Sep 10, 2009

Mediums and Channels - A Look at Some Other Worlds

ST Sep 10, 2009
Need for more education and understanding of Taoism

I REFER to Tuesday's report, 'Teen medium 'made suicide pact with six friends' '. It grieves me, as a fellow Singaporean and a Taoist, that two young people lost their lives in such a manner.

Mediums, or tangki as they are known in Taoism, have existed in Chinese history for the past few thousand years. Mediumism is a form of Taoist 'art'. Many are fascinated by its mysterious facade but, at the same time, such reports never fail to add to its negative image in modern society.

The deaths of the two teenagers heighten an urgent need for more education in Taoism, as well as the need for Taoist practitioners, followers and devotees to further understand the religion itself.

Tay Hung Yong

Mediumship is a common aspect of Taoism. Every year, in modern Singapore, there are public events where you can see Taoist mediums at work. Some of these events attract large crowds (hundreds of people). This link provides extensive information about tang ki practices in Singapore.

Also, on the same topic, here is a book in English - Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki: Spirit Medium Worship. The book is not of a sensationalist nature, but is a genuine attempt to document the local tang ki culture (including the weird stuff). In fact, the author Margaret Chan based the book on her PhD dissertation at the University of London.

One caveat here. I believe that even if any particular type of paranormal activity (not just mediumship) is genuine, in practice there may be many instances where it's just a charlatan at work, or where the persons involved are just mistaken or mentally ill. So it is best to remain critical.

I also believe that in general, any genuine paranormal phenomenon should transcend cultural borders. The phenomenon would not be limited to, say, a specific ethnic group living in a particular part of the world, and having a particular set of cultural practices and beliefs. For example, in my preceding post, I had discussed near-death experiences. If NDEs were reported only by, say, villagers from Papua New Guinea who practise animist religion, then that is a reason to doubt the authenticity of NDEs. On the other hand, if NDEs are a worldwide phenomenon, and if they are reported by people of different ages, races and religions (and also by atheists), then this suggests that NDEs, whatever they are, are not merely the result of social/cultural conditioning.

(In case any of you are wondering, yes, NDEs are indeed reported globally by people of different ages, races and religions. And yes, staunch atheists have had NDEs too).

Back to mediumship. Does it transcend cultural borders? Well, mediumship in Taoism comes with definite cultural trappings (eg specific rites, mantras, costumes etc). The following short documentary film - here - shows actual footage of tang ki's at work, in Singapore, and you can clearly see the influence of Chinese culture here.

However, mediumship does definitely transcend cultural borders. In some other parts of the world, it is more commonly known as channelling. I have come across modern-day (actual or alleged) examples of mediumship/channelling in countries as diverse as Kenya, Brazil, Taiwan and the United States.

Some channels and mediums are quite public personalities - they write books, participate in conferences and regularly allow themselves to be filmed. In one instance that I'm aware of, the channel (Joao de Deus, nicknamed John of God) allowed scientists from Harvard to measure his brainwave frequencies while he was channelling his "angels". The results shocked the scientists, because his brainwave frequencies were completely normal before and after he commenced channelling, but were accelerated to highly abnormal levels while he was actually channelling.

The channelling phenomenon is sometimes just that - a purported spirit comes through, and begins to speak and answer questions, through the medium's body, often in an altered voice, and often delivering information which the medium himself seems unlikely to have had any way of knowing. However, quite regularly, a variety of other paranormal phenomena may occur at the same time. For example, in Taoist mediumship, the medium may allow himself to be hit or beaten with instruments such as a metal rod or even knives, and yet he will apparently suffer no pain and his body will show no signs of injury.

You may recall that recently, the Singapore courts had to deal with the bizarre case of Amutha Valli and the pastor at Novena church. Amutha, an Indian woman now in her 50s, had apparently been able, since the age of 12, to regularly go into trances and channel some kind of "snake spirit". She would then hiss and slither like a snake. In the late 1980s, the entire team of psychiatrists at the National University Hospital had already seen her.

The court case, spanning two years, involved Amutha suing the pastor at Novena Church, for some trauma she had allegedly suffered, while he was performing an exorcism on her. It was a long, complicated case which received a lot of media publicity. In the end, Amutha lost, on the ground that she could not prove that the pastor had actually caused any damage or harm to her.

I also see the "speaking in tongues" phenomenon in Christianity as another example of channelling/mediumship. This phenomenon continues to exist today and is ancient - the Bible itself describes it. Of course, the Holy Spirit is the entity being channelled there. Channelling (or mediumship) continues to be regularly practised in Christianity today, in an entire branch of Christianity known as the Spiritualist Church.

I don't know what other mediums and channels may be channelling. From the different accounts, it seems that a wide range of different entities come through. Some could be powerful and benevolent, some could be stupid but harmless, some could be ... dangerous and evil.

Many entities which do come through (assuming that that's what really happening) seem willing to state their names, introduce themselves and explain their own background. Some are happy to do extensive Q&A sessions too (including the local tang ki's and their spirits). In the US, Lee Carroll channels an entity which calls itself Kryon. Kryon was invited to give a speech, and did indeed give a speech, to a United Nations delegation in New York City in March 2006.

