HuffPo does it again

Mar 25 2009 Published by under Absurd medical claims, Medicine

Whatever you think of its political reporting, no other mainstream media outlet can bring the stupid like the Huffington Post, especially with regards to medical reporting. Its most famous contributors include antivaccinationists like David Kirby and Robert Kennedy, Jr., and kumbaya therapy wackaloon Deepak Chopra.
Now they bring us an article by some dude I've never heard of with a title that should have him laughed out of any legitimate scientific institution: "The Science of Distant Healing". This is one stupid article.
First of all, who the hell is this guy? According to his bio:

Dr. Srini Pillay is an internationally recognized executive coach, public speaker, psychiatrist, and brain imaging researcher who is focused on the fields of personal and organizational transformation. His aim is to help people and corporations achieve their dreams by drawing on his expertise that addresses the intersections of coaching, biology, psychology and spirituality.
Srini has also been a "brain-imaging researcher" for the past fifteen years. He has had numerous publications and has been nationally funded.

That's interesting. A well-published brain-imaging researcher?
(furiously PubMed-ing)
Hmmm...he has four publications indexed by PubMed, all of them on fMRI, a very limited technique shot through with horrid experimental designs, fantastic leaps of faith, and religious-like zeal from its supporters. We have had a number of discussions here lately about what a scientist is---he ain't it.
Googling him isn't that much more helpful---I get hits from HuffPo, and not much else. I did manage to verify that he is, in fact, a licensed psychiatrist.
So what about his article? It's drivel. First, he goes on and on about a study while failing to cite it. Finally, after being berated by his commenters, he named the citation: Dean Radin PhD et al. Compassionate Intention As a Therapeutic Intervention by Partners of Cancer Patients: Effects of Distant Intention on the Patients' Autonomic Nervous System, EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing. Volume 4, Issue 4, July 2008, Pages 235-243.
It should be enough to say that the study looked at galvanic skin response as a surrogate measure of "distance healing intention (DHI)". What is "DHI"? According to the study:

To avoid unnecessary religious connotations, the descriptive phrase distant healing intention (DHI) is sometimes used in the scientific and medical literature

And why should we fail to laugh them out of the room?

Science is beginning to reconcile with the concept of "spooky action at a distance" within fundamental physics, but so far the idea that nonlocal effects might also exist in living systems, and be pragmatically useful in some way, evokes as much contempt as it does serious interest.

While our physicist friends weep, let the rest of us remember that once you are working above the sub-atomic level, "spooky action at a distance" is irrelevant, but hey, there's no woo like quantum woo (and if you want to learn more, go see what a real physicist has to say).
Let me sum it up for you: HuffPo prints a piece by a supposed expert with inflated credentials who cites an article from an unknown pseudoscientific journal; the said article bases its hypotheses on a near-criminal misuse of physics to explain prayer, and uses measurements from glorified Scientology E-meters as their main outcome.
As long as HuffPo continues to host fake health writers, I will always have something to blog about.

18 responses so far

  • Dr Jim says:

    ...and I will have something to enjoy reading!
    The presentation of pseudoscience as legitimate science, with the aim of hoodwinking lay readers, is heinous, especially with regards health issues.
    Keep up the good work!

  • DrBadger says:

    I don't know too many brain scientists who are also executive coaches and public speakers... clearly something is not right.
    btw... fMRI has its flaws and has been misused to produce terrible studies (especially by psychiatrists), but I don't agree with your general dismissal of it (just because he uses it doesn't disqualify him as a scientist).

  • Toaster says:

    I once tried to blog the rage I felt after reading a Deepak Chopra article on HuffPo about "Diabolical Science", but I stopped when I found myself too angry to type coherently. I learned right then and there that HuffPo was not to be trusted regarding medicine or science as they continue to publish drivel by new age positive-thinking demagogues who understand less than they own.
    Still, good take-down. It's important to beat crap like that back into the corners where it belongs.
    OK, I just glanced through his column. Has he never heard of psychosomatic effects? Placebo?

