“Licensing” faith healers?

Of all the forms of quackery out there, the “energy healing” methods and “faith healing” methods have to be the most ridiculous. After all, the claims of “healers” using such modalities, when boiled down to their very essence, are nothing less (and nothing more) than claiming the ability to do magic. Indeed, “energy healing” involves the claim of being able to manipulate “life energies” undetectable by science for therapeutic intent using either ritualistic hand motions or the inscribing of symbols in the air (reiki), concentration and the laying on of hands (therapeutic touch, reiki, and others), or sticking tiny needles into “points” that are supposed to lie along “meridians” through which this energy “flows” (acupuncture, acupressure, and related therapies). Faith healing also involves the laying on of hands, but it also involves invoking a god or gods to heal the sick through mystical means. This is very different from having a chaplain come in and pray, because responsible religious leaders do not claim that they can use the power of God to heal, although admittedly the line can become blurry. In any case, chaplains can often bring comfort to the ill as counselors aside from their religious role.

Given the mystical, magical, nonscientific nature of these “healing” modalities, you would think that the state should have nothing to do with them other than preventing them from preying on the gullible. In Russia, at least, you’d be wrong:

MOSCOW — Mikhail Fadkin claims he can cure a long list of disorders — pancreatitis, bronchitis, digestive problems, even infertility — by using his hands to manipulate what he describes as a person’s “bio-energy field.”

Many laugh at such ideas and might call him a quack. But the 63-year-old healer, who practices out of an office in a Moscow suburb, holds a license from the Russian government.

For the past two years, the Federal Health Service has been issuing licenses to practitioners of what it calls “traditional medicine,” meaning anything from the use of herbal treatments to the manipulation of “auras.” His claims buttressed by officialdom, Fadkin charges patients 3,500 rubles ($150) per session.

And he says business is very good.

“Every day I learn something new,” the smiling Muscovite says, gesturing to what he says is an invisible aura surrounding him — “because all the information I need is out there, in the vast energy field surrounding us.”

So far, 130 healers, including Fadkin, have passed the service’s voluntary testing program, which promoters in the government say can determine whether someone has the inherent ability to cure. The program is limited to Moscow, but a Russian lawmaker is pushing to extend it nationwide and make it mandatory.

Personally, I’d be very curious to learn exactly how the Russian government is able to determine whether “healers” like Fadkin can heal. Do they observe a demonstration? Do they require rigorously maintained records suggesting miraculous recoveries from normally untreatable or fatal diseases? Do they do scientific studies to see if Fadkin can actually see and manipulate human “bioenergy fields”? Inquiring minds want to know!

Of course, you and I know what the Russian government probably does. All it probably does is to come up with ludicrous “standards” made up by other “alternative medicine” practitioners and faith healers that pretty much only require that an applicant has been practicing faith healing for a certain period of time without too many people complaining, and–presto!–the applicant gets a license. He also gets the imprimatur of the state testifying to his legitmacy and, as Fadkin does, can charge a lot more money for his “services,” such as they are.

Yup, I think I’m right about this:

The program includes a background check, a scan of electrical activity in the brain and a committee review of the results. The agency charges applicants 10,000 rubles ($428) for the tests.

Andrei Karpeev, director of the Federal Scientific Clinical Center for Traditional Methods of Diagnostics and Healing, which administers the tests, insists that folk medicine, including psychic healing, is backed by scientific studies. While he acknowledges some of the criteria for determining who has healing powers are subjective, he claims the tests are able to wean out “charlatans.” According to Karpeev, there are perhaps 100,000 people in Russia offering to use magic, psychic or other extra-sensory methods to cure illnesses, read minds or cast spells.

I’d really, really love to see exactly how Karpeev tests healers to “wean out charlatans.” Preferably with The Amazing Randi at my side.

Here’s the price of licensing quacks and frauds:

Albina Domolazova, 70, paid 3,600 rubles ($156) to an unlicensed clairvoyant to cure her son of drug addiction. When the woman recommended Domolazova toss chunks of beef to black dogs and then light a candle in seven churches, she dutifully obeyed.

After completing the ritual, which included burying the last chunk of meat in a graveyard, Domolazova’s son was still addicted. The healer refused to refund the fee — which represented half of Domolazova’s monthly pension. While Domolazova is now more wary, her faith that some people have healing powers has not been shaken.

Every year, thousands of Russians claim to have been defrauded by people calling themselves clairvoyants, occultists, and self-styled witches, who advertise their services in Russian media.

In July a Moscow court handed an 11-year prison sentence to Grigory Grabovoi, a cult leader who allegedly promised to resurrect children killed in the Beslan school siege in 2004. He reportedly charged grieving relatives some 40,000 rubles ($1,700).

That latter example is about as despicable as it gets. Either Grabovoi thinks he’s Jesus or he thinks he’s Victor Frankenstein. Or maybe he thinks he’s a high level cleric in Dungeons & Dragons. Either way, he’s deluded, and, either way, his taking advantage of the grief of parents whose children were killed so violently and tragically in order to make money off of their loss is pure evil.

People, not understanding why I or other medical skeptics get so worked up about fantastical “alternative medicine” claims, often ask, “What’s the Harm?” The harm is in putting the stamp of approval of society and the government by licensing quacks. The harm is in letting these quacks do pretty much whatever they want, thus harming either by delaying effective medical care or causing actual harm to people. The harm is in giving the appearance that unscientific quackery is on par with scientific medicine. It doesn’t really matter if these charlatans are hucksters who are out for a buck and do not really believe the nonsense they claim or well-meaning souls who have allowed their human ability for infinite self-delusion lead them to believe that they really do have magical powers to heal. The end result is the same, either way.