September 28, 2006

Science: Of Idiots and Irises

As I previously mentioned, a certain co-worker has decided to take a course in iridology. Now, I wouldn't have bothered to say anything, until she added: "This is something I want to do the rest of my life".

The thought of this young woman giving out medical diagnosies opened my mouth for me. To be fair, she has agreed to read a couple of articles debunking this silliness, but she has had NO experience in skepticism at all, so I have added a primer of sorts. I tried for a very general overview, but I didn't want to run to too many pages, as I knew she wouldn't bother with it if I did.

That being said, here's the lot:

When I first mentioned my skepticism of iridology, you said “How do you know it doesn’t work?” This is the wrong question to the wrong person: I am not making the claim, and I’m not spending the money. What I am trying to prevent is someone who has no medical training whatsoever from making diagnosies on clients.

You said that “it worked on me”. A few points about this:

1) There is something psychics use called “cold reading”, which is the picking up of verbal and non-verbal clues that the client provides. Looking at your eyes while asking questions certainly helped: if you are familiar with poker, then you know there is a reason why many players shade their eyes during games!

2) You did not have a copy of your medical history at hand, and so may have fallen victim to selection, which is where the client only remembers accurate guesses and disregards any inaccurate ones. The reader encourages this with non-verbal prompts; for instance movement of the head and hands to entice the client to speak and to change the movement to shaking the head (“no…that was wrong, sorry.”) if the client doesn’t respond positively. The more the client wants to believe, the more readily they respond. I’ve seen psychics miss guess after guess after guess, then finally get a hit and have the client tell them that they are amazing.

Now, I’m assuming here that the person who did the reading on you did not know who you were, hadn’t spoken to you or those you know, or hadn’t overheard you speaking to friends before the reading took place – a very common practice by spiritualists.

Having seen and spoken to psychics, tarot readers, Ouija board users, palmologists, and mediums and researched faith healers, psychic surgeons, and various odd diets and alternative medicines, I’ve noticed some common themes that crop up. You’ll certainly encounter a few of these as you talk to the folks involved, but not all of them.

Alternative medicine frequently makes use of the concept of “western science” and “eastern science”. There is no such thing: science is science. A ball will drop to the ground in a completely predictable way no matter where you are on planet Earth. Light refracts in the exact same way for everyone who observes it, no matter the race or location of the observer: this is to say, predictably. Scientific method is a stringent test, but a necessary one: you cannot declare cause and effect without being able to prove it.

“Us vs. Them” is another common theme, usually aimed at the evil allopaths and the medical system in general. This builds a persecution complex, where the practitioner can pretend they are David to the “Multi-Billion Dollar Medical Industry”s Goliath. In a way, of course, they are right; much like the perpetual motion machine inventor can prove that there is a conspiracy of silence among scientists and the Main Stream Media because they haven’t realized what a genius he is.

Feminine terms are common in alternative medicine: much is made of “feeling” and “sensing” rather than “learning” and “knowing”. Often, the terms are used outright as "male vs. female means of knowing". It's not only foolish, but outright sexist, acting as if knowledge is biased towards men and women need a special cheat of some kind to balance things out. This is less common in reflexology and iridology than in other fields (Therapeutic Touch, for instance), but you may still find it.

The practitioners of alternative medicine are frequently true believers: they think what they are doing is right and honest and accurate. However: sooner or later it comes down to sales. The more corrupt the office is, the more proprietary the cures are. In some practices, the ONLY place to purchase the medicine that has been recommended is at that office: with others, it’s a specific brand name, that further investigation shows helped the practitioner with seed money to start their office. Still others sell no medicines, but insist upon frequent visits.

About the diagnosies: most frequently, a litany of ailments is described, often either in vague terms (“a problem in the chest area”, which covers breathing, circulation and stomach) or as symptoms (“drowsiness”, “occasional dizziness”, “sensitivity to certain smells”). In this way, the client can select which suit themselves, and can ignore the rest.

Most people will heal on their own. This is where you’ll find complaints about doctors who “do nothing”. Frequently, that’s the right thing to do. However, for people who don’t realize this, if I told them that the cold they are currently suffering will go away if they only ate with their left hand for the next three days, they’d believe that my advice cured them when the cold did, in fact, go away. Thus a belief is born.

Money is very important to belief, as the higher the stakes are in that belief, the greater reluctance there is to deny it. You certainly don’t want to think of the money you’ve invested as being wasted, do you? Imagine spending ten times as much, how reluctant you’d feel then.

My father’s cancer was discovered only after a full physical check-up, and then blood work to confirm. Since it was detected when it was, his prognosis is good. If he was relying on an iridologist for his check-ups, however, he may not have known it was even there.

Iridology-specific questions:
A person’s eyes change all their lives, especially when they are young. Does their health change accordingly?
How exactly is the heart (or kidneys, or neck et al) connected to the iris?
What would the eyes of Evel Knievel, who has broken 35 different bones and been in a 30 day coma over his life, look like? Can you confirm this?
What would the eyes of someone without a limb look like, and what is the difference between the eyes of someone born without, say, a left hand, and someone who has had their left hand removed through trauma? Can you confirm this?

I don't know if she'll listen to, or read, any of this. But I do hope I've at least planted a seed of doubt that can take root before her classes start.

Wish me luck.


posted by Thursday at 9:21 pm


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I went to an iridologist back in 1988 and she told me I had a bad gallbladder. Well, I was just a young woman then and didn't even know what the gallbladder was, it sounded like something an old person would have a problem with. Well, I forgot about it, but a month later I had to get my gallbladder removed. I never had any flareups before that and have always wondered if there is something that shows up in our eyes when we have illness.

4:57 pm  
Blogger Thursday said...

Anon -

Did you keep the list of everything else she said was wrong with you? She may have used the classic "scattergun approach", making any hit she scored the only memorable guess.

Bear in mind as well that gall bladder illnesses are not uncommon in women who are using ERT (estrogen replacement therapy), so if you had mentioned anything like that to the practicioner she's likely to add that to a list of maladies.

If you had had children by the time you saw her, that's an additional marker for gall bladder illnesses; likewise being overweight and caucasian.

I can't find any symptoms of any illness relating to the gall bladder that will show up in the iris.

Thanks for the comment!

9:16 pm  

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