Respectful Insolence

“Licensing” faith healers?

Of all the forms of quackery out there, the “energy healing” methods and “faith healing” methods have to be the most ridiculous. After all, the claims of “healers” using such modalities, when boiled down to their very essence, are nothing less (and nothing more) than claiming the ability to do magic. Indeed, “energy healing” involves the claim of being able to manipulate “life energies” undetectable by science for therapeutic intent using either ritualistic hand motions or the inscribing of symbols in the air (reiki), concentration and the laying on of hands (therapeutic touch, reiki, and others), or sticking tiny needles into “points” that are supposed to lie along “meridians” through which this energy “flows” (acupuncture, acupressure, and related therapies). Faith healing also involves the laying on of hands, but it also involves invoking a god or gods to heal the sick through mystical means. This is very different from having a chaplain come in and pray, because responsible religious leaders do not claim that they can use the power of God to heal, although admittedly the line can become blurry. In any case, chaplains can often bring comfort to the ill as counselors aside from their religious role.

Given the mystical, magical, nonscientific nature of these “healing” modalities, you would think that the state should have nothing to do with them other than preventing them from preying on the gullible. In Russia, at least, you’d be wrong:

MOSCOW — Mikhail Fadkin claims he can cure a long list of disorders — pancreatitis, bronchitis, digestive problems, even infertility — by using his hands to manipulate what he describes as a person’s “bio-energy field.”

Many laugh at such ideas and might call him a quack. But the 63-year-old healer, who practices out of an office in a Moscow suburb, holds a license from the Russian government.

For the past two years, the Federal Health Service has been issuing licenses to practitioners of what it calls “traditional medicine,” meaning anything from the use of herbal treatments to the manipulation of “auras.” His claims buttressed by officialdom, Fadkin charges patients 3,500 rubles ($150) per session.

And he says business is very good.

“Every day I learn something new,” the smiling Muscovite says, gesturing to what he says is an invisible aura surrounding him — “because all the information I need is out there, in the vast energy field surrounding us.”

So far, 130 healers, including Fadkin, have passed the service’s voluntary testing program, which promoters in the government say can determine whether someone has the inherent ability to cure. The program is limited to Moscow, but a Russian lawmaker is pushing to extend it nationwide and make it mandatory.

Personally, I’d be very curious to learn exactly how the Russian government is able to determine whether “healers” like Fadkin can heal. Do they observe a demonstration? Do they require rigorously maintained records suggesting miraculous recoveries from normally untreatable or fatal diseases? Do they do scientific studies to see if Fadkin can actually see and manipulate human “bioenergy fields”? Inquiring minds want to know!

Of course, you and I know what the Russian government probably does. All it probably does is to come up with ludicrous “standards” made up by other “alternative medicine” practitioners and faith healers that pretty much only require that an applicant has been practicing faith healing for a certain period of time without too many people complaining, and–presto!–the applicant gets a license. He also gets the imprimatur of the state testifying to his legitmacy and, as Fadkin does, can charge a lot more money for his “services,” such as they are.

Yup, I think I’m right about this:

The program includes a background check, a scan of electrical activity in the brain and a committee review of the results. The agency charges applicants 10,000 rubles ($428) for the tests.

Andrei Karpeev, director of the Federal Scientific Clinical Center for Traditional Methods of Diagnostics and Healing, which administers the tests, insists that folk medicine, including psychic healing, is backed by scientific studies. While he acknowledges some of the criteria for determining who has healing powers are subjective, he claims the tests are able to wean out “charlatans.” According to Karpeev, there are perhaps 100,000 people in Russia offering to use magic, psychic or other extra-sensory methods to cure illnesses, read minds or cast spells.

I’d really, really love to see exactly how Karpeev tests healers to “wean out charlatans.” Preferably with The Amazing Randi at my side.

Here’s the price of licensing quacks and frauds:

Albina Domolazova, 70, paid 3,600 rubles ($156) to an unlicensed clairvoyant to cure her son of drug addiction. When the woman recommended Domolazova toss chunks of beef to black dogs and then light a candle in seven churches, she dutifully obeyed.

