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A Lot of the Woo-Woo Probably Works

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There’s something I miss about the days when most people I knew thought meditation was nonsense. In the early 2000s, I was a hardline skeptical type, but I did this one woo-woo-ish thing, because its benefits were obvious enough to me.

My fellow skeptic-heads couldn’t imagine how it might work, therefore were certain it didn’t. Sitting on the floor, watching your thoughts drift like clouds can’t possibly have meaningful effects on your health and well-being. How could it?

I liked the feeling of being on the other side of the woo-woo line for once. It helped me understand that it’s not a dependable boundary for determining what works. It just marks the place where we start dismissing instead of inquiring.

The other day I read an article that brought back that feeling, entitled, Reiki Can’t Possibly Work. So Why Does It?

It’s a read worth every minute of your time, but the gist is that some therapies long deemed pure woo-woo by Western science are starting to seem like they might not be.  

The article didn’t convince me (or its author) one way or the other about Reiki –- a kind of “energy healing” — but it did get me thinking about the idea of woo-woo, and the flippant and unscientific way we often assume we already know what is woo-woo and what isn’t.

Things work before we know they work

If something is true, but counterintuitive for its time, it is probably going to sound ridiculous at first. The notion of germs was once considered woo-woo (or hogwash or horsefeathers or whatever). Tiny creatures that get into our bodies and make us sick? Poppycock!

So it stands to reason that some unlikely-sounding health and well-being practices do work, in some way. We just don’t know which ones. That much might seem obvious, but here’s the interesting part: whichever woo-woo practices do work, they would work just as well today as they will in 50 years, when science and the general public has recognized their efficacy.

You’ve probably heard people say, “If alternative medicine worked, it wouldn’t be called alternative medicine, it would be called medicine.” This is poor logic — everything known to work was once not known to work. Opiates had pain-relieving properties long before anyone thought to eat a poppy plant, and those chemicals will retain those properties even after humans go extinct and nobody knows again.

That’s a point the skeptical types sometimes miss: if it works, it works regardless of the state of the science on it. What the science does is help us waste less time on stuff that doesn’t work.

Of course, there are a lot more things that don’t work. But the road to scientific consensus is a very long one, which means that at any given time, much of what does work is still en route to being known to work.

Acceptance is the last thing to happen

Every single thing that “works” – from magnetic compasses, to strength training, to cancer-curing compounds we haven’t discovered yet, is somewhere on this long, multi-stage journey:

Stage 1. The thing works but nobody knows. This stage might last millions of years.

Stage 2. It works, and some people believe it works and some people don’t. This stage lasts anywhere from a few years to thousands of years.

Stage 3. It works, and some people believe it works and some people don’t — but there are some interesting studies now. Some of the studies suggest it works, some suggest it doesn’t. People invested in the issue cite whatever studies support their conviction. This stage lasts years to decades.

Stage 4. Years of research make it so clear that it works that it is rarely doubted, except by people who doubt all science. Example: smoking increases cancer risk. This stage can theoretically last forever, but it probably didn’t start all that long ago.*

It seems obvious that at any given time, most things that work will not be at Stage 4. And they may never be — it’s such a long journey, and it takes a lot research dollars and public interest to get there.

Skeptical types will probably regard much of what’s in Stage 2 as woo-woo, unless their personal experience has convinced them otherwise –- perhaps a smart person they know takes the concept of chakras seriously, or a muscular dude at their gym is always eating spirulina powder.

How people regard claims at Stage 3 depends on a lot of haphazard psychological factors, such as which opinion they encountered first, which one they would prefer to be true, and who they follow on Twitter. Remaining even-minded on Stage 3 matters is very difficult, because you can always find “scientific evidence” that the claims you feel good about are true, and ones that you don’t are woo-woo.

(This is actually a massive problem. Even when we have access to good scientific evidence, we tend to interpret and talk about it in the same self-interested, irrational way we do basically everything.)  

The woo-woo of the West

Of course, the four-stage path above is only for interventions that do work. There’s a much larger category of practices that are not on that path at all. Science is crucial for giving us some direction in the chaos, but it will never allow us to deal only in near-certainties, the way some skeptics imagine it can.  

In the meantime, it’s a reasonable assumption that some of the practices not appearing to be Stage 4 slam-dunks do indeed work. And they would likely be ones with long histories, abundant anecdotal evidence, and unconvincing smatterings of scientific evidence. In other words, they would look like popular forms of woo-woo.

They also might have something else in common: that they seem to work but feel like they shouldn’t, because their working would violate some fundamental assumption underpinning Western thinking -– that mental and physical are separate, that religion has nothing to offer science, or that there’s just no way in hell moving your hands around over someone’s body can heal anything.

We’re beginning to re-examine some of these hidden assumptions, which is why there even is research on meditation, yoga, and other formerly woo-woo Eastern practices. If the mind and body are be interacting in ways we assumed aren’t possible, it may be those assumptions that are the woo-woo.   

So beware the woo-woo label. Without a doubt, some of the woo-woo works. You can always wait until the science is clear, but that might take fifty years. And if it works then, it always did.

***

Photo by Tim Mossholder

*Note: Stage 4 isn’t necessarily an end point. The way an intervention “works” is often so complex that there’s always more to discover about why and when it works, and therefore how we should go about making it work. We know exercise improves overall health in many ways, but we’re nowhere near settled on how much, of what kind, is good for what exactly. There’s also a chance that we have some fundamental assumption wrong, and that what seems to be happening is not really what’s happening. (See: Newtonian Gravitation)

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{ 60 Comments }

Shane K McLean March 22, 2021 at 7:37 pm

David, I never thought about woo-woo stuff like this but wow. Spot on. Great article.

