“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)


While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationist’s substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the Sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth, and will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a Flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.


“No touch hogwash” (Johrei)


Johrei is described by proponents as a healing attained through manipulation of a mystical energy field. Practitioners move their hands around the client without touching them, with a goal, according to the Johrei Institute, of “using of universal life energy to foster positive changes to the physical and spiritual body and to dispel negative energy.”

These descriptors do little to differentiate Johrei from Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Qi Gong, and other practices that purport to access an unspecified type by energy by an undefined means for generic health benefits.

Where Johrei somewhat distinguishes itself is that its sessions are about more than purported healing. Johrei advertises itself as a belief system that incorporates art appreciation, flower arranging, and organic gardening. Adherents view these activities as a means to attain spiritual enlightenment, satisfy a deity, and eventually access an Earthly utopia.

The Johrei Fellowship says it does not diagnose or treat illness, yet the Johrei Institute, which is run by the fellowship, proclaims the practice to be “non-invasive energy healing.” It also calls attention to Johrei’s “universal vibration,” which it redundantly notes is “available to all.”

As to Johrei’s efficiency, the fellowship states, “In most cases, the effects of Johrei become enhanced with repeated practice over several weeks. But each individual is unique depending on existing circumstances.” In other words, keep using our stuff until it works.

The institute describes itself as having been “established to prove the effectiveness of Johrei through scientific medical research.” It begins with the assumption that it works, then seeks confirming evidence, as opposed to following where the evidence leads.

All researchers on the Institute’s website are staff members at the University of Arizona. In its search for this Fantasia energy, the university has received $2 million of taxpayer money via the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

Here’s what you’re paying for. Researchers at U of A are looking into the feasibility that, per the Johrei Fellowship, “Illness is the manifestation of the universal principle that whenever an accumulation of negativity occurs, a cleansing action takes place. Physical purification is a sign that our life force energy is working properly. Colds, coughs, and fevers cleanse our bodies to eliminate accumulated toxins and are nature’s way of restoring rhythmic balance.”

A likeminded confused ramble is provided by their compatriots at the Johrei Institute: “Johrei is a manifestation of divine energy that can be transmitted through one individual to another for spiritual healing. As the spiritual body is cleansed, the mind and body are also uplifted, healed and attuned to spiritual truth.”

Nothing in there about statistically significant results, falsifiability, testability, repeatable experiments, or randomized sample groups. As such, it’s little wonder that Science-Based Medicine’s Jesse Luke found only 19 results when he typed Johrei into a PubMed search. By way of comparison, another form of healing, chemotherapy, yields 3 million entries. As to Johrei’s PubMed literature, the practice was the focus of such titles as “Johnrei Effects on Water: A Pilot Study by Counting Drops,” “Effect of spiritual healing on growth of bacteria cultures,” and “Johrei enhances the growth of sucrose crystals.”

Luke reviewed the studies and provided this analysis of Johrei: “There is no credible mechanism with which it could interact with a human body to exert effects, no reason to suspect its claims of divine providence are possible, nor that other components such as flower arranging could lead us to an earthly utopia.” That’s good enough for me, but if wanting more specifics on Luke’s take, those are available here, beginning with paragraph 13: http://tiny.cc/4teomy

Johrei is one of the least original alternative medicines forms, heavily copying Reiki. It was made up just a few years after Reiki, also in Japan, and involved a vague energy which a practitioner transferred to the client by hand gestures. Also like Reiki, the creator of Johrei (Mokichi Okado) asserted he had received this healing power through mountaintop enlightenment. Another similarity Johrei has to Reiki, as well as every other alternative medicine procedure, is a complete lack of cures it has bestowed on the world.

Of his search for such cures, Okado said, “A permanent solution for disease is not possible by treating only the body and neglecting the spirit.” I for one am glad that approach was not adopted by Edward Jenner or Jonas Salk.

“Chronic tonic” (Alternative medicine dangers for the chronically ill)


When I began this blog, I envisioned profiling those who hunt ghosts, imaginary animals, and aliens, as well as addressing the likes of geocentrists. While all this has happened, I surprisingly found that my most frequent topic was alternative medicine.

One reason is because there are so many forms of it and they just keep coming. We seldom hear of new crypto critters to chase; ghosts are usually haunting the 17th Century castle in which they dwelt; aliens seem to have deemed return trips too risky since Roswell; and a couple of thorough posts on geocentrists suffice since they are not exactly churning out a redwood’s worth of peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals that need to be perused and refuted.

