Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O / Edition 1

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Christopher Wanjek uses a take-no-prisoners approach in debunking the outrageous nonsense being heaped on a gullible public in the name of science and medicine. Wanjek writes with clarity, humor, and humanity, and simultaneously informs and entertains." Dr. Michael Shermer, Publisher, Skeptic magazine; monthly columnist, Scientific American; author of Why People Believe Weird Things Prehistoric humans believed cedar ashes and incantations could cure a head injury. Ancient Egyptians believed the heart was the center of thought, the liver produced blood, and the brain cooled the body. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was a big fan of bloodletting. Today, we are still plagued by countless medical myths and misconceptions. Bad Medicine sets the record straight by debunking widely held yet incorrect notions of how the body works, from cold cures to vaccination fears. Clear, accessible, and highly entertaining, Bad Medicine dispels such medical convictions as: You only use 100f your brain: CAT, PET, and MRI scans all prove that there are no inactive regions of the brain . . . not even during sleep. Sitting too close to the TV causes nearsightedness: Your mother was wrong. Most likely, an already nearsighted child sits close to see better. Eating junk food will make your face break out: Acne is caused by dead skin cells, hormones, and bacteria, not from a pizza with everything on it. If you dont dress warmly, youll catch a cold: Cold viruses are the true and only cause of colds. Protect yourself and the ones you love from bad medicinethe brain you save may be your own. Wanjek presents a thought-provoking guide that clarifies common medical misconceptions. He sets the record straight on aging, disease, drugs, medical studies, risk, and the most commonly misrepresented medical 'facts' reported by the media.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
For skeptics, always fans of science: The first two books in aseries devoted to "bad science," Bad Astronomy by PhilipPlait and Bad Medicine (Wiley, $15.95) by ChristopherWanjek, may warm even a Scrooge's heart. In short chapters, Plaittackles misperceptions about why the moon looks larger on thehorizon and why stars twinkle before moving on, dismantlingconspiracy kooks who doubt the moon landing and offering a top 10list of bad science moments in movie history. Wanjek, a sciencewriter who has also written jokes for The Tonight Show andSaturday Night Live, takes an edgy and funny tack indebunking myths such as humans using only 10% of their brains, theutility of "anti-bacterial" toys and the safety of "natural" herbalremedies, ones often loaded with powerful chemicals. (USATODAY, December 3, 2002)

"...Bad Medicine is an enjoyable romp through a host ofbiomedical misconceptions..." (New Scientist, 21 December 2002)

"...Wanjek shoots and scores when he tackles the major myths ofmedicine..." (Focus, February 2003)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471434993
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 10/17/2002
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.08 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

CHRISTOPHER WANJEK is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post; he has also written for Smithsonian and Forbes, among other publications. He writes jokes for The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Wanjek is also a senior writer for NASA. He has previously worked as an in-house science writer at MIT and the NIH.

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Read an Excerpt

Bad Medicine

Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O
By Christopher Wanjek

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-43499-X

Chapter One

10 Percent Misconception, 90 Percent Misdirection: The Brain at Work

Often it is said that we use only 10 percent of our brain. Is the brain really a vast, untapped resource of incomprehensible powers? Absolutely. I've heard countless vapid cell-phone conversations on street corners that attest to this. I remember one young lady giddy over a "brown baby pigeon" that was hopping about her feet while she was talking to her friend. The bird was a sparrow.

Remarkably, she was using nearly 100 percent of her brain in describing the "baby pigeon." Optic nerves were relaying the image of a tiny brown bird to the visual cortex way in the back of her brain via the thalamus, sort of the brain's relay station. Cochlear nerves in her ears were transmitting the electrical impulses of the sound of her friend's inane chatter through the brain stem and thalamus to the auditory cortex, where it was ultimately interpreted as language in her brain's Wernicke's area. Memory is spread widely through the brain, from the hippocampus and amygdala to the cerebral cortex, so it is not clear where the young lady was accessing the incorrect information that small brown birds in the city are baby pigeons and not sparrows. Most certainly, though, her brain stem was relaying motor function from her cerebellum andcerebral cortex to the muscles, enabling her to hold the cell phone, turn her head, unconsciously check out a cute guy, and more or less to stand and breathe. Her brain's hypothalamus was regulating her body temperature. All and all, it was a busy time for her brain.

