In recognition of my 100th post on SBM, I was all set to write about some interesting updates on a few of my contributions over the years. But thanks to the machinations of the preternaturally cool Tim Caulfield, author of The Cure for Everything and Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, I was made aware of something that I just couldn’t ignore: someone is wrong on the internet. That’s right, yet another “energy healer” with bold claims of miracle cures is making the rounds. But this time will be different, apparently.

Remember Adam Dreamhealer? He was the teenage “intuitive healer” that could recognize and manipulate mysterious human energy fields to cure cancer and a whole host of other ailments, even over the phone or after only looking at a photograph of the patient. He claimed to have received his powers from a giant blackbird he met while hiking. Ring a bell? Well, it was a whole thing about a decade ago, just as I was starting my journey on the path of skepticism. Although he is still up to the same tricks as a “naturopathic oncologist”, and he will always have a special place in my heart, Dreamhealer has some stiff competition for my favorite celebrity energy healer.

The new kid on the block is Australian energy healer Charlie Goldsmith, and technically he isn’t all that new. Orac, who I believe is some kind of protocol droid, wrote about him back in 2015. Goldsmith was just dipping his toe in the water of widespread recognition at that time, getting some press in the form of credulous fluff pieces focusing on the fact that he is Olivia Newton John’s nephew and on his involvement in a ridiculous study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Described as a “feasibility study”, it is embarrassingly amateurish, really just a collection of cherry picked anecdotes that did not involve the slightest bit of blinding or control. The authors concluded what anyone remotely familiar with research like this would have expected.

What Caulfield alerted me to this week was the publication of yet another painfully credulous article, this time on the Forbes Lifestyle blog. In the piece, Forbes contributor and certified Holistic Health Coach Courtney Porkoláb asks the question “does energy healing work?” and invites readers to decide for themselves. In a conversation with her on Twitter she was quick to remind me that hers wasn’t a scientific article and to imply that she just wanted to “spark conversation.” Yet in the article she provides only her gullible acceptance and a series of comments from Goldsmith and a few credentialed believers endorsing the benefits of energy healing and even proposing scientific explanations. There isn’t even an attempt at token skepticism.

Porkoláb gushingly discusses Goldsmith as if he is a miracle worker:

Goldsmith’s success rates are undeniably high, having relieved people of all ages, with issues ranging from chronic pain to infections and auto-immune disorders, often in 60 seconds or less.

The article contains numerous absurd assumptions and laughably implausible claims, all in the service of promoting the fact that Goldsmith is now starring in a TLC program documenting his supposed abilities. It isn’t alone, of course. This Daily Mail article is particularly informative as it provides a clip from the most recent episode. It shows Goldsmith taking advantage of the power of suggestion as he interrogates a 2-year-old child about his symptoms before going through the standard energy healing motions. The kid is adorable but it’s pretty ridiculous, and what is really happening should be clear to anyone with a modicum of experience with toddler behavior. The deciphering of the child’s unintelligible responses reminded me of how ghost hunters prime listeners when demonstrating EVP.

Orac, which I understand is some kind of prototype U.S. military robot that gained sentience and a powerful sense of skepticism after being struck by lightning, beat me to the punch and wrote an excellent discussion of Goldsmith and the Forbes article. Feel free to hop on over and read it. I’ll provide a couple of the best quotes myself, however:

Prior to the studies done in the public eye, Goldsmith spent years healing as many as he could, often those who had been failed by countless doctors and traditional medicine.

Regular readers of SBM know how unreliable claims such as this are. Unless Goldsmith was keeping meticulous records of his healing attempts and following up to document long term outcomes, these kinds of statements are essentially meaningless. It’s very easy with confirmation bias and motivated reasoning to look back over the years and come to the conclusion that you helped a lot of people. It’s easy to discount the failures and focus on the apparent successes.

And patients can be “failed by traditional medicine” in numerous ways, many of which don’t actually equate to what is being implied. Patients with vague or non-specific symptoms and certain world views often feel like conventional doctors have let them down when they aren’t given a specific diagnosis, or when treatment recommendations consist of lifestyle changes or mental health assessments rather than confident assertions and a supposed cure. Often proponents of pseudomedicine convince people that their doctor has failed them by missing the diagnosis of a fictional malady, such as adrenal fatigue.

I found this quote from Goldsmith particularly interesting:

To be honest, sometimes I’ll work on something that—medically—is seemingly simple and not fix it. And something that is medically complex—something medically incurable, for example—that might be quite easy for me.

He chalks this up his healing powers not being an exact art. I see this as exactly what I would expect when all that is being offered is false hope and expectation, and one is counting on various placebo effects to give the appearance of benefit. But again, unless he has been keeping strict records of his encounters, his claims regarding past treatments can’t really be assessed. I’m not just going to take his word for it that he has defied our fundamental understanding of human physiology.

The credentialed believers provide some of the most memorable contributions, which you can read about in the above linked post by Orac. These include demonstrations of a lack of understanding of how pain is assessed and treated as well as appeals to quantum physics and “bioenergy”. There are also references to the time Gary Schwartz supposedly found a measurable differences in the magnetic fields surrounding the hands of energy healers and to a study on bio-photon emissions after energy healing.

Let’s do the science!

Goldsmith is on a mission to prove that what he does is legitimate and not just theatrical placebo by participating in clinical trials. I already mentioned the one published “study” he participated in above, and he claims to be involved with two more taking place at the same facility. It sounds like more of the same:

The study presently underway is being undertaken at NYU Lutheran Hospital in New York and employs a qualitative methodology to help understand the experiences of patients who encounter Mr Goldsmith’s practices.

In other words, more anecdotes without proper controls or blinding. According to his website, this study has actually been completed. It’s being written and will be submitted for publication next year. We’ll see. He also claims to be participating in a prospective RCT, again at the same facility, that is currently going through the IRB approval process. Again, we shall see if this actually materializes.

I challenged Goldsmith during a lengthy discussion on Twitter, and he reassured me that his intentions are purely altruistic. He denies financial motivation and simply wants to prove to the world that his gift is real so that science might take the phenomenon seriously. He only wants to help reduce the pain and suffering of others. He has been treating patients for years and, according to Goldsmith, he only went public in order to help entice researchers to do the studies.

I am skeptical of his motivation. History has, time and time again, revealed that believers in highly implausible and unproven therapies don’t really care what the science says. Typically the studies end up having such poor methodology that a positive result is assured, and when proper studies fail to find a true effect, they are ignored. Regardless of the outcome, proponents can point to the fact that studies were even done in the first place as evidence of their pet remedy’s legitimacy.

It is abundantly clear that Goldsmith has already decided that he has the ability to cure people through energy healing. He didn’t notice something odd and then look to science to determine if it was true. He noticed something was odd and then did it to people with real medical problems for years before agreeing to star in a television program highlighting it. In my opinion, the research angle is just marketing and I’m embarrassed for NYU.

Posted by Clay Jones

Clay Jones, M.D. is a pediatrician practicing at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA, and a regular contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog. He primarily cares for healthy newborns and hospitalized children, and devotes his full time to educating pediatric residents and medical students. Dr. Jones first became aware of and interested in the incursion of pseudoscience into his chosen profession while completing his pediatric residency at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital a decade ago. He has since focused his efforts on teaching the application of critical thinking and scientific skepticism to the practice of pediatric medicine. Dr. Jones has no conflicts of interest to disclose and no ties to the pharmaceutical industry. He can be found on Twitter as @skepticpedi and is the co-host of The Prism Podcast with fellow SBM contributor Grant Ritchey.