But alt-med has always flourished because people get sick and people have to see their loved ones suffer. They want to feel that they are doing something about it and are making a difference so they are vulnerable to being preyed upon.

This can afflict persons of all classifications. Those with little formal education and money can embrace a witch doctor or voodoo, while the affluent are all about Goop and detox cleanses.

Consider two persons, 50 percent of whom are still on Facebook Friends list. One has little understanding of science and is something of a dullard in general. He embraces Yongevity scams, the naturalistic fallacy, and seems to be a nascent anti-vaxxer. The other works as a medical doctor.

With the first guy, I tried patiently to explain chemistry, biology, and medicine to him, only to have him unfriend me before upgrading this to a block. By then he had grown paranoid and may have considered me part of a Big Pharma plot whose oxymoronic goal was to fatally poison a populace it would use to further enrich its coffers. At the other end of the medical knowledge spectrum was the physician. But even she wrote that a lingering illness had reduced her to seeking out essential oils. She admitted feeling a tad silly about this and noted this wasn’t something she had been taught in medical school. About a half dozen enthusiastic oil users encouraged her to go for it, each of them recommending a different oil for her condition.

That right there shows the stuff doesn’t work. With a headache, someone might suggest Excedrin, but you won’t have a second person recommend cough syrup and a third poster mention their success with adhesive bandages. I toyed with the idea of sending per a PM, but decided against it. Again, she was a medical doctor and it would be superfluous if not presumptuous for me to send a missive containing phrases like double-blind studies, Germ Theory, and the plural of anecdote not being data. I’m sure she knows all of that but her condition had gotten so rough that she was desperate. That’s when many persons try an unorthodox approach, and combined with the fluctuating nature of many illnesses and pains, can cause someone to give a product undeserved credit.

That is among the reasons alternative medicine approaches will sometimes seem to work. But when they fail, the blame often falls not on the product or the practice, but on the patient. That was the focus of a post by blogger Emily Coday, who details her travails as a sufferer of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). In one poignant post, she detailed how alternative medicine harms those with chronic conditions.

She wrote that she had been advised to seek relief through prayer, biofeedback, grounding, crystals, supplements, and more, but nothing worked and she was always made to feel guilty for this. “When it was biofeedback, I wasn’t trying hard enough or practicing enough. When it was acupuncture, I wasn’t trying to relax hard enough. With supplements, I just hadn’t waited long enough for the benefits, no matter how long I waited.”

She needed only to take longer, deeper breaths, hold her visual imagery longer, or be more flexible when being attended do by the applied kinesiologist. Yet no one blames the cancer patient when chemotherapy fails.

Another problem is the danger alt-med products can pose. Anti-medicine types will gleefully list all the side effects slapped on an OTC or prescription bottle. However, these lists must include anything that could befall any user, even once. Six billion people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and medical conditions must be considered. An active ingredient, by definition, is going to have some impact on the body. The idea is to match a patient with the right product so that the change the active ingredient is causing will be positive. There are varying amounts of risk involved, and that amount, combined with the seriousness of the condition, direct the doctor and patient to the best treatment plan. In most cases, the risk is minuscule, but it is accounted for and there is no Big Pharma conspiracy to keep it quiet.

The irony is that the same persons who list the possible side effects of a drug, along with a lengthy string of its polysyllabic ingredients that are supposed to prove the product is hazardous, will hastily indulge in bark, branches, clovers, leaves, stems, or roots that have been subject to no testing. Nor do these people have any idea what active ingredients the plant might contain or in what amount. You could hand them what you describe as “a natural flowering plant from western Asia,” and they would gladly ingest hemlock. They will condemn the profits made by Big Pharma, as if the proprietors at Natural News, Green Med Info, and mercola.com are giving away their “treatments.”

Except in extreme cases where a moribund patient may wish to try an experimental treatment, persons should only use what has been proven effective in repeated double blind studies. For one thing, doing otherwise will be a waste of valuable time and money. Second, pumping unknown products into one’s self could be dangerous. With traditional medicine, the treatment’s benefits must outweigh the risks before it can be sold. By contrast, alt-med “supplements” are not screened and those with pre-existing conditions are often the most vulnerable to their affects.

