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This article appeared in The Textbook Letter for November-December 1997,
accompanying reviews of the high-school book Addison-Wesley Chemistry.

Tigers, Toads and Tricks

William J. Bennetta

Several of Addison-Wesley's recent science texts have included passages that mock science, conflate science with folklore or magic, and endorse superstition [see note 1, below]. Now we find another such passage in Addison-Wesley Chemistry. Addison-Wesley's writers seek to promote Oriental quackery, and their effort deserves to be analyzed at length.

Tigers are amazing animals. A tiger's whisker can cure a human's toothache. A tiger's tail can be turned into remedies for diseases of the skin. A tiger's bones can cure rheumatism. And a tiger's penis provides the sovereign aphrodisiac, rivaled only by the horn of a rhinoceros.

If you do not believe this, just ask anybody who peddles the products used in what is called "traditional Chinese medicine."

Ask that guy about bears, too. He will tell you that bile taken from a bear's gallbladder can cure all sorts of things, from headaches to cancer, and that it's an aphrodisiac as well.

While you are at it, you should also ask him about seals. He may not have much to say about these animals, however, because the use of seals in Oriental quackery has only recently become a large-scale enterprise. As the world's stocks of tigers, bears, rhinoceroses and other big terrestrial animals have been destroyed or depleted, the dealers who supply animal parts for use in Oriental remedies have expanded their interest in seals, which are valued chiefly because male seals have a baculum -- i.e., a longitudinal bone in the penis. This bone serves as the starting material for another so-called aphrodisiac [note 2].

The trade in animals whose parts are employed in quack remedies is one mechanism by which "traditional Chinese medicine" makes itself felt throughout the world, sometimes with disastrous effects on animal populations. Another important mechanism is the broad distribution of the quack remedies themselves, sometimes with disastrous effects on the humans who consume them. The international trade in remedies from the Orient is growing, partly because Asian-immigrant populations in the United States and some other Western countries are expanding and are generating more demand for these products. Some of the trade is conducted legally, some depends on the exertions of smugglers.

Here in the United States, officials of various state and federal agencies have recognized that the influx of Oriental remedies represents a palpable threat to public health, because many of the remedies incorporate powerfully poisonous materials [note 3].

Some of these materials, such as aconite roots or ephedra or toad venom, are organic. Aconite roots (from any of several plants belonging to the genus Aconitum) contain alkaloids that activate sodium channels, induce excitation of cellular membranes, and can cause death by precipitating cardiovascular collapse. Ephedra (the stems or stalks of various plants in the genus Ephedra) contains ephedrine and related alkaloids: compounds that can cause gross, even fatal, derangements of the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system. Toad venom contains glycosides that affect the heart, affect the nervous system, and can cause fatal paralysis or heart attacks [note 4].

Some of the other poisons favored in Oriental remedies are inorganic substances containing mercury, arsenic or lead.

If the government of China has its way, the international trade in Oriental patent medicines will continue to increase. Chinese officials have announced plans to set up a chain of Chinese-medicine establishments that will produce remedies for export and will train foreigners in "traditional" techniques [note 5]. Apparently, the central purpose of this undertaking is to boost China's income from the West.

However, residents of the United States who want to buy Chinese remedies needn't depend on imported supplies of ready-made concoctions. Instead, they can gamble on quack products that are formulated in this country by Oriental folk-druggists, who make use of both imported and domestic raw materials. I have visited folk-drug shops in the Chinatown district of San Francisco and have marveled at their diverse arrays of materials, ranging from bins of dried plants or dried fishes to great jars of liquids in which snakes, small mammals or deer antlers were steeping.

I don't mean to imply that all the materials used by Chinese folk-druggists are pernicious. Some aren't. Indeed, some are evidently bereft of any pharmacological activity. But when a Chinese folk-druggist makes a remedy from a herb (or other natural material) that actually contains a pharmacologically active compound, his product must be regarded as dangerous, if only because the concentration of the active compound may vary greatly in different batches of the same herb. The folk-druggist doesn't know what concentration prevails in any particular batch that he uses.

We might expect an American science textbook or health textbook to warn students away from quackish Oriental remedies, to debunk some of the quacks' claims, and to explain the dangers associated with some of the Oriental products that are sold in this country. In Addison-Wesley Chemistry, however, we find something quite different. Addison-Wesley's writers present an evasively worded article that glorifies the "traditional Chinese pharmacy" while providing us with a textbook example of misdirection.

Misdirection is the art of deliberate distraction -- of drawing a person's attention away from what is important and toward something that doesn't matter. A classic example of misdirection is the stage magician's use of a "magic wand": The moving, shining wand commands the observer's attention, so that he will not notice the manipulations that the magician is conducting elsewhere.

That kind of misdirection is innocent, but many other kinds are not. Recall, for example, that pickpockets often work in pairs: The first creates a hubbub that draws the victim's attention while the other takes the victim's wallet. Misdirection is also a favorite technique among propagandists. The propagandist dazzles his audience with dramatic statements that engage the audience's attention, keep the audience from asking the questions that really count, and lead the audience toward false conclusions. His statements may even be true or partly true -- but whether they are true isn't important to him, as long as they keep the audience from understanding what really is going on.

