From Abracadabra to Zombies
[Part I of this essay first appeared on the Skepticality podcast July 3, 2012.]
One of the more interesting fake healers debuted in Paris in the eighteenth century. Franz Anton Mesmer had many ladies convinced he could heal them of their various complaints by using magnets to tap into a new force that he called animal magnetism. He eventually figured out that he didn’t need the magnets. Just waving his hands did the trick. Modern day nurses practicing therapeutic touch seem to have hit upon the same formula, though they have replaced animal magnetism with a mysterious energy called chi or prana. Aura healers, chakra healers, and various types of energy healers have been practicing a similar craft under different names in different countries for centuries. In Japan, for example, the practice is known as reiki.
Like shamans, these healers have their rituals and they have had many satisfied customers. They’ve provided relief from such things as swelling, pain, nausea, headaches, anxiety, and an assortment of other ailments without the use of real medicine or surgery. And some of these healers have found that they can bring relief to their patients without even touching them or giving them any medicine at all. Some have found they can get the same results whether the patient is present or a thousand miles away. Like an unenlightened shaman who doesn't know that no matter what he does most of his patients recover, many energy healers have not awakened to the fact that most of their patients will recover no matter what they do and will credit the healer as long as he seems to care and know what he is doing.
Then there are the ones we commonly call “faith healers”—the Peter Popoffs and Benny Hinns of the world. These are the ones who know they are duping their clients. They callously take advantage of people in dire straits who believe in supernatural powers. They are joined by some unenlightened faith healers who really do think some god or spirit causes all illness and that healing requires divine intervention. Unlike shamans and energy healers with their many satisfied customers, however, we usually only hear about these unenlightened faith healers when one of their clients dies for lack of proper medical care. Often enough the victim is one of their own children.
Finally, there are the New Age healers who make no claims about the spirit world or mysterious energies, but who focus on patients whose main hurt is fear or stress itself. These healers often combine scientifically validated methods like cognitive behavioral therapy with the relaxation and stress reducing techniques known to shamans, energy healers, and faith healers. The New Age healers have their own little rituals like waving a crystal wand, rubbing various gemstones, placing weak magnets in various items, having the patient follow a light source moved by the healer, or tapping on various parts of the patient’s body. Seem to care, seem to be confident in your powers and in the power of your medicine, and your patient's stress level goes down, aiding greatly in recovery.
There are various explanations given by fake healers for what they think is going on in these healing experiences. Some of the explanations are rather simple, like the Chinese theory of chi running along meridians and occasionally getting blocked or clogged, thereby causing illness and disease. The energy healing is thought to unblock, unclog, move, or transfer energy, and that somehow, brings about healing. Some of the explanations are rather elaborate and involve reference to such things as vibrating sub-atomic particles, takionic energy, biofields, quantum mechanics, transcendent beings, extraneous energy trapped between cells, astral bodies, rewiring or restructuring the brain, or repatterning of neural pathways. These explanations, however clever they might be, have very little plausibility.
Is there any science that supports these various forms of fake healing or the explanations of how they work that have been proposed in their defense? Some say no, that it’s all a matter of faith and that these methods won’t work for non-believers. Others think there is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of various types of fake healing. I’ve looked at much of this evidence and I’d say that there is a growing body of evidence that many of the fake healing techniques I’ve mentioned work, when they do work, by the power of suggestion, classical conditioning, by relaxing the patient and reducing stress, by allowing symptoms to resolve themselves, by regression to the mean, and by a host of other factors that have been glibly referred to as the placebo effect. When New Age therapies work it seems that it is because they are built around a core of cognitive behavioral therapy, which they combine with their own unique rituals and the same kinds of things that work for other fake healers.
Fake healing is a grand delusion that has been around for as long as human communities have had healers. Is it a harmful delusion? Some, like Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff, take advantage of the delusion for their own fun and profit. Others really believe they are powerful healers, but they have no idea of the real reasons their patients improve. Some bring about their own child’s death because of their belief in faith healing. Some adult patients die because they choose to undergo some form of fake healing rather than see a science-based medical practitioner for an easily treatable condition. So, yes, the fake-healing delusion can be dangerous and hazardous to your health and the health of your loved ones.
