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Burning Man

by Michael Shermer, Jan 17 2012

Can burn patients really be healed from a distance by phone?

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting with television producers at a Pasadena, California hotel when I ran into a man named Richard Greene whom I had met last year at the debate that Leonard Mlodinow and I did with Deepak Chopra and others at Chapman University. With him was a woman named Dr. Marja Pronk, whom Greene introduced as someone who can heal burn patients from a distance by phone, and that she learned this skill under the tutelage of one Dr. Philippe Sauvage. Greene was interested in having me test Dr. Pronk while she was in town, but we ran out of time and the protocols and ethical considerations of intentionally burning either people or animals were prohibitive (in my view) and so at present we are still working on how this claim might be tested under controlled conditions. If you have any suggestions on how we might do this while also meeting the ethical requirements of an Institutional Review Board or Ethical Review Board that overseas the ethical treatment of human and animal subjects in experiments, please let me know.

First, I will provide you the background I was provided followed by my own thoughts on what it would take to test such a claim, along with my thoughts in between on Philippe Sauvage, which as you shall see is making extraordinary claims that go far beyond healing burn patients.

Richard Greene sent me this background material:

photo of burn patient

As we discussed, the claims made by Breton “healer” Dr. Philippe Sauvage and his co-workers, including medical Dr. Marja Pronk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sshO4IrvJzI and www.sosburn.info) are astounding and challenge almost every belief we have in Western science. To date there have been approximately 500 who have benefited from this technology in 29 countries (including 46 states in the US). Here, for example, is a video of 22 year old Chris Fleming from Ontario, CA. and some press clippings from Africa:

Newspaper Tanzania
Newspaper Ghana

The protocol is, as we discussed, for those who receive 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th degree burns to simply call the designated free healing hotline within 30 minutes of the burn. As you will see in the videos, the claim, remarkably, is that 100% of those who do this have their pain removed and ALL skin damage reversed within hours or a few days at most. Here is the most dramatic example—a Ghanan girl that Dr. Marja Pronk treated using Dr. Sauvage’s method. Her burns, as you can see, were 3rd and 4th degree and she was expected to die…

Because her father made contact with Dr. Pronk’s team, this beautiful young girl made a full recovery. Here are the after photos. There were no grafts or other surgical procedures performed.

photo of burn patientphoto of burn patient

photo of burn patient

Mr. Greene did qualify his own observations:

I do not have direct experience of these examples or claims. What I do know is that Dr. Sauvage is one of the most intelligent, genuine and unique men I have ever met and that he looks at the world in a very different way. Based on my time with him and Dr. Pronk and Alison McDermott, the highly articulate nurse who coordinates the efforts here in the US, I (even the lawyer side of me) am highly inclined to believe that his healings are real and represent the most repeatable, verifiable and significant scientific breakthroughs in centuries, if not all history.

Thank you for keeping an open mind.

I found Mr. Greene to be a very intelligent and thoughtful man who genuinely believes that Sauvage can do what he claims. However, a little background search on Sauvage turned up some disturbing aspects to the man. For example, I noted that this doesn’t look too good.

I asked Mr. Greene if he believes these things that Sauvage claims about himself:

At the end of “Druidism,” there would be born a single male child [to] the only surviving matriarchal lineage of ancient Armorican spirituality. Androgynous, with the sacred powers of both female and male combined for the only time in Druidic history, this male child would be called the last Strobineller, the paradigmatic shiftmaster, assigned with the task of reconciling Man and Nature before humankind destroyed, forever, planet Earth, or vice versa. Born on December 30, 1953 in the Celtic nation now called Brittany, Philip Savage was this male child.

This, I noted, is the classic messiah complex, single male child of matriarchal lineage, healing the sick…come here to save mankind…he’s the new Jesus and Marja Pronk is his Mary Magdalene.

I asked Mr. Greene what he thought of all this, and he responded thoughtfully:

1) Dr. Pronk is 100% solid with impeccable integrity and the testimonials—as a professional in non-verbal communication and body language who gets as much as $25,000 per day to teach businesses same—are overwhelmingly solid and believable in my professional opinion.

2) I have spent about 30 hours—1 on 1—with Phillip and have experienced a level of knowledge, perspective and answers to questions that I have never experienced before. He is not normal and is, indeed, exceptional in every way—even in his eccentricities. How many con men do you know that speak 17 languages, play at least as many instruments and have 3 advanced degrees.

3) I have never seen anything to indicate that the medical cases are not 100% real.

4) I have never seen anything to indicate that the burn cases are not 100% real. As we discussed, Michael, he could be an alien, the worst human around or even a figment of one’s imagination…but if this shit works, it is a phenomenal story and one of the greatest medical breakthroughs in human history.

All of the above is irrelevant, though, Michael, as you know better than anyone. Let’s do the testing.

Fair enough. The proof is in the pudding. But I did write to Richard the following concerns that I have about Sauvage (sometimes rendered online as Savage):

I appreciate your frankness. I must tell you that the more I read about Philip Savage the louder my baloney detection alarm sounds. I’m sure you must understand why. Even in LaLa land here in So. California, with egos bigger than Mt. Everest and loonies claiming every nutty thing under the sun, Savage towers above them all in both audacity and unbelievability. My experience after three decades of investigating such claims is no one to date who has ever made such claims has turned out to be the real thing. Not one. Not even close. They are either delusional or psychopathic con artists. So…the chances of Savage being able to do what he claims, in my view, is extremely low, very improbable.

