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Gary Schwartz’s Energy Healing Experiments: The Emperor’s New Clothes?

Article

Harriet Hall

Volume 32.2, March / April 2008

Gary Schwartz says his experiments reveal our natural power to heal based on our ability to sense and manipulate human energy fields. Has he discovered scientific truths, or has he only demonstrated the human talent for self-deception.

Gary Schwartz believes many things. He believes in psychics, mediums, and life after death, and he believes there is scientific evidence to support these beliefs. Schwartz is now focusing his powers of belief on a new field: energy medicine. In a new book, The Energy Healing Experiments: Science Reveals Our Natural Power to Heal, he explains that we all emit human energy fields, that we can sense each other’s fields, and that healers can influence these fields to heal illnesses and injury. He believes these are not just theories but scientifically supported facts.

The book starts with three “gee-whiz” testimonials of supposed energy healing (which are frankly not very convincing and could be easily outdone by any self-respecting purveyor of quack remedies). He goes on to describe experiments done in his own lab that he claims establish not only our ability to detect and alter human energy fields but our ability to detect the thoughts and intentions of others. In the final part of the book, he descends into blethering about quantum physics, the oneness of the universe, the connectedness of all things, and the possibility that energy awareness will solve all of mankind’s problems.

He claims to have demonstrated many things. First, he claims to have shown that a subject can sense when a researcher’s hand is being held over his or her own hand and can sense when the researcher’s hands are being held near his or her ears from behind. Other experiments supposedly show that people can tell when someone is looking at them or thinking about them. He goes on to describe purported measurements of subtle human energy emissions, Reiki influences on lab cultures of bacteria, and photography of biophoton emission from plants, among other phenomena of dubious reality or significance.

The Emeror's New Clothes

He makes a big deal of the fact that humans emit electromagnetic energy (as picked up by EKG, EEG, etc.), and he would like to think energy healers can pick up that energy and decode it in the same way your radio picks up Rush Limbaugh out of the atmosphere. And then he would like to think that energy healers can send something back into the patient’s body to enable healing. He misses the crucial fact that there is information encoded in the electromagnetic waves your radio detects, but there is no reason to think there is any analogous information coming from the body, much less any way to change that information and send it back to produce healing. I only wish we could use “energy healing” on radio and TV waves to improve the quality of programming!

He makes a big deal of the fact that everything affects everything else. He seems to mean this in a holistic, metaphysical, New Age, “the universe is one and is conscious and we can create our own reality” sense. Science recognizes that small events can have far-reaching effects, but that doesn’t mean one thing can predict or control another. The flap of a butterfly’s wings may set up initial atmospheric conditions that will result in a tornado somewhere else, but that doesn’t mean you can predict the tornado or deliberately use a butterfly to cause one. Theoretically, a change in the magnitude or position of your body mass will enter into the overall gravity equations of the universe, but that doesn’t mean one thing can control or predict another. You could hardly expect to meaningfully influence someone out there beyond Alpha Centauri by losing ten pounds or moving to Antarctica. You can’t expect to change the EEG of an astronaut in the Space Station by exercising to change your own EKG. We are talking about very small influences. If a gnat pushes an elephant, it’s not likely to fall over; it’s not likely to even notice. And then there are inconvenient complications like quantum theory and chaos theory.

The only thing of substance in the book is the experiments, which lose credibility because they were not accepted for publication in mainstream peer-reviewed journals. Schwartz claims this is because of politics. He says prestigious journals tend to reject positive-energy studies. He doesn’t believe that his studies could have been rejected because they didn’t meet the standards of good science. I feel sorry for him: he’s a smart guy, he means well, he really believes he has found something wonderful, but he has a blind spot and just doesn’t get it when others try to point out the flaws in his experimental methods and reasoning. (See Ray Hyman, “How Not to Test Mediums: Critiquing the Afterlife Experiments,” Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 2003, and the follow-up exchange between Schwartz and Hyman, May/June 2003, plus the critical letters to the editor in that issue.)

