May 7, 2011
One of the things that annoys me about humans is that many of us look for evidential loopholes to avoid unwelcome conclusions. It reminds me of the lawyer who’s able to get an otherwise solid case thrown out of court because the cops didn’t have a search warrant. Of course, I’m human, which means there’s a good chance I’ve done this, too, so please don’t read this as some sort of “holier than thou” thumbing of the nose.
Lately, one of our resident skeptics has taken to taunting me:
…I suspect that you are minimizing the importance of relying upon quality evidence with minimal bias and confounding factors, because all of your evidence is likely tainted by these elements. [dguller]
Oh really now? A bit strange coming from someone who admittedly doesn’t have any idea about paranormal energy, methinks, but that’s beside the point. Despite the fact that this claim is false–and note that dguller failed to include any evidence which would sustain the charge of minimizing the importance of quality evidence, which means that according to his own standards, we should assign his claim a “very low likelihood” of being true–today, I’ll present a study that controlled for bias and confounding factors: a randomized double-blind study published in Western Journal of Medicine [v.169(6); Dec 1998], demonstrating the medical and psychological benefits of distant healing (DH) in a population with advanced AIDS.
In the paper, the first thing the authors note is how they controlled for various confounders that plagued their pilot study:
Our initial study was a double-blind pilot study of 10 treated and 10 control subjects conducted during July 1995 through January 1996. The pilot study suggested both medical and psychological benefits of distant healing. Four of the 10 control group subjects died, with no deaths occurring in the treatment group, but the result was con- founded by age (those who died were older). As a result, in the second larger study a pair-matched design was used to control for factors shown to be associated with poorer prognosis in AIDS, specifically age, T cell count, and illness history. […] Subjects signed informed consent, were photographed, and were randomly assigned on a double-blind basis to either DH or a control group. Subjects were told they had a 50-50 chance of receiving the DH treatment. Both groups continued to receive standard medical care at their primary care sites. Subjects were pair-matched by age, CD4+ count, and number of ADDs before randomization. […] To control for the variation in severity and prognosis of different AIDS-related illnesses, all illnesses were scored according to the Boston Health Study (BHS) Opportunistic Disease Score, which includes both AIDS-defining and secondary AIDS-related diseases.
The findings of decreased medical utilization, fewer and less severe new illnesses, and improved mood for the treated group compared with the controls supports a positive therapeutic effect of DH. This outcome is difficult to explain, particularly in this double-blind study where subjects, physicians, and study personnel did not know who was in the treatment group.
The authors discuss two alternative explanations, and find both wanting. Make no mistake: I am NOT implying that this “proves” DH is “true,” because I condemn such a naïve approach to science, as do many other scientists with whom I agree. However, the paper DOES establish that a rigorously controlled study supports DH, and that–to me–is sufficient to falsify the fundamaterialist claim that there’s no science supporting prayer, distant healing, paranormal energy, or whatever you wish to call it.