Our budding ornithologist might not have been using a full 100 percent of her brain on the cell phone all at once. After all, no one exercise utilizes 100 percent of one's muscle system. But she was using far more than 10 percent. More importantly, by the time she woke up in the morning after dreams of baby pigeons and cute guys, she would have used all of her brain. All of the brain's regions and many of its neurons would have gotten a workout.

Now, how you use your brain is your own business. You can read War and Peace or you can watch dating shows on television. While many argue that the latter is a waste of the brain's potential, no one can justifiably say that 90 percent of the brain lies dormant, like some untapped oil well, waiting to gush forth with unrealized brilliance.

The "10 percent" brain myth goes back at least a hundred years, perhaps more if one considers the teachings of transcendental meditation and the concept of maximizing the mind's power. Albert Einstein, whom no one accused of having a lazy brain, may have helped keep the myth alive when he told a reporter, wryly and perhaps sarcastically, that his brilliance came from using more than 10 percent of his brain. But this tale cannot be confirmed. Barry Beyerstein, a neurologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, tried to isolate the origin of this myth in "Whence Cometh the Myth that We Only Use Ten Percent of Our Brain?," a chapter in the book Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain. Beyerstein finds reference to a "silent cortex" in brain studies from the 1930s, as well as seeds of misconception from the 1800s.

The nineteenth century was a time of remarkable advancements in our understanding of the physical and biological world. The French physiologist Pierre Flourens's groundbreaking work on the brains of rabbits and pigeons in the 1820s and 1830s mapped out regions in the brain responsible for basic movements, memory, and mood. Basically, he removed parts of their brains and took notes on what the animals could no longer do. A few decades later, Pierre Paul Broca, a French physician, isolated the region in the human brain responsible for controlling speech. He performed autopsies on stroke victims who had lost the ability to form words (but could still comprehend language). In the 1870s, Gustav Fritsch and Eduard Hitzig, two German physiologists, improved upon Flourens's work by zapping certain regions in a dog's brain with electricity and seeing which muscles moved.

The electrical zapping continued with greater precision in the 1930s. Researchers found that in all their brain volunteers, from animals to humans, there were certain regions in the brain that did not respond to stimuli. These regions were labeled the "silent cortex," and humans had a lot of them. The name was not meant to imply that the regions were inactive; merely, the electrical stimuli didn't provoke anything obvious, such as twitching. Further research has shown that the "silent cortex" is responsible for the very traits that make us human: language and abstract thought.

How can we be certain that we don't use only 10 percent of the brain? As Beyerstein succinctly says, "The armamentarium of modern neuroscience decisively repudiates this notion." CAT, PET and MRI scans, along with a battery of other tests, show that there are no inactive regions of the brain, even during sleep. Neuroscientists regularly hook up patients to these devices and ask them to do math problems, listen to music, paint, or do whatever they please. Certain regions of the brain fire up with activity depending on what task is performed. The scans catch all this activity; the entire brain has been mapped in this way.

Further debunking the myth is the fact that the brain, like any other body part, must be used to remain healthy. If your leg remains in a cast for a month, it wilts. A 90-percent brain inactivity rate would result in 90 percent of the brain rapidly deteriorating. Unused neurons (brain cells) would shrivel and die. Clearly, this doesn't happen in healthy individuals. In Alzheimer's disease, there is a diffuse 10 percent to 20 percent loss of neurons. This has a devastating effect on memory and consciousness. A person would be comatose if 90 percent of the brain-any 90 percent-were inactive.

The "10 percent" brain myth is silly even from an evolutionary standpoint. The brain is a hungry organ, requiring energy (in the form of oxygen and glucose) all day and all night. This organ, comprising only 5 percent of the body's total weight, consumes 20 per-cent of the oxygen and glucose. Evolution would have never favored a big, useless "high-maintenance" brain if only 10 percent of it were vital for survival. Darwin aside, just use common sense. Never do we hear a doctor say, "Fortunately the bullet wound destroyed the 90 percent of the brain he doesn't use. He's good to go; call me in the morning."

True, there are bizarre brain stories: people impaled by lead pipes and, still functioning, suddenly taking up an interest in yodeling; or people who have up to half their brain removed to control seizures. The brain never truly recovers its full capacity in these situations, but it can learn to adapt-particularly if the patient is young. The brain can reroute its wiring, or neural pathways, to maintain most of its function. Children whose parts of their brain have been damaged or removed can grow up, if treated, to lead productive and seemingly normal lives. Adults with brain damage have far greater difficulty attaining full function. This is because their streets have already been paved, unlike a child who is growing and learning. It is easier to pave a new street around a damaged area than it is to rip up an old street and start anew.