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Anne Marie March 23, 2021 at 2:11 am

I couldn’t agree more David – I’ve tried to explain this idea a few times referencing microbes not being visible till humankind invented lenses/microscopes, and in the same way, there may well be other realms of life, existence that our technology/science/consciousness cannot apprehend …..yet.

I’m going to bookmark this … soooo well put.

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Ben March 23, 2021 at 3:58 am

Interesting article! I definitely see the tempation to dismiss Reiki as “just the placebo effect”, because in that way we think we understand how it fits into our scientific picture of the world. How well do we actually understand the mechanisms of the placebo effect though and does anyone really know what’s going on there?

I think one of the big issues here is that woo-woo is heavily faith-based and science is often defined in opposition to spirituality and faith. This is understandable given the history, but I think scientists need to be as careful of dogmatism as spiritualists and I do wonder whether a more reconciled and integrative approach is possible? Seems like an area for futher research :)

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 10:11 am

Agreed. We are vulnerable to dogmatism, and science can be an object of worship too. We don’t necessarily interpret scientific findings dispassionately. The label woo-woo is usually given to practices associated with faith, the supernatural, and other decidedly unscientific concepts. But that could be an attribution error. Meditation, for example is associated with the Buddhist religion, but it could simultaneously be functioning as a completely secular method of attentional training, which changes the brain the way other skill development does. Yet the woo-woo label remains because religion is viewed as anti-science, even though what’s happening could be perfectly comprehensible by science if we had the necessary tools.

Placebo is also more interesting than it seems. Effects dismissed as “just placebo” aren’t necessarily imagined. They could be real effects caused by some other mechanism not being controlled for. In the Reiki article, some doctors hypothesize that the experience of being cared for by an empathetic person – who isn’t trying to “process” you like a doctor would — could affect the healing process.

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Jamie March 26, 2021 at 3:28 pm

Spot on. “Just” the placebo effect is misleading. It’s a real effect and our modern Materialist science can’t explain it (or the “hard problem” of Consciousness). It sounds like you are ready for Tom Campbell’s “My Big TOE (Theory Of Everything)” now. Tom is a former NASA Physicist, Consciousness explorer, and author of the aforementioned book which reconciles physics and metaphysics in one “Big TOE”. There are hundreds of videos and lectures available online, and his entire trilogy is available for free on Google books. I would start with a few shorter introductory videos to get a sense, like this one:

https://youtu.be/RAvDJV_j9R8

And this one:

https://youtu.be/Ac0EM2D_Ee0

His entire “Exploring The Larger Reality” (a seminar he gave at The Monroe Institute” is also available on his YouTube channel and is basically the entire “Immersive” course that he still offers online, but without the group Q&A and Binaural Beat sessions.

https://youtu.be/hZ2gGWnLc1E

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Kate Reynolds March 23, 2021 at 4:22 am

A clinical microbiologist friend of mine pointed out recently that there is very little clinical evidence that physiotherapy works, despite the fact that it helps me manage my hypermobility disorder much more than painkillers that have gone through clinical trials. Many things don’t have solid evidence behind them because no one wants to pay for the research. Saying that there is a lot of woo that I think is highly unlikely to be beneficial, but most scientists like myself do keep a somewhat open mind because we are aware of the points that you make so eloquently.

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 10:16 am

That is interesting. I wonder how many common interventions are in the same boat. In any case, you’re doing your own empirical investigation on the question of whether physio seems to benefit you, and it sounds like the answer is clear enough.

There is also the famous half-joke that despite our faith in parachutes, there’s no good scientific evidence showing that they prevent falling deaths, because that would require giving a control group placebo parachutes.

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Bob Bramwell March 23, 2021 at 4:33 pm

A useful caution regarding the sin of scientific dogmatism! However, I wonder if the scientists are any more dogmatic than the woo-woo-ers.
As Kate Reynolds says: “Many things don’t have solid evidence behind them because no one wants to pay for the research. ” If the woo-woo crowd *really* wanted to persuade the rest of us, they would organize the research – and that would be very helpful! In most cases all us skeptics are looking for is some robust correlational efficacy evidence: we want to know if the recipe will result in a decent and nutritious meal reliably, and won’t poison us even in the rare cases when it doesn’t taste good. The precise mechanisms can be determined later.
As an example, I regard chiropractic practice as borderline woo-woo. I have been treated by a chiropractor with largely indifferent results, but the occasional blinding two-day headache to follow. This seemed to correlate with that neck-twisting things they do. Once I heard of another patient of this same chiropractor who ended up with a herniated C-something disk I abandoned the regime and I doubt if I’ll ever go back. Hearing: “It works for me” is a good sign, but one needs to be sure of hearing the negative reports too in order to have any hope of making an informed decision.
Thanks for a stimulating discussion!

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David Cain March 24, 2021 at 10:06 am

@bob I would guess scientists are generally less susceptible to self-deception that woo-woo fans, and they have overall better methods for determining what’s true. The point is that they aren’t categorically different. We can fool ourselves both ways, and science itself does have a dogma issue.

Regardless of our level of trust in the scientific method, we do have our own preconceptions to work through. I happen to think chiropractic is pure quackery, but to be fair I don’t really know. If I think about it as dispassionately as I can, it’s unlikely that it’s pure quackery given its following. Even if 10% of what they do is beneficial, and 90% is useless or worse, there is something there that might one day be isolated from the chaff.

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Rocky March 23, 2021 at 7:28 am

I go on what works for me in my personal reality. I don’t care about science….. Don’t care about woo-woo. If it works for me, I’ll take it. Even if it is a placebo! That said, among
woo-woos, meditation is my personal favorite. It’s the BOMB !
Many Thanks David

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 10:17 am

Ultimately, we are making our own investigations, by trying a thing and seeing if seems to work. The science (or more often, what reporters say about the science) is a tool for helping us decide what to try, but that’s all it really is for most of us.

