Quackery and faith healing in Motown

I’ve complained quite a bit about the news media in my hometown. Indeed, about a year ago, I was stunned at how utterly credulous one TV reporter was about–of all things–orbs. I mean, orbs! Even dedicated ghosthunters don’t push orbs much anymore, realizing that they are nothing more than reflections or specks of dust reflecting lights in photographs. Then there’s Steve Wilson and his forays into anti-vaccine nonsense, in which he recycles some of the oldest, most tired, most highly debunked canards. Lately, it’s been some additional crappy reporting about Gardasil and a recent “autism” conference that was in reality nothing more than an autism quackfest. The list goes on.

Unfortunately, I learned that yesterday, The Detroit Free Press, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the text message scandal that brought down Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick last year and has embarked on an innovative but risky experiment in which it only delivers newspapers three days a week and provides the rest online, could apparently use some of that reporting chops and business savvy in dealing with health reporting. I’m referring to some serious badness that appeared in its Sunday edition, a one-two punch of woo that decimated in one fell swoop its credibility on health issues. Sadly, this sort of thing is all too typical of local newspapers, but when they hit my hometown paper, one I’ve been reading for well over 30 years on and off even when I didn’t live in Detroit anymore; so I couldn’t let it pass unnoticed.

Let’s start with item one, which appeared in the Life section under “Health” and reads like a paid infomercial more than anything else, an article entitled Detox at Detroit’s De’Spa Elite:

The candles emit an apricot-mango scent. Gold linens drape the massage tables. A cushioned chair awaits clients seeking pedicures.

In several ways, De’Spa Elite in downtown Detroit is like any other spa, with offerings that include Swedish massages, facials and manicures.

Then again, it’s not.

Owner Carolyn Hopkins says its alternative therapies make the spa “unique in the way that it focuses with people to detoxify” their bodies. Such treatments include Tong Ren, which seeks to unblock interruptions to what’s believed to be the body’s flow of energy, and Raindrop Therapy, a massage of medicinal oils.

Tong Ren? The utter quackery that is Tong Ren has invaded my hometown? I’m sure regular readers probably remember that I’ve written about Tong Ren before, in which I referred to it as an “unholy union of acupuncture and voodoo.” I stand by my characterization. If you don’t believe me, look again at this description of Tong Ren from its originator himself:

In a typical therapy session, the Tong Ren practitioner uses a small human anatomical model as an energetic representation of the patient, tapping on targeted points on the model with a lightweight magnetic hammer. The practitioner directs chi to blockage points corresponding to the patient’s condition, breaking down resistance at these points. As blood flow, neural transmission, and hormone reception are restored, the body is then able to heal.

An unholy union of acupuncture and voodoo is an excellent description of this “healing” technique. In essence, a practitioner, sometimes with the help of an entire class, focuses his “intent” on the acupuncture doll and then taps the various “meridians” while chanting. Don’t believe me? Look at the videos in my original post on the subject, which show an even more credulous news reporter swallowing without an ounce of skepticism everything that Tom Tam (yes, that’s his real name), the acupuncturist from the Boston area who came up with the concept behind Tong Ren, laid down. You’ll also see a disturbing testimonial by a pleasant Asian woman who claims that Tong Ren cured her breast cancer, even though she underwent considerable “conventional” therapy for it.

All at $75 a pop. That’s right. Linda Kent, the acupuncturist who does the Tong Ren therapy at this spa charges $75 for 50 minutes. I tell ya, I’m in the wrong business. Of course, I do have my skepticism and my sense of morals; I could never go the woo route. On the other hand, apparently Kent believes totally in the woo that is Tong Ren, saying:

“energy medicine is the new medicine for this century.” The tapping supposedly transfers energy to her clients to help alleviate ailments like allergies.”

At least Erin Chang Din, the reporter who wrote this, used the word “supposedly.” I suppose I should be grateful for small favors. On the other hand, other than the occasional use of the word “supposedly” the whole thing reads more like ad copy than a news story; so the favor is really, really small.

The next bit of woo advertised is Raindrop Therapy. I had actually never heard of Raindrop Therapy before, an amazing observation that tells me that, even four years into this whole skeptical blogging thing, there’s always new woo for me to learn about. On the surface, Raindrop Therapy looks like nothing more than a massage with various oils. Nothing horrible about that. On the other hand, whenever a therapy is described as a combination of “aromatherapy with the techniques of Vita Flex, reflexology, massage, etc., in the application of essential oils, which are applied on various areas of the body,” I can smell the woo along with the “essential oils,” especially when I see advocates say stuff like this:

Raindrop technique originated in the 1980’s from the research of D. Gary Young working with a Lakota medicine man named Wallace Black Elk. It integrates massage, utilizing the power of essential oils in bringing the body into structural and electrical alignment

Raindrop Technique is based on the theory that many types of scoliosis and spinal misalignments are caused by viruses or bacteria that lie dormant along the spine. These pathogens create inflammation, which in turn, contorts and disfigures the spinal column