Yoga masters-and often those who are paralyzed from the neck down-learn how to better control their autonomic nervous system, that part of the nervous system responsible for things we do automatically without "thinking," such as breathing and regulating blood flow. For example, you are walking down a dark street and suddenly a mugger jumps in front of you with a knife. Your heart starts pounding. The rise in heart rate is a result of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response. Conversely, the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system will lower your heart rate and metabolism rate, allowing your body to conserve energy during times of rest. When you control your autonomic nervous system with your brain, you are not using any new brain parts. You are simply more conscious about using sections of the brain you have used all your life. Yoga masters have been known to lower their pulse rate well into the 30s, compared to a resting pulse rate of 70 or so for most other people. Paralyzed individuals can learn how to regulate their bowels, and, in the case of men, even achieve penile erection by controlling autonomic nerves with their brain. But none of this is the unused 90 percent that psychics and other frauds talk about.

The "10 percent" figure popped up somewhere in the twentieth century. At first, the language was nonspecific, with lines such as "Scientists say we don't use most of our brain's power." In 1944 an ad for the Pelman Institute, which offered self-improvement courses, appearing on the inside front cover of a wartime Penguin edition of Stella Gibbons's novel Cold Comfort Farm, was perhaps one of the first to nail down a number:

What's holding you back? Just one fact-one scientific fact. That is all. Because, as Science says, you are using only one-tenth of your real brain-power!

This is where the psychics and believers in extrasensory perception (ESP) pick up the ball. The mantra of those people who harness the Force as adeptly as Luke Skywalker is that your "other 90 percent" of the brain has the power to sense and move what the mundane 10 percent cannot. Uri "Sorry, I can't bend this spoon in a controlled laboratory setting" Geller is a magician who claims to use his brain to move objects without touching them and to read other people's minds. He's quite successful. With his clever brain, Geller mysteriously convinces fools to reach into their wallets and fork over big bucks to buy his books and to watch him perform. He's a consummate mind reader, knowing what his audience will fall for. In the introduction to his 1996 book, Mind Power, he writes:

[M]ost of us only use about 10 per cent of our brains, if that.... I believe that we once had full power over our minds. We had to, in order to survive, but as our world has become more sophisticated and complex we have forgotten many of the abilities we once had.

Makes sense to me: the proliferation of books, quantum mechanics, superconductivity, semiconductors, laser surgery, X-ray telescopes that can probe black-hole event horizons ... all these things are making us stupid! Me hunt, me eat. That's the kind of stimuli we need. I will build shelter and a fire with my ability to mind-bend this spoon. Why is it that Geller can use his mind power to bend a spoon and not a lever in a Coke machine to get a free drink? Beats me. I must be part of the 10-percent-and-under crowd.

One cannot even speak of 10 percent in a diffuse sense, that our brains are only 10 percent full of knowledge. There's no limit to the mind's ability to store knowledge. This would be like saying we use only 10 percent of our ears because we never listen to 90 percent of the world languages, or 10 percent of our taste buds because we never eat 90 percent of the foods that others eat.

Metaphorically, this great brain tithing is a reflection of our deep-seated human inferiority complex: ancient civilizations could not have accomplished what they did on their own, we say; there must have been aliens guiding them or they must have moved massive stones with their minds. If Einstein could determine that mass distorts space in such a way to produce gravity, we say, he must have had access to a different part of the brain than I do. However, we cannot ignore the core message of the Uri Gellers and the fraudulent psychics-that humans often fail to attain their fullest potential. We can, as a species, rise above the ignorance of bigotry or fraud or malice, not by tapping into unused mystic portions of our brains but by reveling in the pursuit of knowledge.

Well, maybe tomorrow. There's a rerun of Married with Children on the tube.

Chapter Two

Big Brain, Little Smarts: Brain Size and Intelligence

In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Galapagos, big-brained humans blow up the world with nuclear weapons. The only survivors are cruise-ship passengers shipwrecked on one of the Galapagos Islands of Darwin fame. Survival of the fittest plays out on the island, with those able to catch fish better suited to eat, live, mate, and pass on their genetic information. Smart people-the kind who can build weapons that destroy the world-are at a disadvantage on the island because all they know how to do is argue. They soon die. The dumb people, over the course of millions of years, evolve into dumber, penguinlike creatures skilled at catching fish. Vonnegut clearly doesn't have much respect for those with big brains. By "big brain," of course, he means the so-called smart person-creative liberty from a great author who knows deep down that human brain size has nothing to do with intelligence.

