Saturday, March 29, 2008

Holy placebo (and snake oil)

In his March 20 2008 article "Reflections on healing, faith, funds, Fr. Suarez" Fr. Virgilio Aderiano Abad Ojoy, theologian and professor at the University of Santo Tomas, tells us that for healing by the Catholic Church and its priests to be effective "faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior of humankind is a conditio sine qua non, a requirement without which no healing could ever take place." And that faith need not be of the sick. His loved ones or the community's faith would be sufficient to effect healing.

As a professor in a school that teaches medicine, Ojoy may have heard of the placebo effect which, as doctors are well aware of, is dependent upon the patient's belief in the effectiveness of the treatment and in the expectation of cure. A placebo is any intervention which, unbeknownst to the patient, has no therapeutic value. A placebo may be a lactose pill, or flavored sugar syrup, or even sham surgery. The placebo effect is not a cure much less a cure-all. It is merely the body's chemical response resulting in a transitory sense of well-being including a reduction in pain. This felt effect is isn't surprising because the substances released into the body are related to opiates.

When drugs and various treatments are tested to determine their efficacy they are deemed effective only if they perform better than placebos. Now to make therapeutic claims for something that works no better than a placebo borders on deception. On the other hand, to simply believe that something can cure when clinical studies have yet to be performed to determine efficacy is to subscribe to a delusion--one is merely hoping that it works; one cannot claim that it works or worked.

It thus behooves us to ask whether "faith healing" is really effective. Is faith yet another placebo? Fr. Ojoy provides us a number of anecdotes to show that faith healing does work. But stories and even testimonials are never accepted as evidence in the assessment of therapeutic efficacy. Worse, what Ojoy provides are stories dating to a pre-scientific society, stories which not even biblical scholars can say with confidence were in fact historical to begin with. Quite conspicuously, Ojoy provides no case studies from our time, cases which can be examined and investigated by medical experts to rule out hoax and trickery, misdiagnosis, spontaneous remission, natural regression, cure via medical treatment(s) the patient had received, and a host of other mundane explanations.

In search of evidence, Ojoy might point us to the officially declared miracles by the Church. May we then remind this theologian of the Budd-Chiari embarrassment in the 1960s, in which the miracle turned out not to be so. As with all declared miracles it was considered so on the basis of current lack of scientific understanding of the nature of the phenomenon, of the disease and its course. But the Church knows very well that while it can declare miracles it cannot claim to be certain they are indeed miracles. The Church merely relies on science and medicine's current inability to explain a cure. But then our knowledge of the human body and the nature of disease is progressive in nature. As research continues our understanding grows. What boggles the minds of Einsteins today may be no more mysterious and inexplicable to high school students generations hence than lightning is to us today. Even the Vatican confesses this to be so.

What Ojoy is asking us to do is to take it on faith that the biblical stories he cites are historical and accurate. He's asking us to take it on faith that faith is necessary to be miraculously cured. He is asking us to take it on faith that the afflicted need not himself have faith but that the faith of those around him suffices to cause healing. That's a lot of "faith-ing" in there. But rather than resigning ourselves to mere hoping and believing, wouldn't it be much better to put faith healing to the test and find out whether it's any better than placebos? And if it isn't wouldn't it be the ethical duty of the Church and faith healers like Fernando Suarez to desist from making therapeutic claims?

Fr. Ojoy will probably remind us that faith alone is insufficient. That God is also part of the equation, that it is God's choice to conjure a miracle or not. And that if we are foolish enough to test the claims of faith healing and find to our chagrin that no healings had taken place then this only means either that people had insufficient faith or that God had chosen not to heal. As a theologian I'm sure Ojoy knows that to embark on such a line of reasoning would make his claim nonfalsifiable. In other words, he would've covered all his bases such that even negative results cannot refute it, not least because his ad hoc explanations can never be tested. Hopefully, he won't drag us into that dark pit where speculation rather than edification reigns.