For my next post, I may briefly discuss what happens if the mediumship process becomes involuntary, and the spirit will not leave the medium's body. If I do discuss that, I will refer to a certain recent book written by a psychiatrist. In this book, the psychiatrist explains the difference between mental illness and demonic possession, and extensively describes two cases of demonic posession which he personally witnessed, studied and filmed.

Before anyone starts scoffing, I should say that this particular psychiatrist's qualifications include a B.A. degree magna cum laude from Harvard College; and an M.D. degree from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He was also formerly the Assistant Chief of Psychiatry and Neurology Consultant to the Surgeon General of the US Army, and had attained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, before resigning to pursue a career in private practice.

My main point here is that the man's personal credentials are very solid. This doesn't mean that we should necessarily believe everything he says. But it does mean that it could be imprudent to immediately dismiss him as an outright quack.


Physics Wizard said...

Interesting post. I look forward to reading the next one in the series. =)

Mr Wang Says So said...

Hmmm. Looking at it again, I think that the post is not so well-written. It contains too much information and could be a little daunting for people who have little background knowledge about the topic.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

I became a Christian after experiencing a minor miracle but left Christianity for a long while because I could not accept speaking in tongue(how can any rational person believe in tungki).

took me a long time to get over the trauma.

Where's angry doc?

Ah Wang

Anon said...

NDE is a biological phenomenon, that's why it's universal.

Rather unfortunate that you are promoting superstition in a blog that is supposedly about clear thinking.

Regarding your last few paragraphs, it rather smacks of "appealing to authority" as your form of argument, doesn't it?

Mr Wang, may I ask what in your life experience made you such a believer of the supernatural?


Mr Wang Says So said...

It may be correct to say that NDEs are a biological phenomenon, that is, it is a biological phenomenon to:

(1)float outside your body;

(2)observe events and things occurring;

(3)report them later, in a way that other witnesses will verifty and confirm as correct.

It would just be a biological phenomenon that currently defies conventional understanding of biology (which is not to say that biologists won't be able to explain it at some future time).

angry doc said...

Good grief, Ah Wang - I should ask Mr Wang for a share of his advertising income if you guys keep requesting my opinion on this blog...

I agree with Anon - if an experience is universal, one explanation is that it is hard-wired or coded into our neurological processes, or our brain.

As we have discussed in the earlier post, just because one felt or reported that he felt he was floating outside his body does not mean he did float outside his body - he may just have felt that he did, like how when sometimes we are falling asleep we feel that we are suddenly falling down when we are in fact lying flat on our beds.

NDE, channelling and 'religious experience' are universal, and what I personally find interesting is how these are almost always expressed in the context of a subject's cultural background.

I mean, if Paul on the road to Damascus had suddenly had a vision of Quetzalcoatl, I would sit up and pay attention...

Human beings seek to explain their world by telling stories, and just because a story seems to fit the observed phenomenon does not always make that story true. I illustrated this in a story I wrote myself two years ago:

Mr Wang Says So said...

Quote from Wikipedia:

"... arguments from authority are an important part of informal logic.

Since we cannot have expert knowledge of many subjects, we often rely on the judgments of those who do. There is no fallacy involved in simply arguing that the assertion made by an authority is true, the fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the authority is infallible in principle and can hence be exempted from criticism:

It can be true, the truth can merely not be proven, or made probable by attributing it to the authority, and the assumption that the assertion was true might be subject to criticism and turn out to have actually been wrong.

If a criticism appears that contradicts the authority's statement, then merely the fact that the statement originated from the authority is not an argument for ignoring the criticism."

To put it simply, if a doctor makes a statement about medical health, the statement is not necessarily correct just because he is a doctor, but his professional qualifications do lend weight to the argument and do make it more probable that the statement is correct.

Similarly, if a rocket scientist were to make a statement about rocket science;

or if a chef were to make a statement about cooking;

or if an accountant were to make a statement about accountancy etc.


If you would like to dispute anything in my post, you are welcome to do so, provided of course that you present your arguments with some degree of politeness, AND logic.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Quite correct, Angry Doc, and as you can see from my comments on the NDE post, I do not dismiss the possibility that the phenomenon may be attributable to false memories, hallucinations or other biological processes.

In fact, I pointed to a scientific experiment (which is currently still ongoing) which is specifically designed to invesitigate those possibilities.

Here is the link again, and you will note that the experiment is being conducted at a total of 25 hospitals in the United Kingdom, and is expected to involve 1,500 patients by the end of 3 years, so it is not exactly a small experiment either.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"NDE, channelling and 'religious experience' are universal, and what I personally find interesting is how these are almost always expressed in the context of a subject's cultural background."

This is the point that I had tried to make. NDEs are not necessarily expressed in the context of a subject's cultural background or beliefs.

For example, atheists also report NDEs where they have conversations with the "white light".

