Linda Seebach is an editorial writer for the News. She can be reached by telephone at (303)892-2519 or at seebach@RockyMountainNews.com by e-mail.
Rocky Mountain NewsMarch 19, 2000
A lecture on modern physics doesn't usually elicit strong emotions, but Victor Stenger's did.
Stenger, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, was on the campus of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center Monday to discuss the "human energy field." And his thesis, though he tactfully refrained from stating it in so many words, was that modern science offers no evidence that any such thing even exists.
That was not what the audience wanted to hear. Many of them, judging by the pained or even hostile questions, were believers in or practitioners of forms of alternative or complementary medicine. The justification for what they do vanishes if Stenger is right.
In fact, before he spoke, Stenger had received an e-mail from Pat Nelson, assistant director of Denison Memorial Library, expressing just such concerns.
She'd been asked, Nelson said, whether Stenger "will be promoting the Skeptics agenda, particularly in regard to Therapeutic Touch."
That is the widely practiced theory that nurses can be taught to sense human energy fields and manipulate them to help patients get better.
"There is some anxiety on the part of UCHSC School of Nursing faculty," Nelson said, "who remember the strong attack by the Skeptics on this healing modality during the 1980s."
Nelson expressed hope that the lecture "can serve to educate without offending and alienating faculty and students in the School of Nursing." If Stenger could share with her some of the contents of his lecture, she said, "it may serve to diffuse anxiety."
I'm not sure where academics get the idea that they should never have to listen to something that offends them. I'd say that if they are professing nonsense, and they're offended when somebody says so, then they need to be offended.
But Stenger was much more gentle than that. Nurses who practice therapeutic touch, he said, see that patients feel better and it encourages them. And patients often feel better when they believe someone has done something to help them; that's the "placebo effect," and it is very powerful.
But if there were any kind of physical energy involved, unique to living creatures, it would have been measured by now. The term "energy" has a precise and well-established meaning in science. "So if you think there's something out there," Stenger said, "call it something else."
Stenger made a careful distinction between "ordinary claims" for complementary medicine -- claims that, if true, would not violate established scientific principles -- and "extraordinary claims," which would.
To say that relaxation and meditation can improve people's health is an ordinary claim, and not even a controversial one, although quantifying the benefits is tricky. But to assert "Meditation tunes you into the cosmic energy field" or "All disease is caused by derangement of the nervous system" or some such rubbish is sufficiently extraordinary that it demands an extraordinary level of proof.
Scientific journals frequently set a threshold for publication of 1 in 20; that is, there is no more than a 5 percent chance that the results obtained are simply the result of chance. That's not stringent enough, Stenger said, recommending that the standard for extraordinary claims be set (as it is in physics) at 1 in 10,000.
If some experiment is tried 20 times, and one of those times it demonstrates statistically significant results at the 5 percent level, that doesn't mean the effect is real. But that one will be submitted for publication while the other 19 are forgotten.
Stenger is comfortable with the belief that physics is the same for living organisms as it is for any other kind of matter, and that thoughts and emotions are ultimately material as well. No vital energies or psychic forces.
"I can live with that," he said. "I kind of like it, actually."
Then he added, "I know that's not what you want to hear."
Perhaps not. But at least they listened.