They scam horses, don’t they?

Hey, veterinarians have to be pretty smart and disciplined to even be in that career, so it’s nice to see how many of them have to be rigorous and skeptical. Here’s an example of the universal problem of quackery explained by a vet:

One reason that many products and treatment methods remain on the market is because of this simple, and not entirely irrational, thought process: “I tried it, my horse got better, so it works!” Unfortunately, even when a horse’s problem improves following treatment, this, by itself, often cannot prove that the therapy was responsible for the improvement. Here’s an example. In other times, people did rain dances when the weather was dry and occasionally, it must have rained. Thus, they kept on dancing. That’s the same bit of logic I’m talking about as applied to determining whether treatments really work, or not.

There are some ethics involved here, as well. I believe that people who provide treatments and therapies for animals have a moral and ethical obligation to prove, first, that they are safe and, second, that they are effective prior to selling them to horse owners (NOTE: Not everyone agrees, as evidenced by the buckets of BS that are currently being peddled). It’s usually not that hard to demonstrate that a therapy doesn’t do any harm to an animal – the treatment is given, the animal doesn’t die, and there you go. Proving that it’s effective can be quite another matter, even if effectiveness is easy to claim.

This is a very common psychological exploit. Most organisms do have natural healing abilities; I’ve noticed over the years that if I have a cut, it magically heals, even though I don’t understand everything that is going on. Unscrupulous humans are able to hover over that ongoing process and claim that they’re the ones responsible for activating the magical healing power, even when they’re not, and there isn’t anything magical about it. We’re usually quite eager to have wounds and disease go away, so we’re psychologically willing to accept the ‘aid’ of said unscrupulous guru.

It’s especially potent for problems that have a variable progression, like cancer or back pains.

And it works on horses, too. Well, not actually on horses, but on gullible horse owners, who often have a deep emotional and financial investment in their animals. Once you’ve got the horse folk convinced, it’s an easy jump to bilking humans over human diseases.

My favorite example is Tellington TTouch, a kind of psychic massage therapy.

[TTouch] is a bodywork and training method based on circular movements of the fingers and hands all over the body. The intent of the TTouch is to activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligence — “turning on the electric lights of the body.” The TTouch is done on the entire body, each circular TTouch complete within itself. It is not necessary to understand anatomy to be successful in speeding up the healing of injuries or ailments, or changing undesirable habits or behavior.

And, according to the unqualified and untrained woman who peddles this crap all over the world, it cures just about everything. Stress, migraines, depression, arthritis, stroke…it even enriches your relationships!

That’s a pretty impressive list of accomplishments for a system of touching rituals made up by one person based entirely on her own intuition. Unsurprisingly, however, there is absolutely no reliable evidence to support any of these claims. The TTouch web site claims, “We have also gathered a rich legacy of anecdotal evidence to support the effectiveness of TTouch to enhance personal wellness and quality of life” without any apparent recognition that this is meaningless in terms of validating the claims made for the treatment.

Unfortunately, the reason it’s my ‘favorite’ quack therapy is that it is heavily promoted by my university (well, one branch of my U — the backward and problematic Twin Cities branch) at the Center for Spirituality and Healing, the ongoing embarrassment thriving at the heart of one campus in this system. I’m looking at the long, long list of faculty and staff associated with this disgrace and thinking about how the science division at my campus is understaffed, and how all across the university we could use more support for the social sciences and humanities and arts, and how our students keep facing tuition increases, and right there is a fine piece of useless fat that could be cut away, and the loss would immediately benefit the University of Minnesota.

It’s a clear example of bad thinking doing actual harm.


  1. mykroft says

    My mother was into Reike. Very intelligent lady, but she believed in it thoroughly. Her hands even seemed to get warmer when she practiced it, which was interesting.

    There is a very good book that covers this tendency to fool ourselves with anecdotal data, “How we know what isn’t so” by Thomas Gilovich.

  2. starfleetdude says

    It’s a case where something that has some mild benefit, like massage, is oversold by those prone to magical thinking. But animal massage is something that can help relieve muscle pain and TTouch is fine as a massage technique and if your dog or horse likes it I’m sure it does help build a relationship. But forget about the “cellular intelligence” claims.

  3. kestrel says

    Oh yes, gullible horse owners. It’s become a problem, with some vets actually doing some of this silly stuff: cold laser therapy, Reiki, Bach flower remedies and on and on. Some vets have told me (when I complained that was not evidence-based) that if they did not offer this crap, they would lose business. I have friends who actually believe in a lot of this and pay good money to have it done. Most of the time, only the owner can even notice these things that are supposedly “wrong” with the horse and even an experienced horse person can not see one thing wrong with the exact same horse… so that it sure looks like there is no difference at all between the horse being “lame” or whatever, and then being “cured”.

    I guess on the one hand – wow, do these people ever have a lot of money, and can afford to pay for this crap so fine. On the other hand it does encourage a lot of magical thinking.

  4. felicis says

    I have a friend who is a vet. Went to one of the best schools in the country and knows the biology and backing science. Still believes in equine acupuncture. Goes to meetings about it and insists that it works.

    Also borderline racist libertarian. We don’t talk a lot anymore.

  5. weylguy says

    Hey you know I had this really bad headache once but my preacher laid his hands on me and commanded the demon to leave my head in Jesus’s’ name and by golly my headache went away a couple of days later so don’t tell me faith healing is a crock! After giving him my generous faith offering the preacher also told me to vote for Trump who will heal our country the same way in spite of all those demon Democrats who should all be destroyed by our all-loving God.

