OfQuack to Regulate Witchcraft

Back in 2009, the Daily Mash greeted the launch of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (aka OfQuack) with one of my all-time favourite spoof news articles:

Complementary Therapists To Be Regulated By Witch Doctor.

STRICT standards must be applied to alternative medicine, according to the voodoo priest who will run the UK’s complementary therapy watchdog.

Haitian born Papa Limba said his first task as chairman of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council would be to identify which therapists were righteous shamans and which had the bad juju.

But the witch doctor stressed the therapists would be judged not on the effectiveness of their treatments but on the strength of their mogambo.

Limba said: “There are many frauds and not everyone has as strong a connection to the serpent god Demballa as they like to make out.

“I place my hands on their head and if their spirit vibrates to the rhythm of the ocean I give them a sticker to put in the window.

“If not I rub them with the mashed root of the banyan tree and we never hear of them again.”

Two and half years on, and the CHNC has issued a statement which proves conclusively that there are times when life imitates art:

CNHC register opens to healers

From 4th July members of the public will be able to search the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) register in search of Healers who are properly trained, qualified and insured.

Contemporary Healers view their work as a natural and purposeful energy based process. Healers who wish to register with CNHC must demonstrate that they have had at least two years training and agree to abide by a rigorous code of conduct, performance and ethics…

…Maggie Dunn, chief executive of the CNHC, said: “The recent unbelievable claims made by some Healers and broadcast on Newsnight demonstrate how important it is that Healers are properly registered.

“Healers may be dealing with very vulnerable people and as a member of the public you want to know that the practitioner you are seeing has been properly educated and prepared and is abiding by a professional code of conduct. That is what CNHC registration is trying to emphasise.”

The BBC Newsnight report referred to in the press release can be viewed here, but irrespective of the unbelievable claims made in that report the simple fact of the matter is that the very notion regulating ‘properly trained, qualified’ healers is complete load of bollocks from start to finish.

So-called ‘contemporary healing’ is such a blatant piece of delusional crap that its ridiculous claims can be easily be debunked by a nine year old girl.

In fact, in the late 1990’s that’s exactly what a nine year old girl named Emily Rosa did with a beautifully simple experiment she conducted as a school science fair project which, with a little help from one or two grown ups, went on to make the youngest person to date to have a paper published in a scientific journal, the prestigious Journal of the America Medical Association (JAMA).

Ms Rosa, who has since graduated (in 2009) from the University of Colorado with a major in psychology, carried out a simple experiment in which self-styled healers were asked to place both their hands through a screen which shielded Emily from view. Emily them flipped a coin and, based on the result, placed her own hand over the randomly chosen hand of the ‘healer’, without touching it directly, and asked to healer to ‘sense’ her which of their two hands her own hand had been placed next to.

If, as ‘healers’ claim, they can somehow sense or detect the supposed ‘energy field’ or ‘aura’ of the individuals they purport to heal – which is pretty much the basic of all the claims that ‘healers’ make about their own abilities’ – then it follows that they should have been able to reliably sense which of their two hands Emily had placed her own hand next to or, at the very least, come up with the right answer more often than would be predicted purely by random chance.

Each of the 21 ‘healers’ who took part in the experiment, the full text of which can be read here on JAMA’s website, made ten attempts as correctly identifying the randomly chosen location of Emily’s hand and the results of the study led Emily to reach the following conclusion:

Therapeutic touch [the specific type of ‘healing’ tested] is grounded on the concept that people have an energy field that is readily detectable (and modifiable) by TT practitioners. However, this study found that 21 experienced practitioners, when blinded, were unable to tell which of their hands was in the experimenter’s energy field. The mean correct score for the 28 sets of 10 tests was 4.4, which is close to what would be expected for random guessing.

