Monday, February 16, 2009


Okay, so my idea of getting back to this in a ‘day or two’ was somewhat optimistic, but at least the comments beat me to the punch!

Before I attempt to rationalise all this away, I should point out that while my back certainly still gives me trouble, that day saw a rather sudden improvement – up until that day, I had spent a rather unfun two or three months having to carefully deliberate whether to sit down or not, such was the discomfort involved. As you can imagine, it was a pretty miserable time – the initial two months of physiotherapy had limited success, and I had been told it was the only treatment available. Which brings me to the first important point to be aware of – not only did I want it to work, I felt at the time that I needed it to work,

I’ve never found anecdotal evidence particularly compelling, whether it was people on TV effusing about alien encounters, or friends recounting their religious experiences, but the very sudden improvement of my grandfather was something I couldn’t ignore. Looking back, I should have paid more attention to the fact that I visited him in the hospital before the operation; at the start of his recovery, and just because I wasn’t around to witness it, it didn’t mean that his improvement wasn’t gradual. I still believe the story of his sudden recovery was accurate, as the visit to the healer may have lifted his spirit, but I’m inclined to believe that the heavy lifting was done by the conventional treatment he received.

In the waiting area, the amazing testimonies from once desperate people told in earnest, hushed tones served to bolster my preconditioning (“if it works for these desperate cases, surely it’ll work for me too”), and the sheer volume of patients – both physically present and cited as referees – was also encouraging. I can only imagine that amusement caused by the bizarre surroundings of a farm-shed hastily converted into an operating theatre contributed to the overall “flood of endorphins or some mildly hypnotic analgesic” that Jason alluded to in the comments.

After a week or two of imagining what he looked like, and a half-hour of listening to his pithy mutterings behind the partition, my sense of wonder was bombarded when I finally came face to face with the healer-man. Not only was his appearance novel, but the way he conducted himself threw me off – particularly when he disappeared behind me for a few moments, only to begin with the vigorous prodding and manipulation.

I’m inclined to believe that what he was doing was chiropractic – the spinal manipulations seemed (at the time, and even in retrospect) far too specific and expertly administered to be for show, but I’m inclined to believe that there was a placebo effect surrounding the encounter, which encouraged me to push myself beyond my established and rather limited comfort zone of spine-extension, which surely contributed.

It saddens me to contemplate that the modern day, über-sceptical Sully would never go to such an establishment, and I can envision myself scoffing at the deluded fools who went along and enjoyed their placebo effects while I suffered on with a somewhat masochistic-pride. It’s possible that if the guy positioned himself as a certified chiropractor, I’d give it a whirl, but if you told me what I heard two years ago, I’m pretty sure I know what the response would be:

“You want me to go a barn to be prodded by some old dude with a magic coathanger? What are you, fucking nuts?”


SeanH said...

It's an interesting one alright. One potential caveat when discussing improvements after 'alternative' therapies often proposed in tandem with the placebo effect is that we will seek out such treatments when our situation is at its worst and most unbearable.

The obvious point here is that given we're already at our worst then no matter what happens we're going to get somewhat better and this natural improvement is then attributed to the treatment we received.

A combination of this natural improvement with the placebo effect could be an explanation.

The connection between our body and mind is pretty fascinating and if all the quacks promoting 'scientific' alternative remedies spent half their money on legitimate neuroscience we'd all be better off. I'm perfectly willing to accept acupuncture and it's ilk that make no claim of a scientific basis but when people like homeopaths start claiming they can scientifically justify all that water-atom-denting nonsense it just muddies the waters and hurts everyone.

On an entirely unrelated note, I emailed that guy who took over from Dawkins as the holder of the Simonyi chair asking what he planned to do differently given he was against Dawkins confrontational approach. No response :/

SeanH said...

Forgot to mention... <-- that guy has written a good bit about the medical research into the placebo effect.

