On the totem pole of skeptic concern, dowsing would probably be at the bottom. A guy thinking he’s in possession of a magic stick is innocuous unless it is his sole method of locating drinking water. Dowsing does not involve vaccine denial, promote creationism in biology class, or ghoulishly prey on bereaved family members with messages from beyond the grave.
There is one manifestation of dowsing, however, than can be dangerous, and that is when it is used in conjunction with radionics and other energy healing. As Ray Hyman of the Committee For Skeptical Inquiry put it, “Perhaps in no other area has ideomotor action created as much mischief as in medical settings. Under a variety of circumstances, our muscles will behave unconsciously in accordance with an implanted expectation.” In this instance, that expectation is that disease will be revealed and cured when a handle is waved over a patient. When the clinician’s hands move, it is presented as evidence first of disease, then of a cure in subsequent visits.
Radionics emerged from the mind of Albert Abrams, who claimed people have an innate frequency vibration, and that when this goes askew, diseases result. Abrams would hook up his patient to his machine, to which was added a drop of the patient’s blood. Abrams would then tap on the patient’s stomach, sending a vibration to the patient’s spine that Abrams would measure and translate into a diagnosis. This device, he said, could transmit healthy vibrations to sick tissue or organs. These claims are inconsistent with known laws of physics or biology.
Abrams spawned many imitators, and users of these devices have been able to produce measurable readings on them. But there is no evidence this detected electrical resistance is revealing the diseased vibration of hypothetical energy.
Ruth Drown took it a step further and developed a radio therapy that allowed these techniques to be used without the patient even showing up. Her therapy was tested at the University of Chicago and failed to work. It is fine for elite institutions to test unlikely ideas. The problem today is that many of them skip the testing and go straight to embracing Reiki, crystal healing, and craniosacral therapy.
Abram’s most prominent imitator was the highly alliterative Royal Raymond Rife, who claimed that cancer was caused by bacteria. Having deduced this, he developed a microscope that he said could detect living microbes by their aura colors, which in turn were determined their vibrations. His Rife Frequency Generator purportedly emitted radio waves which corresponded in frequency to the disease, causing offending bacteria to break apart. Rife compared this to what happens when an opera singer breaks glass. So this strategy might work on Placido Domingo, but the rest of us are out of luck. In fact, researchers were unable to replicate his method or findings, which Rife attributed to an AMA conspiracy.
Indeed, Radionics and Rife Machines have most of the red flags of pseudomedicine: Misuse of the term energy; allegations of a cover-up; secret knowledge; exclusive dealers; wide-ranging cures; a preference for anecdotes over data; ad hoc dismissal of any failures; and no side effects (as long as you don’t count death when someone bypasses chemotherapy for having a magic wand waved over their stomach). Yet another giveaway is the lack of standards, which is why each practitioner has his or her list of what frequencies can cure which afflictions.
The machines were extinct until a 1987 book announced Rife had conquered cancer and that the cure had been suppressed by the AMA. This is nonsensical because the AMA is an advocacy group with no authority to prevent anyone from selling, advertising, or promoting the machines. Another strike against the conspiracy theory is that persons involved in the cover-up would also get cancer, or have family members that do. The customary response is that the conspirators kept the machines for themselves in case this a happened. That, as opposed to making $500 million off of them.
Several merchants claim they are exclusive dealers of the authentic version of the machine, arrived at through a combination of reverse engineering and access to secret information. During their 1980s reincarnation, the machines were updated for the times, most notably coming with claims they cured AIDS. However, an Australian electronics magazine deduced that the machines were ersatz electronic devices filled with small batteries, wiring, and some tubing. The magazine found this produced an “almost undetectable current that was unlikely even to penetrate the skin, let alone kill any organism.”
I was pleasantly surprised that Andrew Weil, who runs the University of Arizona’s Center for Hogwash Integrative Medicine, unequivocally state that Rife machines don’t work. At the same time, I’ve seen enough alternative medicine promoters to know that Weil’s dismissal of the device may be based on the fact that he doesn’t peddle them. His website, does however, offer an abundance of evening primrose oil and iron-free vitamin packs.
Weil doesn’t sell them, but they are available at electroherbalism.com, which combines naturopathy with pseudo-electronic devices. This is an unusual mix, sort of a quackery biathlon. Whether purchased from this site or others, the idea is to consult a chart that has rows listing maladies, Hertz levels, and duration. Simply match up the frequency and time, then zap that lupus. For extra efficiency, slap some snazzy Flash Gordon stripes on the handles.