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I get e-mail

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on February 12, 2009

Recently I linked to a post at Quackometer about Tong Ren, which resulted in an interesting e-mail exchange with someonewho wrote to me claiming to be a representative of  Tom Tam and the Tong Ren community.  This is a partial reproduction of the first e-mail I was sent:

I am emailing you because you did not block us from your site. Tom Tam and our group of practitioners invite you to Boston, with all expenses paid. You are welcome any time. Please come take a look, and see what we do here. Then decide for yourself if we are true or not.

We know and respect you as a scientist but as in the case of science there is always a need for observation and investigation. The Tong Ren practioners know and study Western medicine well, but the modern scentists know nothing about the practice of Tong Ren. We deeply believe we utilize scientific information from a point of view other than yours.

Many of the so called Skeptics criticise and attack Tong Ren Therapy and Tom Tam.  They even use foul language and personal insults, but these acts can not stop the development of Tong Ren Therapy.  These actions do not stop the growing popularity of Tong Ren or the studies and surveys that have and will take place regarding our work.

This person sounded quite nice so I decided to engage in a conversation with him/her. Since he/she talked the “science” talk I replied with the following (emphasis added) :

We are not enemies, even though our concepts are different as you noticed. I am sorry you feel that way about Randi and Orac. If you would like I could put you in direct contact with the both of them. In fact I am confident your method would be eligible for Randi’s million dollar challenge. Would you be willing to apply? I can put you in direct contact with Mr. Randi himself, if you so wish.

You say you use scientific information just in a different way. I’m open to that. In that case you must have scientific studies that support your claims. I would like to read these studies myself. Can you send me the titles, author name and the journal where they were published and when? That’s all I would need, no need to spend your money in travel to Boston. I am  not interested in testimonials. A few well round studies will be more than enough to convince me.

I am looking forward to the list of studies.

Sincerely,
Skepdude

I am sure by now most of you would have guessed what the reply was (emphasis added) :

Hi Skepdude

Glad to get your reply.

I believe that we have many things in common. We, the Tong Ren practitioners, follow a scientific methodology. We also deeply believe that we need the study of science to support our claim. We are also looking forward to supplying you with a list of studies.

We have many testimonials, but we need more studies to support why these experiences are happening. We never use testimonials to replace scientific studies, we just use them as examples, to encourage patients to fight in order to heal their problem.

Tong Ren healing is new in America as it is to the whole world. As a new born baby is born, it does not have a birth certificate right away. There are still some American Indians that do not have birth certificates, yet we cannot deny their existence. All research needs time to be completed. As in the case of the drug Viagra, the result came first by coincidence, then the study and FDA approval followed. Tong Ren research has already begun. You must be aware of the first survey as completed by researchers from Dana Farber. You may not accept this type of survey, but it is a first step as we further our interest in collecting research data. We believe that in the future, the reports of many studies will continue to come out.

Tong Ren healers are not interested in any offer from Mr. Randi. We focus and pay more attention to the development of our healing and research. Some day, I hope when all of the studies come out, he will donate his money to us so that we can use it to further our healing and really help the public.

We don’t want to pay too much attention to Randi and Orac. Last summer I read their website. They are not representative of the scientific community, only anger and hate.
We are looking forward to the future of healing. I would like to connect with you when our scientific research is released, regardless of the outcome, either negative or positive.

We respect science and follow its laws.

A bit disapointing but at least he/she is agreeing that no scientific studies have been conducted yet, and all this is based on currently is testimonials.  Apparently research has begun, but nothing has come down the pipeline yet. That’s fair enough, depending on what kind of claims are being made. We’ll take a quick look at that later. And here is my latest reply (emphasis added) :

I am also looking forward to the day when you’ll send me the information about the studies supporting your method. Until then, though you must understand my skepticism. As you seem to be familiar with the scientific method, you then must know that testimonials are unacceptable as evidence in order to establish if a phenomenon exists or not, due to things such as confirmation bias, placebo effect, unreliability of human memory etc etc. Unfortunately, as you well know, testimonials are misused all the time by less than honest folks, so the studies are imperative in order for you to distinguish yourself from these sort of people, and you seem to understand that.

Until randomized, placebo controlled, blinded studies of Tong Ren have been completed and have come back with positive results we must be clear that, by virtue of lack of such studies, your method remains unproven.

It is too bad you’re not interested in the Million Dollar challenge, as such money could come in handy in financing said studies, and the boost you’d get if you were able to prove yourself to Randi would be great. That is your decision nevertheless and all I can do is offer my assistance in putting you in contact with James Randi. I am sorry you feel that way about Randi and Orac, and I must respectfully disagree with you on that account, as they are excellent representatives of the skeptical/scientific world who really know their stuff and are very hard to fool. I believe you have the wrong opinion about them. I have met James Randi in person, and I think he is an exemplary human being, skeptic and rationalist.

