Oh, Forbes, home to quite a few bloggers I respect, like Steve Salzberg, Peter Lipson, Britt Hermes, and several others, why do you do this to me? Sure, not all Forbes bloggers are great. There are even a few, particularly a couple of the tech bloggers (I’m talking to you, Ewan Spence, in particular) who are awful. Rarely, however, have I seen a post as riddled with pseudoscience as this one on Forbes by Courtney Porkoláb. Whom do I have to blame for this? Why, Tim Caulfied, of course! He couldn’t resist Tweeting this out about someone named Charlie Goldsmith:
Holy biofield bunk, Batman! Legitimizing energy healing? WTF? @forbes @C_Porkolab https://t.co/WC369WQxDk Yes, quantum physics is mentioned (& mangled). Yes, poorly controlled "feasibility" study is used. Yes, testimonials treated as evidence. @skepticpedi @DrJenGunter @gorskon
— Timothy Caulfield (@CaulfieldTim) November 14, 2017
Yes, there’s a new energy healing quack in town.
Charlie Goldsmith: Credulity everywhere!
The article by Porkoláb, Does Energy Healing Work? Watch ‘Healer’ Charlie Goldsmith And Decide For Yourself, to which Caulfield referred is indeed a flaming piece of pseudoscience richly deserving of a heaping helping of not-so-Respectful Insolence. All it takes for anyone who knows anything about medicine and physics to come to this realization is to read the first three paragraphs of Porkoláb’s post:
But this isn’t smoke and mirrors. The Australian energy healer, who reluctantly discovered his talent at the ripe age of 18, is now on a mission to take energy medicine mainstream. To date, Goldsmith has volunteered his time—and talents—to two scientific studies. An additional double-blind study is slated for 2018.
In the first study, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2015, he treated 50 reports of pain at a 76% success rate and 29 reports of non-pain problems at a 79% success rate. The study, conducted at NYU’s Lutheran Hospital, is also what caught the attention of Bunim/Murray and landed him a TV deal. The second is still underway.
I’ve written about so-called “energy healing” more times than I can remember on this blog. Energy healing is based on the mystical belief that there is some sort of “energy field” that self-described “energy healers” can manipulate. In the case of reiki, that “energy field” is not the patient’s, but rather what reiki masters call the “universal source,” a mystical energy field that they claim to be able to tap into to direct energy from it to patients for healing effect. That’s why I frequently refer to reiki as faith healing that substitutes an Eastern mystical beliefs (the universal source) for the Judeo-Christian god invoked by faith healers. Reiki can get really weird, too, such as claims of distance healing, healing through time to the past or future, and the ability to heal pets.
Other forms of energy healing include a modality known as “healing touch” or “therapeutic touch.” These are misnomers, because therapeutic touch doesn’t actually involve touching, although it does involve the claim that its practitioners can manipulate an “energy field” around human beings to therapeutic effect, all without touching them. Indeed, it goes beyond that. Its practitioners claim to be able to detect illnesses and stimulate recuperative powers through their healing intention. Sadly, therapeutic touch is a form of woo that has become quite entrenched in nursing schools and in the nursing profession. It’s also a form of quackery that’s so quacky that even a 12-year-old girl, Emily Rosa, could devise a test to demonstrate that it’s quackery and get it published in JAMA.
These are the “respectable” forms of energy healing, as quacky as they still are. Charlie Goldsmith doesn’t even reach that level. Indeed, I almost have to thank Tim Caulfield for reminding me of him. I had blogged about him before. At that time, I noted just how truly, truly bad the study being cited was. Seeing Porkoláb’s credulous take on it reminded me of the credulous take that put Goldsmith on my radar two years ago, written by someone named someone named Chip Brown. In any case, let’s look at the trial again briefly.
Basically, the study is described in the paper as a feasibility study and a prospective exploratory case series. Anyone involved in clinical research knows the translation of these terms: It was an unblinded, uncontrolled study, and indeed, that’s exactly what it was. Subjects were selected by the research team based on their “clinical judgment,” which translated means that they picked whomever they felt like picking with no defined inclusion criteria and only one exclusion criteria, namely the judgment that the patient might have some secondary gain.his is the best that the authors can do describing how they picked their subjects:
Using their clinical judgment, physicians identified as potential participants adult patients, employees, or friends or family of employees who had signs and symptoms that were not responding to traditional medical therapy or were only slowly responding. Patients deemed to have secondary gains for their medical condition or who were unable or unwilling to communicate with the research team regarding the effects of the energy medicine session were excluded from the study. Assessments by which improvement was typically gauged in this clinical setting were specified for each individual patient on the basis of the judgment of his or her treating physician.