Still, as you say, the proof is in the pudding, so let’s put him to the test: not by advertising a phone number and hope people call with a burn accident; but by a controlled test in a laboratory under conditions that he (or Marja) could attempt to alter cells or heal them or whatever—some objective measurable effect that can be documented and recorded. The problem with subjective pain readings (on a 1-10 scale, for example), is that all sorts of things can effect it, including acupuncture, acupressure, meditation, just thinking about the pain scale, etc.

Please ask Marja if she can do something along the lines of altering cells or healing burns or injuries in a controlled setting such as a lab. I do not want to participate in a program that involves giving out a phone number because gullible people may naively start calling it in the belief that their cancer, AIDS, etc. will be cured, giving them false hopes, possibly draining their bank accounts (if such a thing is going on), etc. That would make me party to a scam and so I can’t take that risk. And in any case, as I said, that’s not an ideal test. We need controlled conditions in a lab or a hospital. I don’t see why, if burn pain is a product of the brain and thought, that Marja can’t go to the UCLA medical center and find someone who is in agony, and just heal them right there, reduce their pain level through her and Savage’s method. If you want a dramatic demonstration that could be filmed, that would certainly do it!

In a follow-up email I added:

More to the point, we need to establish some sort of definitive test in which we can clearly see results (or not). Remember, medical conditions are rarely stable—they are constantly changing, so we need to have in place a way to tell if the change is due to natural processes of the body healing itself, interventions by traditional medical treatments, or through Savage’s method. Anecdotes won’t help us. “I felt better after Dr. Pronk treated me” doesn’t mean anything. Maybe that patient feels better after a good night’s sleep, or after the doctor visits, or after taking his meds, etc. Most important is that we are very clear about what exactly is being claimed so that we can test that. Big generic things like “feeling better” or “getting better” won’t cut it in science. Specifics, such as burned skin healing 50% faster with the Pronk treatment versus the traditional medical treatment would be an example because then we’d have a time frame that can be quantified.

Then, out of the blue, I received an email from another Sauvage acolyte named Alison McDermott:

Through researching you, there seems to be pervading humanitarian integrity, a steadfast scientific mind who loves the simple truth of the matter, as well as a remarkably in common, “list of Loathsomes” with Dr Savage and myself. Religions, “New Age bozos” to coin his phrase, (these two top of the list), so-called “psychics”, “mystics”, most definitely “healers”, prophets, “goddesses”, fakirs, so-called “alternative practitioner’s” and all the other self-deluded of which you can find just about everywhere, busy claiming to do what they cannot do…. If I may presume some understanding of your “gurus”? Facts, solid proof, science and the scientific methodology. Also know as “The experiment”, and the findings thereof. (None of which you have ever found demonstrable by the list above throughout your 30 year investigative career, if I am correct?)

The “salt” of any good skeptic you’ll probably agree would be, “We want to see the diligent establishment of these “facts, results and proofs”, else expect, (quite rightly) to be “thrown to the lions”?? The skeptic with integrity that is, not the “dime a dozen”, wanna-be de-bunkers of subjective “mere opinions”, educated or otherwise, “ruin them without testing them”—“witch-hunt” tacticians (“paid for slander” as deployed by the BBC) etc etc, amateurs which are as “virally prolific” as are those on the list of deceivers above your mission is to “expose”.

Dr Savage can do what he claims…and can prove it to you.

There has long existed the perfect logistic to execute this “experiment” meeting all scientific standards required, not shared with you in any contact with Dr Marja Pronk and Richard Greene. Simply put, it is this:

This “right person” is PERSONALLY (friends) connected to a TV News Network DECISION MAKER, (CNN, FOX NEWS, APTV have journalists in every major city) who, with a simple phone call, can quietly and privately mobilise a posse of his journalists on location ALREADY, eg in major cities or war zones etc, to send in burn cases, and film the results. (they are called to fires, explosions, bombings all the time…their “runners” are on the scene in minutes.) Proofs start coming in…where upon, the “decision maker” now KNOWS it’s true!!! Then, he has ALL his worldwide journalists alerted to send in burns…and the start pouring in thick and fast, 100’s or more per day…

The “carrot” for this network decision maker is that they get to “break” the news AND the exclusive interview rights with the man behind the results…(ratings ratings ratings!!)

Would you agree that observable, repeatable and recordable results, documentable over and over by independent scientist’s/doctors around the world, nothing whatsoever to do with YOU or US, each other or any party involved, (except as an emergency admission burn victim to their ER) is as scientific and objective as it gets?

I am permitted to officially “throw down the gauntlet” directly on behalf of Dr Savage himself for you to…”Expose the famous Breton healer” scientifically, once and for all.

I responded:

Hi Alison, thanks for the thoughtful note.