  • eNeMeE says:

    "Science is beginning to reconcile with the concept of "spooky action at a distance" within fundamental physics, but so far the idea that nonlocal effects might also exist in living systems, and be pragmatically useful in some way, evokes as much contempt as it does serious interest."
    ...Yeah, I'll just go cry in a corner now.

  • Despard says:

    Massively agree with Dr. Badger. One of my (two) publications is an fMRI study. If used correctly and in well designed studies, fMRI can be really useful and interesting tool to find out how the brain works. I have plenty of friends who have all their publications in fMRI... because that's what their PhD was on, or that's the grant they're working on as a postdoc.
    Sweeping generalisations do nobody any good. Surely it's whether the papers themselves are decent rather than the tool being used that's the issue in any kind of criticism of someone's work?

  • PalMD says:

    I could have worded that part better...fMRI is limited and often overused, but interesting. Many of the studies are shoddy and overreaching, but many are not.

  • oderb says:

    you can continue to mock distance healing, with scorn and an utterly closed mind. All I know is that I've worked with a medical intuitive over the phone for two years, and each time - at least a half a dozen times - the intuitive diagnosed some pathology in my body with NO verbal prompting from me I went to my doctor and got confirmation either through scans, blood tests or physical examination that in fact I had exactly the condition that the intuitive picked up.
    The odds of that happening by chance are almost nil.
    So whatever the mechanism distance diagnosis if not healing is absolutely a real phenomena.
    I know the plural of anecdote is not data and I know that everyone reading this will be dismissive if not scornful.
    I expect someday that science will demonstrate the reality of action at a distance, and maybe you all will finally have some humility to acknowledge that there are forces out there that we don't understand and need to examine dispassionately.

  • PalMD says:

    It is the height of arrogance to think that you are in possession of some miraculous new treatment that no one else can seem to verify.
    It is not the skeptical who need humbling, it is the credulous.

  • Skeptico says:

    Great anecdote. Now would this “medical intuitive” like to apply for Randi’s $Million? He should win it with no trouble.

  • Blake Stacey says:

    Thanks for sending a link my way (I should probably do something about those blog posts languishing over at my old site, shouldn't I?).
    Seeing a quantum effect at a molecular scale would not be at all surprising; Linus Pauling explained chemical bonding using quantum principles back in the 1930s, a discovery which saturated the chemistry curriculum during World War II. The resonance effect in benzene ain't exactly news. Now, the idea of "entanglement" or "spooky action at a distance" between people . . .
    People who have seized onto quantum woo are what James Randi calls "unsinkable rubber ducks": they never give up, physics be damned. Homeopathy is totally ineffective in clinical trials? Well, the paradigm of double-blinded, randomized, controlled experiments is just insensitive to homeopathic remedies, because they operate by quantum entanglement. Quantum physics doesn't support that idea? Well, clearly you haven't heard of Weak Quantum Theory, an innovative extension of your stodgy old orthodoxy. "Weak" Quantum Theory is aptly named because it's incoherent drivel and jumbled-up jargon not even worthy of a bad Star Trek episode? Well, clearly you're being paid off by Big Pharma. . . .
    I wonder if we could scare the woo crowd away from quantum physics by pointing out that it was discovered by Males who were almost all White and are now Dead. Seriously, look at the names: de Broglie, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Born, Dirac, Sommerfeld, Einstein. A few Americans show up, mostly as experimentalists — Millikan, Compton — but they were pasty guys from the Midwest. Looking for the wisdom of the Orient? Well, a Japanese physicist, Hantaro Nagaoka, proposed a model of the atom which was superseded by the Bohr model and then by the correct quantum theory. (The next generation had Yukawa and Tomonaga, but we're talking about the pioneers of quantum mechanics itself here.) The only non-European I can think of who was centrally involved in working out the core theoretical developments was Satyendra Nath Bose, of "boson" and "Bose-Einstein condensation" fame.

