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.

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