Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Energy Medicine

I changed my usual policy and left a spam comment on my previous post, because it links to an utterly outrageous fraud.

I don't spend a lot of time trashing quackery because there are plenty of people doing it with more time and resources, and a bigger readership, than me. (Viz., Science Based Medicine.) But I am curious about why so many people are attracted to so much hooey, and how is it that these malignant clowns manage to relieve said people of their hard earned cash.

One can discern a taxonomy of quackery. There is the herbalist/supplement group, which generally hews close to the scientific worldview but just doesn't bother with the facts. The claims are intrinsically plausible: that the nostrums do in fact contain biologically active chemicals which either fill nutritional needs or correct one or another form of bad chemistry in the body, just like pharmaceuticals. But they are purportedly better because they are "natural," "gentler," have fewer side effects, whatever. Big Pharma doesn't want you to know it because they aren't patentable and therefore don't bring in the big bucks.

You know what? This might be true. Sometimes it is true. Aspirin is a slightly modified form of a compound found in willow bark, which was known to the ancients. Statins are versions of a compound found in a fungus which was used by the Chinese to treat heart disease. Presumably you know about morphine, etc. Lots of drugs are derived from plant compounds. But you don't make willow bark tea, you buy aspirin, for a good reason -- you know exactly how much you are getting of a pure compound. And most of the junk on the shelves of the GNC doesn't do any good. It's almost all a ripoff. But that can be determined on a case by case basis -- the claims aren't inherently nonsensical. People have good reason to distrust pharmaceutical companies and it isn't that hard to see why they fall for the blandishments of the supplement industry.

Energy medicine is another matter. This encompasses Reiki, therapeutic touch, and acupuncture, along with some more obscure or localized shamanistic systems. It derives from a category of pre-scientific belief called vitalism, essentially the idea that life is a kind of energy or mystic force that imbues living things. In acupuncture, it is said to flow through specific channels in the body called meridians, which connect organs and locations in the body with others. These flows become blocked or diverted, and sticking in the needles is supposed to correct them. In Reiki, the practitioner "realigns" forces with his or her hands.

It is much more difficult for me to see why anybody falls for this nonsense. The "vital energy,"  the chi of acupuncture, do not exist. The meridians do not exist. These ideas are purely imaginary. Life is not in fact precisely definable, nor is the border between life and death sharply defined, but life processes are based on the same forms of energy found independent of living things. Chemistry and physics give a complete account of life. Of course we haven't filled in the innumerable details of every life process, but there is no missing or mysterious form of energy. Chemical bonds break and form, heat (and yes, a little bit of electricity) flows, gravity pulls down (to put it in vernacular terms, sorry Dr. Einstein), electromagnetic radiation strikes the cells and has readily describable effects. (Some life forms produce electromagnetic radiation, but as far as I know we don't. We do have a weak electrical field, but it doesn't particularly do anything.)

There is, to be sure, growing interest in using electrical stimulation for various healing purposes, from orthopedics to neurology. But that's plain old electricity, folks, not the mystic force field. You don't make it by waving your hands around or sticking in needles. The useful therapeutic inputs include chemicals, heat (or cold), light, physical manipulation (e.g. compression, immobilization, mobilization, stretching, surgery), electricity. The same old boring energy that pertains to dead stuff.

Okay, it's not boring. It's science. Why isn't that good enough for folks?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree, there are lots of other people and groups covering these topics very well, but this post is particularly well-written and balanced. Thank you very much for being a sane voice in a sometimes crazy-seeming world!

that all being said, it is unfortunate that the "debate" on this issue has become so polarized that I feel that I cannot share this article with interested individuals in my peer group, for fear of appearing "political" or as one who seeks to stir controversy.

It is enough for me now to leave the promotion of good science to the professionals and offer my opinion only when asked. Thanks again Cervantes!