Energy Medicine and Fantasy Physics: How Real Physics Has Been Kidnapped by Alternative Medicine Practitioners

Words from physics, such as “energy,” “frequency,” “fields,” and “quantum,” used to be respectable, well-defined concepts used in the clear light of science by real physicists to study how the world works. In recent years they have been kidnapped, disguised, and forced into prostitution in the dim back alleys of alternative medicine and commercial scams. They have been hijacked by fantasy physics, an imaginary pseudoscientific enterprise that has seduced a lot of scientifically naïve people but that bears no relation to reality.

“Energy medicine” is an umbrella term that covers a number of alternative medicine modalities, including chiropractic (with its indefinable Innate), homeopathy (water remembering the electromagnetic signature of a substance that is no longer present), acupuncture (an undetectable vitalistic qi travelling through meridians), Reiki, therapeutic touch, psychic healing, crystals, distant healing, and many others. These are all based on the concept that there is an ineffable human energy field undetectable by scientific instruments, that imbalances in that field cause illness, and that practitioners can somehow adjust the energy field to restore health.

Does a human energy field exist? Physicists can measure infinitesimally small amounts of all kinds of energy down to the level of subatomic particles, but they can’t detect the alleged human energy field. Neither can scientists detect any measurable effects on the body when such fields are allegedly manipulated. Therapeutic touch practitioners claim they can detect energy fields with their hands, but in the late 1990s a 10-year old girl named Emily Rosa put the kibosh on that claim with a school science project later published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The TT practitioners claimed they could detect Emily’s energy field when her hand was held over theirs. They could demonstrate that ability as long as they could see Emily’s hand, but when they were prevented from seeing where her hand was, they couldn’t detect whether it was there or not. While TT practitioners were wasting research funds studying how well their ministrations worked for various health conditions, it took a child to see that the emperor had no clothes.

Quantum entanglement is used as an excuse to explain other kinds of “spooky action at a distance.” How else could you explain how Adam Dreamhealer, a teenager in British Columbia, healed former astronaut Edgar Mitchell of a kidney cancer in Florida? Oh, wait, there is nothing to explain because we don’t even know if Mitchell had cancer because he never had a biopsy!

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle shows that when measuring paired atomic properties such as position and momentum, increasing the accuracy of one measurement decreases the accuracy of the other. This has been distorted out of all recognition to claim that the observer influences the results, and by extension to claim that all kinds of “mind over matter” phenomena are possible. This is the basis of the book The Secret, along with many other kinds of New Age nonsense. Heisenberg must be writhing in his grave.

Einstein’s E=mc² has been interpreted by some ignoramuses to mean that matter doesn’t exist and that “everything is energy,” and that everything must have a characteristic electromagnetic energy frequency, even a rock. Acupuncturists claim to measure the frequency of acupoints and to make the frequency spread through the body by stimulating the point with a needle. Devices are sold with the claim that they infuse healing frequencies into the body. Wristbands supposedly contain frequencies that match the natural frequencies of the body and heal by producing resonance. They don’t seem to understand that for something to resonate, there has to be a source of energy, sometimes huge amounts of energy. You can make a silver nucleus resonate, but only if you subject it to an incredibly strong magnetic field. Molecules may have a measurable resonant frequency, but tomatoes and hamsters don’t.

Physics tells us everything is connected in a space/time continuum. The mass of one planet factors into the equations for the orbits of all the other planets, and the mass of our solar system affects the gravity equations of all the galaxies. And the zero point field is a quantum reality. New Age philosophers such as Lynne McTaggart wildly extrapolate from these ideas to claim that everything is connected by one vast interactive quantum field and that our thoughts are able to alter physical reality anywhere in the Universe. Her books The Field and others are masterpieces of pseudoscience. Many people speculate that quantum physics can explain human consciousness, an idea dispelled by Victor Stenger in his book The Unconscious Quantum.