For example, Coday pointed out that aspirin comes from willow bark. There are potential dangers from both this natural product and aspirin. But aspirin has been tested, the active ingredient has been isolated and extracted, a safe dosage has been doled out in capsule form, and explicit instructions tell how to properly take it. Meanwhile, users are on their own to guess the right amount if using the active ingredient in willow bark form. One could overdose on either aspirin or willow bark, but doing so with the latter would be much easier since the user wouldn’t know where to stop or how much would be enough to make them feel better. And a pre-existing chronic condition can make this all the worse.

Another way alternative medicine harms the chronically ill is cost. Beyond what they’ve spent and the debt they’ve incurred, the perennially ill continue to look for any treatment that seems to offer hope. This leads them to a naturopath or chiropractor who will try method after method, each offering the same false promise. Eventually an approach might seem to work if the illness fluctuates, but if the condition is chronic like POTS, the end is always disappointment and more hurt.

Coday also notes the drastic difference between an alt-med peddler and someone who finishes four years of traditional college followed by four years of med school and 90-hour weeks in a residency to earn the title “MD.” She wrote, “The human body is infinitely complex and so many things can go wrong. Doctors and pharmacists spend a large chunk of their lives in school learning how to treat patients better and minimize risks.” By contrast, if you say you’re a naturopath, you are. There is no need for any knowledge, specialized or otherwise.

David Katz of the Yale medical school gloats that by entertaining an unending string of conjured and concocted alternative treatments, he has an inexhaustible number of avenues to pursue. Katz’s glowing description to the contrary, this is not a good thing. Quartz crystals, magic wands, and energy-infused vitamin water have no place in an Ivy League medical school, nor any other locale dedicated to health.

Such treatments gives patients false hope and Coday compared trying unproven, unworkable treatments to being in the bargaining stage of grief.  “False hope hurts,” she wrote. “I was crushed by putting 50 plus hours into biofeedback that claimed to cure my POTS and getting so little out of it no matter how hard I tried.”

Such an experience can cause some patients to double down and try harder, sinking further into debt and desperation, as they don’t want it to all be a waste of time and money. Coday broke from the cycle, but many persons with chronic conditions are unable to do so.

Despite the lack of evidence of alternative medicine efficacy, those promoting these treatments make the grandest claims. Coday related her experience with this: “All the medications from true doctors only claimed to possibly manage the symptoms. However, alternative medicine practitioners claimed that they could cure my incurable illness or make all the symptoms disappear.”

This is because alternative medicine techniques and promise do not change based on the evidence of what works. Reiki has been around for 95 years and a session today would be identical to one received the day the Stock Market crashed. That would be fine if it worked, but there is yet to be a clinical trial under controlled conditions that suggest this is the case.

“Cutting out gluten, doing biofeedback nonstop, becoming vegan, yoga, walking, crystals, needles, etc. is not going to make an incurable illness curable,” Coday wrote. “Getting suggestions that indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of my incurable condition is frustrating and disheartening.”

Another problem afflicting the chronically ill is support groups. While laudable in intent, they can exacerbate the situation, as they are filled with anecdotes, wildly speculative treatments, and the dreaded exhortation that the patient put more into fixing what’s wrong with them.

All this illustrates why alternative medicine has been the surprise winner as my most frequent topic. Persons who spend time chasing alien crafts, Bigfoot, and poltergeists mostly harm only themselves and maybe make our society a little dumber. By contrast, alt-med charlatans hurt others and that damage can be significant.


“Gut filling” (Probiotics)


Probiotics are live microorganisms that might be beneficial in certain instances when consumed. Proponents believe the bacteria can help maintain good health and treat various ailments. Probiotics are available in many forms, including pills, juice, sausage, cookies, and even cosmetics.

However, the science shows that while probiotics may hold some promise and seem to be effective for certain conditions, the health claims have largely been exaggerated. Since producers market them as supplements, attribute only vague health claims to them, and never state they can treat or cure disease, the FDA has no authority over them.

Probiotic love is the reverse of gluten hysteria. Because celiac sufferers should avoid gluten, the idea got out there that we should all do the same. Conversely, probiotics’ limited ability has been touted as a cure-all for the masses. This is a microcosm of an anti-science sentiment that will dismiss the success of antibiotics, vaccines, statins, and GMOs, while giving false credit to Reiki, wheatgrass juice, colloidal silver, and organic produce.

