I guess if believing in a flat earth can make a comeback, so can crystal healing. The popularity of this pure “wellness” pseudoscience has been surging in the last few years, and is now a multi-billion dollar industry. This rising popularity is partly thanks to Goop, but also the general rising tide of new age beliefs.

A 2018 Pew survey found that 62% of US adults believed in at least one New Age belief (spiritual energy can be located in physical objects, psychics, reincarnation, astrology). This was true for both those who do and do not consider themselves members of a mainstream religion (although the lowest belief group was atheists at 22%). The modern crystal healing phenomenon dates back to the 1970s. They eventually fell out of fashion, I think because they became the icon of silly new age nonsense. But now the beliefs that old-school skeptics debunked in the 70s and 80s, then forgot about for a generation, are making a comeback.

Crystal healing has many of the hallmarks of alternative medicine pseudoscience, and is just another manifestation of many common themes. It is a form of energy medicine. Proponents claim that different types of crystals either contain, amplify, attract, or repel different kinds of energy. Like energy medicine in general, we are not talking about any kind of real energy that can be identified or measured by physicists. This energy is not predicted by the standard model of particle physics, and don’t expect the Large Hadron Collider to find any force carrying particles related to crystal energy. There is no Higgs Boson of energy medicine.

The “energy” referred to in energy medicine is purely metaphorical and mythical. Proponents generally claim that it is “spiritual” energy, which is just a way of saying that the energy has no physical properties that can be detected, and is therefore outside the realm of scientific discovery. But at the same time they claim that this mysterious “energy” can affect living things, which is the inherent contradiction at the core of this belief.

Invoking undetectable “energy”, without defining it in any testable way, as an explanation is a common tactic of pseudoscience. Types of energy medicine include straight chiropractic, Reiki, acupuncture, therapeutic touch, healing touch, and is a good fallback position for any other treatment lacking a plausible mechanism.

How do you know which kind of crystal to use for which problem you are having? You can find many guides, which use the typical CAM standard – “It can be used”, “Is often used”, or “Is known to”. That’s it. There is no supportive framework in theory or in evidence. This is the equivalent of parents saying, “Because I said so.” What this illustrates is the human tendency to develop explanatory systems and elaborate on them. We are good at finding patterns and inventive at making stuff up. The history of pseudomedicine is full of such systems, complex and detailed, but ultimately based on nothing. These systems then take on a life of their own, they become culture, and then authoritative knowledge – but again, it is ultimately vaporware.

Some of the claims are based on another common theme in some alternative systems – the superstition of sympathetic magic. This is the intuition that something will have an effects suggested by what it looks like. So walnuts must be good for the brain because they kind of look like a brain. One tradition of homeopathy is entirely based on sympathetic magic. Many traditional remedies make this connection as well.

In crystal healing, rose quartz “is commonly used for attracting and keeping love, as well as protecting relationships”. Of course it is – it’s pink, so it must be infused with the energy of love. Whereas, “Obsidian crystal stone also protects you from shadow traits — addiction, fear, anxiety, and anger– by acting as a mirror to your inner self.” It’s black, so it must have to do with negative energy. This is metaphor, not reality.

Proponents of crystal healing also commit the “appeal to antiquity” fallacy. Often it is pointed out that some ancient Egyptian mummies were buried with crystals. Setting aside the difficulty in interpreting exactly what an ancient culture believed – who cares? Ancient societies believed in a lot of magic. This is hardly a justification for applying leeches or bloodletting.

Unfortunately the crystal healing craze shares another feature in common with some other alternative medicine systems – when you dig down to the bottom of the supply chain, it’s not a pretty picture. Traditional Chinese Medicine traffics in parts of endangered animals. The supplement supply chain is also highly dubious with poor quality control. When your product is based entirely on pseudoscience, don’t expect a lot of ethics and rigor in the industry.

With crystals the problem is exploitation of the populations where many of the world’s largest mineral deposits exist. The Guardian goes into detail, focusing on places like Madagascar, where the mining industry is poorly regulated. Workers have to deal with dangerous mineral dust and mine collapses. They are some of the lowest paid workers in the world, living in horrific conditions. This is the crystal equivalent of blood diamonds. This is all feeding an exploding crystal healing industry, worsening the situation.

Finally, you may be surprised to learn that there was actually a study of crystal healing. In 2001 Chris French did a double blind study with 80 participants meditating with either a real quartz crystal or a fake glass crystal. There was a placebo effect where participants felt what they were primed to feel – a warmth or tingling sensation or a sense of well-being. But they were unable to tell the difference between the real or fake crystals, indicating a placebo effect only.

Of course evidence like this will have exactly zero effect on the crystal healing industry, which is not based on logic or evidence in the first place. The wellness industry is essentially selling placebo effects, philosophy, and a lifestyle. They are not selling science. Crystal healing is perhaps the perfect manifestation of this.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.