18 Aug, 11 | by Iain Brassington
Right now, physicists are pondering the fallout from the collision of high-energy particles. (Probably.) And I, for my part, am pondering the fallout from the collision of high-energy nonsense.
Having had this brought to my attention, I’m led fairly quickly to this, then this, and, finally, this Mail on Sunday piece. All the links refer to a story in which a hospital is apparently using £200k or so of Lottery money to fund research into spiritual healing based on Reiki. I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that the research finds that spiritual “healing” is utterly ineffective, except when it means people don’t avail themselves of real medicine – in which case, it’s very effective and its effects are undesirable. Spiritual healing is bunk; one could reasonably think that a trial into it is a waste of money. We oughtn’t to waste money, so, modus ponens, we oughtn’t really to be doing this kind of research.
In fact, there’re likely to be big problems with spiritual healing research of any sort, simply because participants may feel that there’s less need to continue using established treatments, and thereby end up worse off. And when others continue with conventional treatments, it’s going to be hard to tell which of their outcomes was attributable to which – so the research’ll likely tell us nothing. Hence I wonder whether the research will yield anything publishable: if not, then the whole thing will have been in vain, and there’s something problematic about enrolling people in trials that stand a chance of being, from a publication point of view, barren.
I’m not actually going to go down that route here, though. £200k is not all that great an amount of money in the scheme of medical research; it’s not even all that much in the scheme of lottery grants. (I had a job in the real world for a whole month about 7 years ago, and part of what I was supposed to be doing was the administration of a Lottery-funded project; the sums were much, much bigger.) There might even be prima facie evidence that this particular research programme is worth doing. I doubt that there is, but you never know. And – especially given the small sums involved – I think it might be worth having trials into this kind of nonsense every once in a while, for a few reasons. First, it keeps the hippies happy by making them think that someone’s listening to them. Second, it offers a periodic opportunity to take a fresh look at Reiki, homeopathy, and all the rest, just in case there’s anything we overlooked, and so we can say with assurance that we keep checking and it still seems to be bilge. And then we can get on with the serious task of giving it the kicking it merits.
What’s particularly interesting to me is the response from certain other organisations. Christian Concern wails about this “research” being carried out
at a time when Christian doctors and nurses have been banned from sharing the hope of Jesus Christ with their patients. Christian nurse, Caroline Petrie, [sic] was suspended for offering to pray with an elderly patient, whilst Dr Richard Scott, a Christian doctor of 28 years, was reported to the General Medical Council for discussing his faith with a patient.
Quite why research into a loopy healing method should be linked to medical staff being told that the can’t proselytise to patients is beyond me. Would the Reiki trial have been less problematic if we’d allowed bedside evangelism from medical staff? Nope. Does Reiki make proselytising medical staff less problematic? Nope. Is Reiki evangelistic at all? Nope. So why raise it here?
Not to be outdone, PJ Saunders quotes an article in the CMF’s Triple Helix magazine concerning Reiki by George Smith, which notes that there’s no evidence for it working, nor any reason to think that it would work, but adds that
there certainly are spiritual dangers, which cannot be ignored.[...] It has been suggested that the Reiki laying on of hands is similar to the healing miracles of Jesus and his disciples. Yet we need to ask, ‘By what spirit is this being applied?’
And that’s just weird. Smith seems to be saying that Reiki doesn’t work, but even if it did, we’d have to be a bit careful just in case it’s Satan doing the healing. Otherwise, why are they dangers? (Not, of course, that I’m taking seriously the idea that Reiki is spiritually dangerous. I don’t even know what spiritual danger is supposed to mean.)
By coincidence, Orac has been mulling similar stuff, but here in the context of Orthodox Rabbis deciding that alternative medicine ought to be avoided because of its apparent idolatry.
“Without taking a stand on the efficiency of the various types of these treatments, we thought it right to warn that some of them involve elements studied in different idolatrous sects. Therefore, each method must be examined individually by a person proficient in the medical field and halachic field.”
It amuses me that the rabbis don’t take a stand on the efficacy of the various types of alternative medical treatments. It would appear that they care far less about whether these treatments actually work than they do about their perception that they are blasphemous and based on idolatrous beliefs. I also find it rather odd that the rabbis would care far more about Jewish law (Halacha) than they do about whether these therapies actually work. [edited for context - IB]
The move made here by the Rabbis is very similar to the one made by the CMF document: whether or not a given treatment works is possibly less important than the question of whether it’s compatible with a particular religious tradition. (And, of course, the move made by both groups is the same as that frequently made by the CAM brigade, which is to take no notice at all of the efficacy or otherwise of a given treatment.) I have to agree with Orac: this is a very strange set of priorities to have. It’s not a set of priorities that I think I’d want to see on display in a medic.
And this puts me in a slightly odd position: that of admitting that Reiki therapists are quite possibly lunatics, and Reiki trials are problematic – but that there’re even bigger lunatics and more problematic people out there.