After completing the ritual, which included burying the last chunk of meat in a graveyard, Domolazova’s son was still addicted. The healer refused to refund the fee — which represented half of Domolazova’s monthly pension. While Domolazova is now more wary, her faith that some people have healing powers has not been shaken.

Every year, thousands of Russians claim to have been defrauded by people calling themselves clairvoyants, occultists, and self-styled witches, who advertise their services in Russian media.

In July a Moscow court handed an 11-year prison sentence to Grigory Grabovoi, a cult leader who allegedly promised to resurrect children killed in the Beslan school siege in 2004. He reportedly charged grieving relatives some 40,000 rubles ($1,700).

That latter example is about as despicable as it gets. Either Grabovoi thinks he’s Jesus or he thinks he’s Victor Frankenstein. Or maybe he thinks he’s a high level cleric in Dungeons & Dragons. Either way, he’s deluded, and, either way, his taking advantage of the grief of parents whose children were killed so violently and tragically in order to make money off of their loss is pure evil.

People, not understanding why I or other medical skeptics get so worked up about fantastical “alternative medicine” claims, often ask, “What’s the Harm?” The harm is in putting the stamp of approval of society and the government by licensing quacks. The harm is in letting these quacks do pretty much whatever they want, thus harming either by delaying effective medical care or causing actual harm to people. The harm is in giving the appearance that unscientific quackery is on par with scientific medicine. It doesn’t really matter if these charlatans are hucksters who are out for a buck and do not really believe the nonsense they claim or well-meaning souls who have allowed their human ability for infinite self-delusion lead them to believe that they really do have magical powers to heal. The end result is the same, either way.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    December 23, 2008

    I’d really, really love to see exactly how Karpeev tests healers to “wean out charlatans.”

    I would suggest two possible methods: the rouble test, and the vodka test. Both involve the uncanny ability to move the relevant item from one place to another.

    I’m not a cynic, you know.

  2. #2 Fargo
    December 23, 2008

    You know, before I subscribed to scienceblogs, I was only moderately depressed and angry. Between that and reading a bunch of Peter Watts books it’s only a matter of time until my brain is almost completely re-purposed to process hate and depression.

    Mind you, I don’t regret it, ignorance is only the illusion of strength and all, but seriously, I have to wonder the hell is wrong with everyone. It’s almost like people, given two options, almost always take whichever of the two is the most ludicrous. Like the asswipes that claim to speak to the dead. Let’s see, could it be a highly developed empathy response fed with totally random guesses that could apply to anything, or dead people actually put thoughts in your head. Well, of course it’s the second option! Don’t be silly.

    I… I need a quiet corner. Possibly some meds too, I mean, one can’t be too careful.

  3. #3 rogue medic
    December 23, 2008

    I was hoping that this was going to be about getting a license to hunt faith healers. I feel so gypped.

    Maybe they are always in season, and like gophers, you don’t even need a reason.

  4. #4 Joe Shelby
    December 23, 2008

    Carl Sagan talks about this (in the general sense) in Demon Haunted World. After a discussion on the Soviet embrace (politically) of Lysenkoism, he then talks about how, after the fall of the Soviets, there was an extreme increase in faith healers, horoscope reading, and psychic experiences. In short, pseudo-science filled in the whole of party/state-worship, which had filled in the whole of religion when that was banned.

    It’s not atheism, state-enforced or not, that leads to irrational darkness (unlike what the Evangelicals would like this country to think). The suppression of free inquiry, socially, artistically, or scientifically, will restore irrationality to a people regardless of the presence of any particular religious thought.

    If irrational thought is not replaced by science and reason and open communication, then it continues to exist, merely changing forms.

  5. #5 Marilyn Mann
    December 23, 2008

    “Personally, I’d be very curious to learn exactly how the Russian government is able to determine whether ‘healers’ like Fadkin can heal.”

    My guess is obtaining these licenses requires a little old-fashioned palm greasing, in other words money moving from the pocket of the “healer” to the pocket of the government official.

