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Esoteric energy and fanciful forces.

August 28, 2012
Anyone who tells you they can manipulate your energy flow is waving a red flag.

How to recognise this tactic

This tactic is easy to pick because people who use it try to convince you that some kind of elusive energy or power or force is responsible for whatever effect they are promoting.

The discoverer of the new energy field that links mind to mind in telepathy, or of the new fundamental force that moves objects without trickery around a tabletop, deserves a Nobel Prize, and would probably get one.

Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist and author,1998

Why do people use this tactic?

People use this tactic when they want you to accept something that has no scientific evidence to support it. They try to convince you that there is a mechanism which justifies their claims. All sorts of terms are used – life force, cosmic power, psychic energy – it doesn’t really matter what it’s called. Each one is meaningless. It’s simply an attempt to congeal wishful thinking into a pseudo-explanation. The tactic is widespread in alternative medicine, being employed in such practices as thought field therapy, reiki, cosmic energy healing, touch therapy, traditional Chinese medicine, life force energy healing … and so on.

What’s wrong with this tactic

The terms energy. force and power have well-defined scientific meanings. Those who co-opt them and apply them to pseudoscientific ideas are hoping to trick you with a cloak of scientific respectability. The trick lies in twisting the meanings. They imply that energy is some kind of entity which accumulates in space, flows in channels, and can be manipulated, all of which are distortions of the scientific view.

Some users of this tactic claim that the ‘energy’ they refer to is different from scientific energy. This can’t be justified. There is no supporting evidence for their concept of energy which is surprising, considering it is supposed to have such a strong influence on human affairs. As Richard Dawkins’ explains, above, anyone who could find scientific evidence for such ‘energy’ would be celebrated.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Users of this tactic tend to assume that the simple mention of some kind of “energy” or its equivalent will settle the issue and eliminate any doubts. Don’t let them get away with this. Ask them to clarify what this energy is. What are its properties? How can it be detected and measured? How is it related to other forms of energy, such as light and heat? How does it explain the effect they are trying to promote? What evidence is there to support it? Don’t accept appeals to authority or appeals to ancient wisdom in reply. Ask for actual evidence from real world tests.

Variations and related tactics

This tactic is closely related to the use of pseudoscientific jargon or technobabble.


  • Here’s an extract from a web page describing an ‘experiment’ that’s supposed to demonstrate the existence of “chi, the life force”.

Experiencing Chi: An Experiment

Most people are understandably skeptical about this energy called chi until they actually experience it for themselves. After all, in the West we have been well trained to deny even the possibility of such phenomena. While some people will never be able to sense the chi, many others do — some on their first encounter with it.

Try this experiment with a partner, such as your child, spouse, or friend, to see if you are able to feel the chi. Both of you should either sit or stand approximately two arms-length away from each other.

Ask your partner to close his eyes and take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders and back muscles as completely as possible. Try to imagine an energy rising from the ground into your body.

When you think you can almost sense this imaginary force, ask your partner to extend an arm toward you until it is level with the floor. The palm of the hand should be facing downward.

Slowly raise your own arms and extend your fingers until they are within a few inches of your partner’s outstretched hand. Using your mind, direct the imaginary energy — what we call the chi. Move it further up through your body until it passes along your arms and out from your fingertips.

It’s helpful to imagine a current of energy passing from your body into your partner’s. Whether you think this is an imaginary force or not, some people feel the chi right away, even with their eyes closed.

Needless to say, this “experiment” is completely meaningless because all observations are completely subjective; nothing is controlled; nothing is measured independently of the experimenter.

  • Contrast the “experiment” above with Emily Rosa’s study on therapeutic touch, done when she was nine years old:

Emily’s JAMA paper is here.

  • Here’s a paper from the dubious Journal of Scientific Exploration that mixes the esoteric energy concept with all sorts of other technobabble. From the conclusion:

Subtle energies are real energies that are not directly observable because  they function at the level of the “vacuum,” the negative energy, chaotic Dirac  Sea. They can be converted to an observable in our present human condition  only via an intermediate transducer. Today, these transducers are primarily living systems. They account for a large class of experimentally observed phenomena that are quite inexplicable based solely on the accepted scientific paradigm of the four known forces operating in the physical universe. One known potential, the magnetic vector potential, appears to play the role of “bridge” between the subtle, unobservable energies and physically observable energies associated with electric and magnetic fields.

  • Update 2012/11/01: When esoteric energy is subjected to scientific tests, the proponents often complain that the results are invalid because the ‘energy’ can’t function under the conditions of the test. This was the case in a recent test of psychics (here and here).
  • Update 2014/04/26: This paper from the Institute of HeartMath purports to explain entrepreneurial intuition by a mysterious interaction of energy fields. Here’s a sample:

By way of conclusion, I want to show how the theory offers an understanding of the psychophysiological basis of entrepreneurial intuition.