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Tony S March 23, 2021 at 7:32 am

Thank you for sharing. This is a great article. I also wanted to mention that your previous vulnerability encouraged me, and life has been a little lest hard since.

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 10:18 am

I’m glad to hear that Tony!

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Sarah M March 23, 2021 at 7:44 am

A lot of woo-woo probably works but a lot more of it probably doesn’t. As someone with a serious chronic illness, MS, the problem is that so many people with incurable diseases are preyed on by the natural/alternative health gurus and communities. MSers and others often forgoing western medicine that could have a meaningful (though not a cure) to their complicated disease to pursue expensive and unproven things. That is a big problem. And while obviously your article is technically correct, and over-skepticism is as dangerous is over-belief, I think you can do a disservice to ignore the very real harms, both materially and financially, of woo-woo. 

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 10:20 am

That is a good point. I hope you don’t interpret this post as an argument for alternative medicine over Western medicine. That’s not what I’m trying to say.

The exploitation of people suffering from illness is a massive industry, and it happens on both sides of the current woo-woo-line. People can be exploited by whichever camp they have the most faith in, and there are always bad actors willing to do that. When someone rejects the scientific establishment wholesale, alternative medicine vendors will have an easier time exploiting them. If a person rejects alternative medicine, the vendors of socially-accepted Western therapies will have an easier time exploiting them. Companies of both sorts will typically play up whatever scientific support their treatment apparently has, and downplay contradictory evidence, regardless of their actual efficacy. Each person has to figure out their own epistemological approach to trying out interventions.

My point is that the woo-woo label does not necessarily correspond to efficacy the way we often imagine it does.

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Georges Brisset March 23, 2021 at 8:22 am

Great post, David
You are just right as the science of today was the woo-woo of yesterday

Great four-step breakdown.
It goes well along with Yuval Harrari’s model of objective, subjective and inter-subjective views of the world.

Love it!
Thank you
Georges

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Alice March 23, 2021 at 9:12 am

I’m with Sarah M. I had a woo aunt who thought my cancer should be treated with essiac tea, shark cartilage, and Conversations with God books. If skepticism can prevent us from receiving potential benefits, then what? Throw it all at the wall and see what sticks?

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 10:21 am

I’m guessing that most people in the West begin with Western medicine’s best-supported interventions, and then move through alternatives according to their own belief system until something works, which may or may not be over the current cultural woo-woo line.

Some people are attracted to woo-woo culture and dismissive of science, and they might start with shark cartilage and New Age God books. That doesn’t make sense to me, but I would go with what makes sense to you. The point is that the woo-woo label does not constitute a reliable boundary for determining what works.

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Tara March 23, 2021 at 9:46 am

Great article! I think regarding the woo-woo preying on people with incurable diseases, this is a really valid point. My father has spent thousands on dubious procedures that haven’t helped him at all.

Me on the other hand, I have had a lot of success with homeopathic remedies. They are cheap and cause no harm. If they are working as a placebo effect, great! All I care about is the result, as long as there is no physical or financial harm, which is more than you can say for a lot of pharmaceuticals (which I largely avoid due to their damaging side effects). As another poster said, I use what works for me, regardless of what science says.

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 10:22 am

Definitely – exploitation and deception are certainly not exclusive to woo-woo approaches.

And ultimately, we are the final arbiters of what works for us. The primary data on efficacy is whether it seems to be working for you. It’s not the only datapoint that matters, but it’s pretty important to the subject.

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philip March 23, 2021 at 10:15 am

Woo Woo is such a dismissive close minded thought terminating cliche curse word and certainly a symptom of the global branding of the NWO.

All healing begins within and often a Jedi Mind Trick is the healers best weapon against the patient’s own reality tunnel. The Ego is always defending against a change in the construct and that is the role of the “medicine”… to trick the patient into healing themselves through some sort of trauma induced paradigm shift.

As we collectively descend into the lower frequencies of existence as dictated by the overlords we find ourselves stranded between two worlds… the materialistic and the spiritual, ever divided and weakened into shorter more brutal lives. The good news is that the seeds of destruction are always planted by the oppressor as dictated by the Laws Of Nature and Universe. peace and love is all three is.

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 10:24 am

Hmm

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Edith March 23, 2021 at 10:34 am

Your article soothes me somehow. I have been increasingly frustrated due to a Stage2-3 intervention that should be in stage 4, in my view. Last year, my 2 year old son started showing autistic traits. I spent weeks researching about it and found one study about virtual autism (exactly the same as traditional autism except for the rapid recovery when all screens are removed from a toddler’s life). I remembered my child’s autism traits worsened after Covid, when my mom would take him to her home and play youtube videos to entertain him for two hours, apart from the two hours he already watched with me during mealtimes.

My son started looking at our faces on day 2 after removing screens. It’s been now 8 months since then and all the autistic traits have dissappeared. Of course he is speech delayed, as studies show screen exposure in babies and toddlers increases the chance for speech delay. That knowledge is not debated, but is not treated as taboo either.

However, everytime I’ve tried to communicate virtual autism to others, I’ve been dismissed. There is only one study about it, yes, but I lived through it and have a personal experience with it! If people don’t realise the need for more studies, how many children are going to suffer?

All my comments about it on Facebook have been deleted, as posts about the Earth being flat are being freely shared. My son’s neuropaediatrician said it is not possible for screens to cause these symptoms, but he has no studies to back that up, and we at least have one.

This topic is so similar to smoking. I wonder if some knowledge takes more time to sink in because (A) we are already addicts and the knowledge feels like a menace to our way of life. (B) The knowledge implies we are not victims but perpetrators. (C) The knowledge means we have to do something incredibly difficult, and we’d rather not.

