Reiki is here to save us all

February 1, 2021

Categories: Skepticism , Tags: Alternative Medicine, Reiki

Or at least that’s what NewsHub would have us believe, with an article published (opens new window) on Tuesday about the benefits of Reiki, an energy healing technique that involves the practitioner manipulating your "energy field" by waving their hands around your body.

Of course there’s no evidence that this energy field exists, or that manipulating it has therapeutic benefits. What little scientific literature is out there is a bit of a mess, and there appears to be an issue with the quality of the studies that do exist - an issue that exists for many alternative therapies. Most people who have the time and money to test these therapies are practitioners, and obviously they have a vested interest in proving the efficacy of their chosen therapy.

My opinion is that a Bayesian analysis would show that any positive results from studies would not be enough to overcome the sheer implausibility of what is being posited. The idea that physicists somehow have whole chunks missing from their understanding of the nature of reality, while a handful of plucky young spiritual folk have not only made groundbreaking discoveries about new energy fields, but have also learned how to manipulate them with their hands, needles, diluted poisons and simple electronic devices with flashing lights, seems laughable. It’s much more congruent that these people are a mixture of con-artists and the conned, people who don’t know how hard it is to take a glimpse at the true nature of the world we live in, how many hours the best minds in the world spend trying to peel back the curtain of reality. So, in their ignorance (and arrogance), they come to believe that they know better than the combined effort of thousands of scientists.

If you’re interested in learning more about this idea of using Bayesian analysis in medicine, there’s a good summary here (opens new window) of a couple of posts on the Science Based Medicine blog about the difference between Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) and Science Based Medicine (SBM). Click through to the original SBM articles to read more. Suffice it to say that SBM has more going for it, but unfortunately EBM is far too popular in modern medical science, leading to the legitimising, and even funding, of many therapies that we skeptics are pretty sure are meritless.

One common thing you’ll hear from alternative medicine practitioners is that you can’t knock something until you’ve tried it. Now obviously this is silly - as skeptics we know that personal experience isn’t to be trusted. That our personal anecdotes are okay if they’re all we’ve got, but that they should always take a back seat to proper scientific testing if it’s available.

However, it’ll come as no surprise to some of you that I’ve had Reiki treatment in the past. This happened at a Spiritual and Psychic fair in Upper Hutt, where around ten of us skeptics turned up to sample the therapies on offer, and then make complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about unsubstantiated claims the companies offering these therapies were making in their posters and pamphlets.

Anyway, the Reiki did nothing positive for me, beyond being nice and relaxing. Obviously this anecdote is neither here nor there - my personal experience of Reiki has no bearing on whether it actually works or not. But sometimes I do find it useful to have tried a therapy - so that I can make points when arguing with practitioners both that personal anecdote is no way to test if a therapy works, and that even if it was a good way to test a therapy, I’ve tried it and it did nothing for me.

Back to the article - sadly it reads a lot like a paid advertisement for Olivia Scott’s Reiki practice in Auckland. Many claims are made, about Reiki’s efficacy and mechanism of action, as well as about its increase in popularity, but absolutely no evidence is given for any of this, and no time is given to the opposing, prevailing view of science that Reiki is bunkum. The article even finishes with a cringeworthy push for people to give up their hard-earned cash and try this ludicrous treatment:

"Whether you're looking for healing, more energy or just a sublime cozy nap - maybe skip the next F45 session and head to Scott's clinic for a session instead. Your cortisol levels will thank you."