Sunday, 7 November 2010

A Letter to MIND, the mental health organisation using crystals and shamanic healing.

Thought I'd share a letter I sent to the mental health charity MIND after being shown a programme for the University of East Anglia's Well-being Week that is coming up.  Honestly, until 'well-being' gets a grip and ditches the woo-woo that has forever been a part of it, how are people meant to take it seriously enough to actually learn it's lessons? Anyhow...

Dear Sir/Madam,

Reading the programme for the UEA wellbeing week that you are attending, I was wondering why you invest in pseudo-scientific, cultural-quaintness such as crystals and shamanism... Do you not agree that they are born of ignorant (not meant in derogatory sense) times which saw the possible positive aspects (closeness, human interaction, placebo) misinterpreted and projected onto symbolic references due to our pattern seeking nature?

In light of this, it is not right that you give legitimacy to the perpetuation of these myths, thereby fuelling the dichotomy of science Vs belief.  In doing so, you exacerbate the cognitive dissonance associated with this dichotomy which helps give rise to mental illness in the first place. 

As an established mental health service, I applaud your intentions and believe you do good for the right reasons.  Yet as an established mental health service I would also expect you to be experts on mental health practice.  It is a logical fallacy to assume that science-based medicine is unable to answer questions of mental health due to the apparent correlation between modernity and increased mental health issues.  It is in contemporary science-based medicine that the answers to your questions will be found. 

I would put my life on shamanic therapy showing no better results than placebo in a rigorous, double-blinded experiment.  As you say, they've been around for thousands of years... enough time work out something that works better than placebo I'm sure you would agree. 

Please, take the money that you are using for Shamanic healing and crystals, replace them with standard stress-relieving practices (I know it's a bit more boring, but it's not condemning people to a life at the mercy of less well intentioned snake-oil salesmen) and use the rest to fund some scientific research at the university instead.  Find a curious cognitive-scientist who is striving to do good and who actually stands a chance of doing so.

All the Best


Here's the feedback form on their website if you want to chime in.  Remember though, be polite and civil, these are undoubtedly nice people I'm sure.


OK, so I didn't think that I'd have to do this, because, well, it's shamanism and crystals we are talking about.  Evidently however, given the comment below, some people are still unable, or unwilling, to do the research for themselves and so here is why I think shamanism is a cultural artifact:

"available scientific evidence does not support claims that shamanism is effective in treating cancer or any other disease." American Cancer Society

Wikipedia definition of shamanic healer:

"Shamans gain knowledge and the power to heal by entering into the spiritual world or dimension. The shaman may have or acquire many spirit guides in the spirit world, who often guide and direct the shaman in his/her travels. These spirit guides are always present within the shaman though others only encounter them when the shaman is in a trance. The spirit guide energizes the shaman, enabling him/her to enter the spiritual dimension. The shaman heals within the spiritual dimension by returning 'lost' parts of the human soul from wherever they have gone. The shaman also cleanses excess negative energies which confuse or pollute the soul."

I almost feel like I could leave that quote as it is and it would be enough.  But if I must... Spiritual world, entering another dimension, spirit guides energising the shaman, lost parts of the human soul, excess negative energies... I could believe all of these things with absolutely no evidence, or I could believe in the proven and very real placebo effect.  Occams razor dude.

The only scientific study quoted on the wikipedia page (don't you love the way these people try and co-opt science when it's done badly, but deny it's validity when done right) surprisingly did show a positive result... surprising until you realise that not only was it not even blinded (let alone double-blinded) they didn't even have a control group for measuring placebo.  Now, why do you suppose they did that? I mean, anyone who has done high school science knows you need a control group, and yet they went to all this trouble without bothering?  Mighty suspicious don't you think?

Now, using the names of the people conducting the study together with 'shaman' brings up dozens of identical hits, carbon copies of the wikipedia entry that have all been cut and pasted with no mention of the fact that this experiment was terminally flawed from it's very design.  So I tracked down the actual paper.  And yes, it really was that bad.  It even got published in a "journal".

And to think that had I done this study in High School I would have got a fail.

Seriously though, you want people to accept shamanism's validity based on what shamans say, and nothing more.  You want us to overthrow hundreds of years of cumulative experiment, debate and knowledge and accept that there are souls and spirits on the basis of what shamans say? People once thought the earth was flat and was circled by the Earth.  Now we have seen otherwise we know that everyone was wrong before Galileo (with the odd exceptions).  By the same token we now know how shamanism and every other cultural artifact works, the very real, very observable and very interesting placebo effect.