There are no medical downsides to eliminating screen exposure in children. But parents believe their lives will be hell if they do. I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. How many children will endure neurological impairments for us to finally invest money in these studies?

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 11:13 am

Hi Edith. I don’t know anything about virtual autism, but it is unfortunately going to be a long time before we have Stage 4 type confidence about the effects of screens, because we’re just beginning to study it now.

We’re in an especially vulnerable place because our environments have changed so rapidly, and long-term effects of those changes simply aren’t known. It would be astonishing if there are no long-term effects from the drastically increased device usage we’ve seen in the last decade, but we just don’t know what they are. In the mean time we can only make our best guesses based on the data we have and our own experiences with screens.

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Rosie March 27, 2021 at 8:48 am

Thanks Edith, your experience in achieving recovery for your son is remarkable. I’ve not heard of virtual autism previously, but find it a very interesting concept. I’ve been aware of the detrimental effect of screens on my own eyes, head and skin for many years so it seems very feasible that the effect on some children may include neurological changes.

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Christina March 23, 2021 at 11:44 am

This is timely. I was just talking to someone online this morning about woo woo vs traditional allopathic medicine. A medical specialist recently gave her not-so-favourable opinion on my visits to a Doctor of Traditional Medicine and a chiropractor. I could hear the air quotes around the word “doctor” when she was talking.

Try telling me that bitters don’t help my digestion or that meditation doesn’t ground me and make me less rage-y. Also, try telling me that chiropractic doesn’t work when it’s the only thing that keeps my dog — yes, my dog — from having what we believe are epileptic seizures. Jury’s still out on whether the chiropractic is doing much for me. I’m still a work in progress. But then again, aren’t we all. :)

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 4:52 pm

At first I misread “medical specialist” as “medieval specialist” and was confused.

Yeah, while I am a believer in the modern medical establishment, it is far from perfect and has a lot of blind spots. From dealing with my own medical issues it’s become clear that the patient is always ultimately going to be the person who decides what the treatment is going to be given the options. A GP provides some options, and usually the balance of the data backs those options. There may be better options in some cases, and nobody can really determine that but the patient and their direct experience of the options available to them.

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Accidentally Retired March 23, 2021 at 12:20 pm

Yeah you are spot on here. I can’t help but think about things like meditation, eastern medicine, and other not properly researched areas. But I feel in my gut more every day, that they are right. The human body is amazing. Just look at a typical woman’s pregnancy and you should be wowed by how amazing nature is. So it is no wonder to me that we still don’t know what we don’t know.

600 years ago Europeans didn’t even know that the Americas were continents. They only “discovered” it due to trying to establish new trade routes.

The amount of knowledge we don’t have is still much greater than the knowledge that we do have!

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David Cain March 24, 2021 at 9:33 am

The human body is amazing, and while we’ve gained a lot of scientific conceptual knowledge about it, we may have lost other forms of knowledge. Our modern epistemology is based on ignoring our personal experience and deferring to experts who test assertions more carefully. There’s a lot to be gained from that — it enables the scientific method. But we are losing another source of epistemological confidence, which is the kind of wisdom earned by being a very old person who has directly interacted with nature again and again and again. A tribal elder might be able to treat some ailments better than a doctor, even though her knowledge comes from inference and experience rather than research. Science might be a better overall bet, but it does not make up for all the epistemological strategies it has replaced.

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Karla March 23, 2021 at 12:52 pm

Coincidentally, in Mark Manson’s newsletter this week, he had a piece about therapies that aren’t always harmless (meditation in this case). It was based on an eye opening article in Harper’s Magazine. https://harpers.org/archive/2021/04/lost-in-thought-psychological-risks-of-meditation/

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 5:46 pm

Thanks Karla. The Harper’s article is actually a pretty great example of the issue of the rhetorical argumentation around scientific findings, one of the problems I’m trying to get at in the post.

Adverse effects from meditation is an interesting topic, but the article gives it the straw-man treatment. The modern meditation establishment doesn’t regard meditation as harmless. (I’m not sure what is harmless… Psychotherapy? Exercise?) The author uses cherrypicked stereotypes to make meditation practitioners sound as woo-woo as possible. He selects a 2012 quote from the Dalai Lama – an elderly religious figure – to ostensibly represent the contemporary Western view on the risks of meditation practice. Willowby Britton’s research is well-known and well respected by Western secular meditation communities as far as I know.

The author saves Megan Kogt’s suicide for a dramatic ending, hoping we will assume the meditation killed her. He devotes two lines to an important detail of her retreat experience, which is that she suddenly quit an SSRI medication she’d been taking for years. The jury is out on meditation, but we know unsupervised discontinuation of SSRIs presents a real risk of psychological issues, and a meditation retreat seems like an especially bad place to do that. I took an even lower dose of the same medication (my doctor called it a “sub-therapeutic” dose) and within 48 hours developed severe depression symptoms and had to quit. Anyway, the point is it’s potent stuff, and the article might have explored that “known known” if it was serious about figuring out what happened to her. The piece felt really manipulative.

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Trisha Scott March 23, 2021 at 4:03 pm

There is a thing called imposter syndrome. I think you have written about that feeling many of us have that one day we will be “found out”. I’ve thought of all the times I have felt that I was an imposter and of the times that I felt solidly in my own life and being and very, very authentic in my role.

As a long-time practitioner of woo woo, I can honestly say I never minded being seen as a charlatan. Naysayers can say what they like. It doesn’t matter. What I did, talking to animals, helping their people, energy healing, was honest and it worked to heal those who came to me for help. I was no imposter. I worked from the inside out and it was good.