Here’s a hint. Good clinical trials, even preliminary exploratory case series, define their inclusion and exclusion criteria in advance. They also define their primary endpoints (the specific symptoms or physiological parameters that they expect their intervention to affect) in advance. This study did nothing of the sort. 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.
In other words, it was a study with cherry picked patients almost custom-designed to produce strong placebo effects, regression to the mean, and confirmation bias, typical of the sorts of studies published in a journal like the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and other complementary and alternative medicine journals. That Porkoláb didn’t spot this right away about this study tells me either that she’s utterly clueless or that she so wanted to believe in Goldsmith that she overlooked the glaring methodological flaws of the trial.
This credulity leads her to burnish Goldsmith’s legend better than he himself can do it:
Prior to the studies done in the public eye, Goldsmith spent years healing as many as he could, often those who had been failed by countless doctors and traditional medicine. He has never once charged for his work—his day job includes working as Managing Director at Cassette, a creative communications agency he founded at 19, and Pumpy Jackson, a clean, sugar-free brand of chocolate he founded as well.
Goldsmith’s success rates are undeniably high, having relieved people of all ages, with issues ranging from chronic pain to infections and auto-immune disorders, often in 60 seconds or less.
Now there are claims that can be tested. Pain is subjective and therefore highly influenced by placebo effects and all the other confounders that affect the perception of pain, both by the patient and the practitioner. However, infections and autoimmune diseases are far less so. If Goldsmith can heal infections in 60 seconds flat, that’s a claim that can be tested with objective tests. Let’s say Goldsmith “cures” a pneumonia. It’s not hard to show that, before his treatment, the patient has pneumonia and afterwards he does not. Hell, even the resolution of urinary tract infection should be easily demonstrable. The same is true of auto-immune diseases. There are objective markers of autoimmune diseases that can be followed to show how active the disease is. If Goldsmith can truly cure autoimmune disorders in 60 seconds, it really shouldn’t be difficult to show in a randomized, controlled trial. Hell, it might not even take a randomized trial, but rather a longitudinal trial following patients with autoimmune disease before and after Goldsmith’s ministrations. Alteration in immune markers measured in the blood associated with the autoimmune disease should be obvious if Goldsmith’s claims are accurate.
But he confessed to me that it’s not an exact art.
“To be honest, sometimes I’ll work on something that—medically—is seemingly simple and not fix it. And something that is medically complex—something medically incurable, for example—that might be quite easy for me,” he said.
Uh-huh. Then prove it. No more bullshit. Just prove it.
Quackademic medicine embarrasses itself even more than usual
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about quackademic medicine (the infiltraiton of quackery into academic medicine in the form of “integrative medicine), there’s no nonsense too nonsensical for it to take seriously. Consistent with that credulity, Goldsmith has his enablers among respectable academic physicians:
On Goldsmith’s site, Dr. Ramsey Joudeh, from NYU’s Lutheran Medical Center, attests to Goldsmith’s miraculous healing powers:
Most of our narcotics decrease a patient’s pain by three to five points. If you go from a 10, meaning the worst pain you can imagine, to five, that’s significant. In some cases Charlie reduced a patient’s pain from 10 to zero. He also treated people with infections where antibiotics were not effective. You could see the shift in a patient’s status from stagnant to a rapid healing resolution. I can’t quantify it, but I would say Charlie cuts off pateints’ hospital stays. Watching him work has been humbling in the most extreme way.
Oh, please. Dr. Joudeh is credulous in the extreme, so much so that he embarrasses the hell out of me as a fellow physician. Unfortunately, he is not atypical of a lot of academic physicians who have fallen under the spell of “integrative medicine” in that he seems to forget not just basic science that should be enough to tell him that what claims like those of Goldsmith are so incredibly improbable that incredible evidence would be needed to support them convincingly. Basically, Goldsmith’s claims are a lot like those of homeopathy. For his claims to be true, huge swaths of very well supported science would have to be not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Worse, Porkoláb is utterly oblivious to this simple principle:
Routinely touted as ‘alternative medicine,’ energy-based healing is, in fact, a centuries-old practice. Many traditional healing modalities are rooted in the belief of balance and harmony of life force energy—the energy that flows through all living things. Although the various schools of thought differentiate slightly, it is generally accepted that energetic imbalances and disturbances to energy flow, even subtle, are the cause of maladies. This can be seen in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where energy is referred to as “chi” and energy pathways as “meridians.” In Japanese medicine, known as Kampo, this energy is referred to as “ki.” And in ancient Indian medicine—Ayurveda—this life force is known as “prana” and travels on “nadis.”