To put the accusation of “politics” into perspective, consider the Helicobacter experiments. When researchers first suggested that ulcers might be caused by bacteria, they were laughed at. They published their results, peer review had a field day, other labs looked into the idea, more data came in, results from various lines of research coalesced, and within a mere ten years it became standard practice to treat ulcers with antibiotics. It didn’t matter that the idea sounded crazy at first; science responded to good evidence. (See Kimball C. Atwood IV, “Bacteria, Ulcers, and Ostracism,” Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2004.) If Schwartz had evidence of equal quality, he would get an equal hearing by the scientific community.

Sure, Schwartz has some data that he finds convincing. So did the discoverers of N-rays, polywater, and cold fusion. Good science demands that we withhold judgment until data can be replicated in other labs and validated by other methods—especially when the data come from a researcher as clearly prejudiced as Schwartz. Even the best researchers can fall prey to errors of unconscious bias and unrecognized pitfalls in experimental design.

A good scientist considers the entire body of available evidence, not just the claims of one group of researchers. Schwartz only describes experiments that support his beliefs. Not until the end of the book does he even bring up the fact that other experiments have directly contradicted his findings. He finally gets around to mentioning Emily Rosa’s landmark experiment, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998, which showed that therapeutic touch practitioners could not sense human energy fields as they claimed. She tested twenty-one experienced practitioners of therapeutic touch.1 They all thought they could detect Rosa’s human energy field and feel whether she was holding her hand over their right or left hand, but when they were prevented from seeing where her hand was, their performance was no better than chance.

Rosa was nine years old at the time, and the article grew out of her school science fair project. The experiment was beautiful in its simplicity. Adult true believers had published much research on the techniques and effects of therapeutic touch, but in the true spirit of childlike questioning, Rosa went back to basics and asked the crucial question: “Is the phenomenon itself real? Can they really feel something or is it possible they are fooling themselves?” Amazingly, no researcher had ever asked that question before. They had ignored one of the basic principles of the scientific method as explained by Karl Popper: it’s easy to find confirmation for any hypothesis, but every genuine test of a hypothesis is an attempt to falsify it.

Schwartz dismisses her experiment as having five “potential problems”:

  1. It was a science-fair project done by a young girl.
  2. She was the only experimenter.
  3. She randomized by flipping a coin, which he calls “an unreliable procedure.”
  4. One of the authors was the founder of Quackwatch.
  5. The subjects did worse than chance.

These objections are just silly; they are either inaccurate or are ad hominem attacks:

  1. It shouldn’t make any difference whether Rosa was a young girl or an old man or a sentient purple octopus from an alien planet. It shouldn’t matter whether she did the experiment for an elementary school project, a doctoral dissertation, a Coca Cola commercial, or a government grant. What matters is the quality of the evidence. In this case, her project was well designed and executed, had clearly significant findings, and was of high enough quality to be approved for publication in a prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal.
  2. She was not the only experimenter. Others were involved; the experiment was repeated under expert supervision on Scientific American Frontiers. This should preclude any accusations of deliberate cheating or inadvertent failure to follow the protocol properly. Rosa was the only one to carry out the trials, but what would multiple testers have added to the experiment? The results didn’t depend on any special ability or quality of hers, but on the ability of the subjects who claimed they could sense anyone’s energy fields. For the televised trials, they even got to “feel” the “energy” from each of Rosa’s hands and choose which one they wanted her to use in the trials. About half chose her left hand and half her right. No one objected, “I can’t feel energy from either hand.”
  3. Flipping a coin is not an “unreliable procedure”—unless the flipper is deliberately cheating. I hope Schwartz didn’t intend to suggest that. The number of heads and tails was approximately equal, and the distribution appeared random. The editors of JAMA found the method acceptable. There are situations where coin-flipping could legitimately be criticized, for instance in psi experiments where researchers are looking for minuscule differences in large bodies of data and even their computerized random number generators have been criticized for not being “perfectly” random. But in this experiment, the results were clearly significant; it is hard to envision how a different method of randomization could have altered the results. The coin flip was only used to determine which of the subject’s hands she would hold her hand over. The subjects claimed to be able to sense energy fields with either hand, so it shouldn’t have made a bit of difference to their perception. Faulty randomization might have allowed the subjects to perceive a pattern and guess, which would have tended to give false positive results rather than the negative results Rosa got.
  4. One of the authors, the founder of Quackwatch, was admittedly skeptical of therapeutic touch. Yes, someone with possible bias was indirectly involved in the experiment. If that is an objection, there is an even greater objection to Schwartz’s own experiments: he and his colleagues are all strongly biased toward belief in energy phenomena and they were directly involved in their experiments.
  5. It is simply not true that the subjects did “worse than chance.” Their performance was consistent with chance. If they had done worse than chance (significantly worse) that would have tended to support Schwartz’s claim that some kind of effect was present, even though it would have been the reverse of what he claimed to find.

