Regulation Of Herbal Medicine

sassafras170In the UK there has been a drive to add medical herbalists to the growing list of health practitioners subject to statutory regulation (SR).  In fact this is government legislation we’re talking about, so the drive has been going on for over ten years. The stated motivation is, as usual, to ensure public safety.

However, many herbalists are fuming over the recent proposals. They claim that this regulation will take herbal medicine away from ordinary people whilst doing nothing to improve safety. They’ve even organised a rally in London and an online petition.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, there is the rallying herbalists’ tendency to spell traditional with a capital T and employ the attendant fallacies of “traditional” or “natural” things being automatically better. On the other hand, some of their concerns may be valid.

Health risk mitigation

In particular, in their response to government consultation (PDF see questions 1 and 2), they question what risks there are to the public that SR would mitigate.

In fact, they are unwilling even to acknowledge any harm from traditional herbal medicine (they like to stress the traditional bit). And yes, some of the cases of harm have been outside of existing laws or regulatory advice, so presumably, by their definition, not traditional.

As far as we are aware, there is not any evidence of harm to the public. Replies received from the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] and DH [Department of Health], our combined clinical experiences and research that we have undertaken cannot point to any evidence of harm. There has possibly been the odd one or two who have broken current laws.

However, a little more digging shows there is evidence of harm to the public as a result of herbal remedies. Here’s one example from the MCA report on the safety of herbal medicinal products (PDF).

In 1996, the UK the MCA extended its ‘Yellow Card Scheme’ to include reporting of suspected adverse reactions to unlicensed herbal products. This followed a report from Guy’s Hospital Toxicology Unit on potentially serious adverse reactions associated with herbal remedies. Twenty-one cases of liver toxicity, including two deaths, were associated with the use of TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine].

Some of the more extreme and newsworthy examples of harm caused by herbal medicine from around the world are listed on the What’s The Harm website’s herbal medicine section which makes for grim reading.

So, there certainly are risks involved with herbal medicines, whether it’s the traditional use of heavy metals in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies, traditional plants with toxic constituents, allergic reactions or the interactions of herbal medicine with conventional medicine. That and the traditional risk of being ineffective (more on that later).

However, what is unclear is whether the proposed regulation would do any good.

SaveOurHerbs also state (PDF) that they are not aware of any research on whether SR lessens harm, so instead they list their perceived disadvantages with SR. Here’s a sample:

Loss of traditional philosophies and diversity of practice due to orthodox standards in education, science and CPD.

Diversity of practice? Isn’t that a bad thing? Surely if there’s a right way to do something, then everyone should be doing it that way. Are they suggesting that all methods of treatment are equally valid?

State regulation will be extremely and unnecessarily expensive to the tax payer, as are all these repetitive committees, reports and consultations.

OK, I’m sure legislation and regulation would cost the taxpayer, but even this has to be weighed against the possible benefits.

The state regulatory body will be based on a system whereby the majority of board members will be from professions who do not share the same philosophies or training and will be biased towards orthodox standards and philosophies that may be inappropriate, restrictive and damaging.

hbst200This seems to be a case of needing special rules for herbal medicine in order for it to be seen as safe and effective.  Without a recognised framework to sort the safe, effective treatments from the ineffective or dangerous, researchers are stumbling in the dark, not learning or discovering but guessing. Unfortunately guessing leads to bad decisions and lost lives.  Any treatment should be able to undergo testing for efficacy and it is irresponsible to try to circumvent this.

Statutory regulation

I can’t claim to have read all the consultation papers in detail, but I did gather that SR would mean practitioners will have to be suitably qualified and able to show certain competencies in order to maintain their regulated status. These competencies (PDF, page 44) include such good things as knowing their limits and referring patients appropriately when a case is beyond their expertise. While this all sounds nice, I’m far from convinced that it would be effective in practice.  It’s only slightly better than a code of practice that says practitioners must dress smartly and have a degree.