If you want to go right to the source Google for 'The Lancent' + X where X is something like 'acupuncture' or 'homeopathy'. They're a well respected medical journal and have a lot of papers that are meta-analysis of all the published research on a particular topic. Basically that means you get a summary and statistical model that takes into account all reliable research they came across

Sully said...

You pointed out some things I'd have liked to touch upon, but didn't want to get mired in too much scientific mumbo jumbo, so thanks!

I hope I don't come across as falsely labelling myself as 'sceptical' - my understanding of chiropractic is that it is quackery when dealing with anything other than back issues, but proved effective in this instance.

I don't entirely agree with leaving the quacks who don't claim scientific veracity off the hook (if that's what you're saying) - those who attempt to undermine science by invoking vague, magical 'forces' only bolster the beliefs of the new age wackaloons, which is a Very Bad Thing.

I ought to have posted links to where I acquired my sceptical toolkit (which helped focus my sceptical mind), so I'm glad that you linked to Ben Goldacre's site - I'm quite a fan of his work.

SeanH said...

Well I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'letting them off the hook'. I'm not suggesting we should accept the explanations given as reasons for the benefits of acupuncture as fact but I would be of the opinion that as long as they don't claim any scientific basis or suggest that people avoid legitimate alternatives then there are better things to spend ones energy on than shouting them down. I think they should be closely monitored and their advertising material scrutinised but I don't think campaigning against the dangers of such establishments is going to do any good whatsoever.

My opinion of 'moderate' religion is the same to be honest. There are always going to be large numbers of people that believe in some form of God or that will attend some sort of alternative therapy. Now the majority of these people won't let that decision effect their outlook on life or their relationships with other people in an adverse fashion. I think it's one of the failings of many people in the skeptic and atheist movements to face up to this simple fact. Based on thousands of years of human existence in which there has always been a believe in some form of supernatural deity the only reasonable hypothesis is that this will always be the case.

Where am I going with this I hear you ask? Well, I'm going to jump over to the religion side of the argument for a few minutes to explain that but a similar line of reasoning applies to the alternative medicine debate.

Something proposed at a talk I recently attended (By Julian Baggini) was that atheists/skeptics/whatever learn to pick their battles in a more productive fashion. For instance, in Ireland/UK most religious people have much more in common with atheists than they do with religious extremists in terms of their everyday opinions. Both groups agree that religious fundamentalism is dangerous and in this case it makes much more sense for atheists to work with religious moderates rather than taring them with the same brush as the fundamentalists.

Of course the counter argument to that is always 'but if we tolerate any religion we will soften up the population for more extreme versions'. To be honest, I think this is a a bit silly and doesn't really follow from any evidence or sequential argument. The ideal skeptic is surely one that makes evidence based decisions and holds similarly enforced opinions. Does anybody really think that the rise of Islamic extremism is in any way driven on by the acceptance of moderate Christianity? There are many more socio-economic arguments that have absolutely nothing at all to do with religion. In fact, there have been reports on interviews with former Islamic extremists that show a number of those recruited as terrorists lived entirely secular lives up to that point but were spurred on by poverty, attacks against their countries/families and a variety of other reasons.

Based on the simple observation that the majority of people believe in some sort of God (including a significant number of the worlds most prominent scientists) it would seem to be the case that most peoples beliefs are outside the scope of those ideas that can be dispelled via reason and evidence based argument. Based on this and the fact that we most definitely *do* need to stand up in the face of religious extremism and similarly dangerous fads passed off as legitimate medicine I think many skeptics and atheists would do much more good if they applied some of that sacred reason and logical thinking and arrived at the conclusion that if we are to avoid the worst of all this we need to find common ground with the majority of the worlds population. Yes this will mean working with moderate religions, yes it will mean ignoring some alternative therapies but it will be a hell of a lot more useful than sitting around refusing to work with >85% of the world.

[/rant] (Slow day at the office ;) )

Myke said...

Futurama summed up my thoughts on homeopathic medicine quite well:

Man: "I've got a degree in homeopathic medicine!"
Truck gathering Doctors: "You're got a degree in balogna!"