Reiki Research: Not Quite the Maddest thing on the Net.

Right now, physicists are pondering the fallout from the collision of high-energy particles.  (Probably.)  And I, for my part, am pondering the fallout from the collision of high-energy nonsense.

Having had this brought to my attention, I’m led fairly quickly to this, then this, and, finally, this Mail on Sunday piece.  All the links refer to a story in which a hospital is apparently using £200k or so of Lottery money to fund research into spiritual healing based on Reiki.  I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that the research finds that spiritual “healing” is utterly ineffective, except when it means people don’t avail themselves of real medicine – in which case, it’s very effective and its effects are undesirable.  Spiritual healing is bunk; one could reasonably think that a trial into it is a waste of money.  We oughtn’t to waste money, so, modus ponens, we oughtn’t really to be doing this kind of research.

In fact, there’re likely to be big problems with spiritual healing research of any sort, simply because participants may feel that there’s less need to continue using established treatments, and thereby end up worse off.  And when others continue with conventional treatments, it’s going to be hard to tell which of their outcomes was attributable to which – so the research’ll likely tell us nothing.  Hence I wonder whether the research will yield anything publishable: if not, then the whole thing will have been in vain, and there’s something problematic about enrolling people in trials that stand a chance of being, from a publication point of view, barren.

I’m not actually going to go down that route here, though. £200k is not all that great an amount of money in the scheme of medical research; it’s not even all that much in the scheme of lottery grants.  (I had a job in the real world for a whole month about 7 years ago, and part of what I was supposed to be doing was the administration of a Lottery-funded project; the sums were much, much bigger.)  There might even be prima facie evidence that this particular research programme is worth doing.  I doubt that there is, but you never know.  And – especially given the small sums involved – I think it might be worth having trials into this kind of nonsense every once in a while, for a few reasons.  First, it keeps the hippies happy by making them think that someone’s listening to them.  Second, it offers a periodic opportunity to take a fresh look at Reiki, homeopathy, and all the rest, just in case there’s anything we overlooked, and so we can say with assurance that we keep checking and it still seems to be bilge.  And then we can get on with the serious task of giving it the kicking it merits.

What’s particularly interesting to me is the response from certain other organisations.  Christian Concern wails about this “research” being carried out

at a time when Christian doctors and nurses have been banned from sharing the hope of Jesus Christ with their patients.  Christian nurse, Caroline Petrie, [sic] was suspended for offering to pray with an elderly patient, whilst Dr Richard Scott, a Christian doctor of 28 years, was reported to the General Medical Council for discussing his faith with a patient.

Quite why research into a loopy healing method should be linked to medical staff being told that the can’t proselytise to patients is beyond me.  Would the Reiki trial have been less problematic if we’d allowed bedside evangelism from medical staff?  Nope.  Does Reiki make proselytising medical staff less problematic?  Nope.  Is Reiki evangelistic at all?  Nope.  So why raise it here?

Not to be outdone, PJ Saunders quotes an article in the CMF’s Triple Helix magazine concerning Reiki by George Smith, which notes that there’s no evidence for it working, nor any reason to think that it would work, but adds that

there certainly are spiritual dangers, which cannot be ignored.[…]  It has been suggested that the Reiki laying on of hands is similar to the healing miracles of Jesus and his disciples. Yet we need to ask, ‘By what spirit is this being applied?’

And that’s just weird.  Smith seems to be saying that Reiki doesn’t work, but even if it did, we’d have to be a bit careful just in case it’s Satan doing the healing.  Otherwise, why are they dangers?  (Not, of course, that I’m taking seriously the idea that Reiki is spiritually dangerous.  I don’t even know what spiritual danger is supposed to mean.)

By coincidence, Orac has been mulling similar stuff, but here in the context of Orthodox Rabbis deciding that alternative medicine ought to be avoided because of its apparent idolatry.

“Without taking a stand on the efficiency of the various types of these treatments, we thought it right to warn that some of them involve elements studied in different idolatrous sects. Therefore, each method must be examined individually by a person proficient in the medical field and halachic field.”

It amuses me that the rabbis don’t take a stand on the efficacy of the various types of alternative medical treatments. It would appear that they care far less about whether these treatments actually work than they do about their perception that they are blasphemous and based on idolatrous beliefs. I also find it rather odd that the rabbis would care far more about Jewish law (Halacha) than they do about whether these therapies actually work. [edited for context – IB]

The move made here by the Rabbis is very similar to the one made by the CMF document: whether or not a given treatment works is possibly less important than the question of whether it’s compatible with a particular religious tradition.  (And, of course, the move made by both groups is the same as that frequently made by the CAM brigade, which is to take no notice at all of the efficacy or otherwise of a given treatment.)  I have to agree with Orac: this is a very strange set of priorities to have.  It’s not a set of priorities that I think I’d want to see on display in a medic.

And this puts me in a slightly odd position: that of admitting that Reiki therapists are quite possibly lunatics, and Reiki trials are problematic – but that there’re even bigger lunatics and more problematic people out there.

  • Supriya

    Why all this ruckus about research on the efficacy of Reiki as a healing system? Reiki never says it's a cure by itself. All that it says it compliments and supplements standard medical treatment, whatever be the discipline, by making the patient more open and compatible to receiving treatment. If we question Reiki healing, them what about Jesus and Buddha healing? Why not question that too and find out if Satan was involved in them too? What about the spiritualists who have reported miraculous and medically verifiable healing? ( Spread of alternative healing modalities creates a dent into the profit margins of drug companies and they will go all out to discredit such healing systems.

  • Of course we should question Jesus healing, and Buddha healing, and penicillin, and radiotherapy, and splints for broken limbs.  That way, we'll find out what works and what's crackpot nonsense.  Of the list above, I'd be pretty certain that the first two belong to the crackpot nonsense group.

    If there are any peer-reviewed reports of spiritualists providing healing, then they'd be taken seriously.  But there aren't.  And while it's true that some people might have an incentive to discredit things that harm their profit margins, that isn't enough to show that the discrediting is illegitimate.  In the case of alternative (to) medicine, the vast bulk of the discrediting is perfectly scientifically sound.

  • YY

    I take issue with your characterization of Orthodox rabbis as lunatics. Let’s say Reiki does work. If so, then what’s the chance that that’s the only type of “energy healing” that works? I’d say it’s close to zero. If one kind works, then lots of them, probably most of them, work, and it would be surprising if one worked much better than the others.

    So if Orthodox rabbis end up deciding that certain types of energy healing, are forbidden, then chances are that there are other forms that are not. For example, “medical qigong” is a completely secular form of energy healing based on Chinese medical principles (and endorsed by many secular Chinese doctors), which I’m sure some rabbis would say is OK.

    However, if it was absolutely necessary to save someone’s life, then, unless it is 100% clear that it is idol worship, I’m sure many rabbis would approve it.

    In general, any aspect of Jewish law is allowed to be broken to save human life. However, idol worship (along with murder and certain sexual transgressions) is an exception to that. If someone demands that a Jew worship idols or be killed, technically he is supposed to refuse and allow himself be killed (though I’m sure killing the oppressor is preferable if possible!). This is of no practical relevance to this topic, really, though, because not even the most ardent reiki pracitioners probably believe that reiki and reiki alone are the only thing that can save a person’s life.

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  • Jason

    Even if it’s a placebo effect, it’s a great tool to have because it helps patients. Isn’t the end result what we are looking for here and not just trying to downplay other people’s views? Just because you may not believe, doesn’t mean others don’t. Just love and be kind is all we need!