With that in mind, we can analyze the splurge of misdirection in Addison-Wesley Chemistry. It appears on page 118, at the start of an article headlined "Pharmacy":

The first person to treat a wound with a poultice of leaves was also the first pharmacist. Over 5000 years ago, Chinese physicians treated respiratory diseases with a tea brewed from a common herb, Ephedra sinica. The Chinese herb tea contained ephedrine, which is now used to alleviate the symptoms of allergies. The Chinese also discovered that seaweed, a rich source of iodine, is effective in the treatment of goiter, a disease that causes swelling of the thyroid gland. A traditional Chinese pharmacy, shown in Figure 5.13, may contain more than 2000 herbs and other substances. Other cultures have histories of the medicinal use of herbs. . . .

What is "shown in Figure 5.13" is a man who seems to be manipulating some leaves while another man watches him. The caption under the photo says:

Modern Chinese pharmacists prepare herbal medicines using tried and tested ancient procedures.

Let's look again at that caption -- a caption that contains no information and does nothing to explain the picture. The writers dazzle us with a claim about "tried and tested ancient procedures," but they won't let us know the name of any of the procedures or the name of any of the "herbal medicines" that the procedures yield. Have the "herbal medicines" themselves been "tried and tested," or just the "procedures"? If the medicines have been tested, what did the tests disclose? The writers refuse to tell.

Now let's look at the "Pharmacy" article itself, starting with the claim that the ancient Chinese used Ephedra sinica to treat respiratory problems. That is true. As the promoters of folk drugs always do, Addison-Wesley's writers have cited one, unusual folk remedy that really can work a therapeutic effect. This diverts attention from a far more important matter: Of the folk medicines that have been examined scientifically, most have been found to be worthless or even destructive [note 6]. The writers wave their Ephedra wand harder as they declare that ephedrine, the active agent in Ephedra, "is now used to alleviate the symptoms of allergies." But instead of watching the wand, we'll focus on some facts:

In the United States ephedrine has all but disappeared as an ingredient in legitimate pharmaceuticals, having been replaced by agents such as synthetic pseudoephedrine. Ephedrine still shows up in some legitimate products which are employed for relieving asthma, but the trade in such things is trivial. Today, ephedrine's practical importance proceeds from applications that have nothing to do with allergies. Ephedrine itself serves as a starting material in the manufacture of methamphetamine (which, when sold as a street drug, is commonly called "speed"). And ephedra, with its load of ephedrine and related alkaloids, serves as an ingredient in dangerous "dietary supplements" that are said to confer "energy" or mental alertness, enhance sexual sensations or athletic abilities, induce euphoria, or help in weight-loss or body-building efforts.

The Addison-Wesley writers, with their airy-fairy story about alleviating the symptoms of allergies, have diverted attention from what is, by far, the most important thing that American students need to know about ephedrine: Various American companies make "dietary supplements" that contain ephedrine alkaloids, and these products can cause grave physiological derangements.

A document issued in June by the federal Food and Drug Administration says that, since 1993, the FDA has received more than 800 reports of illnesses or injuries -- including heart attacks, strokes, seizures and psychoses -- linked to the use of supplements that contained, or were thought to contain, ephedrine alkaloids [note 7]. The FDA has proposed rules to control the content and labeling of such supplements, and some state governments already have acted to restrict the manufacturers' marketing tactics [note 8].

The next number in Addison-Wesley's act is the statement that "The Chinese also discovered that seaweed, a rich source of iodine, is effective in the treatment of goiter . . . ." I don't doubt that the statement is true, but it also is misleading. That the eating of marine organisms could relieve or prevent goiter was discovered independently by various peoples. This knowledge was not unique to the ancient Chinese.

For their big finish, the writers overwhelm us with the claim that a Chinese folk-drug store may have "more than 2,000 herbs and other substances" -- though the writers have refused to describe even one! What a shabby show!

Notes

  1. See "Addison-Wesley Extends the Quack Attack" in The Textbook Letter for May-June 1995, "Addison-Wesley Attacks Again" in The Textbook Letter for November-December 1995, and "Addison-Wesley Tries Again to Dignify Oriental Magic" in The Textbook Letter for May-June 1997. [return to text]

  2. In 1995 the government of Namibia authorized a "cull" of the seals that dwell along the Namibian coast, even though that population was already declining. The "cull" was, in fact, a mass killing of seals for the purpose of supplying penises and other parts to the Orient. In 1996 the government of Canada, for the same purpose, expanded that country's annual hunt of harp seals and hooded seals. [return to text]

  3. See, for example: "Crackdown on Exotic Elixirs," by James Leung, in the San Francisco Chronicle for 14 September 1990; and "Investigation of a Fatal Remedy," by Terence Monmaney, in the Los Angeles Times for 6 February 1997. [return to text]

  4. See, for example, "Chinese Herbal Medicines Revisited: A Hong Kong Perspective," by Thomas Y.K. Chan and his co-authors, in The Lancet, 18 December 1993. For an account of a death caused by toad venom in a folk remedy, see the Los Angeles Times story cited above. [return to text]

  5. Reported by the BBC World Service on 27 November 1997. [return to text]

  6. See also: "Leading Students into the Clutches of Quacks," in The Textbook Letter for July-August 1994. [return to text]

  7. "Dietary Supplements Containing Ephedrine Alkaloids," published in the Federal Register for 4 June 1997, pages 30677 through 30724. [return to text]

  8. See, for example, "Nebraska Outlaws Ephedra Dietary Supplements" in the NCAHF Newsletter, November-December 1996, published by the National Council Against Health Fraud. [return to text]


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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