What Would It Take?

I recently wrote a SkepDoc column on fantasy physics in Skeptic magazine in which I mentioned a study that had allegedly measured 2 milligauss emanations from a healer’s hands. A reader inquired about it and went on to ask “what criteria is [sic] necessary for gaining acceptance in the scientific community in regards to purported healing processes using energy fields generated in the human hand, specifically the palm area.”

What would it take to prove this implausible claim to the satisfaction of the scientific community? That is an excellent question with a complicated answer. It’s worth looking at because there is only one science and the same standards apply to how science evaluates any claim. I’ll take a stab at it, and perhaps our commenters can add words of wisdom.

The claim in question is a variant of energy healing at a distance, in the same family as therapeutic touch, Reiki, and Qigong, and it is highly implausible. Physicist Eugenie Mielczarek explains 

a two milligauss field strength is 18 orders of magnitude below the energy needed to affect any biochemistry. The postulate of an unknown energy field which eludes all science-based investigation and measurement, but nevertheless causes a transmission of energies large enough to affect the chemistry of cell cultures, flies in the face of all micro and cellular biology experimentation and well tested theories of physics.  This postulate of a medically healing energy field, which can only be generated by certain individuals, fails all tests of medical science.

When energy fields are used as a medium for conveying information, scientists ask and answer the following key questions: How large is the signal? What is the transmitter located in the source, and what and where is the receiver?  How can the device be tuned and detuned?  Lastly, how can one replicate this by a device to be used for medical intervention? 

This methodology has led to the invention of many important medical devices—such as ultrasonic and MRI imaging. The alleged source of TT’s purported biomagnetic field is the practitioner, and the alleged receiver is the patient.  Beyond this, TT practitioners fail to give detailed and plausible answers to the key questions above. TT practitioners’ adoption of the scientific term “biomagnetic” field, without an equation to describe the field and without any grounding in known physics and biochemistry, conveys the impression of scientific respectability to claims that have no scientific basis.

Energy medicine proponents claim to have measured a 2 milligauss magnetic field emanating from the hands of practitioners. Reproducible measurements by other scientists fall in the range of 0.004 milligauss. The magnetic field of the earth is 500 milligauss. Even if the 2 milligauss measurement were accurate, it would be 15 orders of magnitude below the cell’s noise level and billions of times less than the energy received by your eye when viewing the brightest star. A typical refrigerator magnet is 50 gauss (50,000 milligauss).

Science doesn’t automatically reject anything on the basis of implausibility alone. If there were strong evidence that energy medicine practitioners could significantly improve health outcomes, we would have to accept it at face value and we would start using it before we had a good explanation or a reconciliation with other scientific knowledge. When the first trials of penicillin were carried out, the evidence was so strong that penicillin was rushed into general use long before we had any idea how it worked (by inhibiting bacterial cell wall synthesis). The evidence for clinical effectiveness of energy medicine remains weak and flawed even after decades of study.

As Carl Sagan famously said,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

And in the case of energy medicine and the human energy field, we don’t have even an ordinary level of evidence.

The first logical step would be to see if the 2 milligauss measurement was reproducible and if so, to study its characteristics. A scientist would ask all sorts of questions: Could there have been something wrong with our experimental setup? How does the effect decline over distance? Does everyone produce it? Do energy practitioners produce the same field under all conditions? Does it originate from the palm only, or from other sites? Does it require conscious intention? Could purported effects be attributed to placebo responses? Do the much stronger earth’s magnetic field and the much higher energy received by your eye when looking at a star have even stronger effects than the healer’s emanations? Wouldn’t a refrigerator magnet have an effect that is 25,000 times stronger? And on and on… But instead of verifying and further investigating an initial report, energy medicine researchers tend to jump from experiment to experiment, showing a lot of different alleged phenomena but not delving into any of them to establish their validity and characterize their properties.

Before you can seriously study a phenomenon like the human energy field, you need to determine that it exists. So far no one has been able to refute Emily Rosa’s demonstration that the alleged perception of that field amounts to self-deception. Studies of energy medicine are a prime example of what I have dubbed “tooth fairy science.” 

When we criticize any CAM method as not being supported by high-quality controlled studies, we mean that such studies are necessary: we don’t mean that they would be sufficient. Science is a collaborative, progressive endeavor that builds on itself to produce a gradually more convincing edifice over time. There is no black-and-white certainty, but rather a spectrum of probability: saying that a claim has been “proven” does not mean that it is “true” in some absolute sense, but only that the accumulated evidence makes it so probable that it would be perverse not to accept it. And even in the most certain cases, science must always remain open to new evidence and the possible need to revise earlier conclusions.

