I would like to get your opinion of the general subject of “healing science.” …

I would like to get your opinion of the general subject of “healing science.” This has come up as a topic of conversation in our family. I’ve seen many articles on this subject which often contain references to physics terms, such as vibrational healing” and “energy medicine.” They sometimes claim the existence of a human energy field, or aura, which “penetrates and surrounds the physical body, and contains the template for the body, the thoughts, the emotions and the spirituality.” Imbalances, blockages and distortions in the flow of the energy field have a direct correlation to physical, emotional, mental and spiritual “dis-ease” and problems, it is claimed. Furthermore, it is claimed that one can learn how to sense and correct an energy imbalance before it expresses itself as physical illness, as well as recover emotionally and physically from an illness you may already have. Some even claim that long-distance healing works. “Based on Einstein’s theory that time and space are relative,” they say, “not only can the energy field be worked on by directly placing hands on the body or a few inches above the body, but also from across the room, or across the continent. Long-distance clientele experience the healing work as if they were in the office.” While these claims would seem to have no foundation in scientific fact, I pause when I see endorsements by supposedly educated people such as Richard Gerber, M.D., author of Vibrational Medicine, and Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit (who has her B.A. in Journalism, her M.A. in Theology, and her Ph.D. in Energy Medicine). Reportedly, “Harvard-trained neurosurgeon C. Norman Shealy estimates Myss’ ‘medical intuitive readings’ to be 93% accurate.” This reminds me of something I recently saw about Albert Abrams, M.D.—a reputedly brilliant and well-respected American diagnostician. In the early 1930s, in an apparent effort to clone his talents so he could handle his patient overload, he invented two machines based on his theory of radionic diagnosis. One was the “Dynamizer” that could diagnose any illness and the other was the “Oscilloclast” which could cure any illness by restoring the person’s harmony. Through a series of double-blind tests conducted by Scientific American, these devices were conclusively shown to be sheer quackery. Amazingly, Abrams is still held as a “true genius” in some circles, e.g., http://www.healing.org/only-contents.html (See chapter 1 — Albert Abrams and Radionics Diagnosis) What do you tell your college students — and other people who may be naive to science — about this stuff (without being disrespectful)? — JB

You have every reason to be skeptical about this sort of activity. Despite its length, I have included your entire question here because it gives me an opportunity to point out some of the differences between science and pseudo-science. You have written a wonderful survey of some of the quackery that exists in our society and have illustrated beautifully the widespread view that science is fundamentally nothing more than gibberish. I cringe as I read your review of “healing science” because in that description I see science, a field that has been developed with care by people I respect and admire, tossed cavalierly into the gutter by self-important know-nothings who aren’t worth a moments notice. That these miserable individuals draw such attention, often at the expense of far more deserving real scientists—or worse, by “standing on the shoulders” of those real scientists—is a tragedy of modern society. It’s just dreadful.

Let me begin to pick up the pieces by pointing out that terms like “human energy field”, “vibrational medicine”, and “energy imbalance” are simply meaningless and that the use of “Einstein’s Theory” to justify healing-at-a-distance is typical of people who don’t have a clue about what science actually is. The meaningless misuse of scientific terms and the uninformed and careless misapplication of scientific techniques is an activity called pseudo-science. Pseudo-science may sound and look like science, but the two have almost nothing else in common. Among the benefits of a good college education is learning how vast is the world of human knowledge, recognizing how little you know of that world, discovering how much others have already thought about everything you can imagine, and finding out how dangerous it is to venture unprepared into any area you do not know well. Most of these pseudo-scientific quacks are either oblivious of their own ignorance or so arrogant that they dismiss the work of others as not worthy of their attention. Either way, they make terrible students and, consequently, useless teachers. You’ll do best to leave their books on the shelves.

Because real science is not buzzwords, simply stringing together the words of science does not make one a scientist. Science is an intense, self-reflective, skeptical, objective investigative process in which we try to form conceptual models for the universe and its contents, and try to test those models against the universe itself. We do this modeling and testing over and over again, improving and perfecting the models and discarding or modifying models that do not appear consistent with actual observations. Accurate models are valuable because they have predictive power—you can tell in advance how something will behave if you have modeled it correctly.

In the course of these scientific investigations, concepts arise which deserve names and so we assign names to them. In that manner, words such as “energy” and “vibration” have entered our language. Each such word has a very specific meaning and applies only in a specific context. Thus the word “force” was assigned to the concept we commonly refer to as a “push” or a “pull” and applies in the context of interactions between objects. The expression “the force be with you” has nothing to do with physics—the word “force” in that phrase doesn’t mean a push or a pull and has nothing to do with the interactions between objects. As you can see, taken out of its applicable context and used carelessly in another usually renders a scientific word completely meaningless.

Alas, the average person doesn’t understand science, doesn’t speak its language, and cannot distinguish the correct use of the language of science from the meaningless gibberish of pseudo-science. As anyone who has spent time exploring the web ought to have discovered, highly polished prose and graphics is no guarantee of intelligent content. That’s certainly true of what appears to be scientific material. I am further saddened to see that even the titles of academia are deemed fair game by the quacks. While the physics term “energy” and the biological word “medicine” can appear together in a sentence about cancer treatment or medical imaging, that’s not what the person claiming to have a Ph.D. in “Energy Medicine” has in mind. That degree was probably granted by a group that understands neither physics nor medicine. There may be a place for non-traditional medicine because medicine is not an exact science—there is often more than one correct answer in medicine and there are poorly understood issues in medicine even at fairly basic levels.

However, physics is an exact science, with mechanical predictability (within the limitations of quantum mechanics) and only one truly correct answer to each question. Its self-consistent and quantitative nature leaves physics with no room for conflicting explanations. Like most academic physicists, I occasionally receive self-published books and manuscripts from people claiming to have discovered an entirely new physics that is far superior to the current one. And like most academic physicists, I flip briefly through these unreviewed documents and then, with a moment’s sadness that the authors have wasted so much time, effort, and money, I toss them into the recycling bin. It’s not that we scientists are close minded medieval keepers of the dogma, it’s that these “new physics” offerings are the works of ignorant people who don’t know what they don’t know. Unlike real scientific revolutionaries like Galileo and Einstein, these people don’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of the current scientific models. Their new offerings are usually inconsistent, fail to correctly model the real universe, add unnecessary complexity to simple phenomena, or all three. It’s extraordinarily unlikely that anyone will ever successfully overthrow the basic laws of physics, not because no one will accept a new physics if it’s actually correct but because the current physics already explains things with such incredible accuracy and predictive power. Developments in physics come almost exclusively at its frontier, where the current understanding of physics is known to be imperfect or incomplete, and that is probably where those developments will probably always occur.

So to return to your question, I would tell my students that I think that the “healing sciences” as you have identified them are neither.

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