Just a week ago, I deconstructed an awful article touting how the mass of prescientific quackery known as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as somehow being “validated” by modern science. Specifically, some truly misguided scientists were attempting to use modern systems biology techniques to look for biomarkers associated with TCM diagnoses such as “hot” or “cold” syndromes, specifically with respect to rheumatoid arthritis. The article is an example of just how the false narrative of TCM has taken hold. Although the article acknowledged that there was little evidence to support TCM “hot” and “cold” diagnoses, arguments from antiquity and false claims that TCM is “holistic” system that views the “whole patient” according to a system in marked contrast to the “reductionistic” view of “Western medicine” permeated the entire article.
Unfortunately, with the infiltration of quackademic medicine like TCM into medical academia, along with the rise of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a whole lot of quackery that was once properly dismissed as pseudoscience is now respectable, with major academic medical centers not only studying it but offering it to their patients as though it were scientifically validated medicine. The result are articles like the one I just described, not to mention articles like an article that appeared in US NEWS & WORLD REPORT yesterday by Anna Medaris Miller, a health and wellness reporter there, entitled What Is Reiki? You know it’s going to be bad when you see its synopsis: It’s not meditation, massage or prayer. But practitioners and clients say reiki heals in ways that are hard to explain.
That’s where it starts, and the article goes downhill rapidly from there. Naturally, as nearly all examples of credulously lazy reporting on alternative medicine do, with an anecdote:
Terri Reynolds, 56, knows the exchange well. She says, “Reiki.” They say, “Huh?” She says, “Energy healing.” They say, “Hocus-pocus.”
But for Reynolds, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011, reiki is anything but. The practice – which usually involves a practitioner placing his or her hands on or above a client to facilitate that person’s healing energy – taught her how to quiet her mind after surgery and six months of chemotherapy.
“When you have a very stressful job and four children, and you get a diagnosis like that, it kind of really slaps you around,” says Reynolds, a certified medical assistant and managed care educator in Springfield, Illinois. “And when you’re grabbing everywhere for anything that makes the littlest bit of hope glisten, you’re apt to try anything.”
Reynolds is now cancer-free but continues to see a reiki practitioner weekly. “I’ll never stop,” she says.
Notice how this anecdote doesn’t actually indicate that reiki actually did anything for Reynolds, although it does seem to imply that reiki is part of what helped to render her cancer-free. Indeed, if this anecdote is the best one that reiki advocates interviewed for this article could come up with, that’s pretty thin gruel indeed, even for quacks.
Next up, according to the template of articles like this, comes the appeal to popularity. We learn that the Simmons Cancer Institute at Southern Illinois University’s School of Medicine offers woo (as many others are “increasingly offering”) to “prime patients for healing.” This is utter nonsense, unsupported by data, of course, but it is offered as part of the evidence that quackademic medicine is embracing reiki and “biofield” quackery.
Then, of course, there is the obligatory “he said/she said” discussion of the “science, in this case framed as “Science or Hype?” There’s never any doubt which side the article will come down on, naturally. Oh, sure, Miller cites a couple of equivocal or negative studies and the ever-skeptical Jann Bellamy who, unfortunately, serves as what we call the “token skeptic” in articles of this type. It’s a role I’ve played myself on occasion. There’s no choice if you’re a skeptic who occasionally is interviewed. You do your best to get the skeptical viewpoint represented in pithy sound bites, and sometimes you end up being quoted like this. It’s frustrating.
Then we get the “supporting evidence” for reiki, but before I discuss it, I can’t help but mock this part of the article, which quotes someone named Shamini Jain, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California–San Diego. Actually, I mean to mock what Jain says:
Reiki is one of several therapies based on the biofield, or a type of energy field that “regulates everything from our cellular function to our nervous system,” says Shamini Jain, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California–San Diego.
While the biofield itself is generally accepted – it “consists of things that we can measure like electromagnetic energy that actually emanates from us,” Jain says – biofield therapies such as reiki and therapeutic touch are more controversial because they’re based on the idea of a “subtle” aspect of the biofield, which is harder to measure.
“It’s difficult for our Western science to wrap its mind around” because it’s not about popping pills, injecting needles or otherwise altering the body’s chemical composition, says Jain, a clinical psychologist who studies integrative medicine.