Concerning microbe-based treatments, the majority of studies have failed to reveal any benefit for healthy individuals. The bacteria seems to help only those suffering from specific intestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, acute diarrhea, peptic ulcers, and necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a bowel disease that afflicts premature babies. These are welcome results, but microbiologists caution that a promising study on a single strain of a particular species of bacteria should not be taken as proof that all probiotics work for all conditions in all people. Like most medicine, a probiotic treatment plan should be tailored for individual needs.

That’s not what is happening with most probiotic products on the market. In an article for Scientific American, Ferris Jabr wrote that manufacturers often select bacterial strains they know will grow in large numbers as opposed to choosing ones that have known health benefits or that have adapted to the human gastrointestinal system.

Even when probiotic bacteria survive and propagate in the stomach or intestines, there are probably too few of them to affect significant change. Per the SA article, humans’ gastrointestinal tracts contain upwards of 20 trillion bacteria, compared to the relatively paltry 100 million contained in a typical serving of probiotic grape nuts. The article further cited a review of 34 trials that studied whether probiotic supplements changed bacteria diversity in fecal samples. Kudos to the researchers on that project for taking one for Team Science. Only one of the trials revealed a noticeable change and there was no indication this alteration was beneficial.

Scientists have yet to completely understand microbiome function and the impact of probiotics on it. They don’t know how microorganisms in our gut give rise to or affect unpleasant conditions. Nor do they have a proven method for treating unhealthy gastrointestinal tracts. Katherine Hobson, writing for 538, also noted, “We still don’t even know what an ideal gut bacterial mix would look like, if there is such a thing.”

Even with health issues for which probiotics show promise, researchers are still trying to ascertain which ones are best for each condition, which dosage to administer, how long to take them, and which population would benefit. There’s no evidence that healthy persons will gain from taking a daily probiotic supplement. For those persons, the best way to maintain gastrointestinal wellness is through regular consumption of fiber, fruit, and vegetables. That’s all you need, plus you will save money by bypassing the supplement, unless your fruits and veggies are organic.

“Sticker schlock” (Healing stickers)


While many unproven, probably unworkable treatments have graced the alternative medicine landscape over the decades, Body Vibes has managed to put their own stamp on it. Literally. The company sells Healing Stickers that purport to solve a dizzying array of physical and mental maladies. Conditions that can be alleviated or controlled with the magic stickers include timidity, shyness, anxiety, inflammation, hangovers, pain, toxicity, dehydration, confusion, hormone imbalance, insomnia, and fatigue. Most bewildering, Body Vibes assures users they can attain “unicorn skin.” I guess if your medicine is make-believe, you might as well take it all the way.

To the veteran skeptic, the pseudoscience red flags pop up at once. Detoxing is the role of the liver and kidneys and if they are malfunctioning, you need an emergency room, not an adhesive adornment with butterflies. Second, the body produces several different hormones in varying amounts and each type is constantly in flux. There is no balanced state, so precisely what balancing hormones means, or how this would be beneficial, is unexplained.

The Body Vibes website also throws in the frequent alt-med gambit of saying the product “increases the body’s natural ability to heal itself.” This is a self-refuting claim since the body is not naturally healing itself if a product is needed to help it along.

Linguistic objections aside, the product’s description focuses more on stealth than health. It contains references to vibes, electrics, vibrations, bio-frequency, charges, receptor simulation, sub-harmonics, energy fields, electrical signals, mimicking frequencies, and optimizing brain and body functions. These are listed with no explanation of what they are, how they operate, or why accessing or altering them is beneficial.

While most of the language is consistent with the appeal to novelty (where a product’s recent origin is its main selling point), Body Vibes covers all the alt-med bases by employing the appeal to novelty’s equally evil twin, the appeal to tradition. Specifically, the website alludes to unblocking flow, which is a staple of acupuncture, Reiki, reflexology, chiropractic, and similar bogus healing methods that rely on non-existent meridians and chi.  

The website reads, “When we have an emotional block, the Body Vibes will help to move that energy and release it. Once these negative or challenging emotions are released our body is clear and in a good flow. It’s like driving and hitting all the green lights.” Nice auto analogy there, though I’d have preferred the sentence be used to define “emotional block,” or perhaps offer scientific evidence for how the block is released or specified what the body is being cleared of.

