Tag Archives: reiki

Quactitioners I – Sincerely WooWoo

Ben Goldacre’s recent Radio 4 programme seeks to place current food faddists (I assume he’s thinking of Gillian McKeith and Ian Marber) in the long tradition of American snake oil salesmen and mountebanks.  His programme discusses the history of these travelling showmen and also of food faddists turned businessmen such as Kellogg, Graham and the seller of Hadacol.  It’s a good programme, and I recommend  it.

However, it’s disingenuous of him to let his listeners infer that there are only two kinds of people providing health services – scientists and quacks.  He’s not alone: most of the sceptical commentators out there make a clear distinction between the good and the bad, the sheep and the goats, the disinterested practitioners of empirical science and the cynical and opportunistic pedlars of sugar-pills.  In fairness to Ben Goldacre, he’s more a much more subtle thinker than that, but even he tends to simplify the message to make it easy to convey.

It seems to me that there is no neat correlation between sincerity and science, and that it’s more useful if we consider that there might be four categories of people offering to help us with our health.

To make things snappy, I’m calling them the Good Doctors, the Celebrity Surgeons, the Profiteering Quacks and the Sincere WooWoos.

Sincerely WooWoo

  1. The Good Doctors are scientifically-minded as well as scientifically-trained, they are men and women of integrity who frequently work in shitty areas and research shitty diseases
  2. The Celebrity Surgeons specialise in “diseases of the rich”, as Tom Lehrer put it and can be found practising perfectly good plastic surgery in Florida and dentistry in Harley Street.  Big Pharma can come into this category of profit-motivated scientists.
  3. The Profiteering Quacks are the ones Goldacre really dislikes – they don’t let truth, logic or inadequate training stand in the way of getting tv deals and book deals and products on shelves – they know it makes cents.
    And finally:
  4. The Sincere WooWoos are good people let down by a lack of critical thinking. They are troubled by modern medicine, particularly the cynical and profitable kind, so they they train as homoeopaths or acupuncturists or naturopaths, and then the Hawthorne effect and the Placebo effect builds them an anecdotal evidence base which reinforces their sincere belief in their success

The problem is that the debate ends up at cross purposes.  Too many sceptics restrict their criticism to the profiteering quacks without addressing the question of what is troubling about modern medical and surgical practice.  And likewise, far too many alternative practitioners throw out the baby of medical science with the bathwater of the profit-motive.

Cross Purposes

People like Ben Goldacre and John Diamond rightly argue that Profiteering Quacks are dangerous and leech on the vulnerable and insecure simply to make money out of them.  But those of us who defend science and evidence-based medicine need to accept that the group that I have flippantly categorised as “Celebrity Surgeons” do exactly the same thing, the only difference being that their interventions which are frequently unnecessary do in fact work – think of Jordan’s boobs and Michael Jackson’s nose if you doubt what I’m saying.

It isn’t enough to attack the woolly-thinking which leads trusting people to accept alternative practices like acupuncture and homoeopathy, we must also understand what it is about these practices which attract patients and practitioners, and what it is about “scientific” or “western” practices” which repel them.

Good Reading:

Bad Science – Ben Goldacre’s blog in the Guardian – eg his column about Gillian McKeith
Snake Oil – John Diamond’s searing criticism of alternative practitioners

Good Listening:

Skeptoid – a weekly 10 minute dose of evidence-based good sence
Bad Science – Ben Goldacre’s infrequent podcasts

Farewell to flakiness – or why I’m not entitled to my own opinion

A FlakeI was raised by people of great personal and moral integrity with reasonable intelligence who had no exposure to science or scientific thinking at all. This didn’t stop them having Opinions on things so it is no surprise that they were Flakes one and all. Bless ’em.

Flaky thinking is cozy, it provides comfort blankies such as “everything happens for a reason”or “someone was looking after me that night”. It also provides explanations which appear to be simple and easy to understand: ” stimulating the body’s natural healing processes” or “bright lines of golden energy”.

I’m not going to rip into acupuncture, auric photography, biomagnetic bracelets, biorhythm charts, cranial-sacral therapy, earth energy lines, feng shui, food sensitivity analysis, homoeopathy, osteopathy, reiki or any of the other forms of flakiness which I’ve spent money on in my time. To be honest, I cannot be bothered. Either you consider me to be foolishly narrow-minded because I dismiss them or foolishly forebearing because I don’t critique them and we both have better things to do with our time than argue the point.

Let’s just say that I spent my money on all of the above, probably thousands of pounds now that I look at the list, but I don’t feel ripped off; every one of them brought me a good 40 minutes of someone’s undivided attention and a nice warm placebo effect. I was lucky; it was a life-style choice not a fearful attempt to ward off cancer. But I wouldn’t spend my money on any of them again.

So what undermined my warm fuzzy view that the word “energy” means something when used metaphorically, that there are forces which cannot be measured by science, and that there is more to life than meets the eye?

Lots of things. Feel free to skip the list and cut to the conclusions at the end of the piece.

