Monday, 21 September 2009

Can I write this blog entry without touching the keyboard?

There's a well-known rule that when a tabloid headline poses a question, the answer is almost always 'no'. I don't think I'm going out on a particularly dangerous limb when I propose that this rule holds for the Mail's Can this man cure cancer with his bare hands?

This one's a really classic example of journalists reporting credulously on pseudoscience, complete with the time-honoured opening which presents our hack as a skeptic who's seen it all and definitely don't believe none o' this garbage, not no way.
The BBC's Watchdog says he's a menace. But when one of our most cynical writers met Britain's most controversial healer, her scepticism began to waver.
The writer, Rebecca Hardy, may well be one of Britain's most hard-nosed, scientifically literate skeptics for all I know, but it seems she's had precious little time to rigorously test paranormal phenomena before at the Mail, where she's been mostly employed to bring us the stories that really matter; stories like how Anne Robinson is looking for a man, how Jerry Hall would like to have sex with a man, how Cherie Lunghi can't find a man, how Mariella Frostrup didn't have sex with one particular man, how Andy Murray found a woman, how people have reacted to Paul Beshinivsky finding a woman, and how some old rich guy would like to impregnate a woman.

In the article, Hardy meets Adrian Pengelly, the "world renowned Visionary Healer, Energy Worker, Teacher and Psychic" (according to his own website), who works with both people and animals, both with his magic hands and also apparently at a distance anywhere in the world. It seems Pengelly recently got criticised by the BBC's consumer affairs show Watchdog for doing things like, y'know, claiming he can cure cancer with his fucking 'energy'. Like all good cranks, Pengelly has a finely-tuned sense of which people are stupid enough to believe him naturally in tune with his energy.
'Your energy's moving OK,' he says, which is, I guess, a good thing. Not like poor Matt Allwright from BBC1's Watchdog. 'When he came in his energy was so unpleasant - aggressive,' says Adrian.
Having not seen the episode of Watchdog in question, I won't address Hardy's characterisation of what the show claimed and how unfair it was on Pengelly, who is, we're told "a rather gentle man", with a list of anecdotes to support his claims and who says "I don't care about scientific evidence". Pengelly later seemingly contradicts this claim by talking about the incredible science behind his skills:
'I was just happy to help people. Some said I had a gift from God. But I just wanted to understand the science.

'I thought: "What is there? There's only energy - electricity in different forms - and it floats." I can feel energy come with one hand and draw it with another.

'Somehow the energy I was generating was stimulating the body's immune system.
I dunno about you guys, but that's got me in the mood for some hard-ass science, so let's move on to the test and watch how ruthlessly Hardy analyses Pengelly's abilities as he gets his hands on her and starts feeling her energy...
I've left my bag on the floor with a packet of cigarettes sticking out. Surely, if this man is a fraud, he's going to hone in on my lungs.

'There's no sign in your energy system of you smoking,' he says. 'If you were a heavy smoker, I'd be able to feel that. How many do you smoke a day?' A packet.
This is a strange one, because I would class a pack a day as a heavy smoker. Apparently she doesn't consider herself one though, and credits Pengelly for a hit here. Perhaps he tuned into her psychic energy, perhaps he just noticed that she wasn't constantly coughing up phlegm, who can say?
Now he's feeling my liver. 'People often accumulate emotional and psychological stress here,' he says. 'I can feel lumps of stress.'

Quelle surprise - I have a deadline to meet.
I'm not sure there's anyone anywhere who doesn't think they have some stress in their lives, a fact that Pengelly does at least acknowledge before honing in his diagnosis to something that's still massively vague but allows Hardy to provide all the information for him;
'One lump is now becoming bigger than the others. It's either a partner or a child it's related to. Is it related to a child and a partner at the same time? Does that make sense?

'The energy is twisted together. It's an emotional trauma, a shock, an energy you've held on to.'

Now I'm slightly freaked out. Almost two years ago my son's father died'
Of course, anyone who knows anything about cold reading can see what's going on here. Pengelly dangles a suggestion out there which his subject then stretches to fit her life. In this case it's her son's father dying, but Pengelly left his suggestion open enough to cover miscarriages, illnesses in both children and partners, relationship break-ups, custody battles and all manner of other potential traumas. The good thing about feeling energies through your hands rather than, for example, claiming to talk to the dead, is that it sort of makes sense that you would get vague signals back which your subject has to interpret themselves. With seances you always wonder if these spirits are mumbling and why they appear to only know the first letter of a dead relative's name, but the nebulous psychic energy racket has got a bit more leeway.

But just in case you think Pengelly is a crank, Hardy reassures us that he was once, like her, skeptical. I mean, he was "a policeman's son", for fuck's sake, and we all know about the well-documented link between having a copper for a dad and not believing in psychic healing. Pengelly became convinced when he went to a psychic fair and a man told him "where the scars were on [his] body from cycle racing", which I'm sure we can all agree would be almost impossible to guess. He tried out his own psychic ability by putting his hands on a friend's head and watching in astonishment as her migraine vanished. A scientist or doctor might suggest that headaches are self-limiting and subjective conditions which go away by themselves over time and are thus ripe for the old correlation/causation fallacy, but in this case our scientifically-minded journalist is just so darn impressed that she probably forgot.

The article finishes with Hardy talking about how she feels sort of better since Pengelly touched her up, saying "Meanwhile, I, as a professional cynic, am far less sceptical about Adrian than I expected". Maybe her stress disappeared, as she acknowledges, because she'd met her deadline. Perhaps it disappeared because instead of doing a real job she sat on a chair in a field getting gently massaged by a nice man. I certainly couldn't say. But isn't it so refreshing to see a serious journalist like Hardy really applying her critical thinking to a topic? So let's all petition the Mail to move Rebecca Hardy to a new position dealing with science and health claims, because truly her analytical talents are wasted on stories like Sinitta's continuing love for Simon Cowell, Dermot O'Leary's family plans and the trials and tribulations of someone who was engaged to someone who danced with a newsreader on a TV show about dancing.

5 comments:

  1. There is a silver lining; if enough of the Mail's readers believe this twaddle and put it into practice, there'll soon be too few to buy the filthy rag.

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  2. Fantastically written with an amazing insight to the truth. You may like some of the cartoons on here http://healing-words.yolasite.com

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  3. Know anyone who stopped their chemotherapy or other treatment on the advice of this charlatan? Know anyone who recovered or subsequently died after being treated by this man?
    Herefordshire Council have instigated legal proceedings under the Cancer Act against Mr Pengelly. Time to come forward! This is only in the public domain now since the charges have been officially laid in Hereford Magistrates Court. The first court date is 12th March 2010

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  4. This Pengelly man is a complete fraud. I've known him for many years and he broke contact with me not long before this all came to an ugly head. He needs to see a shrink!

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  5. Mundo you I and Mrs Truthteller could do with a catch up session! Nice piece of writing by the way sums him upjust right

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