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A Magical Death?

Phillips Stevens, Jr.

Skeptical Briefs Volume 13.3, September 2003

The tragic story of the terrible death of Elisabeth Targ by the same disease she was trying to cure by “distant healing” yields some new perspectives on the magical component in complementary and alternative medicine.

In an article in the Skeptical Inquirer (Stevens 2001) I identified six principles of magic and magical thinking, as guidelines for recognizing that much of the assumptions underlying alternative medicine derives from fundamental pan-human magical beliefs. And I concluded my discussion with a summary of the aims and methods employed by the late Elisabeth Targ,1 M.D., in her celebrated studies of the effects of “distant healing” on AIDS patients. Apparently on the basis of one study having been published in a leading medical journal (Sicher et al., 1998), she received grants of over $1.5 million from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to continue such investigations (see Gardner 2001, Jaroff 2002). Targ’s methods were classically magical: in the 1998 study she and her colleagues contracted with forty “experienced distant healers” from a variety of religious traditions, giving them “subject information packets” which contained, as I wrote in 2001, “subject’s first name, a current color photograph, and written notations on blood count and current symptoms. Healers were instructed to open their packets on certain dates and ‘to direct an intention for health and well-being’2 to the subject” (Stevens 2001, 36) who had never met and were far distant from the healers and who did not know whether they were among the healers’ targets or in a control group.

Targ was essentially given generous government grants for the testing of ancient and universal forms of magic, involving four of the classic principles: power, interconnections in nature, symbols, and similarity. And I added (2001, 37, n.8) that any traditional person whose culture holds a magical worldview could have advised Dr. Targ that she ought to have incorporated the final principle, contact, into her methods. It is universally believed that the principle of contact is the most powerful of all; if the “subject information packets” had contained some items that had been in intimate physical contact with the subjects-like hair or fingernail clippings, or sweaty or bloodstained underwear, the efficacy of her methods would have been greatly enhanced. (Indeed, because her methods were so classically magical, I wondered why she hadn’t.) During her 1998 study, drugs had become available that could prolong life for AIDS sufferers; the disease was no longer a certain death sentence. But it was discovered that one of her treated patients who recovered had also recovered from brain cancer. So she added to her NCCAM proposal the most vicious form of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), and funding was granted. She prepared to apply distant healing to two 150-patient groups: AIDS sufferers and victims of glioblastoma.

In March 2002 Elisabeth Targ, age forty, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, and on July 18 she died. This tragic story should surely be recorded as one of the most extraordinary coincidences in medical history. But for people whose cosmologies are governed by principles of magic-certainly a huge majority of the world’s peoples-certain details of Elisabeth’s research would generate another explanation for her death. This explanation reveals a dimension of magical thinking which I did not discuss in my 2001 article, but one which is fundamental in much of complementary and alternative medicine (and in many New Age beliefs) today.

Targ’s 1998 Research

Po Bronson tells Elisabeth Targ’s story in a very sensitive and balanced article in Wired magazine (2002; summarized in Skeptical Briefs by Victor Stenger, 2003); but he adds an unfortunate facet of her research and the 1998 publication.

Citing for his information the project’s biostatistician and co-author Dan Moore, physicist Mark Comings (Targ’s husband, whom she married just two months before her death), and commentary from senior author Fred Sicher, Bronson reports that “her study had been unblinded and then ‘reblinded’ to scour for data that confirmed the thesis-and the Western Journal of Medicine did not know this fact. . . .” The data were fudged-seriously fudged-and this is, as we will see, a kind word for what she and her team did. The original aim was to measure mortality, which failed badly because of the anti-AIDS drugs that had become available. So the data were unblinded and sifted several times to look for positive results. Bronson reports that Targ (encouraged by her father, alleged psychic Russell Targ), and Sicher, a strong believer in distant healing, ordered Moore to search and re-search the data to find results that seemed statistically significant. The account of how this was done reveals shameful violations of scientific procedure (Bronson 2002, 222). Desperate to produce positive results, the team finally decided to measure a new set of data, the incidence of twenty-three AIDS-related illnesses which had not even been part of their study. And “when Targ and Sicher wrote the paper that made her famous, they let the reader assume that all along their study had been designed to measure the twenty-three AIDS-related illnesses-even though they're careful never to say so. They never mentioned that this was the last in a long list of endpoints they looked at, or that it was data collected after an unblinding” (Bronson 2002, 222). This is a serious charge which, if true, represents incredible violations of the principles of scientific research.

The Attitude of the Practitioner

A basic principle of a magical worldview is the belief of people in all cultures that all things in the cosmos, past, present, and future, are actually or potentially interconnected, and that such connections are affected by people’s behavior, emotions, and intentions. Positive social behavior, emotions, even just thoughts, can have beneficial effects on the environment and hence on people’s opportunities. Negative behavior, emotions and/or thoughts have negative results. The anthropological literature is filled with examples; I will cite just two. Dorothy Lee’s famous 1971 paper, “Religious Perspectives in Anthropology,” gives many examples of cultural beliefs in the interrelatedness of people with their surroundings. Her description of the clown-priests in the agricultural dramas of the Hopi of the American southwest could be applied to priests and magicians in other societies throughout the world:

. . . this is not mere art. It is an important way of helping nature in her work of growing the corn. Even the laughter of the audience helps. . . . The actors have prepared themselves as whole persons. They have refrained from sexual activity, and from anything involving conflict. They have had good thoughts only. They have refrained from anger, worry and grief. . . . Corn wants to grow, but cannot do so without the cooperation of the rest of nature and of man’s acts and thoughts and will. . . . Art and agriculture and religion are part of the same totality for the Hopi (Lee 2001, 23).

