When woo works

[BPSDB]

I recently became aware of Tellington T Touch therapy which is an animal healing technique, partly influenced by the Feldenkrais Method. It is principally used on ailing horses, cats and dogs, although it can be applied to many species. I’ve even heard reports of it being used on snakes and tarantulas – apparently they “touched” the snake with sticks. According to the official spiel, instructors and practitioners can be found in 27 countries. The inventor was Linda Tellington-Jones; her website explains how it works:

The intent of the TTouch is to activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligence – a little like “turning on the electric lights of the body.”

Predictably, no explanation of “cellular intelligence” is given, but I’m guessing it has nothing to do with the cellular neural network parallel computing paradigm. Further reading reveals that Ms Tellington Jones received an honorary doctorate degree from the dubiously accredited and pompously-named Wisdom University.

None of which means that Tellington T Touch therapy won’t work; it just sets off the woo-alarm.

So what is Tellington T Touch therapy?

Using a combination of specific touches, lifts, and movement exercises, TTouch helps to release tension and increase body awareness.

Which I sounds a lot like massage and exercise and I think it’s quite reasonable that massage and exercise should be good for animals. The physical and mental benefits of exercise for humans are well-known. Ordinary, non-magical massage – with no ineffable cellular intelligence – shows signs of being beneficial to elderly people suffering loneliness or depression amongst others. It makes sense that social creatures, be they humans or dogs, would benefit from physical contact and connection to those around them.

So I can really see Tellington T Touch working. I expect that a well-intentioned practitioner really could improve a pet’s behaviour and to some extent its general health. But I seriously doubt it could perform significantly better than a combination of loving attention and regular “walkies”.

Which rather clouds the issue. Practitioners vary in how much they market the pseudo-scientific side of their animal therapy; many of the UK ones steer clear of the vague explanations and simply use Tellington T Touch as an extra skill on their CV – no need to scare off the skeptics when the rest of what they do is fairly “normal”.

However, there are plenty who do claim that some holistic, cellular level awakening of energies or similar is behind the effects. Is such an animal therapist a con artist or not? If they can achieve the results they claim, then what does the reasoning behind it matter? After all, there are a number of medicines in common usage whose exact mechanisms are poorly-understood, but they are still rigorously tested before being administered to the general public.

Which is exactly the point – all alternative therapies should be tested, like any other medical treatment. That means randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials.

It’s also worth noting that it doesn’t matter what the claimed reasoning behind the treatment might be. Whether it’s “cellular intelligence” or “a certain energy” or just “a mystery” – whether it works or not can still be tested. As long as you can compare it against a “fake” version without the patients or those measuring the results knowing, you have a double-blind trial. I think it’s safe to say that the animals won’t be able to read the Tellington T Touch practitioner’s certificates on the wall, so will be unaware of which is a real treatment and which is the control. As for the measurers, there’s no need for them to see the therapy or control being carried out and they could assess the results over the next few days or weeks. As long as it’s done on a statistically signficant number of animals the study can be fair and informative.

I think testing is important and I see no reason that alternative therapies should be able to shirk this responsibility. Few people would be willing to take a pharmaceutical company’s products if for example, they said “Yes it works, although it can’t be tested, but they’ve been using it in the far East for generations and my grandmother swears by it” (that’s probably more akin to Reiki than T Touch, but the implications are similar). I’d like all “medical” treatments to be held to the same high standards. If “Fairy dust” or “cellular intelligence” is an unreasonable explanation for GlaxoSmithKline, then it’s unreasonable for everyone.

Granted, a bit of ineffective massage is unlikely to make your eyes drop out or to cause sterility (unless it’s very clumsy). However, even if you were to give the therapy for free, I still don’t think it’s entirely harmless. An ailing person (or animal) only has a certain amount of time and energy to spend trying out alternatives. Confusing the issue with ill-defined treatments of dubious efficacy is at best an irresponsible waste of people’s time and at worst cruel and deceitful.

As regards Tellington T Touch, I think it sits on a borderline. Most of the claims it makes sound reasonable for simple massage and exercise (except perhaps the treatment of snakes and spiders), so why add all the magical nonsense? Perhaps it means they can charge more or take on cases where traditional therapy has failed. In any case, I think they should undergo independent clinical trials – preferably by an institution which doesn’t have “Truth” or “Wisdom” in the title. If their techniques show significantly better results than plain massage and exercise, then they’ve earned the right to be respected medical practitioners. If not, then they should call a spade a spade and admit it’s just massge and exercise.

Enigmatic Hinduism

Very Short Introduction to HinduismI’ve recently got around to reading the excerpt from the “Very Short Introduction” on Hinduism that came with the Independent a while ago. The headline is that I don’t feel any the wiser.

I can only speculate as to why Hinduism is so diverse and eclectic, it could be its long history or the plethora of religious texts relevant to Hinduism. In any case, it seems quite difficult to sum up what Hindus believe. To show what I mean, here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia:

Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and atheism. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic (i.e., involving devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others), but any such term is an overgeneralization.

Which seems to cover most things.

Prominent themes in (but not restricted to) Hindu beliefs include Dharma (ethics/duties), Samsāra (The continuing cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth), Karma (action and subsequent reaction), Moksha (liberation from samsara), and the various Yogas (paths or practices).

