grow faster than teeth.

  • Launcifer

    Yeah, but then I’ll spend the rest of my life living in fear of shadowy, black-booted figures employed by the government to kick in my front door and shave my head at a moment’s notice.

    I, er, have something of a trigger where my barnet’s concerned, for reasons that entirely escape me.
    Seriously, though, while I agree that we could safely call hair something of a renewable resource, the potential for turning it into a seriously abusive “industry” gives me a little bit of pause. Then again, I’ve probably just put far too much thought into the whole thing ;).

  • Riastlin Lovecraft

    Just make hairdressers ask if the hair can be donated to save a rhino after you’re done with it?

  • Launcifer

    Good thought, potentially, though I suppose it would depend on quite how rhino horn is actually formed. I confess to knowing far too little about it to say anything particularly sensible. Heh. Maybe we should suggest that Fred does a little research and maybe puts together a business plan?

  • AnonymousSam

    Does the name “Delilah” fill you with inexplicable dread?

  • Launcifer

    Well, yes as a matter of fact, but that’s mainly down to memories of having to sing Tom Jones songs during a school music competition many, many years ago.

  • TheBrett

    Rhinos are unfortunately going extinct far faster than they can adapt to the brutal selection pressure imposed by ivory poaching. African elephants might survive in tuskless populations if nothing can be done about ivory poaching, but rhinos have been hunted so heavily that there may not even be a breeding population of rhinos that could conceivably have mutant rhinos born without horns.

  • aunursa

    “In 1989, there are less than four thousand black rhinos alive in the wild. Unless something is done, the current rate of killing will make them extinct by the year 2000.”

    -Richard Dean Anderson,
    MacGyver, “Black Rhino“, original airdate Nov. 13, 1989

    According to this website, persistent conservation efforts resulted in a 6% annual increase in the black rhino population to a current level of approximately 5055. Hopefully the poaching industry can be curtailed — without resorting to mendacity which can only harm the reputation of environmentalists.

  • Hypocee

    He could well have been wrong, but in Last Chance to See Douglas Adams said that the Asian SCAM connection for rhino horn was mostly a historical sideline and the major modern demand was Sudanese bling dagger handles.

  • SisterCoyote

    I once knew a man who wrote a song to lament the massive decline in seahorses, due to TCM. He also would go on quite vocally about how conventional medicine/big pharma was keeping the truth of homeopathy and TCM down to make money. It never made sense to me – that someone could pick and choose which parts of a doctrine they wanted to believe, when the same proof/lack of proof was evident for all.

    If we can get Natural Remedies people to come out and talk about how rhino horn is bad for the soul and aura, maybe people will start listening.

  • Ben English

    Picking and choosing doctrine based on your own personal hang-ups is the bread and butter of fundamentalists the world over.

  • Launcifer

    Hand on heart, I read your comment and then spent two minutes trying figure out what the hell Turner Classic Movies had to do with a decline in seahorse populations. I guess I need to go and re-sit my basic thread comprehension exams. Again.

  • SisterCoyote

    I have been giggling at this comment, and the juxtaposition of Turner Classic Movies and seahorses and gangrenous penises and rhino horns, for a truly inordinate amount of time; it’s just been that kind of day. Thank you!

  • EK

    You mean like how lying about the medical effects of contraceptives is justified if it prevents the evil of sexually active women? I’m sometimes not sure whether you’re being sarcastic, Fred; if “lying for good” is wrong, then it doesn’t become right just because the well-intentioned aim is one that you happen to agree with.

  • David Policar

    > if “lying for good” is wrong, then it doesn’t become right just because
    the well-intentioned aim is one that you happen to agree with.

    I endorse lying to the canonical Nazis at the door about the Jews in my attic. Does it follow, therefore, that I must endorse lying to everyone in support of every aim I agree with?

    I don’t see how one requires the other.

  • EK

    Not the same situation. Without going into a lengthy discussion of why, I think my example was far more closely analogous to the one Fred discussed than the “Nazis at the door” scenario.

  • David Policar

    Agreed that it’s not the same situation.

    Agreed that lying about the medical effects of contraceptives is more closely analogous to lying about the medical effects of rhino horn than it is to lying about the presence of Jews in my attic.

  • EK

    Yup, I think we’re good here. In any case, I wasn’t so much presenting my own position as a loose paraphrase of what I take to be Fred’s stated position. I certainly wasn’t trying to articulate some kind of Kantian universal law.