Forbes columnist Bruce Y. Lee took issue with another vague claim, that the stickers “target the central nervous system.” He wrote, “That doesn’t say much. Hitting your forehead repeatedly with a brick can target the nervous system as well.”

Body Vibes offers no peer review, no double blind studies, and no research to support any of their claims, which are so disjointed, meandering, and undefined that it’s not even clear what they are asserting.

Lee also noted that for all the supposed variety of afflictions that will be terminated or mitigated, there is a conspicuous uniformity to the stickers. Further, he wrote, “It’s not completely clear how many stickers you need to wear at a time, where on the body these should go, when you should wear them, or how long.” The website offers little clarity on that front, telling users only that, “Effects of Body Vibes may vary. Some people experience immediate benefits, while others realize the results over time. We recommend wearing Body Vibes for at least one month.”

The stickers’ purported abilities are so broad that users could credit any health improvement to them, and most alternative medicine is built on this ad hoc foundation. And a recommended one-month minimum use period, combined with the fluctuating nature of most illnesses and pains, means most users will think some benefit is being achieved.

In a mostly sympathetic interview with sporteluxe.com, Body Vibes co-founder Leslie Kritzer showed her scientific illiteracy by claiming the stickers are chemical- free. She also said the products are safe for everyone to use, which is a dead giveaway that the stickers have no medicinal properties. Genuine medicine is going to carry a chance of risk, even if very slight. Medicine, by design, impacts the body, and a blanket statement that a product is 100 percent safe for all persons in every circumstance shows it is not medicine.

Kritzer later claims that the material for the stickers was “originally developed for NASA and used to line the spacesuits of astronauts.” Assuming that’s accurate, it still says nothing about how applying a piece of Buzz Aldrin’s wardrobe will help your throbbing knee.   


“Bungle of energy” (New Age energy)


Energy is a measurement of the ability to do work. However, the term morphs into a deliberately vague concept when alternative medics reference it in conjunction with auras, chi, prana, crystals, or biofields.

When a local hospital advertised Reiki on its website and attributed to it a number of amazing powers, I queried administrators and media coordinators for more information. I asked about the source or Reiki energy, how it is accessed, what instrument determines how much is being used, what unit the energy is measured in, and how it is transferred to patient to practitioner.

They could answer none of this, nor any other question. I have found this to be the case for every proponent and practitioner of energy medicine and healing. They can offer no explanation for how it is stored and whether the energy source is heat, food, explosive compounds, or spinning flywheels.

New Age energy is a highly supple, adaptive catchall phrase that suggests a benevolent pulsating ball of light that cannot be seen but can always be accessed with the correct hand gyrations or ersatz electronic implement that beeps and hums. After treatment, the patient will feel refreshed, enlightened, healed, or be in touch with nature, angels, aliens, or lost souls. This is done by unblocking, harmonizing, unifying, tuning, aligning, balancing, or channeling a life force that takes the form of an invisible yet glimmering blob.

New Agers pilfer science terms, but use them incorrectly to come up with phrases such as “aligning cell vibration,” “digital frequencies of allergens,” and a seemingly never-ending list of terms using the prefix “quantum.”

A certain German theoretical physicist let us know that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Putting what that means into practical terms, Brain Dunning at Skeptoid explained, “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. The calories of chemical potential energy that my bloodstream absorbs when I eat a Power Bar charge up my muscles enough to dig 100 kilograms of dirt in my garden. Nowhere did Einstein discuss hovering glowing clouds or fields of mystical power generated by human spirits.”

Dunning suggests that when hearing the word energy in an esoteric or healing sense, substitute the word with the definition, “measurable work capability” and see how much sense the phrase makes. When doing that, you will get sentences likes this:

“The human race has known about the existence of a universal measurable work capability related to life for many ages.”

“Each individual organism or material radiates and absorbs measurable work capability via a unique wave field.”

“Healing Touch is a therapy that helps to restore and balance measurable work capability that has been depleted.”

For these claims to have any merit, those making them should be able to describe how this energy is stored, manifested, and utilized. Dunning wrote, “Is it potential energy stored in the chemistry of fat cells? Is it heat that can spread through the body? Is it a measurable amount of electromagnetism and if so, where’s the magnet? In any event, it must be measurable and quantifiable, or it can’t be called energy.”

