Because energy is a word everyone knows but far fewer understand, it is a convenient umbrella term for those in the New Age healing and empowerment movements. Types of energy said to be available for our benefit include chi, prana, vibrational, orgone, crystal, vital, and the most polysyllabic yet, bioelectromagnetic.
It is sometimes insinuated that this energy hails from another dimension, consistent with some scientists thinking there is a fifth dimension and maybe even a 15th. Of course, there is a huge difference between postulating something’s existence and declaring it to be the source of medicine and tranquility.
These movements fuse the ancient and the futuristic. They are descendants of vitalism and faith healing, but also coopt words like quantum and make up undefined terms like biofield. Misrepresentation of energy is what these fields are built on. Energy has a number of different forms, all of which center on the ability of an object or system to do work on something else. These forms include kinetic, thermal, chemical, electrical, electrochemical, electromagnetic, and nuclear. An excellent, concise rundown of these forms is available here.
Whatever form energy comes in, it will have certain properties. First, it can be transferred from one object or system to another through the interaction of forces between the objects. Second, energy can be converted from any form to another. In some cases, this happens regularly, while in other cases it is only theoretically possible. In all instances, these transfers are impacted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which in simplest terms states that as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is used. Thirdly, energy is always conserved, and never created or destroyed, as stipulated by the First Law of Thermodynamics.
Energy is not its own entity, but is rather a property of other things. Hence, energy healing is as nonsensical as trying to cure someone with mass or volume. Energy is not a self-contained force that can be obtained through chants, gyrations, or ersatz electronics.
Batteries, windmills, and nuclear power plants work in ways that are measurable and knowable. By contrast, New Age counterfeit energy is unknown, undetectable, and undescribed. Here are questions I have put to energy healing proponents without receiving anything besides silence and stammers: What type of energy is it? How is it stored? What is its source? What instruments are used to detect or transfer it? What unit is it measured in? How do you determine how much energy is being used? What is a safe amount and how do you prevent this threshold from being crossed? Proponents will talk of unblocking, harmonizing, unifying, tuning, aligning, balancing, and channeling this force without offering how this is accomplished or even what the force is.
In the best-known physics equation, Einstein revealed that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Brian Dunning of Skeptoid explained this means that, “Speed is a function of distance and time, so energy can be expressed in mass, distance, and time. That’s how we define work that can be done. Energy is a measurement of work. If I lift a rock, I’m inputting enough potential energy to dent the surface of the table one centimeter when I drop it.”
Nowhere did Einstein mention life force, disruptions in the aura, or discordant frequencies of sickness. New Age energy involves no mechanics, electricity, or atomic nuclei. I have seen hundreds of New Age energy claims, with nary a reference to ergs, joules, electron volts, or calories (unless talking about weight loss that will come via energy appetite suppression).
Dunning suggests substituting “measurable work capability” for “energy” when encountering New Age healing advertisements. This will highlight the claims’ ridiculous nature, as we can see in this example: “The release and ascent of the dormant spiritual measurable work capability enables the aspirant to transcend the effects of the elements and achieve consciousness.”
Despite the science vacuum that is the New Age energy field, it was supported for five years by the National Institutes for Health. Taxpayer money and the University of Arizona’s reputation were sacrificed in the name of magic healing at the school’s Center for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science. I am tempted to include a mocking, condescending line here, but can meet that intent by quoting the center’s website: “We conducted a series of experiments examining the effects of Reiki on e. coli bacteria and biophoton emission in plants.” It also lets us know that, “The findings were again too controversial for mainstream journals,” a euphemism for, “Scientists weren’t buying our preposterous conclusions.”
While no peer-reviewed journal would touch them, that didn’t stop their leader, Dr. Gary Schwartz, from publishing, “The Energy Healing Experiments: Science Reveals our Natural Power to Heal.” Like much good pseudoscience, the treatise is lacking in data but bursting with anecdotes. This includes Schwartz claiming a preschooler’s heart condition was cured by a touch from a Hindu holy man. Another story has a patient being cured from 1,000 miles away from a clinician harnessing a cosmic elixir. Again, these are the claims of a man who says bias is the only reason reputable journals reject his work. This is a frequent gambit of pseudoscientists, to claim a conspiracy is keeping them from being the latest in a line of vindicated geniuses that includes Galileo and Alfred Wegener. Glad to be doing my part for the conspiracy.