Please do not hesitate to contact me once the above mentioned studies are available.

Best Regards,

Skepdude

After this I did a quick web search for Tong Ren in the hopes of finding their official website to see what exactly are they claiming this technique can do. I came accross what seems to be the official Tom Tam website, and…surprise surprise there is no mentioning of any studies on that website. The only thing that is mentioned is a link to a survey published in the Complementary Health Practice Review. Here are some exerpts from the report (emphasis added):

Tong Ren (TR) is an untested energy healing modality with anecdotally-reported effectiveness
for a variety of disorders. Study objective: To describe participant reports of effectiveness
and safety. Design: Cross-sectional, anonymous survey. Setting: Weekly group sessions
in the Northeast US. Participants: Adults attending group sessions. Measures: Changes in
conditions attributed to TR. Results:

Observation – First, right of the bat they make it clear that this method is, so far, untested. Second, this is not a study it is a self administered, anonymous  survey, basically a big collection of anectodal evidence.

Among respondents who had attended more than one session (n ¼ 216),
30% used superlatives (e.g., ‘‘amazing’’) to describe TR’s impact, and one-third noted
improved quality of life. No adverse effects were described. Anxiety, depression, cancer, and
autoimmune disorders appeared to have the greatest treatment responses, with 63.8%, 61.0%,
60.3%, and 58.1% of participants with these conditions reporting substantial improvements.
Conclusion: This first study documenting self-reported effects of TR shows subjective benefits
and no adverse effects. Further research on this approach is warranted.

Observation – 30% felt amazing. I can see that and I submit that 30% or more of any untested “alternative” therapy will feel that way, regardless of the actual usefulness of the method. 1/3 noted “improved quality of life”, which could mean so many things I don’t even have the time to go into here. Confirmation bias anyone? All of this means that a full 37% of participants did not feel amazing nor did they perceive an increased quality of life. That group is bigger than either of the other two. Another observation to keep in mind is that almost 67% of participants were female with an average age of 56 years (table 1, Page 6) , and it is a fact that females and older people tend to believe these things more then men and younger people. Just an  interesting observation I thought! Obviously no adverse effects would have been observed, they are hitting a doll with a little hammer after all!  A little wrist fatigue is probably the only thing to be expected here.

Since 2001, TR has been used to treat symptoms of a
variety of diseases and conditions, including cancer, diabetes, AIDS, arthritis, autoimmune
diseases, anxiety, and depression, with ongoing classes currently held in 13 countries and
24 states in the United States http://www.tomtam.comÞ. TR practitioners report that thousands
of people have sought treatment and reported benefits from this method. This
approach to healing, however, has not yet been subject to systematic empirical study.

Observation – Language used is very suspicious. You can’t say that the method is unvalidated scientifically and then turn around and say that it has been used to treat symptoms of cancer and AIDS. You must qualify such statements with the word “claim”, the method has been claimed to have been used to treat blah blah blah, otherwise you lend it undeserved legitimacy.

So what’s the author’s conclusion?

Based on our survey of 216 participants who had attended more than
one group healing sessions, we found no reports of adverse events or negative effects of TR
treatments. Participant reports of treatment impact were overwhelmingly positive; for all
conditions listed on the survey, from 42% to 64% of respondents reported their conditions
had improved substantially and these improvements were attributed to TR

And:

No adverse effects were noted, whereas strongly positive subjective
benefits were reported. Based on these results, undertaking prospective, controlled
trials with reliable and valid outcome measures to explore the efficacy and mechanisms
of this approach is warranted.

Followed, of course by these limitation to their study:

We do not have objective measures of health changes to verify reported improvements. Participants also
reported having sought a variety of other conventional and complementary treatments as
well as additional one-on-one TR treatments for about half of the participants; hence, it
is not known whether and to what extent TR group treatments had additional effects.
Importantly, because these are not prospective data, we do not know what proportion of
participants have dropped out because of lack of improvement. This selection bias will be critical to address in future studies. Finally, statistical tests of differences by group
leader, frequency of attendance, and time since first attending TR sessions were limited
because sample sizes of the subgroups representing specific conditions were small. Future
work should focus on specific conditions with sufficient sample sizes to conduct statistical
tests.

Ok so they have no objective measures of health changes (of course it’s a survey), the participants have sought other treatments so they can’t know really where the “benefit” if any is coming from, they don’t know how many participants dropped out because of lack of an effect, in other words they may have sampled just the true believers and newcomers. Wow, we can put no reliance at all on this survey, can we? If further research is warranted I think the Tong Ren community must pick up the tab and show that there is something to their method. So far from everything I can tell they are out there selling a product, which may or may not work, and for which there is no scientific basis or convincing evidence. The conclusion seems obvious, the ball is on the Tong Ren court.



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