There’s no gauntlet to throw down or anything like that. We’re just trying to figure out a way to test Dr. Savage’s and Dr. Pronk’s claims of being able to heal burn patients. The problem with what you suggest about getting journalists to call the number in the event of an accident or fire that results in burned people is that this would not be a controlled experiment. People vary greatly in their ability to heal from various disorders and there are dozens of reasons why. The hard part about doing science is isolating the variable that actually matters from the variables that do not, and then controlling all the variables for the placebo effect as well. Take age, for example. Older people heal much slower than younger people, from most diseases and accidents, so you have to control for age. That is, take age into account in a statistical analysis of group differences in whatever you are measuring. Socioeconomic status also matters, since poor people typically have poorer diets, exercise less, smoke and drink more, engage in riskier sex and do drugs more, have poorer health care, see doctors and dentists less often, and so on, and all these things also influence health and healing, so these too must be controlled for. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Anecdotes about this or that person who got healed by Dr. Savage (or any one of hundreds of other alternative medical treatments available on the Internet and other alternative sources outside mainstream medicine) are completely meaningless from a scientific perspective because of the problem I’ve described above.

What needs to be done to properly test Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk would be to, say, have a sample size of 75 people, all of whom are burned in precisely the same manner, with the same technique (e.g., cigarette burn), at the same temperature, in the same place on the body, etc., then treat 25 of them with Dr. Savage’s technique, 25 with standard medical treatment, and 25 get no treatment whatsoever. Then see if there are any measurable differences between the three groups. Studies such as this, which typically involve much larger sample sizes (usually in the hundreds or thousands) take many months—sometimes years—to complete. It can’t be done in one setting. That’s the only way to know if something works or not.

So, although I can certainly sense in your passion that you believe Dr. Savage can heal burn patients, there’s really only one way to know for sure and that is to conduct a test such as what I’ve outlined above (although there are others I could propose as well). But for both legal and ethical reasons that I’ve communicated to Richard Greene, it is very unlikely we could ever get permission to conduct any such test on humans, and even animals might be difficult to get approval for such a burn test that would inflict harm and damage. I don’t personally feel comfortable burning rats or any other animal for such a test. I’m not a member of PETA, and I don’t in principle object to animal testing, but I personally wouldn’t do it myself and I would prefer that medical research make more efforts to avoid it where possible using, say, computer models for testing.

What would be helpful to me is if someone can tell me exactly what it is that Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk can do. We need very specific definitions of what constitutes a “healing” and over what time frame. Wounds naturally heal anyway. Let’s say a cigarette burn normally heals in 10 days. What is it that Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk can do? Can they heal it in 9 days? 8? 1? Five minutes? And what does this healing look like? Does the skin just magically grow over the wound such that you can’t even see any scarring? And over what time frame? Again, the problem is that people vary a lot in such conditions. For example, one person perhaps heals from a cigarette burn in 6 days, someone else in 15 days, with a general population average of 10 days. So what if the person Dr. Savage happened to heal was one of those who heals in 6 days, and he then claims to have done the healing in 6 days when in fact he did not. Does that make sense? You see the problem here, right?

Finally, although, again, I can sense in the passion of your words that you believe the claims of Dr. Savage, please be aware that there are thousands of people just like him all over the world making equally bold claims about healing cancer, AIDS, paralysis, weight loss, depression, and the like. Not one has ever been able to prove their claims under controlled conditions such as those I’ve outlined above. Not one. Ever. So what’s more likely? That Dr. Savage is the first person in history to actually be the real deal, or that he’s just like the thousands of others making such claims? For those who know him, such as yourself, the answer is likely to be “yes, he’s the one, the only one, ever, and how fortunate that we get to live at the same time as him and know him.” But to the rest of us on the outside who don’t know him, his claims are indistinguishable from the thousands of others just like him making similarly extraordinary claims.

If anyone reading this blog has an idea of how we can test Dr. Pronk and Dr. Savage in some controlled manner beyond what I’ve described herewith and that would not violate ethical standards outlined by ethics committees that regulate the ethical treatment of experimental subjects I would be appreciative of your thoughts on the matter.

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66 Responses to “Burning Man”

  1. Peter Ozzie Jones says:

    Hello Dr. Shermer
    every few months I go to my GP to have my solar keratoses and other strange things growing on me “burnt” off with some liquid N2. Occasionally this is replaced with the use of a chemo agent (Efudex cream applied topically) to tackle multiple small keratoses. The instructions are to continue to apply nightly until the area ulcerates.

    All of this is kinda painful.
    It is like an actual heat burn, is slow to heal and looks baaaad.
    There must be thousands of cases like mine here in this ozone depleted part of the globe.

    It would be overseas phone calls and there may be issues of time zones etc.
    Also we only understand Australian English.
    But I am sure we’d cope, though their names may result in some alarm and confusion.

    - Peter Jones, Western Australia (+8hrs GMT)

    PS We shook hands after your talk downunder a while back on that Science Week trip

  2. Dave the Language Snob says:

    Interesting article. It will be fascinating to track down some of the “cures.” History suggests that these will prove to be fraudulent, even if unintended.

    BTW, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” not “the proof is in the pudding.” Here, “proof” = “test.” No matter how good something looks, the performance is what counts.