  • Naked Bunny with a Whip

    If by “closely analogous” you mean “the complete opposite in effect and intention” then sure.

  • hf

    To the contrary, “sexually active women” are not thereby evil. (The anti-example of Rayford and Hattie in Left Behind shows that, all else being magically equal, I would prefer people to have orgasms.) This is not a minor distinction. If I believe green vegetables are evil – which seems pretty close to the actual beliefs of the more troll-kin conservatives in America – I will behave in a delusional and harmful manner.

  • Ethan Krindle

    I’m not sure I quite get what you’re saying here, but I take it you’re saying that viewing the sexual activity of women as a social evil is not analogous to wanting to save rhinos, because the former position is based on delusional nonsense.

    That somewhat misses my point – my point was that Fred has repeatedly criticized the /technique/ of using mass disinformation campaigns to achieve social goals, regardless of what particular goals they’re aimed at, and that this critique should therefore apply equally when the social goal is one he finds laudable. It is in /that/ sense (i.e. the technique used to further the goal) that I am calling the two “analogous”.

  • PorlockJunior

    “lying to the canonical Nazis at the door”

    The canonical Nazis: very good. I shall remember to steal it.

  • Michael Albright

    I read this as sarcastic. Fred’s spoken out against this sort of behavior in other arenas enough that I assume this isn’t a straight article benefiting from a tremendous blind spot.

    I could be wrong, though.

  • EK

    I hope so, but I kept looking for the obvious “tell” and didn’t see one. Maybe I’m just being sarcasm tone-deaf today.

  • FearlessSon

    I kind of read it as Fred being in a rather fed up mood. I am amazed he is as fair handed as he is, honestly. Most of us would probably have gone completely bitter by this point, but he has strong self respect, a faith in human decency, and people who love and support him.

  •örkman/100000191757322 Daniel Björkman

    That was my impression too – that it was a bitter rant made in a moment when having any belief in good overcoming evil felt impossible. We’ve all been there. :(

    It’s just that Fred says *everything* in such a straight-faced way that it’s hard to know when he’s kidding, or being sarcastic, or demonstrating how he thinks people he disagrees with are behaving, or any such thing.

  • hf

    I kept looking for the obvious “tell”

    You mean like explicitly saying in public that none of it is true? Seems tricky to build a campaign of deception on that. (Which of us do you believe is that skilled in the ways of the Dark Side?)

    It also helps with one of the main reasons not to deceive people. You get better at what you practice. If you practice thinking and speaking the truth, you’ll get better at those skills; practice deception instead and they may atrophy. But if Fred’s suggestion improbably works, that will not directly harm his ability to tell the truth. I suppose in that unlikely future, he would need to take care to avoid corruption by the Dark.

  • EK

    What I meant by a “tell” is that usually when Fred is satirizing a position, he has at least one little comment somewhere that acts as a “wink at the audience” to let them know he’s not promoting the position seriously. His comments above about bearing false witness come close to that here, but only because it’s something he’s railed against so consistently in other posts.

  • SisterCoyote

    I was reading it as sarcasm about something. Maybe the lies being spread about vaccination?

  • walden

    I read this as sarcastic — that the evangelical community seems to tell all kinds of lies (to save the “unborn”, to prevent use of contraception, to debase gays). I think our host was trying the technique on for size — use lies for something really worthy. (But, as with email, and many things on the web– the irony never makes it through). We need more clues and grins….Nice try.

  • Ross

    I think we’re supposed to read this and wonder why it is that when you read a plan like Fred’s, you immediately say “That is unreasonable and obviously false and could never work,” but when someone goes stands before congress and says that the birth control pill leaves little tiny baby skeletons embedded in the uterine walls, a majority of people fall into the group “Believe this is true; believe this to be perhaps a slight exaggeration but basically in the realm of true; think there is legitimate scientific debate on the matter; or think that whether or not birth control pills actually do result in little tiny baby skeletons to embed themselves in the uterine walls is a “controversial” topic and it is best not to take any action that assumes it false”

  • FearlessSon

    Altemeyer had this to say on the subject:

    All fish live in the sea.
    Sharks live in the sea..
    Therefore, sharks are fish.

    The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, “Because sharks are fish.” In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right. Or to put it another way, they don’t “get it” that the reasoning matters–especially on a reasoning test.