  • Donna B. says:

    A medical intuitive... hahahaha! All that was missing was the physical exam and lab tests, right? I do this medical intuitive stuff all the time.
    And sometimes it's very long distance - my sis in Scotland tells me her symptoms and I suggest it could be such and such and that she should see her doctor. Guess what? I'm right about a lot of it.
    I foresee a new career here.... all I gotta do is talk to someone long enough and often enough to get "feel" for their problems and suggest they see a doctor and suddenly I'm a Medical Intuitive! I bet I could charge more and get more suckers if I called myself a Medical Psychic.
    It's not practicing medicine if I simply suggest the see a doctor and ask them questions is it?
    Dr. office: May I help you?
    Patient: Yes, I need to make an appointment
    Dr. office: Are you having a specific problem?
    Patient: Yes, my Medical Psychic told me I should get my cholesterol checked.
    Dr. office: perhaps we could refer you to a psychiatrist?

  • Denice Walter says:

    Even worse woo(and actually true):medical intuitives *for pets*!We have a friend who believes in all manner of nonsense- his girlfriend has a cat who is "isn't his usual self";vet finds nothing wrong;(I didn't have the heart to suggest Monty Python's "Confuse-a-Cat"method- but I digress);he takes the animal to a pet medical intuitive who diagnoses "stress" and prescribes some homeopathic formula.Cost:$100.

  • JamesR says:

    I think I have been banned at Huffpost. Yeah they didn't like me getting up in Deepaks nostrils about his pathetic effing woo. Not to mention the anti vacs nonsense. Damn It has been a year and I don't seem to be able to log on anymore.
    Too angry to make a coherent statement. That is me all over. I saw this on Tuesday I think on the front page and within hours it was no longer there. I checked again and had to go through the pages to find it again. The commenters are doing great. Yet Pillay seems to take the comments as if they were all aggresively aginst him and comments that the people must be angry etc.
    Blah Blah Blah. It is truly annoying. I would like to find the School which teaches this Science of Distant Healing. Maybe that is where I could take that course "Spooky Action At a Distance". I'm pretty sure the physics Dept would be teaching that one and I'll bet it requires some type of math that as yet has not been discovered
    Just remember. Stupid people are dangerous and can cause injury and death when used.

  • gillt says:

    After reading your post, I'm confident a lay reader would be under the false impression that fMRI is pseudoscience. Most fMRI manuscripts are technical papers. They may be boring and impenetrable to you, but that's not the same as shoddy.
    Great take-down of "distant whatev" though.

  • PalMD says:

    Once again, I apologize for my fMRI wording. The misuse of fMRI, like the misuse of many techniques, is especially common with woo-meisters, and this guy seems to be one of them. fMRI seems to attract woo-meisters who co-opt it for their own overgeneralizations.

  • Prometheus says:

    "Oderb" asserts:

    "I've worked with a medical intuitive over the phone for two years, and each time - at least a half a dozen times - the intuitive diagnosed some pathology in my body with NO verbal prompting from me."

    Let me see if I got this right. With no information from the "patient" about symptoms, complaints, etc., this "medical intuitive" was able to diagnose "pathology" that was later confirmed? Something like:
    [Medical Intuitive] "Hi, how are you doing?"
    [Oberb] "Fine."
    [MI] "I think you have hepatitis - go see your doctor."
    That would be amazing!
    Or was it a case of:
    [MI] "How are you doing?"
    [O] "Oh, not so well."
    [MI] "What's bothering you?"
    [O] "My stomach is upset and my eyes are turning yellow."
    [MI] "I think you have hepatitis - you better see your doctor."
    If the latter, the "medical intuitive" is doing nothing more amazing than what the average school nurse does every day.

  • Daro says:

    "The fish stinks from the head", as the Chinese say. Arianna Huffington is a die-hard Catholic. That branch of religion with saints, angels and miracles. She encourages this eye-rolling, ouji board behaviour.

  • BlindRobin says:

    Profiting from the placebo effect is as ancient as shamanism. It works for a few (mostly those with psychosomatic symptoms) but it is never the less a fraud as for every positive result there are multitudinous failures that are simply ignored.