Life energy and zombie molecules

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

There is a lot of woo-woo around, always has been, always will be. You know the kind of stuff. Hand-waving therapies that can be carried out remotely, crystals that heal mind, body and spirit. Yes, all “three”. Powders and potions that are so dilute that not even a single molecule of whatever one might have considered to be an active ingredient can possibly be present in the tonic being administered. You know what I’m referring to in that latter example, the subject of the 10^23 campaign and the attempted global overdosing by skeptics – homeopathy. It is, however, within the realm of so-called holistic healing, integrative and alternative medicine (I won’t call it complimentary) where woo-woo finds its natural home.

Almost all alternative practitioners talk about treating their patients as whole beings, as individuals, not just as a cluster of physiological problems to be dealt with. They all seem to suggest that “conventional” medics are not interested in people, just disease symptoms. In complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM), the approach has to be holistic, treating symptoms is simplistic, they say. Many will talk of refreshing one’s energy, the vital force, harmonization, rebalancing chakras, detoxifying the soul, opening up the flow of qi (“chi”) and drawing on the energy of the universe as a way to restore you to full health.

The websites, books, marketing materials, conference sessions, TV gurus, and the posters in practitioners often delightfully decorous surgeries and healing suites give vast lists of the complaints and ailments that might be vitally remediated using their techniques.

Everything from asthma and angina to sciatica and schizophrenia will ultimately succumb to whichever is your chosen alternative remedy, they will claim. The list is vast. They can apparently treat everything, they can even offer protection without drugs or vaccines against diseases not yet contracted including measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), AIDS, malaria.

I realize that a lot of people apparently do respond to some alternative remedies, and for some it’s perhaps more than placebo (although the placebo effect is a potent mystery with which medicine is yet to get to grips fully). There is, of course, something physiological happening when you get a back massage with some nice-smelling essential oils, but it is nothing to do with one’s aura. Moreover, there is anecdotal (not always the best) evidence that some remedies do help with the likes of back pain, on which conventional medicine fails widely.

But, no homeopathic dilution is ever going to prevent you contracting malaria, a reiki session will not curtail tumor growth and if you have full-blown AIDS no amount of candling is going to evict the viral particles from your cells. Practitioners can wave all the crystals and wands they like, but they will not reverse the over-active immunological response that leads to allergic rhinitis or asthma. They can attempt to summon up all the energy of the universe but it won’t get rid of anyone’s acne or treat a septic in-growing toenail. Seriously. It won’t. It might be a comforter but for those in real need of real medicine, woo-woo will not do.

The notion that living things harbor some kind of vital force that exists outside the physical world is an attractive one for some people. It harks back to our most primitive and primordial fears and misconceptions about reality. The synthesis of the first organic molecule, urea, by Woehler in the nineteenth century showed that there was nothing particularly special about the stuff from which living things are made. He put the carbon nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen atoms together in a test-tube, figuratively speaking, and recreated a substance in the laboratory thought to be only available through the vital force.

The vital force is synonymous with the energy, the Qi, of which holistic practitioners talk. So, was Woehler making zombie molecules? Was there a difference between the urea in his test-tube and the urea forming urine in his bladder?


The notion of this ephemeral energy, that presumably rides on the equally ephemeral ether coincides with notions of natural, universal, mindful, and well-being. Natural sounds so much better to many folks than synthetic as if the existence of natural belladonna, natural cobra venom and natural background radiation did not exist. It is relatively easy to find positive anecdotes and stories regarding any given alternative remedy, particularly on the Internet. One can decide to believe and then find the “evidence” to back up that belief.

Unfortunately, reality does not work like that, the proof is in the measurements. With measurements, you need units. And for this mysterious energy of which holistic practitioners talk, there are none. I’ve asked various alternative medicine people what “units” this energy might be measured in, they are usually at a loss to qualify their response, defaulting to the “it’s beyond the realm of science”. One “guru” told me that the units of this life energy are simply something they did not teach in grad bio/chem classes or med school as being released from ATP to ADP. That’s a cop out, to say the least.

For many practitioners the only units practitioners they are really worried about are dollar and Euro and the holistic bottom line in their bank accounts. That seems to apply whether they are “open eye” (confidence tricksters) or “closed eye” (they really believe in their own woo-woo) especially when you see the rates many charge for simply waving their hands in the air.

David Bradley
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