Government regulation of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has not exactly got a glowing record of separating the safe, effective practices from the rest. The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council CNHC (aka OffQuack) set up to “regulate” alternative therapies seem to be uncertain as to whether they are regulating or promoting CAM. As Matt Robbins of The Lay Scientist points out:

…this blatant conflict of interest is enshrined in their mission statement:

“CNHC’s mission is to support the use of complementary and natural healthcare as a uniquely positive, safe and effective experience”

Uniquely positive? Uniquely effective? How on Earth can they make such claims when they can provide nothing in the way of evidence to back it up? And why on Earth is a government sponsored regulator behaving like a bunch of lobbyists in making these claims in the first place? How can the body responsible for regulating therapists also be allowed to promote them? Again, if a pharamaceutical regulatory body behaved in this way, alternative medicine advocates would (rightly) be up in arms about it! It is utterly scandalous.

The government seems quite happy to gloss over this issue. In response to a petition demanding basic efficacy and safety requirements of all CNHC registered practitioners, they replied:

The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) does not promote the efficacy of disciplines practised by its registrants.  The aim of the CNHC is protection of the public. Registration means that the practitioner has met certain entry standards (in terms of having an accredited qualification or relevant experience) and that they subscribe to a set of professional standards…

That’s not enough. I think all healthcare providers, whether registered and professional or not, have a responsibility to ensure their treatments are effective. Anecdotes and personal testimonies, for example, would not be sufficient to prove conventional medicines and they’re not sufficient for alternative therapies either.

Incidentally, many herbalists are already voluntarily regulated, the way many professions are, by an independent governing body for that purpose. In this case the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH). Disappointingly, the NIMH don’t appear to be regulating in the much-needed sense either.

“The Institute promotes the benefits, the efficacy and safe use of herbal medicine.”

Interesting that – “promotes”. Not “regulates”, not “ensures”, not even the legally arse-covering, “strives to ensure”. No, what they do is promotion.

Safety and efficacy

hbengl200Safety and efficacy are not unreasonable things to insist upon. They seems to me to be the most basic requirements of a medicine. Safety is enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath – “First,  do no harm”. Safety and efficacy are intrinsically linked; if a treatment is ineffective, that puts the patient at risk. A patient taking an ineffective alternative treatment is more likely to forego conventional evidence-based medicine. Even when the alternative therapy itself doesn’t directly injure the patient, avoiding an effective treatment can be fatal. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Consider the distressing case of baby Gloria Thomas.

In the last months of her life, baby Gloria Thomas suffered such terrible eczema her skin would weep and peel, sticking to her clothing when she was changed.

Despite her bleeding, crying and malnutrition, her mother and homeopath father failed to get conventional medical help before she died a painful death, a Sydney jury has been told.

Note, I’m not trying to conflate the different practices of herbal medicine and homoeopathy, just to show that serious harm can occur indirectly even when harmless treatments such as water drop or sugar pills prescribed by homoeopaths are used. It seems any treatment which discourages the use of evidence-based medicines could have these kind of effects. Prayer is another example.

So, I think the herbalist campaigners are right to be suspicious of statutory regulation, but for the wrong reasons. I suspect deep down they are concerned that SR might one day be used to demand efficacy of their treatments. Conversely, I am unconvinced about SR because it doesn’t (yet) demand efficacy.

[BPSDB]

Cryonics – Eternal Life or Wishful Thinking?

Cryonics is the preservation of living humans or animals by extreme cooling with the aim of restoring them to a normal animate state at a later date. It is commonly confused (by me, at least) with cryogenics, which is simply the science of making things very cold.

I mention this as I was quite surprised to see the IET Engineering & Technology magazine featuring and article on cryonics. Like many people, I have always considered cryonics to be pure science fiction, taken seriously only by a minority of hopefuls who presumably desire to wake up in a world filled with rich eccentrics.

The article dispelled a number of my misconceptions. For example, modern cryonics is not freezing. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which makes a big gooey mess of cells, probably destroying any chance of revival. The modern process involves vitrification, which is achieved by replacing cell-fluid with cryprotectant fluid before extreme cooling. This fluid is unfortunately toxic, at least you can’t live with it in place of your cell-fluid. So all cryopreservation work has to be done after legal death, otherwise they’d be killing the patient. However, cryonicists do not consider clinical death to be a real death – unless it involves the destruction of information in the brain. Rather they consider cryonically preserved people to be alive but inactive, like someone in a deep coma. This is perhaps not unreasonable given the number of people who’ve been clinically dead – without heartbeat or breathing – and have been fully revived. Indeed this is the premise on which CPR is based.

While I certainly won’t be saving up to have myself cryopreserved, the whole thing seems slightly less crazy now. Slightly.

