Distant Healing: Anomalous Mental Phenomena VI

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 results?

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.

23 Comments

  1. dguller says:

    Interesting study. I’m especially happy to be provided with exactly what I have been asking for, so thanks for that.

    I only have time for a few comments for now.

    First, the study size was small (i.e. 40 subjects).

    Second, it does not appear that in their statistical analysis they corrected for multiple comparisons. After all, they tested 11 different outcome variables, and not correcting for this by decreasing the required p-value can result in false positives or type I errors.

    Third, in their baseline information, they did not include socioeconomic status. It may have been the case that those in the control group (i.e. no DH) were in a higher socioeconomic status with better insurance plans, and that may have been the reason why they had more hospital visits and longer hospital stays.

    I might give it a closer look later and comment.

  2. dguller says:

    And one more thing. There was no comment on drop-out rate. Maybe no-one dropped out, but if some subjects did, then that is a big oversight not to have mentioned it.

  3. dguller says:

    ‘A major scandal in the history of science’
    06 Oct 10

    Professor Edzard Ernst investigates the evidence for positive health benefits from spiritual healing.

    Click here for more from Edzard Ernst

    Spiritual healers believe that the ‘laying on of hands’ generates positive health effects and that they are able to channel (cosmic or divine) ‘energy’ into patients’ bodies. Their aim is to enhance the body’s own capacity to return to good health.
    Some healers even claim to achieve very specific effects (i.e. cure a disease). Considering that ~14,000 healers are registered in the UK, it is relevant to test whether healing generates more good than harm.

    Our first review found that the majority of clinical trials suggested positive results [1]. As more primary studies emerged, an update of this review seemed necessary. Three years later, the overall result had changed. Most studies now failed to show effects beyond placebo [2]. Since then, several further trials have found no effects of spiritual healing beyond a placebo response [3-6]. One of those studies even indicated that patients might be harmed [6].

    Serious concerns have been raised about the validity of some of the early research on spiritual healing. One trial reporting positive effects in AIDS patients [7] has been criticised for selective reporting. When its primary analysis failed to generate positive findings, the impression of a positive results was created through ‘data dredging’ [8].

    More importantly perhaps, a series of about 20 studies by Daniel P Wirth is now suspected to be fraudulent. An ‘absence of adequate documentation that the healing studies took place as described’ was noted by Wirth’s former supervisor [9]. ‘Numerous unanswered questions regarding the actual nature of the listed co-authors’ involvement in these studies’ and ‘the possibility that these foundational studies are without scientific basis’ also raised concern.

    In 2004, Wirth pleaded guilty of mail and bank fraud [9]. Wirth’s co-author, J.S. Horvath, was charged for practicing medicine without a licence and convicted of identity theft and other crimes [10]. Horvath’s activities imply that at least some of these data of the studies were fabricated [10].

    The results of a multicentre healing study, in which Wirth acted as second author, suggested that distant healing increases the success rate of fertility treatment [11]. This trial is now feared to be the product of scientific misconduct [12,13].

    None of the journals which published Wirth’s research has so far withdrawn the suspect articles, [14] and his papers continue to be cited as rigorous research demonstrating that the effects of spiritual healing amount to more than a placebo response. The affair has been called ‘a major scandal in the history of science’ [15].

    And what is the conclusion from all this? For me it is fairly obvious, but I let readers draw their own.

    Professor Edzard Ernst is professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter.

