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Monica Pignotti’s Critical Thinking Series Lesson Three: A History Lesson in the Anecdotes of Pseudoscience

July 8, 2010

Today I am going to begin to address a very important question, one that many mental health practitioners have yet to have gained a full understanding on: Why do we need research, namely randomized clinical trials to support the effectiveness/efficacy of particular therapies? Why aren’t positive testimonials for a therapy enough? Why isn’t clinical experience with successes enough? Why isn’t writing a self-published book and appearing on Dateline demonstrating a treatment accompanied by a happy family and publishing positive testimonials enough? In this posting I am going to provide a historical example of a treatment that had a huge following that scientific experimentation later revealed to be utterly worthless. In subsequent postings, I will go into more detail on why we cannot come to conclusions about a treatment based on personal or clinical experience and why we need research to support claims of efficacy.

A common notion is that if a therapist reports seeing changes in clients “with my own eyes” that is proof enough. While this may seem to make sense, not so fast. History is full of treatments with literally hundreds and even thousands of positive testimonials of powerful results that people saw with their “own eyes” that turned out, when tested, to be utterly bogus. Although of course, these treatments predated the internet, they nevertheless had many, highly enthusiastic devotees who were just as strongly convinced as current proponents of the tapping therapies are convinced that they had the most powerful treatment in the history of mankind.

An interesting book to read along those lines is a book written in 1923, by psychiatrist John Walsh, simply entitled, Cures (D. Appleton and Company). Walsh provides some very interesting details about various cures that were popular in the 17th, 18th, and 19th and early 20th centuries that turned out to be utterly bogus.

One such “cure” was called Perkins Tractors, invented by Dr. Elisha Perkins (1741-1799) of Norwich, Connecticut. Dr. Perkins, a Yale graduate, was the son of a physician who was also a Yale graduate. Dr. Perkins has been described as a 6 foot tall, robust man who traveled up to 60 miles per day on horseback to make house calls to his patients who took 5 minute naps on their couches and claimed he only got 3 to 4 hours sleep a night. He was viewed as being an unselfish, sincere, “goodhearted” man and perhaps he actually was and wasn’t intentionally conning anyone. Perkins invented a pair of tractors, a metallic device consisting of two short metallic rods made with a number of different types of metals, believed to have special curative properties, which came to be known as Perkins Tractors (PT). Today, PT are nothing more than artifacts that can be seen in museums.

Not unlike Thought Field Therapy’s Roger Callahan, Perkins inappropriately drew on legitimate science of the day, which in Perkin’s day, were the genuinely breakthrough scientific discoveries being made about electricity (for Callahan, it was discoveries in Quantum Physics). This gave them the appearance of science, even though scientific evidence was completely lacking. Like the Callahans, Perkins engaged in charity. PT were given to clergy free of charge, sold to professional people at five pounds and to the general public at ten pounds.

The process of applying the tractors was called tractoration. When one was tractorated, it was said to be crucial that the tractors be drawn downward against a person’s body to effect a cure. It was believed that drawing them upward could make the problem worse. There are some parallels to be drawn here with Roger Callahan’s claims about his “7 second treatment” where it is claimed that if it is not done correctly, it will not work or even could possibly make things worse. Since the PT treatments are now shown to be completely worthless, what we are seeing here is a historical example of both the placebo and nocebo effects.

Dr. Perkins was seen as an exceptional genius by the people of his day, although there were skeptics, including members of his own profession who after investigating the matter, declared his tractors to be completely worthless and attributed any healing effects to the patients’ minds. Yet the spread and popularity of PT went viral (to use a modern term), spreading into Europe, producing many positive testimonials and selling like hotcakes. Perkins’ son also became involved and headed up the movement in England, claiming to have published 5,000 successful cases within three years (take note of this, David Feinstein, who claims that the multiple anecdotes of energy psychology have to mean something). Furthermore, Perkins’ son claimed that since those 5,000 cases did not include all successful cases (only around 1 in 300) the number of actual “cures” was believed to exceed a whopping 1,500,000!

In order to answer the objection that the cure was due to positive suggestion, proponents pointed out that animals, such as horses had successfully been treated with PT. Sound familar?

(Thanks to Lawrence Pathis for this cartoon)

What finally put an end to this fascinating saga is when skeptical physicians made a pair of tractors out of wood, making them appear as if they were metallic by painting them to look like the real thing. The fake tractors produced the same miracle cures and the rest is history. By 1810, the tractors were considered to be completely discredited. However, as Walsh pointed out, humanity at large did not learn their lesson from this and continued to fall for one bogus cure after another.

The difference is that today, when disconfirmatory experiments are done, proponents find ways to explain them away and it doesn’t seem to detract from the following some of these treatments have and although as far as I know, PT have not revived, some other previously discredited treatments have been, thanks to the internet, which we can again see, is a double-edged sword.

How is it that intelligent, educated people can fall for these things? A big part of it has to do with the compelling power of the personal experience. If you “see it with your own eyes” it can’t be wrong, can it? Well, actually you can be, not because you are literally seeing incorrectly but because you, as a human being, impose your own interpretations and biases on what you are seeing. Thus, these “cures” are not as self evident as they appear to be. In my next lesson I will begin discussing some of these biases that can lead people to faulty conclusions about what they believe they know from personal experience that they saw with their “own eyes”.

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