The Chiropractor’s Toy

I’ve been keeping my ear close to the ground on all things chiropractic lately, often coming across strange and unethical practices that are in need of a well-deserved scientific flogging. Most of these I let pass in anticipation of a bigger catch, but there is one practice that I can’t get over how funny it would be if it weren’t so troubling. First, some history.

Chiropractic originated from the father and son team of D.D. Palmer and his younger counterpart B.J. Palmer. Papa Palmer is largely attributed as the inventor of chiropractic, but B.J. Palmer and his unparalleled marketing skills helped make the profession what it is today. A prolific promoter, B.J. was an author, a radio host, and even at one point a circus hand. He was certainly no stranger to gimmicks.

In expanding the diagnostic scope of chiropractic practice, B.J. introduced two devices into the clinic. The first was the x-ray machine, which is often of no use when treating lower back pain and is recommended against by Choosing Wisely Canada. Despite this, they are used widely by chiropractors in the treatment of lower back pain. The second device, was the neurocalometer – a gadget that B.J. fervently advertised and sold. What’s unique about the neurocalometer is that even many chiropractors agree that its introduction and promotion was unethical.

The Neurocalometer
The Neurocalometer [source]
So what is the neurocalometer? It’s a thermometer. No really, it’s basically just a thermometer.

The idea is that chiropractors use temperature as a gauge to measure subluxations – displacements of the vertebrae that impinge on the spinal nerves. They (I should be clear – not all chiropractors) believe that this interference in the nerves causes dissipation of heat to surrounding tissue, allowing them to precisely diagnose subluxations. There’s just one problem: subluxations don’t exist. In fact, a group of chiropractors and researchers found no evidence that they exist or are causally related to any disease process. Despite this, a large number of chiropractors still claim to be able to diagnose and treat the mythical vertebral subluxation.

As you can imagine, since vertebral subluxations don’t exist, there isn’t much hope for the neurocalometer as an effective diagnostic instrument, but it gets worse; even the Canadian Chiropractors Association stated that the “validity and reliability of measurement are highly doubtful.” This makes sense. Even if we granted the existence of subluxations, do nerves create heat when pinched? If nerves create heat when pinched, is it enough to be measured? Is enough heat created to be measured indirectly at the surface of the skin? The answer to all of these questions is an affirmative no.

Regardless, many chiropractors still make use of variants of the neurocalometer at great expense to their credibility. Luckily, crafty chiropractors at least avoid the great expense to their overhead and recognize that neurocalometers are really just overpriced thermometers. So why not just use a cheap ear thermometer instead? They measure surface temperature and are much more widely available. Even though they might not be very reliable, they make up for it by being cheap and easy to come by. You can even pick them up at Toys R Us:

In fact, one local chiropractor uses a similar (if not the exact same) model in a video “demonstrating” its use:

Source: “London, Ontario Newborn Adjustment” Retrieved from: London, Ontario Newborn Adjustment

That’s not to say the thermometer doesn’t work; it certainly is a real thermometer, but what is the chiropractor using it for? Well, in the video posted by his practice to Facebook (which my good friend Dennis forwarded to me), he is using it to diagnose subluxations. On a 2-week-old infant.

I left a comment on the post expressing my concerns. It was promptly removed and I was blocked from the page. After composing the initial draft of this article, I sent it to the Kay Harris Chiropractic & Wellness Center asking if they would respond or at least offer corrections if they found issues. They haven’t responded. Why is it that chiropractors have the audacity to promote such things without the integrity to defend them?

Remember, subluxations are to chiropractors as the tooth fairy is to children; they don’t exist, but still seem to bring in the money. That’s not all; there is no reason to think that chiropractic offers any benefits to children:

I don’t know of any reason to believe that it might be necessary to refer a child to a pediatric chiropractor or to use spinal manipulation on a child prior to onset of adolescence. “Wellness care” in the form of “subluxation correction” is unnecessary and scientifically indefensible, and it places children at risk. 

 -Sam Homola, Chiropractor

Yet here is a chiropractor with an infant in one hand and a thermometer in the other. He claims that treatment for a subluxation is needed for a 0.2 degree differential in temperature. Well not only are ear thermometers not designed for this purpose, but they are not terribly accurate. The thermometer in question has an accuracy of ±0.2°C even though its display resolution is 0.1 °C. It might be surprising to you at this point, but that means that a 0.2 degree differential cannot be reliably measured with this device. Because the accuracy is even worse outside its normal operating range, it’s likely that the device couldn’t even diagnose Harvey Lillard‘s Mother of all Subluxations. That is, if subluxations existed.

