No More Mister Nice Guy

Part II

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T. 

You are a latticework of energies. Marshal these energies for your health and wellbeing. Study your internal dance with the unseen forces within and around you. And as you do, marvel with me as the dynamic energies that stream through body, mind and soul exquisitely reveal the genius of nature’s fashioning hand

From Energy Medicine by Donna Eden 

Energy fields are postulated to constitute the fundamental unit of the living and the nonliving. Field, then, is a unifying concept and energy signifies the dynamic nature of the field. Energy fields are infinite and pandimensional: they are in continuous motion.   

From The Science of Unitary Human Beings by Martha Rogers PhD RN  

Your voice is heard throughout the universe. Streams of supportive love and healing energy surround you. Wrap their warm glow around you. You are magnificent in your struggle. Struggle, rest, and stretch, freeing yourself of the old bonds that kept you from expressing the joy and fullness of life. We are sending you healing energy, assuring you that you are worthy of all the love and focus of all the angels. When you are joyful, we are all more magnificent. Come dance with us. 

…To everyone who sent me love and light and healing and hugs... thank you so much!  I have been tuning into receiving several times a day and I CAN FEEL the fullness of the energy around me.  Now I would like to reciprocate: Here's an infinite energy HUG for all of you wonderful souls!  Soak it up and pass it on... OOOOOOOO... 

Typical (and actual) post and reply to the Myofascial Release listserv


There is a method and philosophy of management that I have watched grow steadily the past twenty years. For the purposes of this essay I’ll use the name Energy Medicine (EM) to describe a kind of thinking that has produced several “therapeutic” methods that depend primarily or peripherally upon the manipulation of the “human energy field” as their theoretical basis. 

In part one of this essay I wrote about the tendency to avoid overt criticism of alternative practices because of a misapplication of cultural relativism. Although this method of examining many aspects of a society’s behavior leads to an objective view of reality, using it to merely describe the medical care provided does nothing to help us understand what is wrong or right about its underlying theory or effect. Accepting this, I feel it’s appropriate to openly criticize the theory behind energy medicine and, by association, those who practice it, charge for it, and teach it. 

I remember a bit of dialogue from The X-Files some time ago. Mulder says to Scully, “Do you know how I can tell she’s not really a vampire?” Scully replies in a hopeful tone, “Because vampires don’t really exist?” As many of you know, this very popular TV show is driven in large part by the tension created when a true believer and a skeptic observe the same phenomenon and attempt to make sense of it. This small exchange demonstrates the enormous gulf between my own thinking and that of anyone who “manipulates energy” in a fashion that they feel promotes health. I’m writing this essay in an effort to get those on the other side to hear me, and I’d love to hear back from them. It’s not been my experience that any such reply will soon appear. 

I’ll begin by taking issue with the use of the word “energy” to describe what they are supposedly manipulating with their techniques. To my knowledge, energy is not a thing, but, rather, a quality. It is a word we use to describe the behavior of the things we do know exist. When this quality changes from one expression of energy to another, say from mechanical to thermal, there are very specific rules of conservation during transference that must be followed. This is a matter settled hundreds of years ago and confirmed countless times since. Ignoring this fact is something that EM practitioners do without hesitation. 

To be fair, “energy” within the context of the EM literature is typically meant to refer to a unique quality supposedly possessed by living things. The notion that such a thing exists is ancient, and this quality has many names in many cultures. In fact, this “energy” is often thought to extend well beyond living bodies. It travels all over the place and is, evidently, influenced by an incredible variety of things. The currently popular home decorating technique, Feng Shui, is based upon the same principles of energy movement and manipulation as the supposedly healthful methods of EM. 

Because the laws of physics first stated by Newton will not permit the behaviors described, it is common to see EM advocates refer to “quantum” or “Einsteinian” physics. Clearly, this sounds impressive, primarily because this realm of physics is thought to be so mysterious and surprising. Indeed it is. But even at that, it comes nowhere near providing the theoretical basis for EM. 

What follows is a passage from Victor Stenger’s essay The Pseudophysics of Therapeutic Touch. I know it’s a long quote, but I’ve never read anything as well written or as succinct on this very complex subject, and I felt it was best to include all of it here. 

“Quantum” is the magic incantation that appears in virtually everything written on alternative medicine. It seems to be uttered in order to make all the inconsistencies, incoherencies, and incompatibilities of the proposed scheme disappear in a puff of smoke. Since quantum mechanics is weird, anything weird must be quantum mechanics. 

            Quantum mechanics is claimed as support for mind-over-matter solutions to health problems. The way the observer is entangled with the object being observed in quantum mechanics is taken to infer that human consciousness actually controls reality. As a consequence, we can all think ourselves into health and, indeed, immortality - if we only buy this book (Chopra, 1989,1993). “Quantum healing” is based on a particularly misleading interpretation of quantum mechanics (Stenger 1997). Other interpretations exist that do not require any mystical ingredients (see also Stenger, 1995). 

            “Einstein” is a name found frequently in the literature on energy therapy. Stephantos says: “Based on Einstein’s theories of quantum physics, these energetic concepts are being integrated into medicine for a comprehensive approach to disease diagnosis, prevention, and treatment” (1997, p. 288). 

            Einstein’s theories of quantum physics? What theories are these? While Einstein contributed mightily to the development of quantum mechanics especially with his photon theory, modern quantum mechanics is the progeny of a large group of early twentieth century physicists. Planck, Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Pauli, Born, Jordan, and Dirac each made contributions to quantum mechanics at least as important as Einstein’s. Einstein’s immortality rests securely enough on his two theories of relativity. 

