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Reflexology Is A Science? So Says “The Citizen” (Auburn, NY)

Thursday July 23, 2009 81 comments

So I was browsing through “The Citizen,” the online local paper from Auburn, NY and stumbled upon an article about reflexology. You know, the “holistic,” alternative mode of treating basically any disease by rubbing your feet? Yeah, I was caught off guard, too.

According to this article, reflexology is a science. Oooh. Sounds scientific… until you get into what reflexology really is.

Reflexology (zone therapy) is an alternative medicine method involving the practice of massaging or applying pressure to parts of the feet, or sometimes the hands and ears, with the goal of encouraging a beneficial effect on other parts of the body, or to improve general health.

Improve general health? Wait a minute. That sounds pretty vague. I think I’ll need some more information before I buy into something like that.

The article says that…

It is a science because it is based on physiological and neurological studies…

Really? I’d be curious to read about those studies. Where will I find them? The New England Journal Of Medicine? The Journal Of The American Medical Association? A quick search on PubMed doesn’t reveal any studies concerning the efficacy of reflexology, or that even address the claims that reflexology makes. So much for that claim.

What I want to direct your attention to is the following statement from this article

…but the art of reflexology must not be confused with a basic foot massage. It is a pressure technique which works on precise reflex points of the feet. This is based on the premise that reflex areas on the feet correspond with all body parts.

Reflexology

Put simply, this whole “science” of reflexology is based on a false premise. There are no “reflex points” on the feet which correspond to any other body parts. This is simply New Age, woo woo, nonsense.

Dr. Stephen Barrett, M.D. points on in an article on QuackWatch that…

The pathways postulated by reflexologists have not been anatomically demonstrated; and it is safe to assume that they do not exist. Similar rationales are used employed by iridologists (who imagine that eye markings represent disease throughout the body) and auricular acupuncturists who “map” body organs on the ear (a homunculus in the fetal position). The methodology is similar in both of these; and some commentators consider pressing on “acupuncture points” on the ear or elsewhere to be forms of reflexology, but most people refer to that as acupressure (“acupuncture without needles). The Reflexology Research Web site displays charts for foot and hand reflexology. The fees I have seen advertised have ranged from $35 to $100 per session.

Strange. This supposed “science” has not been anatomically demonstrated. Not much of a science, if you ask me.

Now, the author of this article, Diane DelPiano gives a decent, although short, account of the history of reflexology. But, the article is altogether credulous of the claims made. She goes on to say that…

Reflexologist’s believe that granular accumulations of waste matter called uric acid crystals concentrate around reflex points. With training, you can feel these accumulations. The goal is to break these accumulations down to open the energy pathways and improve the blood flow to the reflex organs. It is also intended to open blocked nerve pathways and helps to flush toxins out of the body.

The good ol’ “toxin” gimmick. Nobody wants toxins in their body. But, what toxins? You’ll never hear a reflexology, or any New Age, alternative medicine practitioner mention specific toxins. Just the general term. Even the term “uric acid crystals” is bunk. Here’s some information about uric acid from a Wikipedia article on the subject.

In humans and higher primates, uric acid is the final oxidation (breakdown) product of purine metabolism and is excreted in urine. In most other mammals, the enzyme uricase further oxidizes uric acid to allantoin.[2] The loss of uricase in higher primates parallels the similar loss of the ability to synthesize ascorbic acid.[3] Both uric acid and ascorbic acid are strong reducing agents (electron donors) and potent antioxidants. In humans, over half the antioxidant capacity of blood plasma comes from uric acid.

Don’t alternative medicine practitioners go on and on about how important antioxidants are? This is simply an example of stupid. Or FAIL, if that’s your favorite pejorative term. Not only is uric acid not a toxin, but it’s also necessary for the human body.

The stupid!! It hurts!!

There are no toxins in your feet, or anywhere else in your body. The kidneys, the liver… they’re purpose is to remove those things automatically. And how much more natural can you get than that?

I found an interesting quote from a blogger on the Fighting Spurious Complementary & Alternative Medicine (SCAM) blog that speaks well to the “detox” myth.

Detoxification is a common feature of alternative medicine, but I have yet to find anyone who can name the toxins that need to be removed from the body or explain how each treatment will remove these toxins.

If toxins accumulated in the body as is now suggested by practitioners of “natural medicine” then the human race would have died out centuries ago. There were no detox diets for the knights of the middle ages.

Before this post gets to be too long, I’ll just finish with addressing the final part of this article which deals with the “benefits” of reflexology.