There are unsubstantiated claims that healing fields of 2 milligauss are emitted from the hands of energy medicine practitioners. This corresponds to billions of times less energy than the energy your eye receives when viewing even the brightest star in the night sky. In an article on the Science-Based Medicine blog, physicist Eugenie Mielczarek wrote:

When energy fields are used as a medium for conveying information, scientists ask and answer the following key questions: How large is the signal? What is the transmitter located in the source, and what and where is the receiver? How can the device be tuned and detuned? Lastly, how can one replicate this by a device to be used for medical intervention?

Even Dr. Oz, a highly trained cardiothoracic surgeon, has fallen for energy medicine woo. He allowed an energy healer, Julie Motz, into his operating room during open-heart surgery and he believed that her hand-waving made his patients heal faster. He didn’t bother doing any controlled studies to test that belief. Perhaps the fact that his wife is a Reiki master has something to do with his appalling gullibility.

Holograms are neat. Did you know the universe is one big hologram? That means there is no objective reality, and it means that your brain has access to all knowledge and also that thought can change the material world.

Power Balance bracelets contain a hologram with embedded frequencies to improve your balance and strength. Philip Stein watches are infused with the Schumann Resonant Frequency of the Earth to help you sleep better.

Electrodermal testing uses impressive computer displays to convert the humble biofeedback device into a magical diagnostic device that can measure frequencies at acupoints and send corrective frequencies back into the body. They can tap into the body’s wisdom and answer any question like a Magic Eight Ball, and they call tell you exactly which homeopathic remedies and other products you need to buy from the operator.

Some healers simply use a pendulum to get yes or no answers about a patient’s health and about what treatment is needed. Applied kinesiology is used to diagnose allergies and other illnesses by evaluating muscle strength when a patient holds a substance or even just thinks about it. They evaluate a child sitting in a mother’s lap by testing the mother. They sometimes do it over the phone.

Then there is Earthing. By walking barefoot and coming in direct contact with the ground, you accumulate Earth-generated electrons and connect your body with the naturally balancing electric frequencies of the Earth. Conveniently, advocates of Earthing are prepared to sell you products that will ground you indoors, while asleep, and while wearing shoes.

Dr. Upledger, a proponent of craniosacral therapy, thought one of his patients had too much energy, and she would feel better if he connected her to a ground, so he got the patient’s husband to attach her to the kitchen sink with a long copper wire.

Then there’s all the business about negative ions. They seem to think these can exist in isolation, not realizing that negative ions are produced by separating them from a molecule and simultaneously producing a corresponding positive ion. And negative ions are desperately seeking a positive ion to share their lonely electron with. Where are all those positive ions supposed to go? Somehow, anion strips are allegedly embedded into sanitary napkins and said to emit “biological magnetic wave of wavelength 4 to 14 micron at more than 90% emission rate which is beneficial to the human body as it can activate the water molecules in the cells to make them exist at high energy level suitable for synthesis of biological enzymes.” Don’t strain your brain by attempting to understand this—it’s pure gobbledygook.

A proponent of homeopathy claims that the coherent precession of protons enables water to remember frequencies. And those frequencies somehow cure what ails you.

A magnetic mattress pad salesman solemnly informed me that negative magnetism is stronger at night because the moon is out.

The product that wins the Grand Prize for Silliness is Ancestor Bands. They supposedly help you tap into the proper frequencies that your deceased relatives are transmitting throughout the cosmos in a desperate attempt to impart their new found Universal Knowledge to you, improve your health and well-being, and even reverse aging!

A RationalWiki article on quantum woo had these words of wisdom:

When an idea seems too crazy to believe, the proponent often makes an appeal to quantum physics as the explanation. This…is an attempt to piggy-back on the success and legitimacy of science by claiming quack ideas are rooted in accepted concepts in physics, combined with utter misunderstanding of these concepts and a sense of wonder at the amazing magic these misunderstandings would imply if true. A fairly easy way to tell if a claim about quantum physics has scientific validity is to ask for the maths. If there isn’t any, it’s invalid. Proponents of quantum woo are affected by the interaction of neural-energy and their natural bozon field, which results in the creation of one moron and the decay of two neurons. The moron has a half-life of 42 years.

This article was originally published as a SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.