Ethical to Teach a Bogus Therapy?

Needless to say, the industry I myself work in — higher education — is in no way immune from sub-par business ethics. (Those of us involved in the teaching end of higher education don’t like to think of it as a business, but at some level that’s what it is, as long as a fee is being charged.) And what else can I call it but bad ethics, when a university offers courses teaching students to manipulate forces that don’t exist in order to generate effects that don’t happen?

Check out this article, from Common Ground magazine: Integrative energy healing

The Integrative Energy Healing (IEH) Certificate Program at Langara College in Vancouver is actively involved in weaving together the science and research of energy-based healing with its practice. For eight years, this program has worked to offer a three-year certificate program in IEH, which offers an in-depth study of the various Eastern and Western scientific theories underlying energy-based healing. It is also an exploration of the human condition and the practice of different types of energy-based treatments….

Here’s Langara’s page about its Integrative Energy Healing. (And for good measure, here’s the page about its Holistic Healing & Skills program.)

Sounds groovy. The problem: they’re teaching something that doesn’t work. “Energy Healing” is part of a cluster of practices that claims to diagnose and treat illness by examining and modifying energy fields that flow around and through the human body. These practices have been pretty well investigated, and they’re simply baseless. The physical starting points of these practices conflict with fundamental physics, and experiments have proven that they just don’t work. One of the main sources supposedly supporting the value of energy medicine, cited in the article above, is Energy Medicine (Oschman, 2000).
Here’s an article reviewing Oschman’s book: Energy Medicine, reprinted from Skeptic Magazine. The review is pretty devastating.

Of course, it’s not hard to find others who have found Energy “Medicine” at least worth looking at. The Common Ground article cites the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) “formally recognizes and encourages the study of energy therapies.” What the article leaves out is that funding has so far turned up zero in the way of useful therapies, and there have recently been significant calls by scientists for the NIH to stop funding this pseudoscience.

So, what is there to say about a university teaching this stuff? Well, to the extent that students believe they’re learning real health science, they’re being ripped off. And since the practices being taught are part of the enormous alternative medicine industry, students are being taught a set of practices intended to be sold to customers: they’re being taught to sell a bogus product. Oh, and in the process, Langara is cheapening the entire notion of higher education.

A final thought, for those of you not yet convinced that it’s problematic for an institution of higher learning to be teaching a highly-questionable practice like “Energy Healing.” What would our reaction be if a parallel university-based programme were started up with the intention not of teaching students to “heal” patients, but to build bridges? What if, instead of using math and physics to build bridges safely, we taught engineers to simply lay their hands on iron beams to “feel” whether they were strong enough?
Just a bit of clarification: the story above is about Langara College. But I refer to it throughout as “a university.” Technically, colleges & universities are different kinds of institutions in Canada (they’re provincially regulated & mostly provincially funded, so the details vary). But everything I say above applies to higher education institutions of all kinds.

22 comments so far

  1. Jordan on

    I’m showing up again to disagree with you whole-heartedly. Though I feel that because of the subjective nature of such things, an institution should be careful in its endorsement. Mostly because of the scrutiny it may have to be subjected to for indulging in things so far from what is considered measurable.

    Unfortunately I have no studies to base my perspective so I’m not expecting you to even reply.

    Yet, I’m going to say that intention is a force. With conviction it’s powerful. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and I also DO believe you can build physical bridges with your mind.

    Don’t be surprised if someday soon you see it happen.


  2. Andrew on

    Since when is Langara a university? It’s dumb, but I have much lower standards on what I consider acceptable for a college diploma than what I do for a university degree.

  3. brilyn on

    1. Langara is en route to becoming an University. I believe that the school intends to switch over in 2010, though I’m not 100% on that. I attended for 2 years (left about a year ago), and that was the talk going around.

    2. Why is it acceptable for *any* ‘institute of learning’ (even an elementary school!) to teach psuedoscientific crap? Why should colleges have lower standards than universities? If one is to teach, teach well.

