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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  • Ben English

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

  • reynard61

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

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • aim2misbehave

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

  • 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..

  • 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.

  • Hexep

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

  • Hexep

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

  • 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.

  • 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.’

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Placebo effects are still actual effects.

  • 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 ;).

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…..

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Hexep

    I have /gotta/ see a citation for that.

  • 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.

  • 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?’

  • 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.

  • P J Evans

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

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

    No, I don’t think you do.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”.

  • CharityB

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

  • 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.