Mayo Clinic study: Rhino-horn extract killed Michael Jackson

Mayo Clinic study: Rhino-horn extract killed Michael Jackson May 13, 2013

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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  • 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.

  • P J Evans

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

  • 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”

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Whole, though?

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • Hexep

    De gustibus.

  • whengreg

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

  • 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.