What Would It Take?

I recently wrote a SkepDoc column on fantasy physics in Skeptic magazine in which I mentioned a study that had allegedly measured 2 milligauss emanations from a healer’s hands. A reader inquired about it and went on to ask “what criteria is [sic] necessary for gaining acceptance in the scientific community in regards to purported healing processes using energy fields generated in the human hand, specifically the palm area.”

What would it take to prove this implausible claim to the satisfaction of the scientific community? That is an excellent question with a complicated answer. It’s worth looking at because there is only one science and the same standards apply to how science evaluates any claim. I’ll take a stab at it, and perhaps our commenters can add words of wisdom.

The claim in question is a variant of energy healing at a distance, in the same family as therapeutic touch, Reiki, and Qigong, and it is highly implausible. Physicist Eugenie Mielczarek explains

a two milligauss field strength is 18 orders of magnitude below the energy needed to affect any biochemistry. The postulate of an unknown energy field which eludes all science-based investigation and measurement, but nevertheless causes a transmission of energies large enough to affect the chemistry of cell cultures, flies in the face of all micro and cellular biology experimentation and well tested theories of physics.  This postulate of a medically healing energy field, which can only be generated by certain individuals, fails all tests of medical science.

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?

This methodology has led to the invention of many important medical devices—such as ultrasonic and MRI imaging. The alleged source of TT’s purported biomagnetic field is the practitioner, and the alleged receiver is the patient.  Beyond this, TT practitioners fail to give detailed and plausible answers to the key questions above. TT practitioners’ adoption of the scientific term “biomagnetic” field, without an equation to describe the field and without any grounding in known physics and biochemistry, conveys the impression of scientific respectability to claims that have no scientific basis.

Energy medicine proponents claim to have measured a 2 milligauss magnetic field emanating from the hands of practitioners. Reproducible measurements by other scientists fall in the range of 0.004 milligauss. The magnetic field of the earth is 500 milligauss. Even if the 2 milligauss measurement were accurate, it would be 15 orders of magnitude below the cell’s noise level and billions of times less than the energy received by your eye when viewing the brightest star. A typical refrigerator magnet is 50 gauss (50,000 milligauss).

Science doesn’t automatically reject anything on the basis of implausibility alone. If there were strong evidence that energy medicine practitioners could significantly improve health outcomes, we would have to accept it at face value and we would start using it before we had a good explanation or a reconciliation with other scientific knowledge. When the first trials of penicillin were carried out, the evidence was so strong that penicillin was rushed into general use long before we had any idea how it worked (by inhibiting bacterial cell wall synthesis). The evidence for clinical effectiveness of energy medicine remains weak and flawed even after decades of study.

As Carl Sagan famously said,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

And in the case of energy medicine and the human energy field, we don’t have even an ordinary level of evidence.

The first logical step would be to see if the 2 milligauss measurement was reproducible and if so, to study its characteristics. A scientist would ask all sorts of questions: Could there have been something wrong with our experimental setup? How does the effect decline over distance? Does everyone produce it? Do energy practitioners produce the same field under all conditions? Does it originate from the palm only, or from other sites? Does it require conscious intention? Could purported effects be attributed to placebo responses? Do the much stronger earth’s magnetic field and the much higher energy received by your eye when looking at a star have even stronger effects than the healer’s emanations? Wouldn’t a refrigerator magnet have an effect that is 25,000 times stronger? And on and on… But instead of verifying and further investigating an initial report, energy medicine researchers tend to jump from experiment to experiment, showing a lot of different alleged phenomena but not delving into any of them to establish their validity and characterize their properties.

Before you can seriously study a phenomenon like the human energy field, you need to determine that it exists. So far no one has been able to refute Emily Rosa’s demonstrationthat the alleged perception of that field amounts to self-deception. Studies of energy medicine are a prime example of what I have dubbed “tooth fairy science.” 

When we criticize any CAM method as not being supported by high-quality controlled studies, we mean that such studies are necessary: we don’t mean that they would be sufficient. Science is a collaborative, progressive endeavor that builds on itself to produce a gradually more convincing edifice over time. There is no black-and-white certainty, but rather a spectrum of probability: saying that a claim has been “proven” does not mean that it is “true” in some absolute sense, but only that the accumulated evidence makes it so probable that it would be perverse not to accept it. And even in the most certain cases, science must always remain open to new evidence and the possible need to revise earlier conclusions.

The Bottom Line

To gain acceptance in the scientific community, energy medicine would have to accumulate a large body of strong evidence that was reproducible (by believers and nonbelievers alike), that was coherent, that showed progress as new evidence built on older findings, and that used several different routes of investigation to arrive at the same conclusions. That seems highly unlikely, but it’s not for us to declare it impossible: the burden is on the proponents to produce credible evidence. I’m not holding my breath.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…

Maybe, but there are also a lot of things that aren’t in heaven or earth, but only in people’s imaginations. Only rigorous science can help us tell the difference.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine blog.

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.

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