  4. Stirling on

    The province recently granted university status to a bunch of schools here, Kwantlen would be another example. Which by all rights should add to the argument against what is a three year program in something that doesn’t work. In my opinion its dishonest of the school to even have the program. You can believe in building bridges in the mind but as to date there is no valid, testable and repeatable proof any such “healing” works.

  5. James Young on

    Hi Chris,

    Just to say that the problem of ethics is also prevalent in the world of companies doing deals with universities, some of whom see them as easy meat. I publish a blog called CopierShark that deals with sharp selling of photocopier and printer lease or rental, and service agreements. One school, here in the UK, ended up paying £300,000 in lease payments for a copier worth just £5000.

    I run the blog as a public service and welcome requests for help which are dealt with free of charge.

  6. sciencebasedpharmacy on

    An excellent and very timely article. Notice that yesterday, the Ontario Ombudsman issued a report criticizing the Ontario Government for Cambrian College’s “Health Information Management” program, because it is not recognized by the Canadian Health Information Management Association, which regulates entry into the field. That is, graduates find out they’re denied work.


    The Ombudsman has recommended that Cambrian college refund students’ tuition, as they were mislead by the college.

    The situation at Langara is even worse. Langara collects student funds (and government subsidies) to teach nonsensical magical thinking to gullible students. Graduates finish with a diploma in a program that is firmly outside evidence-based health care. These students are being cheated of a legitimate education by an institution that favours revenue over reality.

  7. Jordan on

    Some seem to be espousing that the placebo effect is becoming stronger.

    At least worth ripping apart:

  8. Chris MacDonald on

    Thanks for the placebo link, Jordan. Interesting.

    Here’s a clickable version for anyone interested:
    Placebos Are Getting More Effective.


  9. mstephens on

    I enjoyed your post. I agree that it is ethically questionable, to say the very least, to teach something that is false/incorrect/not what it says it is. But I don’t believe it is unethical to teach about (and how to do), other forms of healing, as long as they are contextualised. Biomedicine and the randomised controlled trial is heralded as the one and only true measure of efficacy. There are limitations, as you know, and, some of this is about power and hierarchies of knowledge. Teaching well, I think is the ethical nub and teaching well includes presentation of all perspectives on a given subject. If something can’t be proved I don’t think it makes it false, merely unproven. Moira

  10. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment.

    I’ve got nothing against teaching students that different people believe different things. But not all beliefs are equally good. Some are true, some are false, and on some issues we have so little evidence that we should just be agnostic.
    But if you’re teaching students how to help people, you need not to teach them things that don’t work. And it’s unreasonable for anyone to believe that Energy Healing works, given that there’s no reputable evidence for it (and considerable evidence against it).


  11. Caitlin on

    Will you post in the interest of equal reporting?
    Meta-analyses of healing studies

    Abbot, Neil C, Healing as a therapy for human disease: a systematic review, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2000, 6(2), 159-169.
    This meta-analysis covers 59 randomized controlled studies, (including 10 dissertation abstracts and 5 pilot studies) of healing in humans up to the year 2000. Of 22 fully reported trials, 10 suggested significant effects. There were 8 studies rated as methodologically sound, of which 5 showed significant effects. The heterogeneity of the studies precluded a meta-analysis. Small sample sizes in the 15 studies in the dissertations and pilot group may have contributed to the lack of significant effects in 11 of them. The inclusion of the the abstracts and pilot studies weakens this analysis.

