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In physics, the basic idea of energy is the capacity of a physical system to do "work," the product of a force times the distance through which that force acts. In physics, energy is a term to express the power to move things, either potential or actual. Energy is not a thing itself, but an attribute of something (Krieg).
New Age spiritualism has co-opted some of the language of physics, including the language of quantum mechanics, in its quest to make ancient metaphysics sound like respectable science. The New Age preaches enhancing your vital energy, tapping into the subtle energy of the universe, or manipulating your biofield so that you can be happy, fulfilled, successful, and lovable, and so life can be meaningful, significant, and endless. The New Age promises you the power to heal the sick and create reality according to your will, as if you were a god.
Of course, New Age energy has nothing to do with mechanics, electricity, or the nuclei of atoms: the stuff of physics. There are no ergs, joules, electron-volts, calories, or foot-pounds in New Age subtle energy, which will remain forever outside the bounds of scientific control or study. New Age energy expresses itself in terms like chi, prana, or orgone energy. New Age energy isn't measurable by any validated scientific instrument, though quack New Age energy machines abound that claim to do everything from aligning the vibrations of your cells to reading the digital frequencies of allergens to curing your cancer. All these machines are useless variations of the 1920s radionics device of Albert Abrams, "the quack of the century." They are based on the false belief that illness reveals itself in "energy fields" that can be measured and manipulated for health by some magical device. Generally, these devices are sold with the promise that they can cure multiple diseases, such as cancer and AIDS. All are aimed at vulnerable clients desperate for anything that promises hope. Newer models are likely to invoke quantum physics to attract the scientifically ignorant. There will be, of course, many satisfied customers of such devices, thanks to the widespread ignorance of placebo and false placebo effects.
In addition to the quack energy healing devices, another attempt at making New Age energy medicine appear scientific is occurring at the University of Arizona. Under the influence of Gary Schwartz, U of A has set up what it calls a "Center for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science." Don't hold your breath waiting for any grand discoveries, but do be concerned that this bogus field has been given research funds by our National Institutes of Health. At least one manufacturer of a quack energy healing device has made reference to the NIH grant to Schwartz to legitimize its product. In promoting its Advanced Bio-Photon Analyzer, EMR Labs, LLC, claims that the NIH adopted a new term – biofield – in 1994 "to describe a growing body of research showing a subtle field that permeates and extends beyond the physical body."*
Energy medicine grew in part out of vitalism, a theory that has been dead in the West for over a century. New Age quackery, however, often maintains that the older a theory is the more one should have faith in it. Energy healers, in fact, resemble faith healers, but they've replaced religious jargon with New Age energy jargon. Energy healers claim that health depends on "unblocking," "harmonizing," "unifying," "tuning," "aligning," "balancing," "channeling," or otherwise manipulating subtle energy.
Few things are more intimidating to the non-scientist than modern physics. Even an educated person has difficulty comprehending the most basic claims made about the entities and possible entities of the sub-atomic world, not to mention the exotic claims about entities and possible entities at the edges of the universe. Even the concepts of "sub-atomic" and "edge of the universe" boggle the mind. Perhaps it is because of the obscurity and inaccessibility of modern physics that many uneducated people scoff at science and find solace in fundamentalist religious interpretations of the origin and nature of the universe.
Another response to the seemingly transcendental nature of concepts in modern physics has been to interpret those concepts in terms of ancient metaphysical doctrines popular for thousands of years in exotic places (to the Western mind) such as India and China. This notion of a "harmony" between ancient metaphysics and modern physics is attractive to those who accept science but still have spiritual longings and who reject the Christian sects they were raised in. Believing in this notion of "harmony" between the ancient East and the modern West has the virtue of allowing one to avoid appearing to be an imbecile who rejects science in order to accept religion. As such, it shares in common at least one trait with "scientific creationism": it re-creates science in its own image for its own purposes. Science is the handmaiden of Religion and Metaphysics, as Philosophy had been for Theology in the Middle Ages.
Acting much like nuclear accelerators on atoms, the New Age theorists smash concepts into bits, only the bits are interfered with in ways Heisenberg never foresaw. We may as well talk about "alternative" physics; for, what they have done to the concepts of modern physics is to refashion them into a metaphysics with its own technology and product line. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the New Age conception of "energy."
Some healers claim they can feel the energy of these elusive and ineluctable biofields, vibrations, auras, or rays. Therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners make this claim. Twenty-one practitioners, who knew from much experience that they could feel the energy around the bodies of patients, were tested. They had never been tested, however, in a situation where they could not see the source of the alleged "energy field." Nine-year-old Emily Rosa tested these energy healers to see if they could feel her life energy when they could not see its source. The test was very simple and seems to clearly indicate that the subjects could not detect the life energy of the little girl’s hands when placed near theirs. They had a 50% chance of being right in each test, yet they correctly located Emily's hand only 44% of the time in 280 trials. If they can’t detect the energy, how can they manipulate or transfer it? What are they detecting? Most likely they are detecting what has been suggested to them by those who taught them this practice. Their feelings of energy detection appear to be manufactured in their own minds. Dr. Dolores Krieger, one of the creators of TT, has been offered $1,000,000 by James Randi to demonstrate that she, or anyone else for that matter, can detect the human energy field. So far, Dr. Krieger has not been tested.
See also acupuncture (for a breakdown of the differences between placebo and false placebo effects), aura therapy, chakra, crystal power, e-meter, Kirlian photography, magical thinking, placebo effect, Q-Ray, Q-Link, radionics, sham acupuncture, therapeutic touch , vibrational medicine, the New Age page of links, Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places and my review of the "documentary" Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What.
McCoy, Bob. Quack! : Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices (Santa Monica Press, 2000).
Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995).
websites & blogs
Why the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Should Be Defunded by Wallace I. Sampson, M.D.
What's the harm?
Human Energy Fields? by Eric Krieg
Reality Check: The Energy Fields of Life by Victor Stenger
Rife Device Marketers Convicted by Stephen Barrett, M.D.
Biophysics and the E-Meter by Chris Schafmeister
Why woo wins by R. T. Carroll
Q-Ray Bracelet Marketed with Preposterous Claims (2004) by Stephen Barrett, M.D.