In my opinion, none of these “problems” invalidates the conclusion that the therapeutic touch practitioners failed to do what they claimed they could do. And if he thinks these were valid problems, why didn’t he simply repeat her experiment in his own lab with multiple experimenters and a more reliable method of randomization? He could have published a failed replication study, and the scientific community could have proceeded to evaluate both studies and sort out the truth. In reality, Rosa’s experiment was a great example of a young child being able to see more clearly than prejudiced adults—a real “Emperor’s New Clothes” story.

I see a lot of “potential problems” in Schwartz’s research—not just ad hominem problems but flaws of experimental design. To start with his most basic experiment: his subjects were blindfolded, sat facing the experimenter with their hands on their laps, and tried to detect which hand the experimenter was holding his hand over. The experimenter held his hands together between trials to keep his hand temperature constant. The subjects often didn’t think they could tell, but they were asked to guess, and their guesses were statistically significant.

The first problem is that blindfolds don’t work. Rosa knew this. Instead, she had her subjects put their arms through holes in a screen and covered the gaps with a towel to preclude any possibility of conscious or unconscious visual cues. She also had subjects lay their arms on a table instead of on their laps, thus reducing the chance of their detecting subtle clues from the person sitting in front of them. Another problem is that when the researcher holds his hands together, that raises the skin temperature and raises the possibility that heat is being detected rather than any other type of energy. And if Schwartz’s results are real, independent researchers should be able to replicate them using the same protocol. Apparently they have not been replicated elsewhere. In fact, Rosa’s experiment amounts to an independent attempt to replicate Schwartz’s basic experiment, only with better controls; and it failed to confirm his results.

If a rigorous scientist thought he had found evidence that people could detect “human energy fields,” he would maintain a healthy skepticism; he would immediately try to prove himself wrong, and he would enlist his colleagues to help show him where he might have gone wrong. He would try to rule out all other possible explanations (the subject might be sensing heat, sound, motion, air currents, might be able to see under the blindfold, etc.). If the phenomenon proved robust, he would try to refine his understanding by doing things like varying the distance to see if it obeyed the inverse square law and interposing a sheet of cardboard or glass to see if the effect could be blocked. Then he would try to use instruments to measure what kind of energy was being sensed.

When a believer thinks he has found something to justify his belief, his approach tends to be less rigorous. Instead of subjecting his original experiment to outside scrutiny, he tends to do more new experiments to try to convince others that he is right. Schwartz goes off on a tangent doing other experiments that purportedly show that the subject is not sensing the energy field but is actually sensing the conscious intention of the experimenter. In one, he claims to show that persons can tell whether someone standing behind them is staring at their head or at their back! If he really believed energy medicine was some kind of psychic thought transmission, he would concentrate on that route of research, but instead he keeps trying to document the ability to detect measurable physical energy fields. His thinking is confused, and he’s trying to eat his cake and have it too.

Schwartz’s style of reasoning was revealed when an experiment to influence E. coli bacteria with Reiki didn’t produce the desired results. Instead of accepting that it didn’t work, he tried to find a way to make the experiment look like it worked. He did some inappropriate “data mining” and tried to show that before the trials where the Reiki practitioners apparently failed, they had been under more stress than before the trials where they apparently succeeded.