    Looks like God heals horses too but not those godless fish that PZ Myers keeps around his atheist lab.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    An advanced-specialist veterinarian once told me the placebo effect is strong enough in animals that they have to do double-blind testing on medications for meaningful experimental results.

    The difference is the patients don’t get all huffy when you tell them their treatment modality doesn’t work.

  7. timmyson says

    I can’t help but notice they’ve got a much more sexually diverse faculty than, say, the biotech institute.

  8. microraptor says

    Pierce R. Butler @6:

    Don’t you have to do a double-blind study of any medications for meaningful experimental results?

  9. says

    I came back to the barn, dusty and smelling of hot sun, walking next to my couch-like bay percheron, P-nut – ‘Nut, following our long-term agreement, carried his lead-rope in his mouth. A lady I had not seen before stepped forward from the group and introduced herself as a psychic animal communicator. She had on a nice new straw Stetson with a braided band and without fingerprints or creases, “oh what a handsome horse!” She exclaimed at the drooling P-nut, “what’s his name?” I grinned and took his lead-rope, “you tell me.”

  10. says

    Ps – I once found an online certification “college” that offered a Doctorate in Equine Massage for $500. I was going to buy him one to put up in P-nut’s run-in shed but he couldn’t read and was happier with a couple carrots.

  11. jamiejag says

    @10, Marcus Ranum –

    $500 for a couple of carrots? I think P-nut still got scammed.

  12. says

    I had to abandon the vet clinic near my house because they kept pushing “Laser Therapy”. I looked it up and it’s pseudoscience “bio-photo-modulation” quackery. Now I must travel across town to a vet.

  13. Rich Woods says

    @mykroft #1:

    Her hands even seemed to get warmer when she practiced it

    My hands, my face and at least one other part of me get warmer when I think very hard about Jean Harlow.

    Sadly, no actual magic is involved.

  14. Rich Woods says

    @Marcus Ranum #10:

    I once found an online certification “college” that offered a Doctorate in Equine Massage for $500.

    What a scam! Ben Goldacre bought a doctorate for his dead cat, Hetty, for a mere $75. He framed it and hung it in his toilet.

  15. Siobhan says

    it even enriches your relationships!

    Massaging and… other forms of digital stimulation will do that.

  16. Larry says

    My favorite Farside cartoon showed a veterinary student studying her text book open the chapter on equine medicine. It had a table showing a list of possible ailments for which each had the treatment “shoot”..

  17. says

    One form of woo I was just reminded of again, by seeing mentioned on the sign of a local “alternate medicine” clinic, is BodyTalk. After asking a bunch of questions to supposedly determine what is wrong with you the BodyTalk practitioner lightly taps you on the brain and sternum. This supposedly reconnects the communication systems in your body so you can heal. I suspect the difficulty of asking animals questions will keep woo susceptible vets from adopting it.

  18. HawkAtreides says

    Speaking of scamming horses (or, more specifically, their owners) with magical therapies, this came across Mrs. Hawk’s Facebook feed about a week ago and I’ve been dying for a space to share it and have it be relatively on-topic. I did not think such a day or a space would present itself. I cannot even begin to attempt to quote it, due to the sheer weight of hyperbolic woo embedded in every paragraph.

  19. cartomancer says

    Perhaps there is a series of intuitive touching rituals that can make an unwanted Centre for Spirituality and Healing go away?

  20. DanDare says

    The worst part of the problem is not the unscrupulous people but the sincere practitioners with no epistemology skills and a massive confirmation bias.

  21. psanity says

    the BodyTalk practitioner lightly taps you on the brain

    I do not want my brain tapped. I have enough trouble keeping things from leaking out as it is.

  22. peterdvm says

    I wish I had as much confidence in my profession. I belong to a Facebook group specifically for equine vets. There are a several that recommend acupuncture for each and every ailment. For goodness sake a couple recommended acupuncture for acute post castration hemorrhage. Yikes.

  23. chrislawson says

    Pierce — I like your veterinarian friend. I once had a vet tell me in all seriousness that they didn’t need blinding in vet trials because there’s no placebo effect. I talked about how blinding is also meant to reduce investigator bias, but he wouldn’t even accept the possibility. I would have raised the story of Blondlot’s N-rays but I’d had enough by then.

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    microraptor @ # 8 & chrislawson @ # 24 – If investigator bias were all that severe, wouldn’t we have to go double-blind to see, say, which of two solvents works better on solute X in time Y?

    I presume the vet-med researchers collected solid numbers to justify their protocols, but my anecdotal experience was quite the opposite. For a while, on somebody’s advice, I gave my hip-dysplasia-afflicted dog a daily tab of lysine, then read up on it and decided that advice had no basis. So when we ran out, I stopped giving it to him – and was quite startled to see a worse limp soon after.

  25. chrislawson says

    Pierce — you don’t need blinding for every possible experiment, especially where the effect being observed is relatively simple and able to be measured reliably. So, sure, it’s fine to check most simple solvent reaction times without blinding. But what vets are talking about are clinical trials, and claiming that they don’t even need to worry about blinding is just plain dangerously naïve.

    (And even with so-called hard sciences, there have been examples of dodgy experiments that would have benefited from some double-blinding. The N-ray story is one. Pons + Fleischmann’s cold fusion is another.)

  26. Pierce R. Butler says

    chrislawson @ # 26 – Sounds like we – well, somebody – need to re-do all animal-observation experiments over from scratch, then…

    * rushes off to invest in wire-cage and mouse/guinea pig chow stocks *