    Astin, John A/ Harkness, Elaine/ Ernst, Edzard, The efficacy of “distant healing”: a systematic review of randomized trials, Annals of Internal Medicine 2000, 132, 903-910.
    John Astin, assistant professor at the University of Maryland Medical School, Edzard Ernst, Chairman of the Department of Complementary Therapies at the University of Exeter in England, and Elaine Harkness, reviewed 23 studies: 5 with prayer healing, 11 with non-contact Therapeutic Touch, and 7 miscellaneous distant healing approaches. A positive effect was found in 57 percent of these. Overall, for the 16 trials with double blinds, the average effect size was0.40 (p < .001). For 10 TT studies meeting their selection criteria, the average effect size was 0.63 (p < .003). For the prayer studies the effect size was 0.25 (p < .009). For the "other" studies the average effect sizewas 0.38 (p < .073). The authors conclude that "the evidence thus far warrants further study." This is an acknowledgment (in research reviewers' terminology) that the evidence has merit.
    Braud, William and Schlitz, Marilyn. A methodology for the objective study of transpersonal imagery, Journal of Scientific Exploration 1989, 3(1), 43-63.
    This meta-analysis focuses on electrodermal activity (EDA), a measure of skin resistance that reflects states of tension. Healers have been able to selectively lower and raise EDA, aided by feedback from a meter attached to the healee’s skin. In a series of studies by William Braud and Marilyn Schlitz there were 323 sessions with 4 experimenters, 62 influencers and 271 subjects. Of the 15 studies, 6, (40 per cent) produced significant results. Of the 323 sessions, 57 percent were successful (p = .000023). That is, such results could have occurred by chance only twenty three times in a million.

    Peters, R.. The effectiveness of therapeutic touch: A meta-analytic review. Nursing Science Quarterly 1999, 12(1), 52-61. Out of 36 studies identified that were empirically based research 9 were analyzed. TT was found to have a positive, medium effect on physiological and psychological variables.

    Schlitz, Marilyn/ Braud, William, Distant intentionality and healing: assessing the evidence, Alternative Therapies 1997, 3(6), 62-73. Analyzing 19 experiments in which one person sought to influence another person’s electrodermal activity (EDA), they found highly significant effects (p < .0000007). Winstead-Fry, Patricia/ Kijek, Jean, An integrative review and meta-analysis of Therapeutic Touch research, Alternative Therapies 1999, 5(6) 59-67. Out of 29 dissertation and research studies that addressed questions of efficacy, 19 showed at least partial support for the research hypothesis. The other 10 rejected the hypotheses. Deficiencies in reporting details of the studies make it very difficult to compare studies. A moderate combined effect size was found (0.39) in the 13 studies that included means and standard deviations for treatment and control groups (p < .001).

  12. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for that, but there’s nothing convincing above.

    First, all the papers you cite are ancient in clinical terms.

    Second, citing a handful of papers doesn’t help much. What we need to know is what the evidence, as a whole, says on balance. Showing a cluster of papers that you take to be supportive of energy healing doesn’t tell me much; I need to know how many papers there are (and of what quality) pointing in the opposite direction. What does the balance of evidence show?

    Finally, to pick just one of your examples (the only one that’s in a top-quality journal)…
    The conclusion of the Astin et al paper — based on analysis done a decade ago — is that more research is needed. A decade later, where is that research? Those authors also pointed out that most of relevant clinical trials were methodologically problematic. That should have been heard as a call for better studies. So, where are the good, recent studies?


  13. sciencebasedpharmacy on

    Abbot, Neil C, Healing as a therapy for human disease: a systematic review, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2000, 6(2), 159-169
    – more recent and better-quality evidence suggests that intercessory prayer has no effect on healing. See: “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer” American Heart Journal. 151(4):934-942, April 2006. : Conclusion:
    “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.”
    – also see the conclusion of the Cochrane review:
    “These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer,the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.”

    Astin, John A/ Harkness, Elaine/ Ernst, Edzard, The efficacy of “distant healing”: a systematic review of randomized trials, Annals of Internal Medicine 2000, 132, 903-910.
    – Ernst, one of the authors published an update on this paper, in 2003.

