The purpose of this blog is purely educational. It does not advise any reader to forgo medical treatment for any condition. It describes methods that have not yet been proven effective through widespread scientific testing. Readers who are concerned about their health are advised to contact their physician.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Are you allowed to know about "energy healing"?

Recently I participated in a vigorous debate on a sceptical blog about the merits of energy healing. The participants wanted me to learn about the importance of science-based medicine, but what I learned instead was a lesson about the human propensity to develop lynch mobs. All it takes is a group of passionate, like-minded individuals, a single outlier, and a few maliciously inclined, self-righteous people who shout "let's go get 'er!" for the pitchforks and the torches to come out. It was a sobering lesson. I got the distinct feeling that if this were the Middle Ages some of the people there would have cheerfully burned me and my ilk at the stake and felt good about themselves for doing it too.

The issue at hand was whether "energy healing" is real. I cited studies on my side of the debate; they cited studies on theirs. The studies I most relied on were Dr. Bengston's studies with mice, in particular the ones described in his paper "The 'Laying on of Hands' in Transplanted Breast Cancer in Mice." For the uninitiated, this paper refers to four studies in which mice injected with a fatal form of breast cancer were treated with a form of energy healing. They should have all died within 27 days, but instead 87.9% of them survived and recovered. But the kicker is that a large percentage of the control group also survived. According to Dr. Bengston, once the first two control mice died, he peeked in on the surviving controls, and then they too went into remission. Thinking that there was maybe a field effect, in a subsequent experiment he also used outside controls, housed in a different building. Those controls died on schedule.

According to the sceptics, the survival of the control mice made all the experiments invalid. The whole point of using controls is that it is their death that makes the experiment viable. Even though the remotely housed control mice died, for the sceptics they "didn't count". The fact that Dr. Bengston did multiple experiments at several accredited institutions didn't count. It is supposed that several separate sets of lab technicians at different institutions using different sets of mice all somehow made fundamental errors; or that all these different sets of mice, obtained from Jackson Labs and bred to be used in cancer research, were all somehow defective; or that the cancer, usually virulently fatal, simply did not take in any of the experiments. What are the odds?

On their side they quoted as most authoritative a science fair experiment, conducted by 9-year-old Emily Rosa, in which Therapeutic Touch practitioners were shown to be unable to detect the presence of a human energy field. Emily was helped to write up the experiment by Dr. Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch and her parents, and the paper was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This one study is supposed to prove, to everyone, for once and for all, forever and always, that energy healing in all its forms is bunk.

The sceptics just know that energy healing cannot possibly work. From their perspective for someone to suggest to cancer patients that something like Reiki might improve their quality of life is, in the absence of gold-plated, double-blind studies, a heinous lie. Never mind that many hospitals already have Reiki programs or that Dr. Oz's colleague, Dr. Sheldon Marc Feldman (Chief of the Division of Breast Surgery in New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center), followed in his footsteps in inviting Reiki practitioners into his operating room, and found Reiki to be helpful to patients. Dr. Oz's recommendation on his show that Americans should try Reiki just proved to the sceptics that he had "gone over to the Dark Side."

"It's just not scientific!"

From the sceptics' point of view energy healing at best only works because of the placebo effect. People just "think" they feel better; they don't "actually" feel better. The sceptic says so. They just imagine that their mobility has improved or that their knee no longer hurts. The sceptic says so. Healer and client are seen as locked in a mutual dance of self-deception. All because in the sceptic's mind energy healing could not possibly exist. It's just not scientific.

Never mind that there are scientists who accept the possibility of energy healing and want to know more. The scientists in "What the Bleep Do We Know?" The scientists in Lynn McTaggart's The Field. Many of the scientists with PhDs who are members of the Society for Scientific Exploration. William Tiller. Rupert Sheldrake, author of The Science Delusion. Even some medical doctors: Larry Dossey, Deepak Chopra, Bernie Siegel, Andrew Weill, and of course Mehmet Oz and his colleague Sheldon Marc Feldman above. All dismissed as having no credibility at all, despite their years of study and their multiple credentials, simply for being interested in phenomena that "real" science doesn't recognize.

So are you allowed to know about energy healing? Yes, you are. Are you allowed to make up your own mind about energy healing? Yes, you are. Are you allowed to try energy healing as an informed, consenting adult living in an ostensibly democratic society? You ought to be. But the sceptics' concern, and here they are being commendably humanitarian, is that you will forgo or delay important medical treatment in favour of "woo", their term for anything not backed by science which conveniently overlooks the fact that a good chunk of medical practice is not backed by science either. The answer is simple: don't forgo or delay medical treatment in favour of "woo". Be a responsible consumer of healthcare. Does that mean don't try energy healing, ever? No, it doesn't.

But there are some sceptics who go one step further to suggest that you should not even be able to try anything they define as "woo". If they had their way, "woo" would not be available for you to try. There would be no Reiki programs in hospitals. Practitioners would be prosecuted. This blog would not exist for you to read because I would not be allowed to write it.

For me, that's going just a bit too far.


Anonymous said...

Hi Judith,

Great blog.

Just came across a blogpost by another voice (from a very different field) that seems relevant.


Unknown said...

I do believe in the effect of using complementary and alternative medicine for cancer. But in touch/energy healing? not could be a placebo effect just like what others have said. If there will be a documentation about this, then maybe I will be convinced of its claim.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

What astounds me is how the skeptic rationalist materialist reductionist brigrade always shout "placebo Effect!" when any kind of alternative/energy medicine is shown to work. What they seem to conveniently forget is that placebo effect often constitutes thoughts having a bio chemical effect on the body which directly contravenes their own limited model of the the Universe operates! Great blog by the way :-)

elhnad said...

i'm a believer in energy healing, but i do have issues that, bengston, who claims to be so scientific based really couldn't reproduce or get his study reproduced so that the control mice died like they were supposed to. If your results were that promising you'd go the extra trouble to get it done so that nobody would argue with it. That's what dean radin does with his parapsychology research

elhnad said...

this is a great post full of useful info

Judith said...

Elhnad, the off site controls did die on schedule. All the same I agree with you that the experiments would be more authoritative if someone else was also able to reproduce them and I don't understand either why no one has tried.