Explainer: how anaedotal evidence about alternative medicine can lead you astray

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2016/07/19/explainer-how-anaedotal-evide.html


I’m not a scientist so I don’t have the training to find issues in different studies. So any help is appreciated.

Has somebody reviewed any of the reiki studies listed at the end of this article (http://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/reiki/what-does-research-say-about-reiki)? Are there fatal flaws in these studies?

I’ll be honest, this is the first time I’ve heard of Reiki and my WOO-meter just pegged out.

As the video said, the plural of anecdote is not data.


Did you try looking up any of them? From the abstract of the very first article listed:

"Results: Neither Reiki nor touch had any effect on pain or any of the secondary outcomes. All outcome measures were nearly identical among the 4 treatment groups during the course of the trial.

Conclusion: Neither Reiki nor touch improved the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Energy medicine modalities such as Reiki should be rigorously studied before being recommended to patients with chronic pain symptoms."

The website you cited is trying to do a whole lot of tap dancing to explain away why reiki actually does not work in properly designed studies, trying to say that it isn’t able to be studied because it’s holistic or something. Which is BS. If it has effects that are reliably helpful, then those effects can be studied. But it doesn’t.

Reiki is BS. The practitioners can’t even detect the magic energy field reiki is supposed to be based on - energy they claim to be actually not only to be able to detect but to manipulate, and not only to be able to manipulate, but to manipulate in ways that are always beneficial. Because magic. Meanwhile, in the real world, anything that is powerful enough to have an effect is powerful enough to have side effects, or cause harm if done incorrectly. Any alternative medicine that has no potential side effects and no potential harm likely has no potential effects and no potential benefits, either.

A 9 year old girl showed that energy medicine is BS years ago. And even to this day energy medicine practitioners from Reiki masters to Therapeutic Touch nurses have not crossed this simple barrier: being able to detect the energy field that they say they can detect and manipulate.


I think skeptics need to stop using that aphorism. It isn’t true. Multiple anecdotes are data, they just aren’t sound or reliable data. The phrase is an over simplification that, while handy, is also false.


So I started googling at some of the references as you suggested. The third one is found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18435597. The conclusion of that one is “Reiki is effective in modulating HR in stressed and unstressed rats, supporting its use as a stress-reducer in humans.”

Another of the cited references (http://brn.sagepub.com/content/13/4/376) says in the abstract “SDNN and body temperature were significantly higher after the Reiki treatment than after the placebo. LF was significantly lower after the Reiki treatment. The decrease in the LF domain was associated with the increase in body temperature. These results suggest that Reiki has an effect on the parasympathetic nervous system when applied to health care professionals with BS.”

How can I tell if those are valid or invalid studies? Is there a place to look at them without going through a paywall?

Well, here are some warning signs about the rat study: University of Arizona, Gary Schwartz and three rats.

You can not do a study on three rats and justify this conclusion:

“Reiki is effective in modulating HR in stressed and unstressed rats, supporting its use as a stress-reducer in humans.”

Hell, how does one even do “sham” reiki if reiki is a sham to begin with? Without even looking into the protocols of the study, though, 3 damn rats just isn’t a big enough sample.

BS practice gets BS study.


Damn, beat me to it.

Yeah the problem with these studies are that they all start out assuming the Null Hypothesis is false. Then when they generate that Null is False result, they attempt to use it as if it’s supporting evidence.


Try your library. I know my local library (http://www.sno-isle.org/) lets me sign up for a card, login and do academic paper searches with a lot of full text studies, for free and it takes about 15 minutes to get setup.

Seriously, local libraries are gold mines.


Yup, the studies are studying the positive effects of angels dancing on pinheads before proving that angels exist, and dance, and dance on pinheads, and creative positive effects by dancing on pinheads…


It’s the way with pseudo science.

They think that if they can say their modality “is beyond study”, or that if a study works without any groundwork, then the groundwork they conjectured to exist is proven as well. Because that totally makes sense, right?


Alt med is little kid medicine, like kids playing at treating each other with pretend cures - mud pies, hand waving, diagnosing with fake stethoscopes. Alt med is much the same, where full grown adults do make believe medicine, but claim vociferously that it’s all totally real, and get grouchy like kids when told otherwise.


Not really, because anecdotes are selected to support a viewpoint. Data is objective. At least that is how I was taught.


Data is just information. Data can be selected. That isn’t unique to anecdotes.


Not necessarily. The entire foundation of the science of pain management is subjective. But you wouldn’t call pain data collected from individuals bunkum.

Besides. Consider the uselessness of defining data to be objective. What does that mean? I have information about subjective assessments therefore I don’t have any data. I am collecting information objectively therefore I have data. Both these claims are inherently suspect. 24,000 people reporting that they can’t taste a certain flavor is better data than 24,000 scintillations using a counter that’s miscalibrated but used “objectively.”


The answer to your first question is too long for me.

But the answer to your second question is something everyone should know about: Sci-Hub.


The aphorism is taking it as implied that “data” is used to mean “scientific data”. And anecdotes aren’t scientific data.

The aphorism is thrown at non-scientists. If you mean “scientific data” say so - it isn’t “implied” to them. Instead, the aphorism is false as stated. That really isn’t a good way to start a conversation about how to communicate clearly about what is and isn’t scientific.

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It is used when people say e.g. “You can’t say smoking causes cancer; my parents and grandparents smoked and they were perfectly healthy all their lives”. It is very much implied by these people that their anecdotes are equal to actual scientific data and the point of the aphorism is that they aren’t.

Is the typo in the header on purpose? Can be fitting :wink:

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