Ojoy considers faith a panacea, a cure-all, Deo concedente (God willing). But, pray tell, Fr. Ojoy, why is it that God, faith, and prayers have never ever restored a lost limb?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Another ending

The end of the world ... again.
The group follows no Bible. It doesn’t even have a name. The followers of "Pagtulun-an sa Dios Amahan", a name outsiders have called them, only rely on the word of God, which is delivered to one of their members. For those who follow the Pagtulun-an sa Dios Amahan, the word is delivered by Jessica Sayson, who inherited it from the founder, Billy Robusto. Since Robusto, a faith healer, died of an illness, many thought his wife Leonora would take over the group. Instead, they said, his powers were transferred to Jessica, Leonora’s sister. Jessica said they had to stay inside the house because God the Father was about to pass judgment on the living and the dead.... “A few hours from now, judgment will be rendered. We don’t want to leave because there is evil outside,” Jessica explained in a voice that, to her mother Milagros Pasaje, did not sound like her own.... Jessica had alleged that God the Father would cleanse the earth of all evil and will send a catastrophe.

The world did end for Jessica and her followers. But not the way they envisioned it at all. Because children had been among those inside and because authorities feared a mass suicide, cops were ordered to raid the house and take the children. As it turned out Jessica and the other adults were arrested. What a catastrophe indeed for Jessica and her cult.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tell me this isn't grave negligence

Another child dies because of religion, because of belief in the supernatural, because of faith in the supposed incredible/unlimited power of prayer.
An 11-year-old girl died after her parents prayed for healing rather than seek medical help for a treatable form of diabetes, police said Tuesday. Everest Metro Police Chief Dan Vergin said Madeline Neumann died Sunday. "She got sicker and sicker until she was dead," he said. Vergin said an autopsy determined the girl died from diabetic ketoacidosis, an ailment that left her with too little insulin in her body, and she had probably been ill for about 30 days, suffering symptoms like nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness. The girl's parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, attributed the death to "apparently they didn't have enough faith," the police chief said. They believed the key to healing "was it was better to keep praying. Call more people to help pray," he said. The mother believes the girl could still be resurrected, the police chief said.... The family does not attend an organized church or participate in an organized religion, Vergin said. "They have a little Bible study of a few people."

Here are some excuses you'll hear from believers:

- It was Madeline's time and God took her home. She's now having a grand time in the Pearly Playground with other kids that God had taken out.
- As her parents claim, they did not have enough faith. Apparently their faith didn't quite reach the size of a mustard seed.
- It was Madeline who didn't have enough faith, or she didn't believe at all (which means she's now on her way to Jurassic Park).
- There weren't enough who prayed. You see God's not only judge, jury, and executioner, he's also a compulsive bean counter. The numbers must be right, or prayers land on deaf ears.
- The Neumanns weren't part of the Lutheran/Baptist/Catholic/Landover/Vodoo/.... church and so their entreaties were null and void
- The devil meddled and the healing was thwarted. Perhaps The Evil One was able to jam the parents' mental transmissions and so God failed to receive the text messages.

The one thing religionists will not admit, will not accept is the simplest hypothesis: that prayer does not work. It doesn't matter a whit that scientific studies have refuted the claim that intercessory prayer is efficacious. Since religionists firmly believe in prayer and is part of their core belief, this belief trumps any and all disconfirming evidence. Their faith in the power of prayer must win over their commonsense and critical faculties, else their worldview crumbles, their hopes are dashed, and they experience a psychological death of sorts. Vis-a-vis prayer, cognitive dissonance leads to a myriad rationalizations and ad hoc explanations, practically never an admission that belief in prayer is a delusion.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why does Michael Tan say faith healing works?

[I sent a copy of the following to the Inquirer but doubt it was published]

In his March 14, 2008 article "Faith Healers" Michael Tan wrote:
When I’m asked if faith healing works, I wear my anthropological hat and say, “The question shouldn’t be, ‘Does faith healing work?’ but ‘Why and how does faith healing work?”’ My view is that faith healing works, not all the time, certainly, but the same thing can be said of “modern” medicine. I still feel you stand a better chance with modern medicine, but some “faith” can be useful, whether in supernatural beings that are invoked, or in the healer—or even in the processes and procedures. One psychic surgeon I interviewed many years ago said he really didn’t need to do all those bloody procedures, but the “drama” helped to validate his power to heal. The same can be said today about the doctor’s white coat, and the pills and the fancy, gleaming diagnostic tools and machines.