    • Miles R. says:

      Thanks for remarking that, Dave. The saying “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” is a pithy one that is worth preserving. The widely circulated degradation of it, “The proof is in the pudding,” is just a senseless combination of words.

      • Max says:

        I prefer the degraded one. It means the proof of your skill or your claims is in your product or data.

  3. Astrogarden says:

    When I hear of these things my first thought (being just a bit scientific) is: What is the mechanism? How does this work? Most of the
    so-called explanations are non-specific, loaded with cool sciency sounding buzzwords, lots of hand waving and explain (much less prove) nothing.

    OK, so how does this work?

    • Somite says:

      Exactly. The simple sieve of lack of mechanism takes care of most skeptical claims.

    • Max says:

      How does consciousness work? How does general anesthesia work? How does asbestos cause cancer? Why is ice slippery? When the evidence is indisputable, you don’t need to know how something works to know that it does.

      • Somite says:

        In all those cases the effect is clearly demonstrated and there is no stretch of the laws of physics or principles of biology. Healing burns by cell phone is neither.

      • Max says:

        There are discoveries that do stretch the laws of physics, like the accelerating expansion of the universe, explained with the “sciency sounding buzzword” dark energy, so you can’t dismiss everything that stretches the laws of physics, but of course you need solid evidence that rules out other more mundane explanations.

      • tmac57 says:

        The first step before evaluating HOW some improbable event takes place,is IF it takes place.
        In this case,that still seems to be an open question.

      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        +Max.

        The sine qua non of science is that it tries to find out.

        (I cannot imagine that it is possible to over-state that point)
        You are 100% correct that there are plenty of natural phenomena for which we have no good explanations (to take two from my field: convection and turbulence – we only have crude approximations to these and when compared against the real world they quickly diverge from reality). The point about science is that we try to to figure out *how* it works.

        There is value in this: if we know ‘how’ asbestos causes cancer we are more likely to determine other related carcinogens … and maybe better preventions & cures.

        BTW: I wanted to compliment you: I prefer stating questions in the form of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ since it often leads to a better description of what it is that scientists are trying to figure out.

      • Somite says:

        ATurbulence and convection are readily observable. In claims like these usually both the observation and possible mechanism are lacking.

      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        Wow.

        You broached such a cool concept I wish the skepticblog had a forum just about ‘scientific evidence’ – I wrote a lecture on this to address a student who kept pestering me about alien abductions, etc.

        The long and short of it is this: there are a few we can ‘directly’ observe (AKA measure) but most things we cannot. For example, you cannot directly measure you mass. At best you can compare your mass to some known mass (in some form or another).

        You cannot measure your temperature either. Convection & turbulence? Hell it is easier to measure a wife’s intention (sorry that was not gender sensitive ;)

        How do we measure ‘dark matter’ (or as the discoverer, Franz Zwicky, called it “the missing matter”) by measuring the gravitational effect of matter and comparing it to the amount of light (and distribution of it) that we get. We have a good idea of the luminosity-mass relationship for stars and for ISM so we look at galaxies and make our measurements and the mass comes out to be ~10 times the amount we can account for in the form of Stars and ISM. So Dr Zwicky said “WTF?” there is some matter there which is missing from the luminous measurement.

        Actually, it is probably as solid as some of the ‘blood work’ you’ve had done!

      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        BTW: How doe we measure mass in space?

        I just gave this lecture: Kepler’s Third Law.

        It’s about as reliable as using Hook’s law to measure mass in a bathroom scale!

      • Somite says:

        As “tenuous” or abstract as those measurements are they can be independently verified. The same can not be said of most (all?) woo claims.

  4. Jon says:

    I’d start with some of his extraordinary claims that are easier to test. Does he really claim to speak 17 languages, play 17 instruments and have 3 advanced degrees? That seems easy enough to test. If he’s lying about those, the chances that he’s lying about treating burns goes from 99.99…% to 100%. Why even bother with this shmuck? Burn treatment is very long and very painful and, therefore, is highly susceptible to suggestion and magical thinking.

    • tmac57 says:

      My thoughts exactly.Have you been tested for ESP? ;)

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Jon: Change in the burns themselves or change in the feelings of the patient about the burns “is highly susceptible to suggestion and magical thinking”? I suspect you mean the latter. And I doubt that the former is.

  5. Michael- the protocol you outline is, as you say, ethically impossible. You cannot inflict an injury on a subject to see what happens, nor can you withhold standard therapy.

    Using burns inflicted as part of therapy is a possibility.

    But another way to go is to use sequential patients in 1 or more ER type settings, and randomize them to either treatment group (call the phone number) or placebo (calling another number that garners a similar response, but that does not go the the healer). Subjects would need to be assessed for their baseline severity (severity and disbribution of burns, pain, etc.) and their outcomes (pain, scarring, other complications, assessed at several defined points in time). You can also stratify the groups – randomize men, women, different racial groups, and different age groups separately – or just hope that randomization works and then assess the success of randomization – compare the two groups for their mix of subjects.