It’s fine to be skeptical, we ARE a product of the sea in which we swim, our culture, but when we take the inner journey we find a greater sea in which all is well and has always been known/understood and we can join that flow if we but surrender to the mystery of it all.

Science is in its infancy. It tries to make sense of “all that is” in a western cultural way. I love it when there is a scientific “breakthrough” that proves what mystics have always known. It’s so cute.

I come from a family of doctors. My father was a surgeon. In his later years he came to his own understandings that questioned his life work. He said to me once, “In years to come, what medicine is now, will probably be viewed as barbaric.” I agreed saying, “It’s just a belief system.” “Exactly,” he said. It’s memorable, that conversation, because in his younger years he had been such a force for logic and how things must be done.

We are all just moving along, doing whatever we do the best we know how. Our understandings are always changing. What a ride, eh?

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David Cain March 23, 2021 at 5:57 pm

Well said. I think skepticism is an excellent policy in general, and it should be applied to everything. The problem is we’re not great at it. We’re very susceptible to motivated reasoning and tribal thinking. Establishment science is supposed to represent skepticism, so there’s an additional danger that we will assume we’re not using motivated reasoning or tribal thinking as long as we’re quoting studies and talking the talk of science. If we’re feel like we’re “being scientific” we can become even more prone to confirmation bias and other distortions.

I think being shut off to possibilities outside the establishment stuff — i.e. shut off to all woo-woo sounding stuff — is a sign that someone is probably not very skeptical, because what could keep you so incurious except a kind of prudishness about looking foolish by departing from the mainstream?

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Trisha Scott March 24, 2021 at 7:22 am

Ah yes. The fear of looking foolish. We could write volumes!

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Samael Cercunnin April 1, 2021 at 2:51 pm

I have been seeing some remarkable young people rising up on Facebook forums, who have no fear whatsoever of looking foolish and are forming communities with some radically unusual belief systems. I gather they are still relatively obscure, though I have certainly heard them mentioned a lot in the past. Communities like the starseeds, etc.

Having now gotten to know some of them, I can see that while they do often have some discordant perspectives, there is a surprising amount of truth hidden in amongst their belief systems. It seems to me, that if that is what the youth of today are growing up like, then we will not need to fear looking foolish in the future. People will just be able to be true to themselves, and the men in grey suits with identical black rectangular communications devices, will just have to get used to the idea that humanity is eclectic.

RJA March 24, 2021 at 4:35 pm

If Reiki works it should be possible to show in a blinded study that it’s more effective than a similar non-Reikki placebo treatment. Has there been any such study? Otherwise I think it’s fair to say that it’s probably a placebo effect, or the effect of human touch generally.

In contrast, the positive effects of meditation is pretty well established through serious empirical research and the mechanisms behind it can be understood without resorting to talk about mystical energies.

Alas, I think the comparison between meditation and reiki – at this stage – is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. I am open minded about reiki but I think there needs to be studies showing it actually has an effect that goes beyond placebo before it becomes really interesting.

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David Cain March 24, 2021 at 8:04 pm

If you want to know about the discussion around Reiki specifically, I recommend the article I linked. In this post I used Reiki as one member of a vast and diverse group of practices currently regarded as “woo woo.” Meditation used to be part of that group but isn’t anymore. It didn’t suddenly gain its efficacy the moment scientists recognized it as beneficial. It was giving people those benefits five thousand years ago.

Another relevant point here is that the placebo effect is ambiguous — it is possible that an effect deemed to be placebo isn’t due to the patient expecting results from the treatment, but an unexpected mechanism that can be replicated. Some doctors believe that may be the case in Reiki — for example, that being cared for by an empathetic person for a prolonged period might aid the body’s healing process in some way we didn’t think of. Perhaps the treatment causes some kind of hormone release some other event that makes a difference to the body’s ability to heal itself. As long as patients keep reporting benefits, it makes sense to investigate why they are reporting them.

It is up to each person to determine when the evidence reaches the “interesting” point. If nobody was interested until studies removed all doubt about a practice’s efficacy, it would never be studied.

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RJA March 29, 2021 at 5:12 am

It absolutely makes sense to investigate why people report benefits from Reiki healing, but it also makes sense to see if the same exact effect can be reached with similar methods of touching etc. Then one can probably conclude that the worldview and explanation that comes with the Reiki method are superfluous and that it boils down to human touch and empathy rather than “energies”.

I don’t agree that meditation falls into the same category of “woo woo”. Meditation has often been viewed with suspicion, sure, but its effects can be explained without resorting to talk of mystical energies. It’s easy to create a “western” materialist account/framework which makes sense of meditation. The same is not true for the worldview behind Reiki (or acupuncture for that matter) I think.

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Samael Cercunnin April 1, 2021 at 2:44 pm

A problem with comparative studies between Reiki and mere touch, is that if the nature of the energies is not understood, then anyone conducting a study would have no way of knowing if the Reiki practitioner was just particularly low in energy, while whoever was doing the human touch and empathy approach was instead filled with vast amounts of energy.

One example from scripture that would betray how the Reiki ‘intention’ would be irrelevant if someone simply had excessive energy, is a mention of Jesus in the Bible. He was walking through a crowd, and a woman in need of healing touched the hem of his robe as he walked. He instantly stopped, and asked, “Who touched me?” He said that he felt energy leave him. He demanded to know who had taken it. The woman admitted it was her, and she had been cured. He told her that her faith had cured her, and he let her go.

So the benefits in a Reiki or touch comparison test, would appear from that example to be more dependant on the faith of the person receiving the treatment. It would also appear from that example that it is not intention, but rather excess of energy in the practitioner that would be most instrumental in efficacy.