Peter Fenwick has also done some interesting research on NDEs reported by young children (eg toddlers) who had not yet even understood what "death" is, let alone had any preconceptions of what an "afterlife" or "God" might be.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't know what Mr Wang actually believes, but his post is fairly and logically written.

A lot of what he said is factual in nature. We cannot doubt that there are such Taoist ceremonies, or that there are Christian churches which practise "spiritism", or that Mdm Valli did sue Novena church.

As for the debatable parts(ie whether these kinds of things are genuine), in general, I think that Mr Wang has put in his qualifications and caveats, and left the readers to decide for themselves. He has also said that charlatans do exist, and in some instances, the person could be suffering from mental illness etc.

angry doc said...

"This is the point that I had tried to make. NDEs are not necessarily expressed in the context of a subject's cultural background or beliefs."

I disagree, Mr Wang. The contents of NDEs may not vary between persons of different backgrounds (just as the experience of a temporal lobe epilepsy may not differ much between cultures), but the provenance and significance of NDEs are framed in the cultural context of the subject.

Now about my cut of your ad revenue...

Mr Wang Says So said...

I just found this. Haven't really read it yet, but it seems to be cross-cultural study of NDEs comparing Americans and Indians' on NDEs

Also just googled and came up with this link:

The page talks about "Culture and NDEs". Let me do a quick cut & paste:

"Understanding the role of culture on NDE is very important. The central features of the NDE have been recorded throughout history and across numerous cultures and religious groups. NDE have also been described in atheists as well as those with a particular faith, whether it be as practising members or non practising members of a particular religion.

Historically, there have been descriptions closely resembling the NDE in the beliefs of Bolivian, Argentinian and North American Indians, Buddhist and Islamic texts and accounts from China, Siberia and Finland. The commonest features are a) having an out of body experience, b) a reunion with ancestors and departed friends, c) an experience of light accompanied by joy and peace, d) a border or dividing line between the living and the dead. Today, stories of near death experiences have also been described from many areas of the world including India, China, South America, and the Middle East. Interestingly in these countries there has been relatively very little if any publicity given to this phenomenon. With the NDEs recalled from people in non western cultures, it has been found that although the central features are universally present, the interpretation of the experience may reflect personal religious or cultural views. In other words people from different parts of the world may all feel peaceful, see a tunnel, a bright light together with a being of light, and also have a sensation of detaching from their bodies, but they may describe the identity of the being of light according to their own cultural and religious backgrounds. In one study carried out in 1985, the experiences of 16 Asian Indians were compared with those from Americans and it was found that the Indians unlike the Americans often encountered Yamraj, the Hindu king of the dead. The largest cross cultural study was carried out in 1977 by Osis and Haraldsson, which focused more on death bed visions, these are the experiences that people have had usually in the 24 hours before death. These are different to the classical near death experiences in that carers who had looked after the individual during the dying process had recalled them from what they had observed of the dying patients'. In this study they examined approximately 440 terminally ill American and Indian patients as described to their doctors and nurses. The commonest feature, which occurred in 91% of cases was the apparition of seeing deceased relatives. There were a total of 140 reports of seeing religious figures, usually described as an angel or God. In the cases in which these were specifically identified, they were always found to be described according to a person's religious beliefs: no Hindu reported seeing Jesus, and no Christian a Hindu deity."


Food for thought there. Note the distinction between:

(1) NDEs; and
(2) "deathbed visions"

Deathbed visions clearly reflect the cultural background of the patient.

NDEs do not.

(At least, based on the above research)

angry doc said...

No, Mr Wang.

"With the NDEs recalled from people in non western cultures, it has been found that although the central features are universally present, the interpretation of the experience may reflect personal religious or cultural views. In other words people from different parts of the world may all feel peaceful, see a tunnel, a bright light together with a being of light, and also have a sensation of detaching from their bodies, but they may describe the identity of the being of light according to their own cultural and religious backgrounds."

That's the same as what I said in my last comment.

teacherlet said...

I've read the book by m scott peck recently and was stunned by the scientifically accurate way in which he had described his experiences.

I'd recommend anyone who wishes to think and confront themselves to truly spend time with his books.

The time spend is worthwhile. It might even convert some to believers of the supernatural.

Anon said...

Thanks Angry Doc for being the voice of reason in this post, bringing up valid points arguments that Mr Wang has failed to refute.

Mr Wang, regarding the point on appealing to authority, I understand your point. But experts are not always right. LKY is an expert politician, but would you accept all his views on Singapore politics? I don't think so.

I also quote: "I will refer to a certain recent book written by a psychiatrist.".

I find it odd that you then spent the next 2 paragraphs listing his credentials without mentioning his name or book title.

Is it because you don't wish your readers to do their own research, and to just rely on your word?


Anonymous said...

Eh Wang, maybe hor, your NDE is biological what. You got hear before the ESP? Maybe is same thing. Last burst before you realise you are dead.


Anonymous said...

Hi Andry Doc

every1 knows that doctors make bucketloads of money. :-)

To be honest, I do not understand the distinction in science and religion. For example, how did the early taoists\hindu holy man discover that poking needles into certain parts would release chemicals to relive pain? so what if they call it qi\chakra esp if they did not have the scientific equipment in those days?

