REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The biggest news of the past couple months was the publicity given to Emily Rosa’s paper on Therapeutic Touch (TT) in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA, 4/1). Rosa was nine years old when she conducted her study on 21 experienced TT practitioners (she’s now 11), and did the experiment for a school science fair. TT is based on the claim that there exists a "human energy field" that TT practitioners can manipulate to help people heal. Rosa wanted to find out if the practitioners could actually detect the supposed field, as they claim they can (the State Journal-Register’s article [4/1] said there is supposed to be a "tingling sensation or a feeling of hot or cold"), so she set up a cardboard screen through which the practitioners put their hands. She then put her hand over one of theirs and asked which it was (the screen blocked their sight). They only got the correct hand 44% of the time — slightly less than chance!

TT proponents were quick to attack the study, but I didn’t see anything more concrete than, "But it’s used by lots of people and they think it works." The co-founder of TT claimed the study was "poor in terms of design and methodology" and claimed there are "innumerable" studies to support TT. Unfortunately, whenever they are asked for those studies, they keep coming up short. (One claim she made was that the test failed because the practitioner has to "feel compassion" for the patient, etc. This brings up the simple question: can they feel the energy field, as they have claimed, or not? Which is it? They can’t have it both ways.) As far as her claims that the Rosa study was poor, JAMA’s editor noted that the research is sound and he doesn’t care how young or old the author is — "It’s the quality of the science that matters." Indeed, TT proponents need to take a lesson from that statement.

Tony Cappasso, who has written about TT before and who received the "Best Local Story" award last year in the "REALLity Checklist" column (Vol. 6, #2), contributed to the local article and said that a spokesman for St. John’s hospital could not say whether or not the Center for Mind-Body Medicine there still offers the treatment.

In 1996, the James Randi Educational Foundation offered $742,000 to any TT practitioner who could prove his or her ability to detect the "human energy field" under conditions similar to those used in this study. Only one person took the test (despite claims that there are more than 80,000 TT practitioners in America), and she failed. Since then, the offer has been raised to $1.1 million, and there have been no further takers despite what Dr. Stephen Barrett calls "extensive recruiting efforts, including a direct appeal to" the TT co-founder mentioned above.

In addition to the original coverage in early April, the Chicago Tribune ran a large article in the Sunday "Womanews" section (5/17) profiling Emily Rosa. I was glad to see that the story had at least some lasting effect rather than being a quickly forgotten flash in the pan. I was especially happy to see a positive article about a skeptic in the Tribune (they even titled it, "A Young Skeptic")! But while JAMA’s editor noted that the age of the researcher doesn’t matter for purposes of his publication or scientific value — and I completely agree — I would have to say that her age most certainly did matter in terms of publicity. Unfortunately, I strongly suspect that if she had been a 49-year-old researcher instead of a nine-year-old one, very few people would have paid attention.

Yes or No?

UPI reported that a group of Canadian women got an out-of-court settlement for health damage supposedly caused by silicone breast implants. The article stated, "Silicone implants. . . may also lead to diseases such as lupus or schleroderma." Alas, just a few days later (2/6), Reuters reported the results of a Swedish study of more than 10,000 women that found "no significant link between silicone breast implants and connective tissue diseases such as lupus, scleroderma, and fibromyalgia."

A while ago, we reported some information on breast implants here ("REALLity Check," Vol. 3, #12, and "REALLity Check," Vol. 5, #1). In the first case, it was because Discover magazine had an article discussing one of the main proponents of this supposed connection to these diseases and has testified to this effect in various trials. They showed that his claims are not backed by good scientific evidence. The later report discussed how some skepticism of such claims are finally entering the U.S. courts, as a judge decided that the evidence supporting a link between implants and these diseases was not strong enough to present to a jury.

Now, the Canada case was settled out of court, so the company may have just felt it was easier, and perhaps cheaper, to pay a settlement rather than trying to fight it out. (For example, Dow Corning just made a $4.4 billion settlement offer to creditors and breast implant claimants as part of bankruptcy proceedings.) But as more and more studies come forth showing a "missing link" between silicone implants and these diseases, hopefully science will prevail. Too many of these types of cases (and by "these types," I include cases like those who claim their cell phones have caused cancer) have been decided not on the basis of science, but on a great deal of emotion and a lack of understanding of cause and effect. For example, if a woman gets implants and then contracts lupus, does that mean the implants caused the lupus? Not according to the recent studies or any scientific evidence of which I am aware. However, it seems that many people who contract diseases are eager to blame somebody or something. If you get a brain tumor, it must be the fault of your cell phone. If you get cancer, you must be living too close to electrical wires. If you have implants and get a disease, it must be the fault of those who made the implants!

The courts need to remember to take a good look at cause-and-effect, not to mention evidence, when looking at scientific matters. Yes, it’s possible that a given disease may be caused by an external source, but just assuming that to be so because of anecdotes and the zest to blame others is not the proper way to analyze the situation. The media need to help out by remembering to report the most accurate data available and not just seizing on whatever claim of the day is out there.

An Attractive Idea, But…

Dateline NBC, a show that often takes a skeptical look at "alternative" medicine, did a short piece on magnet therapy (5/10). I’ve been asked by several members to address this topic, but frankly, there isn’t much I can say about it right now. It seems Dateline felt the same way. So far, we have some anecdotal reports that magnets reduce pain, but no good scientific studies. One of these anecdotes was related on Dateline, as were skeptical reports.