Erin March 24, 2021 at 5:45 pm

My aunt has been performing reiki on oncology patients in a hospital setting over 15 years and, having experienced it myself, I truly believe it works, though I can’t begin to grasp the mechanism.
Something worth looking into is functional medicine, a field in which medical doctors pursue further certification into all modalities and treatments supported by scientific research (e.g., meditation, yoga, nutrition, compounded pharmaceutics, vitamin/mineral supplementation). I have an autoimmune condition and the right combination of non-yet-accepted-by-Western-medicine “woo woo” treatment has absolutely changed my life for the better, and my heart aches for those who don’t have access to the slightly out-there interventions and modalities that, against all reason, seem to work.
The article made me think of how, in technology, there are the “early adopters” who buy the first model and work through the bugs. Perhaps similarly, people adopt these anecdotally-supported lifestyle and medical options with a willingness to accept the “bugs” alongside the perceived promise of a better life.
Thanks, as always, for some brilliant food for thought, David!

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David Cain March 24, 2021 at 8:14 pm

We’ve been conditioned in the West to discount patient accounts as basically worthless information until the science can back them up, but that’s pretty ridiculous when you think of it. Those accounts always have to come first, and come first by years, otherwise there’s no reason to study anything. In the mean time, many people (such as oncology patients) need to find treatments that work for them and don’t have the luxury of waiting on the science.

“Anecdotal” is supposed to be such a dirty word when we’re talking about evidence, but it’s hardly useless information. We choose the restaurant with 4.9 stars and 850 reviews because we know that that many testimonials has a good chance of pointing to something objectively good, even though there are never any studies. Even if there were, we’d probably value our peers’ accounts more anyway.

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Jamie March 26, 2021 at 3:42 pm

Agreed.
If I give you an extract of the bark of this tree and your headache goes away, what can I say about this “medicine”? Not much according to the scientific method, but if I give 1,000 people the same extract for very similar signs and symptoms, and 997 of their head aches also go away, what can I infer now about this “medicine”? Quite a bit more (like your 4.9/5 star review). Tom Campbell’s Big TOE explains this in the psi uncertainty effect (wherein the Placebo Effect can also be found). Since the first Quantum Physics experiments a hundred years ago, we found that there is no “there” there, just a probability distribution until a conscious observer actually “looks” (or could look, if the data is recorded). This is how energy healing modalities like Reiki, and the Placebo Effect, “Faith Healing”, etc. work–by impacting the probability distribution at a macro level where there is a great deal of “uncertainty”. Remote Viewing is another very real, repeatable phenomena, but it also lives around the edges of the psi uncertainty principle, and so will never submit to a double-blind controlled study. :-)

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Anoop Abraham March 25, 2021 at 10:25 am

Hey David. I’ve been following your blog for over a year now and I’ve never commented till now. 

I’ve read over hundreds of other blogs since I’ve started blogging myself last year and I’ve found Raptitude to be the most useful and thought-provoking. You truly have a gift with words!

Since you are someone who is active on Reddit I assume you may have heard of the No-Fap community. What are your thoughts on abstaining from all sexual activity for a period and channeling it to other areas of your life? 

This concept is also covered in the personal development classic Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. He calls it Sex transmutation. Many famous people in history such as Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Jobs, Muhammad Ali etc. would transmute their sexual energy. 

I’ve written about this topic in detail on my blog. Practising this has had a life-changing impact for me. Here is the link to it,

https://www.thesouljam.com/post/the-secret-powers-of-your-sexual-energy-that-nobody-told-you

It would be lovely if you could conduct one of your experiments on this and relate your experience with it on Raptitude. I am sure a lot of your readers would benefit from it and it may even change the lives of a few people. 

(I thought of bringing this up because many people dissmiss sexual transmutation as woo-woo).

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David Cain March 25, 2021 at 11:42 am

Hi Anoop. I am aware of the nofap community, yes. I also do remember something in a Napoleon Hill book about “preserving sexual energy.” (On a side note, it is worth looking into Napoleon Hill — he was apparently in many ways a fraud, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything.)

Anyway, I’m glad you brought this topic up because it’s great example of the sort of woo-woo-tagged phenomenon I’m talking about here:

-It surrounds an interesting possibility that deserves exploring, but there is also a lot zealotry around it, which people might take as a reason to dismiss it

-There’s lots of anecdotal evidence, and some science its fans can point to

-It revolves around a self-selecting community of enthusiasts who mostly have no skepticism whatsoever about it

-It is seen as weird or distasteful by mainstream culture, which could inhibit serious inquiry (what scientist is going to choose this area of the field to build a career on?)

-It is tangentially related to religion and morality, which brings some people to it, and steers others away

-Different degrees of truth claim are being made about it (from “regular use of internet pornography may interfere with the brain’s reward system” to “masturbation is always harmful and everyone should stop and doing so will transform them”)

-There are people extrapolating too much from the evidence that does exist (There’s some evidence that pornography may have detrimental effects, therefore anyone who abstains for 30 days gains all sorts of cognitive powers)

-It concerns an area of growing importance (the effects of the internet on well-being) and getting to the bottom of it may help a lot of people

There might be something to it, I’m not sure. The unwavering faith some people have in it is both a reason to look into it and a red flag. It’s probably worth a try but I don’t think I’m interested in writing about a masturbation-related experiment though. That’s too personal and most people would not be into reading it. But it is a practice that absolutely fits this conversation, yes.

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Samael Cercunnin April 1, 2021 at 2:33 pm

Personally I would advocate a profap approach. In general the body will create in response to its needs. If someone is pushing their body to the limit, then their body will push production to keep up with demand.