Further, according to the manual, “this thermometer is intended for household use only.” So I hope the chiropractor’s practice is at home; I want him to be comfortable when he hears this: what you are doing in this video is entirely useless.

Stay Scientific.

Is McDonald’s Using Deceptive Marketing?

Not too long ago, my good friend Ed stumbled upon something peculiar. He found that McDonald’s had a Canadian website that allowed customers to ask questions to be answered by the corporate offices. That’s not the strange part; in fact, I commend them for attempting a transparency initiative. So what was strange? The questions.

Ed noticed that there were a number of questions that were phrased in a way that didn’t seem quite right. Here is an example:

Strange, but not unheard of. After all, although the site was restricted to Canadian users, our population is certainly linguistically and grammatically diverse. For anyone unfamiliar, the question is in reference to a popular myth that McDonald’s used the registered name of a company named “100% Pure Beef” (or some variant) to deceptively hide the fact that they aren’t serving pure beef (they are). Naturally, McDonald’s answers this question in many forms on the Your Questions website. Actually, it answers the exact same question many times:

Well that’s certainly strange now, isn’t it? Why do so many people want to know precisely “Is 100% pure beef a fact or a company?”

Going through the question asking process is a multi-step endeavor. First, you pose your question. Next, McDonald’s will search for related questions and direct you to those queries instead so that you don’t have to ask a question that has already been answered. Should you choose to proceed, you must then link the McDonald’s Facebook or Twitter API to ask your question so that they may take your location, your name, your profile picture, and who knows what else. They include these details in your post (which I’ve censored in the images), but they abbreviate last names. Even so, I thought that this phenomenon was odd enough to warrant an investigation.

Pulling up Burp, I performed a quick spidering of the site to try and get an idea of all the duplicate questions:

If we go based on their naming convention, then the question in question has been asked 42 times along with an extra “compony” edition. From a cursory look at the architecture of their site, I could also tell that they were using Facebook’s Graph API, so my theory was that they were using participants’ current Facebook pictures. I confirmed this when I began to look up users.

Facebook makes it difficult to contact strangers and for good reason. Nonetheless, I was able to identify a total of 6 individuals who had asked a suspicious looking question (not all were of the above form). I only heard back from two.

The first woman – who I will refer to as Sam – accepted my friend request. Sadly, she didn’t respond to my messages, but I was able to learn the following from her profile.

Well that’s strange. Why would a McDonald’s employee go online to ask their employer a question about an easily debunked myth? Why would Sam phrase it the precise way that several others had? Couldn’t she just read the other answers? In fact, her question was one of the most recent of the form asked.

Of course, this could all just be a string of coincidences. So to increase our sample size, let’s see what’s behind door number 2.

The second individual to get back to me was actually kind enough to respond to my messages. This gentleman – who I will identify as Sammy – asked the following question:


My conversation with Sammy was in stark contrast to the phrasing of the question; contrary to what you might think, Sammy is quite literate and paid due respect to grammar in our conversation. So that was strange, but I can give you something stranger than that:

Exactly. Sammy is not only a McDonald’s employee, but he operates a branch. In my conversation with Sammy, he had this to say:

And further:

So how did Sammy end up asking such an ill-phrased question? Why is it tied to his Facebook account? Did a customer hijack his Facebook in order to post that question? That seems far-fetched.

So what is plausible? It’s plausible that McDonald’s employees paired their Facebook accounts with the McDonald’s app. It’s plausible that McDonald’s then submitted fake questions in order to boost the visibility of common concerns that they wanted to address. Posing as independent 3rd parties on corporate sites isn’t unheard of, but it could very well be illegal. That doesn’t answer the mystery of why the obtuse phrasing was chosen for the questions.

I contend that it’s not hard to imagine a committee of executives sitting in a room and pondering how us commoners think only to come up with gibberish, but could this really be the case? I think it’s usually the case that the answer to conspiracy theories is just an explanation that evades proponents on its sheer simplicity. For example, it’s also plausible that some humans really just exist as some sort of hive-mind and all simultaneously asked similar ill-phrased questions. After all:

“is there paint group?”

is there paint group?

Then again, maybe I’m just wasting my time:

Thanks for clearing that up, Sammy. I think everyone can rest easy tonight.