            Referring to well-known promoters of quantum mysticism Fritjof Capra and Ken Wilber, Stefanatos tells how “Einstein’s quantum model replaced the Newtonian mechanistic model of humankind and the universe” (1997, p. 227). Thus holistic healing is associated with the rejection of classical Newtonian physics. Yet, holistic healing retains many ideas about the aether and action at a distance from eighteenth and nineteenth century physics. Its proponents appear blissfully unaware that these ideas have been rejected by modern physics. 

            Never mind that Einstein was not the inventor of quantum mechanics and objected strongly to its anti-Newtonian character, saying famously, “God does not play dice.” Never mind that electromagnetic fields were around well before quantum physics and composed of reductionist particles. And never mind that Einstein did away with the aether, the medium that nineteenth-century physicists thought was doing the waving in an electromagnetic wave, and a few others thought might also be doing the waving for “psychic waves.” The bioenergetic field described in holistic literature seems to be confused with the aether. Or, perhaps no confusion is implied. They each share at least one common feature - nonexistence. 

            As the nineteenth century drew to a close, experiments by Michelson and Morley had failed to find evidence for the aether. This laid the foundation for Einstein’s theory of relativity and his photon theory of light, both published in 1905. Electromagnetic radiation is now understood to be a fully material phenomenon. Photons have both inertial and gravitational mass (even though they have zero rest mass) and exhibit all the characteristics of material bodies. Electromagnetism is as material as breath and an equally incredible candidate for the vital field. 

           Much as we might wish otherwise, the fact remains that no unique living force has ever been conclusively demonstrated to exist in scientific experiments. Of course, evidence for a life force might someday be found but this is not what is claimed in the literature that promotes Therapeutic Touch and the myriads of other forms of alternative medicine. There you will see the strong assertion that current scientific evidence exists for some entity beyond conventional matter and that this claim is supported by modern physical theory - especially quantum mechanics. Furthermore, the evidence is not to be found in the data from our most powerful telescopes or particle accelerators, probing beyond existing frontiers. Rather, it resides in vague, imprecise, anecdotal claims of the alleged curative powers of traditional folk remedies and other nostrums. These claims simply do not follow from any reasonable application of scientific criteria. 

            The bioenergetic field plays no role in the theory or practice of biology or scientific medicine. Vitalism and bioenergetic fields remain hypotheses not required by the data, to be rejected by Occam’s razor until the data demand otherwise.” 

When therapists who actually touch others believe that “energy” is being manipulated and that this accounts for the effects of care, other perfectly plausible explanations are ignored. This attitude is not conducive to study or introspection. Large changes in subjective sensation can certainly occur in response to non-invasive, gentle and potentially harmless handling. This can be explained by looking at the nature of nervous depolarization secondary to the deformation of the epithelium (see “Resources” for more on this). This material might be a little hard to understand without the requisite background in biology, anatomy, chemistry or physics, but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s just too bad. I suspect that many practitioners of EM stay with it because its theory is so easy to understand. Belief is commonly easier to acquire and maintain than knowledge. In the end, most people doing this sort of thing are just too lazy to read all the literature available (please recall the title of this essay). When confronted with the kind of things we see written by Victor Stenger, they retreat to the realm of metaphysics and they hide behind dubious claims of effectiveness. 

When “non-local healing” is practiced to some apparent effect, this is called “psychology.” 

I’m waiting for the day when one of EM practitioners displays the courage necessary to openly withstand the scrutiny of the scientific community and then explain their practice in reasonable terms. This has yet to happen. 

Until then, I expect that the protective shelter of misapplied cultural relativism will remain their safest refuge. The sooner the therapy profession understands that this is what protects EM from the same criticism applied to every other aspect of clinical science, the better. 

It is time we stopped being nice about this.



For Stenger’s portion of this essay   

Stefanatos, J. 1997. “Introduction to Bioenergetic Medicine” In Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine: Principles and Practice by A. Schoen, S. Wynn Mosby-Year Book 

Stenger, V. J. 1990 Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

----1995 The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

----1997a “Quantum Quackery.” Skeptical Inquirer 21 (1): 37-40

----1997b. “Quantum Mysticism.” Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 1 (1): 26-30



Science Meets Alternative Medicine: What the Evidence Says about Unconventional Treatments Edited by Wallace Sampson M.D. and Lewis Vaughn (Prometheus Books 2000) 

Author’s note: I think that this should be required reading in every therapy program. 

Therapeutic Touch Edited by Bela Scheiber and Carla Selby (Prometheus Books 2000) 

Author’s note: This is a large book (360 pages) that carefully examines the history and current application of this practice. Stenger’s essay on “pseudophysics” is in here as well as many other wonderfully written articles about the people who populate the alternative medicine community. It is a comprehensive, compelling and, for me, accurate portrayal of the battle between scientific reasoning and true belief. 

Complementary Therapies for Physical Therapists Edited by Robert A. Charman (Butterworth-Heinemann 2000) 

Author’s Note: There are 23 chapters in this book. 16 of the methods described depend primarily upon the “manipulation of energy” in order to explain their effect. 

For more about the potential effects of gentle handling see “Touch and Sensation: A Deep Model” at “The Clinician’s Manual” in the “From Dorko’s Desk” section.