The title of Adam Gopnik’s book review in the November 30, 2015, New Yorker on the patterns of our scientific understanding is “Spooked: What Do We Learn about Science from a Controversy in Physics?” He wonders if science is “a socially agreed-upon fiction, no more empirically grounded than any other . . . with fetishes and fashions, with schemers, dreamers, and black-balled applicants.” Provoking such musings was Scientific American contributor George Musser’s new book, Spooky Action at a Distance. Musser’s book title comes from a statement made by Albert Einstein relative to what he found to be an awkward realization that “quantum entanglement” can exist between distant atomic particles.
Musser tracks the history of engagement with this perturbing finding. Elevated by Einstein and Niels Bohr and others in the first part of this last century, the concept fell out of favor mid-century. More recently amidst the turmoil post-Sixties, the concept has been revitalized by research such as that of Colgate professor Enrique Galvez who uses an apparatus that shows “photons behaving like a pair of magic coins.” Musser is interested in how these peaks of high regard and valleys of ill repute may be influenced by the spirit or the time more than by advancing research.
Notably, Gopnik’s review comes within a fortnight of two significant projects from overlapping groups of leading figures examining evidence of consciousness in healing. Among these are Deepak Chopra, MD; Mimi Guarneri, MD; Wayne Jonas, MD; and Richard Hammerschlag, PhD. Through work backed by philanthropist Ruth Westreich, University of California San Diego’s Shamini Jain, PhD (pictured), helped convene a 2014 gathering of 45 researchers on the “biofield.” Contracted papers from the meeting led to the publication of a special issue of Global Advances in Health and Medicine: Biofield Science in Healing: An Emerging Frontier in Medicine.
In the same week, Jain announced the opening of a new non-profit collaborative, Consciousness and Healing Initiative. The mission: “The Consciousness and Healing Initiative (CHI) is an international collaborative accelerator of scientists, health practitioners, innovators, educators and artists, who forward the transdisciplinary science and real-world application of consciousness and healing practices. CHI fosters a social movement to place health and healing at the center of our personal and global consciousness, in order to build healthier societies and sustainable stewardship of our planet.”
Comment: The appearance of the Gopnik review amidst the announcement of these work products from biofield scientists was too enjoyable a coincidence to not co-report them. This is especially so with the “social movement” that is the intent of CHI: Gopnik’s theme relates to how scientific ideas may gain strength, or weaken, less in response to new research than to, oh lowly worm, social activity.
There was a time 15 to 20 years ago when some of these scientists imagined that what is now the NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health would serve as a sponsor of research on energy medicine practices such as homeopathy, Reiki, magnets, and distant healing. That direction was effectively “black-balled,” to use Gopnik’s word, when the agency came under increasing attack for far less esoteric initiatives. Through conversations with Jain, Westreich, and others in mid-2014, I learned that these informal consortia were being formed in part as a means to fill the gap and change the energy field for attracting research investment. Might this collaboration, these new social units, prove potent in doing so? Meantime, the very proximity of all of these luminaries in the field is certainly already causing multiple shifts in perspective. Credit Jain for taking on this herding of atoms.
Gopnik’s article will resonate beyond the biofield community to anyone involved in the emergence of integrative health and medicine. In one paragraph on the (non) “neat line between science and magic” Gopnik invokes a scene from Looney Tunes. He recalls how “Bugs (Bunny) draws a line in the dirt and dares Yosemite Sam to ‘just cross over ’dis line’—and then, when Sam does, Bugs redraws it, over and over, ever backward, until, in the end, Sam steps over a cliff.”
Just so “alternative medicine” was denigrated by regular medicine as quackery and fraud in the 1960s. The then “alternative” view of nutrition as medicine was subsequently redrawn into conventional care; then the line included manual therapy for low back pain, then fish oil, then acupuncture, then yoga, then mind and body were connected, then the concept of the microbiome, and etc. All the while antagonists can continue to decry the alternatives as shams and magic. Gopnik’s thesis on the social influence over science is supported by the “scientific” data that has had the most significant impact on the advance of integrative care. Doors and minds opened following the publication of results of a survey of consumer use of “unconventional medicine.” Over a third of the public—apparently selecting for those better educated and well-off—was already using these therapies and professionals. The transformative data were from a social movement, not from a randomized controlled trial.