Healing with an unknown force?
Can an amateur faith healer sink your temperature using a mysterious “universal energy” that only they can detect?
I have a good friend, whom I will call Ellen. She is super-smart, a well-known leader in some deeply intellectual activities (I am disguising her identity). Recently Ellen had decided to go on her first holiday vacation in a very long time. A few weeks ago (February 2020) she flew to South Africa.
Earlier this week I got a Skype call from Ellen from Cape Town: she was due to fly back to Germany in a couple of days, but had come down with fever and a dry cough. I was reluctant to use the C-word, but we needed to discuss her options. If she had indeed caught the Covid-19 coronavirus, or if there was even just a suspicion she had, there was no way she could get on the plane and fly home. So what were her options?
I have another friend in South Africa who is a hospital doctor, so I put them in touch with each other. It turned out that Ellen had a simple case of the flu. In order to board the plane all she needed to do was bring down her temperature, in case they checked at the airport. On the day of her flight her temperature was almost normal, so she was allowed to fly, and is now safely back home in Germany. What a relief!
So why am I relating all of this. Well, Ellen told me that her recovery from the flu was actually brought about by a Reiki therapist named Sabine. The word “Reiki” comes from the Japanese レイキ and means “mysterious vital energy.” This form of alternative medicine came into use in the West in 1975, rapidly gaining popularity. Reiki practitioners use a technique called “hands-on healing,” which transfers “universal energy” to the patient and cures illness. Here’s a video promoting Reiki, and here’s a 1½-hour course, which apparently is all you need to become a Reiki master.
Sabine had used Reiki to bring down the fever? “You don’t believe in super-natural powers, Frederic?” Ellen detected scepticism in my voice. “Reiki is scientific medicine. Just google it and you will see.” I didn’t need to, but I did, and the first entry I encountered was this Wiki article. Among other things it said: “Reiki is a pseudoscience. … Clinical research does not show Reiki to be effective as a treatment for any medical condition, including cancer, diabetic neuropathy, or anxiety and depression, therefore it should not replace conventional medical treatment. There is no proof of the effectiveness of Reiki therapy compared to placebo.”
“That is completely biased,” said Ellen, “look for other articles.” The next was my often-consulted site Science Based Medicine, and they had a lot to say about Reiki. If you are interested in such subjects you would do well to spend some time perusing these articles.
Ellen was quite insistent: Sabine, the Reiki master, has been helping her mother, who has cronic rheumatism. Now her mother can walk properly for the first time in years. The same practitioner had brought down Ellen’s temperature. She had measured: it went down from 38.4° C to 37.7° (101.1° F to 99.9° F) during the session. “That was not self-healing,” Ellen said, “she made it go down, in just one hour.” And the next morning the fever was gone.
Situations like this pose a dilemma. Reiki healers are providing comfort to people, in this case to Ellen and her mother, who feel better, their ailments alleviated. What is the point of my arguing against alternate medicine healers? However: Ellen is a high-IQ scientist and academic, so I couldn’t resist. With that let us launch into today’s lecture:
I do not believe in super-natural powers, very simply because after decades of intense searching — in 1976 I helped found the Skeptic Society — I have not encountered a single case that was genuine. In alternative medicine things have been particularly egregious. Here people actually die. In an article on superstitious snake bite cures I described one such case, and in this article on antibiotics I tell about how a stone-cutter died of a relatively minor flesh wound after treating it only with traditional herbal medicine. But all of that is nothing compared to the harm that can be done by faith healing in other areas.
Take for example Malaria (about which I have written). It is easily the most devastating infectious disease in the world — over 250 million people per year contract it, with half a million resulting deaths.
There is a lot of homeopathic medication available to prevent or cure malaria. Here is the first one that came up in a Google search. “Medicines” like this one usually specify their contents as being, for example, “30% Ethyl Alcohol impregnated with the homeopathic remedies Malaria off C200, Chininum sulph C200 and Chininum ars C200.” It looks perfectly genuine.
But what does “C200” mean? It tells us that the supposedly curative substance has been diluted 200 times over, at a ratio of one part in 100 each time. Think about that: after the process I estimate you can expect to find one molecule of the original substance in 10³⁰⁰ molecules of the liquid (the entire universe contains just 10⁸⁰ atoms). So what they are selling is a little bottle of 30% ethyl alcohol, with a few drops of absolutely pure water — nothing else. Guaranteed. It is difficult to imagine how the single-cell Plasmodium parasite could be impressed or influenced by this. And woe betide the native individuals in Africa or Asia who choose (or are precribed) this “medicine” rather than the similar looking bottles on the shelf of the apothecary. They often pay for the bad choice with death.
Back to Reiki: the claim is hard to swallow — a force or power that amateur medical practitioners can summon to cure patients, but which science is unable to detect or verify.