    References :
    1. Astin JA, Harkness EF, Ernst E. The efficacy of “Distant Healing” a systematic review of randomized trials. Ann Intern Med 2000; 132:903-910.
    2. Ernst E. Distant healing – an “update” of a systematic review. Wien Klin Wochenschr 2003; 115:241-245.
    3. Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Gallup D, Blankenship JC, Cuffe M, Guarneri M et al. Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. Lancet 2005; 366:211-217.
    4. Cleland JA, Price DB, Lee AJ, Gerard S, Sharma A. A pragmatic, three-arm randomised controlled trial of spiritual healing for asthma in primary care. Brit J Gen Pract 2006; 56:444-449.
    5. Lyvers M, Barling N, Harding-Clark J. Effect of belief in “psychic healing” on self-reported pain in chronic pain sufferers. J Psychosom Res 2006; 60:59-91.
    6. Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W et al. Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. Am Heart J 2006; 151:934-942.
    7. Sicher F, Targ E, Moore D, Smith HS. A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS. Report of a small scale study. West J Med 1998; 169:365-363.
    8. Bronson P. A prayer before dying. Wired Magazine 2002;December.
    9. Solfvin J, Leskowitz E, Benor DJ. Questions concerning the work of Daniel P. Wirth. J Altern Complement Med 2005; 11:949-950.
    10. Solfvin J, Leskowitz E, Benor DJ. Questions concerning the scientific credibility of wound healing studies authored by Daniel P. Wirth. Online document, http://www.wholistichealingresearch.com/WirthQ.asp . 2006 ;accessed 8th February.
    11. Cha KY, Wirth DP, Lobo RA. Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization – embryo transfer? J Reproductive Medicine 2001; 46:781-787.
    12. Carey B. Can prayer heal? New York Times 2004;December 10th.
    13. Jaroff L. More questions on healing prayer. Time 2004;December 10th.
    14. Van Haselen R. Misconduct in CAM research: Does it occur? Compl Ther Med 2006; 14:89-90.
    15. Randi J. We Repeat. http://www.randi.org/jr/2006-01/010606netherlands.html. accessed 04/04/06. James Randi’s Swift 2006.

  4. cl says:

    LOL! Are you starting to see why I think your Holy Grail is rusted through and through??

  5. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> LOL! Are you starting to see why I think your Holy Grail is rusted through and through??

    Not really. Maybe if you specified exactly what your difficulty is with what I wrote? Just so I don’t misunderstand you. ;)

  6. cl says:

    I’ll just let you think about it for a while.

  7. bossmanham says:

    Heh, I love that term, “fundamaterialist.”

  8. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> I’ll just let you think about it for a while.

    Here’s what think you meant, and correct me if I am wrong.

    You presented a scientific study that claimed to demonstrate X. That study appears to contain possible methodological flaws that weakened the justification for X. Subsequent studies appear to have falsified X, and now X is highly unlikely to be true.

    The fact that finding the truth is hard and often involves blind alleyways that lead to a dead end is very frustrating. You would prefer a method that generated more true theories than false ones, and so would I. The problem is that there is no such method, and the best method we have is one that methodologically and rigorously rules out false theories in order to get closer to the truth. That necessarily requires more theories cast aside than remaining onboard, but that is the nature of human inquiry.

    If you object to this, then you object to human inquiry in general, because it all involves postulating a hypothesis, accumulating evidence in its favor, and seeking evidence to falsify it, and the more evidence accumulates, and the more attempts at falsification fail, the more likely the theory is true.

    Honestly, what else out there has given us more knowledge about how the world works than science? Using logic and brainpower just isn’t good enough, because that was used for centuries with minimal results in the sense of confirmed theories. There was lots of speculation and brilliant argumentation, but no consensus about anything. There were different schools of thought that had different theories of reality, but no way of deciding between them. The incredible explosion of knowledge over the past few centuries was directly due to the rigorous application of the scientific method. I don’t see how you can doubt that unless you (a) deny that there has been an explosion of human knowledge, or (b) admit that there has been such an explosion, but it was due to something other than science.

    If (a), then what did someone in the 10th century, say, know to be true that we have no idea is true? If (b), then what is this something else?

  9. dguller says:

    cl:

    And one more thing.

    Any comments about the Ernst article that I posted? It appears that he did a review of the scientific literature about distance healing in 2000, which actually turned out to show a positive effect, but when he revisited the issue in 2003, most studies showed a negative effect, and that there have been a few other studies since then that showed a negative effect.

