Alternative Medicine: Energy Medicine
By: Alex Genheimer

I. Abstract

Alternative medicine is defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine as any “medical products and practices that are not part of standard care” (MedlinePlus, n.d.). Energy medicine is one of the five forms of alternative medicine. It is defined as “that which uses one of the known forms of energy, which are mechanical energy, sound, heat, electricity, magnetism and light” (Energetix Inc. Energy Information, 2009). Some of the more recognizable practices of energy medicine include energy bracelets, healing touch, acupuncture. Each of these practices is presented and scientifically explained. Six of the most common alternative medicine advertising tactics are discussed and analyzed.

II. Introduction

The term “Alternative Medicine” is defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine as any “medical products and practices that are not part of standard care” (MedlinePlus, n.d.). Standard care is defined as what state licensed medical professionals practice. Because these practices fall under the label “Alternative Medicine”, they are not required to undergo the same testing as conventional medicine. Alternative medicine encompasses a very wide variety of practices, and is further divided into five categories (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2010):
1) Whole medical systems are complete theoretical structures which operate independently of other beliefs. Some of the well known examples of these are homeopathy, naturopathy, and traditional Eastern medicine.
2) Mind-body medicine deals with the merging of mind and body, or “soul”. Mind-body medicine typically deals with relaxation and calmness. Some of the more well-known practices are medication, yoga, acupuncture, deep-breathing, and progressive relaxation.
3) Biologically-based medicines are natural remedies, such as herbs, minerals, or vitamins. Alternative medicines do not need to be approved by organizations such as the FDA to be sold in the United States, whereas non-alternative medicines do. The line between alternative and non-alternative biologically-based medicines can be hazy. Some vitamins would be considered as alternative, whereas others would be considered conventional.
4) Manipulative medicine is a group of practices dealing with alteration of the body and its systems. Two of these commonly used practices are chiropractic medicine (manipulation of the spine to affect non-spinal functions), and massage therapy.
5) Energy medicine is the topic of this chapter. Energy medicine is the collection of practices that manipulate the body’s “energy fields” to promote health. Common examples of this, include, but are certainly not limited to, the study of Chakras, Reiki, magnet therapy, healing touch, and balance bracelets.
Energy medicine has been defined as “that which uses one of the known forms of energy, which are mechanical energy, sound, heat, electricity, magnetism and light” (Energetix Inc. Energy Information, 2009). The energy referred to is usually vaguely defined flow through human beings and all living things. The “medicine” aspect of energy medicine is typically the practice of manipulating the so-called energy fields for the betterment of self-health.
Energy medicine, perhaps more than any one of the other categories, seems to overlap with other forms of alternative medicine. Acupuncture, also considered mind-body medicine, supposedly works by manipulating the body’s energy fields, and putting them into balance. Many other alternative medicines mention energy fields, and many “energy medicine” classified beliefs overlap with other alternative medicine categories.
As a result of the static nature of pseudoscience, much of what was taught about energy medicine thousands of years ago is still in practice today, in nearly the same forms. The newer reincarnations of the ancient energy medicine practices are better masked with technological and scientific jargon, however. These practices sometimes sound and look scientific and plausible upon a quick overview. In order to understand the current state of energy medicine, an understanding of its history and origins is important.

III. Eastern Origin

One ancient Eastern belief is that energy flowed through all living things. This flow of energy affected every action committed by these creatures, and everything that we do as humans. This energy flow was regulated by a system of “Chakras”, which allow the energy to flow from one area to another.
Chakras, a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel”, or “vortex”, are not believed to be a tangible physical construct. Despite this, they are still described in fairly specific ways. There are believed to be a total of seven chakras, each of which interact with different functions of the body, and can be manipulated to benefit various aspects of health. They are said to primarily affect the human body through the endocrine system and the nervous system. Chakras are interdependent and defined through the endocrine system to such a degree that each of the seven chakras is linked with each of the seven glands of the endocrine system (Brofman, n.d.).
ColouredChakraswithDescriptions.jpg
"Colored Chakras with Descriptions" by Xxglennxx via Wikimedia Commons
Despite the vague description of the energy that dwells within us, the seven different chakras are divided into very distinct, clear categories. These seven chakras reside in an equidistant straight line from the top of the head to the tailbone. Each of the chakras has its own gem(s), location, color, element, and a specific list of how exactly it affects your mental and physical self. The following table gives an example of the intricacy and specificity of the system of Chakras and how it supposedly affects the human body.