    Here is the abstract:
    Aim To update our published systematic review of clinical trials of distant healing.
    Design Systematic review.
    Data sources Medline, Embase, Cochrane Library and personal files.
    Study selection Any type of clinical study of any type of distant healing published between 2000 and December 2002.
    Data extraction For each included study, essential data were extracted and summarised in narrative form.
    Results 8 non-randomised and 9 randomised clinical trials were located. The majority of the rigorous trials do not to support the hypothesis that distant healing has specific therapeutic effects. The results of two studies furthermore suggest that distant healing can be associated with adverse effects.
    Conclusion Since the publication of our previous systematic review in 2000, several rigorous new studies have emerged. Collectively they shift the weight of the evidence against the notion that distant healing is more than a placebo.

  14. sciencebasedpharmacy on

    Braud, William and Schlitz, Marilyn. A methodology for the objective study of transpersonal imagery, Journal of Scientific Exploration 1989, 3(1),


    – This paper is not a meta-analysis.
    – See above. There is no convincing evidence to support the hypothesis. in fact it has been definitively disproven by much larger trials.

    Peters, R.. The effectiveness of therapeutic touch: A meta-analytic review. Nursing Science Quarterly 1999, 12(1), 52-61. Out of 36 studies identified

    that were empirically based research 9 were analyzed. TT was found to have a positive, medium effect on physiological and psychological variables.

    – Therapeutic touch has been definitively disproven. Emily Rosa, at age 9, in a Grade 4 science fair project, demonstrated that therapeutic touch

    practitioners could not identify energy fields. Here is the conclusion from the article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
    “To our knowledge, no other objective, quantitative study involving more than a few TT practitioners has been published, and no well-designed study

    demonstrates any health benefit from TT. These facts, together with our experimental findings, suggest that TT claims are groundless and that further use of

    TT by health professionals is unjustified.”
    – No study has been able to refute the Rosa study.
    – There remains no persuasive clinical evidence that energy fields exist or that therapeutic touch has any role in the treatment of any illness.

    Schlitz, Marilyn/ Braud, William, Distant intentionality and healing: assessing the evidence, Alternative Therapies 1997, 3(6), 62-73.
    – another amusing paper:
    – this is not a study. It is a paper discussing a cherry-picked assortment of other dubious papers.
    -it provides zero evidence of any existence of energy fields or of therapeutic effects relevant to the course in question.

    Winstead-Fry, Patricia/ Kijek, Jean, An integrative review and meta-analysis of Therapeutic Touch research, Alternative Therapies 1999
    – see above.

    There are plenty of studies out there that claim to have demonstrated a beneficial effect of prayer, therapeutic touch or energy fields. They do not meet

    what would be considered acceptable standards of evidence to be accepted as science or medicine. The better the quality of the trial, the better the evidence

    that actual therapeutic effects do not exist.

    If this is the quality of the evidence used to support the program at Langara, it provides even more persuasive evidence that academic standards are lacking.

  15. martha on

    I feel the same way about chiropractic. The theories behind it are bizarre. The government should not provide loans or other assistance to learn treatments which are unsupported and in these days of high health care costs insurance companies should cover the treatments.

    Pay for your own placebos, thank you.

  16. Chris MacDonald on


    I’m curious: why do you think insurance companies should pay for chiropractic, of which you’re clearly skeptical?