    You can then compare the outcomes of the two groups at various points in time. There will be a range of outcomes, but you can score them in terms of their improvement from baseline, and percentage of skin left with scars vs percentage of skin initially burned to various degrees. The statistics will be a bit complicated, but if there is the huge effect that they are claiming it should be obvious even in this kind of study.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I think Dr. Novella has described the basis of the proper experimental design to be used with real burn patients. All the patients would have to be given the standard medical treatment for their burns, but differences in healing rates could be assessed for the placebo vs. “distance healer” groups. “Blinded conditions” would need to be used. It would be especially important that those who evaluated improvement did not know to which group the patients had been assigned. It would take a lot of patients to dot this properly. Michael Shermer and the “distant healer” (or the claimant) would have to agree on a criterion of success from the outset. I don’t think the overall cost of the study would be too great.

    • Petrucio says:

      All that is fine and good, but why are we really posting suggestions here, when we have ample evidence to suggest that Shermer never bothers to read any comments on his own posts? I’d be happy to be proven wrong this time, but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Janet Camp says:

    What is the point of “testing” something that has zero plausibility. This is what NCCAM wastes so much money on–incessant testing of things that have no reasonable mechanism of action to begin with. Why cater to those who have no basic understanding of science to begin with rather that working on remedying that lack?

    The lack of any effectiveness of faith healing (and its ilk) has been debunked before. The believers will never stop believing. Better to keep educating the fence-sitters who might be open to rational thinking. Perhaps that is your intent.

    • Max says:

      Why does the JREF Million Dollar Challenge test implausible claims? To counter the argument that we’re closed-minded and dismissive of anything that challenges the current paradigm.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Why test claims such as these which are so implausible? 1) To reduce or eliminate the current popularity of the belief in the claim. 2) To prevent the increase in popularity of the belief. 3) To help prevent people from wasting their money, if they are paying something for this. 4) To help prevent people from being disappointed when they discover that the “treatment” doesn’t work. 5) To discourage people from being distracted by this treatment and delaying proper medical treatment. 6) To provide evidence for trials in which these purveyors or others are charged with fraud. 7) To advance the storehouse of knowledge showing that “psychic healing from a distance” is ineffective. (This can also be generalized to prayer.) and 8) To do what another has suggested — show that we are open-minded about these things.

  7. oldebabe says:

    These kinds of claims seem just plain kooky, and IMO are just a waste of any investigator’s time. I suppose they gain acceptance because they are viewed as helping people `in a world of hurt’, but it’s still amazing to me that anyone in the academic and/or scientific community takes it really seriously. It’s one thing to be skeptical, but surely there’s a limit.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      It’s not a waste of the investigator’s time if he is being paid for his work and if he is contributing to our scientific knowledge of the world.

  8. BillG says:

    Michael, my first response would be to ignore this band of “ditzoids” – perhaps your time and resources have other priorities. But this may compound his legendary status by claiming refusal from the scientific community for testing.

    Another thought, you have a multi-layer of flim-flam here, enough material for a full issue of Skeptic Magazine or chapter on all things bunk.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      If I understand the situation correctly, Michael is being asked to perform a test by the claimants. This could be a great opportunity to show how it should be done. I’m willing to send in $50 for a proper scientific test to be done. I suspect that the claimants would not agree to proper scientific protocol. This is what usually happens. Look at the record of James Randi on this.

  9. John K. says:

    In addition to all the other specifics called for, I am curious as to what happens at the 30 minute mark that makes the “treatment” ineffective. As pointed out earlier, this claim is particularly easy to delude yourself with, since almost all burns will do some healing over time, and the time limit provides an easy escape if there is not enough improvement. If limited results can be demonstrated, it seems like a trip to the burn ward could at least be a start. Otherwise the claim remains suspiciously un-testable.

    It may not be much more ethical, but I am tempted to ask this person to deliberately burn and then heal themselves. Is the phone an integral part of the process? I suspect that such a straightforward display is “not how it works”. Any rational person has to just leave this in the no evidence category, and no evidence means no belief.

    The real tragedy in testing this would be the inevitable ad hoc rationalizations for the negative results, which could only be resolved by more testing and burning more people.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Ad hoc or post hoc rationalizations would be fruitless since the claimants would have to agree to the protocol and a standard of success ahead of time. They would have to say something like “our method will produce at least 50% faster healing of burns than the control group at the end of 30 days.”

  10. Max says:

    Mr. Greene’s credentials as “a professional in non-verbal communication and body language” don’t reassure me about his “professional opinion” of Dr. Pronk’s “impeccable integrity” and “overwhelmingly solid and believable” testimonials.

  11. Bob Woolley says:

    Perhaps you could enlist the community of body alteration enthusiasts. Some of them brand themselves intentionally, or have a friend or tattoo artist do it for them. The burn is deep enough that it will leave a scar, which is the intended result. This gets around the problem of inflicting injury on people or animals for purposes of experimentation, because they’re going to be doing it anyway.

    I’m talking here about a single-subject trial. If his claim is that 100% of burn subjects calling him within 30 minutes will have reversal of 100% of the skin damage within a few days at most, one subject is sufficient to disprove that claim, with no need for either a control group or any statistical analysis of endpoints. Perhaps you’d get lucky enough, though, to find two friends who both wanted a brand done, and would do it at the same time, using the same method. Of course, there will be the kind of differences you mention above (natural rates of healing, exact depth of the wound, etc.), but if a month later photographs show that both brands are plainly visible, the claim is disproven, even if there are minor differences in the appearance of the two scars. A claim of 100% skin healing will not need precise measurement.

