As I learned one day at an alternative medicine expo, pseudo-scientific health remedies come in all forms: animal, vegetable, and mineral literally. Let's take them in reverse order.
Mineral: Healing with Crystals
A company called Vogel Psychotronics encouraged people who passed by their booth at the expo to lie on a hospital-style bed surrounded by long, flashing lights with crystals mounted on the ends, like cannons in a very low-budget science fiction movie. According to the company's brochure, Dr. Marcel Vogel left his job at IBM in the 1980s to devote himself to studying the Life Force Energy of plants. "As he himself was quick to point out," said the brochure, "all his elaborate scientific investigations are merely an excuse to substantiate the phenomenon most central to his life and work: the power of human love...quartz crystals, he claimed, merely amplify and transmit this most transformative of human energies."
The brochure gave very specific, though hard-to-follow instructions for using Vogel's crystal wands to harness love and mend the body, including: "Place the Crystal, male end up, on the body over the thymus and place the left hand on the back. Fill the void created with Love and Light. Seal the entire aura with the Crystal sideways, left hand on opposite side of body." And you could buy an entire Vogel Photonic Triangulation healing table of your own for a mere $10,000.
Vegetable: Living Foods (with a Cameo Appearance by Urine)
One lecturer at the expo seemed conscious of the emotional insecurity and general gullibility of his audience. In contrast to the usual New Age technique of bolstering the customer's ego and discouraging judgment, Brian Clement of the Hippocrates Health Institute took pleasure in dismissing the conventional wisdom of other alternative health gurus as nonsense. Both meat eaters and vegetarians consume fats, he said, even if the vegetarians consume slightly less, and their fat consumption is reducing the amount of oxygen their brains get. "So we've got two groups of people walking around that prevail in the United States of America: the super brain dead ones, they're the ones that smash up their cars on Highway 101, and the half brain dead ones that are listening to New Age music and are spaced out 90% of the time, and they're the vegetarians."
His solution to the mass idiocy problem? Eat only freshly-picked "living foods," and particularly those beans and vegetables that the Hippocrates Health Institute has found to have high "vibratory levels" when the plants' electromagnetic fields are measured with a Gaussmeter, on the theory these plants will contain more "life energy."
Could this Gaussmeter-wielding vegetable monger be onto something? Well, he was a bit evasive when asked how the Institute arrived at its vibratory hypothesis, he rapidly glossed over the "blood tests" by which the Institute grades the health of its test subjects, and he was clearly accustomed to making his sales pitch to audiences like this one, insecure and desperate for answers. (One audience member, a male who looked very weak and out of shape, claimed he has been consuming his own urine for years and has found it to be very beneficial.) If there was at least a metaphorical glimmer of truth in this lecture, it was in the reminder that fresh fruits and vegetables may be better for you than ones that have aged or have been boiled. The famed rocket scientist Robert Jastrow, hardly a New Ager, reportedly runs from his garden to his kitchen with newly picked vegetables in order to minimize the decline in their nutritional value.
Jastrow is getting carried away, but at least the Hippocrates Institute lecture reminded me to eat my vegetables. Satisfied that there was little more to be gained from that lecture, though, I headed off to hear a woman who claims to communicate psychically with cats and dogs. If I could find a silver lining in a lecture about vibrating corn, why not in one about animals?
Animal: Healing Other Species
Penelope Smith, the final speaker on my strange tour, is the author of When Animals Speak and Animal Talk: Interspecies Telepathic Communication, and she claims that her telepathic interventions have helped to heal emotional problems in humans and pets alike, and sometimes as in the case of a cat named Peaches have helped animals overcome physical injuries by, for instance, telepathically telling them not to lick their scabs (bear with me it gets worse). Smith was profiled in the book 100 Top Psychics in America, in which she was asked to give an example of her "telepathic interspecies communication." She replied: "In 1976, I first met llamas while visiting the Los Angeles zoo. I asked the three llamas if they would come out to visit me. They shied away, so I sang to them. Then I danced back and forth beside the fence [for one female llama]. The others tried to join in, but she warned them back, saying, 'This is for me alone.' Fifteen years later, I acquired my own llamas when Regalo and Raindance joined my family."
At the expo, as she approached the microphone, Smith was revealed to be a thin, grinning woman with an odd laugh. "My vision," she began, "is that by a certain time, and I keep getting the year 2012 [New Agers often note that 2012 is the year time ends in the ancient Mayan calendar], children will look up at their parents and they'll say 'You mean there was a time when people didn't communicate with animals?' in total disbelief." Smith said that in the near future, she hopes all people will understand interspecies telepathy well enough to receive images from their dogs about how the dogs spent their day (the closest I've come to knowing what's going on in a canine mind is when my parents' dog Uber tilts her head to one side in confusion, which I'm confident is how dogs say "Huh?"). Smith asked the audience what their visions are for future interspecies relations. Most of the answers were brief: "harmony," "healing," etc. I kept picturing the chimpanzee bartender that I'd seen profiled on an old episode of That's Incredible! and wondering if chimps will someday be added to the labor force.
Smith's website notes that her advice should not be used as a substitute for veterinary care much as proponents of complementary medicine for humans say that their scientifically unproven techniques should not be used as a substitute for a real doctor's visit. But in both cases, one is left with the distinct impression that were it not for fear of lawsuits (even lawyers have uses), the practitioners would be delighted to have desperate people come to them instead of going to a medical professional. Smith relates the story of Charlie, a dog whose broken leg suddenly became usable again, claims Smith, when she psychically communicated with the dog about the emotional trauma behind the injury (the dog leapt out of a moving truck, claims Smith, to be reunited with its owner).
All I can say in Smith's favor is that if all practitioners of complementary medicine would follow her example, focusing on animal patients instead of human ones, at least we'd minimize the damage done to our own species. I wonder if the Vogel Photonic Triangulation table works on dogs?
Todd Seavey, editor of HealthFactsAndFears.com, researched various traditions, including alternative medicine, as a Phillips Foundation journalism fellow. Read his "e-monograph" about ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE: The Healers, the Hopeful, and the Dingbats.