Btw, could u explain why friends(intelligent straight As people) u know for years (together with 1000 others) would suddenly speak in tongue while u dun (given the same environment, church)?

Ah Wang

Mr Wang Says So said...

No, actually I agree with Angry Doc. I merely misread his earlier comment.

My key point is that people of all backgrounds can experience NDEs.

For example, even a person who, for his entire life, has firmly believed that death is the complete end of the story and there is no such thing as a soul, or God, or ghosts etc ....

.... can end up having a NDE where he will experience himself, say, floating out of his body; seeing his own body from a distance; perceiving a white light at the end of the tunnel; feeling unconditional love etc.

Angry Doc doesn't dispute that.

Mr Wang Says So said...


The book is by Dr Scott M Peck. The title is "Glimpses of the Devil".

I was going to mention it in a later post, but it seems some readers - see Teacherlet's comment last night - already know the book.

Why did I not mention the full details earlier? LOL .... It's a teaser. I said: "For my next post, I may briefly discuss ....".

It keeps you readers coming back for more, thereby keeping up my advertising income which Angry Doc is interested in sharing with me. :D

Robert L said...

Quote: "Kryon was invited to give a speech, and did indeed give a speech, to a United Nations delegation in New York City in March 2006."

Dear Mr Wang, please don't imagine that I disagree with the main part of your article, indeed I find it quite thought-provoking (as usual).

However, I do want to help in correcting one misconception that readers might get regarding the so-called S.E.A.T. This is really a club formed by UN employees and their friends, so a function organised by this club cannot be called a speech attended by United Nations delegation.

As an illustration, I would say that a function organised by, say, the Singtel Staff Recreation Club (if such exists), could not be reported as a speech given to Singtel delegates.

This is not directed at you, Mr Wang, but I do find the Link at a bit misleading, and even bordering on deceitful, in describing the function as an "UN Meeting".

The truth is it was not an "UN Meeting". It's a function organised by their staff recreation club.

angry doc said...

"so what if they call it qi\chakra esp if they did not have the scientific equipment in those days?"

Good question, Ah Wang.

Qi and chakras were acceptable explanations in their days because people didn't and couldn't know better.

Now that we know they are not the best forms of explanation for why poking needles relieve pain, should we not abandon them?

Likewise, souls, gods, and reincarnation were good explanations/extrapolations for NDE back when people didn't know better. Now that we know more about neurology, shouldn't we stop assuming that the existence of NDE supports the existence of gods/souls/reincarnation?

(Of course, if the experiment Mr Wang wrote about proves otherwise, we will need a re-think.)

"Btw, could u explain why friends(intelligent straight As people) u know for years (together with 1000 others) would suddenly speak in tongue while u dun (given the same environment, church)?"

People can compartmentalise their thinking very well, and there is no association between intelligence and the ability to think critically.

The 'uneducated' old woman can still think critically and protect her life-savings from the 'magic stone' conman.

On the other hand Mr Wang, a lawyer, can champion concepts based on evidence that will be immediately thrown out of any court of law.

At the end of the day we all set different standards of evidence for things we want to believe in; the more we want to believe in something, the less evidence we require of it.

Anonymous said...

Tang Ki are not part of Taoism. Tang Ki are mixture of Taoism and folk superstitution into one.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation angry doc.

Re acupuncture, I believe science still does not know why the poking of needles should release the chemicals that would relieve pain\cure various ailments\etc.

Likewise, until science can disprove souls, I still want to believe. despite a holy book that has more questions than answers :-S

Perhaps a blind acceptance of Pascal's wager, but if is a lie then so be it. wouldn't matter rite. it would just nothingness when we die. Actually that is probably more scary than hell.

I should have been dead anyway. I was once hit by a speeding car and sent flying a few meters. And did not have a single scratch, no pain. only a dirty pair of pants. maybe a bit of shock. but it was like something was protecting me. So i believe. Not doing would be tempting God? hehe. sounds a bit like tangki. (bad joke)

And thanks Mr Wang. The reply was not the most flattering. :-p

Ah Wang

yamizi said...

The video clip that you've attached is just a touch-and-go one chinese mediumship.

A lot more info are not included.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Ah Wang:

No problem.

Angry Doc is quite right, and if you ponder deeply, you will see the irony in his remarks.

Because all of us ARE trapped within our own frames, and are liberated only to the extent that we are able to switch frames.

What do I mean? Well, take the scientist for instance (although, really, I could take any other kind of person as an example).

Essentially, as long as he stays within his frame, his only way of explaining anything

(and by anything, I mean anything - eg an NDE, the financial crisis or how to swim the butterfly)

is within the limits of his paradigm. Those limits are essentially the SI units, namely:

metre, second, kilogram, kelvin, mole, candela, ampere.

Whenever and wherever the scientist encounters anything that can't be measured within any of those seven terms (or some combination thereof), that is where science will struggle.

A scientist is very hard-pressed to talk meaningfully about anythng that can't be measured in those terms (eg a "soul", or "unemployment rates", or "freedom of speech").