My second example is a line from a film I show my classes in introductory anthropology, The Spirit Possession of Alejandro Mamani (American Universities Field Staff, 1974). Alejandro, an old man of the Bolivian Aymara, dictates his will to the village school teacher who prepares him to swear his oath, saying finally: “Now, do you give this land voluntarily? The land will be more fertile if you give it voluntarily.”

So people recognize that their emotions and thoughts are always active in nature. An act of magic involves intentional intrusion into the processes of nature by the manipulation of supernatural power, and magicians should be especially careful. The great ethnographer Bronislaw Malinowski, in his 1935 Coral Gardens and their Magic, described open, good magic, performed by gardeners of the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia. The pristine order of nature is considered good; the sort of magic performed by Melanesian gardeners, if done correctly, works by helping the forces of nature along paths they would follow anyway, and should produce only beneficial results. People everywhere recognize the potential harmful use of magic, which anthropologists generally call sorcery, which aims to harm another person or to benefit oneself by depriving another. Sorcery works by interfering with the natural order of things, in effect re-directing nature by altering the speed or direction of natural forces, and this is universally dangerous. Powers activated by the careless sorcerer can run amok, striking others or returning and inflicting on the practitioner the same fate he wished on his target.

For these reasons sorcery is feared, hidden, and usually illegal. As a Peace Corps teacher in Nigeria in 1965 I witnessed an act of sorcery openly conducted by a young boy from my school against table-tennis players from a visiting school. Terrified students from both schools chased the boy with an aim to nullify the terrible forces he might have loosed, even if that meant beating him to death (Stevens 1988).

But even the apparently well-intentioned “good” magician is conducting a risky enterprise. Malinowski gave a lot of space to what he considered the three most important elements in the magical rite: the formula, the conduct of the rite, and the condition of the performer-which includes careful observance of dietary and other taboos, and maintaining proper social relationships. He must undergo a ritual cleansing both before and after he handles supernatural power. Magic worked by an insincere or deceptive practitioner can rebound, like sorcery. Magical thinking based on the principles I have identified is absolutely universal; and it seems that beliefs in the contributory effect of the magician’s state of mind are also universal.

Participants in Wicca believe firmly in “magick” and their own abilities to influence the natural world through the classic principles of sympathetic magic-but only for good. They say that what they do will come back threefold, and if their intentions are selfish or deceitful the return might be devastating. When skeptics ask psychics why they don’t win the lottery or break the bank at a casino, the invariable answer is that their powers would dissolve or turn sour if they used them for personal gain. Advocates of Therapeutic Touch insist that “The use of conscious intent (sometimes called intentionality) is thus essential for the practice of Therapeutic Touch. The practitioner must establish the intent to become a calm, focused conduit for the universal life energy and to direct the energy to the patient” (Macrae 1988, 18). And that under the conditions imposed in fourth-grader Emily Rosa’s famous experiment (Rosa, Rosa, and Barrett 1998) that clearly debunked the therapy, such calm focus was impossible. Proponents of various methods of manipulating qi, as in tai chi, qigong, feng shui, etc., say that without the proper mental attitude they cannot activate and detect qi.

Having seen my 2001 Skeptical Inquirer article, Norwegian homeopathic and acupuncturist veterinarian Are Thoresen sent me an article he had written, “How Do Homeopathy and Acupuncture Really Work?” and the citations to two published versions of it (Thoresen 2003). Therein he presents what he says is a real problem: why these methods do not work on animals under well-regulated scientific conditions, but they work very well in the clinic with just the animal, its owner, and the practitioner present. After a well-documented survey of such studies Thoresen says the answer lies “in the qualities of the therapist, especially yì, intention.” He cites many other strange and amazing cures, inventions, events, and methods, including an Indian proof for a “soul-life” in plants and metals, and biodynamic agriculture (see and similar Internet sites, and the Aymara belief cited earlier), for which the only explanation for their (occasional) successes is the positive intention of the practitioner.3 According to Bronson’s report, in their efforts to show positive effects of distant healing Elisabeth Targ and her colleagues committed serious violations of the principles of scientific research; they were-let’s say it-dishonest. Their methods are quite obviously magical, recognizable in probably all traditional areas of the world. When informed of Targ’s intentions, her deception, and her rapid death from glioblastoma, that same “traditional person whose culture holds a magical worldview” I referred to earlier would understand immediately. And, in a magical cosmos, her death is solid confirmation of both the efficacy of magic, and the dangers inherent in performing it.


  1. Apparently her name is correctly spelled with an s, but not all writers were careful, and researchers will find additional information about her on the Internet under the alternate spelling, “Elizabeth.”
  2. Targ does not call this “prayer” in her scholarly reports, though others immediately do (e.g., Jaroff 2002), and in public speculation on how it works she suggested “God” among several possibilities ("consciousness, love, electrons, or a combination"; as reported by Gardner 2001 and Jaroff 2002). Anthropologically this is explicitly magic, as it addresses the forces of nature, not a divinity.
  3. Anyone who thinks about such subjective situations will realize other explanations for Thoresen’s original “problem,” and his conclusions; such explanations are suggested in my 2001 Skeptical Inquirer article. Dr. Asbjørn Dyrendal of the Norwegian University for Technology and Natural Sciences (NTNU), Trondheim, kindly informed me that Thoresen’s 2003 publication in the Norwegian Veterinary Journal, an important mainstream publication, is a “reader’s response” (a letter to the editor). It generated some criticism in the next issue.


Phillips Stevens, Jr.

Phillips Stevens, Jr., is in the Department of Anthropology, SUNY at Buffalo, NY 14261; e-mail