Integrative medicine and spoon bending at the University of Alberta and "Bigfoot skepticism"

After over 11 years at this blogging thing, I periodically start to fear that I’m becoming jaded. In particular, after following the infiltration of quackery in the form of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), now more commonly known as “integrative medicine,” because it integrates CAM with evidence-based medicine. Of course, in reality, what “integrative medicine” really does is to integrate prescientific, pseudoscientific, and antiscientific quackery with real medicine, and that’s what I mean. I thought I had seen it all in academic medical centers and medical schools: the faith healing that is reiki at National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer centers, acupuncture at more universities than I can recall, functional medicine and traditional Chinese medicine at at the Cleveland Clinic; naturopathy and therefore, whether the MDs in the integrative medicine departments know it or not, The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy, which is an integral part of naturopathy; and even Rudolf Steiner’s ultimate woo, anthroposophic medicine at my damned alma mater!

Yes, I thought I had seen it all, until I came across this Tweet by Tim Caulfield, an outspoken critic of CAM from our neighbors up north:


Yes, you read that right. It’s a flier for Pediatric Integrative Medicine Rounds at the University of Alberta’s CARE Program for Integrative Health and Healing advertising a spoon bending workshop. No wonder most people thought it was a joke or some sort of satire. It wasn’t; it even showed up on the CBC News website:

The workshop is to be presented on June 28 by Anastasia Kutt, an Edmonton “energy healing therapist” and “registered reiki master,” according to her website.

“This experiential workshop will teach a guided meditation/energy transfer technique which will have most participants bending cutlery using the power of their minds,” the workshop description says.

“This will not be a scientific evaluation of the process,” the poster notes.

It won’t be a scientific evaluation of the process? Imagine my relief. Particularly hilarious is the part about typically “75% of workshop participants can bend the spoon.” Only 75%?

Naturally, I wandered over to Anastasia Kutt’s website, Luminous Tranquility, where I learned:

Anastasia Kutt (click here for bio) is an energy healing therapist and workshop facilitator in Edmonton, Alberta. She is a Registered Reiki Master Teacher with the Canadian Reiki Association, and offers Reiki workshops at Healing Connections Wellness Center. She is one of 20 certified Trilotherapists in Canada, and also has extensive training in the Yuen Method of Energy Clearing. Please see Workshops for upcoming events and Treatments for information about treatments.

Kutt appears not to be actually treating anyone, but rather making her living doing workshops on reiki and “energy medicine,” including spoon bending workshops, and selling a guided meditation CD. So, obviously, someone at the Pediatric Integrative Medicine program at the University of Alberta must have hired Kutt to do this workshop. Just let that sink in. Whoever runs the Pediatric Integrative Medicine Rounds thought that it was a good idea to invite an “energy healer” to demonstrate how to use the “power of the mind” to bend a spoon! Ultimately, it was reported that the event was canceled, which just goes to show that shining the light of day on these excesses of quackademic medicine is the best disinfectant for

At this point, it would be very easy to go on a fun (and hopefully funny) rant about just how bad things have gotten in quackademic medicine that anyone at an actual medical school would take the claims of spoon bending at face value. Very easy indeed. It would have been a hell of a lot of fun, too, which made it difficult for me to restrain myself. However, as I read over this sad story of credulity, I was reminded of something that happened a mere two weeks ago at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), when Scientific American journalist John Horgan gave a talk with the intentionally inflammatory title, Dear “Skeptics,” Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More: A science journalist takes a skeptical look at capital-S Skepticism, which he later posted on his Scientific American blog. It provoked a lot of reactions because it was so fractally wrong, including two responses from Steve Novella, Daniel Loxton, Jerry Coyne, and, of course, yours truly.

Basically, Horgan’s criticism of skepticism boiled down to an accusation that we don’t take on the “hard” targets, preferring instead to go after “easy” targets like Bigfoot, homeopathy, astrology, and the like. While there is a grain of truth in that characterization, overall Horgan’s whine came across as the fallacy of relative privation or, as I like to put it, “You should stop caring about what you care about and care about what I care about instead because it’s so much more important than what you care about.” Part of that characterization was to disparage “bigfoot skeptics.” Do you see where I’m going with this?

One of the most basic issues of skepticism, one that many skeptics cut their teeth on, is Uri Geller, the man who bends spoons with the power of his mind. At least, that’s how he characterized himself in the 1970s and onward. I first heard about him when I was a teenager. Being a teenager and of not more than average skepticism, I was just as puzzled as many people were over Geller’s spoon bending. Now, spoon bending is an obvious magic trick, which is why James Randi was so easily able to duplicate it and why he was so easily able, working with Johnny Carson, to expose Geller as a fraud on national TV:

These days, it’s so well known that spoon bending is a magic trick and not evidence of a man’s ability to bend metal with his mind that a quick Google search for “How do you bend spoons?” turns up many links that tell you just how to duplicate Geller’s feat that amazed so many for so many decades, for instance:

There’s even a Wikipedia entry on spoon bending.

This sort of skepticism is exactly the sort of skepticism that Horgan so contemptuously dismissed as “Bigfoot skepticism.” After all, it’s just a con man named Uri Geller bending spoons using a magic trick that most magicians know and fooling the public into thinking that he was using the “power of his mind” to accomplish it. The skill set required to demonstrate that Geller was a fraud was straightforward and not particularly complex. That’s why the story of Uri Geller’s spoon bending con is a basic story that nearly all skeptics encounter fairly early on in their journey to becoming skeptics. It’s the very epitome of what John Horgan considers wrong with organized skepticism.