Name
Color
Location
Gem
Body System
Music Note
Gland
Element
Affected Symptomology
How to affect
Crown
Violet
Top of Head
Amethyst, Diamond, Quartz Crystal
Nervous System
B
Pineal
Inner Light
Mental illnesses, Parkinson's, ADD, Alzheimer's, headaches, multiple sclerosis
Pray, meditate, commune with nature, physical activity
Brow /Third Eye
Indigo
Above Eyes
Lapiz Lazuli, Sapphire
Endocrine System
A
Pituitary
Inner Sound
Headaches, sinus problems, eyesight, strokes, brain tumors
Listen and ask for direction for life
Throat
Blue
Throat
Turquoise, Blue Topaz
Metabolism
G
Thyroid
Ether
Neck problems, thyroid cancer, sinus problems, throat and mouth issues, tonsillitis
Write out true feelings in a journal
Heart
Green
Chest
Emerald, Malachite
Respiration, Circulation, Immune System
F
Thymus
Air
Heart attacks, asthma, breast and lung cancer, circulatory problems, carpal tunnel, immune system problems
Interact with a pet
Solar Plexus
Yellow
Above Naval
Amber, Gold
Muscles, Digestive System
E
Pancreas
Fire
stomach and digestive problems, liver problems, hernias, diabetes, gallstones
Sunlight, physical activity, yoga, gardening
Naval / Sacral
Orange
Lower Abdomen
Amber, Coral
Reproduction, Assimilation
D
Gonads
Water
Sexual problems of all types, urinary issues, appendicitis, lower back pain
Water and/or music immersion, anything calming
Root
Red
Base of Spine
Ruby, Garnet
Skeleton, Lymph, Elimination System
C
Adrenals
Earth
Eating disorders, foot or leg problems, colon cancer, Spinal problems, bone disorders, immunology
Walk barefoot, reconnect with nature
(Brofman, n.d.)
(Learning Meditation, 2010)
(King, 2009)

Chakras, however, are only one ancient energy belief. Prana, also a Sanskrit word, means “vital life” (Yin Yang House, 2006). It is believed to be a lifeforce that flows through all living things. It supposedly flows through our bodies in “nadis” and can be found in human’s breath, blood, and other bodily secretions.
Prana is one of the core beliefs in the practice of yoga. One way in which to control prana is to attain control of your breathing pattern. This is why yoga focuses so intently on breathing, relaxation, and stretching techniques. These are believed to help an individual attain control over their “life energy”.
Another well-known ancient belief system about energy is the Chinese belief in “Qi” (pronounced “chee”). Translated, Qi means “energy”. It is the believed to be the energy of everything, including living and non-living things. There are two types of Qi; congenital Qi and acquired Qi. Congenital Qi is the energy that we inherently have access to, without trying; the energy we are born with. Acquired Qi is the energy which we can gain and control based on our diet, emotional balance, and physical health.
Many of the ancient beliefs are seemingly arbitrary in the way they attribute power, and “what does what” between their various mechanisms. Although there is a theme for each Chakra based on its location in the body, the gems, colors, musical notes, elements, and affected body parts often seem completely unrelated to one another. This arbitrariness is a common feature in the way alternative medicine explains itself.
Phrenology maps often break the brain down into seemingly arbitrary segments which illustrate their influence on body parts. Acupuncture maps divide the hand into seemingly arbitrary parts of the body. Even palm reading gives extravagant significance to the lines created by the folds of your palm and relates them to life events and personality characteristics. When a non-scientific system such as those listed above is used to explain a scientific system, such as cognitive behavior or bodily functions, it makes sense that the connections would seem random. For example, since there is no scientific reason to assign the third Chakra to Ether, the musical note “G”, tonsillitis, and journaling, the apparent randomness should be expected.
These ancient energy beliefs were the first manifestations of energy medicine. They were the origin for the idea that our body has a constantly flowing river of energy, which is affected by what we do, and itself affects nearly everything about us. Since this time, countless other individuals have borrowed these ideas to create hybrids and new energy medicine products and beliefs.
The ideas present behind energy medicine have also been present in many areas of popular culture. One of the central ideas presented in the Star Wars trilogy is the concept of “The Force”. The force is a mystical energy field that surrounds all living things, similar to many of the ancient Eastern ideas of energy. Also similar to the Eastern beliefs, the force can be manipulated to affect the physical world, including moving objects and affecting others’ thoughts and actions. This “life energy” has often been used in science fiction literature and movies.