Obviously you’d need to supplement your diet with the correct nutrients to supply the nutritional requirements needed to maintain physical and emotional balance. The benefits though, do demand that it is an approach that is focussed on the benefits of mind. Using it to lift one’s state of consciousness. It definitely puts a person in a good mood, and relieves tension etc. If it is used as a practice, specifically to lift and heighten mood, then it can be used to create vastly more positive states of mind, that allow far greater productivity and creativity.

The problem comes from people using it only for sensory gratification, and developing some kind of lustful attachments to it. It is clearly something the body demands given the raised risk of prostate cancers from excessive avoidance of ejaculation.

It has been greatly maligned by the misunderstanding taken from the Bible about not casting one’s seed upon the ground. This is not a reference to masturbation. It is clear from the Bible that it is a prohibition on the withdrawal method of contraception, and nothing more.

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woollyprimate March 26, 2021 at 7:32 pm

Then there is a related notion that just because something is accepted by mainstream medicine, it doesn’t mean it works or is beneficial. Apparently, a lot of medical interventions are not evidence based. And when they study them, they find that they are NOT more effective than placebo (like knee replacements). I heard about a study where they did sham surgeries on a group of people and real surgeries on the other, and the people with the sham surgeries improved just as much, and since there is risk involved with surgery, they are recommending against it. But I guess it takes about 17 years for stuff like that to trickle down to the regular GP.

And Marcia Angell who was a former editor for the New England Journal of Medicine said that you should never trust any study by a pharmaceutical company.

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David Cain March 29, 2021 at 9:53 am

Yes, definitely, and I guess that is the western/mainstream version of woo-woo. Malady X has traditionally been treated by Treatment Y, and doctors accept that it works. Presumably their patients say it works and that feels like evidence. I did not know that about knee replacements.

Yesterday I had a conversation about pharmaceuticals, and I realized I don’t know anything about where research on the efficacy of medications comes from, aside from the companies that make them.

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Anoop Abraham March 27, 2021 at 9:33 am

Thanks David for the thoughtful reply.

Well the good thing about sex transmutation is that you don’t need a bunch of scientists to tell you whether there are any benefits to it. It’s something anybody can try and find out by their own experience.

Practising it anywhere upwards of 2-3 months can have some significant benefits. But I understand most people won’t be keen on doing something like that for more than a week or two, incase they decide to give it a shot.

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Paul Anthony March 29, 2021 at 9:30 pm

A lot of the problem with time-tested and affirming testaments with regard to the more than likely VALID “woo” is that it is beyond the reach of empirical investigation. But empiricism—the hallmark of science—is not the be-all-end-all of all reality(ies). For example, the thousands upon thousands of NDE and SDE (shared death experience) accounts are spurned my most medical doctors who deal with death a lot more than the rest of the general population. In fact, as I understand it, many hospital administrations have very strict rules for all of their staff to not engage in anything that patients or other participants/witnesses have experienced in these matters. They just don’t have the necessary tools in their belts to work with these issues and so they have a bias toward treating and validating only the issues that they can deal with. However, there are more than just ‘nails’ in the realms of realities even though it seems that most of us only have access to ‘hammers’.

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David Cain March 30, 2021 at 10:44 am

That’s a great point, and this comment makes me suspect that that same factor skews our perceptions about how much science has been able to explain so far. Because we’re trained (either professionally or socially) to avoid looking gullible or kooky by entertaining “out there” possibilities, we end up making scientific/skeptical-sounding conjectures about what happened (e.g. shared death experiences are all hallucinations or or fabrications) even though those claims are also unsupported conjectures.

In other words, the “God of the gaps” in secular societies is “Well obviously it is something mundane that can be explained by familiar scientific principles.” In a culture that tends towards that assumption, the scientific approach will look like it accounts for more than it actually does, because people are always attributing things to it that it hasn’t demonstrated.

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BA April 1, 2021 at 6:38 am

A nicely balanced article. I think one of the important aspects that you missed discussion on though, particularly with the idea of stages of progression of scientific knowledge is the power/size of the effect in discussion.

If something has a large effect or benefit, it is much easier to reach stage 4 as simpler/smaller/fewer scientific studies are required to understand the significance. More subtle effects need larger (more expensive) studies to have the same confidence.

It’s not hard to imagine that there are plenty of woo-woo ideas out there that do have some benefit beyond placebo, but that it is relatively small effect and hard to conclusively measure and so they stay in your ‘Stage 3’ for a long time. While others, like say meditation, might have a larger effect size and reach stage 4 faster.

I guess this sums up my general attitude that you shouldn’t completely write of the benefits of any woo-woo (unless it has obvious harms with little understanding of benefits) but you also should almost never believe anyone claiming it an amazing cure that has huge effects (becuase it’s incredibly likely that they would have been scientifically confirmed).

I think a lot of the time that’s what “If alternative medicine worked… it would be called medicine.” people are getting at even if it’s badly worded. More like “If alternative medicine worked *as effectively as you are telling me*, it would be called medicine”.

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David Cain April 1, 2021 at 9:30 am

I agree with you there. Another dimension to the discussion is that the woo-woo claim may be wrong, but the treatment inadvertently do something helpful, which could be identified, isolated, and applied to a degree that does work really well. One example is the hypothesis about Reiki that it isn’t energy fields or anything like that, but just being treated by an empathetic caregiver (which many doctors are not) that is effective. If this was the case, and the mechanism understood, we could develop much more effective treatments than Reiki, which is only incidentally beneficial. In other words, the strength of the effect may be greater than the woo-woo treatment shows, because the woo-woo treatment gets the mechanism wrong.

In any case, you’re right that miracle cure claims are not to be trusted. It is unlikely something that works exceedingly well as is would not have much evidence that it works well. However, even this is to be taken for granted — cultural taboos and legal lines alone can prevent a treatment from being properly investigated or accepted by society, regardless of efficacy. One obvious example is that certain illegal drugs are very promising for therapeutic purposes. Hallucinogens for anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Methamphetamine for ADHD and depression, and so on. Cultural resistance alone can be enough to make a powerful treatment seem like woo-woo or worse.