Physicists have been able to detect and measure particles and waves that have crossed billions of light years, from the ends of our galaxy. We can detect neutrinos, probably the most elusive particle in the universe, which can pass through entire planets and stars as if there was nothing there (about 65 billion solar neutrinos pass through every square centimetre of your body per second). They are invisible — but we detect them. On the other hand somehow the powerful curative forces that emanate from the hands of an amateur faith healer (“universal life energy”) have thus far eluded detection.
“I do not know what forces are in play,” said Ellen, “but I know the effect they have. I have experienced this first-hand, on my own body. As have hundreds of others treated by Sabine every month. You need to take that into account in your scepticism, Frederic. It is the results that count.” That is called anecdotal evidence, I explained to her. It is strongly supported by our natural positive result bias (I have written about it in this article). Ellen was telling me about her “miracle cure” because it had worked, because her temperature had gone down (by just one degree Fahrenheit during the session), and she had been able to travel back home. If it hadn’t worked she would not have spent an hour on Skype telling me how the attempt had failed. And she would not have told a dozen other friends. This way some of them will seek assistance from Sabine, for other ailments, and the few who are “cured” (the human body has remarkable self-healing defences) will spread the word further. That is the mechanism of alternative and pseudomedicine.
Regarding the scientific testing of this particular version of faith healing, the US-based National Library of Medicine (somewhat cautiously) writes:
“Although the Reiki research supports the anecdotal records, the absence of randomized and placebo-controlled trials precludes the interpretation of the outcomes as resulting from specific effects as opposed to placebo effects plus natural history.”
A description of the methodology of the evaluation of Reiki vs placebo is to be found in Science-based Medicine.
Is there something like a universal life energy involved? That is a claim also postulated by “Therapeutic touch,” a treatment which works on similar lines (sensing and manipulating the patient’s life energy). That was beautifully debunked in a 1998 study conducted by Emily Rosa, whose paper, “A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch” was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Emily was a precocious nine years old at the time, and the youngest person ever to have a research paper published in a peer reviewed medical journal. Her experiment was simple: she made holes in a cardboard screen through which therapeutic touch practitioners stuck their hands. They could not tell above which hand Emily held her own. They could not sense the energy fields they normally vividly describe, or even tell which hand was a centimetre or two away from Emily’s. In 280 trials the healers achieved a success rate of 44% — which is slightly worse than by random guessing. In their excellent 2008 book Trick or Treatment Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst conclude that “the energy field was probably nothing more than a figment in the imaginations of the healers.” The same applies to Reiki, which normally involves touching the patient. But not always, as you will see in the final section of this article.
The basic problem is something I mentioned above. It is clear that in many Reiki treatments there is a curative effect. This is achieved by providing patient comfort, reduced anxiety, and an enhanced self sense of well-being. If Ellen and her mother were helped, if Reiki solved health problems for them, is it right for me to argue against this form of treatment? The final part of my article will tell you why I do it, and what the importance of the Ellen story is.
During our conversation I suddenly became puzzled: “When was the Reiki treatment that brought your temperature down conducted?” I asked. “While you were still in Cape Town?” Turns out this was the case. Sabine was in Germany. All she needed was Ellen’s name, current exact whereabout, and her date of birth. So she was sensing and manipulating Ellen’s life energy from over 9,000 km away. And she was able to be quite specific: she told Ellen that her stomach and her lungs were fine, her bronchi and bronchial tubes were free and not inflamed, and that it was her trachea that was causing her problems (which she then went on to alleviate). Ellen swore that during the treatment she could feel a tingling sensation in each part of her body as it was being examined (her mother told her what Sabine was doing by phone). Sabine had rid her of her fever and made it possible for her to travel home safely. For that she was eternally thankful.
As I said at the beginning Ellen is super-smart, and engaged in deeply intellectual activities. I told her (we are very good friends) that I find it quite incredible that in spite of this she is still capable of believing in medieval magic: in medical diagnosis and treatment over 9000 km, using a “force” that science has failed to discover, producing results that for some reason can never be reproduced in scientific tests.
And one last question: what if she in reality had had clogged bronchi, actually having caught the Covid-19 coronavirus? Whose fault would it have been if she had managed to get on the plane, dangerously ill and highly contageous — if the amateur faith healer 9000 km away had misdiagnosed the case?
Addendum: Ellen tells me she has just had the test done and the result was negative — she did not have, and had not had, an infection from the Covid-19 pathogen. So Sabine was right. I told her I would have guessed the same. She had spent some weeks in Cape Town where the number of infections the time she was there had been zero. For anyone interested in performing miracle remote cures I recommend the real-time web service of this site — it can be wonderfully used for curing people of Covid-19 in corona-free places.