The publication of Emily’s paper drew one or two deliciously intemperate responses from proponents of so-called ‘Theraputic Touch’ who were clearly desperate to bullshit their way out of trouble, with perhaps the best coming from an MD name Andrew Freinkel:

To the Editor.—As a clinician, I am surprised that THE JOURNAL elected to address the important and controversial issue of Therapeutic Touch (TT) with such a simpleminded, methodologically flawed, and irrelevant study. The experiments described are an artificial demonstration that some number of self-described mystics were unable to “sense the field” of the primary investigator’s 9-year-old daughter. This hardly demonstrates or debunks the efficacy of TT. The vaguely described recruitment method does not ensure or even suggest that the subjects being tested were actually skilled practitioners. More important, the experiments described are not relevant to the clinical issue supposedly being researched. Therapeutic Touch is not a parlor trick and should not be investigated as such. Rather, it is a therapeutic technique that may be discovered to require active involvement by a genuinely ill patient, as the authors themselves convolutedly acknowledge in their citation of Krieger’s work…

Bullshit.

It is a parlour trick and what Emily’s study demonstrated, perfectly clearly, is that the most basic ‘explanation’ for the mechanism by which practitioners claims so-called ‘therapeutic touch’ works, the sensing and manipulation of a supposed ‘energy field’ in the human body, is a complete and utter pile of superstitious nonsense. It is nothing more than a piece of psychological trickery that – at best – may generate a modest placebo effect in some, credulous, individuals, a fact that seems to have been acknowledged in a paper published in 2010 which, amongst other things, neatly illustrates the slippery and disingenuous lengths to which advocates of ‘healing’ and other supposedly ‘alternative’ modalities will go in order to maintain their delusory beliefs:

Therapeutic Touch (TT) is a complementary modality that has been demonstrated to reduce psychological distress and help patients to relax. It is unclear if there is an impact of TT on biobehavioral markers such as cortisol and natural killer cells (NKCs). There is some preliminary evidence that suggests relaxation may have positive effects on the immune system.

Relaxation is, of course, a good thing in itself as is – in many cases – ‘therapeutic contact’ with a healthcare professional.

Something as simple and as basic as having the time to talk things over with a doctor or nurse in a manner which the leaves the patient feeling that someone actually cares about their wellbeing will make many people feel a bit better and, crucially, much less stressed.

If you talk to any healthcare professional then you’ll quickly find that they have at least one anecdotal story to tell about the benefits of this kind of therapeutic contact. My own personal favourite is a story about a patient consultation with the great psychiatrist, R D Laing, in which Laing spent the entire hour making small talk with his patient without ever once touching on the reason for the consulation (as I recall, the male patient suffered from depression). At the end of the session, Laing told his patient that he’d see them at their next scheduled appointment and which point the patient piped up and pointed out that they hadn’t talked at all about his problems. Laing responded by pointing out, quite correctly, that the patient had cheered up considerably over the course of the session and was clearly much happier at the end than they were when they arrived, so why spoil the patients good mood by taking about things that were clearly getting him down.

Theraputic contact is known to be beneficial, even if you don’t resort to promoting delusory beliefs in archaic and nonsensical magical practices and other ridiculous and outdated pre-scientific superstitious, the active promotion of which is – in my view – entirely unethical and, at worst, even downright dangerous if it prompts particularly credulous or desperate individuals to eschew proven medical treatments in favour of quack remedies and superstitious rubbish.

However, by far my favourite paper from the list of paper given on JAMA as having cited Emily Rosa’s study is this 2006 paper by Martin Hemsley and Nel Glass, also from the Journal of Holistic Nursing:

This article reports on a hermeneutic phenomenological investigation of the transformational and extraordinary experiences, or sacred journeys, of 11 nurse healers. The study was guided by Watson’s conceptual model. An overarching theme, “walking two worlds,” was identified, along with five essential themes: belonging and connecting, opening to spirit, summoning, wounding and healing journey, and living as a healer. The importance of these phenomenologically uncovered holistic understandings to the teaching, practice, administration, knowledge development, and theoretical evolvement of nursing is argued.

Yes, there really are people out there, calling themselves nurses, who can’t tell the difference between a medical textbook and Carlos Castaneda’s ‘The Teachings of Don Juan’ and OfQuack is seriously proposing to ‘regulate’ the buggers.

What a complete and utter load of bollocks or as Dara O’Briain might say:

“Get in the fucking sack!”