However, the process of reviving a cryonically preserved patient is still not possible with current technology. The hope is that future technology, especially nanotechnology, will someday be able to reconstruct a cyropreserved patient as well as reverse the aging process or condition which would have killed them. They also need to replace the cryoprotectant with cell-fluid. An alternative is to electronically scan the brain to reconstruct a working copy. Judging from the preservation case studies provided by the non-profit Cryonics Institute, preservation techniques appear to be carefully researched and carried out. Nevertheless, none of this is a guarantee of future revival. Cryonics currently requires an expensive leap of faith.

How big a leap? Is full revival of humans likely? The E&T article interviewed Tanya Jones, Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s executive director who said,

“While we are seeing that stem cells can actually revive every organ in the body, we still have many years of research until cryonics is a reversible procedure [...] However, recent testing has proven that it is already reversible for an individual organ down to -130°C, based on the testing of rabbit kidneys.”

Meanwhile, Ben Best of the CI says,

“Bull sperm have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and used for fertilisation since the early 1950s… And, since 1982, human embryos stored in liquid nitrogen have been used by fertility clinics with much success. Additionally, nematode worms have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and then revived.”

I’m no biologist, but it would seem there are some big differences between sperm and a  brain. In particular, sperm are individual cells, adapated to live outside the body for extended periods. Plus only a few of them need to survive for the revival process to be considered a success. A brain however, needs a constant supply of oxygen to prevent damage and can be irrevocably changed if a small percentage of cells die or the connections between them are lost. It’s difficult to tell how much damage has been done to even the most carefully cryopreserved human brains. Only when a human or animal has been revived and shown to have retained earlier memories can we say that there’s evidence this is possible. For now, my guess is that it’s unlikely people being cryopreserved today could be reanimated with their identity intact.

Having learnt about this, I wondered what religious people made of it. My assumption was that they’d be hopping up and down in anger that science is daring to intrude on the afterlife, which is usually considered sacred religious turf. Certainly it seems that the willingness to believe that cryonics can work may stem from a similar motivation to the belief in a supernatural afterlife – the fear of death.

To my surprise I’ve found little religious consternation over the ideas and aims of cryonics. Steve Tsai at apologetics.com considers the implications of Crygenic Resuscitations for a Christian world-view and concludes them to be no different from short-term resuscitations.

Part of this may be due to the way cryonics markets itself as a medical intervention for the living, rather than a ressurection of the dead. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has a couple of thorough articles on cryonics and religion, comparing it to heart transplants and other life-saving surgery and concluding that we have a religiously-driven obligation to preserve life whenever possible and that this should include cryonics.

However, I suspect the main reason that religious institutions do not spend any time condemning organisations such as Alcor is because they don’t see them as a threat. There are still only a small minority of of the population willing and able to sign up for cryonic preservation and for most of us it remains science fiction. Even apparently innocuous subjects like Harry Potter or The Beatles can find themselves on the receiving end of religious wrath when they become popular enough to distract attention from religious ideas. I suspect that if cryonics was to become commonplace, such that many people’s fear of death was lessened, religions would lose one of their unique selling-points and express their disapproval in no uncertain terms.

Testimonials and Research

If you visit the website of any pseudo-scientific practitioner one thing almost always displayed is a list of testimonials – effusive endorsements from previous clients. For example, here’s an extract from the website of Cynde Van Vleet, a Tellington T Touch practitioner from California:

My experience with Cynde and her TTouch work has been nothing but wonderful, rewarding, and informative.  Cynde is a most gentle  and intuitive animal lover who conducts herself professionally at all times, yet exudes warmth and kindness as well.  I have great respect and admiration for Cynde and the work she does with animals. Her knowledge of TTouch and the world of dogs is impressive, and I have learned a lot from her in our brief history together…

Similarly, here’s an example from alleged psychic Philena Bruce’s website:

“I came to Philena when I was in a very dark place. Through her patience, guidance and gentleness, I genuinely left feeling hopeful. She held me together emotionally and spiritually throughout this time. She lit the candle in my mind and let my spirit guide me to light. She has a wonderful personality and in my heart I know our paths were meant to cross.”
K.K., London, Project Manager

In most cases testimonials are intended to establish the credibility of the practitioner. In Philena’s case, the long list she provides also pushes the “entertainment only” disclaimer – which all psychics in the UK are now legally obliged to put on their literature – far out of the view of the casual visitor.

