Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Blue Sky Nonsense: reviewing “Blue Sky God: The Evolution of Science and Christianity” pt. 1: Epigenetics, Healing and Prayer

Blue Sky God: The Evolution of Science and Christianity by Don MacGregor (book sources)

“Epigenetics” is the new “quantum”.
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Biology and Energy Fields

If you ask an actual biologist about what “fascinating new insights” there have been in the field recently, you'll likely get a long and varied list; but one thing that won't be on it is “energy fields”. MacGregor, though, has swallowed the pseudoscience hook, line and sinker:

Certain areas of scientific exploration are beginning to draw conclusions about energy that biological science is only just beginning to take on board. Each of us emits energy at a certain wavelength, and different parts of our body emit different levels of energy. It has been shown that healthy tissue emits energy differently from diseased tissue. When you go for an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan, it is this energy that these machines pick up.

No. Just... no.

Of course we emit energy; everything emits energy based on its temperature. Some chemical reactions emit light directly. The body makes use of electrical potentials to regulate movement of ions; this movement generates tiny magnetic fields. Hence we have EEGs and EKGs to detect stray electric currents caused by the actions of the brain and heart; the magnetic fields are too weak to detect except in buildings massively shielded to exclude the Earth's magnetic field.

But none of this is anything whatsoever to do with MRI. MRI does not “detect” any existing energy field; it imposes very strong fields on the body in order to measure the effects. In brief, a hugely powerful magnetic field is applied which has the effect of aligning the spin axes of certain atomic nuclei (very notably hydrogen, but neither carbon-12 nor oxygen-16). A further magnetic or electromagnetic field can then flip the orientation of nuclei from parallel to the field to anti-parallel; then when the nuclei flip back—which takes a characteristic time—they emit photons at radio frequencies. The technique is hugely flexible, since the parameters can be adjusted in many different ways to detect not only different nuclei, but also nuclei in different chemical bonding environments (i.e. what other atoms they are bonded to). Thus, since tissues differ in details of chemical composition (whether in obvious ways like proportion of water, or more subtle ones), and healthy and damaged tissues usually also differ, detailed 3-dimensional images showing contrasts become a valuable diagnostic tool.

This really shows up how completely misled by his sources MacGregor has allowed himself to become. Even the most basic description of the physics of nuclear magnetic resonance makes it clear that this is nothing like “energy fields” being measured.

The nonsense in this case is coming from one Bruce Lipton, well known in the field of medical crankery.

Aaaaand we're back to parapsych again with experiments by Braud and Schlitz (this is the same Schlitz as the staring experiments mentioned in The Control Group Is Out Of Control). Incidentally, Braud died of cancer a few years ago at the age of about 70, which obviously is a perfectly normal thing to have happen but does maybe suggest that researching the ins and outs of the effects or lack thereof of conscious intention on the physical world mysteriously fails to yield significant tangible results regarding personal health.

(Braud has advocated a view of research that could almost have been designed as the complete opposite to Feynman's famous quotation: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool”.)

At least this time MacGregor cites Braud and Schlitz rather than just McTaggart, but it's clear that he's simply mentioning the studies that McTaggart chose to use and using her opinion of them. The actual studies are very much the same kind of thing as the staring experiments mentioned in The Control Group Is Out Of Control—a bunch of variations on a theme of “one person tries to influence another person's galvanic skin response from another room some distance away”.

Epigenetics – what goes on around the gene

Off to a bad start here with MacGregor putting up a straw-man version of genetic determinism: “It leads to a rather fatalistic view of life—if my genes say I'm going to get cancer, then I can do nothing about it”. This is not how genes work. Your genes may—in relatively rare cases—make you more likely to get cancer, and obviously there are a variety of specific genetic conditions that really are directly caused by genes, but most of the things that people care about are, at most, interactions between genes and environment.

MacGregor, apparently following Lipton, takes a remarkably narrow and over-simplified view of what epigenetics actually involves:

The environment around the cells is influenced in two ways. Firstly, our thought processes produce electrical and chemical signals, and release chemicals into the bloodstream that find their way to the cells. Secondly, some of these protein receptors are also influenced by electromagnetic radiation, the fields of energy that are generated by all manner of living beings, including ourselves.

Gah. Obviously nerves do release neurotransmitters as a result of thought processes, which may cause all sorts of effects from muscle movement to hormone release. But this is barely scratching the surface of the complex web of intra- and inter-cellular chemical signalling, very little of which has anything to do with the brain (after all, organisms without brains have to do most of this stuff too). Likewise, while there's now a substantial literature on the effects (or lack thereof) of electromagnetic fields on various cell mechanisms, all of it is directed at the kinds of frequencies and field strengths associated with technology rather than the many-orders-of-magnitude weaker fields generated by organisms.

MacGregor then uses this nonsense to argue for the validity of alternative medicine, blaming the ‘skepticism and negative energy’ of researchers for the lack of proper medical evidence. Sigh.