IV. Energy Medicine Usage

Energy medicine is not a practice reserved only for a minority of the population who are easily persuaded to believe anything. In reality, alternative medicine is a relatively widely held practice. 36% of Americans admitted to using some form of complimentary or alternative medicine (CAM) within the past twelve months (Barnes & Powell-Griner, 2002). This amounts to over one third of our well-educated, technologically advanced American society. When prayer for health reasons is included in the CAM percentages, the number jumps to 62% - nearly two thirds! (These figures are for all alternative medicines, not only energy medicine).
Specifically, over a period of twelve months, 11.6% of individuals used deep breathing exercises, 7.6% used meditation, 7.5% used chiropractic medicine, 5.1% practiced yoga, 5% received a massage, and 3.5% used some form of diet-based therapy. CAM was most often used for chronic pains, anxiety and depression. Women were more likely than men to use CAM, the largest discrepancy seen in mind-body medicine and prayer. Older adults are also more likely than younger adults to use CAM. Counter-intuitively, the use of CAM tends to increase as education level increases. Urban adults were found to be more likely to use CAM than rural adults.
Interestingly, 26% of individuals who used CAM did so because a medical professional suggested that they try it. In a study which examined web sites from National Cancer Institute recognized cancer centers, 59% advocated the use of acupuncture, 56% advocated meditation, spiritual support, special diet or yoga, 54% advocated massage therapy, and 51% advocated music therapy (Brauer, Sehamy, Metz, & Mao, 2010).
These statistics are evidence that belief in alternative medicine is widely held. A very large percentage of the entire American population uses “medical treatments” which have in no way been empirically validated. In fact, many, if not most, of these treatments have been empirically tested and shown to have no significant effects (Alternative Medicine on MSNBC, 2009)! The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has even attempted to experimentally test some of the health claims that these alternative medicine products make, and came to the following conclusion: “[We] set out to test herbal and other alternative health remedies to find the ones that work. After spending $2.5 billion, the disappointing answer seems to be that almost none of them do."
The words “Complementary” and “Alternative” used in these statistics describe what is commonly grouped under the larger umbrella of “Alternative”. Complimentary medicines are “alternative” medicines which are used along with conventional medicine, whereas alternative medicine (according to this definition) is used in place of conventional medicine.

