Pulling reflexology out of one’s nether regions

I can’t think of a better way to start year seven on the ol’ blog.

Remember how I speculated that perhaps Age of Autism or NaturalNews.com would provide me with the first topic of my next year of blogging? It turns out that I was wrong. It didn’t come from either of those sources, although I will reassure the antivaccine loons at AoA and Mike Adams at NaturalNews.com not to fear. I’ll get to them soon enough. The Huffington Post, too, given that apparently Mark Hyman’s back with his woo. In any case, AoA and Mike Adams may at times be utterly hilarious, but they can’t compare to what readers pointed out to me over the weekend and PZ blogged about. It was almost enough to entice me to write about it a day early. Almost, but not quite. I’m going to try to be mellower about the the manic blogging, and, besides, my “friend” was even more logorrheic than usual at the other blog, if you know what I mean, which is part of the reason I decided to defer going after Mark Hyman’s woo for at least a day. It would have required more verbiage and research than I have the energy left to do, and, besides, last week was just way, way too depressing. Dealing with a woman dying of breast cancer unnecessarily because she chose quackery over effective science-based medicine.

On the lighter side, if there’s one thing about so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) modalities, it’s that nothing–and I do mean nothing–is too ridiculous not to be accepted almost instantly by CAM aficianados. Think about the modalities that are already out there. Homeopathy, for instance, expects its adherents to believe not only that, to cure a symptom you need to make a remedy from something that causes the symptom, but that diluting said remedy actually makes it stronger, with the very strongest remedies having been diluted far beyond Avagadro’s number, meaning that they are incredibly unlikely to have even a single molecule of the original substance in it. But, hey, if you believe that water has memory, it’s all good. Then there’s reiki. To believe in reiki, you have to believe that it is possible for a “healer” to channel mystical energy from a “universal source” into a person to achieve healing. Yes, reikie is nothing more than faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Christian beliefs as the basis for its magical healing. Then there’s acupuncture. To believe in acupuncture, it’s necessary to believe that a person’s life force energy (or qi) flows down various channels (or “meridians”) in the body. This energy cannot be detected, nor do these meridians correspond to any anatomical structures that can be detected. However, supposedly inserting little needles into these meridians can “unblock” the flow of qi and thereby heal.

I could go on, but let me ask you something. If someone postulated that every part of your body mapped to somewhere on your–if you’ll excuse me–ass, what would you say? Would you think anyone would believe it? Think no more! (Certainly the people evaluating this claim didn’t.) John C McLachlan, a professor of medical education at Durham University basically, well, pulled something out of his ass if you will, and showed skeptics the way with a hilarious Sokal-type hoax, an account of which he published in BMJ last week in an article entitled Integrative medicine and the point of credulity. He starts it out with two brilliant sentences:

So called integrative medicine should not be used as a way of smuggling alternative practices into rational medicine by way of lowered standards of critical thinking. Failure to detect an obvious hoax is not an encouraging sign.

And then McLachlan describes how he totally pwned the organizers of the International Conference on Integrative Medicine, which was held in October in Jerusalem. In the spirit of Sokal, he did this:

It is sometimes possible to test the status of a notion (the terms hypothesis and theory should be reserved for ideas that are related to at least some form of evidence) by a process of opposition. This involves testing the status of the notion by looking at the limits to which it can be pushed.5 Furthermore, there is an excellent tradition of testing research areas of dubious authenticity by means of a hoax. In 1996, Alan Sokal had a paper accepted in a cultural studies journal, in which he parodied postmodern philosophy and cultural studies by making a series of exaggerated, wrong, and meaningless statements about the potential progressive or liberatory epistemology of quantum physics in the style of the field. This he subsequently described in a book, bluntly called Intellectual Impostures. In the spirit of Sokal, therefore, I responded to a mass circulated email invitation to submit a paper to something called “The Jerusalem Conference on Integrative Medicine.”

