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Valentine’s Day Edition: Oysters, rhino horn and other pseudoscience claims

Here’s what I learned last night about aphrodisiacs: While oysters, ginseng and rhinoceros horn have all been touted as the perfect means to arouse or intensify sexual desire, none has ever been proven to have aphrodisiac qualities. Sure, oysters have a high zinc and D-aspartic acid content, both of which have been linked to testosterone production. But at the end of the day, said Andy Greenspon, an earnestly inquisitive young scientist from Harvard, “you would be better off simply eating a well-balanced diet and exercising regularly.”

Similarly, ginseng is no more effective than a placebo in improving sexual function. And the notion that rhinoceros horn can somehow cure impotence or sexual inadequacy? Apparently totally preposterous.

We are continually bombarded with scientific and pseudoscientific claims — about how to improve your sex life, save the environment, learn a new language in 10 days. Some of these will hold up to scrutiny. Many others will not: If you dig just a tiny bit, you will find there is little or no evidence to support them.

Such specious claims can easily prove harmful. In the case of aphrodisiacs or, say, hair growth potions, they might only lead to empty wallets and cruelly dashed hopes. In other cases, though, the consequences can be much more serious. While conducting research on a fatal genetic disease, Morgan Thompson, currently the project manager with the Science and Social Justice Project at Harvard, has seen patients so desperate to get better they have reached out to false ‘cures’ backed by pseudoscientific claims. “Some patients have been harmed,” she said. “Some have lost their lives.”

Greenspon and Thompson were both speaking at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, site of the US launch of the “Ask for Evidence” campaign. Spearheaded by Voice of Young Science (VoYS) USA in conjunction with the UK-based Sense About Science, they will encourage people to question unsubstantiated claims — whether about changing weather patterns or genetically modified foods, vaccinations or alternative medicine. It asks them to say, in effect: Show me the science.

An example from the optics realm: The manufacturer Valkee recently released a product that purportedly eases symptoms associated with seasonal affect disorder (SAD) by delivering light therapy through the ears. The company cites studies to back up this claim. One of these demonstrated that the human brain is sensitive to light, not just the eyes. Another concluded that “92% of winter blues sufferers experienced total symptom relief with 8-12 minutes of Valkee daily.”

VoYS member Joanna Christodoulou was still leery of the claim, though, so she did a bit of research. Turns out the first study used cadavers and has not yet been published a peer-reviewed journal while the second didn’t include a control group receiving no light or a placebo. To date, she concluded, there’s no “good quality” evidence supporting the claim of symptom relief with the product.

VoYS is fighting the proverbial good fight: Seeking to create a world with no spurious and misleading claims clogging the channels of public discourse. It’s an exciting time for the young scientists, as they encourage and empower people to question unsubstantiated claims and work with researchers and those who communicate or otherwise use scientific findings to improve the veracity of claims made in advertisements, news articles and statements of public policy.

As Thompson said, eliciting an enthusiastic “whoo!” from a gentleman standing near me: “Evidence is our aphrodisiac.”



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