V. Truth vs. Fiction

There are several concepts that are key to understanding pseudoscience, why it is so prevalent, why it sometimes has real positive effects, and why people so easily believe it. There are many common logical fallacies, tricks, or even marketing strategies that are sometimes not easily perceivable without knowledge of the mechanisms working behind them. An understanding of these mechanisms can more easily pull down the curtain to expose alternative medicine.
Any time a person tries to argue their own beliefs, point of view, opinion or sell a product, they are attempting to persuade. Any web site ad or television commercial promoting a new type of laundry detergent, a political candidate, or even energy medicine is using some type of persuasion. There are many different ways that persuasion can happen. Psychologists Petty and Cacioppo (1986) devised a method of viewing persuasion called the “Elaboration Likelihood Model”, or “ELM” for short.
The ELM views persuasion on a continuum. On one end of the continuum is the central route of persuasion, and the other side is the peripheral route. A single point of persuasion can fall anywhere in the continuum. An argument using the central route uses actual content, logic, or structure of an issue, whereas an argument using the peripheral focuses on external points such as the attractiveness of the presenter, presentation quality, mood manipulation, and many others.
An argument to vote for a politician because of their voting record would fall on the central side of the continuum. An argument to vote for that same politician because they are attractive would be peripheral. A car commercial which informs the consumer about the safety rating, engine, price, or style of a car would be central, whereas showing the car with a pretty girl inside, smiling, would be peripheral. When celebrities endorse an energy balance bracelet, it is a peripheral route to persuasion. The fact that the celebrity endorses the product means nothing about the credibility of the product itself. It simply means that celebrity X likes it (or is getting paid a lot of money to say that they do). As you can see, persuasion is often mixed with a little bit of both. You can also probably see that peripheral arguments are sometimes very effective tools of persuasion.
Central arguments result in longer lasting change in belief. However, they require much more thought, and take more time. Peripheral arguments are quicker and sometimes more effective over the short term, but can be countered more easily. Individuals who were persuaded with a peripheral argument are more easily dissuaded.
Arguments which have sound logical foundations, then, can rely on the central route to processing, whereas arguments which not based in logic can only rely on the peripheral route. Often, this is the route that alternative medicine takes.
Sometimes, however, alternative medicine does use the central route to persuasion. They often do this by presenting false information filled with jargon. “Jargon” is technical terminology which is not easily understood. It is the same technical language used in the field of study relative to the alternative medicine product or belief. Akin to its name, “pseudoscience”, alternative medicine often attempts to pass itself off as science. By using terms that are not understood by individuals not well versed in the particular branch of “science” it is referring, it is hard for people to distinguish between scientific explanations filled with jargon, and pseudoscientific explanations filled with jargon. Since these words are associated with science, people draw a mental link between it and science.
When products are presented in this way, people tend to think, “Wow, these people seem like they know what they are talking about. This sounds scientific. They use lots of science words! This product must work! I’ll buy it!” The level of vocabulary used to present an argument is not necessarily indicative of the strength of argument. Very profound and true arguments can be presented in a very simple way, and conversely, very jargon-laden and intricate arguments can be complete junk.
People, in general, are very difficult to persuade against a conflicting belief. Often, it is difficult to convince them otherwise, even in the face of clear evidence. The confirmation bias accounts for much of this phenomenon. The confirmation bias is the tendency for people to seek out information that confirms their own beliefs and opinions, rather than disconfirming evidence in a disproportionate manner. This causes the beliefs to be reaffirmed, rather than questioned. The questioning or rejection of beliefs causes cognitive distress, which we try to avoid at all costs.
This phenomenon makes it very difficult to convince people that an alternative medicine does not work the way it claims to. For them to reject their belief in chakras, for instance, would be to admit that they have been wrong (which nobody likes to do), and that they “fell for” a false belief system. Even in the face of evidence from double-blind experimental studies which find no effect on several alternative medicine claims, most people still hold their beliefs, often thinking, “it works for me.”
Alternative medicine often does produce real positive results because of the placebo effect. The mind is a powerful instrument capable of fooling the body into feeling differently because we think we have received (or not received) treatment. This is why even experimental control groups often come up with results over the baseline. For example, if individuals were divided into three groups and given either Advil, sugar pills that look like Advil, or nothing to alleviate a headache, the sugar pills group will likely find a significant reduction in headache pain over the “nothing” group. This is because they believe they are receiving treatment, and therefore expect to feel better, which in turn makes them actually feel better.
This effect is evidenced in nearly all alternative medicines. Because of the placebo effect, many alternative medicine products do elicit real effects over baseline. Individuals that receive even a non-scientific alternative medicine product that does nothing will expect themselves to feel better (or whatever the product claims to do), causing our mind to perceive that the effect is happening. Then, when the product is taken away, even when it has no real effect, the individual may experience real detrimental results. This is, again, a product of expectation. They expect to feel worse without the product. Expectation causes the placebo effect.
There are methods, however, to control for the placebo effect. If we were to set up a study in which one randomly chosen group of people used a certain alternative medicine product, and another randomly chosen group thought they were using the same product, we would have controlled for the placebo effect (assuming neither group could tell the difference). Conversely, we could have neither group aware that they were receiving the product to achieve the same result. If the product does cause results in this controlled environment, we would know that the product is the cause of the results, and not the placebo effect. This is rarely the method of experimentation used by alternative medicine.
If, however, alternative medicine products do have real beneficial effects with the placebo effect, then why should we discredit them? Why should people not be allowed to believe that it is the product itself that is causing the effects? It makes no difference, as long as it works, right? To some degree, this is true. The products do often demonstrate positive results, even if it is all in the mind of the individual. However, imagine if we could take those same placebo effects, and couple them with products that actually work. Instead of using these alternative medicine products to reduce depression, for instance, why not use an empirically tested method, such as psychological therapy. To administer a tested and proven procedure to solve a problem would combine its own true effects and the placebo effect.
One thing that must be remembered when considering ideas that sound like pseudoscience is that there is a fine line between blind acceptance and rejecting every idea that isn’t commonly accepted by mainstream medicine. Either of these extremes leaves out truth.

VI. Understanding Alternative Logic

It is important to understand the most common logical fallacies and marketing strategies of alternative medicine. These are the “red flags” to watch for in advertising. There are numerous common occurrences in pseudoscientific advertising. While any one of these certainly does not necessarily mean that an idea or product is based on pseudoscience, these are all either logical fallacies or simply marketing tactics to get the consumer to buy a product or idea without disclosing the actual information about the product.

A. “Best kept secret, exposed!”

This is a common alternative medicine claim. If you spend much time on the internet, or watching television commercials (or even news), you will see a product claim that it was a very well kept secret, but is now exposed! This is common with weight loss programs and pills, but is rampant among any form of alternative medicine, including energy medicine. For example, one web site promoting polarity (magnet) therapy boasts that they are “pleased to reveal a little known secret about the potential healing values of magnetic therapy and the secret of polarity” (Arizona Unipole Magnetics, 2000).