But are testimonials useful? Can we use them to work out how effective a treatment of practitioner is? Should we as consumers pay any attention to testimonials?

The most obvious problem with most testimonials, especially those you might find on websites, is with authenticity. It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to make up your own testimonials and in most cases it would be difficult to prove that they were fake. However, I doubt many of the testimonials I have seen have been faked. It seems more likely that they came from customers who were genuinely pleased with the service. I’ve no doubt that they have plenty of satisfied customers – I’ve met some of them.

However, we should keep in mind that testimonials are highly selective. They give us no indication of the percentage of customers who were satisfied with the service. Those who were not pleased with the service may not have given any report. They may have felt foolish for having tried it, so rather than write a negative testimonial, they may forget about it and get on with their lives. Even if they did write to complain, surely no one attempting to establish their credibility is going to publish their views. I’ve visited the personal websites of quite a few spiritual healers, fortune tellers and other sellers of pseudo-science, but I have yet to see a single negative testimonial. I think it unlikely that no customer has ever been dissatisfied with the services any of them provided.

How about if we independently collected testimonials from every customer who visited a particular therapist or fortune teller? Even then, we still wouldn’t be able to say with any certainty whether on not they had genuine abilities. We might be able to tell that they were friendly, professional, helpful and so on, but judging whether the treatment worked is something else. It has been well documented that people are more likely to judge something to have been a success once they have invested substantially in it – whether emotionally or financially. I suspect this is why payment or gift-giving always has to be part of the process of Reiki. Perhaps on some subconscious level people say to themselves:

“I’ve paid more than my weekly grocery bill for this treatment. Only a fool would do that for something which doesn’t work. I know I’m not a fool, so it must have worked!”

This effect is brilliantly explained in Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson’s book, Mistakes Were Made.

It seems testimonials are a pretty unreliable guide to whether a medical treatment is effective or whether a psychic prediction is accurate. Certainly they are a very poor substitute for research. They are a selective form of anecdotal evidence.

So why do they get used at all? I think there are several reasons.

Firstly, there are times when use of a testimonial is valid. It’s not just treatments with dubious efficacy that print praise from former clients. Testimonials are commonplace in all sorts of marketing – child carers, home builders, restaurants and so on.

In any situation where the customer is in a position to judge whether the service or treatment was effective a testimonial can be useful. For example, if the testimonial relates to a novel, film or restaurant, then the aim is entertainment and the customer is best qualified to say whether they have been entertained.

Secondly, testimonials are easy to understand. A clinical trial is not something that most people are willing to wade through. Doing so takes considerable effort and even an intelligent reader might not be able to judge the strength of the research.

Thirdly, testimonials are easy. All you need is a few satisfied customers to say you’re warm and friendly. A full research project is beyond the means of most independent therapists.

Lastly, testimonials are human. What other people tell us is how we gain most of our information, so it feels quite natural to read what other people say about a service or therapy.

None of these are especially good reasons to trust testimonials.

Mircoscope and clipboardPharmaceutical companies have to put all their products through clinical trials before they can be marketed. I don’t think that other treatments should be subjected to any lesser scrutiny.

In an ideal world each therapists’ techniques would be independently evaluated with something akin to clinical trials, before an official regulator’s endorsement could be given. The next best thing would be for their methods to be independently reviewed and researched to discover whether they can work. However, the money to do this research has to come from somewhere, perhaps a jointly-funded regulatory body whose research and methods are made public.

Alternative therapists have told me that clinical trials are biased and corrupt due to the companies pursuit of profit above all else. There have certainly been some cases where this is true and there’s a case for improving accountability and publication of medical research in general. However, I imagine the situation would be much worse if the pharmaceutical industry could validate new medicines simply by gathering testimonials.

I’ve also been told that using testimonials instead of research is acceptable for alternative treatments because laying your hands on someone or reading their palm doesn’t have harmful side-effects that ingested medicines can. However, the purpose of clinical trials is twofold; to ensure there are no dangerous side-effects and to ensure the treatment is effective. Giving someone an ineffective treatment – even for free – is irresponsible and dangerous in itself.