By contrast, alternative medics use energy for claims and terms they cannot measure, quantify, or describe. They use it to renew chakras, perform Reiki, attain universal consciousness, chase ghosts, or commune with a higher plane.  

But energy is not a substance any more than mass or volume are. Nothing is composed of energy any more than it is composed of mass or volume. Still, various new age modalities purport to harness, modify, and transfer unknown energies of unknown origin and access them through unknown means and control them with an unverified instrument or method. Proponents make fallacious appeals to both antiquity and novelty, highlighting energy medicine’s supposed shamanic and exotic roots, while also making futurist references to subatomic waves and vibrating biofields.

Those practices that appeal to antiquity, such as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, qigong, are all faith healing without the religious trappings. Some practitioners require the patient to be present, which appeals to those who feel comforted or loved when attended to by a charismatic craniosacral therapist or iridologist. Others do healings by Internet or telephone or even by just wishing it. This is a logical extension of the practice; If energy can be captured and honed for our benefit, the idea of doing so from afar is consistent with the use of this ability.

For those who prefer their medical magic more Jetsons than Flintstones, orgone is a universal life force which is massless and omnipresent and which can coalesce to create microscopic units, galaxies, and every-sized structure in between. If they coalesce insufficiently in humans, disease results.  Meanwhile, in radionics, disease is diagnosed and treated with an energy similar to radio waves. Then there are the clinicians whose field rests on auras and chakras, the key components in an alternate anatomy.

While the terms and techniques differ, the overarching idea is the same: An invisible, unmeasurable, unverifiable force will offer relief from pain, inflammation, nausea, high blood pressure, rosacea, osteoporosis, hernias, and almost any other malady.

While there are many anecdotes and much post hoc reasoning attesting to wonderful results, there is no evidence of a metaphysical life force that determines health depending on whether this energy source is freely flowing.

The original energy healer may have been Franz Mesmer, who had many women and a few men swooning over his animal magnetism in the 19th Century. While there has been no research affirming the existence of any energy accessed and stored by Mesmer or his alt-med successors, the concept continues today. These metaphysical notions should have gone extinct with the advent of Germ Theory, yet the likes of Reiki and Therapeutic Touch continue in the gyrating hands of 21st Century hospital nurses.

The impracticality of such methods was demonstrated by 9-year-old Emily Rosa, the youngest person to have a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. Rosa tested Therapeutic Touch practitioners using a simple but brilliant method. In Therapeutic Touch, the practitioner supposedly has the ability to place their hands over the patient’s hands to see if healing is needed, and is then able to tap into healing powers and transfer them.

Rosa constructed a cardboard cutout the practitioners could place their hands through without being able to see if a patient was on the other side. Practitioners had a 50 percent chance of being right by guesswork, yet failed to hit even that level, detecting energy fieldd only 44 percent of the time in 280 trials. Before, they claimed the ability to detect, control, and transfer the healing power, but when put to a controlled test, they were unable to determine even if a patient and their accompanying energy field were present.

Energy healing failed this test and all others. There are no double blind studies or other research attesting to the existence of a curative gleaming sphere floating through the ethers waiting to be snatched by a naturopath. Seeking it out is a waste of measurable work capability.


“Squeeze play” (Alternative massage therapy)


Massage is the manual manipulation of muscles, joints, and tissues for therapy. It can help relieve soreness, increase range of motion, and feels pleasant enough. Leave it to alternative medicine to screw all that up.

Some unscrupulous practitioners make claims that go far beyond massage’s abilities, asserting it can eradicate or ameliorate disease. Some integrative medicine specialists and Dr. Oz claim the practice is effective for allergies, asthma, bronchitis, constipation, diarrhea, fibromyalgia, and sinusitis. Proponents also credit massage with work done by the liver, kidneys, and colon, saying it can help with waste removal, immune system functioning, and toxin removal, though they never specify which toxins or explain how squeezing someone’s shoulders will exorcise them.

As to its supposed role in disease control, there is no scientifically plausible explanation for how this works, nor any double blind studies attesting to this ability. The claims primarily rely on the mythical concept of the ki flowing through meridians, and the purported need to periodically unblocking this. Neither ki nor meridians have never been shown to exist in any X-ray or CT scan and no explanation is proffered on how any technique would clear blockages or why this would be beneficial.

