The University at Buffalo, self-proclaimed flagship of the State University of New York’s public university system, is no slouch when it comes to academic merit.
Rated the 51st best public university in the country, and 106th overall among all universities by the U.S. News and World Report’s annual ‘Best College’ rankings this year, the college proudly boasts of its description as one of the United States’ ‘Best National Universities’ by the magazine. UB’s more than 28,000 students encounter over 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs to study from, programs filled with a bevy of talented and recognized facility. With top-notch research facilities, ESPN-worthy football teams and the largest campus in New York only growing more expansive in the years to come, UB is an university on the rise. I should know; I used to be one of its students.
That’s likely why I’m particularly perturbed by my alma mater deciding to sponsor a class this upcoming year teaching its social workers and others the equivalent of fairy magic.
As part of UB’s School of Social Work, the University at Buffalo offers several workshops and lectures intended for post-graduate social workers who are required to accrue a certain number of Continuing Education Credits every year. These credits are meant to serve as incentives to keep professionals up-to-date on the latest and best developments of their field. With the inclusion of a seminar called ‘Reiki I Certification: Using Energy Work in Human Service Practice’ this April though, it’s an incentive that is finding itself painfully subverted into a marketing ploy for pseudoscientific nonsense.
Developed by Japanese Buddist Mikao Usoi in the 1920′s, Reiki is a therapy that relies on the transfer of an energy called qi between user and patient to heal any and all sorts of ailments. Though different methods abound, the guiding principle of channeling qi through one’s palm to mend the energy field of a client is a main constant. To further up the absurdity of its claims, some Reiki practitioners opt to manipulate their healing energy from afar, literally handwaving illness, stress and plausibility away from its clients with nary a pause to appreciate the irony. (UB’s seminar includes a primer on non-physical Reiki)
Surviving in relative obscurity for most of its existence, Reiki’s enjoyed a surge of popularity among the alternative medicine community in recent years – especially in the U.S. – and you don’t have to look too hard for a certified Reiki therapist these days, especially at the local yoga center.
Of course, Reiki is merely an old horse dressed with a new saddle, the basic premise of healing through another’s willpower found in just about every culture’s catalog of pseudoscience. In the States, it used to be called therapeutic touch (TT), an energy-healing technique less focused on specific principles like qi or chakras and more dependent on a vague healing force. TT was heavily co-opted by nurses after its ‘discovery’ by Dora Kunz in the 70′s.
In 1998, nine-year-old Emily Rosa, with the help of her parents – and later, noted alt-med debunker, Dr. Stephen Barrett – cleverly disproved the idea of someone being able to detect one’s energy field by feeling alone. Rosa used a curtain to blind TT users from herself, then asked them to correctly divine which hand of theirs Emily hovered her own hand over, presumingly through the practiced sensing of her energy field. A guessing game made easy were the claims of an identifiable ‘human energy field’ credible. The practitioners did no better than chance.
Emily’s experiment, which began as a science project for her class, would eventually find its way into the Journal of the American Medical Association, and soon enough the popularity of therapeutic touch went down along with it. But pseudoscience is a difficult beast to keep down, as Reiki supplanted and likely surpassed TT’s popularity in the years after, and now nests comfortably among alt-med’s arsenal of quackery.
Forgetting its upfront ridiculousness, the simple point is that we know Reiki is bunk because its therapeutic effect on people proves to be no better than placebo.
A large study conducted by the School of Nursing at Sonoma State University in California compared the comfort levels of nearly 200 ongoing chemotherapy patients after either undergoing authentic Reiki sessions, a sham version that merely followed the directions of a Reiki ritual – with no purported healing force being expelled out – or nothing at all. The nurses found Reiki did indeed increase the comfort level of those who underwent it as opposed to the control group who took neither real nor sham Reiki. Unfortunately, it performed no better than the fake version at doing so, thus proving once and for all that doing something can make you feel better than doing nothing.
It should be kept in mind that it’s not that Reiki is useless, it’s just that Reiki is no more useful than taking an spoonful of honey to cure a headache, which is to say, not as useful as actually taking an aspirin instead. Psychologically, the act of doing anything to help deal with stress or fatigue is one that leaves a person feeling better in of itself. Couple that with the care and attention received during a Reiki session, as the therapist might gently place their hands on different parts of the body or ask the client to get into a deeply mediative state, and it doesn’t take a Reiki therapist to figure out that making someone feel nice leaves them feeling better for a while. No meridians or qi energy need apply to explain that.
The nobler among us might protest that a placebo has its place among the toolkit of our mental health providers – sometimes all we really do need is a warm smile and patient ear to soothe ourselves with. But kind attention and good bed manners do not need to come in a package of disingenuous bunk. There’s something to be said for the power of stress relief on our weary bodies, it just doesn’t need to be said while hiding behind the buzz words of Eastern mysticism. Especially when there are perfectly cost-effective methods like massage that ARE proven to work on both our mind and our body.
What makes this all the more depressing is that this particular incident is far from isolated – unscientific practices like Reiki finding themselves taught through Continuing Education courses for social workers, psychologists and counselors alike, nor is UB the only university engaging in quackery for sale. It’s a sly gambit by those in the alternative medicine crowd; seeping the appearance of legitimacy from wherever it can find. And what’s more legitimate than the inside of a university classroom?
Social workers, for all the years of study they undergo, are not necessarily trained to recognize bad science when it rears its ugly head. Other experts learn the art of dissonance and manage to draft an alternative world of knowledge buoyed on top of personal anecdotes and studies so methodically flawed they’d make the engineers behind the Hindenburg blush.
This sort of academic quackery matters because while some of us seek out healing crystals or herbal remedies on our own, most encounter crank medicine in disguise. Either through misleading/false claims plastered on the side of a bottle in the aisle of a Duane Reade, miraculous-sounding titles like ‘Natural Cures and Remedies’ kept front and center in a Barnes & Noble, or from the authority of an social worker with a university-sponsored certification in Reiki. When we leave our health in the hands of other trained professionals, we expect them to be equipped with the knowledge needed to do their job as best they can. All a social worker versed in Reiki can provide is a hilariously misguided knowledge of anatomy and enough hand gestures to unnerve a third base coach.
Reiki doesn’t carry the slight risks of other publicized alternative therapies like chiropractic or acupuncture – there are no worries of accidental stroke caused by neck manipulation or infection from unsanitized needles. But that doesn’t make it harmless. Not only is there the existential worry of offering ineffective snake oil to others, but Reiki use hardly comes in a vacuum, with its true believers espousing similarly suspect therapies and beliefs alongside Reiki. Therapies that mislead, distract and have no place in a university.
Sadly, this isn’t the University at Buffalo’s first mistangle with pseudoscience either. In 2012 alone, the School of Social work sponsored a talk by Christine Courtois, a psychologist with a precarious history tied to the recovered memory movement that sprung among a minority of mental health professionals in the 80′s and which left countless patients and their surrounding families irrevocably damaged.
Another seminar earlier in 2011 involved the Internal Family Systems model (IFS), a psychotherapy ostensibly more based in reality than Reiki, but one that has also found itself at the center of allegations involving, what do ya know, false memories and personalities being recovered in therapy sessions. (Most notably including a certain set of civil cases ongoing in St. Louis…)
UB’s 20-person workshop on the wonders of Reiki to be held this Spring is ultimately nothing more than a drop in the pond if we’re talking large scale here, but it shouldn’t be ignored. There’s a world of useful information on the complexities of health to be passed down to the current generation of social workers. They deserve better than magical thinking from one of the best national universities in the country. We all do.