Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Flimflam inoculation 5: Inappropriate use of the word "energy"

To the scientifically illiterate, the word "energy" conjures up notions of warmth, life and goodness. However, a thermonuclear bomb delivers energy... at a very high rate.

Pseudo-scientific pursuits often misuse the word "energy". Take, for example, this snippit from the FAQ of the PCU College of Holistic Medicine

What are the fundamental differences between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine?

With its origin in ancient Taoist philosophy, traditional Chinese medicine views a person as an energy system in which body and mind are unified. Western medicine, however, does not share this holistic view as it isolates and separates a disease from a person. Chinese medicine views the body as a small universe, while Western medicine views it as a planet in isolation.

Diagnosis of illness is also approached differently. In addition to finding information about the history of the illness, traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis looks at different parts of the body such to gain valuable information about internal organs and their energies. For example, the tongue is often carefully examined to give detailed patient diagnosis.

Upon diagnosis, a TCM doctor will prescribe a treatment to restore the balance of energy channels in the body. Treatments such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, food cures, massage and/or exercises will be used. The TCM doctor will treat the entire person, including both the physical and the mental aspect.

Restore the balance of "energy channels"? What does that mean?

As a first-order check, ask yourself if the energy can be measured in Joules or Calories. Those are the scientific units by which energy can be quantified. In that context, what is meant by "internal organs and their energies"? Is it the amount of chemical potential energy stored in the molecules? Is it the organ's kinetic energy (from movement)? I suspect it's none of those, but rather a feeble-minded surrogate for "magic".

In addition to its fallacious use of "energy", what else does the FAQ get wrong? Hmmm, last I checked, Western Medicine (which I interpret to mean "science-based medicine") DOES view the body as a system of interacting mass and energy (measured in Joules). And what's with the rather abstract metaphor of viewing a person as a universe, and not "as a planet in isolation"? A universe is in isolation, is it not? It's the planet that is influenced by other stars, planets, etc. Am I missing something here?

Contrary to the FAQ's implication, science-based medicine infers diagnosis (1) by considering the history of illness, and (2) by looking at body parts, (in addition to other sources of information such as test results, etc.). However, science-based medicine does not make wild claims like the health of one's liver is conveniently displayed on their tongue. But apparently that's part of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Misuse of the word "energy" - or "force" for that matter - is often a sign that someone is trying to sell you something by employing science-sounding jargon. "Quantum physics" is another common import for con-artists. When you hear those terms with no obvious relation to their scientific definitions, seek a second opinion from a real medical professional.

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