The Bottom Line

To gain acceptance in the scientific community, energy medicine would have to accumulate a large body of strong evidence that was reproducible (by believers and nonbelievers alike), that was coherent, that showed progress as new evidence built on older findings, and that used several different routes of investigation to arrive at the same conclusions. That seems highly unlikely, but it’s not for us to declare it impossible: the burden is on the proponents to produce credible evidence. I’m not holding my breath.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…

Maybe, but there are also a lot of things that aren’t in heaven or earth, but only in people’s imaginations. Only rigorous science can help us tell the difference. 



Posted in: Energy Medicine

Leave a Comment (27) ↓

27 thoughts on “What Would It Take?

  1. kathy says:

    “There is no black-and-white certainty, but rather a spectrum of probability”

    I’m trying to think of a new un-hackneyed way to say “This expresses it beautifully”. Can’t think of one right now, so I’ll just have to say, “This expresses it beautifully”. Thanks, Doc Hall!

  2. ConspicuousCarl says:

    “Father… may I wear my American superhero costume and pretend to have a 2 milligauss magnetic field around my hands?”

    “Yes you may, son.”

  3. nybgrus says:

    considering that magnetic field decay is the inverse of the cube of distance (1/r^3) then even if this field was legit, and even if it could in principle in any way affect health outcomes/biochemistry/physiology even if the hands were pressed firmly at the skin, the effect would drop to massively such that by the time it pentrated the dermal layer it would have an infinitesimal strength. Even in a very thin person it simply would not be measurable at even the depth of the first layer of fascia, let alone at deeper internal organs, never mind the typical person with a little or a lot of adipose.

    Perhaps the claim could be made that it could affect dermatological abberancies. That could rather easily be tested and, I would be willing to bet, fail as well.

  4. Just in case anyone didn’t know, Emily Rosa was 9 years old when she disproved therapeutic touch at her 4th grade science fair. Youngest author to be published in, I believe, JAMA. (Yes I know she had help, etc.)

    Pretty bad when a whole field of CAM is out-thought by a child.

  5. mdcatdad says:

    Two comments:

    1) EVEN IF radiation from a “healer’s” hands were capable of affecting another person, how can they be sure the effect is beneficial? Maybe it’s harmful!

    2) What would it take for proponents to agree that their belief is unfounded?

  6. Yeah, exactly, maybe it’s harmful. We don’t want TT practitioners going into hospitals and shooting fireballs at patients like Ryu from Streetfighter.

    …although, at 2 milligauss it would sort of be like whipping someone with dry yarn.

  7. daedalus2u says:

    2 milligauss is gigantic. There is no way that the human body can produce such levels external to itself. If people could do that, they could damage MEG equipment and MEG would not work.

    I was at a conference on Dose Response, which does attract some woo, and one of the speakers talked about reiki and was trying to understand it as some kind of a “bystander effect”. The bystander effect relates to radiation exposure where exposure of a cell culture to alpha particles at low doses can produce positive effects. At these dose rates, not every cell is hit by an alpha particle, some cells are only “bystanders”, but they seem to do better having received some signal from the directly affected cells. In talking about it with him afterward, he brought up the use of magnetic fields to do neuroimaging as in magnetoencephalography.

    and said if machines can detect it, why can’t humans? I tried to point out that MEG can only be done in extremely well shielded rooms because the ambient magnetic noise is many orders of magnitude higher than the signal. It is simply not possible to detect subtle changes in a magnetic field when there is millions of times higher levels of noise.

    I tried to get him to stop thinking about magnetic fields (which it could not be) and consider that maybe it was some unknown form of communication. If humans did have the ability to communicate their physiological status via some type of body language, that conceivably could have survival benefits because if the tribe started to get an infectious disease, members of the tribe that turned on their immune response before they actually got infected might do better than the sentinel tribe members who got sick first.

    We can sometimes tell when people “look sick”. I presume that people differ in their ability to express sickness symptoms and also differ in their ability to read those sickness symptoms. All signal detection systems have false positive and false negative errors. In reading Dr Crislip’s case reports at his other blog, he presents many examples where from minimal data he has come up with a correct diagnosis. Maybe some of that is selective reporting ( ;) ), but maybe decades of training has improved the resolution of his “sickness detection neuroanatomy” beyond what those who do not spend their time hanging around sick people could achieve.

    If there is physiology that causes a “responding to a disease by observing patients with that disease” effect, then there might be a different incidence of such diseases in clinicians treating those diseases. There is what is known as “Medical Students’ Disease”, where students reading up on various disorders acquire the symptoms of that disorder and sometimes seek treatment.

    Humans do have hyperactive agency detection which skews detection to excess false positives.