When Tan claims faith healing (FH) works does he mean it can cure diseases such as diabetes, cancer, atherosclerosis, hepatitis, Down syndrome, schizophrenia, etc.? Should this be his contention would he please share the scientific evidence that show the therapeutic efficacy of FH?

As a scientist (I presuming he's an anthropologist by training), I'm confident he knows that there is little question in the medical field that the placebo effect kicks in in a substantial number of individuals who believe in the treatment modality they're receiving or opting for and who expect it to be effective, whether that treatment be pills with active ingredients, pills without any active ingredient (unbeknownst to the patient of course), acupuncture, homeopathy, magnet therapy, chelation therapy for vascular disease, mammary artery ligation for angina pectoris, ..., or faith healing. Of course we know the placebo effect does not cure disease; it merely leads to a reduction in people's assessment of pain and an increase in their sense of well being. It's also transitory. As far as we know the placebo effect has its basis in the body's release of endogenous opioids such as endorphins. I think Tan very much alludes to the placebo effect in the above quote when he speaks of faith (belief or confidence) in the supernatural as well as in men and women in white lab coats with a stethoscope slung around their neck.

When a new treatment modality is offered or arrives in the marketplace of touted cures, one question investigators pose is: Does treatment X work better than a placebo? Thus, one question I dearly wish answered is, Is FH more than just a placebo? For that we'd need randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies, which of course is much much easier said than done. A sham faith healing that's double-blinded is hardly a study that's easily designed.

Physicians know that a good number of conditions resolve themselves on their own even in the absence of intervention such that it is easy to mistake an initiated intervention as having caused the illness to go away. Moreover, even serious conditions such a cancer can undergo natural/spontaneous regression or remission. And then there are chronic conditions in which the severity of symptoms can vary widely over time (e.g. arthritis and multiple sclerosis), whereby the patient feels fine for, say, several weeks or months but then deteriorates for some time, only to have a run of good days once more thereafter. Should any treatment commence before the remission or the good days of the patient, we could easily be fooled into believing that the treatment had caused the improvement. In short there are many phenomena that can confound the situation, thwarting our objective to determine whether FH is efficacious. We can easily be misled by the above factors (and then some) in perceiving causality where there is none.

As Tan rightly tacitly recommends, psychic surgery should be approached with skepticism, not least because it's been exposed as a scam (for a detailed look see The Faith Healers by James Randi where he provides insight into the legerdemain they employ). I think we should extend this skepticism to all faith healing claims, not least because of the existence of confuting evidence. For instance, in Randi's work he exposes the various tricks that faith healers have used, including the "shotgun method" employed by Pat Robertson and Kathryn Kuhlman, outright deception through the use of concealed electronic transmitters/receivers in the case of Peter Popoff and through illusions in the case of W. V. Grant. Barring trickery, it's also quite possible that those who believe they have supernatural powers of healing are simply delusional--as was probably the case with Catholic priest Ralph de Orio. The best evidence, however, come when we can actually investigate the claimed healings, i.e., when we can check the patients before and after the FH. As one example of such a study, the claims of Benny Hinn, a famous faith healer who's had a healing crusade or two in the Philippines, was investigated in 2001. To cut to the chase, the researchers found no evidence of (supernatural) healing. Furthermore, since prayer is intimately related to FH, the best scientific study on prayer thus far conducted shows that they don't work.

Some may argue that miracle cures have been declared, particularly by the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, being declared a miracle such doesn't mean it is one. Even the Vatican's Rev. Peter Gumpel admits that, "What seems like a miracle now may not be one in a hundred years. Such are the advances of science. Declarations of miracles are not infallible teachings." In the Church's determination of whether a miracle healing has occurred, a team of medical experts are called upon to investigate. Should they be stumped as to how the person was cured, the Church then declares the cause to be supernatural. Such a conclusion, however, is not warranted. In fact it is a fallacy to do so. Mere ignorance of the cause or explanation cannot logically lead to the conclusion that our pet theory (whatever it may be) is the right one. That ages ago humans did not know the nature and cause of lightning and earthquakes did not mean they were supernatural.