Consider, for example, what happened to two energy healers who both died because they used their own form of energy healing instead of seeking proper medical treatment for diabetes and an infection.
Mary A. Lynch, a retired physician, and Debra Harrison, a massage therapist, created Consegrity, a type of energy medicine that involves a belief that disease is caused by extraneous energy being trapped between cells. Through their own form of ritual hocus-pocus they thought they could release this bad energy and thereby bring about healing.
Harrison was diabetic. She died in 2005 while being treated by Lynch with Consegrity. Presumably, Dr. Lynch provided the best healing energy that Consegrity can give, but was unable to assist Harrison with lowering her blood sugar below 900 mg/dl, which is what it measured at her death at age 55. The type of diabetes that Harrison had doesn’t resolve itself. Had she another type of diabetes, she might have controlled it with diet and exercise. Of course, given her investment in Consegrity, in her mind any recovery she might have made would have been due to the energy healing.
We might forgive Harrison, who was not trained in medicine, for her folly. Dr. Lynch is more puzzling. She was educated at a fine medical school and had practiced sports medicine for many years before turning to energy healing. A correspondent informed me that Lynch had a toe infection that she tried to treat with Consegrity. She refused antibiotics and eventually had the toe amputated. She continued to refuse antibiotics, left the hospital, and died at home from septic shock. She was 65. Many infections do resolve themselves. Unfortunately, some infections kill their hosts. You can bet, however, that the followers of Consegrity will find a way to rationalize these failures.
The fact that I refer to the energy healers, etc. as "fake" healers puts up a wall between me as a skeptic and them as human beings who truly believe they have healing powers. They find me offensive and my language puts them on the defensive. It is inevitable that the energy healers will react negatively to my criticisms. Would I be able to get an energy healer to engage in a serious debate with me about energy healing if I changed my tone? Perhaps. Would I be able to change the mind of a believer in energy healing if I were more tactful? I doubt it. I don't think I have any more of a chance of changing an energy healer's mind than the energy healer has of changing my mind about what is going on in energy healing.
Is it hopeless, then? Is there nothing that could open either of us to an honest, disinterested, fair appraisal of each other's views? Am I doomed to forever see the explanations of the energy healer as misinterpretations of the data? Am I forever doomed to see the responses of the energy healer to my explanations of the data as rationalizations that I label as "motivated reasoning"? Likewise for the energy healer: is she doomed to see my explanations and responses as rationalizations motivated by my ideological grounding in science-based medicine and my closedmindedness?
The rationalizations of the fake healers may be transparently inane and implausible to skeptics, but they are usually impenetrable to skepticism in the mind of the true believer. Likewise, the appeals to the evidence in the form of many anecdotes of people who have been cured by some sort of fake healing are usually rejected simply because they are anecdotes. Occasionally, however, both skeptics and true believers change their minds about healing practices and treatments. I've been in contact with several people who identified themselves as skeptics on things like acupuncture and homeopathy until they tried it and got relief. I've also been in contact with a former healer who gave up her belief in energy healing after seriously considering the arguments of skeptics that there are naturalistic explanations for all the healing she thought she was facilitating. We've all heard of people who, after years of accepting science-based medical treatment, come to reject it based on a negative personal experience. Either the person or someone they know was harmed--or at least was believed to have been harmed--by a science-based medical practitioner or they got no relief for whatever ailed them with some standard medical procedure.
So, sometimes people do change their minds about healing practices. Why? I've already mentioned a few reasons; let's summarize them:
- Personal experience. An event after treatment is considered good or bad and is seen as having been caused by the treatment.
- Consideration of all the evidence, not just the evidence that favors a belief in energy healing or science-based medicine.
- Consideration of prior plausibility.
Unfortunately, focusing on prior plausibility is a deal breaker because all fake healing fails this test. If prior plausibility is required to get a seat at the table, then no fake healers will be allowed in. Also, personal experience involves an emotional component that is difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate with opposing views. It should also be obvious that a less volatile expression than 'fake healing' must be found for any dialogue to take place here. 'Placebo medicine' is often used by skeptics to refer to fake healing, but even that expression arouses ire among the fake healers. As much as I dislike the term, I think the least volatile expression here is 'alternative healing practice.' Good luck with that.
posted December 21, 2015