    If he would commit to a shorter time frame for healing (say, 24 hours outside), then you could do something similar with a volunteer getting a sunburn, either in a tanning booth or via Old Sol. Induce moderate sunburn (which is a 1st degree burn–and his claim covers such) on one arm while keeping the other covered, call him, see if the skin on the burned arm is still demonstrably redder than the control side. Again, this isn’t a subtle effect; anybody who has had a moderate sunburn knows that it’s still red and painful 24 hours later. His only out here is the “few days” ceiling on the healing time frame, which is why this method would require him committing to something more limited and specific.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I wouldn’t be willing to invest money in a test involving one subject, and I don’t think most skeptics or other funding sources would either. One hallmark of science is replication.

  12. Astrogarden says:

    First, there is solid evidence, carefully gathered and extensively peer-reviewed, for the EXISTENCE of dark energy (as well as dark matter). The same cannot be said for the healing claims discussed. The very fact that tests are being discussed proves that.

    Second, there ARE proposed and scientifically reasonable mechanisms for the phenomena you mention. If none have yet been settled upon, it simply speaks to the process. There are no such mechanisms offered, that I am aware of, for this guy’s claims.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Yes!
      If people are going to make unfair comparisons between quackery and (semI) legit science at least pick on something like String Theory ;)

    • Max says:

      So not knowing how something works is ok as long as you can propose some reasonable-sounding explanation of how it might work, like the miasma theory of malaria (literally “bad air”).

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      +Max.

      You are kinda, sorta on the right track here. There are some tings about science that scientists & skeptics don’t like to mention but they are really true:

      1) A scientific theory doesn’t have to be 100% accurate (never say ‘true’ – truth is the province of philosophers and theologians – scientists want accuracy) it just has to be ‘good enough’ – when it stops being ‘good enough’ it is time to improve it or replace it.

      2) A ‘proposed theory’ is a(n) hypothesis – until is has survived many, many tests it will not be accepted. So the ‘miasma theory’ of malaria was OK as long as it provided detailed testable predictions – if it turned out to be inaccurate, well, them’s is the breaks not every hypothesis is a winner. (Did you know that only 50% of the teams which make it to the superbowl win? ;)

      3) Science is *about* figuring out how things work. If we knew how things worked we wouldn’t need scientists. The point is you start with what you ‘know’ and go from there — but you have to be willing to re-examine what it is that you thought you knew (that’s what grad students are for ;)

      4) There are ways to express ideas which aren’t as off-putting – and if I could only master those ways I’d be a lot more persuasive and influential … .and thus I could achieve the ultimate of all scientists goals: lotsa, lotsa funding.

  13. Steve says:

    Michael,

    There are places people go for scarification. Intentionally branding would put a consistent type of burn at a consistent temperature. A group of these people could get differing treatment after being burnt and the results could be recorded.

    • Christine says:

      Now there’s a great idea! I would think the type of situation described above would meet both parties’ criteria and also eliminate any type of ethical or “mental trauma” obstacle as it is being done with consent. I’m obviously not a doctor of any kind…just my two cents.

    • Max says:

      Some ranches still brand cattle and horses.

  14. Afton says:

    I was approached at a convention in LA years ago by a British woman trying to tell me of the wonders of the fire burn doctor. I nodded politely, half listening, and we exchanged cards as you do at conventions, and I was on my way. Over the next year or more, I would receive repeated calls and emails from this woman trying to convince me of this doctor’s skills. With each call, I became more and more dismissive of her, very frankly expressing my disbelief. She called one day, and I was part upset with myself for even entertaining the idea, yet part curious as to what she might say, and I began asking her many of the same very specific questions Michael asks in his letters above.

    That was the last call I ever got. However, I thought if she were to still persist with her calls, why not use her as a test subject? If these disciples of this doctor have such faith in his methods, why not give them a hot iron to grab hold of so they may demonstrate how a 3rd degree burn vanishes within a few days? I know we’re very much about a good scientific method here, but if I saw someone with an arm of bubbling skin on Monday, and no signs of scarring whatsoever on Thursday, that would be enough for me to at least raise an eyebrow.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      Merely “raise an eyebrow” or believe the healer’s claim? Once again, we should not trust a test on one subject no matter how amazing it might seem. Controlled conditions. Random assignment. Replication.

  15. Greg Cream says:

    Hello Dr. Shermer,like Peter Jones quoted below,I too get burned regularly. Peter and I may even go to the same doctor. (Victoria Park?)
    I hereby offer to make myself available as a guinea pig for the proving of the telephonic healing powers of the sincere but all too readily suspected fake or otherwise overstated powers of the charlatans. Should they fail, can we burn them at the stake?

    There are thousands of Perth residents alone who would happily avail themselves of an immediate burn healing process.

    While we are at it, its worth Googling Perths Fiona Wood, a true miracle worker for burns victims, minus the magic. Her work can be verified. Just ask any victim of the Bali Bombings.