Further benefits of reflexology include: relaxation and stress reduction, improved circulation and oxygenation, improved lymphatic flow and stimulation of the immune system. Additionally, by stimulating the immune system, reflexology helps the body take up more nutrients and helps to revitalize and energize the body.

While these seem to be evidence of an effective modality, a close look reveals something quite different. It’s relaxing. It “improves” circulation and oxygenation, “improved” lymphatic flow, and it “stimulates the immune system.” These claims are so vague and general that you couldn’t even begin to test them. What does “improved lymphatic flow” even mean, in a medical sense? How specifically does it “stimulate” the immune system? Does it inject foreign bodies for it to attack, similar to how immunizations work?

No, there is no mechanism. It’s just New Age, magical energy nonsense. The reason for such vague and non-specific claims is, as I said before, to avoid lawsuits for false medical claims. Reflexology is nothing more than a massage.

But don’t take my word for it. The next time you see your podiatrist, ask him about “energy flow,” “toxins” and “reflex points.” I bet you’ll get a little chuckle before he tells you that alternative medicine is dangerous to your health, simply for the fact that it doesn’t actually do anything.

If you’ve got something seriously wrong with you, and you go see a “naturopath,” or an alternative medicine practitioner before you see a real doctor, you could end up seriously injured, or dead. Just take a look at WhatsTheHarm.net. You can read all about people who have suffered (or died) at the hands of those practicing “alternative medicine.”

It’s not just a “different kind of medicine.” It’s wrong.

Again, here is the link to the article in question.

Dr. Larry Dossey’s “Premonitions,” Or An Exercise In Statistical Ignorance

Tuesday July 7, 2009 3 comments

Introduction

I’d never heard of Dr. Larry Dossey before Steve Gibson of the Truth-Driven Thinking podcast Tweeted about him, wondering if there were any skeptical viewpoints on his work. But a quick perusing of Dr. Dossey’s site provided enough woo for a week and a half, at least. Here’s just a little taste of what I’m talking about…

An education steeped in traditional Western medicine did not prepare Dr. Dossey for patients who were blessed with “miracle cures,” remissions that clinical medicine could not explain. “Almost all physicians possess a lavish list of strange happenings unexplainable by normal science,” says Dr. Dossey. A tally of these events would demonstrate, I am convinced, that medical science not only has not had the last word, it has hardly had the first word on how the world works, especially when the mind is involved.”

I could dive right in and point out logical fallacies, such as assuming that a remission which “clinical medicine could not explain” has to be the result of something “supernatural.” This is a classic example of the argument from ignorance. We don’t know the cause of something, therefore it must be supernatural.

But that point aside, I’ve found that there really aren’t any skeptical points of view offered countering Dr. Dossey’s arguments. So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to take this subject on.

Who Is Dr. Larry Dossey?

For a little more info on Dossey’s work with “premonitions,” here’s an interview with him about his book, “The Power of Premonitions: How Knowing the Future Can Shape Our Lives.” (Expect a blog entry on this interview. It’s too good to pass up.)

Here is an excerpt from the aforementioned interview…

Why did you write this book?

I actually tried not to write it. I largely ignored this stuff for years, but this didn’t work very well. My own experiences of premonitions grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

During my first year in medical practice as an internist, I had a dream premonition that shook me up and made me realize the world worked differently than I had been taught.

This doesn’t exactly line up with his history. In a New York Times article about him, it says…

Dr. Dossey’s own relationship with religion is a complicated one. He had a fervent fundamentalist childhood in a farming community near Waco, Texas. As a teen-ager he played gospel piano in the one-room church, toured with a fiery revival preacher and planned to enter the ministry.

He was obviously very steeped in religion, and this way that “the world worked” is exactly what he was taught as a young man, and it seems that these religious views have had a tremendous impact on his scientific mode of thinking.

You could say it tainted his perception or implementation of the scientific method. Let’s explore further.

Before we get into specifics of Dr. Dossey’s claims, let’s take a look at his scientific credibility. Essentially, what one looks for in a credentialed scientist are publications in peer reviewed journals. Journals highly respected in the scientific community for their rigor and high standards of proof. It is also important that data being presented by the author of a study be replicable by anyone interested in furthering research in the field of study.

A PubMed search on Dr. Larry Dossey reveals that he is published entirely in 2 journals: Explore, and Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine.

The first thing to note about these two journals is that they are entirely dedicated to Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). And what’s the harm in that? None of these so-called “alternative” therapies have been shown to work! These journals are not scientifically based. They have a low standard of proof. Essentially, if what you write agrees with their worldview, you get published.