Similarly, if you get a cough and you go to see Angry Doc and you describe your ailments in terms of "juah" and "leng" - he has no way of relating to your terms, within his own paradigm.

It is not that "juah" and "leng" are meaningless or nonsensical. In fact they have very specific meanings within another system of human knowledge that evolved over thousands of years.

It is just that Angry Doc is trapped within his own paradigm.

All of us are, really, and there's nothing particularly wrong (or right) about it. It just is so. It makes for a very interesting philosophical discussion, but the truth is that you see examples of the "paradigm trap" everyday.

(For instance, I see it at work in my bank - when lawyers, accountants and quantitative analysts sit down to have a meeting, it's like they are speaking three different languages).

The only danger is when we mistake one frame as being "superior" over all others, and rigidly cling to our frame, believing it to be absolute in nature.

Because every frame, you see, is merely a filter, just a way of looking at reality and trying to understand it.

Science is just one frame. It's only in very limited circumstances that you can apply it in its pure form. The practical reality is that it can't be divorced from, say, economics; politics; finance; culture; ethics; religion etc.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"Now that we know they are not the best forms of explanation for why poking needles relieve pain, should we not abandon them?"

And what is the best scientific way of explaining qi? Will you point me to something in your NUS medical textbook? ;)

Or will you refer me to the "subtle energies" theory offered by Professor William Tiller from Stanford University?

Somehow I don't think so. :D

You wouldn't like Prof Tiller. Let's just say that he is a modern scientist unafraid of venturing into the paranormal. :D

teacherlet said...

ah wang, you seems to be referring to a topic on Grace by m scott peck's the road less travelled.

that book was the most demanding and confrontational book i've ever read in my life, challenging my beliefs in a way that was most painful. realising one's trapped in one's frames - termed as transference in psychology - would be excruciating.

the chapter on 'grace' explores the idea of a benevolent presence that people tend to either ignore or blame.

i'd like to think i'm a hard-core science-teacher-to-be (with at least a half decent scientific mind)who questions every fact before acceptance.

and my questioning simply leads to finding much more empirical evidence that points to the existence of the soul. empirical evidence that cannot be measured or quantified, that defy logic and can't be accepted on reason but must simply be accepted on faith.

come to think of it, like ah wang, i actually got into a car accident while jaywalking and was sufficiently recovered within two days to return to studying. luck? chance?

there are many theories that science would never be able to answer in sufficient depth. perhaps one day, our discussion would have a conclusive, definite answer based on solid, sound research.

but i hope not.

sometimes, it's the mystery of not knowing that's beautiful.

teacherlet said...

(just random thoughts that i'm sharing)(ah wang, i recognise that the idea of a benevolent Grace has been explored in many books not just The Road Less Travelled)(i understand that by recommending people read m scott peck's books, i'm going to have a really hard time borrowing his books from the library next time too, LOL)(oh ya, paulo coelho's the witch of portobello kinda explored this theme too)

angry doc said...

I have to disagree with Mr Wang again.

Not all paradigms are equal.

Some paradigms are better are describing observed phenomena and predicting outcomes.

No paradigm is perfect, but it is wrong to think that just because no one paradigm can explain everything, therefore all paradigms as equally valid.

The problem comes, as Mr Wang points out, when people refuse to abandon their paradigm when evidence shows that another paradigm explains obeserved phenomena more accurately.

Take acupuncture for example.

Acupuncture is based on a paradigm of qi and meridiens. Yet research has shown that it really doesn't matter where you poke those needles. In other words, research does not support the paradigm.

Do the Chinese Physicians then abandon their paradigm? No. They carry on their false beliefs, at the same time continuing to prop up the rest of TCM practicse with the same concepts of qi, heat, coldness, etc.

Or take demonic possessions. We now know a lot of what has been previously believed to be demonic possession are actually neurological or psychiatric disorders, some of which can be treated. Do people stop believing in demons and exorcisms? No. People who traditionally benefitted from a belief in demons continue to 'diagnose' demonic possessions and perform exorcisms.

Science is a good, common paradigm. Almost all of us believe in it. Problem is we abandon this reliable paradigm when it fails to support something we want to believe but cannot provide evidence for. People claim that science cannot detect qi/spirit/God, yet they are so certain about it exists. But I bet you none of them will ride in a plane built solely on those concepts, with no scientific input.

As Mr Wang illustrated in his post on "God's debris", we don't really believe in 'non-science' as much as we claim.

Mr Wang Says So said...

I wouldn't be able to comment on the meridien stuff - I don't know enough.

However, if you can refer me to the relevant research that you mentioned, I would be interested to read it.

I hope it's as definitive as you make it sound. And I hope that if it is indeed so definitive, then TCM practitioners will take note of it and evolve their own practices accordingly.

Incidentally, Angry Doc, what do you make of qigong stuff of the kind shown here?

It's really not that uncommon, and I've personally seen (in less dramatic form) these kinds of feats. I don't think it's a hoax.

Therefore I have to consider the possibility that in fact Newton's laws of motion might not be entirely correct or might possibly need some rewriting.

angry doc said...