There are subcategories of medicinal massage malarkey. The ones most resembling traditional, legitimate massage are acupressure and shiatsu. These are so similar that the only difference seems to be that the former aims to access ki, while the latter taps into qi. As to the technique, it’s mostly just a massage, though more attention is usually paid to a specific body part. Different parts are said to be connected via meridians to various internal organs or tissues. So applying acupressure to the lower right thumb might be used to deal with wheezing lungs. There are multitudinous meridian charts so which body part corresponds to which organ or tissue will vary by practitioner. By contrast, all physicians would treat strep throat in generally the same manner, with prescriptions and proven, understood techniques that were arrived at via the Scientific Method and validated in double blind studies.

Acupressure and shiatsu generally advertise themselves as needle-less acupuncture. This is a relatively good idea since the only point of acupuncture is at the end of the needles. If spending 60 minutes receiving make-believe medicine, getting pampered is preferable to getting poked.

Aromatherapy might be considered another form of medicinal massage, although the focus is less on the hands and more on what the hands are applying. In aromatherapy, an essential oil or combination of oils is applied topically, usually on an infected body part. Whereas shiatsu may involve rubbing a calf to try and placate an upset stomach, in aromatherapy, oil would be applied on the infected body part.

Aromatherapy is a little less ridiculous than the other forms of massage medicine. For one, there are no meridians or ki associated with it. Second, the oils are extracted from plants and herbs. About half of medicines have a plant base, so it is not entirely unrealistic to think that some of the oils may have medicinal potential.

The big problem is that they haven’t been tested in a laboratory. There has been no active component identified or isolated. No correct dosage has been determined and no pill, lotion, or cream containing the extracted ingredient has been tested in double blind studies.

Instead, a practitioner or online proponent will announce, “Jasmine works great for migraines,” or ‘”Try sage and patchouli for inflammation.” Another tipster may suggest sandalwood for the same aliments and a third person offer lavender. All the recommendations are all based on anecdotes, which are unreliable because they fail to consider the fluctuating nature of illnesses, the placebo effect, or selective memory. That is why double blind studies are the gold standard for determining what works.

There are no such studies attesting to effectiveness of craniosacral therapy. This from of massage medicine is based on the notion that skull bones are movable and can be manipulated for a variety of health benefits. Precisely what benefit is almost invariably whichever one the client needs when he or she shows up at the neighborhood head shed. The truth is, a person’s skull bones have fused by the time they are regularly watching Paw Patrol. Also, these bones can only be moved by blunt force or a scalpel, not nimble fingertips. As to why one would want to pull apart and move around the brain’s shield, reasons I found included improving life energy, attuning to rhythm, and getting in touch with one’s inner cinnamon bun, or similar undefined and unproven notions. Yet another form of medicinal massage is reflexology, which focuses on the feet.

The more extreme proponents credit massage medicine with treating several dozen conditions as broad as anger, fear, arthritis, cancer, emphysema, shyness,  eczema, bulimia, insomnia, infertility, nightmares, panic attacks, and sciatica. Lists this exhaustive are nearly always a pseudo-medicine giveaway. Authentic medicine has been researched, tested, refined, and has been tailored to treat a specific condition. Doctors and scientists understand the pathological, biological, and anatomical principles behind it, know how it works, why it works, and why some patients might respond better than others. A mainstream treatment for infertility won’t be used to reduce the anxiety of another patient and to treat dyspepsia in a third.

With no research to verify their claims, medicinal massage practitioners are left with the usual alt-med fallbacks. They display dexterity in this area, for they credit the field with employing both ancient methods and cutting-edge knowledge of physiology. Most alt-med practitioners use only the appeal to antiquity or the appeal to novelty, not both.

Meanwhile, massagetherapy.co.uk makes use of the ad populum (“Shiatsu is one of the fastest growing areas of complementary therapy in the UK”) while tryshiatsu.co.uk appeals to authority (“Shiatsu is officially recognized in Japan.”) This last boast does not say precisely which entity recognized shiatsu, what about it was recognized, or why this matters. As to what shiatsu actually does, the website states that it clients to “Contact with the energy pathways and helps to correct imbalance in the functioning of internal organs and to re-balance the effects of emotional disturbance.” I have no idea what any of that means, maybe the ki flow to my brain is blocked.