The Huffington Post delves deeper into the woo

Since its very inception, the Huffington Post has been a hotbed of antivaccine lunacy. Shortly after that, antivaccine woo-meisters like David Kirby, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Kimg Stagliano, and, apparently, one of the editors (Special Projects Editor Rachel Sklar) were joined by all-purpose woo-meisters like Deepak Chopra. True, for a brief period of time there appeared to be an occasional voice for vaccines on HuffPo, but they never lasted. After all, RFK, Jr.’s been there nearly four years now and David Kirby almost as long, while pro-vaccine commentary pops up briefly, gets shouted down by the woo-loving antivaccinationists who frequent the comments sections of posts, swooping down like Cyber Sisters (and Brothers) to drive them from the blog. It’s not for nothing that I have totally scoffed at the idea of a science section in the HuffPo.

Still, for all the nonsense and pseudoscience nurtured in the pages of Arianna Huffington’s little vanity project, there were some places I didn’t think even HuffPo would go. There’s some woo just so ridiculous that even HuffPo wouldn’t touch it. Or so I thought.

I was wrong. Meet Srinivasan Pillay, “certified master coach, psychiatrist, brain imaging researcher and speaker,” whatever that means (other than psychiatrist). As PalMD points out, his “brain imaging” publications in PubMed are pretty darned sparse, mostly functional MRI studies, which are very difficult to do correctly in order to obtain any correlations or useful data. If his HuffPo presence is any indication, I hate to think what he’s doing with that fMRI machine. Get aload of his post, forwarded to me by multiple readers, entitled The Science of Distant Healing.

The woo, it burns. Distantly.

Pillay purports to present the “scientific evidence” for distant healing. Distant healing, for those who may not be aware, is the magical belief that just by sending one’s “intent” or wishes to a distant person one can actually heal that person or send one’s “intent” to him or her. I say “magical” belief because there really isn’t any other word to describe it. There’s no scientific or physical mechanism by which it can occur, at least none that scientists have yet been able to find. That doesn’t stop woo-meisters from invoking–what else?–quantum theory to explain “nonlocal” effects, forgetting entirely that quantum effects such as that only apply on the subatomic scale. None of this stops Pillay from leaping right into the fray and confidently asserting:

In this column, I will present the current evidence that discusses this phenomenon and provide some explanations as to why distant healing has a place in modern scientific thinking.

A well-designed study done in 2008 examined 36 couples. In 22 of these couples, one of the two people was a cancer patient. Three groups were created: In the first group consisting of twelve couples, the healthy person was trained to direct intention toward the patient and was asked to practice this for three months prior to the experiment. This was referred to as the “trained” group. In the other 10 couples where one partner had cancer, the pair was tested before the partner was trained. They were called the “wait” group. Fourteen healthy couples received no training at all. They were called the “control” group. But what was the training?

Skin conductance was measured in both members of the couple, both of whom were asked to feel the presence of the other. Skin conductance is a measure of the ability of sweat to conduct electricity. It indicates that the autonomic nervous system has been activated. The autonomic nervous system is a part of your nervous system that maintains balance of the body and controls heart rate, respiration and many other vital functions. This is done unconsciously. So, when skin conductance was measured, the researchers were measuring whether this important part of our bodies was activated. However, rather than being next to each other while they were sending intentions, partners were relaxed in a distant shielded room for 30 minutes. The sender of intention sent intention for 10-second periods followed by breaks. Skin conductance was then measured during the periods when partners sent their intentions and during the breaks. The researchers believed that if there were a different skin conductance when partners sent their intentions, then this would prove that intention was actually impacting the nervous system.

Ugh. Unfortunately, I didn’t have access to the study. Fortunately, a reader of mine actually purchased it for me. I know, I know, I can afford to buy such an article myself, but I considered $10 to be too much to waste. My reader thought otherwise; so all I can do is to thank my reader, who goes under the ‘nym of “Spection” in his comments on Pillay’s article.

I think.

After all, now I had to read the actual article. One of my favorite sayings comes from Friedrich Nietzsche and goes something like this, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” This paper put that to the test, at least as far as my neurons and critical thinking skills go, in that it was a classic example of what Harriet Hall likes to refer to as “Tooth Fairy” science, which refers to using all the trappings of science to study nonsense:

You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists.

The study cited, which was by Dean Radin et al, is Tooth Fairy Science taken to a level I haven’t seen before, given all the expensive equipment used. The study was published in an article entitled Compassionate Intention As a Therapeutic Intervention by Partners of Cancer Patients: Effects of Distant Intention on the Patients’ Autonomic Nervous System in Explore Journal, a woo journal that I’ve never heard of before. If you want to get a load of the lengths to which Radin and his band of woo-meisters went, consider the following. The “receiver” was placed in a shielded, steel-lined room impervious to all but very low frequency EMF. Periods of sending “intent” were interspersed with “rest periods,” the duration of the latter being controlled by a computer using a random number algorithm. During the times the “sender” was supposed to be “sending intent” to the “receiver, a video camera broadcast an image of the “receiver” to the “sender.

One thing that stands out is the enormous amounts of–shall we say?–data massage that was applied to the raw data. There were multiple transformations applied to the data, along with complex statistical analysis. I’m not entirely knowledgeable enough to determine just how how valid all these calculations and data transformations were, but one part did stand out:

To reduce the potential biasing effects of movement artifacts, all data were visually inspected, and SCL epochs with artifacts were eliminated from further consideration (artifacts were identified by D.R., who was not blind to each epoch’s underlying condition).