    “every few months I go to my GP to have my solar keratoses and other strange things growing on me “burnt” off with some liquid N2. Occasionally this is replaced with the use of a chemo agent (Efudex cream applied topically) to tackle multiple small keratoses. The instructions are to continue to apply nightly until the area ulcerates”.

  16. Sam says:

    What about persons who are having a tattoo removed? There may be enough consistency in procedure and personal background to allow for somewhat of a scientific analysis. Because it is a medical procedure maybe it would be easier to include controls and placebos?

  17. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Michael,

    I’m not sure if your plea was serious or just a ‘hook’ to broach discussion on these particular quacks. If you are seriously trying to ‘crowd source’ the design of medical experiment, I advise against it.

    I’m not a medical researcher, and I invite any medical researchers to correct me if I’m wrong but … but while in grad school I spent some time as a number-cruncher/instrument deisgner in medical research (which is waaaay outside my field) and I found that experiments on living people or animals require paperwork which is astronomically greater than typical in the physical sciences. You have to submit the experiment designs to an ‘office of ethics’ ensure you’re not doing another ‘Milgram Experiment’ or something (it isn’t just physical harm you must avoid).

    Crowd sourcing this sort of experimental design seems like a bad way to go about it – we might as well crowd source the design of a space telescope. There are so many details which are ‘deal breakers’ that most of us don’t know that our opinions are worthless.

    Although I always offer moral support to skeptics movements, sometimes I am astonished at the lack of appreciation of how hard it is to design, build and execute a formal scientific experiment. Sure we skeptics pay lip service to it, but the fact is it takes years of experience in a field before one can design a test. This is why grad students work as apprentices to scientists (professors) and often go on as post-docs under other scientists before they can step out on their own and conduct good, solid research. [BTW: It is equally astonishing that they'd ask a non-medical researcher to test a medical claim... it belittles the whole vast field of medical research as if to say "Anybody can do it!"]

    • Christine says:

      I read this blog every time a new post is up and I know that you comment quite often and with thoughtful insights (as opposed to me) but I think you may be wrong on this one. The ‘argument’ isn’t whether or not to DO the experiment (however difficult it may be) but HOW it could be done. Crowd-sourcing is a valid way of receiving input and feedback from a variety of sources. Collaboration may not be the norm, but it is valuable:

      http://www.ted.com/talks/michelle_borkin_can_astronomers_help_doctors.html

      Also, the ‘anybody can do it!’ comment may be warranted except you may be, perhaps, missing two crucial points: 1)You assume that no one who replies here is capable or trained in medical research (again, unlike me) and 2) That maybe Mr. Shermer knows his limitations and THAT is why he’s asking for help.

      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        +Christine.

        Wow. You made some very good points. I want to clear up my comment because I think we’re thinking the same thing – also I am not making the assumptions that you suspect I am ( I could have addressed everything in my message but it is poor form to write a comment which is significantly longer than the blog post ;)

        Really the crux of my post relates to this: I think that too many skeptics are so fixated on the importance of evidence-based reasoning that they forget that a deep knowledge of the field in question is as valuable. That is why we don’t hire High School students with great critical thinking skills as scientists. Critical thinking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for scientific research. I think that whenever skeptic communities begin discussing testing claims we need to bring this up. Knowledge of the field is as important as the reasoning skills.

        If there are medical researchers on this list great! And if Dr Mike were casting his net out broadly for help in this, fabulous. And maybe that is exactly what he is doing. But the rational thinking inside me thinks, “Hey Michael Schemer has been around the block a few times, he *knows* people who do medical research so he doesn’t need to send an open invitation to the web. In fact, based on the track record of comments of the Skepticblog, that would be foolish because there’s a *lot* of rubbish posted here.”

      • Christine says:

        Point taken and I think we ARE on the same page. ;0) I had the very same gut-reaction to his request for help…’he *must* know people who specialize in this field’ was my first thought too (although I still hold to the theory that new ideas can come from the least expected place.) I have since read more of the comments here and it has been said that he rarely, if ever, reads these posts. How that information is known is beyond me but if true, then then your comment ‘I’m not sure if your plea was serious or just a ‘hook’ to broach discussion’ is an appropriate critique.

    • Christine says:

      I forgot to add that post #1 and post #11 are great examples of ideas that could start the discussion.

    • tmac57 says:

      One reason that you can never devise a test that is foolproof,is that fools are so remarkably ingenious.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      I see no problem at all with Michael soliciting ideas, suggestions, and opinions from the skeptic community about this. Of course, if he does conduct an actual test, he is going to bring in experts to help in the design. Besides, many who read his blog are already experts. Did you notice that “Steven Novella” has made a comment here? Google his name.

      A replication of the Milgrim Experiment was recently done, filmed, and presented in a documentary on TV.

      In my opinion, you way overestimate the difficulty of designing an adequate test of the claim involved here.

  18. Neal Koss says:

    I am a surgeon with a fair amount of experience in treating burn victims and a reasonable understanding of the physiology of the burn wound. I know you want to give these fakes their due, but please don’t waste your time. There is no magical cure to treat the devastating injury caused by a burn. When I was in training a 50% was usually lethal; now we are able to save many 80% burns, although quality of life still leaves something to be desired in many cases. Through the use of appropriate topical agents, physical therapy, fluid management and of course, surgery, we have improved the odds. No magic is going to make a difference. In summary, don’t give these people a forum to spout their foolishness which might give unfortunate burn patients false hope.