Raindrop Technique uses a sequence of highly antimicrobial essential oils designed to simultaneously reduce inflammation and kill the viral agents (from the Essential Oil Desk Reference

Uh, no. For a bit more science-based perspective, there’s always Quackwatch, which points out just how much this is sheer woo. Not bad for $75 for 50 minutes, which makes me think that this woo is just as effective as Tong Ren or that, truly, you don’t get what you pay for, Donald Gary Young’s lame “it’s all a conspiracy by The Man to suppress The Truth about Natural Cures” pseudo-rebuttal, notwithstanding. However, if you’re credulous or stupid enough to fork over that much money for either (1) chanting over and tapping a voodoo doll or (2) getting some oils dripped on you for a massage with the claim that it will “detoxify” you, I can’t seriously blame people who are willing to take advantage of that. Of course, at least with Raindrop Therapy, there’s a massage involved. You can’t even say that with Tong Ren.

Finally, this place is selling that woo of woo, the “detox foot bath,” although in this case it’s called “Aqua Chi.” Here’s a glowing testimonial in the Free Press article:

Tracey Stevenson, 42, of Redford Township, recently visited the spa and soaked a foot in a tub of water infused with sea salt.

A flipped switch started an ionic charge that sent prickles through the water and tingles through Stevenson’s foot. As her foot soaked, the water turned from a hazy clear to a dusty orange to an inky, bubbly black.

The program, called Aqua-Chi, supposedly draws out toxins and material from the dermal layer of the skin. Changes in water colors are supposed to indicate the detoxification of different parts of the body, such as orange for the joints and black for the liver.

Stevenson says she wasn’t skeptical about the treatment, “just intrigued. I’ve spent time and money on the outside” of my body. “With this, I spend money on the inside.”

Not really, Ms. Stevenson. What you’ve really done is flush money down the toilet, metaphorically speaking, and in these tough times who can afford to do that? I’ve dealt extensively with this form of quackery. Suffice it to say that the water turns black whether your feet are in there or not. Trust me on this; it’s been tested numerous times by skeptics. There’s no “detox” going on, as you can’t “detox” through the skin of your feet. Your body can “detox” on its own quite well, thank you very much.

Finally, if you want a doctor not to go to, here’s one:

Dr. Michael Seidman, medical director of wellness at the Henry Ford Health System, says the value of these alternative therapies is debatable.

“When you ask me, ‘Does it sound crazy?’ My answer is ‘Yes,’ ” says Seidman. “But my response is also that it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong just because we don’t understand it.”

What’s not to understand about Aqua Chi? It’s quackery, pure and simple. By its own claimed principles it doesn’t work! Even the credulous have figured that out. What’s not to understand about Raindrop Therapy? There’s no evidence that scoliosis is caused by viruses or toxins or that Raindrop Therapy does anything to remove said viruses or toxins? What’s not to understand about Tong Ren? It’s magical thinking. There’s no evidence that “chi” exists or that practitioners can affect it with healing intent. It’s faith healing pure and simple.

Much like the subject of the next credulous article in the Detroit Free Press yesterday, entitled Detroit area reaches for faith to help heal bodies (how’s that for a segue?):

Inside a dimly lit living room in Clinton Township, evangelist Mary Frost faced a woman who said she has suffered for nine years from an ear disease that makes her dizzy. Frost’s voice rose with each word, her right hand cupping the back of the patient’s neck.

“I command the nerve endings in this ear to come to life,” Frost of Dearborn, a nondenominational Christian raised Pentecostal, declared on a Saturday night last month. “In the mighty name of Jesus, I arrest this condition, this vertigo. This night, you have been served your eviction papers. Leave this body!”

The ailing woman, Sharon LeGue, 56, was overcome and crumpled into the arms of a woman standing behind her. Moments later, she said: “I’m not wobbling now like when I came in here, wow. … I’m healed.”

Scenes like this play out every week inside homes, churches and hospitals across metro Detroit as many look to faith healers to cope with medical ailments or the stresses of daily life.

Critics in the medical community have long considered faith healing a fraud that takes advantage of vulnerable people. They say it can harm patients by drawing them away from legitimate treatments. In some cases, children have died after their religious parents refused them proper medical care.

I tell ya, if there’s one thing that ought to be required reading for any reporter contemplating doing a story on faith healing, it’s James Randi’s book The Faith Healers. It may be a 20 year old book, but it nailed it so well that it’s just as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Any reporter who read this book before approaching a story like this would be a lot less credulous and should add to his or her armamentarium a look at this interview with and video by Randi. (At the very least, the reporter should read this entry in Randi’s encyclopedia.) Then, a reporter contemplating such a story should then read Richard P. Sloan’s Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine before looking at the claims that religion is useful or somehow good for your health or cite studies like this:

Among them is a pair of 2007 studies. One said greater religiosity helped the mental performance of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The other said victims of heart failure or lung disease coupled with depression recovered better if they were active in religious activities.