At this oint, I have a hard time not feeling like the French soldier in the castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail mocking King Arthur and his knights, so silly is what Jain just said to me. First of all, the “biofield” is not generally accepted. At least, what reiki practitioners and believers in “energy medicine” mean by “biofield” has little or nothing to do with what real scientists mean by “biofield.” Notice how Jain characterizes two types of “biofield energy.” Basically, there’s the kind that scientists can measure, such as the electrical energy whose patterns can be measured and recorded as EEG or EKG or even infrared patterns. Then there’s the kind that can’t be measured, which she disingenuously characterizes as being “harder to measure.” No, Dr. Jain, human biofields that reiki masters claim to be able to manipulate are not “harder to measure.” They’ve never been measured. Nor are they “controversial,” at least not among biologists. Despite many attempts at measuring them, they haven’t been measured because they almost certainly do not exist. There’s even a truly annoying bit about “Western medicine” included, just to make skeptics cringe.
Perhaps Jain has some actual evidence, then? Let’s see:
Still, a small body of research shows promise for reiki and other similar therapies. In a 2010 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, for example, Yale University researchers including Miles found that patients who received a 20-minute reiki treatment within three days after a heart attack had better moods and heart rate variability – a measure linked to post-heart attack outcome.
Another 2012 study in the journal Cancer found that fatigued breast cancer survivors who received four weeks of biofield healing therapies showed “highly clinically significant” reductions in fatigue, says Jain, who led the study. Survivors who received a fake therapy improved too, but not as much; both groups were less exhausted than participants who received no treatment. Notably, Jain says, the study showed that biofield healing improved cortisol variability – important for regulating immune function – while fake and no treatments did not.
Whoa! I immediately recognized that 2012 study because—you guessed it—I had blogged about it. In fact, I first blogged about it when it was an online publication ahead of print in 2011 and then again when it appeared in print in 2012. Let’s just put it this way. This “study” was not about reiki, although it was about a form of “energy therapy” and it was about as bad as a quackademic study comes. The “energy healing” intervention studied was something that its practitioner calls “energy chelation.” Of course the fact that it’s not reiki is really a distinction without much of a difference, because here’s how the authors described energy chelation:
The specific technique used in the biofield healing group is termed energy chelation, and was selected by 1 of the authors (R.L.B.), whose healing techniques have been incorporated in modalities such as Healing Touch and Therapeutic Touch.26,27 During energy chelation, the practitioner practices hands-on healing with standard hand positions, beginning with hands on the feet, then to the knees, hips, bladder area, stomach, hands, elbows, shoulders, heart, throat, head, and back to the heart. The practice of energy chelation is 45 to 60 minutes, with a practitioner generally focusing for 5 to 7 minutes on each position.
OK, so it’s very much like reiki. Reiki, remember, is a technique that’s represented as being ancient Japanese wisdom but in reality was invented out of whole cloth by a man named Mikao Usui in the 1920s.
In any case, as regular readers might recall, reiki is a form of energy healing in which practitioners claim that they can, by making hand motions that sometimes involve touching, sometimes not, on or over the patient in order to channel “healing energy” from what they call the “universal source.” Of course, it’s hard not to note the parallel between reiki when described this way and faith healing. Indeed, boiled to its essence, that’s what reiki is, faith healing. Think of the “universal source” as God and reiki energy as the healing power of God, and you’ll see what I mean. The only difference is that reiki substitutes Eastern mystical beliefs for Christian beliefs.
In fact, I’ll go a step farther. Reiki masters claim that they can send healing reiki energy over a distance. Heck, some claim they can send it over a distance to pets. Some even claim they can send it back and forth in time. What do Christians call this sort of thing? I’ll tell you. They call it intercessory prayer! There’s even a very religion-like explanation for when reiki fails and that’s that the reiki energy “knows” what you need better than you do, or, as I like to say, with reiki you can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time you just might find that you can get what you need. It was such an awful study that I was coauthor on a letter to the editor criticizing it, to which the authors could only respond with nonsense.
As for the other study, it wasn’t even a full study but rather a result reported in a letter to the editor. It wasn’t blinded, but rather compared reiki to a classical music intervention or a resting control in patients after acute coronary syndrome (otherwise known as a myocardial infarction or near-infarction). The outcomes were heart rate variability and emotional state. It was a small study, only 49 patients after screening 229 for eligibility, and it wasn’t particularly convincing, given that neither the patients nor the physicians were blinded.
At least the reiki advocates interviewed conceded:
The results suggest that “common sense things” such as rest, touch and being cared for matter, but “there’s something about the healing that seems beyond that,” Jain says.
The most compelling support for reiki, however, may be anecdotal – and a reason for more research funding in the area, experts say. “What we’re just beginning to understand is that, if we want to move forward with science, we can’t assume one philosophy is correct,” Jain says.
This assumes, of course, that there is science to “move forward with.” When it comes to reiki, there really isn’t. That’s because reiki is religious faith healing that’s not even particularly well disguised as anything resembling scientific medicine.
No wonder reiki masters can’t lose.