    The major problem I have with woo is that practitioners don’t look at it rigorously and scientifically, they focus on their non-physiological ideas and not on gathering better data. If there is something like reiki, then it has to be mediated through the physics that is well known. That means conservation of mass/energy, no action at a distance, conservation of spin, charge, etc.

  8. Canucklehead says:

    Perhaps this is a homeopathic magnetic field, the weaker it gets the stronger the effect it has. In that case 2 milligauss is huge and the further away from the hands you go the stronger the bio-magnetic effect. Good grief a trained practitioner could change the whole world with a wave of their hands. Yikes.

  9. Scott says:

    They could even move the Golden Gate Bridge to provide a route to Alcatraz!

  10. Eugenie Mielczarek says:

    Thanks Harriet for revisiting this fraud. It has become an increasing offering in reputable hospitals extending even to cancer clinics for children. Dig into web sites for integrative medicine curricula of a medical school and you will find courses and faculty for these as part of medical protocols. I recently found a clinic which offered courses for children to learn the technique. State licensed Wellness Clinics offer the protocol and thus it will be covered under the health care plan. Our article (Mielczarek-Araujo) Power Lines and Cancer, Distant Healing and HealthCare SKEPTICAL INQUIRER May/June 2011 covers the subject –from the 1990’s when it was believed that the 2milligauss background associated with power lines would cause cancer to the current mythology now associated with curing cancer. Our article (Mielczarek-Engler) Measuring Mythology SKEPTICAL INQUIRER Jan/Feb 2012 details the funding by NIH NCCAM to study this protocol. Why would NIH a medical science agency spend $11 million questioning whether the Laws of Themodynamics are valid? Not only are congressmen and our executive office deluded but these delusions are shared with NIH administrators whom we had hoped to have some inking of science.

  11. DWATC says:

    This is no different than any other “paranormal” claim. Today, we’re seeing an explosion of “reality” paranormal shows that never actually prove anything other than, “I don’t know why it’s happening but it’s happening. Let’s call it “paranormal”.” It’s a money-maker. I get extremely aggravated discussing science with these people that talk about some vague, nonspecific “energy”. Whether it’s vitality, qi, life force, soul, chakra, ki, or just “energy”, it’s a comforting mechanism. They talk about “one consciousness” and our conscience is some separate entity from human physiology. Because we are “human” and have the ability to communicate using complex verbal cues and can use that same complex language in our head, it makes us special, therefore there HAS to be something more.

  12. Janet Camp says:

    We can all have a good laugh, but belief, in and of itself, is very powerful and nothing said here is going to budge the “belief” of my altie-inclined acquaintances (I’ve ceased calling them “friends”). They don’t understand the science, no matter how simply you explain it; therefore, they brush it aside and simply claim that science “can’t explain everything” and that they “know what they feel”.

    My argument is that they just go with their “belief” and stop trying to sex it up with “science”.

    Sorry about all the “’s, but words all take on such a warped meaning in altie-land.

  13. NYUDDS says:

    Well, we certainly have a lot to learn if we can’t even believe our own eyes! I’m sure I saw a terrific demonstration of energy transfer during a past super bowl time-out. A small boy dressed as Darth Vader actually remotely activated systems in a 21st century automobile! Now if that isn’t proof, seen by millions of people, I don’t know what is! And it was repeated many times! What a great demonst…oops, sorry, I just spilled my fourth martini (Belvedere). What a waste.

  14. daedalus2u says:

    A 2 milligauss field is tiny compared to the Earth’s field (about 500 milligauss). Fluctuations of 2 milligauss are tiny compared to what you get if you spin around in one place. Because the ambient field is 500 mG, spinning around in one place causes that field to change from +500 to 0 to -500 to 0 and back to +500 again, a change of 1,000 milligauss.

    Any kind of movement of the detector will generate very large fluctuations in the magnetic fields the detector is measuring because the Earth’s field is not constant and magnetic field is a vector, it has both magnitude and direction.

    However biological organisms may still be sensitive to such low fields, but not while they are moving. Birds do use ambient magnetic fields for navigation, but most likely by using bits of ferromagnetic magnetite as actual compass needles which align with the Earth’s magnetic field. They also appear to recalibrate their compasses periodically, likely via cryptochromes which differentially generate radicals depending on orientation of the cryptochrome with magnetic field and light photon polarization. Light at dusk tends to be polarized depending on where it is coming from.

    There is no evidence that humans can generate magnetic fields of milligauss strength. There is quite strong evidence that they can not. There is no evidence that there are any human health effects from human generated magnetic fields.

    SQUIDS can be used to detect single magnetic quanta. There is no possible magnetic signal smaller than a single quanta of magnetic flux. If signals cannot be detected with SQUIDS, it is because they are not there or are not magnetic in nature.