Go to my blog and blog-search 'acupuncture', Mr Wang. Or go to Pubmed and search 'acupuncture'.

TCM practitoners, and in general alternative medicine practitioners, never change their paradigm, Mr Wang. Why should they? They *knew* they were right without the need for evidence, so why should they change their paradigm *because* of evidence?

As for the qigong video you linked to, I have two points to make:

1. The table trick has been shown to be a fraud. You can see how it really works in the other videos linked on the sidebar. Clue: why does he need a table-cloth?

2. The fact that you posted a video on qigong on a discussion on acupuncture shows precisely why we shouldn't allow unscientific concepts like qi to be touted as an equal paradigm. What evidence is there to show that the qi referred to in acupuncture (for which not only have evidence not been shown, but evidence not supporting it produced) is the same as the qi claimed by these qigong masters to be that which they use in their kungfu? (To these we can also add the qi spoken of in fengshui.)

Both are not measurable, both are not manifest in the same way, yet we speak of them as if they are both present and the same. Does the fact that acupuncture 'works' support the claims of the qigong masters? Does the fact that qigong masters seem to be able to do wondrous things support the claims of acupuncturists? Logically they shouldn't, but we all know what happens in real life - self-proclaimed qigong masters claim to be able to cure illnesses with their qigong, don't they?

For once I am going to use a plea made by those who believe in the paranormal/alternative medicine on skeptics: have an open mind, Mr Wang. Be open to the possibility that the scientific method is the best method of examining claims. You won't live in a building whose support hasn't been calculated by an engineer to be able to bear the roof, but was merely certified by a qigong master to have enough qi running through them to bear it, would you? Why allow them to use qi as an explanation for other physical phenomena?

Mr Wang Says So said...

Ooh, a fraud? Okay then.

Don't get me wrong, Angry Doc. I'm quite fine with the scientific method being used to study things. In fact, I wish science would study MORE of the things that I'm interested in.

However, I think that science doesn't pay a lot of attention to those sorts of things, and in many cases, science is kinda handicapped and backward in investigating those sorts of things. There are ways, of course, such as Peter Fenwick's ongoing NDE experiment in 25 UK hospitals.

At the same time, I think that there's a bias against scientists who are genuinely interested, or who wouldn't mind doing a bit of research into the "paranormal". After all, it CAN be damaging to your professional reputation, if for instance you're a scientist and you say that you are interested in studying, uhhh, mediums and channels. This is regardless of the fact that you may be very earnest about applying proper methodology, with proper experimental controls etc.

So really, I don't expect science to make any quick progress in those kinds of areas. I imagine that funding must be difficult to come by too, and of course, science doesn't really progress without money.

Not to say that there is NO scientific progress, of course - there certainly is. Say, if you could, I would love if you could dig up some of these, which sound very interesting to me. I only have the citations:

Astin, J et al "The efficacy of "distant healing"; a systematic review of randomised trials", Annals of Internal Medicine, 2000; 132

Aviles, J.M. et al, "Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomised controlled trial", Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2001; 76(12)

Benson H et al, "Body temperature changes during the practice of g Tum-mo (heat) yoga", Nature, 1982, 295

Benson H et al "Three case reports of the metabolic and electroencephalographic changes during advanced Buddhist meditation techniques", Behavioural Medicine, 1990, 16(2)

Braud W.G and Chlitz, M.J. "Consciousness interactions with remote biological systems: anomalous intentionality effects", Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine, 1991; 2(1)

Bunnell, T, "The effect of `healing with intention' on pepsin enzyme activity', Journal of Scientific Exploration, 1999; 13(2)

Duane, T.D and Behrendt T, "Extrasenory electroencephalographic induction between identical twins", Science, 1965; 150

Early, LF and Kifschutz, J.E, "A case of stigmata," Archives of General Psychiatry, 1974; 30

Eller, L.S, "Guided Imagery Interventions for Sympton Management", Annual Review of Nursing Research, 1999; 17

Fenwick, P.B, "Metabolic and EEG Changes during transcendental meditation: an explanation", Biological Psychology, 1977; 5(2)

Goleman, D., "Meditation and consciousness: An Asian approach to mental health', American Journal of Psychotherapy, 1976; 30(1)

Keicolt-Glaser, JK, "Hostile marital interactions, proinflammatory cytokine production and wound healing', Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005; 62(12)

O'Laoire, S "An experimental study of the effects of distant, intercessory prayer on self-esteem, anxiety and depression", Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 1997; 3(6)

Pates, J et al "The effects of hypnosis on flow states and golf performance", Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2000, 9

Sancier, K. M., "Medical applications of Qigong and emitted Qi on humans, animals, cell cultures and plants: review of selected scientific research", American Journal of Acupuncture, 1991; 19(4)

angry doc said...

"I imagine that funding must be difficult to come by too, and of course, science doesn't really progress without money."

Google 'NCCAM', Mr Wang. :)

As for the papers... don't make me 'run papers' for you lah! Not like you are splitting your ad income with me.