  6. #6 Grimalkin
    December 23, 2008

    Honestly, knowing what I do about the state of medicine in Russia (at least as it was ten years ago), I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “alternative medicine” probably has the same benefits that homoeopathy had when it first came out – namely that it does absolutely nothing, which is much better than the harm done by medicine. I married into a recently immigrated family and the horror stories I’ve heard make my hair stand on end.

  7. #7 Lora
    December 23, 2008

    I asked a Russian co-worker. She gave me a look like I was a moron, and said, “You bribe them of course. You have to pay the mafia to do ANYTHING in Russia, that’s just how it is. The mafia and the government are the same now, they have been since Vladimir Putin took over. I didn’t leave because it was such a nice place!” She went on to explain that there are all sorts of scammers in former USSR countries because there is effectively no government, only a series of bribery levels, which you either can or cannot afford. She didn’t say this bitterly, exactly, more matter-of-fact, like, how could I be so naive and ignorant?

  8. #8 Grimalkin
    December 23, 2008

    Lora – that’s exactly how my in-law family is. It’s part of the “Russian soul,” I think. In most countries, politicians accused of corruptness would try to deny it. In Russia, they would say “so?” It’s such a deep part of the culture. It’s like they haven’t changed a day since Dostoevski was writing.

    If it weren’t so awful, it’d be kinda cute in a dark and depressing sort of way.

  9. #9 cavadesoi
    December 24, 2008

    H O W . . . S A D and embarrassing that in this day and age , there are still people who do not understand the concept of life energy. I challenge you to respond after watching the attached ad looking at the other official links below!

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-153936213309506589&hl=en

    You mention Reiki for example. Did you know that Reiki is being practiced in Prestigious US universityh Hospitals like gergetown, University of MD and Georgetown University Centers for Integrative medicine. See http://www.integrativemedicinedc.com/

    There are close to 50 cultures around the world that have been identified as understanding the concept of ‘life energy’ in one form or another; e.g., Ki (Japanese), Chi (Chinese), Prana (Sanskrit), Neyatoneyah (Lakota Sioux), Num (Kalahari Kung), Ruach (Hebrew), Lung (Tibetan), and so forth. Each of these cultures have theiur enrgy healing modalities.

    Reiki (of Japanese origin), Chi Gong healing (Chinese), Sufi healing (Middl East, North African and to som extant Asian origine), Prana Healing (India/South Asian), bioenergy healing (of Eastern European origine), and the like, are all being practiced in the US

    Do you know what the NIH is doing to raise awareness in the US see. the NIH NCCAM site : http://nccam.nih.gov/

    T R U L Y . . . S A D that despite being educated and now having access to information, you are still this rigid.

  10. #10 BB
    December 24, 2008

    Lora, even before the fall of Communism, when I worked for pharma it was in our handbook that if bribes were the accepted social custom in Eastern Europe to get business done, the company would pay the bribes. There were even guidelines for how much to offer.
    I don’t miss working for pharma at all.

  11. #11 Orac
    December 24, 2008

    You mention Reiki for example. Did you know that Reiki is being practiced in Prestigious US universityh Hospitals like gergetown, University of MD and Georgetown University Centers for Integrative medicine. See http://www.integrativemedicinedc.com/

    Just because some of our academic medical centers have begun to fall for this nonsense does not validate it. I’ve bemoaned this before:

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/02/gotta_have_more_woo_in_my_medical_school_1.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/11/i_fought_the_woo_and_the_woo_won_or_its.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/11/the_woo_aggregator.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/01/the_infiltration_of_woo_into_mainstream_1.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2008/08/rats_my_academic_woo_aggregator_is_hopel.php

    As for that video, well, that was hilarious. That guy Zdenko Domancic is the classic snake oil salesman using testimonials. The guy with the hepatitis C is most ridiculous. He had a false positive, and his followup test was negative. So what?

