REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

It's been a few months since my last column, so Editor Bob called and told me I'd better get moving for this month. Not wanting to upset him, I've put together the following tidbits, several of which deal with the big topic of the day, alternative medicine.

TT in Springfield

A couple months ago, we had an article which summarized some information about Therapeutic Touch (TT) and its availability through St. John's Hospital's Center for Mind-Body Medicine. That article made its way to the desk of the State Journal-Register's health writer, Tony Cappasso. He did some digging and question-asking (including the questions I'd planned on asking St. John's -- thus saving us some work) and ended up writing not one, not two, but three full articles on St. John's and some of their less-than-scientific practices.

While the TT article made the front page (September 7), the only downside is that the front page (and much of the rest of the media) was dominated by Di's funeral coverage. To date, I've seen one letter in response to the article (essentially attacking it for daring to rely on scientific evidence instead of anecdotes), and no other media response at all. Even without that media response, though, we can hope that it just might affect the way St. John's practices in the future.

For those of you who didn't see the article (or were overwhelmed by Di coverage), Cappasso did a good job of explaining TT, which deals with practitioners claiming to be able to adjust the "human energy field" to treat medical problems. He talked to or quoted several experts across the U.S., including Dr. Stephen Barrett, the head of Quackwatch; Dr. Henry Claman, professor of immunology at the University of Colorado (where a study on TT was done); Dr. John Renner, of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF); James "The Amazing" Randi; and us here at REALL.

The overwhelming opinion from those listed above is that TT = quackery. There is little or no scientific evidence that it does anything, and certainly no evidence that a "human energy field" even exists. So how did St. John's medical director, Dr. Ronald Deering, respond? "I'm keeping my mind open to the concept." What?! Keeping your mind open to what? This man is supposed to be a doctor; doctors are supposed to use scientific evidence; there is a definite lack of scientific evidence here; so what is he doing?

As we often see with these types of claims, the proponents say there is all sorts of evidence to back them up. But when questioned, they come out somewhat light on facts. Here, we have a nurse who made that claim, but could only point to a single study when Cappasso asked her about it. Unfortunately, that study has been reviewed quite critically, along with others. The Questionable Nurse Practices Task Force of NCAHF found that "the more rigorous the research design, the more detailed the statistical analysis, the less evidence there is that there is any observed -- or observable -- phenomenon here." Dr. Claman wrote a report that noted that claims regarding unmeasurable energy fields "are a disservice to science and the practice of healing, and demonstrate a commitment to metaphysics and the mystical view of life rather than to a scientific or rational view of life."

Perhaps the most humorous part of the article describes a scientific test so simple that anybody who believes in TT should be begging to be a part of it. In this case, the test was put together by a 4th-grade girl who asked 15 TT practitioners to determine if the girl's hand was above their right or left hand while their vision was blocked by a screen. If they can truly detect and manipulate a "human energy field," this test should be a snap. Instead, the results showed that they got it right 47% of the time -- no better than randomly guessing! Similar tests done by and for others have shown similar, or worse, results.

So where is the science behind the claims? It simply isn't there? So why does St. John's continue to offer TT? That is the real mystery here.

AMA = Alternative Medical Association?

Even more mysterious than a given hospital offering an unscientific and unproven "therapy" is the idea that the main organization representing doctors might publish a book about alternative medicine. Yet that's exactly what might have happened were it not for the American Medical Association's (AMA) recent fiasco.

You've probably heard about how the AMA was going to license themselves to Sunbeam. That caused a great deal of internal strife and led to the "resignations" of several officials. It turns out that those very officials were in plans to publish a book on alternative medicine -- and apparently not a very critical one! Now that those guys are gone, the AMA has put that book on hold, an action that apparently should have been taken a while ago, considering the "strong concerns [that] were voice by its top scientific committee," according to the Chicago Tribune (9/25).

Apparently, the AMA Council on Scientific Affairs expressed serious concerns about the book a year ago (it had been okayed by two of the executives who resigned), but even though the council was asked to write a foreword for the book, they never were given the opportunity to review it! Thankfully, now that those who approved the project are gone, its being reviewed carefully (it had been virtually completed) to make certain it "is consistent with the best standards for scientific integrity," according to an AMA official.

