When I started this blog, I thought I’d be writing primarily about cool science news items, and shedding light on the latest scams, and maybe even writing about politics and religion if I had time. Well, as you can see by the Categories box to the right, I had that completely backwards. The problem is that I really don’t have much to contribute to a scientific news item, besides “this is cool”.
However, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying pseudoscientific claptrap when I see it, and this certainly qualifies for that description:
If you watched that video, you’re probably either thinking “that’s obvious nonsense” or “wow, maybe I should start doing that”. Actually, you’re probably also thinking “that’s the worst reporting I’ve ever seen” and I agree with you there.
A classic joke among us skeptics goes something like this:
Q: “What do you call alternative medicine that actually works?” A: “Medicine.”
A lot of people are inclined to believe in alternative medicine, because they see it as a viable alternative to modern medicine. What many people don’t realize is that there’s really no such thing as “alternative medicine”. There’s medicine, and then there’s unproven and disproven treatments. This “Superbrain Yoga®” seems to be a mixture of both unproven and disproven treatments.
The Yoga Connection
First, it obviously has some sort of connection to yoga. Yoga is an odd combination of exercise, which is obviously good, and meditation, which is a bit more nebulous a concept. Meditation seems to help people relax, to “center” themselves (whatever that means…it may just mean “relax” again), and perhaps even to affect them in some sort of spiritual way (again, very nebulous, and probably just more relaxing). I’ve got nothing against this kind of yoga.
However, yoga has some unfortunate pseudoscientific baggage. Some proponents claim that Yoda, I mean yoga, can manipulate your “life force” or “body energy”, or a host of other magical phrases that also mean nothing. Some go so far as to say that you can heal yourself with yoga. And these Superbrain people certainly do.
How do we know that life force and body energy aren’t real? Well, we don’t. But if they do exist, and they’re capable of healing people, we should be able to notice their effects. But so far, nobody has ever been able to demonstrate their effectiveness beyond what would be expected from the placebo effect. In fact, if you replace phrases like “life force” with “placebo response” whenever you see them, you’ll have a better idea of what’s really going on.
The Acupuncture Connection
Superbrain Yoga is also based on acupuncture. Oy. Acupuncture is another “alternative” treatment that also focuses heavily on the manipulation of life forces. It’s a treatment that has been around for a long time, but remember that just because something has been around for a long time, that doesn’t mean it actually works. Just look at bloodletting. Unfortunately, acupuncture is one of those treatments that just doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Double-blinded studies of the technique show no significant effect beyond placebo. I could go on and on, but instead I’m just going to recommend a really good book on this and other alt-med topics: Trick or Treatment – The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine, by Dr. Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh. (I swear I’ll write a review of that book one of these days.)
In the video, we see a physician tell a story about how he taught Superbrain Yoga to a kid whose grades improved afterward. Clearly this guy has never heard the phrase “correlation doesn’t equal causation”. According to a single-page large-font article on the Superbrain Yoga web site (in the “Testimonials” section) a kid who was doing poorly in school was taught the Superbrain technique, and in the next semester, his grades went up by 1 full letter grade. Well, holy crap, get this in all our schools. His grades were a little bit better in one semester than they were in the previous. And then, he changed schools, and his grades changed even more! Astonishing! Couldn’t have anything to do with different classes, different teachers, different standards, or anything like that, could it? Remember, this was ONE kid. This information is misleading and basically worthless. I’ll go into how he should be gathering his data later in this article.