[BPSDB]

Review: Why People Believe Weird Things

http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/jsp/id/Why_People_Believe_Weird_Things/9780285638037

Michael Shermer’s skeptical book, Why People Believe Weird Things has been around since the late nineties. I should probably have read and reviewed it sooner; so much of the content is relevant to what I write about here. I’ve had the book a while now, but a few weeks ago I managed to wrestle the book back from my wife and actually read it. I’m glad I did.

Shermer starts the book by explaining what he means by a weird thing, the difference between science and pseudoscience and how skepticism works. He also gets my respect for admitting to the weird beliefs he previously held, which included a variety of unusual treatments alleged to enhance the performance of athletes. He cites their complete failure to improve his competitive cycling as one of the reasons he became a skeptic.

The majority of the book is devoted to covering a wide variety of weird beliefs. These include paranormal abilities, alien abduction, creationism, Ayn Rand’s objectivism and even holocaust denial. Shermer has certainly done his homework on all of these, providing some fascinating quotes and an 18-page bibliography for those looking for further reading. In several cases, the author has had direct experience of debating with those who believe weird things, on radio and television. These accounts are candid and modest – he spends more time noting his frustrations and failures to get his message across than he does celebrating great victories for reason. I found this to be all the more enlightening.

I found myself shaking my head in wonder and horror at some of the ridiculous and repugnant ideas described. However, Shermer carefully describes, dissects and debunks each of the weird beliefs without resorting to ridicule or personal attacks. Furthermore, the explanations are easy to follow and the book as a whole is pleasingly free of unexplained scientific or philosophical language.

Only in the last section does the book really address the question of its title. The harder question this leads to is why smart people believe weird things. Shermer concludes that, being of above-average intelligence is no guarantee of being free from weird beliefs. It seems that great minds do not necessarily think alike. He summarises his explanation for this as follows:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

I found this to be a surprising revelation, but one which Shermer has arrived at after much study across the diverse range of beliefs described in the book. Too often it seems that people take it as an insult to their intelligence to say that they believe something weird. To accept that even the most intellectually gifted amongst us have blindspots in our understanding of the world is a step in the right direction.

I had, perhaps naïvely expected the book to be entirely about the psychology of belief. I found the descriptions of weird beliefs to be very interesting, although I would have preferred more discussion of the successes and failures of his debates and the thought processes behind the beliefs.

Hands Up – Anyone Believe In Palmistry?

I did.

Palmistry (also known as Chiromancy) is the reading of people’s hands to discover their fortune and personality type.  This is not limited the lines on the palm, but the shape of the hand and its proportions including length of fingers, natural lumps or “mounts” on the palm and the colour and condition of the nails and skin.

I got interested in this in my early teens after observing a fellow holidaymaker informally read people’s hands for entertainment at a social gathering. I got a few books on the subject and read the hands of my friends, most of whom were intrigued. Some Christian friends made sanctimonious remarks, but I responded that the Bible has a (admittedly vague) reference to people’s hands in Job 37:7

He sealeth up the hand of every man; that all men may know his work.  – KJV

Actually, now I look at it again, that is really vague and says nothing about the legitimacy or not of reading hands. There are more direct references in many other cultures and religions.

I don’t think I was an especially convincing palmist. Although I certainly believed in the validity of what I was saying I was naturally hesitant and guarded in my pronouncements on people’s hands. Perhaps with time I could’ve unintentionally learnt cold reading. However, as with most teenage fads, I slowly lost interest in palmistry as I grew up.

Some modern palmists play down the future prediction aspect of hand reading, perhaps because it sounds too stereotyped, easy to say and difficult to verify until years later, when any failed predictions will likely be forgotten. However, a quick survey of palmist’s websites shows almost all are involved in some other method of fortune or personality divination. Amelie Appleby is a palmist who also practices crystal ball and tarot card readings. Philena Bruce also offers a wide variety of psychic services including readings of photographs and healing through sound. Unfortunately, none offer any independent research showing the efficacy of their claims.

However, I discovered with excitement that one hand reading website does include a discussion of the Forer Effect. Ken Lagerstrom of HumanHand.com writes:

The Forer Effect (also called the Barnum Effect or Subjective Validation Effect) refers to the tendency to accept vague or general statements as being very personal and accurate. The Forer Effect is a serious consideration in hand analysis, for both the professional and client. Psychologist Bertram R. Forer ran a series of tests in which he gave people a personality profile and asked them to rate its accuracy. Forer actually gave each person the exact same profile…

The test subjects rated these supposedly individual profiles as 85% accurate! With a vague enough profile that is mostly positive, most people will believe at least part of it truly relates to them.