Remember that Warning?

We haven't talked too much about false memories lately, hopefully because the tide has turned and people (and therapists) realize the dangers of the types of therapies that led to such problems. Well, maybe not.

Reuters reported (8/19) that people can be influenced under hypnosis to develop false memories even after they had been warned that false memories could result! The study showed that 28% of those who were put under hypnosis did develop false memories about recent events even though they had been specifically warned that "hypnotized participants may confuse what they imagine with what really occurred." It does look like the warning helped a little, because a study done without the warning showed 44% of the participants developing the false memories.

So while the warnings can help, it certainly doesn't remove the possibility of false-memory formation. Indeed, the only way to avoid creation of false memories is for therapists to stop using the methods they use for "recovering" memories.

Quantum Spookiness

This isn't so much a report on the paranormal as it is a report about a report that will likely be used by paranormal proponents.

The journal Science reported that a test of "quantum action at a distance" showed that some strange "spooky actions" can seemingly occur and that links between quantum entities can persist even though they are separated by several miles.

Some background: quantum theory allows a pure quantum state, such as polarization, to be spread across two objects. Therefore, a pair of simultaneously-created photons are "entangled" such that the measurement taken on one photon will influence the measurement of its partner, even though it may be quite a distance away. Einstein never liked this idea (he is the one who called it "spooky actions at a distance") and it is rather difficult to fathom, given that it appears to be at odds with special relativity's prohibition of faster-than-light effects. However, laboratory tests have seemingly backed it. Those tests were fairly short range, but a more recent test using fiber-optic lines and testing stations almost 11 kilometers apart showed evidence of "quantum spookiness." Apparently, some of the properties of the photons are not determined when they are created, but when one of them is measured; the photons acquire a particular state at that time, and the "entangled" twin instantly acquires the same property.

Now, this doesn't mean that information can be sent faster than the speed of light, because the quantum correlations cannot be controlled. But don't expect that to stop paranormal proponents. I have heard them argue before, trying to use quantum mechanics and scientific-sounding jabber to justify their claims. This will only add fuel to the fire. After all, if this is possible, why not faster-than-light speed? Or psychic power? Or astrology? Of course, what will likely be missing from these claims is the most important factor: evidence. Yes, Einstein doubted that "spooky actions at a distance" could be real. But I'd bet that if he were here today, he'd look at the evidence and change his mind. Do we understand why this occurs? I know I don't! But there is evidence that it does, indeed, happen. If paranormal proponents want our attention, then they, too, need to focus on proving that something actually happens.

Tribune Continues To Promote Nonsense

Longtime readers of this column will find it no surprise that the Chicago Tribune promotes nonsense (generally in its "Tempo" section). But now they've taken it to new heights by using the Web.

Many newspapers have Web sites, and the Tribune is no exception. Many newspapers have astrology columns, and the Tribune is certainly no exception. However, I haven't yet found another newspaper that has several whole pages devoted to astrological nonsense (okay, I'm being redundant)!

The Tribune isn't satisfied by just providing horoscopes. No, they apparently feel the need to miseducate and misinform as well. So they have an "Astrology 101" page that readers can go to in order to learn about astrology. And what does this page say? Things like, "The tools used in astrology are based on astronomy." What?! The only thing they have in common are the first five letters of the words! Astronomy is a science; astrology is baloney.

It goes on by saying, "Astrology studies the effects of planets on people." Not at all! Astrologers don't study the effects of anything -- they just claim that distant bodies have some effect that can't be measured.

"It has been used throughout history," the article continues. But so what? So has the reading of sheep entrails (indeed, when I posted this information on the Internet SKEPTIC listserv, another participant sent a letter to the Tribune saying that they should be promoting the reading of sheep entrails, just to be fair to all beliefs).

I could go on about the twaddle contained in this homepage, but I think it's fairly clear what I'd say. The point here, of course, is that we have a major media outlet pushing nonsense as if it had some factual basis, and the owners apparently see no problem with this.

Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS!