Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Nose lasers redux

One of the nice things about science, and skepticism in general, is that it self-corrects.  Properly applied, skepticism leads you along based upon one thing and one thing only; the data.  Hard evidence is always the ultimate arbiter.

Now, you can still go astray, especially with complex data sets or experimental protocols that require extreme precision.  And there are the unfortunately unavoidable pitfalls that come from having a fallible human brain that can sometimes take all of the right information and still put it together wrong.  But with sufficient time, effort, and energy, and usually helped by having many pairs of eyes trained on the same question, science usually arrives at a pretty solid answer.

That self-correcting mechanism, however, means that we skeptics have to eat crow sometimes.  A few weeks ago I posted a rather sardonic piece about "Intranasal Light Therapy," to the effect that the practice of aiming a beam of light up your nose couldn't possibly generate any positive therapeutic effects.  A couple of days ago I got a very courteous response to the post, informing me that the procedure had, in fact, been double-blind tested and was found to have results that definitely land it in the "hmmm, interesting" department.  The gentleman who responded sent me some source material, and asked me to study it and reconsider my position.

The most interesting link he sent me was to a paper published in the International Journal of Photoenergy, entitled "Randomized, Double-Blind, and Placebo-Controlled Clinic Report of Intranasal Low-Intensity Laser Therapy on Vascular Diseases," by Liu et al.  I encourage you to take a look at it.  The researchers postulate that the laser light used might be generating its effects via stimulation of the olfactory nerve, but they were up front that there are other possibilities.  What made me sit up and take notice is that the findings were statistically significant, with patients in the experimental group showing reduction in blood indexes associated with inflammation, including plasma viscosity, red blood cell aggregation, and low-density lipoprotein levels, as compared to the control group.

So far, it's suggestive that there is "something going on here" beyond the usual woo-woo placebo effect that I have written about so many times before.  I do have two quick caveats, though, neither of which may be all that significant, but which are still enough to keep me from being sold 100%.

First, the lead author of the study, Timon Cheng-Yi Liu, is the science adviser for MedicLights, Inc., the company that is in business to sell intranasal light units.  This doesn't exactly constitute a conflict of interest -- many scientists have connections to industry, and it would be cynical indeed of me to think that they were all biased because of it.  But it is interesting that Liu listed in the "affiliations" section of the paper his connection to South China Normal University, and not his connection to MedicLights, Inc., given its relevance to the topic at hand.

Second, and more troubling (to me at least) is a mention in the introduction that the effects of intranasal light therapy may be mediated through the "meridians" that are described in traditional Chinese medicine.  As far as I can tell, "meridians" don't exist.  According to a 1997 statement from the National Institute of Health,
Despite considerable efforts to understand the anatomy and physiology of the "acupuncture points", the definition and characterization of these points remains controversial. Even more elusive is the basis of some of the key traditional Eastern medical concepts such as the circulation of qi, the meridian system, and the five phases theory, which are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information but continue to play an important role in the evaluation of patients and the formulation of treatment in acupuncture.
Which sounds pretty unequivocal to me.  So bringing in claims from a system of questionable medical knowledge hardly earns any validity points in my estimation.  Still, it must be said that even when people medicated themselves with herbs and credited the improvement in their conditions to spirits that inhabited the plants, the effect was there even though the explanation was wrong.  So I'm not willing to jettison the entire thing because they decided to dip their toes into the rather muddy waters of traditional Chinese medicine.

Anyway, there you have it.  At least a partial retraction, and a desire to learn more.  Woo-woos are fond of quoting Hamlet -- "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."  Usually, it's meant to throw a literary version of "You don't know everything" at skeptics -- a statement that is literally correct, but that doesn't give you license to claim that any damnfool thing you came up with has to be true because of it.

However, interpreted correctly, I think the quote from Hamlet is quite right.  You never know what curve ball nature will throw at you next, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that science is always capable of surprising me.  There are far weirder ideas than improving your health by shining a laser up your nose -- and although it very much remains to be seen what exactly the laser is doing, just the fact that it's doing something leaves Intranasal Light Therapy filed under "this deserves further investigation."

1 comment:

  1. That has to be the classiest "I might not have been 100% correct" post ever. Thanks for shedding a bit more light on the subject ;)