Quacks everywhere

David Colquhoun has posted an excellent series of posts on the Steiner Waldorf schools, 19th century crackpottery that persists even now, by hiding their fundamentally pseudoscientific basis under a fog of fancy invented terms. He discusses their goofy philosophy of anthroposophistry, their devious efforts to get state funding, and their unfortunate buy unsurprising history of racism. It’s wild and crazy stuff, and it’s been sidling under the radar for a while.

What initially drew me to DC’s site was his article on quackery in retreat: the University of Westminster has discarded some of their previous offerings in naturopathy. There is still a fair amount of junk in their curriculum, but there’s hope that those are waning too.

I needed that bit of solace, because my university’s official listserve sent me a wonderful offer earlier this week.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
As part of our ongoing commitment to provide quality, integrated wellness programs, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing is pleased to offer a telephone-based version of the highly successful Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (tMBSR). The tMBSR begins with an in-person, all-day workshop. The next six sessions are conducted via a web-based conference call. The tMBSR concludes with an in-person, all-day, mostly silent retreat.
tMBSR will teach participants how to intentionally cope with pain, illness, and the stress of modern life. Participants will learn mindfulness meditation skills, and build upon their own personal strengths to offset the adverse effects of stress by responding more effectively.

The program cost of $385 (*$350 for UPlan members) includes: • Guided instruction in mindfulness mediation practices • Web-based group discussions • Gentle stretching & yoga • Daily “homework” to improve skills • Individual, tailored instruction & support • Hand-outs, CDs & Yoga DVD • All-day workshop and all-day retreat.
*UPlan Members: The tMBSR program reimbursement is available to employees who are covered by the UPlan Medical Program. You must participate in both all-day events and 4 of the 6 conference calls to qualify to be reimbursed $200.00 of the registration fees.

All-Day Workshop & Retreat
September 17th, 2011, 9:00 am to 4:30 pm in Oyate
November 19th, 2011, 9:00 to 4:30 pm in Oyate

Oh, man. Our bogus magic medicine place, the Center for Spirituality and Healing, is sponsoring this garbage — oh, wait, “sponsoring”? No, milking the faculty. They want to charge us individually $385 for a day of “mindful meditation”, for which the university may give us partial reimbursement…which just means they’ve found a way to fleece the suckers and also to get our university to endorse it.

I was cranky. I fired back on the listserve.

I am stunned that the university is subsidizing this bunkum and quackery from the Center for Spirituality and Healing. I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, the university has this New Age crapfest called the CSH in the first place.

And then, of course, I was bombarded with rotten vegetables. People were upset: I was hurtful! I was contemptuous! How dare I question the university’s efforts to help us deal with stress? One person sent me this claim that Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) fixes a long laundry list of ailments, from anxiety to fibromyalgia to chronic pain, and that it caused “increased immune system functioning”, one of those common buzz phrases that the quacks often use. So I wrote back, for the last time.

I’ve read some of these studies, and am unimpressed. Most of them assess subjective phenomena (“chronic pain” is notoriously amenable to suggestion, for instance), involve very small subject numbers and small effects, and often seize upon random phenomena as significant — one study found that retention in their program was far greater than in the controls, for instance; their DBT program was offered for free to participants, while the control was paid psychotherapy. Surprise!

I think a university sponsored program to help employees deal with stress is a great idea. However, real programs that are effective are built upon evidence-based medicine, not the frivolous and fuzzy nonsense that we get from the Center for Spirituality and Healing. When our institution endorses “mindful meditation”, a procedure that is pretty much indistinguishable from the placebo response, they are literally doing the very least they can do for us.

Mindful meditation may be relatively innocuous fluff, but where do we draw the line? The CSH also endorses reiki, reflexology, aromatherapy, craniosacral therapy, traditional chinese medicine, and unbelievably, “healing touch” — this is tantamount to peddling magic. Here’s an example of how the CSH describes the mechanism behind ‘healing touch.’

Healing Touch blends the energetic techniques of a number of practices, both ancient and contemporary. It is based on the belief that human beings are composed of fields of energy that are in constant interaction with self, others, and the environment (also see the section on Theories and Principles for more information). The Healing Touch practitioner realigns the energy flow, which reactivates the patient’s mind/body/spirit connection in order to eliminate blockages to self-healing.

The goal of Healing Touch is to restore harmony to the energy system so that the patient is in an optimal state for healing to occur. In other words, the goals are to accelerate the recipient’s own healing process and to facilitate healing at all levels of the body, mind, and spirit.

Healing Touch integrates easily with other modalities a practitioner may already be using. These modalities may include conventional medical practice in hospitals, clinics and in home care, or other body-mind oriented therapies such as massage, guided imagery, music therapy, acupressure, biofeedback, and psychotherapy.

This is pure gobbledygook. None of this makes sense. None of this has been demonstrated empirically: it can’t be, because it’s all made up.

None of these ‘therapies’ work. Every time they’ve been tested using objective, clinical outcomes, they’ve been found to be completely ineffectual. Our university is selling us New Age snake oil, and I’m deeply embarrassed to see the credulity and the wastefulness demonstrated by an institution that ought to be dedicated to rigor and reason. Can we please use our health care dollars a little more wisely?

Man, I hate the center for spirituality and healing. I’m ashamed and embarrassed every time I get ads from that place — they are trading on the educational and scientific integrity of our institution of higher learning to make money for quacks and to elevate witch doctors and shamans to the status of medical professionals. I’m hurtful? I think frauds selling overpriced stress-reduction magic to our faculty and staff is what really hurts.

No, I’m not signing up for the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes. Just their existence has increased my stress, and it’s not worth $385 to show up and watch my blood pressure skyrocket.

(Also on FtB)