  15. lizditz says:

    This deserves to be on a banner or t-shirt or something:

    When we criticize any CAM method as not being supported by high-quality controlled studies, we mean that such studies are necessary: we don’t mean that they would be sufficient. Science is a collaborative, progressive endeavor that builds on itself to produce a gradually more convincing edifice over time. There is no black-and-white certainty, but rather a spectrum of probability: saying that a claim has been “proven” does not mean that it is “true” in some absolute sense, but only that the accumulated evidence makes it so probable that it would be perverse not to accept it. And even in the most certain cases, science must always remain open to new evidence and the possible need to revise earlier conclusions.

    You can replace “CAM method” with “theory of autism causation” or “alleged reasons not to vaccinate” and the reasoning is still strong.

  16. BKsea says:

    I believe the theory is something like the following:

    1. Therapeutic Touch appears to have some effect
    2. Therefore, there must be some field being manipulated
    3. Therefore, we have evidence of a life energy field
    4. Therefore, it stands to reason another life energy field might interact with your energy field
    5. Therefore, therapeutic touch must have some effect

    “What it would take” is to start by breaking this circle. It just allows the CAMster to ratchet around the circle infinitely without ever providing any evidence. I will not listen until someone stops on one of these pegs and defends it without having to assume another of the statements.

  17. Got to throw in an Ioannidis reference here. A major implication of his famous paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” is that it really takes a great deal of good quality testing to be sure of anything testable … and even that probably isn’t enough.

    These days, any savvy quack can easily cough up what seems to be a bunch of “positive” RCTs for their pet theory. The last several decades have produced an avalanche of RCTs “proving” all kinds of nonsense! It is easy to manufacture positive results. There’s literally an industry of low quality journals devoted to it. But even in better journals, Ioannidis has shown that methodological errors are probably so common, diverse and significant that even quite a lot of superficially decent evidence can still be misleading. So the bar for “proof” (high confidence) has to be super high.

    And of course this is one of the reasons for a science-based perspective on medicine — because “what it takes” is definitely not just a lot of good quality testing, but also putting a claim in a scientific context.

  18. ConspicuousCarl says:

    mdcatdad on 12 Jun 2012 at 8:04 am
    1) EVEN IF radiation from a “healer’s” hands were capable of affecting another person, how can they be sure the effect is beneficial? Maybe it’s harmful!

    Uh oh….

    ‘What 4 Milligauss Means’

    We’re all gonna die!!!!!!

  19. Badly Shaved Monkey says:


    T-shirt size?


  20. BillyJoe says:

    CC, your link doesn’t.

  21. daedalus2u says:

    The link worked for me. The “theory” behind it is seriously flawed. As I mentioned above, moving in the Earth’s magnetic field subjects everything that moves to a changing magnetic field. Since organisms on Earth have been exposed to the Earth’s magnetic field for evolutionary time, they must have physiology that is compatible with it.

    The only time that an organism is not subjected to a changing magnetic field is when it is motionless. Maybe being motionless in the Earth’s magnetic field is an important component of sleep. If so, then changing magnetic fields during sleep might be problematic. They would not be problematic for acute damage, but rather because the ambient magnetic field during sleep is signaling something (which we don’t know about).

  22. Calli Arcale says:

    daedalus — not a bad idea, except that I don’t think many people are sufficiently motionless in sleep to avoid those magnetic fluctuations. I my daughters both turn and twist so much that it’s impossible to share a bed with them (which is why I’m slightly dreading an upcoming family vacation — lousy nights’ sleep ahead).

  23. Narad says:

    Does it originate from the palm only, or from other sites?

    How did Emilio Lazardo control the overthruster? Somebody get NCCAM on the blower. There are all sorts of things that can be waved over people.

  24. pmoran says:

    “What would it take?” I agree, a great question.

    What about “taking the simple, obvious, necessary steps needed to establish core components of the mechanisms involved, i.e. those that must be true for the “healing” to occur as claimed. ”

    There is typically a whole chain of such elements when the claims are medical.

    For example with therapeutic touch as it was originally proposed you would need to have shown, among other things, that a unique kind of energy field can be sensed, that defects in it are consistent, reliably detected by different observers and strongly associated with any form of illness, that those defects can be corrected by the therapeutic intervention, and that this is associated with patient recovery. And all that has to be done in such a way as to exclude the many illusions and biases that can affect the various perceptions involved.

    The above would be aided immeasurably if there was some inanimate way of measuring the energy field and its deficiencies, but the very same steps would still be needed.

    Note also that to serve as a cost-effective medical treatment it not sufficient to merely reach statistical significance in some of these measures. A lot of false positives or false negatives in the detection of energy field defects would quickly make the method too unreliable to be of any medical use.

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