OK, it wasn’t a huge number of data curves removed, but I always wonder when an investigator, who is not blinded to which group it’s in decides to remove a dataset from a subject based on “artifacts.” There are also a fair number of other things I wonder about this study. For instance, it appears that the above was not the only thing to which “D.R.” was not blinded; he was also aware of who the “control” group participants were. I also strongly question whether the assumption that measuring skin resistance is a valid measure of autonomic nervous system activation due to “distant healing,” given that so many other things can activate it and that lots of things can effect sweat production. Was the room temperature kept very constant for every single session? Were the “receivers” wearing the same sorts of clothing? I also can’t help but note the absence of at least one obvious and very important control groups, such as “receivers” who think they’re getting some “intent” sent to them but in fact are not. That’s a pretty obvious control that was not included. Finally, it is blindingly obvious that little or no effort was made to age match the controls. Autonomic nervous system function alters with age, and for this study to be valid, it would have to show that the three groups were comparable, something it does a very poor job at. Actually, it’s something this study didn’t even try to do at all. Come on, this is a physiological measurement we’re talking about, and when you measure a physiologic measurement in a study it’s important to try to make sure the participants in a study are well-matched both in terms of age and sex, and sometimes even race.

Another possibility is that there was some way that the “receiver” knew or could predict when the “sender” was “sending intent.” Does anyone see a possible way that that could happen? I do. Think about it. The video camera is one possible way, if appropriate steps weren’t taken. I doubt even Radin was careless enough not to make sure a little red light didn’t turn on when the camera was active, but there are other possible signals. To rule that out, it would have been nice to do a small trial run asking participants to tell when they are being videotaped; if they couldn’t do it any better than random chance, Radin would be home free. If they guessed at a significantly greater degree of accuracy than random chance alone would predict, it would be a problem. Of course, the most likely two explanations for Radin’s results are either that (1) there was some form of systematic bias in the study and (2) that this is just a statistical fluke. Relevant to the latter, at the 95% confidence level, there’s a minimum of a 5% chance of a positive result being due to chance alone. In fact, it’s far more likely than 5% when studying phenomena with very low prior probability, like homeopathy (or distant healing), as Dr. John Ioannidis has shown us.

If–and only if–I see this experiment replicated by someone without such an obvious ideological investment in “distant healing,” I might start to take “distant healing” somewhat more seriously. Might. Incredible claims require incredible evidence; so multiple replications of this or related experiments would be necessary to make this any more than Tooth Fairy Science. If there’s one thing that is a prerequisite for scientific studies of the mechanism behind a phenomenon, it’s demonstrating first that the phenomenon even exists. Until that is demonstrated, discussions and studies of “how” it works are pointless. Neither this dubious study published in a very woo-friendly journal nor any other well-designed study looking at these questions has ever demonstrated clear, compelling, unequivocal (or even equivocal) evidence of such psi or distant healing phenomena.

None of this stops Pillay from plowing deeper into the woo:

This experiment showed that intention can affect a partner’s body across distance outside of consciousness and that if one is trained in compassionate intention, the effect is greatest. In fact, other studies have also shown that distant healing can heal small sized tumors.

Really? Which studies? I couldn’t find them, and Pillay had to be badgered by his commenters even to cough up the Radin story. Never mind, Pillay keeps digging hemself in deeper:

However, the effects of distant healing have not been uniform. Studies have failed to show that distant healing can improve chronic fatigue syndrome or clinical outcome in HIV positive patients. In fact, two studies have also shown that distant healing can have adverse effects.

Again, really? Adverse effects? Is that Black Ju-Ju putting curses on people? Should I be scared that someone out there is going to make a voodoo doll shaped like a clear box of blinking lights and start sticking it with needles? Or even just thinking bad things at me? If that were true, the bad thoughts of J.B. Handley alone would have already killed me.

Then Pillay dives into some serious pseudophysics:

Within the scientific community, there are a group of people who believe in distant healing and a group of people who do not. Those who believe in distant healing do not believe that it is just some “spooky” phenomenon. There are four principles of physics underlying intention that have been described in the literature: (1) that intention is transmitted by an as yet unknown energy signal; (2) that intention warps space-time much like gravity, creating pathways for connection; (3) that people, like particles are described in quantum physics, have instantaneous correlations across distance; (4) that intention is much like measurement in quantum physics. It organizes random possibilities much like how wave functions can be collapsed into a single function

This is nonsense on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. These aren’t principles of physics; they’re principles of magic, for one thing. For another thing, people are not described by quantum physics. Repeat after me: Quantum effects disappear at the macroscopic level. And guess what? People are macroscopic objects. As for that bit about “unknown energy” and “warping space-time,” give me a break. What does Pillay think this is, Star Trek? As for the whole bit about “organizing random possibilities much like how wave functions,” that’s just Deepak Chopra territory and makes real physicists cry. Calling Chad Orzel!

Despite all the pseudoscientific quackery regularly showing up on HuffPo, I did think that there were limits beyond which it wouldn’t go. Note the word “did.” I no longer label under any such delusion. There is no end to how low HuffPo will go into the depths of woo, and I have nothing but contempt for how Arianna Huffington and her New Age nonsense have infused such a large and popular political blog with the stench of quackery and antivaccine madness. I next expect to see homeopaths blogging there. In fact, I’m surprised that Dana Ullman hasn’t already been offered a gig there.

But could HuffPo go even lower than distant healing when it comes to pseudoscience? Do you even have to ask? It turns out that our new HuffPo blogger Dr. Pillay is very much into The Secret. In fact, he tells us it’s science.