In any case, you can either google or Pubmed search the titles and come up with at least the abstracts, and in some cases free full papers. Some papers require subscription or one-off payment. The older papers you can go down to the Medical Library and find the physical journals and photocopy, although I doubt we carry "Energies and Energy Medicine"...

If you do find a free paper that you can post the link to on a blog post, however, I won't mind reading it and discussing the paper in particular and how to critique papers in general.

Edgar said...

Dear Mr Wang,

I'll do you a favour of running what appears to be the most legit paper you have posted,
"Astin, J et al "The efficacy of "distant healing"; a systematic review of randomised trials", Annals of Internal Medicine, 2000; 132"

As much as you would like to jump to the conclusion that "Despite the methodologic limitations that we have noted, given that approximately 57% (13 of 23) of the randomized, placebo-controlled trials of distant healing that we reviewed showed a positive treatment effect, we concur with the summary conclusion of the Cochrane Collaboration's review of prayer studies that the evidence thus far warrants further study (46). We believe that additional studies of distant healing that address the methodologic issues outlined above are now called for to help resolve some of the discrepant findings in the literature and shed further light on the potential efficacy of these approaches."

The methodologic limitations are far too great to be interpreted with any sense of certainty and can only be best used as a guide to where further research can be directed, should one decide to embark on the the pursuit.

Key problems in the study noted by the authors themselves include:
1) No control over psychological status of patients
2) No control over baseline disease status and treatment rendered
3) Inadequate blinding with manipulative therapies
4) Some studies yielding positive results may have resulted from a failure in using the Bonferroni correction.
5) VERY VERY Heterogenous studies
These are the major points, of course there are smaller ones but hey, go read the paper in detail yourself!

clairebert said...

mr wang where's the post on demonic possession, i'm curious to read :D

Anonymous said...

Wow. This is such an interesting discussion that I just had to leave a note to thank angry doc and mr wang for their lively and vivid dialogue. I personally have been grappling with the problems of darwinism and intelligent design. As a future health practitioner I sometimes feel that what I believe in and what I'm taught in books severely contradicts. My question to angrydoc is whether as a believer of science and evidence based medicine, if studies are inconclusive or if that the means to study almost "miraculous" events are somewhat lacking, do we then discredit every other plausible theory and not give others a chance to explore? Given how medicine today is really still in its infancy I would think twice whenever I discredit a patient's beliefs. Nevertheless, the placebo effect is something which is evidence based yet cannot provide a quantified scientific basis for its occurrence. That's all I have for now. Thanks!


angry doc said...


"if studies are inconclusive or if that the means to study almost "miraculous" events are somewhat lacking, do we then discredit every other plausible theory and not give others a chance to explore?"

No, we ask for evidence. If there is no evidence despite years of claims, or if the existing evidence contradicts the theory (as is the case with acupuncture), then you need to ask yourself whether you are wasting time continuing to explore that theory.

You used the word 'plausible' - that is very important. Do you really think possession by invisible spirits sounds plausible? Does anything in our existing knowledge support that plausibility?

What do you mean when you say "not give others a chance to explore"? Science never stops anyone from conducting studies and presenting their results, but when it comes to public funds, we need to be accountable. NCCAM spends millions in taxpayer money every year researching things that are implausible, and despite coming up with negative results, nevertheless persists in continuing - and that's just those studies they publish. Is that scientific?

"the placebo effect is something which is evidence based yet cannot provide a quantified scientific basis for its occurrence."

Wrong. We know quite a bit about the physiology behind the placebo effects. Please do not pass off your ignorance as facts.

"Given how medicine today is really still in its infancy I would think twice whenever I discredit a patient's beliefs."

Medicine is in its infancy because it bases itself on a system that allows it to test, learn, and grow. Do alternative medicine modalities do any of those things? No, they were born fully grown and flawless, and do not improve because they were perfect to begin with, aren't they?

You may not have to discredit a patient's beliefs, but I hope you are not going to base your management of the patient on his unproven beliefs.

If you really are a future health practitoner, then I recommend you get a senior versed in scientific thinking and evidence-based medicine to teach you the basics, or you might find yourself vulnerable to quackery when you start practising.

Mr Wang Says So said...

I don't think science currently understands the placebo effect (or its evil twin sister, the nocebo effect) anywhere as well as you suggest, Angry Doc.

At least that was my impression when I read this article from New Scientist not too long ago. Unfortunately, you need a subscription to get it now.

Fortunately, there are a couple of people who have excerpted the article, before New Scientist made access to it available for subscribers only. :)

You can read the full article here.

Anyway, the article opens by relating the curious case of Vance Vanders (which is an old but quite reliably documented case).

It's about a man who starts dying, because he has been cursed by a witch doctor. Doctors at the hospital see that his deterioration is very real and very life-threatening, but they cannot identify any physical cause of his dying.

They manage to save him only by a rather unscientific and un-medical method.

They stage an elaborate theatrical trick, deceiving the patient into believing that they had found a magical way to break the curse (something about a ceremony involving a lizard or a frog).

The patient then rapidly recovers.