    But thank you. This video may well provide me with blog fodder for next week or after New Years. ;-)

  12. #12 Joe
    December 24, 2008

    As for bringing Randi with you- he’s been there and done that. There is a PBS-Nova video “Secrets of the Psychics” which includes two sessions with Russian healers. One simply failed the test. The other apparently realized he was trapped and, after repeatedly moving the goalposts on a test, he shrugged and refused to participate.

    For educator’s- the video is inexpensive from JREF, and it is licensed to be shown in classes.

  13. #13 Chayanov
    December 24, 2008

    Here’s what a neo-pagan of my acquaintance had to say about energy work today:

    My supervisor was having a long week and was exhausted, so I gave him a lighter and showed him how to draw energy from fire. It’s just energy. If the energy sits on the skin, the skin can’t deal with it and burns. But if you pull the energy into yourself and into your core, then it doesn’t burn, and you get a burst of energy. I didn’t think about it at the time but as I was explaining this I had the flame on my hand for about a minute.

    Forget about Red Bull. Just stick your hand into a fire for a quick energy jolt.

  14. #14 Dr. Val
    December 24, 2008

    There are groups actively trying to get our new coding system (ICD-10) to include woo. They argue that allowing energy healers, etc. to get licensed and paid for their work would solve the primary care crisis (thus “revolutionizing healthcare). Suddenly there’d be enough “practitioners” to serve all the needs, and patients would be able to choose between a visit with an MD or other provider (hence removing current “prejudice”).

    One such company is called “ABC Coding Solutions” and they managed to present their ideas at a press conference at the National Press Club on Sept. 5, 2008. See my coverage here: http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2008/10/val-jones-how-not-to-revolutionize.html “How NOT To Revolutionize Healthcare.”

    I shudder to think what will happen if ABC gets their way in an unguarded new administration moment. I am worried.

  15. #15 cavadesoi
    December 24, 2008

    Get trained by a recognized healer and then we talk .. In the West we are not schooled to use energy. You are not well informed . Study and practice one form of energy work and then criticise. You can very easily learn the basics . But let me tell you one thing. Once you discover your potential ther is no going back. Your view of the world and life will change – a paradign shiftm at the least.

  16. #16 Alison
    December 24, 2008

    From what I’ve seen, all it takes to become a recognized healer is enough money to take the classes, and enough credulity/wishful thinking/embarrassment at throwing money away to believe it works. Clearly, at least that first one is a major factor in Russian alternative medicine.

  17. #17 HCN
    December 25, 2008

    cavadesoi said “In the West we are not schooled to use energy.”

    Define “West.” Is Moscow considered “West” or “East”?

  18. #18 Orac
    December 25, 2008

    Get trained by a recognized healer and then we talk .. In the West we are not schooled to use energy. You are not well informed .

    This is known as the “Don’t knock woo until you’ve tried it” gambit. Sorry, but N=1, especially if the observer is the patient, are not reliable. It’s too easy to confuse correlation with causation, be confounded by the placebo effect or regression to the mean, or to misinterpret what’s really happening.

    No, I don’ t need to be “trained” to be an energy woo-meister to know that it’s a load of horse hockey. All I need to do is to study the science and, if some good science comes out that suggests I’m wrong, I’ll reassess my opinion. However, testimonials and logical fallacies do not count as good science.

  19. #19 DLC
    December 25, 2008

    Seek training in magic hand-waving ?
    I’ve done that. I was a founding member of my Jr High’s Magic Club. I brought the glass of milk you can’t pour out, the trick handcuffs and the finger-guillotine.

  20. #20 Prup (aka Jim Benton)
    December 25, 2008

    This does not surprise me at all. My wife’s Russian psychotherapist — who was apparently trained as a doctor in Russia — claims that homeopathy is a regular part of the curriculum in at least some Russian med schools.

    This hardly surprises me. The Soviets may have been ‘officially’ atheist, but, as pointer out, they did little to attack superstition, and, I would argue, used the exact same argument that “The Tsar is sent by God and therefore he can do no wrong, it is all the fault of his evil ministers” in Stalin’s behalf without using the word “God.” (I’ve always felt that Communism had already failed before he took office, and that his regime was far more ‘neo-Tsarist’ than ‘Marxist’ however they spun the justification for it.)

