If tongues could talk, what would your dentist say?


Most pseudomedical modalities can be divided into three distinct types.

The first of these is detox, where a pseudomedic takes it upon themselves to declare arbitrary substances “toxins” and seeks to purge them from your body. c.f. chelation, colonic irrigation, quack diets, etc.

The second is vitalism, which holds that there is some sort of “vital energy” or spark which “powers” your body.  Any flaw in this vital energy will make you sick; fixing said flaw will make you well.  This forms the basis of acupuncture, chiropractic, reiki and therapeutic touch – just about anything that requires the manipulation of our “energy fields” (whatever the hell that means).

The third type of pseudomedicine is the homunculus. An homunculus is a tiny effigy, or other representation, of a human being, most familiar to philosophers from the homunculus argument; and to Doctor Who fans as Mr Sin from The Talons of Weng-Chiang.  In a medical context, an homunculus is when a part of the body is said to represent the whole.  The quack, er, I mean, holistic life therapy coach guru specialist… or whatever… then diagnoses (by reading) or treats (by manipulating) the patient’s malaise via the homunculus. This approach forms the basis of reflexology, iridology and (to a lesser extent) palmistry and phrenology.

Homunculus therapies are pre-medical and pseudoscientific, with a view on how the body works that hasn’t changed since the middle ages. They take no account of anatomy, chemistry, biology or evolution. Face it, if you have e. coli in your kidneys, it doesn’t matter how hard you rub the middle of your foot, it’s not going to go away.

That bastion of love and tolerance, the Daily Mail, seems blissfully unaware of this and has cheerfully published an uncritical and credulous story by Christopher Middleton, describing a visit to the “holistic dentist” Dr John Roberts. Dr Roberts runs a dental practice in West Yorkshire which combines ordinary dentistry with quackery, and calls it an “holistic approach”.  Middleton’s article focuses on “tongue diagnosis”, which Roberts claims he can use to identify his patient’s medical problems.

The John Roberts Holistic Dental Practice is the “only dental practice in Britain where they don’t just fill your teeth; they analyse your tongue” using “common sense” and “the specific teaching of traditional Chinese medicine”.  Ah, yes… the ancient Chinese!  Guardians of all knowledge and wisdom, or so it would seem.  I’ve never understood why people put so much stock in the ancient Chinese.  Ancient civilisations possessed very little useful or true information about human anatomy or disease.  In the centuries that followed, science has uncovered vast amounts of information about how the human body operates, and little (if any) of it sits in line with the guesswork of the ancient Chinese.  Or Indians.  Or Native Americans.

When Traditional Chinese Medicine™ ruled the roost, the life expectancy in China was a mere 36 years.  Following the introduction of evidence-based medicine from the West, that has more than doubled to 73.  Though I’m sure they tried their best, they simply did not have the tools we have today for investigating the human body and how it works.

Sadly, no-one has thought to mention any of this to Dr Roberts, who claims his “tongue diagnosis” technique works because the twelve meridians of Traditional Chinese Medicine™ converge on the tongue.  Although I’ve only had a quick Google, none of the web sites I’ve found which describe meridian theory indicate that this is the case.  Most of them don’t mention the tongue at all.  You’d think they’d all mention such an important concept as a common terminator, wouldn’t you?  But, alas, no.  It seems Roberts can’t abide by the rules of his chosen quackery, never mind the rules of science.

Setting aside plausibility for the moment though, does Roberts’ technique actually work?  I mean, he diagnosed Middleton’s lactose intolerance quickly enough… didn’t he?

Well, no.  Roberts actually suggested that Middleton may have “liver problems”, which Middleton quickly linked to his recent diagnosis of lactose intolerance.  Even taking into account that we’re getting this information from a second-hand retelling, it sounds very much like Roberts is simply cold reading.  Throw out the generalisations and let the sitter link it to the specifics.  You can be sure that if Middleton had replied that his liver was fine, Roberts would have told him that it wasn’t and he should get it checked. Or that he may have a problem with his liver soon.  Liver problems aren’t uncommon, it’s a fairly safe bet.

Roberts also suggests Middleton suffers from “frustration” and “anger issues”.  Cold readers love “anger issues”, because it’s a hit either way.  Either the person genuinely has a nasty temper and you score a great hit… or they don’t and you can turn it into a great hit by claiming they have issues, but keep them under control.  As for frustration – who doesn’t get frustrated sometimes?

Born and raised in Liverpool, local boy Roberts doesn’t limit his nonsense to tongue diagnosis.  His staff will also pump your colon full of water and call it “colonic hydrotherapy”; sell you ritually empowered magic water and call it “homeopathy”; rub your feet and call it “reflexology”; rub your head and call it “craniosacral therapy”; rub your back and call it a “detox massage”; tell you all your problems are someone elses fault and call it “NLP”; claim you’re allergic to wheat and dairy then call it “nutritional counselling”; and pop you into a cabinet full of toxic gas and call it an “ozone sauna”.

Blimey. If I tried to debunk that lot, we’d be here all day.

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  1. #1 by Andy on July 30, 2009 - 18:12

    I went and posted a comment on this article discussing poor quality journalism and credulous unchallenging reporting. THEY DIDN’T PRINT IT!

    Ok, maybe not all that surprised. It says there are 12 comments but I can only see 6.

  2. #2 by N Robertson on August 3, 2011 - 11:44

    Can’t comment on all the treatments on offer but can confirm from personal experience that his dentistry does work. After being seriously ill for 6 years and seeing 7 dentist and 3 consultants who all told me my problems were not teeth related (based on x-rays showing no problems) he listened to what I was telling him and acted accordingly, irrespective of results from an x-ray. I went from being in severe pain and not being able to walk up 2 flights of stairs to getting back into regular exercise.

(will not be published)