Which is the good-sounding stuff that seems to crop up in most religions. Unfortunately, the Dharma bit  leads some of its followers to insist that the caste system is an essential part of ethics and duties.

There have also been a number of purported miracles within the Hindu world. The VSI book describes the miraculous consumption of milk by statues of Ganesh in September 1995. Ganesh is usually depicted as half-elephant and presumably drank the milk through the trunk. As an aside, I mentioned this to a friend who suggested hooking up a Ganesh statue to one of the Virgin Mary which was crying milk. The two could be locked in a milky embrace. I like that image!

Figs on a treeHinduism seems to be tightly bound up with Indian tradition, so much so that it is hard to tell one from the other. The religious traditions identify both Hindus and Indian people equally. Like most religions Hinduism has its fair share of stories, some more insightful than others. One of the more interesting examples from the VSI involves a young man “Shvetaketu”, being taught by his father about how the same essence is in everything. He takes the example of a fig, whose essence exists in the fig, the fig tree and the seed. In one sense this is insightful as the genetic code of the fig is indeed in all three things, however as often happens the insight is extrapolated in some less helpful directions:

“And that’s how you are, Shvetaketu!”… It expresses the idea that the truth which underlies everything and is its essence is also identical with Shvetaketu’s own self…

This doesn’t make any sense to me. All of which reminds me how much complexity there is in all religious traditions – something that’s easy to forget when thinking about the more familiar religions.

Perhaps this Very Short Introduction was not as well written or thought-out as the others, or maybe Hinduism is just very complex and ill-defined, but I still don’t feel I understand Hinduism properly.

Desirability bias

I Buddhism, A Very Short Introductionnoticed a booklet recently that came free with a copy of The Independent newspaper. They’re doing a series entitled “The Great Religions” and today’s religion was Buddhism. I was curious and ignorant, so I picked it up.

Like many humanists, I find Buddhism more interesting and humane than most other religions. Maybe it’s because it actually encourages critical thinking and discourages all violence or perhaps it’s because it has the most enlightened view of ethics for its time that I know of. OK, perhaps “enlightened” is a bit value-laden, maybe I should say “Modern western liberal view of ethics”.

The eight-spoked Dharmacakra. The eight spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.That’s not to say I’m a Buddhist – I’m not and this booklet wasn’t aimed at changing my mind. I still find things to disagree with in Buddhist teachings. There are some ill-defined mystical ideas, fantastical stories and wild stabs in the dark without a scrap of evidence to back them up. So familiar territory to the sceptical religiophile.

What struck me wasn’t so much the content of the book, but how my opinion changed as I read. I couldn’t help but make some judgements about how plausible it was that Buddhist beliefs were true as I went along. The idea of Karma which I was already aware of appealed to my sense of justice (especially poetic justice) and so I warmed to the ideas, almost thinking there could be some truth in it, despite the six mystical realms of rebirth and the five elements theory of the world. OK, I was probably never going to become a believer, but you could have expected me to do a lot less eyebrow raising when meeting Buddhists.

But then I came to the Four Noble Truths. Namely,

“(1) Life is suffering, (2) Suffering is caused by craving, (3) Suffering can have an end, (4) There is a path that leads to the end of suffering” – The Independent: The Great Religions, Buddhism (extract taken from Buddhism, A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown).

At which point I started to think to myself that the whole thing was a bit ridiculous.

Then I caught myself and asked why I’d changed my mind. I’ve only read a few things online about critical thinking and this is the first time I’ve really caught myself.

I didn’t like this idea which seemed to imply that about life was about suffering and the aim being to end it. I’m fortunate that I haven’t experienced any great suffering so I may be biased, but I think the majority of people have a healthy sense of self-preservation and are glad to be alive. To sum up life as suffering seems woefully pessimistic.

Young Buddhist monks of TibetActually, ending a life of suffering isn’t quite what Buddhism says. It preaches a great respect for all life which should not be destroyed through carelessness or deliberate action. In any case, they expect most creatures to be reincarnated so death wouldn’t bring an end to their existence.The “end” is reaching a peaceful state of enlightenment. On further consideration, it may be that the Buddha wrote the four noble truths as he was shocked by suffering and saw it as a problem which needed to be resolved, both practically and philosophically.

But I could see how some people could read it in an unfortunate way. So it didn’t ring a bell with me. In fact in my mind the four noble truths rang like a soggy cloth.

But whether or not I personally find some of the ideas presented by Buddhism unsettling or likely to have unpleasant consequences says nothing of their truth. Even if I don’t like some of Buddhism’s interpretations of the world, that doesn’t mean that the six realms of rebirth don’t exist. That isn’t a reason to believe that Karma doesn’t cause the morality of our actions to somehow affect us in our present or future lives. The reason it’s almost certainly not true is because there’s no good evidence for it. The evidence for reincarnation is sketchy at best and the six realms are one of many unfalsifiable propositions.

The undesirable-sounding implications of an idea however can make us less likely to believe it. Conversely, I’ve heard plenty of believers, when asked why they find their beliefs convincing, respond “It’s a comforting thought”. This is a kind of argument from consequences.  Put simply it says:

X implies Y and Y is desirable;
therefore X is true
.

If you’d asked me, I would have said that I was as suspectible to this kind of fallacy as anyone else and that we all fall into these traps.  However, I think we all secretly like to think we’re above it.

So for now my critical thinking school report reads, “Must try harder”.