  21. #21 Tracy W
    December 26, 2008

    H O W . . . S A D and embarrassing that in this day and age , there are still people who do not understand the concept of life energy.

    Well to be fair, energy is a very difficult scientific topic. Especially when teachers start talking about entropy.

    But you underestimate Western scientific knowledge. While many of us may not understand energy properly, researchers know not merely about life energy, but can identify multiple forms of it. There’s the chemical energy we need from food, then there’s all the different forms of energy we convert that input to (electrical, eg to keep your heart beating, kinetic, heat, different forms of chemical [fat], etc). And knowledge of this energy has been used in a number of medical treatments, for example pacemakers. And these medical techniques are being used in countries around the world, including Japan, Singapore, India, Botswana. (Also, sadly, this knowledge is used in killing people).

    So I don’t see any reason to believe that a culture that has got the idea of “life energy” will thereby have medical treatments that are anything special, especially not compared to mainstream medicine which draws on a far more detailed understanding of life energy than just knowing that it exists.

    (Also, I talk here about Western scientific knowledge, but of course this is not limited to Europeans and Americans, there are plenty of people in non-Western countries who either use or are further developing our knowledge of all forms of energy.)

  22. #22 llewelly
    December 26, 2008

    After reading several books on life energy, I concluded that bacon fat could cure anything. Why? It contains lots of energy, and tastes great too.

  23. #23 Prometheus
    December 26, 2008


    “Get trained by a recognized healer and then we talk .. In the West we are not schooled to use energy. You are not well informed.”

    What type of “energy” is this person referring to? “Western” medical practitioners use “energy” all the time – haven’t you ever seen them use a defibrillator on the medical shows?

    But seriously… I’d welcome any data Cavadesoi can provide that any “energy” is applied, removed or re-directed in any of the so-called “energy therapies”.

    Perhaps he/she is referring to some “mysterious” yet vague “energy” that cannot be measured and causes no discernible physical effect (heating, cooling, radiation, change in mass, etc.) on either the donor or recipient. In that case, I’d have to say that it is very difficult to distinguish between that which is undetectable and that which is nonexistent.

    All other forms of energy we know of follow the basic Laws of Thermodynamics – claiming that this type of “energy” does not requires more than just a string of “testimonials”. Especially given what we know about the “placebo effect” (not really an effect) and the amazing potential of the human mind to see what it wants to see.

    Real medical therapies work whether the patient (or the practitioner) “believes” in them or not. They even work when the patient is unaware of them – or unconscious. I’d love to hear of any trials where these “energy therapies” have been tested against a placebo, or when the patient is unaware they have received them.

    Prometheus

  24. #24 Ian Stone
    December 29, 2008

    We as Energy Healers with integrity understand and accept your scepticism, however if you look for the research it is out there and more is being done.

    Because Energy Healing is quick and effective by treating the original cause; it uses no drugs and requires no long term psychiatric or psychological treatment their is no money coming from drug companies.

    I am constantly amazed at the results or should I say lack of results from real “medical therapies”. How many times has you Doctor or Medical Practitioner diagnose and recommend some treatment, then when this does not work ties something else, then something else yet this trial and error is totally acceptable. If an alternative therapist misses something even though they made a difference they can be labelled as ineffective

    Although Energy Healing is not easily understood great changes take place within the body and these can be demonstrated using some of the newer computer programs that show changes to peoples meridians and energy fields similar to the points used by acupuncturists. For more free information contact the author.

    With Love for I Love You
    Ian Stone – Metaphysician & Founder of HEART Energy Healing System,
    Human Energy Assessment Release Treatments
    Metaphysical Institute
    Metaphysical Institute Blog

  25. #25 Tracy W
    December 30, 2008

    Because Energy Healing is quick and effective by treating the original cause

    Really? Every single sort of energy healing? So if I say, break a leg from falling out of a tree, how does energy healing treat the original cause? Does it wind back time and make it so I didn’t fall out of the tree?