The entrepreneur’s passionate attention—that is, the biological energy activated in his emotional connection to the object of interest (e.g., the quest for future opportunities in a certain field of business)—attunes him to the object’s unfolding pattern of activity and to the implicit order of its future potential. Both the pattern of activity and the potential future order are spectrally encoded as a quantum hologram in a field of potential energy as implicit information in a domain apart from space and time. At a biological level, the body’s psychophysiological systems generate numerous fields of energy, at various frequencies, that interpenetrate the field of potential energy. Of these, the heart generates the most powerful rhythmic electromagnetic field, which radiates out from the body in all directions.

  • Update 2014/06/17: Edzard Ernst describes a new controlled study of “energy healing” which came to this conclusion:

    Whereas it is generally assumed that CAMs such as healing have beneficial effects on well-being, our results indicated no overall effectiveness of energy healing on QoL, depressive symptoms, mood, and sleep quality in colorectal cancer patients. Effectiveness of healing on well-being was, however, related to factors such as self-selection and a positive attitude toward the treatment.

Further reading

Averting anxiety with cosmic connectivity: magical thinking

You can add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

Richard Dawkins’ quote is from Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin books, 1998, p128

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
  1. You just need to BELIEVE and your chakras will get into alignment. Not aligned yet? It’s your fault for not having enough FAITH! 😉

    • alexmorleyfinch permalink

      Hmmm, that sounds like exactly the kind of argument that a fraud would use to explain why their product doesn’t work… Also its a circular argument, so It doesn’t actually prove anything

  2. Excellent and clear. It should convince anyone who values evidence.

    • Mirage_GSM permalink

      So, sadly, it won’t convince anyone who actually believes in this stuff…

      • The answer is “Do you really need to?”… My mother-in-law is a practitioner of something called “healing”. All she do is recite a form of a prayer, and tap your back repeatedly, to “activate” the “dormant DNA” and start the “healing process”. Mumbo-jumbo and illusions she received from a follower of the “great” René Mey… I see her very enthusiastic about it, she feels better because she think she is helping people to live better. She doesn’t get a dime for it, so I can’t see no harm in leting her play her number with others. She is happy, and even if it doesn’t work at all, she feel good for being a good and caring human being. I promised to stop her if she begin to collect money or if she tries to convince people of leaving real medicine, but for now, go, Gladys, go… 😉

        • but what if she put her energy into actually helping people or not wasting her time and taking up a hobby? seems like a waste.Also i would be worried that people might still leave off real medicine thinking they are cured despite her not tying to convince people not to neglect real medicine, also it promotes poor thinking.

  3. It was first brought to the public’s attention by Wilhelm Reich in 1940 or so. The facts to prove this energy are real, sadly the only ones deceived are those unwilling to read and educate themselves.

    The veil will one day be lifted, unfortunately those who tried have either been killed or thrown in jail.
    There are numerous inventions that could provide free universal energy, cure cancer, among other realities, held by the US government on grounds that it is detrimental to national security.

    Any person who has proof will be discredited immediately. But scientist are realizing this truth everyday, and eventually it is bound to get out.

    Many different names, Ormus is one of them

    Common Cents Revelution

  4. Alyssa permalink

    I am an energy healer who studies biochemistry. I don’t believe in God or Religions, just my own experiences. Surprised? Honestly, you shouldn’t be. There are quite a few ‘energy’ practitioners who have backgrounds in science. That being said, everything you state in this article is true, that does not mean it is the whole truth.

    “Ask them to clarify what this energy is.” – everything is this world contains energy. That is a scientific fact. All matter contains light, also a scientific fact. Biophotons are a fairly new discovery of the kind of energy humans and other kinds of matter emit. So what does this prove? Just that we are still learning about the world we live in and that often times what we believe to be true based on science, is not the whole truth, or even the truth at all – how many times have we had to re-write history because our understanding of our world changed? it happens ALL the time.

    So, what is this energy? That would depend on what we are talking about. However, generally speaking the energy would be some fort of frequency of ‘source’ energy. Source energy contains literally every frequency in our reality.

    What are its properties? How can it be detected and measured?How is it related to other forms of energy, such as light and heat? How does it explain the effect they are trying to promote? What evidence is there to support it?

    Again – until science catches up, these questions are irrelevant and can not be applied to the type of energy we are talking about, that does not mean it doesn’t exist or isn’t real. It just means we, as humans, are too stupid to have figured out HOW to measure and quantify this energy, yet.

    I went into biochemistry with a much different goal. But now my goal is to find new methods to measure what we can not see and only feel. If you have ever had a true energy healing session, or any experience with someone who actually knew what they were doing, you wouldn’t have this very limiting viewpoint.

    So my comment is not to convince you of its existence, but rather to open your mind to the possibility that it exists and we just haven’t figured it out yet. Because Science is the most consistent at proving ourselves wrong. Time and time again.

    As technology improves, so does our understanding of the universe. Which means, our understanding is limited to our current level of technology.

    • I’m sorry, Alyssa, but your comment is a real testimony to wishful thinking. The questions you should ask (What are its properties? How can it be detected and measured? How is it related to other forms of energy, such as light and heat? How does it explain the effect they are trying to promote? What evidence is there to support it?) are definitely not irrelevant. They are the key to deciding reality. There is definitely no real-world evidence for “energy” of the type you are proposing. There is no justification for supposing it exists and we just haven’t noticed its effects.

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