McLachlan’s response to the call for abstracts was brilliant:

I write to ask if you would be interested in a presentation on my recent work on integrative medicine. I am an embryologist by background, with an extensive publication record, in journals including Nature and the Proceedings of the Royal Society, and have written an award winning text book on medical embryology. Recently, as a result of my developmental studies on human embryos, I have discovered a new version of reflexology, which identifies a homunculus represented in the human body, over the area of the buttocks. The homunculus is inverted, such that the head is represented in the inferior position, the left buttock corresponds to the right hand side of the body, and the lateral aspect is represented medially. As with reflexology, the “map” responds to needling, as in acupuncture, and to gentle suction, such as cupping. In my studies, responses are stronger and of more therapeutic value than those of auricular or conventional reflexology. In some cases, the map can be used for diagnostic purposes.

I have to hand it to McLachlan. In fact, I’m envious. I wish I’d thought of it first. But I didn’t; so I have to settle for my current level of amusement. The fact that he refrained from making an analogy to phrenology just adds to the brilliance. Making that analogy might have been going just a bit too far. On the other hand, perhaps pushing the hoax a little farther would have been worth it. Surprisingly, he got a positive response, which led to his submitting this abstract:

Intensive study of the development of early human embryos indicates that there is a reflexology style homunculus represented in the human body, over the area of the buttocks. This homunculus corresponds to areas of clonal expansion (“Blaschko lines*”), in which compartments of the body have clear ontological relationships with corresponding areas of the posterior flanks. The homunculus is inverted, such that the head is represented in the inferior position, the left buttock corresponds to the right hand side of the body, and the lateral aspect is represented medially. The Blaschko lines mediate energy flows to parent areas, and lead to significant responses to appropriate stimuli. As with reflexology, the “map” responds to needling, as in acupuncture, and to gentle suction, such as cupping. Responses are stronger and of more therapeutic value than those of auricular or conventional reflexology. In some cases, the map can be used for diagnostic purposes. In both therapeutic and diagnostic interventions, a full case history must be taken, in order to define the best methods of treatment. In the presentation, anonymised case histories, “testimonies” and positive outcomes will be presented. The methodology does not lend itself to randomised double blind controlled trials, for obvious reasons.

Obviously, the involvement of a sensitive area of the body poses special challenges. Ethical practice is of significant concern. Informed consent must be obtained from all patients in writing, before either therapeutic or diagnostic procedures are commenced. Although exposure of the gluteal region is recommended, procedures can be carried out using draping if this is required in order to gain patient cooperation. Chaperones or same sex practitioners are recommended in the case of female patients.

Unfortunately, this novel paradigm may meet with closed minds and automatic rejection. Patience and understanding of “closed” mindsets is essential in order to advance this new discovery in a way commensurate with its importance.

*See for example http://dermnetnz.org/pathology/blaschko-lines.html.

The image he sent along with it was pure genius:

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Guess what? McLachlan’s abstract was accepted! But it wasn’t just accepted for a poster. Oh, no. It was accepted for a full talk, 15 minutes!

Now here’s where McLachlan disappointed me. Here I was, becoming more and more admiring by the minute as I read, thinking that McLachlan to be an utter genius, and then he had to go and ruin the effect. How? He chickened out. Instead of actually accepting the invitation to go and to give his talk, he (if you will excuse the term) backed out of his talk. Damn attack of conscience!

Still, it’s not surprising that the “scientific committee” of the conference accepted the idea of butt reflexology. I mean, given how inherently ridiculous reflexology is, why not butt reflexology? After all, look at the map of foot reflexology:

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Hand reflexology:

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And ear reflexology:

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Then, of course, there’s also the seeming obsession with the colon that underlies so much alternative medicine. There’s hydrotherapy, enema therapy, coffee enemas, not to mention all manner of purgatives. The bottom line–if you’ll excuse the word, given the emphasis on butt reflexology–is that there is nothing too ridiculous that it won’t take in someone in the alternative medicine world. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at what the schedule for the Jerusalem Conference on Integrative Medicine finally ended up looking like. Perhaps my favorite title from the list is Dr. Chaim Rosental’s talk, A combined homeopathic-Kabbalistic approach to integrate the meaning of mind and body manifestations.

Hmmmm. Homeopathy and Kabbalah. Two woos that woo great together. I wonder what homepathic Kabbalah would look like. It makes my brain hurt to think about it, which sort of reinforces my point. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is too inherently ridiculous for alternative medicine to reject.

Where’s EneMan when you need him?