B. Revolutionary!

Alternative medicine products often claim that their product is a “scientific breakthrough”. The idea that science operates in breakthroughs is largely a misunderstanding of scientific research. Rather than operate on single, large discoveries, the progress of science typically operates under small, slow changes over a long period of time. Although “breakthroughs” do occur in research, they are not nearly as common as these advertisements would have you think. This is another red flag of pseudoscience. One web site promoting a particular brand of balance bracelet claims that it is a “revolutionary wellness product” (New Balance Bracelets, n.d.).

C. Magic Bullet

This common tactic is extremely prevalent among alternative medicine. Products often claim that they can cure or fix anything from A to Z. Not only can product X help you with your anxiety, but also your allergies, sinus problems, sexual health, immune system, and so on. The products claim to be a “magic bullet” that can cure nearly anything (for the low, low price of…). Not only do these products typically not help people with all the issues on the list, but typically they are effective at treating none of them! Any product that makes universal claims like this should immediately raise mental red flags. The same web site listed above that promotes a brand of balance bracelet boasted that their “lightweight, inexpensive” bracelet “helps optimize your own energy and promotes a more active lifestyle”. It implies that it can cure “lupus, arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint pain, neck and shoulder pain, and listlessness”, claims to “[increase] our strength, balance and [boost] our energy levels and pain relief”, increase flexibility and generally make you feel better (New Balance Bracelets, n.d.).

D. Testimonials

Go to any alternative medicine product’s web site, and there will be a very lengthy testimonials section. Not only are these sites able to pick and choose the testimonials that make their product look good, presenting a biased view of the product, but testimonials, even when legitimate, are often misleading. Similar to the confirmation bias (that individuals seek out confirming evidence), people are also less likely to present a completely fair and balanced review of a product that they believe in. Rather, they are more likely to highlight the good aspects and gloss over, or not mention the bad. Most alternative medicine products’ web sites will have lengthy testimonial sections. Many of the commercials for the popular balance bracelets are comprised largely of testimonial “evidence”.

E. Celebrity Endorsements

Many companies will often use celebrity endorsements to promote their products. A specific form of testimonial, this endorsement is very effective if used within the proper boundaries. Three of these categories have been defined by the meaning transfer model; attractiveness, credibility, and meaning transfer (Branding Strategy Insider, 2010):
“Attractiveness” in this way does not only mean physical appearance. It also includes things such as personality, abilities, intelligence, etc. An endorsement from an individual who is thought to be more attractive will gather more attention, as well as a better memory of the endorsement.
Credibility has to do with trustworthiness and success. An endorsement of a non-credible figure may actually be detrimental to the product’s image. It seems obvious, also, that an A-list celebrity (more successful) would create a better image for a product than a D-list celebrity (less successful). The more credible the individual, the stronger the endorsement of the product.
Lastly, meaning transfer involves the field that the individual is involved with. Michael Jordan would be a much better candidate for endorsing Nike shoes than say, Brad Pitt. Even though Brad Pitt is an attractive and credible celebrity, Michael Jordan has more meaning transfer for a pair of athletic shoes.
The web site for one of the most well-known and widely advertised balance bracelets has a total of two paragraphs explaining the how the bracelet works, and an extensive list of twenty-five celebrity endorsements, including Shaquille O’Neal. These endorsements from individuals who are no more (perhaps less) scientifically credible than an average person are used to market these products, because the consumer places more credibility, because of the celebrity status (Power Balance, 2010).

F. Anecdotal evidence

Anecdotal evidence can be presented by the group trying to persuade (e.g. company), or commonly by individuals attempting to persuade or rationalizing their own beliefs. A popular counter-argument to the dangers of smoking is, “well, my great-uncle Soandso smoked three packs a day, and he’s as healthy as anyone I know!” While this may be true, it is not evidence for a product or belief. To accept anecdotes as evidence is similar to accepting the results of a study with one subject. Even this may be giving anecdotal evidence too much credit, as the confirmation bias causes people to seek out the anecdotal cases that support one’s beliefs. Another great-uncle may have died from lung cancer. The fact that something “worked” for one person does not equate to evidence for a product or belief.
The same site listed above for celebrity endorsements quotes Shaquille O’Neal as saying, “I don’t really do a lot of testimonials, but this really works! I came across [brand name] when someone did the test on me. That night, while playing for the Phoenix Suns, there were about three of my teammates with the product on and we won that game by 57 points! I kept feeling something when I wore the bracelet, so I kept wearing it. When I took it off, I went back to normal. I’ve been wearing the bracelet ever since […] I’m here to tell you it works!” This anecdotal quote combines celebrity endorsement, testimonial and anecdote, creating a particularly strong case for the bracelet. Though, the effects he was referring to were most likely due to high fluctuation and variance in game score, and the placebo effect (Power Balance, 2010).
One of the key differences between pseudoscience and science is that science is self-correcting. Notice that any of the “ancient belief systems” such as yoga or astrology have not made any recent technological advances in their own systems. However, the understanding of scientific topics such as the human body and solar system have made great and steady advances over time. This is because science is continually attempting to improve itself, and eliminate any false or unverifiable beliefs.
Science also seeks non-confirming evidence. Science is in a continual state to prove itself wrong, rather than find ways to prove itself right. Each research question in the scientific method is phrased in such a way as to be falsifiable. That is, each question is worded in such a way as to experimentally discover its falsehood if it is, indeed, false. Pseudoscience, however, tends to seek out confirming evidence only and “proof” of its beliefs. The conflicting evidence is often rationalized or dismissed.

