Bad Astronomy

Wait, does this give you a headache or take it away?

phil_iphoneI like my iPhone, kinda. It’s not that great as a phone, but it does have lots of fun apps. The maps hardly ever tell me to take a wrong turn at the last second, and I rather enjoy taking fuzzy red photos in low light levels.

Snark aside, there are a lot of good science and entertainment apps for the iPhone. But because I am so stubbornly reality-based, it didn’t occur to me that there would be some apps that border – if not flounce solidly into – alt-med nonsensery.

That is, until I received an email from BABLoggee Cameron Carr, who told me about an app that cures headaches.


Called, oddly enough, “Headache”, it uses “… principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine [that] teach that energy imbalances in the body often contribute to headache symptoms, and these imbalances can be corrected with pressure to specific points on the body.”

Energy balances! Wow, that sure sounds sciencey! Except whenever you talk to people who believe in this, they can never really tell you what energy is, or how it flows, or what precisely it does. I guess it only sounds sciencey.

So basically, this app embraces both the ancient and the modern, but with a slippery grip on both.

My favorite line in the app description is, “Selected by licensed acupuncturists, these points may bring you safe, natural, effective relief.” Hmm, just “may”? And c’mon, “natural”? The app can make your phone emit sounds or vibrate, which it claims “may” relieve your headache if you hold the phone against these imagined points. How is that “natural”? Even Steve Jobs wouldn’t claim that.

Having this stuff supported by acupuncturists doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence either. Acupuncture is the idea that sticking needles at certain locations in your body can restore the balance of this energy flow. If that’s true, acupuncture can be tested to see if it works. Surprise! It has been, and it doesn’t. Or, to be more precise, it doesn’t work any better than the placebo effect.

The thing about headaches is, they can have lots of causes. Sometimes they go away by themselves, sometimes they don’t. Certainly the placebo effect will help some percentage of the time, as might a gentle vibration (just as a gentle neck massage might relieve some symptoms as well). So testing a product like this isn’t easy… and there are approximately a bajillion other products like it, so they’ll never all get tested. There are a hundred ridiculous products – no, probably ten thousand – for every person actually willing to do a proper scientific test of its efficacy. There’ll never be an end to them.

I cannot say whether this app really works, or is thinly disguised quackery. Given the description on the app’s page, I suspect it’s just another alt-med claim with little or no evidence in support of it, just as I suspect it’ll do quite well. Just as the company’s Aulterra cell phone EM neutralizer probably does quite well (and you have to read that page to believe – or disbelieve – it) despite there being no credible evidence that cell phones cause any harm… unless you’re using one while driving, or skydiving.

Science pays in the long run, but stuff you just make up pays off really well in the short run. And since it’ll never, ever, go away, nonsense pays off in the long run too.

I wish there were an app to cure that.