    This is not only “Illogical, Captain,” as Mr. Spock would say, it’s quite dangerous, because it shows that if authoritarian followers like the conclusion, the logic involved is pretty irrelevant. The reasoning should justify the conclusion, but for a lot of high RWAs, the conclusion validates the reasoning. Such is the basis of many a prejudice, and many a Big Lie that comes to be accepted. Now one can easily overstate this finding. A lot of people have trouble with syllogistic reasoning, and high RWAs are only slightly more likely to make such mistakes than low RWAs are. But in general high RWAs seem to have more trouble than most people do realizing that a conclusion is false.

  • AnonymousSam

    Fred isn’t lying with a straight face, though. Fred only lies because rhino horn has infected his brain with nanomolecular liarbots.

  • badJim

    The Guardian has an article about how South African game managers are treating rhinoceroses so that consumers will indeed have negative reactions:

    South African game reserve poisons rhino's horns to prevent poaching
    Radical scheme will inject horns with parasiticides and pink dye in bid to safeguard rhino numbers.

    (Rhino horns are made of hair, not bone or ivory, so this is easier than it sounds.)

  • CharityB

    To be fair, none of us really know that rhino horn isn’t dangerous. There’s no conclusive evidence that it is dangerous, but there’s also no conclusive evidence that it’s not dangerous.

    Some scientists believe that rhino horn and extracts derived from it pose no risk to humans. Others believe that it can lead to impotence/erectile dysfunction, cancer, gout, excessive flatulence, hair loss, and heart problems. Reasonable people can disagree.

    Because the jury is still out on the issue, we should teach the controversy.

  • Ross

    Why isn’t anyone doing RESEARCH to FIND THE LINK between Rhino horn and cancer? All you pro-rhinos are just using profanity and ad hominem attacks because you can’t PROVE that Rhino Horn DOESN’T cause cancer! Like, did the media report that the Tsarnaev brothers were using Rhino horn? Of course they didn’t, because NOBODY IS INVESTIGATING THIS LINK!

  • PorlockJunior

    It would be irresponsible not to speculate.

  • FearlessSon

    Besides, everybody knows that the rhino horn is nowhere near as potent as human horn.

  • reynard61

    Haha! If you hadn’t posted that, I would have!

  • Jennie

    I’m a long time campaigner on environmental and animal issues and I am very concerned about the mass extinction that is happening. But countering lies with lies is definitely not the way to go and will backfire in the end. And as a fan please don’t use Michael Jackson’s name in this, too many lies have and are being told about him and please don’t call him Jacko, he hated it. Thank you.

  • ShifterCat

    I’m pretty certain that 1. Fred’s not actually advocating this approach and 2. The use of “Jacko” was to imitate the style of a tabloid article.

  • Vass

    I really hope there is a follow-up post on the way with the punchline.

    Spreading disinformation for a good cause still raises the falsehood waterline, and that’s a bad thing overall and will do more harm than good. Also it damages not just your own credibility but those of all sources in general, and promotes the belief that everyone’s entitled to their own set of facts.

    I’m reminded of drug education, and how often when adults flat out lie to teenagers about the effects of drugs (“smoke weed once and you will become addicted to heroin, which will instantly kill you and also turn your skin bright green”) the teenagers, having discovered that they were lied to (“I smoked weed and it didn’t addict me to heroin”) will be far less receptive to the actual facts (“weed isn’t addictive, but there is a known correlation between marijuana use and psychosis in people predisposed to it; also heroin is addictive; also sharing needles is an excellent way to share blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis.”)

    I know, “test everything; hold fast to what is good,” but there’s more data out there than one person can test in a lifetime, and poisoning the air around you with deliberate false data is… well, it makes everything worse.

  • Steele

    I’m reminded of the many times that Fred’s talked about how ‘the ends justify the means’ doesn’t, and is a bad idea. And that we shouldn’t lie and exaggerate to get rid of things ‘for the greater good.’ But, here he’s arguing for the same thing.

  • kirala

    And almost certainly ironically. But perhaps there will be a follow-up to clarify.

  • Will Travers

    Just FYI.
    As CEO of the Born Free Foundation I attended the recent CITES Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. I personally asked the South African Minister responsible for wildlife, the President of the Private Rhino Owners Association, the President of the Professional Hunters Association, an eminent South African economist and the South African Ambassador to Thailand, all of whom were there promoting the idea of legalising rhino horn trade, to raise their hands if they believed that rhino horn was effective in medicinal use. Not one of them moved a muscle.

    Yet they would be willing to sell rhino horn to folks in the Far East, knowing full-well it doesn’t work, exploiting the ignorance of people who mistakenly believe it will cure their mother/father/sister/brother of cancer.