And yet…

And yet there is a major Canadian academic medical center that had at least one faculty member that doesn’t exercise skepticism about a woman who claims to be able to manipulate “life energy” from the “universal source,” which is what reiki is when you boil it down to its essence, and offers workshops on how to use the power of your mind to bend spoons. Just think about it. If the person putting together Pediatric Integrative Medicine Rounds for the University of Alberta had been inculcated with a bit of the ol’ “Bigfoot skepticism,” maybe he or she wouldn’t have agreed to let Anastasia Kutt to do a workshop there. If that person knew that spoon bending was nothing more than a simple magician’s trick, perhaps he or she wouldn’t have fallen for Kutt’s nonsense. That didn’t happen, unfortunately. Bigfoot skepticism could have prevented this, but in the world of quackademic medicine there isn’t even Bigfoot skepticism. There isn’t much, if any, skepticism at all. More’s the pity.

Then, of course, Horgan also heaped his scorn on skeptics who debunk homeopathy. As I’ve discussed many times in the past, on the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of homeopathy in academic medical centers. However, if you consider how many CAM or “integrative medicine” programs have naturopaths on faculty and offer naturopathy services, you’ll soon realize that there are a lot of academic medical centers offering homeopathy. The reason is simple. Homeopathy is such an integral part of naturopathy that you can’t have naturopathy without homeopathy.

In fact, a little bit of that “Bigfoot skepticism” could prevent atrocities against science-based medicine like the Pediatric Integrative Medicine (PIM) trial:

The Pediatric Integrative Medicine Trial (“PIM Trial”) started recruitment of hospitalized children at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, Alberta in early 2013, and the clinical intervention phase starts in the fall. While the initial focus is on children with cancer, plans to include children in other areas of the hospital are underway. Led by the CARE Program and supported by the University of Alberta, the trial will study the effects of an inpatient PIM service when added to conventional medical care.

The service consists of pediatricians and credentialed therapists in acupuncture, massage therapy, and reiki who will offer consultations and treatments for children experiencing pain, nausea/vomiting, and/or anxiety (“PNVA”). Choice of therapy is guided by each patient and family, and informed by established research on its safety and effectiveness; there are no obligations to start or continue the PIM Trial’s therapies, and there is no cost to the family or to the hospital.

The trial will assess and compare costs, length of hospital stay, safety and effectiveness of therapies (CAM and conventional), and quality of life and satisfaction with care as determined by patients, their caregivers and health care providers.

Of course, acupuncture and reiki are the purest of vitalistic quackery, modalities that have no place in any hospital purporting to provide evidence- and science-based care to patients. “Bigfoot skepticism” is useful in identifying how reiki, at least, is quackery. Acupuncture is a little bit more difficult, given that it involves sticking actual needles into patients, but it’s not that much more difficult to demonstrate that acupuncture is a theatrical placebo. Sadly, the University of Alberta is not alone in embracing quackery. It has lots of company.

Scientific skepticism strives to separate claims that are supported by evidence and science from claims that are not. Claims like the ones made by Uri Geller over the years are clearly ridiculous, but, contrary to what Horgan seems to think, they are not at all unimportant because they are widely believed. In fact, they’re so widely believed that they have served as the basis of a workshop offered by a respected academic medical center. All it would have taken is a single skeptic applying “Bigfoot skepticism” to the claims being made by, for instance, the University of Alberta. Where was that skeptic? Nowhere, or so it would seem. It’s not as though it’s always difficult to test these sorts of implausible claims, either. Indeed, in the case of “therapeutic touch” (also called “healing touch”), a form of “energy medicine” widely taught in nursing school that posits that the person doing the therapeutic touch can sense and manipulate the patient’s “energy field” to healing effect, disproving the woo is so easy that even an 11-year-old can do it. Unfortunately, the environment at some academic medical centers has become so credulous that highly educated physicians and nurses accept this kind of nonsense. Sure, it’s possible that a lot of physicians saw the spoon-bending flyer and scoffed derisively, but the very fact that the workshop was scheduled is a symptom of a serious problem.

In fact, I’d argue that we could use some “Bigfoot skeptics” in medicine. Horgan paints efforts debunking homeopathy with the same brush, as taking on an “easy” target that isn’t worth the effort, but homeopathy is a multibillion dollar industry. We could use some in politics as well, because, for example, there is a whole category of health care pseudo-professionals called naturopaths for whom homeopathy is such an integral part of their practice that it is part of their licensing examination. In my state (Michigan), there is a bill, HB 4531, that would grant licensure and a broad scope of practice to naturopaths. If there were more “Bigfoot skeptics” in our brain dead legislature, maybe the bill wouldn’t have made it out of the House Committee on Health Policy to be considered by the whole House.

Skepticism and critical thinking are a world view that is desperately lacking in most people. Horgan seems to think that it’s not worthwhile to exercise these skills on anything less than world peace and complex questions about whether screening for cancer saves enough lives relative to the cost in money and overtreatment, but there are plenty of examples of much more straightforward questions need to be examined with science and a critical eye. Unfortunately, one of these examples is in medicine myself. If even a few physicians can be accepting enough of a claim that a common magician’s trick is in reality evidence of the power of the mind that they’re willing to schedule a workshop on spoon bending at a major medical center, we have a problem, and it’s a problem that “Bigfoot skeptics” are most suited to tackle.