He finds a gifted individual who can detect whether a wooden box has a rock in it or not—his success rate is 95 percent for natural crystals, although barely chance for manmade crystals. Unfortunately, before this individual can be tested properly in an independent lab, he develops medical problems and loses his ability. (It’s strange how often these inconvenient things happen when psychic claims are involved.)
Schwartz is mystified by the work of John of God, the Brazilian spiritual healer who performs bloodless, painless surgery. He doesn’t recognize that this charlatan is merely using old gimmicks from the carnival sideshow repertoire to fool the gullible. Schwartz also believes science has established that the human mind can change the pH of water over long distances. He is far less skeptical about such claims than the average scientist.

Schwartz has tried to bolster his credibility by getting a former Surgeon General’s endorsement. In Richard Carmona’s foreword, he says he has seen things he can’t easily explain and says we don’t have all the answers. He helped establish the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM, which he curiously refers to as the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine). The purpose of the NCCAM was allegedly to test complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and find out which treatments worked and reject those that didn’t. But in its entire history, despite consistently negative results, it has never dared to reject anything. Carmona is currently CEO of Canyon Ranch Health, where Schwartz is the Director of Development of Energy Healing. Canyon Ranch offers integrative medical wellness services, including therapeutic touch. Carmona says, “Where the science supports these integrative concepts of energy medicine, let’s use them. Where there is not enough science, let the studies begin and continue.”

What about “if there is no convincing science or plausible mechanism to support them, let’s stop wasting our time chasing moonbeams”? All of energy medicine hinges on one basic claim: that people can detect subtle human energy fields. If Schwartz is wrong about that, the rest of the claims for so-called “energy medicine” fizzle away.

Since 1996, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has offered a substantial reward (currently $1,000,000) to anyone who can demonstrate an ability to detect a “human energy field” under conditions similar to those of Rosa’s study. Of the more than 80,000 American therapeutic touch practitioners who claim to have such ability, only one person attempted to demonstrate it. She failed. The JREF challenge is admittedly not a definitive scientific test, but prudence would seem to dictate that if no one can even meet this simple challenge, we shouldn’t be wasting research money on what is probably a myth.

Others have attempted to establish the “science” of energy medicine and have failed.2 Even the NCCAM, which is willing to consider almost any possibility in alternative medicine, is skeptical. It distinguishes between real energy (sound waves, electromagnetism, and other energies measurable by physicists) and the kind of “putative” energy Schwartz is trying to validate. It concludes that the “putative” energy approaches “are among the most controversial of CAM practices because neither the external energy fields nor their therapeutic effects have been demonstrated convincingly by any biophysical means.”

Schwartz sounds like a scientist. He tries to talk the talk and walk the walk. He even makes some skeptical noises to try to convince us he is objective. But there is also a lot of very unscientific language in his book.

For instance:

Human rage and pain, especially generated by terrorism and war, create a global energetic climate whose negative effects can extend from the physical and environmental—potentially including climate—to the psychological and ultimately spiritual. . . . [P]ollution is not simply chemical, it is ultimately energy based and therefore conscious as well.

Really? Conscious pollution? So maybe if we talk nice to pollution it will cooperate and go away? Or should we try doing Reiki to lower the atmospheric CO2 levels? Does Al Gore know about this?

“Energy medicine” is an emperor whose new clothes still look awfully transparent to critical thinkers and to the scientific community no matter what glorious colors and fabrics Schwartz and his colleagues imagine they are seeing.

Notes:

  1. “Therapeutic touch” is a bit of a misnomer because these practitioners don’t actually touch but simply massage the air a few inches from the patient’s body. They are convinced that they are detecting and manipulating the energy field, balancing and smoothing it, and correcting any abnormalities, thus allowing the body to heal itself.
  2. Hall, H. 2005. A review of Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis. Skeptic 11(3): 89–93. Available at quackfiles.blogspot.com.
  3. nccam.nih.gov.

References:

Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD, a retired Air Force physician and flight surgeon, writes and educates about pseudoscientific and so-called alternative medicine. She is a contributing editor and frequent contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer and contributes to the blog Science-Based Medicine. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and coauthor of the 2012 textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.