Discover Magazine, which I have subscribed to for a quarter century, had long been a vanguard against pseudoscience and Supplementary, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine (SCAM). To my great mortification, this has ceased to be the case in recent months. The publication has published two mostly credulous and fawning pieces on energy healing. It did so without explaining what type of energy was at play, how the energy was accessed, how it transferred from practitioner to subject, what units the energy is measured in, or how an overdose would be prevented.
In the magazine’s most recent issue, writer Amy Paturel credits Healing Touch with easing her toddler’s labored breathing. While this no doubt had a strong emotional impact on Paturel, this is an instance of subjective validation, where something seems real because of a personal experience. It is also an instance of post hoc reasoning, which is a regular staple of SCAM since it is often embraced when mainstream medicine has failed. Many illnesses and conditions are cyclical and the situation would have resolved on its own. So SCAM seems to work since a few days have gone by while other approaches were tried. It is telling that Paturel recalled experiencing “feelings of helplessness” and as being “desperate and with little to lose” when deciding to try Healing Touch.
She describes what is little more than a secular version of faith healing: “Lisa Thompson, a pediatric nurse at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, began moving her hands a few inches above us. Within minutes, beeping machines quieted. Jack’s heart rate steadied. For the first time in 10 days, we both caught our collective breath, and Jack fell asleep. During the 30-minute session, Thompson’s hands never even made contact with Jack’s body.”
Included was no explanation for how this work, nor any description of a plausible mechanism behind it. It is merely an anecdote, which Discover once realized was no substitute for double blind studies.
The downward spiral continues, as Paturel embraces the Appeal to Tradition fallacy. She writes, “During ancient times, ‘laying on of hands’ served as first-line therapy for people who were suffering.” Later, she writes glowingly of such ideas having been used in “India and China for thousands of years.”
She rattles off concepts that previously would have appeared in Discover only if the magazine were explaining their implausibility and unproven natures: Biofield Therapy, acupuncture, life force, Qigong, Prana, Chi, and Reiki.
She quotes Mimi Guarneri, president of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, as saying, “These therapies are based on the idea that the body has a biofield system, not unlike the circulatory, nervous and lymphatic systems.”
Guarneri supports this assertion with no evidence or research. What she praises is an unproven concept at best and dangerous and unethical at worst. A patient favoring treatment based on a non-existent system could bypass authentic medicine.
The article closes on a tragic-comic note, with Paturel relating that she used the technique to combat her son’s stomach bug. Fortunately, she also went to a hospital to have the child treated. But while there she “called to mind a tree, rooted my feet into the ground and put my hands to work.”
By using both a pediatrician and woo, no real harm was done. But there is a chance that she would credit Healing Touch with the healing done by the genuine treatment and bypass the latter down the road.
This was Discover’s second embrace of SCAM in the last few months. In the final issue of 2021, it ran an article by Sara Novak entitled, “The truth behind your chakras.” My article would have been much shorter: “It’s a lie.”
Paturel cited a few studies, occasionally veered into skepticism, referenced the placebo effect, and wondered if the positive results occurred because of relaxation rather than medicine. Novak, by contrast, offered a full-on embrace of nonsense.
She lauded Reiki, which she called a success. She credulously wrote of chakras as “vital centers of energy that exist in all of us” and as “spinning energy vortexes” – never specifying which type of energy or how it is detected or measured. Nor was there any listing of active ingredients that would help the charkas serve as medicine. There were however, references to Vedic, Tantric, and Hindu texts from nearly 4000 years ago. The further back, the better when appealing to tradition, and the father away, the better when appealing to the exotic.
Check out this New Age Word Salad that is worthy of Dr. Oz and Gwyneth Paltrow: “The seven main chakras are supposedly stacked upwards on top of one another along the spine, starting with the root chakra at the base of the spine; the sacral chakra just below the belly button; the solar plexus on the upper abdomen; the heart chakra at the center of the chest; the throat chakra at the throat; the third eye chakra located between the eyes on the forehead; and the crown chakra on top of the head.”
The article even includes this graphic, which leaves all doubt about Discover having jumped the pseudoscientific shark:
The gobbledygook goes on for several paragraphs without ever saying anything meaningful, scientific, or testable. It is merely a meandering string of gibberish, wild claims, and undefined terms and concepts. Novak makes reference to “blocks” and “balance” without showing any evidence that these exist or explaining any mechanisms behind them. The periodical that once managed to explain a wide breadth of scientific fields in understandable terms without dumbing it down now publishes this: “An imbalanced sacral chakra is associated with fertility issues and a blocked throat chakra means you have trouble expressing yourself.”
Discover previously published 12 issues a year, which became 10, and is now 8. And from this point, the number of times it will be arriving in my mailbox is zero.