    Remember, there is a good reason why a single study is never definitive, because it could be an anomaly, which we never would know unless other studies about the same subject were conducted. It is kind of like talking to a single person about X, and concluding something about people and X in general. That is foolish, because that person may not be representative. It would be like meeting one white person who is a criminal, and concluding that all white people are criminals. One would have to meet many white people and see if all of them are criminals, for example. Similarly, one must conduct many studies on a particular topic, and then perform a meta-analysis to see whether there is a genuine effect, or the alleged effect is due to chance and/or methodological artifacts.

    Applying this to the subject at hand, it appears that when many controlled studies on distance healing are looked at, the general conclusion is that it is ineffective, even though some individual studies show it to be effective. You cannot just prioritize those positive studies to the exclusion of the negative studies, because that would be like only including white people who are criminals and ignoring white people who are not criminals. That would be highly biased.

    Hope this helps shed some light on Dr. Ernst’s paper. I look forward to your remarks.

  10. cl says:

    By “article,” do you mean your comment May 8, 2011 at 7:15 AM? Are you drawing from any information NOT included in that comment? If so, I’ll need everything you’ve got.

  11. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> By “article,” do you mean your comment May 8, 2011 at 7:15 AM? Are you drawing from any information NOT included in that comment? If so, I’ll need everything you’ve got.

    Yeah, that’s the one.

  12. dguller says:

    cl:

    >> 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.

    I think that this is being a bit disingenuous. In general, when people say that there is no evidence for X, what they really mean is that there is no GOOD evidence for X. There is always evidence for false theories. Remember, they would never have been considered true by anyone unless there were some reasons to do so. Even a case report is considered evidence, and that is why it is in the evidence-based hierarchy at all, while daydreaming is not. However, it is at the lowest rung, along with expert opinion (in the absence of any formal studies), oddly enough, because it is so loaded with bias and confounding factors.

    So, I will happily agree that there is evidence for all paranormal phenomena. The questions are (a) what is the quality of the evidence, and (b) what does the totality of evidence show? With regards to (a), as I have said, if all that exists is 100’s of case reports affirming X, then I’m afraid that is not good evidence at all. With regards to (b), if there are 3 controlled studies showing not-X, but 100’s of case reports showing X, then the 3 controlled studies trump the case reports. And this is for the same reason that 3 DNA tests on seminal fluids confirming that John did not rape Sue trumps 100’s of witnesses claiming that John did rape Sue. And that is why typically when a researcher does a meta-analysis or systematic review, they will ignore case reports entirely, and prioritize the controlled studies for analysis.

  13. jim says:

    ” 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.”

    What was that nickname you said the cops gave you when you were younger? I believe it was ‘the lawyer’. Sumpin’ like that.

  14. jim says:

    “…it appears that when many controlled studies on distance healing are looked at, the general conclusion is that it is ineffective, even though some individual studies show it to be effective.”

    The apologist’s creed in a nutshell:

    We understand scientific methodology to be fraudulent, the result of a false religion called ‘Scientism’, EXCEPT when scientific methodology supports our claims. Then it’s ok. On the other hand, if the supporting results are countered/undermined by the larger body of scientific investigation, we reserve the right to cherrypick the stuff we like, and ignore the rest. Thus we can pile up a mountain of flawed research, label it ‘scientific confirmation’ then claim science supports our cause while at the same time condemning science as a flawed, discredited institution on the whole.

    All evidence of an anecdotal nature will be added to this mountain of evidence to our cause, and any contrarian explanations of the anecdotal evidence will be summarily disregarded up until the point that such evidence becomes overwhelming and starts making us look stupid. We reserve the right to then, reluctantly, acquiesce to the superior scientific evidence on a case by case basis as it is wrested from our grasp like a pacifier from a baby’s pudgy little hand, while at the same time remaining smug in our confidence that there will always be an ever-growing mountain of pacifiers at our ready disposal.

    At NO time shall we go down without a fight. After all, the warfare is mental(case)…(by case)…(by case)…(by case)…

  15. jim says:

    “Remember, there is a good reason why a single study is never definitive, because it could be an anomaly…”

    Remember, anomalous findings are the bread and butter of those looking to overturn contemporary scientific worldviews. Certainly, anomalies are interesting. Personally, I would like nothing better than to see some grand mystery raise its head and disrupt the modern scientific paradigm. Mysteries are the spice of the intellectual life, after all. And frankly, given the current evolutionary model vis-a-vis the context in which our sensory and mental apparati have come to be, our limitations are probably woefully inadequate in investigating the whole of our existence in its utmost detail.