Complementary Therapies and Epigenetics

Next crank in line in MacGregor's collection of sources is Dawson Church, who claims to have a Ph.D but, from his bio and from his entry in the Encyclopedia of American Loons this is from a non-accredited institution. Church's big thing appears to be EFT, but honestly it's often hard to tell one brand of woo from another.

The Power of Prayer

So, inevitably, having made all sorts of claims for the value of alternative medicine and the uses of ‘intention’ in parapsychology, MacGregor (who after all does identify as a Christian) decides that this stuff might just as well be called “prayer”, and therefore this is his preferred form of therapy. He repeats grandiose claims—taken directly from McTaggart—about the number of studies claiming to find a positive healing effect from prayer, with of course no mention at all of the ones that did not.

That there are a large number of completely worthless studies of prayer is of course obvious. I actually saw a report of one some years back in, I think, the Church Times, where the experimental procedure was literally “pray over the victimpatient until they say they've improved, and then stop and call it a success”. No blinding, no objective measure of success, just the self-report of a believer who might well just have been fed up with the whole thing and keen to get away from the madness. And this “study” was funded by Templeton, for whom no depths seem to be too low.

The larger-scale prayer studies with blinding—such as MANTRA-II and STEP—found no effect (and for STEP, for one group a negative effect). Furthermore, we have an obvious reason to doubt the existence of any significant effect of prayer on health: outside of the USA (where evidence is inconsistent), increased spirituality is not associated with increased life expectancy within countries, and between countries, increased spirituality is associated with reduced life expectancy (here the life expectancy is the cause and the spirituality is the effect).

Subtle Energy Medicine and Christianity

Oh dear, now we “cannot assume that no other forms of energy exist simply because they have not yet been proven or discovered by science”. Sigh. Quite a lot of research has been done into possible additional forces and they have mostly been ruled out—while not conclusively so, it is certainly out of the question for any such additional force to exist at macroscopic scales with comparable strength to the electromagnetic force. (Which, recall, is 36 or so orders of magnitude stronger than gravity.)

But MacGregor doesn't pursue this line, and instead thinks that “Yet even with existing science, some new explanations for old therapies are offered”. His example is ... acupuncture, which he apparently doesn't know has repeatedly failed to show results in controlled trials against ‘sham’ acupuncture (using collapsing needles or needles inserted at random places). His source here is Church again, who supposedly thinks that connective tissue is “a huge liquid crystalline structure, a semiconductor able to conduct electrical energy very quickly from one place to another” and that traditional acupuncture ‘meridian points’ are identifiable by a lower resistance. This is all nonsense; the success of sham acupuncture shows that ‘meridian points’ are completely fictitious. (Some very poor quality studies have shown that some ‘meridians’ are associated with lower resistance—which doesn't really mean anything—but the ‘points’ are not.)

(The success of sham acupuncture as a ritual placebo treatment is also a strong argument against all of the ‘intention’ crap, since sham acupuncture works even when the sham practitioner is not blinded to it and knows that what they are doing is a placebo and isn't supposed to work.)

Power of the Mind

And now we have a collection of “mind over body” claims. MacGregor apparently doesn't know of, or doesn't bother to mention, the work of James Esdaile in the 1840s, but he mentions some modern-day cases of surgical anaesthesia by suggestion; it's not clear why, because the idea that the perception of pain can be altered this way is not very surprising. More interesting is the case of placebo surgery; in spite of the ethical issues involved, placebo surgery has become important in order to understand where surgical intervention is being over-used (it's extremely hard to persuade surgeons to stop doing surgeries). Since the placebo effect is a highly complex issue I won't try and untangle it here, other than to note that MacGregor jumps straight for the conclusion he wants (that the expectation of healing somehow induces an actual physical change) without considering reasons why the evidence might not fit that conclusion.

He then makes exactly the same mistake when considering spontaneous remission.

Energy Psychology

Another rapid slide into woo (the brief flirtation with reality obviously didn't satisfy). MacGregor quotes Church giving a supposed explanation of “tapping” in EFT:

The probability is that tapping creates a piezoelectric charge that travels through the connective tissue along the path of least electrical resistance. When coupled with the conscious memory of a trauma and awareness of the site in the body that holds the primary memory of the trauma, the IEGs (immediate early genes) that are implicit in healing are activated, and the intensity of physical feeling at the site is discharged, taking with it the intensity of emotion related to the trauma.

The above is bad enough (it's just stringing sciencey terms together to support a preconceived theory contrary to evidence), but then we go straight into water memory (!!) and “changing the balance of ions” and “resonance” to stabilize a person's “energy field”. Is there nothing too ridiculous for MacGregor to support? I'd guess not, because he's getting it all from McTaggart, who is notorious for claiming the harmful effects of a vaccine that never actually existed.

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