    Unethical? Unacceptable? Downright disgraceful? Too right!

    Legalising rhino horn trade will legitimise the use of a substance which does not work, provide a legal cover for illegal trade and allow the poachers, and the organised criminal gangs who back them, to – quite literally – make a killing.

    Will Travers

    CEO Born Free Foundation

  • Carstonio

    Count me in as hoping that this is another of Fred’s set-up columns with a punchline to follow. He may be criticizing the “pregnancy care center” ideology.

  • DavidCheatham

    I actually had a somewhat similar idea a while back when it came to how to fight this sort of thing:

    Make it entirely legal (Aka, not even fraud or false labeling) to sell _fake_ rhino horn. 100% perfectly legal for me to slap ‘Rhino horn’ on anything and sell it, as long as it’s not actual rhino horn. This would completely undermine any sort of confidence in the market.

    Why would anyone buy real rhino horn at $1000 an ounce when the convenience store down the street is selling ‘fake rhino horn’ packages at $5 an ounce, which is intended to be purchased, unpackaged, and resold fraudulently as real?! Who the hell could trust that market?

    And that’s not even mentioning the fact that some people _would_ buy the fake and be satisfied with it, which also means less dead rhinos.

    I presume at some point there would be rhino horn testing equipment, but at that point the market is chaos and you can’t actually trust the seller’s tester so have to find your own. (And it should be legal to provide a fake rhino horn testing service also, and sell fake equipment for that.)

    There are other places this could be applied to. Anything that is a) outlawed, and b) does not actually do anything, is ripe for this sort of spoofing. How do you know you have the real thing? You don’t!

  • CharityB

    That might actually work. The purpose of labeling regulations in part is to support a legitimate market by making it possible to distinguish between products that meet a de facto or de jure standard and products that don’t. (The best example I can think of right now are USDA requirements for certified “organic” food products; the goal there isn’t just to protect the consumers who aren’t in immediate physical danger if they accidentally eat non-“organic” foods — it’s really to help the “organic” foods market survive by making it possible for consumers to find them).

    But the rhino horn market isn’t legitimate. It’s illegal almost everywhere I can think of. They shouldn’t be able to draw the benefit of labeling laws that protect consumers from buying the ‘fake’ stuff for the same reason why FDA labeling laws or truth-in-advertising don’t protect consumers trying to buy methamphetamine or cocaine in the United States.

  • DavidCheatham

    Exactly, but with cocaine and meth, those actually _do_ something, so sellers can’t sell entire ‘fakes’. They can sell watered down versions, or even other things under the same name (No ‘acid’ is actually LSD anymore.), but the drugs must do _something_ or people won’t come back.

    Rhino horn, however, doesn’t do anything anyway. So there’s no way to tell powdered rhino horn from baking soda or whatever substance most mimics tactile feel of it. As rhino horns are keratin, which is basically what hair and nails are, perhaps the fake should be made of cow or horse hooves?

    OTOH, I’d like to amend the idea you can slap a ‘rhino horn’ label on _anything_…I should clarify I didn’t mean poisonous things, although that would be an _exceptionally_ fast way to stop people from taking rhino horn, if a bit immoral.

  • CharityB

    Yeah, I get what you’re saying. I’m just saying that it wouldn’t even be that controversial to not apply truth-in-advertising laws to things that can’t be advertised at all (because they’re illegal).

  • Moonwalker

    are you kidding me you want to use the names of people who have passed on to further your cause and then you insult one of the people by using a derogatory term……in case you’re not aware, the last name is Jackson not J****, this is not a term of endearment but a word that’s always used to demean Mr. Jackson, everybody else’ name is correctly and fully spelt out why is it only his name has been shortened to this horrible tabloid name. …I understand where you’re trying to go with this story as it does seem in today’s society, only salacious headlines get the hits but your use of that term really irked me… ~ peace ~ p.s. To each his own but I don’t believe the ends justify the means ever…..

  • P J Evans

    Pl,ease read ALL the comments before you get mad about something that is NOT A SERIOUS SUGGESTION.

  • ShifterCat

    …I understand where you’re trying to go with this story…

    No, I don’t think you do.

  • CharityB

    I’m off to picket the grave of notorious cannibal Jonathan Swift. Would any of you like a ride?

  • P J Evans

    I’ll swing by if I can get my broom to start. It’s such a pain to jump-start one.