Incidentally, if there was any evidence of souls or spirits we would have definitely noticed by now.  Think it's all a conspiracy keeping the funding away?  Tell that to the Catholic Church who funded science for hundreds of years, practiced by early modern scientists who were themselves religious.  The reason most aren't any more is because they didn't find anything.  

I have emailed one of the researchers who conducted the 'experiment', one Michelle Ramirez:

Dear Ms Ramirez,

I was wondering if you could enlighten me as to why, in the study 'Journey Into Healing: The Transformative Experience of Shamanic Healing on Women With Temporomandibular Joint Disorders' you failed to include a control group or any blinding procedure in the experiment.  I notice you randomised which patients went to which practitioner but this is utterly irrelevant unless randomising between a control and what it is you are studying.

I'm curious because such an error instantly invalidates the experiment.  Why bother doing it in the first place?  This mistake would have resulted in a 'fail' in high school science, surely as a PHD graduate you were aware of this?

Yours sincerely,


P.S I would love for you to contribute to my blog on the subject and give your side of the debate.  You can find it here:

I'm not holding my breath on this one, but fingers crossed we'll get a reply.


Bill said...

I notice your post has no science backing up your point, yet you are willing to bet your life.

From your post it also seems like you do not understand shamanic work yet are telling people not to do it.

So, you have no science to back up your point, you don't understand shamanic work, but you are making a recommendation to people on the actions they should take.

Seems like you are doing exactly what you are railing about.

Ben King said...

So you like science do you? You think it backs up shamanism do you? So why leave out a control group when you learn of it's importance in high school science? See above.

Bill said...

No, Ben. I didn't ask for the science. You did. I just pointed out that you made recommendations with no science backing them up. And frankly you still haven't except for a vague, unqualified reference.

And if you studied any of these shamanic healing practices you would see how many of them are very similar to their western counterparts.

It seems you left something out of the full quote: "Some key elements of shamanism, such as the use of imagery, have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. One researcher at Stanford University reported that some aspects of shamanism might be helpful in changing destructive thought patterns in people with cancer. However, available scientific evidence does not support claims that shamanism is effective in treating cancer or any other disease."

Then there is this statement which is an accusation not based on anything I said.

"You want us to overthrow hundreds of years of cumulative experiment, debate and knowledge and accept that there are souls and spirits on the basis of what shamans say? "

No. I don't want to do that. It is part of the picture. But so is each of our human experiences which may lead to different conclusions.

This of course leads us to the conversation about is there a god if you can't prove it. My guess is that from your above statements you do not believe in God either. Which is fine if that works for you. But many of the folks on this planet choose a different experience

Oh... and if any shaman can tell you they can cure cancer, they aren't a shaman. that's not how they work. You may want to spend some time working with some of them before you write more about it.

Good luck with your work, ben. I wish you the best,

Ben King said...


I am the first to say that within all of these belief systems there are nuggets of validity, as I said in my letter to MIND originally. Anything that relaxes you reduces levels of stress hormones that can cause all sorts of problems.

But, as with shamanism and the rest, by catagorising them as valid beliefs in their entirety along with all of the historical anachronisms we risk fueling this unhelpful dichotomy of belief vs science which stops people from seeing the commonalities where the real benefits lie.

It also legitimises the kind of concepts and vocabulary that other, less well intentioned snake-oil salesmen use to con people out of money.

If you are happy to accept what you write in bold as the limit of shamanism then I'm all with you on the possibility. If that's the case, then surely this debate comes down to literalness?

I'm sorry, but the history of shamanism IS meant literally, and rightly so given the scientific knowledge of the age/cultures. In this context, it is bunk.

But by continuing this dichotomy, this relativistic hand-job to whatever anyone happens to believe, we stall progress and the time when relaxation is taken out of the woo-woo closet and into a sensible realm where it can actually tackle the systemic nature of stress in a capitalist world: something that is desperately needed.

Yes, our experiences lead to different conclusions. That is because we totally SUCK as observers. We are Skinner's pigeons. That's why we have to use control groups and the like to distinguish fact from fiction. In this case, because we are the same species with the same physiology, there is a right and wrong answer and that answer is not going to be found through historically anachronistic concepts derived from quasi-religious traditions.