Lastly, besides the placebo effect--which can be elicited by all types of medical intervention, efficacious or not--there is no known mechanism by which people can be cured of diseases via prayers or laying of the hands or what have you. Given our understanding of the nature of infection and diseases, biology, physiology, anatomy, physics, it is an incredible leap of speculation to believe in the efficacy of shamanistic practices as faith healing.

Tan says that when asked whether FH works he believes the the proper question is: Why and how does faith healing work? I'm certainly all ears as to his answer and slew of evidence.


April 1, 2008 Update

It's been more than a week since I emailed Michael Tan (his address is available at the end of his article). In it I requested him to respond since I sincerely am interested as to what he's alluding to when he says that faith healing works. Given he's an anthropologist I hold him to a higher standard than your garden variety believer. When a scientist makes a claim, particularly with something as extraordinary as this, I presume he's responsible enough to have evidence to it back it up with. Unfortunately, Tan has refused to produce such evidence or even make any clarification. I therefore have to conclude his claim has no foundation at all.

As implied by his statement, he's held this unsupported belief for some time. As to how long he's been under the spell of this delusion, we can only guess.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

666 + 2

Mark your calendars folks. June 6, 2008 will be a red letter day. That is, if we are to believe a Frenchman who goes by the name of Antoll Ma. On that auspicious date extraterrestrials will be arriving and will be seen in Dromon, a region somewhere in southeast France.

According to Antoll his first encounter with the extraterrestrials was on June 6, 1975 when he was 24 years old. He saw an orange ball of light in the sky. Soon thereafter he was able to talk to (or with) the occupants of what I presume to be the spacecraft. If his claim is that he talked to the aliens, I'd like to know whether they talked back. If they didn't I'd say he might as well have talked to Allah or Yahweh or Apollo. On the other hand, if he did hear voices, he'd better have had made a recording or shrinks would want to see him in their office.

I got to know of Antoll after stumbling upon one of his videos in a discussion board. Antoll has been quite busy promoting that video all over the Net, posting a link to it in a smorgasboard of discussions forums (try googling "extraterrestrial world contact June 6th"). In the video, he talks about the Dromon event. However, for that to happen Antoll says he needs our support--our presence, our belief, wish, etc. That drew a guffaw from me. He's got an out right there--if nothing happens on June 6, if no spaceship or little/giant green humanoids show up, then Antoll can blame it on a lack of numbers, lack of faith, or whatever it is he says is a prerequisite.

Early on in the video he claims that the aliens come every 6th of June. I'm just wondering why, given his cinematographic skills, he hasn't gone to the site on June 6 and filmed the orange light, spacecraft, and/or its passengers. Wouldn't that be far more convincing than just giving us a scenic tour of France and telling us his tale? Among the various ad hocs he can use to explain this away are: ETs are camera shy. Or perhaps photographic equipment suddenly malfunction in their presence. Or they only appear in Antoll's mind via telepathy. Or the idea has just never ever crossed his mind. (Having a slow Internet connection, I didn't bother checking his other videos where he might have actual photographic and other types of evidence.)

In his June 24, 2007 entry, Antoll posted what he claims to be a page from the magazine Le Nouveau Détective. The first line, "'Je suis Antoll Ma, le futur maître du monde,'" piqued my curiosity since I wanted to know what "future ___ of the the world" he was claiming to be. I ran "maître" through the Babel Fish translator and discovered Antoll to be suffering from delusions of grandeur. In earlier blog entries he had mentioned and talked about "masters of the world." Perhaps after years of intense deliberation Antoll finally found who the grand master is. I'm surprised he didn't make the connection earlier since he blatantly tells us in a 2004 entry that "Antoll Ma" is a name like that of Jesus Christ.

Come June 6 we just might just see Antoll and his "Ma-ians" gathered in Theopolis, the "land of the Apocalypse" (which must be that mountaintop in Dromon). May I suggest they do so in 2012 instead when the Mayan calendar supposedly abruptly ends. Antoll believes in Jung's synchronicity so I'm sure he'll be ecstatic about this wondrous homonymic discovery I've made. (Maybe in appreciation he'll make me one of the masters. Well, if so, I sure hope the ETs speak English.)

Nanu nanu.