VII. Energy Medicine Products and Beliefs

In the following section, alternative energy medicine products will be described in the same way that they are presented in advertisements and presentations. Each will be presented as if it were scientifically valid. These examples have been put together from a sample of actual presentations for the products from their own web sites, live demonstrations and advertisements. As you read about these energy medicine practices, try to think critically about exactly what is wrong with the logic being presented. Also, think about what marketing techniques are being used. Examine the following sections much like you were watching a magician and trying to figure out how exactly he or she performs their tricks. Very similar to a magician, the logic and presentation of energy medicine are filled with illusion and tricks. Neither a magician nor a pseudoscientific product are immune from the laws of science.

A. Balance Bracelet

Power_Balance_bracelet.jpg
"Power Balance bracelet" by NiTuS via Wikimedia Commons
Presentation:
Balance bracelets are a particularly popular phenomenon being used today. The balance bracelet complements your body’s own naturally occurring energy field. Every living thing on the earth emits a frequency from this energy that flows through them. Human beings are no different. The bracelet is designed to resonate with our energy field’s frequency. The bracelet itself has a hologram inside that is tuned to the exact frequency which human beings emit. The balance bracelet resonates with the human frequency. This resonance allows our energy fields to interact in such a way as to provide us with additional balance, strength and flexibility.
I know of and have seen several personal friends of mine using balance bracelets, and even know of several sports coaches that use them, and swear by them. Many mainstream athletes wear them in nearly every game that they play. Simply ask anybody you see wearing an energy bracelet, and they will tell you that they can tell a clear difference when they are wearing the bracelet and not.
You don’t have to try terribly hard to find a presentation with clear evidence of the power of the energy bracelet. Simply go to the internet, state fair, or just ask somebody wearing a bracelet, and they can demonstrate its power. These demonstrations typically consist of a seller showing the potential buyer the bracelet’s power by the most logical method possible, a balance test with and without the bracelet. First, the seller will tell the individual to put his arms out perpendicular to their body and try to balance. The seller will then press down on the individual’s outstretched arms, resulting in them losing their balance and falling. Next, the individual will try the same outstretched arm experiment with the bracelet. Amazingly, they are able to balance significantly more easily!
As if this weren’t proof enough of the bracelet’s influence on the body’s ability to balance, a stretch test is also performed. First, without the bracelet again, the individual is instructed to point at any object in front of them with their arm stretched as far as it will go. Next, they are told to twist as far to their left or right as possible and hold for a certain period of time. As a comparison, the individual is told to put on the balance bracelet and repeat the same test. They point and twist in exactly the same manner as before, and as a result of the balance bracelet’s power, they are able to twist and hold further than without the bracelet! These experiments clearly show the effects of the balance bracelet on the individual. Wouldn’t you want to increase your own personal flexibility and strength?
Explanation:
This sounds like a compelling argument for the balance bracelets. Especially if the participants are actually experiencing those differences, it must work, right? Not exactly. There are several explanations for how the seller was able to demonstrate the “effects” of the balance bracelet. As critical thinkers, one thing we must try hard to do is not to accept new ideas without clear evidence. Carl Sagan is credited as saying “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, which is certainly true in this example.
The balance bracelet test does show a real difference between trials, and those wearing the bracelet are not audience plants. Unless you knew how the demonstration works, the balance bracelet would probably seem to work with you too, but so would a pencil, or a marble, or anything for that matter, as long as you believe that it works, and conduct the experiment in the same way that is done with the bracelet. The second test (stretching) doesn’t even require you to believe that it works.
The most obvious explanation for both of these tests (balance and stretching), is the placebo effect. Even if you are not consciously aware of it, most people are intrigued by the idea that a bracelet can help you balance, and consequently, they subconsciously cause the effects themselves. You might try a little bit harder to balance when you have the bracelet on. You might give it just a little bit more effort stretching when stretching with the balance bracelet.
Aside from the placebo effect, there is a trick that allows both of the other tests to cause results with the bracelet. This first trick (with the balancing) seems to be blatantly deceptive. First, without the bracelet, the seller will tell you to stick your arms out perpendicular to your body. Then, after telling you to balance, he will throw you off balance using just two fingers pressing down on your arm. Then, when you wear the bracelet (which makes no actual difference in your ability to balance), he presses down on your arm again in the same position with the same force and you are able to balance!
The key is that the seller presses down with the same force, but doesn’t press down the same way. When the potential buyer is wearing the bracelet, they push straight down. When the potential buyer isn’t wearing the bracelet, they push down and out. It is surprisingly hard to notice when this is done, especially when you are concentrating your mental energy on balancing. It is also surprisingly hard to stay balanced when you are pushed this way.
Not only do trained sellers exhibit this seemingly dishonest difference in methods between conditions, but also untrained believers in the product. Similar to the placebo effect, the new naïve “seller” (e.g. your friend that believes in the product, and is trying to show you that it works) will actually exhibit these same differences across conditions. They will usually push differently when you are wearing the bracelet and when you are not.
The second experiment (stretching) is explained in a different way. Since the effects of stretching are cumulative, you will nearly always stretch farther on your second attempt than your first. The experiment would not work in the reverse order (except by showing negative effects of the balance bracelet). This can be demonstrated by trying this experiment yourself. While you are sitting down with your back straight (perpendicular to the ground), reach your arm forward as far as you can. Now, stretch your arm on the opposite side of your body as far as you can (e.g. if you are using your right arm, stretch left). Mentally note how far you have stretched by finding a visual “marker” at where your hand stretched. Now, relax for about ten seconds, and try it again. Typically, you will stretch farther the second time. This is because your muscles are stretching themselves, which allows them to move farther each time, until they reach their limit.
As is the case with most pseudoscience, this product would not give significant results in a controlled test. In a double blind experiment, with two “balance” bracelets, one with and one without the frequency hologram (which supposedly causes the effects), there would be no difference between the “real” and the “fake” bracelet. This is because, while your body does emit a frequency, this frequency is not universal among all human beings, it is not universal among time for one human being, and it is not universal across your whole body (parts of your body emit different frequencies than other parts).
Also, the wavelength threshold to which a frequency actually resonates with another is relatively small. Imagine a tuning fork and tines. The tuning tines don’t resonate until they are nearly perfectly at the same frequency. It isn’t a continuous effect. Even if every human did emit the same frequency always, and there was a bracelet with the same frequency, this would still not affect your body in the way the balance bracelets manufacturers would have you believe.