  17. Hailey on

    What I found most interesting about what you have written was how you spend most, if not all of the post trying to convince or persuade the readers to agree with how “bogus” energy healing is. I found it most distracting from what I thought (because of the title) the blog was going to be about. After interesting, I found your take almost humorous because you’re knocking a natural healing modality that you clearly have yet to even experience. We all certainly have our own opinions on all sorts of subjects, but do you really think that stating energy work simply “doesn’t work” is really all that influential?? Focusing on the title of this blog and what I would assume you wanted to talk about – is it ethical to teach a bogus therapy? Of course it’s not ethical to teach something that is false. I think most people would agree with that statement, if they believe in ethics in the first place. But the fact is, you can’t even begin to get into ethics if you haven’t laid the grounds of the matter with a solid foundation. In other words, through the title of this blog, you’ve already assumed that the therapy is, more or less, incorrect and therefore have set the stage from a very biased perspective. Because of this, you are not going to get much value from the information or opinions you’ll receive. Instead, it makes for a rather watered down accumulation of ideas lacking a clear focus of intention.
    Just because you can’t see or touch something doesn’t mean it does not exist. Likewise, just because you have yet to see or touch a thing doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Have you ever been to the Egyptian pyramids or touched Mount Everest, for example?? Think how limited humans would be if we believed only what was seen with our own individual eyes. And I do not mean this disrespectfully at all but I wanted to say that we are not all sheep that need to be directed by you who put yourself in the context of “higher educated individuals”. I’m pretty sure we’ll all manage just fine when considering how and, in which areas we choose to educate ourselves. Besides, what’s the difference to you from where and by what means everyone gets their education?? If anything, not having easily accessible environments for learning these types of skills would be much too close to stifling human consciousness and that in itself is a question of ethics all its own.
    So really, if we’re going to talk ethics here, don’t you think you should perhaps take into consideration the reality that you’re making an excessively bold judgment about a practice you yourself know extremely little about all the while asking the general public to agree with you?? For every 20 people you find to support your belief, I can find 20 who will support mine. That’s how the world works. We all end up proving what we believe, in one way or another. But sometimes our influences are just right, surprising us and tilting our beliefs enough to open up to a world of infinite possibilities.
    And one last thing, my father is an iron worker (you know the guys who actually build the bridges??) and I can tell you that you definitely don’t have to be a physicist to put those things up:)

  18. Chris MacDonald on


    OK, let me make this clear.

    The headline of my blog was provocative.

    My conclusion clearly is that it’s entirely unethical to teach “energy healing.” It amounts to teaching something fraudulent.

    I haven’t “assumed” it doesn’t work. That’s what all the best reasoning points to. I’ve *reasoned* my way to that conclusion.

    If you know of any actual evidence of energy healing working — something better than anecdotes, which are notoriously unreliable — please provide it. Seriously. Please. Until there’s evidence, it’s about as credible as a lucky rabbit’s foot. It has failed experimental tests, and the very idea of energy healing conflicts with pretty much everything known about both physics and human physiology. It’s ridiculous, on its face.

    You’re absolutely right that you (?) are not all “sheep” in need of guidance by “higher educated individuals”. But neither are you sheep who deserve to be fleeced by charlatans posing as college instructors, teaching you something that cannot be taught…which is precisely what anyone claiming to teach energy healing is doing.


  19. Hailey on

    Usually if I am skeptical about something but am truly interested, i go directly to the source or as close as I can get to it. That’s really the only credible way to have any sort of valid judgment, in my opinion. Maybe you feel similarly and need some evidence. If this is the case, the best suggestion I can give you is to be open to some mind expansion and have an energy healing session for yourself! Even if you had proof on paper that energy heals, it would not be nearly as profound as your own experience. Do you agree?? Perhaps your doubts will vanish.
    Here’s a start….

  20. Chris MacDonald on


    With all due respect: no, that’s precisely wrong.

    All a visit by me to an ‘energy healer’ would do is generate one more anecdote. And anecdotes don’t add up to evidence. There are too many reasons to doubt first-hand experience in situations like these. Even if I seem to experience something, that does nothing to rule out alternative explanations (placebo effect, random changes in my health, natural course of my illness, etc.).

    Too many people have been fooled too many times. There are entire bodies of literature on why we should not simply trust first-hand experience when it comes to complicated matters like health.

    I also will not try carrying a “lucky” rabbit’s foot, throw salt over my shoulder to ward off evil, or anything else that is implausible on the face of it.


  21. […] Ethical to Teach a Bogus Therapy? (August 25, 2009) […]

  22. […] about a different Canadian college’s program in “Integrative Energy Healing”: Ethical to Teach a Bogus Therapy? It reads, in […]

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