Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Force As Medicine

Today I shall heap scorn upon Reiki, because it deserves it.

What Is Reiki?

It's an "alternative therapy" modality that involves waving your hands at someone to cure what ails them. Seriously.

But without the dramatic poses

Of course that's not what the Reiki practitioners will claim, They say things like how they're "manipulating the human energy field (aka "ki") and restoring healthfulness and creating wellbeing.". You know what that statement means? Approximately nothing.

And that's what Reiki is: nothing.

Surely There's More To It Than That?

Nope. Not really.

In order to become a Reiki practitioner, you have to go through a course, lasting several weeks. You learn all about reading auras, chakras, healing symbols and all sorts of things like that. And you know how useful any of that stuff is? Zero.

Okay, let's look at it a little more closely. There are a number of basic premises that the practice of Reiki are based on. I'll unpack them a bit:

  1. The human body has an energy field
  2. Illness is caused by disturbances in that energy field
  3. Adepts can manipulate the energy fields of others in order to correct those disturbances, and therefore treat and cure illness.
Premises 2 and 3 are based on premise 1. Luckily for us, premise 1 is a factual statement, and is therefore testable.

The Human Energy Field

People who make this claim generally don't understand what energy is. Which is inexcusable, because it's in early high-school physics text books. Everyone should know it.

Energy is the measurable work potential of an object. It's a measurement of how much a given object can affect the motion of the objects around it. Energy is stored in various forms: chemical (as in food or a battery), potential (as in putting an object in a high place, or setting a fly-wheel spinning) and so on. It can be transmitted to other objects through direct contact or radiation.

Energy is also locked up in mass. Matter is an organised form of energy, and through the right processes, you can destroy matter, thereby releasing the energy it holds. This happens in small measures through ionisation or nuclear fission and fusion, or in more efficient ways through matter/antimatter annihilation.

Pictured: fiction
Energy is not a glowy, sparkly cloud that hovers around things. You've probably gotten that impression from Star Trek, and that's an unfortunate result of lazy writing - it's not a reflection of reality.

So what is an energy field? It's not really a thing. You could describe a magnetic field as an energy field - it's an area where electrons flow around a magnet. Or you could describe the area into which an object releases electromagnetic radiation as an energy field. That's pretty tenuous though, and nobody would take you seriously if you claimed that Neither of those are very good descriptions, and it's certainly not a scientific nomenclature.

The real question is whether or not the human body has anything that can be described as an energy field, and the answer is kind of. The human body uses electricity for internal communication. When electricity flows, it creates an electromagnetic field, the strength of which is proportional to the voltage and or ampage of the current. Human electrical signals aren't very strong, so the EM field we generate isn't either. It may as well not be there.

You can test that yourself: hold a compass in your hand. If the compass points to magnetic North instead of to you, the Earth's (pretty weak) magnetic field is stronger than yours.

This clearly isn't the big, glowy energy field that the Reiki people are talking about. There simply isn't anything in or around the human body meeting that description.

Without an energy field to speak of, the second and third premises of Reiki fall down. There's no there there. But what about epidemiological data? Even if they have the mechanism wrong, are they still doing anything?

Epidemiological Evidence

There's plenty of evidence showing that Reiki fails to perform in double blind trials - indicating that it's not doing anything. Probably my favourite example is one that was performed on a related modaility: Therapeutic Touch.

Therapeutic Touch is basically exactly the same as Reiki, only with a more Western sciencey sound to it. And it was debunked by a 11-year-old girl.

Emily Rosa, a small child from Colorado, devised a test that would show whether or not Therapeutic Touch (and, by implication, Reiki) has anything to it. TT failed the test. It has no effect. 

Smart kid

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Reiki has no mechanism, no effect, and no point. People who practice it probably do so because they want to help people, which is a noble intent. But the most they're doing with Reiki is delivering a placebo. Their time and efforts would be better spent learning an actual skill. Waving your hands at people is only a skill for musical conductors, traffic pointsmen and Jedi Knights.