The Evidence of the Mother’s Breast

There will be a few changes here in the ‘Box, in the weeks and months ahead, the kinds of changes you can easily negotiate in a comfortable shoe, as we move forward to some more directly spiritual concerns, and away from so much talk about provability. But I think the foundation laid with evidence here has been useful. We don’t expect science to show ‘everything’ but a world with a spiritual basis has always been evidential, and we ought to expect experiments to show a little of the fact. They do. We’ve discussed how dismissivism and exclusivism can keep this evidence off your radar, and that has interesting effects — I find many spiritual people arguing that the evidence doesn’t matter, on the assumption that all the evidence is against spirituality. But it’s not. That’s all propaganda; be careful! Dig!

Science can be very straight-laced, and there is a limit to what it can do when it’s in that mood. Of course the wonderful sets of letters between geniuses like, say, Milton Erickson (of whom much more in following weeks) and Gregory Bateson, show what real educated scientific minds who are able to flow with inspiration can achieve. But the school of science that consists in running tests is very important too! And although experiments in spirituality face innumerable design problems, they do get results.

Of the many things I could choose, I’d like to draw the interested reader’s attention to a personal favourite, Benor’s Spiritual Healing: Professional Supplement, which digs freely into the studies on its subject with great and conspicuous objectivity, grading papers in terms of their usefulness and unsparingly pointing up any that show bad method even if they show good result. (Not leaving out well-designed studies with spiritually unwelcome outcomes either.)

What do we find? We find more good, randomised, controlled studies have been done of spiritual healing than of almost any other ‘complementary’ therapy (bar hypnosis and psychoneuroimmunology). Of the 191 studies surveyed, there are 124 significant successes. In 83, significance is p<.01. We find replications have already happened — and this book is 9 years old. We find placebo is completely ruled out, since effects have been shown on animals, plants, bacteria, yeasts, and enzymes. We find results on everything from muscle strain to myopia to AIDS.

When we look at the subject of spiritual healing being discussed in the general media, though, somehow this body of evidence usually isn’t addressed. I encourage the interested reader to feel, think, and act in tune with personal intuition and vision on this issue — follow those feelings thoughts and actions where they lead. There are some awfully indignant-sounding people out there trying to get you to follow something else (namely their rather leaden personal visions) and they will tell you that whatever it is you are doing, they own the evidence about it, and there isn’t any. They will often use insulting language in the process, but the fact is they don’t own anything. They just feel a strong psychological need to convince you they do.

Here’s a rather blatant example. One modality for which Benor logs quite a few studies is Therapeutic Touch, a system which (despite its name) works on an energy-healing basis and may be contactless. A quick flick through Benor shows interesting TT results on immune system, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, and very significant studies on things like mental state. Enough, certainly, to show a method worth exploring and studying further.

Now have a look at the

Wikipedia page for Therapeutic Touch.

A different experience! The introductory paragraph states what TT is supposed to do, but does not state there is any evidence to back the claims. It does bring up one highly publicised TT-negative study, which I’ll discuss in a moment, and adds the opinion of two prominent media pseudoskeptics that the energy involved in the treatment is nothing more than ‘imagination’.

The article then goes on to claim that nurses established TT as part of a deliberate wider movement “away from the scientific method”. It offers absolutely no description of the ideas or techniques, immediately passing to its largest section titled “Scientific Investigations”. Here we find the same negative and “skeptic”-driven study mentioned in the introduction, plus an abortive, predictably also negative, James Randi investigation. One positive study is then adduced — summed up in one line with three following lines of criticism on its methods. The section ends with an ambiguous note on reviews that recommend “further study” whilst maintaining the “impossibility” of the method.

This very impossibility, of course, is only being maintained by what I’d have to call a coverup — read about Becker’s (some replicated I think) experiments, for example, and the difficulties he faced in getting them accepted, which difficulties continue. The experiments showed conclusively that a human energy field, and the associated idea of vitalism, far from being stupid or impossible, is simply the fact of life. It just happens to be one that materialism continues to find very unpalatable.

What a jarring wiki page it is then. Some of its authors, as revealed on the discussion page, have no doubt that TT is simple “mumbo-jumbo hogwash”, and opine that “calling it something that sounds all clinical (“therapeutic”) doesn’t make it less ridiculous”, although others point out the bias too, and more politely, and rightly consider the page a failure. (As John Michael Greer recently asked on his excellent blog, what is it with atheists and schoolyard insults?)

But then there’s that famous big negative study used on the page and given flagship prominence in the introduction. Famously, it turns out to have been done by a 9-year-old girl (!), Emily Rosa, begun as a science fair project at school, then assisted by some famous pseudoskeptics, who somehow managed to get it published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. Although TT-positive studies are copiously criticised on the wiki page, this TT-negative one is presented as watertight. (Of course Benor points up flaws in it, pp. 151-2, and gives several ways in which this study, which did not even test for healing, badly needs improvement.)

One big reason for the Rosa study’s influence is perhaps its discussion of other TT evidence. It cites 74 TT studies, 23 of which it says were “clearly unsupportive”. But the remaining 51 are never discussed! In fact there’s no discussion of any positive findings on TT whatever, and the curt summary that “no well-designed study demonstrates any health benefit from TT” is not only obviously ludicrously false, but more importantly, never supported. And I think it was really these statements that were swallowed uncritically by the medical community, in the interests of their own psychological comfort — the placebo effect at work. The only conclusion is that ‘objectivity’ for JAMA means one-sided dismissivist exclusivism. But the paper’s publication got a lot of publicity. It was good press.

I have a lovely image — the young Emily Rosa is awarded James Randi’s “Skeptic of the Year” prize, and beams as a blow is struck for the truth. This is the way religions spread stories. Mommy, a registered nurse, had actually been campaigning against TT for 10 years. That’s as long as Emily had been alive. She drank enmity to TT from her mother’s breast. It’s very good motivation, that.

Maybe one of my readers knows how to edit wiki pages; I can’t say I do. But even if this article were corrected to show honestly and objectively the reality of Therapeutic Touch and the evidence surrounding it, that would be only one leaf in a forest. (TT is probably not much used now anyhow, I suspect. I know little of it myself, which is why I happened to be on that wiki page. Who knows what could have happened with it? Spiritual methods tend to require multiple generations to bear real fruit and/or bud off.)

It’s the desperation to condemn, to hide, which is characteristic of dismissive exclusivism, and which is driven by psychological needs ironically not dissimilar from those which led to the incarceration of Galileo, that we see in full effect here. Extreme vigilance is called for on wikipedia and elsewhere in webland, as everyone knows, but the blatancy of what’s said on that page is quite significant as a barometer of fear, and of the definite splitting of the culture into subcultures that are beginning to lack any language for real mutual communication. Where will this end? We shall see it develop.

It’s important to keep up with evidence of this kind, and I will, and I’ll pass on anything I think is interesting. But we now need to move on, and start to go deeper into what is really there. Many interesting things are afoot.

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2 responses to “The Evidence of the Mother’s Breast

  • Nemo85

    Regarding Wikipedia it is not worthwhile to edit the pages, I am aware of three or four articles about failed attempts to improve the posts’ factual value. The self-styled skeptics monitor posts that concern certain topics, and the Swedish skeptics even have (or have had) a specific page on which they highlight which posts they are monitoring. A friend of mine recently recommended William Bengston and Sylvia Frasers’ “The Energy Cure”, I believe it is your taste.

  • Jason Wingate

    Ha, ok, well let’s not bother. How extraordinary, the lengths that have to be gone to in order to try to “control the culture”! Thx for the book recommend.

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