This balance bracelet test video differs somewhat from the example above, but the same basic principles apply. Notice that the word "revolutionary" is used in the first sentence to describe the product. Also note that the seller makes a point to say that he is only pushing straight down when trying to throw the tester off balance. I assure you, however, that the placebo effect is working both on the seller and the tester. Even at a subconscious level, the seller may be pushing harder in the pre-test, and the tester may be trying harder in the post-test. The power of the placebo effect is amazing. It does not require awareness.

B. Healing Touch

Presentation:
Human beings live very stressful lives. Have you ever been so stressed that you got a headache or pain in your back? Perhaps during this stressful time, you had muscle tightness in your neck. This is because there is an energy that flows through our body at all times. During ideal circumstances (when we are at peace), this energy flows naturally and unobstructed. However, when we become stressed or “off balance”, our energy flow is congested. This is what causes these aforementioned headaches, pains and muscle tightness. What if I told you that there was a therapy which can reset this energy congestion and repair all of the damage that stress causes to the body – a therapy that is conducted without any pills, without any radiation, without even touching the body (Taking Charge of Your Health, n.d.) (Healing Touch Program: Worldwide Leaders in Energy Medicine, n.d.)
Healing touch is a system that promotes relaxation in the body, and “re-patterns” the energy fields of the individual. First, the healing touch practitioner will “center themselves”, and “fully accept who they are as a person”. This allows the practitioner to emphasize and be “fully present with” the patient. A trained practitioner in this state will be able to envision the patient’s good and bad energy levels throughout their body. Using their hands, but not touching the patient, they make gliding motions around the body to smooth out the energy levels. This puts the body in an ideal state for healing to take place.
Many patients report feeling very relaxed after a session, and those that came in to reduce pain may report reduced or a complete elimination of the pain. Often, the patient will actually fall asleep during the therapy and indicate that they had the best sleep they’ve had in a long time.
This therapy can be stand-alone, or can be used in conjunction with other therapies, such as massage, guided imagery, music therapy, acupuncture, or psychotherapy. Even if the underlying physical condition is not treated, the patients typically feel an inner-peace after using healing touch.
Explanation:
Healing touch training seminars and clinics are abundant. Look up healing touch and your own home city, and you will see that they most likely exist near your home. They are even commonly offered at hospitals.
Like most other alternative medicines, one of the primary factors affecting the effectiveness of healing touch is the placebo effect. Individuals who either expect healing touch to cure their pain, or want it to are more likely to subconsciously cause it to happen.
In addition, there are many general relaxation techniques which healing touch employs. Deep relaxation of any type causes endorphin release, which is a drug that can help things such as headaches. The empathy of a caring practitioner can be powerful in and of itself to the client. They know that they are being genuinely cared for in a loving environment. This knowledge alone can facilitate relaxation.