If you think it's an isolated case, well, it's not. That much I've discovered, in my explorations of, errrr, occult literature and other esoteric readings. :D

The Australian aboriginal version of it, for example, is known as kurdaitcha.

As you know, I'm quite interested in theories about how our thoughts affect, create or influence our reality. It shows up in numerous ways, not necessarily in as dramatic a fashion as an encounter with witch doctors, but often in quite everyday fashion.

Here's another recent article I enjoyed reading. It's from Newsweek, and features the research of a Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer.

It gives examples of how we might slow down or reverse the effects of aging, simply by changing the way we habitually think about ourselves or our environment.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Thanks, Edgar. However, it doesn't surprise me. Yes, a lot more research is warranted, for the reasons I mentioned in my comment on September 12, 2009 10:34 PM

angry doc said...

No, Mr Wang, I think I am correct to say that we do know quite a bit.

Go to Pubmed and search "nocebo" and even "voodoo death". Such phenomena are known, documented, and researched.

I don't find it at all surprising that an expectation will produce physiological changes which produce health outcomes, however, I would say "thought affects physiology" rather than "thought affects reality".

If a witch doctor can consistently kill victims who do not know that they have been cursed, then I will be impressed.

Mr Wang Says So said...

See, Angry Doc, you're not understanding me. What you are doing is taking on some other kind of frequency, whereby you are trying to find something to fight against. Eg "Angry Doc, hero for science, stands up against superstitution."

That kind of angle is not particularly interesting to me at the moment. Whether witchdoctors are impressive or not also does not strike me as the point.

And of course this kind of phenomenon is known and researched. Near-death experiences; channelling etc etc are also known and researched. In fact, earlier I cited 15 studies which show research on various "weird" stuff. Somewhere in the world today, no doubt there are people who continue to research all of these things.

My point is that science still has lots of gaps. There's a lot of research left to be done. Look at Edgar's comment. There, even though the study has been done, many questions are left unanswered and many gaps are identified as requiring further investigation.

Back to the placebo - look at this recent article -

"Placebos are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why."

The nature of the placebo strikes me as something quite worthy of investigation. It also strikes me as an area where science still has lots of unanswered questions. Do you actually disagree with me on this?

angry doc said...

Placebos are not getting more effective, Mr Wang - the drugs they are being tested against just aren't effective!

(It's a bit like runners who complain that "the 100m track seems to have become longer" when their timing are not as good as before...)

Yes, there are gaps in science, and yes, I am fighting against superstition, because where there are gaps in science, there are always people ready to rush in and use their favourite brand of superstition to "explain" the gap.

I try to demystify the so-called paranormal phenomeona, and tell people that the correct thing to do is to continue to pursue scientific enquiry and not accept any age-old or convenient explanation.

I believe you and I are reasonably good writers and we both manage to put our points across well - I leave your readers to decide if I am tilting at windmills, or whether you are promoting superstition.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps as a health practitioner, when one has such a strong dislike for anything verging on the "supernatural", they show it in their faces when they do deal with patients who have such a belief. A bitter face indeed.

I find it very unnerving that being religious is seen as a sign of weakness. I wish the day doesn't come when doctors turn into megalomaniacal beasts who use science to smash their patient's hopes to smithereens. "Based on the evidence we have in pubmed blablabla, you have 2 years to live... Badluck"

Science really is only a few centuries old. Just because it can't measure an intangible doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Love, hope, wonder, excitement are all feelings that exist as an intangible which scientists cannot adequately quantify. I won't admonish them for their deficiencies though.

Mr Wang has discussed the idea of NDE being a truth as opposed to a delusion. For some reason it brings about anger and frustration to people who can't fathom a higher being.

People have many bizarre encounters but yet I still listen so that one day I might experience it for myself to believe. It takes some effort for one to experience the beauty of this world rather than hole up in your hdb apartment and strike down every 'rumour' about how pretty it is outside. It is after all an experience, and you can be very much welcome to tell it to their faces that there is no evidence for your delusional believe in amazement with life on earth.

I also find it hard to believe that one can so firmly claim that the evidence for science explains all. In fact if you do find a paper that has no disclaimers or shortcomings, I would very much doubt its credibility.

Just to share a little personal experience, my dad came down with pancreatitis a few years back. It was pretty severe and there was nothing the docs could do but to wait for the inflammation to subside. It was during this time that my dad experience the "bright white light" phenomena. He claimed he saw all darkness around him and looked around to find a single bright light. As he moved closer towards the light he felt more and more peace until finally at peace with the world and himself. Next morning the blood results came back fine, the severe pain went away and seemed good. So later on the docs did an ERCP to see if they could dislodge the impacted gallstone which they deemed was too big to clear on its own. The test was negative for any gallstones in the ducts which they couldn't explain. And because they were surprised they just left it to random chance.

Even if the laws of the universe can be so defined in a few mathematical equations, scientists still have no idea as to why they should even exist as a constant.

Personally, I don't like arrogance coming from doctors. Hopefully when I do practice I won't exude that same kind of ego centric delusion when I deal with patients who do believe and hope.