A doctor at Vanderbilt University has been researching powerful magnets for use in pain relief, and he at least has a hypothesis as to how they might work: the magnets act on the increased electrical activity in nerves to calm the pain causing that activity. In all honesty, I have no idea if this could work. My brother — a physical therapist — said that unlike many of the claims he’s heard, at least this one sounds like it might be possible (unlike, for example, homeopathy or chiropractic as it was originally claimed). So what do we do? We wait for scientific studies and simply say "I don’t know" to those who ask us.

I should add that there are already plenty of people making a quick buck by touting magnets (even magnets as weak as those on your refrigerator — the ones being studied are much, much stronger), and in response to those claims, we should certainly point out the lack of evidence.

Beliefs That Can Kill

The Washington Post (May 5) reported on a study published by the journal Pediatrics (April) about 172 children who died after their parents used "faith healing" rather than actual medical treatment. The study addressed cases between 1975 and 1995 and excluded those for which there was not enough medical information available. Of these children, the study determined that the majority would have very likely survived had they been given proper medical attention. (For example, children with a ruptured appendix would have been expected to survive more than 90% of the time.)

Of all the various claims we deal with, this one may disgust me the most. If you are an adult and want to gamble with your health because of your particular beliefs in a given paranormal idea, that’s one thing. But to gamble with the life of a child is quite another. One example cited was a 2-year-old girl who choked on a banana. Rather than summon medical aid, the parents "frantically called other members of her religious circle for prayer during nearly an hour in which some signs of life were still present," according to the journal report. As you know, REALL does not address untestable religious beliefs, but we do address claims that can be tested and have an actual effect on the world around us. So I don’t care why those parents let their child die in front of them — whether it was due to a belief in the healing power of prayer, a belief in alternative medicine, a belief that aliens would rescue her, or a belief that the banana would spontaneously combust. What I care about is that due to this paranormal belief, they let their little girl die when she likely could have been saved. And that, my friends, is why our masthead quotes James Randi: "It’s a very dangerous thing to believe in nonsense."

Beliefs About the Dead

On a slightly less harmful, but no less bothersome, note, we have James Van Praagh, the guy who claims he can talk with the dead. (As a fellow REALL member noted, there is no doubt he can talk to the dead — the question is about whether they answer.) He has a best-selling book (Talking to Heaven) and is showing up on all sorts of TV shows with his claims. Recently he was on 20/20, and they nailed him.

For one thing, they had on Michael Shermer, of the Skeptics Society, who explained how Van Praagh does his cold readings and counted his "hits" and "misses" to help show how people tend to remember only the hits and forgive the misses while thinking Van Praagh gets it right on the nose. In one case, 20/20 showed how Van Praagh had to do quite a bit of fishing before determining how an older couple’s son had died. In another, they caught him in what looked like a lie to me: he claimed he had not asked a woman who she wanted to talk to, but in fact they had him on videotape during a break asking that very question of the woman; then, when they started up again, he seemed to be brilliant when he told the woman that her grandmother was there with them.

Even after all of this, Barbara Walters indicated that she believed it was real because he had given her a reading and seemed to know a lot about her father. First she claimed he couldn’t have known that, but then, when the reporter for this segment pointed out that he had found it out fairly easily, Walters agreed that her father had been somewhat well-known, but that didn’t really seem to phase her. Besides, she indicated that he makes people feel good, and that seemed to erase any problems in her mind. I must admit that I find it odd that a journalist like her would, to steal a quote from REALL member Rich Walker’s book, "prefer a warm lie to the cold truth." At least co-host Hugh Downs put forth his more rational view that there is nothing to Van Praagh’s claims.

Solved Mysteries

by Special Guest "Checker," Derek Rompot

Believe it or not, David can’t watch every TV show dealing with the paranormal that comes along. One of the shows he has taped, but not yet watched, is Exposed, which aired on NBC (May 17). Exposed, well, exposes several "mysteries" such as mediums, psychic surgeons, crop circles, and "risky" card scams.

Although Exposed was a little on the sensational side, its approach was to show a clip of the appropriate phenomenon, such as psychic surgery, and then to show what actually happened. (All of the phenomena shown used a skeptic/magician to recreate what might be presented in another format as "real.") In the case of psychic surgery, they show how the "surgeon" prepares his props and how he uses sleight of hand to deceive the patient and onlookers.

Exposed proves that that the hand is faster than the eye (especially in a darkened room). By first showing the clip as it would normally look, and then turning on the lights (literally in the case of the sťance), it used its strength as a visual medium. Slow-motion replays and multiple camera angles add to the effect.

Using that visual strength, Exposed showed how "psychic" feats and other sleights of hand are performed. While there are a number of books that detail these tricks, it’s one thing to read about it, and quite another to see it and realize how easily you can be tricked even if you’re looking for it!

Additional Note by David:

I’ve often said that a show called Solved Mysteries would never make it on TV. It seems that too many viewers want their mysteries to remain mysterious. I hope this show proves me wrong. I don’t know what the ratings were, but I do know that the advertising was rather limited compared to the shows that advocate nonsense (for example, you can often find a half- to full-page ad for such shows in TV Guide, but I found no ads at all for this show). I urge everybody to write in to NBC to show their support for this kind of programming in the future. You can write to NBC at: NBC Viewer Relations, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112, or call at 212-664-2333.

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