Positivity is clearly important for the clients of psychic readers. Amelie Appleby, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledges this need:

…Amelie’s intuitive palm, tarot and crystal ball readings are positive and upbeat, full of enthusiasm and integrity, good humour and great fun.

Certainly people paying money are more likely to be pleased with a reading that predicts meeting a tall dark handsome stranger (although they’re probably smart enough not to use those exact words) than one divining a life of miserable solitude. Crucially, I think people are also more likely to believe things they find comforting.

Sadly, despite a promising looking article, Ken Lagerstrom ends up resorting to ad-hominem attacks:

In my experience, the real hard-core skeptics are just as fanatical (and biased, judgemental, self-certain, etc.) as the more extreme religious zealots. It’s just a different “faith”.

To call skepticism a faith is to broaden the definition of faith to become meaningless. A hard-core skeptic (or at least a serious one) is willing to assess the evidence and reach a tentative conclusion. Some skeptics get sick of hearing anecdotal evidence presented as if it were absolute proof. That might make them cynical about vague pseudo-science claims after a while. That’s not the same as being a zealot.

Then he presents a flawed analogy:

If you go to your doctor and hear him say “You need to examine your habits with diet and exercise, because you are damaging your health with your present body weight.”, does that physician’s diagnosis get dismissed along with the entire field of orthodox medicine?

No, you’d test his claim. Excessive weight may affect many people, but you can measure the person’s BMI and compare it to the healthy band. All conventional medical advice is in a constant state of being formally tested and reviewed. This is a good thing; it leads to better understanding and treatments.

It might not be as simple to test a hand reading, but some fair experiments could be devised and carried out on a statistically significant number of people. Specific predictions could be recorded and compared in later years to reality and their chance of occurring. Importantly the subjects should be blind to the predictions made. For example, telling someone they’ll make a journey to the Far East could influence their decision and is statistically fairly likely for certain demographics. Recording as part of the experiment that they’ll find a new job in early 2009 with a French company would be more significant if it occurred. Similarly personality predictions could be carefully controlled (perhaps so only the hands are seen) and compared to psychological assessments and surveys made beforehand.

The problem was, I began really searching for statistical proof that all palmistry was nothing more than superstitious garbage for the weak-minded.

That certainly was the problem. Ken Lagerstrom was trying to prove a negative. No matter how many charlatans employing the Forer Effect, cold reading or other psychological techniques (whether deliberately or not) he uncovered, he would always be wondering if the next one might be genuine. It’s like trying to prove the non-existence of a celestial teapot orbiting the sun. Proving its existence is theoretically possible (simply by finding one), but proving it’s non-existence can never be done. At what point would you stop searching?

That doesn’t mean we have to believe all extraordinary claims by default. Rather, the skeptic should tentatively disbelieve something out of the ordinary until appropriate evidence is presented. The burden of proof is most definitely on the psychics making the claims, all the more so if they are charging money for their services.

In the UK at least, new regulations have made this clear and on one website I noticed that, below her many testimonials, at the bottom of the page in small print, Philena Bruce has included this message.

This service is intended for entertainment purposes.
This is a scientific experiment, the results of which cannot be guaranteed.

I wonder if such regulations will make a difference to the wishful-thinking punters considering paying for a psychic reading, but it is a step in the right direction. Just to be clear I’d have no problem with these businesses if they could provide evidence that their psychic claims are true – to a standard similar to that required of other products. If they can’t, then every consumer should ask themselves why that is.

[BPSDB]

Orbs

[BPSDB]

If you put all paranormal claims on a chart with the most likely at the top, orbs would be several pages down, perhaps only a few slots above stories of Neil Armstrong having traces of Cheddar on his boots when he returned to Earth.

Orbs can be created easily by the home enthusiast or naïve ghost hunter. First, you need a digital camera, preferably a basic one, but with a flash. Next find a suitable location – somewhere old, dark and dusty – orbs can still be seen in daylight, but they don’t show up so well. Then start snapping away. As long as there are some small particles caught in the flash, directly in front of the lens, but too close to be in focus, you’ll get good results. If by good results you mean blurry translucent circles across your image.