Not only this, but take a look at some of the titles of Dr. Dossey’s articles published in these journals (no abstracts available for these):

  • Listerine’s Long Shadow: Disease Mongering And The Selling Of Sickness
  • Transplants, Cellular Memory, And Reincarnation
  • Premonitions

These seem to be either (a) conspiracy theories, or (b) religious or supernatural in nature. There doesn’t seem to be anything based on science, medicine or evidence here. And so it seems with all of his articles. But it would be hard to say for certain, as there are no abstracts available.

Let’s go on to a further, reinforcing point in this regard. If you visit Dr. Dossey’s “Biography” page and you scroll down a little bit, you find that he is the current Executive Editor of the very same Explore journal that he is published in. Not only that, but he was also the Executive Editor of the very same Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine journal from 1995-2003.

There seems to be a conflict of interest here. How convenient that he’s published many times over in journals that he is, or was, the Executive Editor of. Not only that, but these are the only journals he is published in. No publications in Nature, The New England Journal Of Medicine, no publications in The Journal Of The American Medical Association (JAMA)? You know, those reputable journals that actually employ peer review?

This is a major red flag. Only being published in journals that you’re responsible for editing. Not good.

Premonitions, Or Statistical Certainties?

Let us get to Dr. Dossey’s claims.

The first premonition he speaks about in his interview is a young woman having a dream in which a chandelier above her child’s crib falls and crushes the baby at 4:35am, during a thunderstorm.

He claims that the woman wakes up from this dream (premonition) and takes the child out of the room for fear of what she dreamt about. Soon after, she’s awakened again by the sound of the chandelier crashing into the crib, and the clock reads 4:35am.

With this story, Dr. Dossey reasons that this is absolute proof of what he refers to as a “premonition.” But, let’s be honest. There’s hardly enough evidence here to say anything for certain.

Let’s take skeptical look at what’s going on here. And, for some help with this, I direct your attention to an interesting article dealing with this very type of phenomenon from About.com.

Essentially, what is at work here is the Law Of Large Numbers (LLN). Dr. Dossey is looking at this “premonition” from a short-sighted frame of mind. A vista, if you will, lined with superstitions, bad logic and faulty reasoning.

Yes, if we were to simply look at this one story of a woman awakened in the night by a dream, only to have the very same thing happen only a short time later, this would seem remarkable. But Dr. Dossey has, intentionally or not, ignored the number of people sleeping on that particular night, as night proceeded across the entire planet over that 24 hour period. Billions of people.

From this perspective, the probability that someone would dream about something that eventually happens, even if it were 1 in 1,000,000, would happen hundreds of times over the course of that one night, to people all over the globe!! It’s a statistical certainty! This is not even taking into account the 365 nights of the year that those possible billions of people could have something like this happen.

Conclusion

For all of the stress that Dr. Dossey puts on the importance of these “premonitions;” for all the emphasis on these seemingly remarkable, astounding occurrences, I think he fails to take into account an even more remarkable possibility – namely that something like this would never happen!

Consider the billions of people all over the world. For one of them to think of something, and have it happen at a  later time. It really isn’t that remarkable. In fact, it is guaranteed to happen. It would be a miracle if it didn’t happen!

And, to Dr. Dossey’s dismay, it doesn’t require any supernatural force to make it happen. That’s just the way the ball bounces. It’s statistics. Take this example from the aforementioned About.com article…

…For example, if we flipped five coins at once, the probability of getting five heads is 1/32, or about .03. But if we repeated the flipping of five coins ten times, the probability of getting five heads somewhere in the ten tests is about .27. If we ran 100 tests, the probability of five heads rises to .96, which is highly probable indeed. [a probability of 1.0 is a certainty] But if we stopped anywhere in these 100 tests and asked what the probability would be of getting five heads on the very next trial, we are back to the starting probability of .03 because we have switched from a long-run question to a short-run question.

So yes, the odds of something like this happening to one particular person are astronomically small. BUT, we aren’t considering one person. We have to consider everyone on the planet. And that’s how we go from astronomically small odds to absolute certainty that these “premonitions” (coincidences) will happen.

And that’s why I entitled this post “An Exercise In Statistical Ignorance.” Dr. Dossey is simply ignorant of how statistics work. But, we all are. It’s part of being human. We don’t understand everything. We have weaknesses.

It is of utmost importance for us to try to understand those weaknesses, and to try to overcome them. It’s what being a Skeptic is all about. Now, what’s happened here is that in the face of these weaknesses, Dr. Dossey has ascribed supernatural causes to what are merely statistical certainties.

I hope this post was informative and helpful.