From the editors: Evidence and scepticism

There was a comment submitted recently that took issue with a note I put at the top of a recent article on Qigong. It fell foul of our comment moderation policy, so it wasn’t published on the site. (“When you leave a comment, please fill in the name field with your real name or initials.” The comment was left by “Joe Bloggs”, with a similarly fake email address. I have a good idea who left it.)

But I do think the points raised by Mr Bloggs are worth addressing, because they touch on a couple of the most important issues in journalism. Here’s the editor’s note:

Editor’s note — Complementary medicine, such as the technique discussed in this article, should be treated with extreme scepticism. The evidence to support such practices is often scant or non-existent. The Quackwatch website has said of Qigong: “[S]cientific investigators of Qigong masters in China have found no evidence of paranormal powers and some evidence of deception.”

And here’s the comment:

The Editor’s Note is a little out of order. Why should such therapies be treated with scepticism? Aren’t reporters supposed to be impartial?

Unless The Linc can prove that there is reason to believe these therapies DON’T work – but I mean, really, how reliable is Quackwatch as a source?!!

Reporters cannot be neutral or impartial in their reporting. Reporting involves selection of facts, of quotes, of an angle, of style, etc. Therefore, journalism can never be neutral or impartial. (When applied to power, “impartial” reporting favours established power and marginalises alternative and dissident views. Click here for a good explanation.)

The second part of the comment says that we should take people at their word. I have a real, breathing, galloping, magic pink unicorn in my garden.

Believe me? No. You’d want to see some evidence, and rightly so.

Students are taught how to “unlock their energy gates, and control their flow of chi around the body,” which can often become blocked due to stress. These blockages can lead to symptoms such as anxiety, difficulty sleeping and muscle or joint pain. (From the article.)

This paragraph in Jamie Hogue’s article doesn’t challenge what is being claimed by the practitioners. It accepts that there is such a thing called “chi” and that it can “become blocked due to stress”. It’s magic pink unicorn time again.

The need for evidence becomes even more serious when it comes to health. Some of these people may have serious health problems, and it does them no good to have someone telling them they can unblock their chi and everything will be fine.

People’s health and even lives are at risk. This is why new drugs and techniques used by real doctors go through rigorous testing, because the last thing you want to do is hurt someone. Evidence is needed to show what the effects will be on patients.

Qigong, and “complementary” and alternative medicine more generally, does not have that evidence to back up its claims. At best it’s a waste of time, and at worst it could lead to someone delaying proper treatment, or not seeking it at all. The consequences could be horrendous.

This is why I put the editor’s note at the top of the article. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t have been run. But that was not my call.

I linked to Quackwatch because they do excellent work in exposing fake treatments. My first port of call was Ben Goldacre’s, but he didn’t have anything specific to Qigong. Having something about what was discussed in the article was important, to emphasise that this thing right here, this thing talking about chi blockages, is likely to be a fraud.

2 Responses to From the editors: Evidence and scepticism

  1. Daniel West says:

    Practicing QiGong kills far fewer than modern medicines and techniques (the leading cause of death in the US is going to the hospital, look it up!). Scientific ‘testing’ doesn’t have the corner market on health. However, QiGong and other yogic like systems do promote healthy diet’s, stress free living, and physical movement which DOES have a clear and dramatic effect on one’s health.

    Science will never be able to positively prove the existence of Qi (a.k.a. Chi, Chee, Ki, Prana…). That’s the downfall of science, if you can’t touch it and or show the results, it isn’t a fact. Well, no one, with any science can prove the existence of self-awareness, consciousness. But everyone experiences it to be real. Science can speculate, but it has no facts, science can not locate nor quantify consciousness… As science exists today, it never will, science and experiential phenomenon as such that we are talking about, exist in two different domains of reality. To try and fit a square peg into a round whole, isn’t all that bright. To be able to test, measure and quantify something like Qi, we must accept a new model which is subjective in nature.

    I do not believe you have a pink unicorn, no. But you can definitely be shown how to experience things that science can not measure directly. These experiential systems deal with just that, experience. They work, and show results, in one’s experience. (isn’t that what counts, when we are talking about things like health, and pain?)

    If you’ve never set out, with integrity, to experience for yourself the truth of such thing, of course your going to be a skeptic. That is rational. But until science can show proof that it can explain topics like; Empathy at a distance, I’m a skeptic of science as being any form of all-knowing, all-proving system. Regardless of how much rationalists want to push science as a complete system, it’s not. Just because scientists say that it’s a complete system, doesn’t mean it is. That is simply their ‘belief’ system.

    Daniel West is a Qigong instructor.

  2. Marc Vincent says:

    That pesky ‘science’, eh? Requiring facts and evidence and preventing us from believing in whatever we like. We don’t need to be able to test ‘Qi’, because it, er, demonstrably doesn’t exist.

    I would like to introduce my new product line to believers in ‘Qi’ – ‘Snake Oil’. Snake Oil helps Qi to flow around the body’s channels, and thus makes one feel better. Of course, there is no scientific way to demonstrate this happening, which is one of the inadequacies of science – that it gets in the way of my profits. Some people suggest it’s just a placebo, but then what do they know?