They are quite obviously natural rather than supernatural. Unfocussed light from a point source can appear as a circle when photographed and even with the naked eye if you’re too lazy to focus properly. However, it has been claimed that some orbs move or act intelligently, responding to commands. Unsurprisingly this claim has been investigated and found lacking.

The videos sometimes showed faster moving Orbs that performed aerobatic manoeuvres. They were as claimed under intelligent control, but, in these cases they were explainable by the fact that many buildings are inhabited by almost microscopic flying insects that survive all year round due to factors such as central heating and the milder winters. An evening spent in a haunted building with some flypaper and a UV Insect acuter soon proved they existed.
- http://www.parascience.org.uk/articles/orbs.htm

Orbs (or insects) responding to commands could certainly be explained by wishful thinking and confirmation bias – until some reliable evidence can show otherwise. In fact there good answers to all the “mysteries” surrounding orbs.

All of which makes orbs as a paranormal phenomenon seem pretty far-fetched, but doesn’t seem to stop people believing in them.

Leonore Sweet is one such person. Although she insists that she’s neither an expert on the paranormal nor on photography, she has written a book entitled How to Photograph the Paranormal. She also has a PhD, although in what, she doesn’t say.  She refers to orbs as “Light forms”, perhaps sounding deliberately similar to “Life forms”. Naturally she is forced to acknowledge that orbs can be created by dust, water droplets, etc, or it would be pretty easy to prove her wrong. But, like so many similar claims she insists that at least some of them are indeed real – just not the ones which have been properly investigated. Have a look at the photos on her What They [orbs] Are page and see what you make of the “types” she claims are legitimate.

If nothing else, these light forms have taught me I know next to nothing in the total scheme of things. This is an uncomfortable feeling for most. Loss of their comfort zone must be why people can look at ten inexplicable photographs and totally dismiss all of them as fraudulent when just one is shown to be from a natural cause.
- http://www.photographingtheparanormal.com/are.htm

That’s because it is the simpler explanation. The onus is on the claimant to provide evidence that these are something paranormal. If you can’t explain something it’s not enough to say, “It must be paranormal” – that’s not the default answer. If the police come questioning you about a murder and you don’t have an alibi, they don’t say, “Then you must be the murderer” and march you off to prison. They’d need some positive evidence too.

For example you could take simultaneous photos of the same person from different angles and see if the orb appears in exactly the same place. Get consistent results from two or more angles and you will actually have some idea if that orb is hovering right behind someone or is a speck only centimetres from the lens.

Leonore Sweet is smart enough not to make any solid claims about the “light forms” she photographs, in fact she rarely even speculates about what they are. Instead she points out that one appeared above a woman who had breathed her last breath or another seems to be hovering protectively near a child. This makes it harder to directly criticise her claims and leaves the speculation up to the reader’s imagination.

Other orb enthusiasts are not so guarded, however. The Sunday Times recently features a piece on Klaus Heinemann, an experimental physicist researching orbs. After waffling about science and how “orthodox research methods often go out the window” he makes some interesting claims:

Hundreds of sequential pictures of the same orb, taken under scientifically sound conditions in rapid succession, have demonstrated that they’re capable of moving very fast — up to 500mph or more. They can also change size and orientation almost instantaneously.
- Klaus Heinemann

Now if he says they can move at a particular speed he needs to know how far away they are – which must be difficult when they can also change size spontaneously. Sadly there’s not the room in this piece to examine his methods, nor any link that might allow us to do so. He goes on to say,

My working theory is that orbs are emanations from spirit beings. There has always been a huge body of anecdotal evidence that the spirit world exists, that consciousness survives physical death, and now, thanks to digital technology, we believe we are seeing it. Orbs are a non-physical, albeit real, phenomenon that can now be detected by physical means.
- Klaus Heinemann

I’d be interested to know how he intends to test that theory or indeed what made him believe it in the first place. Without these details his claims are little more than vague and imaginative claims that I suspect are intended to promote his book rather than help discover anything about reality.

Readers won’t be surprised to hear that the woo-spectrum doesn’t stop here on orbs. The furthest I’ve dared to tread is the delightfully-named Orbs by Beans. Put on your sunglasses and prepare to be dazzled by a smorgasbord of flim-flam!

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.