The first of these studies, dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, appears to be this one. Reading it, I note that it’s a small study (only 70 patients) with a fair number of inconsistencies and unconvincing controlling for confounders. Even then its results are not that convincing. For example, measures using the Duke University Religion Index (DUREL)32 and the Overall Self-Ranking subscale from the NIH/Fetzer Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality subscales found that neither intrinsic religiosity, attendance at church services, nor religiosity self-rating correlated with slower cognitive decline, whereas measures known as spirituality self-rating and private religious activities did. It’s hardly convincing evidence, because there could be numerous confounders. The second study appears to be this one. Unfortunately, my university doesn’t have access to this particular journal, but from the abstract it appears to me as though a bit of statistical legerdemain went on here:

Although numerous religious measures were unrelated by themselves to depression outcome, the combination of frequent religious attendance, prayer, Bible study, and high intrinsic religiosity, predicted a 53% increase in speed of remission (HR 1.53, 95% CI 1.20-1.94, p = 0.0005, n = 839) after controls.

In other words, individual measures of religiosity didn’t correlate with recovery from depression in such patients. Rather, the authors had to combine certain measures. I can’t tell from the abstract alone why the authors picked the ones they did, but it sure sounds like cherry picking. I’ll have to try to get a hold of the article.

But we’re not talking about whether being religious can provide health benefits. We’re talking about religious people who claim Jesus can heal them through a priest or minister. And here is where the privileged place religion holds is in evidence:

Still, the popularity of faith healing can be seen throughout southeast Michigan, and it cuts across Christian denominational lines — Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Orthodox and evangelical churches all have some type of faith healing services.

Faith healers and centers are not regulated by the state “because it’s a religious issue,” said James McCurtis, spokesman for the state Department of Community Health.

“It’s not our place to say whether these institutions are false or not. Some people do truly believe in them. We … leave it up to the people,” McCurtis said.

Why isn’t religious healing regulated by the state? Charlatans make health claims that they can heal people of debilitating or even deadly diseases through the power of prayer or Jesus. That, to me is a medical claim. We regulate device manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, and physicians. Yet, suddenly, if it’s religion making the claim, it’s OK. I’ve said time and time before that adults can do whatever they want with their bodies for whatever reason, but that does not mean that anyone can practice medicine under the guise of religion. Be that as it may, there can be legitimate disagreements over this issue and whether faith healing needs to be considered part and parcel of freedom of religion to the point where the government can’t do anything. What I don’t see nearly as much room for disagreement about is the irresponsibly credulous presentation of testimonials:

Beyond the immediate good feelings, some patients of faith healers say they have seen long-term benefits.

Yolanda McKenzie, 32, of Waterford said that her endometriosis, a condition affecting the uterine cavity, went away in 2007 after an intense faith healing in Detroit.

But she also underwent medical treatment with a doctor and had surgery just weeks after her faith healing. Still, she maintains God healed her.

And claims like this:

The Rev. Keith Barr of Clarkston, who treated McKenzie, also said he doesn’t charge. He promotes his faith healing on Web sites such as YouTube, where he claims to have healed hundreds — of cancer, blindness, even the effects of Agent Orange.

To skeptics who say he is misleading, Barr said: “Come and see … there can’t be that many actors in metro Detroit.”

Barr said Comcast has refused to run a cable ad he made touting his ability to bring sight to the blind. But he maintains that he can heal people.

“Jesus said, you have to pray and have no doubt. It requires a tremendous amount of faith,” said Barr, who is a Pentecostal minister.

Perusing Barr’s YouTube page reveals a disturbing number of videos showing the sort of “faith healing” that Randi was so good at critically examining. For example, there was a “healing service” in Ann Arbor (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Then there are videos like this, for instance, healing fibroids:

And back pain:

You get the idea. It’s nothing more than the standard faith healing nonsense that has been going on for centuries. Particularly sad is this photo caption:

Corliss Andrews, 50, of Detroit accepts the healing service of Nemeh. Andrews has had multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease, for 10 years. “I am still waiting for the Lord to heal me,” she said.

Although it may not be apparent on the surface, these two articles are very much alike. Both tout medical treatments that are not in any way science-based. Both make only the most token attempt at including the skeptical viewpoint. (Sorry, Stan Kurtz; I know you tried on the faith healing story.) Both present testimonials as if they were anything more than possibly evidence of the placebo effect. However, I actually find the faith healing article less offensive because it is at least very open that what we are talking about is religion and has nothing to do with science or accepted therapy. The story about the Spa of Woo presents the therapies as though they actually had some sort of basis other than a different kind of religious viewpoint (namely the Eastern concept of life energy, or chi, sometimes spelled qi). It’s all equally faith-based to the most amazing displays of faith healing by Rev. Barr; it’s just that it’s not based on Judeo-Christian religion.

Now if the Free Press could only take some of whatever won it the Pulitzer in political reporting this year and apply it to its health reporting. I’m not holding my breath, though.