A healing touch practitioner "healing" clients. Near the end of the video, she physically touches the client, which is not part of healing touch as described above.

C. Acupuncture

Presentation:
Acupuncture is a near-painless process in which the practitioner places small needles throughout the areas which have accumulated excess Qi. The needles are placed both in the affected areas and the surrounding areas down the channels of Qi. Experienced practitioners are able to visualize the location of the built up of Qi in a client’s body, as well as actually feel the Qi exit the body upon completion of the acupuncture session.
Those that experience acupuncture typically feel relaxed after a session. Acupuncture can be used to treat a wide variety of symptoms, including pain, injury, trauma, headache, arthritis, fibromyalgia, asthma, nausea, and even addiction.
A single session of acupuncture can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to slightly over an hour. The price is typically around $75, but will vary greatly depending on the level of experience of the practitioner and the venue. Compared to treating the same ailment with conventional medicine, acupuncture is quite inexpensive.
Explanation:
The primary culprit of acupuncture’s success is, again, the placebo effect. By this time, you’ve probably recognized the placebo effect to be a recurring theme among alternative medicine. Many of acupuncture’s clients enter into the session with the expectation that it will de-stress them. Acupuncture salons also tend to be very relaxing in nature, with soothing colors and friendly staff. This creates a very conducive atmosphere for relaxation. Relaxation, as mentioned earlier, releases endorphins, which are drugs that relieve stress, and can help with other physical conditions.
A meta-analysis of twelve acupuncture clinical trials with “sham” acupuncture controls was conducted to examine acupuncture practitioners’ claims that there are “acupoints” specific for certain diseases. The “sham” controls were done to provide an extra measure of control for the placebo effect. These “acupoints” are specific points on a body which, when treated with acupuncture, supposedly heal specific ailments. Among six studies deemed by the author to be “low risk of bias”, five found no significant differences between sham acupuncture and “real” acupuncture for disease specificity. This is strong evidence that the placebo effect is a major cause behind the effects of acupuncture, at least as it relates to healing specificity (Hongwei, Zhaoxiang, & Zhixiu, 2010).

D. Electroconvulsive Shock Therapy

Presentation:
Imagine that you, or an individual that you know, have severe depression. Your friend tells you about a highly effective procedure that will cure you (or the person you know) of the depression! All you have to do is allow yourself to be sedated with a muscle relaxant used as a general anesthesia, and then allow your brain to be directly shocked to the extent that you convulse for approximately forty seconds. You have to have a medical professional administer this shock to your brain about twice a week for six to twelve sessions (along with side effects of mild confusion and headache) (MedlinePlus, 2008).
Explanation:
Although this probably sounds about as pseudoscientific as the rest of the energy medicine claims, it is actually an empirically tested and proven method to cure severe depression. Although it has been tested, the actual reason as to why it does cure depression is currently unknown (MedlinePlus, 2008).
This product claim was given to reinforce the point that there is a continuum between believing every claim you hear, and rejecting everything that isn’t clearly understood or proven effective. Richard Dawkins once said, “We should be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brain falls out”. This certainly applies to medical claims that might sound unorthodox.
Pseudoscience and alternative medicine is rampant among human beings. An understanding of the commonalities of alternative medicines, and their logical fallacies can better equip us to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. Sometimes, this quest is not easy. Alternative medicine is in hospitals, private practices, and is accepted by a large proportion of Americans. The lines between conventional and alternative medicines are often hazy, and intertwined. There are instances when alternative medicines seem plausible, and also times when conventional, scientifically proven medicine seems hard to believe, such as Electroconvulsive Shock Therapy.
The quest to distinguish between the two is worthwhile, however. Individuals who receive scientifically proven medicine will not only often experience the same placebo effects as the alternative medicines, but also the real effects of a medicine that works. This benefits our society and civilization as a whole.

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