An Australian “energy healer” begs medicine to take him seriously

Even though I’ve taken on the ‘nym of a fictional computer in a 35-year-old British science fiction series whose key traits were an arrogant and condescending manner and the ability to tap into every computer of the galactic federation any time he wanted to, in reality I am just one person. That means, try as I might, I can’t keep up with everything that might interest me enough to blog, much less blog it all. What that means is that occasionally something catches my attention, even though it’s three months old. So it was with this article in—of all places—Elle magazine. It’s about a favorite topic of mine, a form of quackery so ridiculous that it competes fairly closely with The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy, for the title of Most Ridiculous Quackery. I’m referring, of course to so-called “energy healing,” which encompasses modalities such as reiki and so-called “healing touch.” The concept behind such therapies is that the practitioner can either somehow manipulate his patients “energy field” or (as in the case of reiki) channel “healing energy” from elsewhere (in the case of reiki, from something called the “universal source”) into the patient in order to heal. It’s all nonsense, of course. No one has ever been able to demonstrate that he can detect human energy fields, much less manipulate them. Yet it persists.

So what was this article that caught my eye? It was from September and written by someone named Chip Brown, and it was about as credulous an article as I’ve ever seen. Basically, you can tell how bad the article is just by its title, Energy Healing Works — Many Say. But How Do You Prove It? The article itself is about someone named Charlie Goldsmith, an Australian who claims to be an “energy healer” and who really, really, really wants to prove that he can really do what he says. Don’t believe me? Goldsmith is happy to tell you very early in the article:

In the 17 years since the bewildering day that Charlie Goldsmith discovered what he calls his “gift,” the 35-year-old energy healer from Melbourne, Australia, has been trying to get someone in the medical world to take him seriously. He has wanted to be of use, working with the formal sanction of doctors in hospitals. He has wanted to be recognized for what he knows he can do—not simply to justify the strange turn his life took when he was 18, but to shore up the credibility of a practice long plagued by fraud and religious superstition, and to make the experience of discovering and developing a healing gift like his less traumatic for other people. It’s one thing to be teased by friends; it’s another to be brushed off by the medical profession as a well-meaning but deluded screwball whose results probably have less to do with energy than with the placebo effects of his kind and empathetic manner, perhaps even his salubrious blue eyes and handsome surf-side looks. (When you Google Goldsmith, up pop Australian tabloid images of him and Miranda Kerr—let’s get to that later.)

In Melbourne, Goldsmith brought a sheaf of testimonials to a hospital for integrated medicine; no one was interested. Knowing he possibly sounded crazy, he e-mailed specialists in infectious disease, emphasizing his desire to participate in research. One of the few replies he got was from a prominent doctor at the University of Adelaide, who told him: “Even if you can do what you say you can do, no one will ever fund a study.” Goldsmith seldom drinks, but he tied one on that day.

These testimonials, we are informed, include:

  • A former professional basketball player who had had three knew surgeries and couldn’t walk downstairs claiming that Goldsmith had gotten rid of his knee pain and that he could now play pickup games without any NSAIDS.
  • A member of the Australian aerial ski team rehabbing a torn medial collateral ligament who claims she was able to bend her elbow, pain-free after a healing session. (Hey, wait. The medial collateral ligament is in the knee, but, no, the elbow has one too.)
  • A man named Andrew Waugh who claims that he couldn’t eat an undercooked egg without his throat constricting in 20 seconds and his face swelling reporting that he ate an egg after a treatment by Goldsmith and had no allergic reaction.

As I read this, the one thing that kept going through my mind is that that Chip Brown is sure one gullible bloke (keeping with the Australian theme). Hedoesn’t take long to prove it more by writing:

Today some 200 studies (published in peer-reviewed science journals but, for the most part, not in prominent medical ones) have detailed the apparent effects of energy healers on the physiology of humans, animals, plants, bacteria, and cells in culture, and even on the activity of enzymes. As pioneering medical researchers in the last two decades have explored how the mind can change the body—how objective physiological indices of health can be influenced by the subjective reality of emotions, thoughts, intentions, expectations, environmental conditions, beliefs, social relationships, and prayers—medical science has begun to appreciate the intricate reciprocity of psyche and soma. Standardized practices such as acupuncture, Therapeutic Touch, Healing Touch, and Reiki, which are based on the idea that positive changes can be promoted by balancing or adjusting the flow of energy in the body, are increasingly offered as complementary therapy for pain relief and other ailments in many hospitals and major medical centers, including Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston, the Cleveland Clinic, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Yes, and I can find 200 studies of homeopathy published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that claim that homeopathy works, too. That doesn’t mean homeopathy works, and those 200 studies cited by Brown don’t prove energy healing works, either. I’ve looked at a lot of them and I know. Most are either crappy studies in bottom feeding journals and, when taken in their totality, represent a combination of random noise in the clinical trial process that will produce a bare minimum of 5% of studies of nothing (homeopathy) appearing to be positive because we set our p-value for significance at 0.05. (The true number is actually likely to be considerably higher due to publication bias and various other problems with clinical trials.) I’ve also examined some of those studies of “energy healing” on cells and animals, and they are invariably risibly weak in their scientific design.