    Some forms of energy healing of course treat the original cause. For example, treating malnutrition by feeding the person food (chemical energy) is a matter of treating the original cause. But treating every single original cause sounds rather unbelievable.

    I also note that a number of non-energy healing treatments treat the original cause. For example antibiotics treat the original cause by killing the bacteria that are eating away at the body. (Yes, yes, I know you could argue that antibiotics, being based on a chemical reaction, and chemical reactions being based on the interaction of the atom’s electromagnetic fields, is energy healing, but at that point everything becomes energy healing).

    How many times has you Doctor or Medical Practitioner diagnose and recommend some treatment, then when this does not work ties something else, then something else yet this trial and error is totally acceptable.

    Well it depends. Firstly, if the initial treatment didn’t work because the doctor misdiagnosed the problem, then that’s not totally acceptable (yes, everyone makes mistakes, including doctors, but the objective should be to reduce mistakes, I don’t regard misdiagnoses as totally acceptable even though I accept that some will always happen).
    Secondly, there is a lot of variation from human body to human body, for example some people get better from many diseases even without medical treatment. The way we deal with this uncertainty is to study treatments under conditions that try to establish a link between the proposed treatment and the medical outcome. Studies are made more difficult by various cognitive biases people have. This is why people talk about things like “double-blind” trials, that seek to get around these problems. Treatments are compared to either a placebo (doing nothing, but looking like you are doing something), or the best known current treatment. However these trials are expensive and very time-consuming. Therefore doctors and other medical practitioners are meant to draw on the results of these trials in deciding which treatments to try. If a doctor or medical practitioner purposefully ignores the results of these trials in deciding which treatments to apply, I suspect many people find that rather unacceptable, I know I do.
    There may also be other reasons that trial and error may not be totally acceptable in any particular case, I just can’t think of them right now.

    The trouble with many forms of alternative treatment is that those trials are never done, or the results are ignored. How many forms of treatment have you abandoned because trials showed they didn’t work?

    Although Energy Healing is not easily understood great changes take place within the body and these can be demonstrated … show changes to people’s … energy fields

    Of course humans have energy fields. As does everything else, from a paperclip to the sun. The energy field is caused by the electromagnetic field created by the forces holding our atoms together. (One of the things that always fascinates me is that when we touch something, nothing physical comes into play, instead the interaction of the electromagnetic fields is what causes the feeling of touch, and what causes us to fail to fall through the floor). This means that our energy fields change all the time, depending not merely on what is happening in our body but also on what is around us. And this is true not merely of living beings but of the field surrounding a paperclip. However, living beings are special in that our brains use electricity to communicate amongst neurons, so when we even think about something different, our energy field changes. This is important to remember when interpreting measurements of energy fields (whether you do this by computer or by pencil and paper). If an energy field changes that may reflect changes in the environment around the body rather than changes in the body itself. And, depending on how sensitive your measuring instrument is, changes in the energy field may be a reflection of what is going on in the person’s brain.

    On the other side, large changes in energy fields do not necessarily have any physical results. I’ve been in energy fields so strong that our watches all stopped, but none of us noticed any physical effects in our own bodies.

    I agree with you that energy healing is not easily understood, how about you enroll in a university physics course in order to develop your understanding of energy further? A good understanding of energy strikes me as a good foundation for studying energy healing. Plus studying energy fields is fascinating in its own right.

  26. #26 Tracy W
    December 30, 2008

    I just remembered I should have added that electromagnetic fields are not the only form of energy fields – there are others, such as gravitational fields (also shared by paperclips and planets).

  27. #27 Dr Aust
    December 30, 2008

    Since Prometheus posted that lucid little summary of Energy-Woo, I can’t resist posting a link to one of my all-time favourite examples of

    “Mind-so-open-your-brain-falls-out… …ooops”

    - type thinking from the reliably credulous NCCAM… namely their “Backgrounder on Energy Healing”. Gotta love those “putative energy fields” (“putative” being the NCCAM code-word for “non-existent”).

    Your tax dollars at work.

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