Sinister Superstitions

a_hand_writing1

Barely two generations ago left-handed children were being forced to write with their right hands. Nowadays left-handedness usually only brings good-natured teasing and a difficulty with tools designed by their right-handed oppressors.

However, superstitions about all things lefty go back centuries and can be found in almost every language and culture.

Left in language

The Latin word sinestra, originally meaning left, took on an unfortunate meaning over time and is where we get the English word sinister. A similar pattern is apparent in other languages. For example, in Welsh chwith means left, but also “wrong”. The Swedish word for left – vänster - is related to the word for infidelity, whilst in Chinese the adjective, 左 which means “improper” also means, you guessed it, left.

Left in culture

The left side or left hand is often seen as evil or untrustworthy in religious traditions. Buddhism sees the left path as being the wrong way of life and the right path as being the right way to Nirvana.

The Bible mentions the right hand of the Lord as being special or just, although there are many more references to both right and left hands, where no bias is obvious.

In Islamic society it is seen as wrong to eat with the left hand, which historically was reserved for unclean bodily duties.

The World of Handedness website tells us that “Ancient Mayan and Aztec (Central/South America) rituals use the middle finger of the right hand to first tip into the soil then to the lips in order to bring protection and blessing.”

Tarot cards usually depict the personification of justice holding a sword with his right hand whilst the devil is left-handed.

In sailing, a boat on a starboard tack (with the boat’s right side to windward) has right of way over one on a port tack.

According to Anything Left-Handed, “The Meru people of Kenya believed that the left-hand of their holy man has such evil power that he had to keep it hidden for the safety of others.”

There are a few traditions which favour the left hand side as being lucky, but they’re far outweighed by those which consider it evil.

Possible origins

calliostoma_ligatum-smFrom the examples above it seems that bias against the left hand is widespread and either very old, or derived from some common factor amongst all people. One possibility for this suspicion or resentment may have been due to the surprising advantages left-handers have in combat. This is apparent in one-on-one sports such as boxing or fencing. I’ve also noticed – anecdotally – a larger than expected percentage of left-handers who are successful in racket sports.

So why should left-handers have an advantage in these situations? Well, as less than 10% of all people are left-handers, most people will be used to competing against right-handers. So a left-hander causes confusion by being unexpectedly stronger and more skilful on their left side. This only works whilst left-handers are a relatively small proportion of the population, if the balance was 50% left-handers, then there would be no advantage. Why the majority of people are right-handed is still open for debate. It may be a simple chance of evolution.

The effect is also apparent in the case of other animals, such as aquatic snails and crabs:

The overwhelming majority of snail species are right-handed — their shells coil clockwise. Dietl studied a species of snail that are lefties, and have shells that coil counter-clockwise.

The left-handed advantage is realized when snails interact with predators of opposite handedness. Some predatory crabs are “righties” — and have a specialized tooth on their right claw that acts like a can opener to crack and peel the snail shells.

So when faced with a “left-handed” shell the crab ends up looking like a left-handed human trying to cut straight with right-handed scissors. Being self-concious about their clumsy feeding the right-handed crabs will often give up, leaving the left handed snail feeling rather smug about its shell design.

I don’t know whether snails and crabs have any superstitions about left or right handedness, but humans certainly do. The suspicion of left-handers may have been because their success seemed somehow sneaky or underhand.

While there are some theories about differences in thought-processes between left and right handers, there’s no evidence I know of to justify the malign superstitions sometimes expressed against lefties. Although I’m right-handed myself, I’m thankful that these superstitions have for the most part been left behind.

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.