You know what else all these “energies” have in commmon? They are not detectable by science. Nor are effects of any of these energy healing modalities detectable. Not that any of this stops Porkoláb from happily quoting advocates who invoke quantum mechanics to “explain” how energy healing “works.” Here’s a hint. You can easily substitute the term “quantum mechanics” for the word “magic,” and passages like this will mean exactly the same thing:
Curious as to how someone would explain energy healing to a non-believer, I reached out to acclaimed energy medicine practitioner and researcher Dr. Daniel J. Benor. The wholistic psychiatrist and author of Healing Research, Volume I replied,
Quantum physics demonstrates that matter and energy are two aspects of the same thing, and this is generally accepted as true for inanimate matter. There is no reason to suggest the same does not apply to living matter, such as a human body. Conventional medicine addresses the physical body, while healers and other bioenergy therapists address the bioenergy body.
“I’ve heard lots of theories about why these things are possible but I don’t like theories very much. I like things that I know—and what I know is, it works,” Goldsmith declared.
Let’s look at Benor’s claim first. Seriously, the best he can come up with is an analogy? Yes, energy and matter are interchangeable, but that’s for all matter. Does he think that living matter is different in this aspect? There’s nothing different about the molecules that make up me, for instance, and those that constitute inanimate matter like a rock when it comes to how much energy is contained. While it’s true that I don’t like to think of what would happen if all the atoms in my body were to be converted to energy (something that would be very detrimental to my ability to continue to lay down Insolence, Respectful or not-so-Respectful), I accept that matter is matter, and that matter is equivalent to energy according to Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2.
As for the rest, the fact that animate matter is energy in the same way that inanimate matter is does not mean that energy healing works. Nor does it mean that there is such a thing as the “bioenergy body.” Again, some forms of “energy healing” are no more than faith healing gussied up with some Eastern mystical beliefs, while other forms of “energy healing” are simply utter nonsense.
Unfortunately, enablers such as Courtney Porkoláb are ready to defend quackery thusly in response to a doctor who questioned the existence of biofields of the type that Goldsmith claims to be able to tap into and use to heal people:
You're a medical doctor and do not believe human biofields exist? So you're saying ECGs and EEGs just measure "magic energy fields?" Got it.
— Courtney Porkoláb (@C_Porkolab) November 15, 2017
“Biofields.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Seriously, though. Here’s the difference. We can measure the energy field associated with ECGs and EEGs. The measurements are reliable and reproducible. They guide clinical management. There is extensive scientific literature demonstrating their usefulness in diagnosis and management. In contrast, we can’t measure the “biofields” to which Porkoláb refers, much less correlate them so strongly with disease states. Sadly, Porkoláb doesn’t seem to understand.
Similarly, I don’t think that “validation” means what Mr. Goldsmith seems to think it means:
Fiercely determined, he insisted that he will continue to validate energy healing until medicine starts asking questions, such as: “Why is this happening? What is the difference between someone who can do this and someone who can’t? And how can we utilize this, whether it be replicating it somehow through technology or finding people who innately have these abilities?”
As I like to say, Mr. Goldsmith is putting the cart before the horse. Before you can ask questions like, “Why is this happening?” we have to know that “this” is actually happening, something that Goldsmith thus far has utterly failed to demonstrate. Harriet Hall coined a term for this sort of research: Tooth fairy science, which is studying the minutiae of a claimed phenomenon without actually having demonstrated that the phenomenon exists in the first place.
This is the best evidence you’ve got?
So what evidence does Charlie Goldsmith have other than the crappy study he and Ms. Porkoláb like to cite, a study that shows absolutely nothing? Well, he’s got lots and lots of testimonials, some of those giving the testimonials claiming that Goldsmith healed them over the phone. Several of these testimonials read like comments that my spam filter rejects by the dozen claiming that this or that healer healed someone or that medical marijuana is the greatest thing ever. Some of them don’t demonstrate anything that could remotely be called energy healing but simply suggest that Goldsmith might function as an empathetic therapist. Here’s an example:
When I first asked Charlie for help I had blocked my rape out for 7 years the best way I knew how, silence. Everyday I suffered the consequences of this. Everyday I hummed with resentment; anger and hate that an individual could make me feel so insignificant and inadequate. Nearly every night I would have horrific nightmares that made me dread sleep. No one could touch my wrists, my hips or my neck. I held a lot of anger, and found it extremely difficult to mirror the emotions of those around me. I found it almost impossible to love the way I now know is properly and looking back on it now, I would refer to myself as quite ‘cold hearted’. Charlie allowed me to explain the event for the first time with zero judgement. I held a lot of self-blame, a lot of ‘if I had done this differently’. He helped me realise that nothing was my fault. That I had reacted in the best way I knew how. Over a few weeks he showed me how to feel. Something that may seem so simple to most, but for me it wasn’t. He taught me and allowed me to continue through the stages until I reached acceptance. Holding my hand, so to speak, the whole way, offering nothing but kindness and support. Today, I have no nightmares and sleep better than I have in years. I am touchable and hold hardly any anger. Opening up to Charlie was the best thing I have ever done. He saved me from a life of constant pain, and potentially self-destruction.