So is the “study” of Goldsmith’s alleged ability cited by Brown, who seems unduly impressed by the fact that Goldsmith doesn’t charge for his services because he is quite well off from his multiple businesses and because he’s so anxious to be tested. He’s also inordinately impressed by a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in June purporting to test Goldsmith’s ability. The study is described as a feasibility study and a prospective exploratory case series, which basically tells you that it’s an unblinded, uncontrolled study. Patients were selected by the research team based on their “clinical judgment,” which translated means that they picked whomever they felt with no defined inclusion criteria and only one exclusion criteria, namely the judgment that the patient might have some secondary gain. There was no long term followup to assess whether the pain relief persisted. True, a ten-point pain scale was used to assess pain before and after Goldsmith’s ministrations, with relief characterized as none, slight, moderate, and marked based on the change in pain scale rating. Changes in non-pain complaints were also rated none, slight, moderate, and marked, with no real definition of what constitutes these levels of relief.

The results were reported thusly:

Twenty-four of 32 patients requested relief from pain. Of 50 reports of pain, 5 (10%) showed no improvement; 4 (8%), slight improvement; 3 (6%), moderate improvement; and 38 (76%), marked improvement. Twenty-one patients had issues other than pain. Of 29 non–pain-related problems, 3 (10%) showed no, 2 (7%) showed slight, 1 (4%) showed moderate, and 23 (79%) showed marked improvement. Changes during EM sessions were usually immediate.

That’s it. Seriously. That’s all there is to it. Brown claims to argue that these results couldn’t be due to placebo effects, but they strike me as an almost classic description of what one would expect from placebo effects, particularly given that no assessment was made of whether the effects lasted. Particularly pseudoscientific was the fact that for some patients the practitioner “energized” water, which the patient would then drink. I mean, seriously again. Lead author Francois Dufresne, who’s interviewed in the story, ought to be ashamed of himself for publishing such a sorry excuse for a crap study and for being so gullible, so much so that his next “study” (not yet published) was described thusly by Brown:

In May, Goldsmith returned for a second round at NYU Lutheran and treated 19 patients. The data has not yet been published, but some of the doctors acknowledged to me that the healer’s batting average did not drop. There were new wrinkles; Goldsmith noticed that the doctors were careful not to present him as an “energy healer” but as an “energy medicine practitioner,” so as not to suggest a positive outcome. The second study was also qualitative; researchers were gathering data about patients’ perceptions, experiences, and beliefs.

I can’t help but note the contrast between this study, which will certainly just be more of the same, and co-author Kell Julliard’s excuses in the article that she had to do preliminary tests to see if it was feasible to have Goldsmith work in her hospital and to get an idea of the effect sizes that could be expected before she could design a randomized clinical trial. OK, she got that. Yet, instead of doing a randomized trial she apparently just did more of the same.

Meanwhile, Goldsmith’s reputation has led him to be besieged by requests for healing to the point where he’s doing the quackiest of quackery: Distance healing. Behold:

Among them was Judy Murphy. She used to work as a public information officer at the National Institutes of Health. Her husband, Donald, trained in biology, had been an NIH research administrator who became interested in healing when the agency opened what is now known as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health in 1998. Judy, 66, had been traveling when she began to suffer debilitating back spasms. Donald had been trying to heal them long distance from their home in Olympia, Washington, without success. So he texted Goldsmith in New York.

“I was lying on the floor for a couple of hours,” Judy told me. “I crawled around on all fours. It was excruciating. The pain was a 10. Charlie called; he said, ‘Just a minute’ and did his thing, and then I could turn over. And then he did it again, and I could sit up, and after the third time, I was still in pain but I could walk.”

Truly, expectancy is a powerful thing. Sadly, it doesn’t really last long enough.

I was going to go into some of the individual anecdotes, but it was getting late and I was getting tired as I wrote this; so I decided to take a different tack. If Mr. Goldsmith really wants to prove that he’s the real deal, he’s totally going about it in the wrong way working with those advocates of quackademic medicine at NYU Lutheran Medical Center. They’re very credulous, and their results are guaranteed to be unconvincing based on just how credulous they are and how bad their first attempt to study Goldsmith was.

If Mr. Goldsmith is truly serious about proving himself, here’s what he should do. If this were a couple of years earlier, I’d have suggested that he contact the James Randi Educational Foundation to apply to undergo the JREF Million Dollar Challenge. However, with the Million Dollar Challenge somewhat up in the air right now, along with JREF itself—if it even really exists any more other than on paper—and the JREF no longer accepting applications from the public, I now have to suggest this alternate plan. I note that the JREF promises minimum required protocols early next year. Another, better possibility, would be for Goldsmith to contact the Australian Skeptics, who offer a $100,000 challenge similar to Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. If he wants medical cred, he could also consider contacting a skeptical physician, like me or Steve Novella, with a background in medical academia to develop an appropriate randomized controlled clinical trial. The only problem then would be funding.

If Goldsmith really wants to prove his magical energy healing powers, that would be the way to go, not doing crappy uncontrolled, unblinded prospective studies. I predict he won’t do that, though, because he doesn’t really want to risk failing at such a test.