Assuming you could measure smartness (which we can't), and assuming you could measure brain size by measuring the outside of the head (which we can't), you'd still be wrong to assume that people with bigger heads are smarter. There have been geniuses with tiny brains and idiots with huge ones. Women have smaller brains than men, on average. Smaller people, particularly midgets, often have smaller brains. Unless you are prepared to defend the stance that women and short people are dumber, you'd be wise to drop the "big brain = big smarts" argument.

If the brain were a muscle, you'd be right in assuming that a bigger brain means more mental strength. Yet the brain is far more complicated than a muscle. The brain is a fluid-rich, spongelike tissue containing ten billion nerve endings controlling every thought and movement we undertake. The notion that a big brain equals big intelligence goes back several hundred years, yet it was in ancient times that humans first began to identify the brain as the organ that controls thought. The concept wasn't so straightforward. Imagine yourself with no medical instruments. How can you tell that the brain-which you see when you slaughter an animal-is responsible for thought in humans? Aristotle, a noted smart guy, thought the brain was a radiator that cooled the blood. The center of thought was the heart, according to Aristotle. This was around 350 B.C.E. Around 150 C.E., Galen, famed doctor to the Roman gladiators, began to noticed that violent head injuries from ridiculously gory gladiator games led to neurological disorders. He suggested that the brain might harbor thought, a concept met with giggles.

Barbarians of all brain sizes sacked Rome late in the fifth century, and serious thought went underground for a while. The philosopher René Descartes revisited the brain in the seventeenth century.


Excerpted from Bad Medicine by Christopher Wanjek Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Roots of Bad Medicine.


10 Percent Misconception, 90 Percent Misdirection: The Brain atWork.

Big Brain, Little Smarts: Brain Size and Intelligence.

Blinded by Lies: The Eyes Have It.

All in Good Taste: How the Tongue Works.

Scrubbing Your Liver: The Demystification of Detoxification.

Refer to the Appendix: Useless Organ or Helpful Player?

Going Gray? Not Today: White Hair and Its Causes.

Samson's Delight: Baldness Cures.

The Race Is Off: Race Defined.


Losing One's Mind: Memory Loss and Aging.

Getting Stiffed: Vitality and Aging.

Illness Gets Old: Aging and Disease.

See You in 2150: The Long and Short of Life Span.

On and On: Longevity and Genetics.


The Plague Lives! The Black Plague in the Modern Age.

Cold Comfort: How to Catch a Cold.

The Ill-Advised War on Bacteria: Are All Bacteria Bad?

Radiating Misperception: Radiation, Pro and Con.

Swimming with Sharks: Sharks and Cancer.

Mutating Misconceptions: What Your Genes Say about Your FutureHealth.


Learning Your Alpha-Beta-Carotenes: Antioxidants, Pro andCon.

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being: Fat People and Food.

Not Milk? Milk and Your Health.

Organic Reasoning: The Benefits of Organic Food.

Water, Water Everywhere: Bottled Water vs. Tap Water.

The Whole Grain Truth: Are Whole Grains Healthier?


The Delusion of Dilution: Homeopathy X 50.

Magnetic Charm: Magnets and Your Health.

Reversal of Fortune: The Viability of Ayurveda.

Something Smells Funny: Aromatherapy As a Cure.

Suffocating Trends: Oxygen—How Much Is Too Much?

The Ultimate Hands-Off Approach: Touch Therapy, Qigong, and FalunGong.

Getting to the Root of the Problem: Herbs As AlternativeMedicine.

A Shot in the Arm: The True Dangers of Vaccines.


Toxic Avenger: The Science of Toxicity.

Peer-Reviewed for Your Pleasure: How Health Studies Work.

Candy Adds Years to Your Life: And Other Important Health StudyFindings.

We're #1: Rating America's Health.


I'm Not a Reporter, but I Play One on TV: The Accuracy ofTelevision Medical News.

Rambo VI: The Quest for Hearing: Guns and Their Aftereffects.

Knocked Out, Loaded: Imagined Violence and Real Problems.

Heartbreaker: Hollywood Style.

Epilogue: Tomorrow's Promise: Bad Medicine on the Horizon.

Appendix: More Bad Medicine.

Recommended Reading.



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    Posted June 5, 2008

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    'Omnivoir's dilemma,' '100 year lie' are far better books than this one.

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