    Unfortunately, apologists are far too eager to interpret all and everything as a justification for their inherited, pre-rational belief system to ever confront such mysteries in a reasonable and unbiased fashion. Will science dig in its heels in the face of something they can’t explain? Of course! At least, initially. After all, science is always working outwards from a base of supposedly established facts and theories. But eventually the very nature of scientific methodology will force them to come around. cl has offered a case study of something that MIGHT be strange. Others are saying “nah, not so strange, and here’s why…”. But science has the weight of methodological observation on its side, a history of observation that has become refined through the very method that cl disdains. What does cl have? A traditional bias based on tribal mythology extended and distorted through time, long discarded to the trash heap of outmoded ideas, with nothing to resurrect it but hope, anecdote and an anomalous result here and there that will probably turn out to be nothing in the end. His posts reek of desperation, as do his often disingenuous and, frankly, incoherent means. Then again, he simply reflects the state of modern apologetics. Besides the ever-changing moniker (hmmm…) it’s hard to tell one of these guys from the other anymore. God, how I yearn to see a fresh approach. Then again, sow’s ears and all. :)

  16. jim says:

    I’ll leave you to your gyrations now, cl. Frankly, this is all getting a bit too familiar for my tastes. If you ever manage to dig yourself out of the rhetorical rut you’re wallowing in, look me up.

    dguller:

    Once again, I commend you for your attempts at injecting some sanity here. I really admire your reasonable approach. If you ever decide to start your own blog, mail me at metamorphhh@hotmail.com and give me a head’s up, would you?

  17. jim says:

    A parting shot, just because it made me laugh:

    cl referring to dguller-

    “Lately, one of our resident skeptics has taken to taunting me:

    Taunting. TAUNTING! LOLOLOLOLOLOL! cl’s mindset in a nutshell…LITERALLY! It’s gotta make you giggle!

  18. jim says:

    Oh! OH! One more! (sorry, I can’t help myself):

    “One of the things that annoys me about humans is that many of us look for evidential loopholes to avoid unwelcome conclusions.”

    You’ve gotta wonder why his head doesn’t just go ahead and explode.

  19. dguller says:

    Jim:

    >> We understand scientific methodology to be fraudulent, the result of a false religion called ‘Scientism’, EXCEPT when scientific methodology supports our claims.

    That is a good point. The way that I look at science is that it is simply an extension of commonsense everyday inquiry by increased rigorousness of methodology, the extension of our senses with technology, and the precision of mathematics in the form of modeling. You cannot reject science without rejecting inquiry in general, because it is just a more refined and more powerful form of inquiry. And if you reject inquiry in general, then you have thrown out any limits or restrictions on our beliefs, which become essentially a free-for-all. After all, without any limits that describe what counts as a good reason to believe something, then people are free to believe anything they want, which would lead to massive confusion and error. It is like someone who rejects logic as a tool for discovering the truth. Without logic, one can demonstrate anything at all, and thus everything is permitted.

    So, either you accept science as reliable, and must abide by its findings, even if they mean the rejection of dearly-held beliefs, or you reject it as unreliable, and must also toss out inquiry in general, which will result in the most absurd relativism imaginable.

  20. jim says:

    “The way that I look at science is that it is simply an extension of commonsense everyday inquiry by increased rigorousness of methodology, the extension of our senses with technology, and the precision of mathematics in the form of modeling. You cannot reject science without rejecting inquiry in general, because it is just a more refined and more powerful form of inquiry.”

    Right on the fucking money! And that is absolutely IT from me for the time being…got to run. It’s been a pleasure, dguller.

  21. dguller says:

    Jim:

    I’ll let you know about that blog. Take care. :)

  22. chenje says:

    point to dguller you gotta start a blog man are u atheist or agnostic or what I am christian but impressed

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