Scepticism

22nd April 2013

sun3I came across an excellent article about the complementary health sector in the UK yesterday. The article is written by a UCL Professor and posted on his blog. Now the Professor is not a friend of complementary health practices and the reason for this is two fold: the absence of meaningful scientific evidence for their efficacy; and the fraudulent or misleading statements published by complementary health practioners and manufacturers of related products (such as dietary supplements).

Organisationally the complementary health sector is a mess in the UK – there are too many organisations with too few resources. Whilst there is a lot of good intention, the absence of consistent standards and regulation is not good news for the public (who are purchasing these services in greater numbers) and undermines the reputation of this sector. It is too easy to set up as a practioner and the most meaningful protection that the public have at the moment, absent of asking all the right questions themselves (training; level of experience; insurance; registered with trade associations; CPD; testimonials; and so on), is to rely on recommendations from people that they know and trust. That is not good enough.

Scepticism about claims made in advertising and marketing material, such as the scientific or medical efficacy of treatments or products, makes sense. Arguing about these issues is, in my view, a distraction from a more important issue and this is how do we create a meaningful debate and investigation of what is happening in (for example) Reiki.

Based on my personal experience of Reiki and subtle energy, I know that something is happening when I practice it and that this creates an effect on me and other people. What I cannot do, because I do not have a scientific or medical background, is explain what is happening using the language of science or medicine. There is a body of literature from different cultures and traditions that describes what subtle energy is and how it moves through the subtle energy system. This is a useful source of knowledge and most of it is drawn from spiritual traditions. Of course, that is problematic because spiritual traditions have their own baggage and the language they use which can obscure the underlying message. The underlying message, consistent across multiple cultures and spiritual traditions, is that human beings have a subtle energy system and that working with it is beneficial for our well-being. Many people in the West today, who are well-educated, level-headed and rational, use Reiki in their lives and know that it has a significant effect on them. This then begs the question: what is happening?

We should all exercise scepticism when examining our own experiences and beliefs. The scientific process is incredibly important to our understanding of how the world and our physical body works. However, all systems of thought rely on underlying assumptions and beliefs, which are often taken as read or left unexamined. There is an inherent risk that people who exercise the scientific method react reflexively to stories about “subtle energy” and so on. It makes sense to correct the misuse of language and terminology, but ignoring the value of human testimony (and there is a lot of this) is an act of hubris. To tell people that they are deluded or misguided for claiming to have experienced something is not constructive. Instead, there needs to be an open minded dialogue so that a greater understanding can evolve. Until that time, then each side of the divide will remain sceptical of the other. Who does that benefit? Only those interested in the status quo and who do not want to develop their own world-view, become more professional and let go of old ways of doing things.

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