Wednesday, July 3, 2019

#2213: Richard Schiffman

The evidence is pretty clear that popular alternative treatments are, at best, no more effective than placebo, which means for instance that they have no detectable effect on the actual pathophysiology of disease, are (as placebos) variable, unreliable and weak, and that recommending them to patients requires deception. One common conclusion altmed defenders draw from the evidence (if they bother with evidence at all) is therefore that their favored treatments “show promise”, a phrase that to some extent has come to be equivalent to “show no promise”. Another common strategy, however, is to rebrand CAM as “harnessing the power of placebo”, e.g. to produce “powerful mind-body healing”, which sounds utterly silly to anyone with minimal understanding of placebo, but does indeed, well, show promise as a marketing technique.

Richard Schiffman is not, as far as we can tell, an altmed practitioner, but he is a journalist for the hive of quackery that is The Huffington Post and the author e.g. of the article “How the Placebo Effect Proves That God Exists”. Now, Schiffman has already decided that prayer and spirituality is correlated with better health, and that the “jury is out” regarding whether intercessory prayer works (it isn’t), but even if the healing powers of prayer don’t on its own establish the existence of God, surely the placebo effect does: “To my way of thinking, the very existence of this mysterious effect proves that God exists. That’s right, you can find evidence for the foundational truths taught by religion in virtually every double blind medical research study!” You really cannot, and Schiffman doesn’t consider the possibility that “my way of thinking” might be a weak link in the argument. Of course, Schiffman hastens to add that he isn’t making specific claims about specific gods: “But I am not saying that you and I in our egocentric and separate selves are God. It is rather the other way around – when we drop the elaborate pretense and disguise of being these limited and conditioned entities, we discover that we are not separate or apart from anything. We are part and parcel of all that exists.” I.e., by “God” he means the contents of a word salad tossed by a Deepak Chopra generator. How the placebo effect is supposed to support the existence of thisis not entirely clear but has something to do with (this and) mystics who proclaim themselves to be “one with God”. Well, ultimately the argument is that because Schiffman really doesn’t understand the placebo effect, science cannot explain it (they can), and there placebo effects are “miracles” leaving holes in any scientific explanations that Schiffman is free to fill with whatever he wants, and he predictably chooses something resembling the Secret.

And he really doesn’t get it; Schiffman for instance explicitly characterizes placebo responses as a sugar pill making a sick person healthy again (which then is “miraculous” and resists explanation). It would, of course, be good if it worked that way, but it really doesn’t. The placebo effect really is just a name for a rather complex set of phenomena, including experimental bias, observer effects, expectancy effects, and certain well-known artifacts of the clinical trial process. And most importantly, perhaps: placebo effects are commonly observed only for subjectiveoutcomes, and will not detectably affect the pathophysiology of any disease or condition. Life is hard, and invoking The Secretis really not going to make it any easier.

Diagnosis: Chopra-style word salad processor, quack apologist and amateur pseudoscientist. That Huffpo gives this kind of nonsense a platform is really a disgrace.

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