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Tom April 1, 2021 at 7:16 am

Excellent article, David.

I think the main problem is that scientific materialism/physicalism is assumed by default to be the correct ontology. If it’s taken for granted that reality fundamentally operates according to materialist assumptions, then it follows that many things relating to the mind, healing, etc. are inexplicable.

But if we explore the possibility that mind and matter are two complementary aspects of the same substance, or that everything is consciousness (as non-dual philosophies like Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Shavism would opine), then most of the confusion about how the so-called “woo woo” stuff works goes away quite drastically.

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David Cain April 1, 2021 at 9:38 am

You nailed it with the first line. Scientific investigation is assumed by our culture to protect us from falling prey to our own assumptions, which is ironic.

Materialism is an even more subtle assumption, and it’s a huge one. Science isn’t very good at investigating consciousness, so it looks for all the answers in matter, even though there’s probably nothing more important to understand than consciousness.

And there are such strong cultural resistances to non-scientific-sounding practices. I myself know and do non-dual contemplative practices, and STILL when I see Eastern-looking terms like Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Shavism makes some part of my brain goes “okay, now we’re in woo-woo territory.” Conditioning is strong and bias feels like clear judgment.

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Samael Cercunnin April 1, 2021 at 2:14 pm

I was a lifelong sceptic myself. I’d check stuff out to see if there was any truth in it, and I would try to analyse exactly what made it work, what the psychology might be, all that sort of thing. I realised that there is obviously an awful lot to be said for positive thinking, the whole placebo thing, where it is possible to generate really powerful placebo effects, just by creating more convincing placebos. It seemed to me that this would explain a lot of the more faith based stuff.
Then when I had my life pulled apart I started to work on central nervous system energy, because I figured that was what powered the body, so the more energy, the better the muscles would work, the better the health, the better the mood etc.
As I filled myself with energy, I started practising sensory stimulation techniques, combined with singing, to create a sort of alternative version to the Wim Hof technique. The singing would force the lungs to take in oxygen in a similar way, I was mostly singing Templar chants, because they really do require a lot of very long passages and good breath control, and then the sensory stimulation would mimic the cold exposure, but because I was using a far more varied range of techniques, my efforts became a lot more effective, and I found my life improving massively.

After I had lifted myself into an incredibly positive state of mind where it felt to me as though the whole world was like Eden, and God was all around me, I was incredibly surprised to find out that achieving such a state of mind, whilst being an absolute sceptic is how God chooses the Angel of Science. I had my temper triggered and found myself cast down into the horrific mundanity of everyday life, and then Lilith took over and trained me for a year.
Prior to that, I had obviously had faith in God, but I thought angels were just some kind of hallucinatory nonsense.
One of God’s jokes. Turns out I am one.

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The Kraal April 5, 2021 at 10:35 am

David, I’ve been studying the latest in psychoneurology for some time, trying to understand my brain (a decade of depression, two suicide attempts and another decade of therapy + meditation turning my life around would do that). This article started me thinking, and putting some scientific info side by side.

One, we know the main role of the brain isn’t to think; it is to manage the body’s energy budget (Lisa Feldman Barrett) in order to preserve allostasis. “Managing the budget” surely includes “fixing things when they break”.

Two, we know that the inner workings of the brain somehow follow a story deep inside our heads, so deep in fact that we don’t even realize this story is going on (Michael Gazzaniga). The cerebral construct is called Left Brain Interpreter and its role is to present us with an ever-evolving story with internal consistency and that the present experience is immediately embedded in it. We also know for this story to work the Left Brain Interpreter has to delete aspects of reality that do not fit neatly or to create lies to fill in the gaps (Chris Niebauer; Michael Gazzaniga). We live in a hallucinated world and the brain takes it for real (Anil Seth).

Three, there are at least two sciences that were “woo” not so long before: psychoneuroimmunology and psychoneuroendocrinology. Scientists managed to make the brain reproduce in the body the lab-measurable effects of chemicals (immunosuppressing drugs, in the test I read about) the subjects didn’t take. Also, just electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve was proved to reduce symptoms of some auto-immune diseases.

Putting all that together I dare to propose that “woo” works whenever the outside story matches the inside story and determines the brain’s activity to change ever so slightly as to heal the body. The sin, thus, is not to claim it works, because it sometimes does. The sin to claim it works for everyone, when the matching of the stories will never be 100% within one population segment.

So, I do believe “woo” sometimes works; it’s the universality that lacks, and it will keep lacking until we manage to find ways to work with our brain instead of gulping down chemicals at the slightest hint of discomfort.

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David April 6, 2021 at 9:25 am

Wow, this is some interesting stuff. If the brain functioned like that it would explain a lot of the discrepancies we see surrounding the efficacy conversation — some kind of “woo” seems life-changing for some, and useless for others; accepted treatments work for some and don’t for others; “good” evidence contradicts other good evidence. The whole discussion of efficacy might be flawed, because efficacy is usually assumed to be a function of the treatment alone and not the treatment-subject combination.

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Dianne April 5, 2021 at 10:43 am

A wonderful article, I always feel we can’t explain everything so if it works for you then do it. I have been told before things are only working because it’s in my head so that is why they are working. Well then it is still working!
Have a great week.

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Deanna April 10, 2021 at 1:42 am

Reiki works because of the placebo effect

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David April 11, 2021 at 2:57 pm

That’s a good working hypothesis, but it’s just conjecture at this point. Also, what does the placebo effect mean in this case? That its benefits are imagined? Psychosomatic? How do you know?

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