    • Gary Whittenberger says:

      The forum is about discussing why and how a test of the claim might be made. That false hope would be increased by this forum seems highly unlikely. False hope in the described intervention is already there for some people! A well-designed scientific study could help to dispel that false hope or prevent it from arising in others.

      Charlatans usually avoid scientific testing. Just ask James Randi. This case is unusual in that the alleged healer and his promoters are apparently asking for scientific testing.

  19. Ann Ryan says:

    Looks like this “doctor” has been around for a while, here is an interesting article from the BBC, 2009.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/southwest/series9/week_nine.shtml

  20. Greg H says:

    As soon as I read it, I thought the same as Steven Novella – a blind test where the injury victims call the “healer”, but randomly get either the healer or a close imitation. Neither the patient nor the doctor need to know who they talk to. They just need to be given a code number over the telephone.
    The burn patient can then continue normal treatment. There is, of course, a lot of variability in the burns and the recovery, but with enough patients treated, the extreme claims of cure rates could be verified.
    Another advantage to this style of test is that the tendency of only those patients who believe in the test (and are therefore prone to placebo benefits) to agree becomes irrelevant. They all want to believe, so they all might have some placebo benefit, irrespective of whether they talked to a healer – so the effect cancels out.

  21. Doris W says:

    You would think that if Sauvage could heal burns to animal flesh, he could do the same for plants. Testing his supposed powers on plants would avoid all of the messy legal and ethical requirements for burn testing on people or animals. Plus it would be cheap. Easy to have a large test and control groups, too.

  22. MadScientist says:

    Given Sauvage’s own proclivities, I believe it would be ethical to subject Sauvage to third degree burns and allow Pronk to demonstrate the magic.

    In the photos posted above, the burn victim obviously had her burns cleaned and dressed by a skilled physician. The pain would be incredible but can be controlled and infection would have been one of the greatest ongoing threats. I would attribute the child’s recovery to competent medics.

    Rather than waste time thinking about how Pronk and Sauvage can demonstrate their magic, I would put effort into looking for the cases in which people relied on these frauds and the burn victims died. The medics in charge of burn victims may also be interviewed without asking for information that would breach confidentiality. I would ask, for example, if they have had cases in which they believed the patient would have died if not for miraculous intervention.

    • Don says:

      I second the idea of having Sauvage be burned and then have Pronk heal him! I’m sure Sauvage would readily agree (not).

      A controlled experiment would not need a lot of patients if the goal is to rule out the dramatic healing effect that is claimed by these bozos. But of course, after the experiment they would revise their claims to providing just a modest benefit!

  23. Mary says:

    Anyone who doubts this man’s messiah complex should take a look at this page taken from one of his websites.
    http://www.thulea.org/pages/avallach/av202.html

    The more I research this man and what he represents the more terrifying it becomes.

  24. Kayna says:

    I too am a skeptic, I am also someone who called this number and had a second degree burn become painless in a few hours. I didn’t interact with Dr Sauvage but with another doctor in California. Luckily I took photos of the event over those four hours otherwise I’d doubt my recollection of the event. I can’t claim to know what happened or how, but I can claim to have had a burn healed overnight. I am happy to share the photos with anyone interested.

  25. Aya Thorgren says:

    These people are really dangerous, when questioning things they tried to kill me, its not about if they can do it, its why. They use trance and hypnosis weaved in the writings and when you are near any of their volunteers they have tecniques as to make you feel comfortable , they say all teh woman feel like they want to have sex with him when they see him , he is a very large man with extraordinary powers and possibly even extraterrestial origins ( have you heard of the ancient story of Annanuki and I am not kidding), he is married to two women. He goes under the name WES ANNAC in Aquarius Channeling Blog where he is infiltrating the Lightworkers talking about leaving the Planet on 2012 and when they see the ships , to go, its a total plan to control all of humanity.

    • randy says:

      Sauvage and his followers are the worst kind of con artists. Taking advantage of people who want to be healed. Everything aya thorgen says in this post is true. I have a close friend who has basically been brainwahed by Sauvage into believing his bullshit and giving him large amounts of money for so-called treatments. He was introduced to Sauvage by one of the Fire burn doctors disciples. It kills me to see this happen, but I am not able to get through to him. Savauge is pure evil and truly the scum of the earth. If you know anyone who is being seduced into this scam try everthing you can do to stop it before it is too late.

  26. Honeyb says:

    About 6 years ago this man was using his ‘disciples’ to try and extort large sums of cash from sick people in the UK. promising miracle cures for illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. I and many of my family and friends received repeated and insistent phone calls asking if we knew anyone who was ‘really sick’ and ‘didn’t we want to help them?’. One acquaintance with MS was considering trying the ‘therapy’ but couldn’t come up with the £30000 (not a fee – just covering ‘costs’!!) and it was suggested that the money be borrowed from a bank. This man is a cynical shit-bag who preys on the desperate. Vile.