There is another very similar testimonial there as well. This is nothing that an empathetic friend or a decent therapist couldn’t have accomplished, no need to invoke mystical mumbo-jumbo energy fields.
Goldsmith states that he’s in the midst of a second study:
The clinical practices of Charlie Goldsmith are currently under investigation in a study being conducted jointly by Monash University Professor Paul Komesaroff and New York University. Mr Goldsmith’s intention is to expose his work to multiple scientific studies, which will ultimately include a double blind controlled trial that directly tests outcomes. The study presently underway is being undertaken at NYU Lutheran Hospital in New York and employs a qualitative methodology to help understand the experiences of patients who encounter Mr Goldsmith’s practices. The results from this study will be used, as appropriate, to assist with the development of further qualitative and quantitative studies.
I like the claim that these studies will “ultimately included a double-blind controlled trial that tests outcomes.” That’s nice. Why not do that study now? Because the study described above is no better than the crappy study from 2015 that Porkoláb touts. In any case, I decided to search ClinicalTrials.gov for this study. First off, I found nothing searching on Komesaroff’s name. So I started searching on the names of the investigators of the previous study. So either the study wasn’t registered on ClinicalTrials.gov, which is always a red flag for me, or Goldsmith isn’t working with the same investigators as last time. It wouldn’t matter, though, if it were registered. There are lots of highly dubious studies on ClinicalTrials.gov.
Meanwhile, on Twitter, Porkoláb is falling back on the lamest of the lame defenses, the “don’t blame me, I’m just sparking discussion” defense:
— Courtney Porkoláb (@C_Porkolab) November 14, 2017
This show was bound to undoubtedly spark conversation. I am not confirming it works or how it does. Studies were referenced to gage @charlegoldsmith’s opinion.
— Courtney Porkoláb (@C_Porkolab) November 14, 2017
Meanwhile,. Goldsmith showed up as well:
Actually I do not charge anyone. If you're going to be a skeptic at least do proper research. Otherwise you're being just like a religious person and talking about what you believe, which isn't very sciency.
— Charlie Goldsmith (@charlegoldsmith) November 15, 2017
So what if he doesn’t charge anyone? May I assume he’s doing his TV show for free? Also, quacks do what quacks do for reasons other than money sometimes. For instance, there’s ego gratification and, in fairness, the good feeling that anyone who takes care of other people gets when doing good. Goldsmith thinks he’s doing good; so he could easily be motivated largely by that. As for the “religious person” charge, well, that just sounds like projection. Goldsmith is also very, very unhappy that a bud of mine, Clay Jones, called him a fraud:
Actually Clay, by definition I am not a fraud because I believe i am helping people, they believe I am helping them AND i do not charge. You need to get your self a dictionary.
— Charlie Goldsmith (@charlegoldsmith) November 15, 2017
OK, I’ll accept that Goldsmith might not necessarily a fraud, but he’s definitely deluded as hell. He also doesn’t understand basic principles of science, like the burden of proof:
The onus in that argument would be for you to prove that i am a fraud and i'm not sure what evidence you'd be able to present about me..
— Charlie Goldsmith (@charlegoldsmith) November 15, 2017
Um, no, Mr. Goldsmith. You and your followers claim, an extraordinary ability. The burden of evidence to prove that you can do what you claim is on you, not on Clay to prove that you’re a fraud.
So basically, what we have is a new quack, a new “energy healing” charlatan, plus some integrative medicine practitioners so “open minded” that their brains fell out long ago doing useless studies to test his “abilities,” studies that won’t confirm or refute whether he has these abilities in the first place. The quack goes along with them because they feed his ego and serve as good advertising. Meanwhile, a cable network, TLC, produces a completely credulous show featuring the quack in order to make money off of him, much as the E! Network did the same with the psychic medium fraud Tyler Henry.
I’ll make a prediction: Goldsmith’s show will likely be as successful as Henry’s show, given that it was clearly TLC’s answer to it. I’ll make a further prediction. There’ll be several “preliminary” and unblinded studies that claim to show Goldsmith’s miraculous healing abilities even when they don’t, and that double-blinded study will never materialize. I’ll even make a further suggestion. In the design of the trial, Mr. Goldsmith should consult Emily Rosa. She’s all grown up now, and could definitely do a better job designing a trial than the twits designing the current trials. If Ms. Rosa isn’t available, Steve Novella and I would be happy to step in.