  • I check out the Asthma UK site and realise the approaches described are infinitely more cautious, detailed, rigorous and robust than the approaches of the herbalists I’d instinctively turn to.
  • My father, with cancer, is dramatically better after a stay in hospital which grants him at least another year of good quality of life.
  • A crystal healer describes the “lovely warm lines of yellow energy” flowing through her treatment rooms. When I ask her if she can see them she says “no, but Gordon has dowsed them and told me where they are”. The inane warmth in her voice sets my alarm bells ringing.
  • I read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
  • I have to describe my symptoms to the German pharmacist rather than selecting the herbal tinctures and ointments I’d choose in the UK; I find myself thinking “These German pharmaceuticals are very effective” and then realising that they might work well simply because they are pharmaceuticals and being German has nothing to do with it.
  • I work for a large petro-chemical company and find that the individuals there are responsible and serious people, and not in fact the spawn of satan who just don’t “get” it.
  • I acknowledge that the scientists working on GMOs are (a) intelligent and (b) not malicious. I think that they are wrong about genetically modified organisms being good for the planet, but acknowledge that if they are wrong then it’s not because they are stupid.
  • A friend sends me a link to DHMO.org and I realise just how easy it is to writes spurious science-speak which is manipulative and emotional.
  • A friend of mine compulsively adds and subtracts numbers to find co-incidences and meanings without noticing that if you manipulate any date enough you can reach the number 7, or 26.
  • I read something which explains that the phenomena described in all documented near-death experiences (tunnel vision, a distant light, etc) are also consistent with specific forms of neurological shut-down.
  • I develop an increasing respect for the methodologies in my own field, and by extension for standards’ based methodological approaches in others. In other words, I come to prefer rigorous testing to instinct.
  • I have a relationship with a statistician.
  • I come across evidence that a feeling that there a ghostly presence in the room can be reliably triggered by certain localised electro-magnetic phenomenon.
  • I read The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
  • I regularly flick through copies of the British Medical Journal and discover that the research studies are of varying quality but explicit about their limitations and scope.
  • Triptanes provide effective migraine relief.
  • I read Snake Oil by John Diamond.
  • I start a post-grad degree and within a few months become imensely more picky about authorities and references.

Ok. It’s not a particularly impressive list: a lot of it is based on a distaste for poor critical thinking in others which of course doesn’t demonstrate any improvement in my own, the books are pop-science even if the scientists are credible, the rest of it is un-referenced and at this distance in time I have no way of checking where I got the information about near death experiences and ghostly presences from.

But…

But I think that the real epiphany is that I am only entitled to an opinion on subjects where I have some expertise. Guess what – experts really do know better. It’s a matter of knowing my limitations. I cannot bake cakes, design power stations or diagnose illnesses. I have no choice but to delegate those tasks. Generic intelligence is not the same as experience, training or qualifications and this is hard for people, particularly those educated in the social sciences or humanities, to accept.

Not all experts are equal, of course. Gillian McKeith’s “doctorate” is a tad light-weight to say the least, though the woman is undoubtedly sincere. We cannot accept the word of experts unquestioningly. We must continue to challenge and ask the pertinent questions – how did you arrive at that conclusion – how large was your sample-size – how well conducted has your research been – where do you get your funding, and so on. But challenging does work: 20 years of hindsight bias, selective memory, anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect do not equal one double blind controlled trial. Sorry.

Some people argue that science is just as much a matter of belief as religion is. It isn’t of course. I’ve argued that you have to trust the scientists but as Reagan put it you “trust but verify”. You can by definition repeat and test a scientific experiment or demonstration. You cannot test bach flower remedies, post-modernism or god. In fact there’s even a commandment against it.

This of course means that the opinions of true experts whose conclusions are based on testable and repeatable methods vastly outweigh yours and mine. We are entitled to doubts, concerns, worries, uncertainties and even rage, anger and disgust. Those are emotions and emotions are not opinions. We must also remain entitled to challenge – that is what accountability is.

Comfort blankies - do not forget to boil them to keep them sterile, otherwise they can harbour germs.  Unfortunately boiling may damage the warmth and softness of your blankie.To some extent I do miss the warm fuzziness of flaky thinking, but on the other hand if you acknowledge that real life is unfair, that shit happens, it becomes much easier to deal with. Nastier, but more straight-forward. There are a few flaky things I still adhere to: meditation, NLP and yoga specifically, though I’m not going to defend them here. The only school of “alternative” thought which I have not yet found to be intellectually undermined is the Buddhist approach to re-incarnation. To be honest, I doubt it’s got any validity to it, but does have the merits of being (a) internally consistent and (b) not yet countered by harsh scientific enquiry. However you look at it, the idea that bad things happen to good people for no reason is a nasty one.

I had been going to illustrate this with one of the Cadbury’s Flake ads but I couldn’t find the girl painting a picture in a poppy field in the rain, so I decided to show you this instead which did at least make me laugh.