Skeptic Look at Radionics: Adventures in Pseudoscienceby Don Lacey on Nov. 03, 2012, under Critical Thinking, Ethics, Freethought, History, Logic, Reason, Science, Skepticism
I write this today, to share an unusual story from my life, and to raise awareness of a form of quackery that many of our readers may not have known existed. I would like to think that Radionics machines are a thing of the past, but unfortunately we have not done enough to combat this type of superstition, despite it being debunked as far back as the 20s. It just goes to show how tenacious superstition and its profiteers can be.
When I was a kid, upon returning from school my mother once made a rather strange request. She handed me a q-tip and asked me to put it in mouth to get a sample of my saliva. She told me that my Aunt Gladys, who lived across town, had acquired some sort machine that made use of such samples. At the time no further explanation was given to me. It was not until a week or two later when my family visited this relative that I was able to learn more.
It was called the Ag Enviro, but my relatives simply referred to it as “the machine.” The man who sold it claimed it could be used to cure, heal, or alleviate numerous ailments by transmitting positive energy. Apparently to use it, one takes hair or saliva samples from friends or relatives and uses them to make little glass vials that can channel those individuals. There are also vials that one can make for various ailments and parts of the body (how these are made was never explained to me, and I am not sure I really want to know).
I was told that to use the machine, one places the vials in the three wells located on it, using large rubber-coated tweezers. Apparently, touching the vials with one’s hands compromised the machine’s effectiveness. The user typically places vials for the person she wants to cure, and ones for whatever ailments that person has together. After doing this the user makes seemingly random adjustments to the various dials on it and begins turning the main dial. While turning this one is apparently supposed use his or her other hand to rub the rubber pad mounted to the machine, in a circular motion. Changes in the resistance felt while rubbing the pad, are supposed to give the user an indication of which dial settings make the energy the strongest.
Aunt Gladys would spend hours on end in this way. Her collection of vials took up much of the room where the machine was situated as did a growing number of books about the machine and its various dial settings. Apparently, she spent several hundred dollars on it. I was never sure who she bought it from, or whether the seller was a sincere believer in its powers. It’s possible the was a cynical quack making money by bilking little old ladies.
There was never any evidence that the machine did anything at all. Yet, when word got out that one of us relatives was not feeling well my aunt would make a point of “putting them in the machine”. I never got the chance to take the machine apart, though I badly wanted to see what was inside it. It had no plugs, batteries or a power source of any kind. There was no reason to suspect that it worked, nor any logical reason why it would work. It bothered me to see someone I cared about spend so much time and money on something that was clearly nonsense.
Note that all this happened before the Internet came into wide use, so finding information on this strange device from unbiased sources was probably more difficult. After getting the Internet, I tried look up Ag Enviro to see if anyone else had similar experiences with relatives being sold expensive plastic rubbish. I had little luck until just recently when my friend pulled up a Wikipedia’s list of pseudosciences. On that list, there was a practice called “Radionics” which was described as follows: “Means of medical diagnosis and therapy which proponents believe can diagnose and remedy health problems using various frequencies in a putative energy field coupled to the practitioner’s electronic device… The internal circuitry of radionics devices is often obfuscated and irrelevant, leading proponents to conjecture dowsing and ESP as operating principles.”
This definitely sounded like what I had encountered. I turns out there is actually a whole culture built around using these devices.
Apparently, the radionics devices frequently do not have so much as a single complete circuit. Indeed, Albert Abrams, who started Radionics in the early 20th century, was declared the “dean of gadget quacks,” by The American Medical Association in the 1920s. In 1923 a man with stomach cancer was treated by a Radionics practitioner who claimed him to be completely cured. The patient died shortly afterward creating a public outcry against such medical fraud.
In 1924 Scientific American Magazine did a study of his machines and found them to have no effect whatsoever. Their study involved having one of Abrams associates use the machine to identify the contents of various vials. He failed even after multiple attempts. In another instance, the American Medical Association sent a vial to a Radionics practitioner who diagnosed it as a sample from a person with malaria, diabetes, cancer and syphilis. To the practitioner’s surprise the blood was actually from a rooster.
As I continued to learn more about this topic, I found that people who believe in it also tended to combine it with other forms of pseudoscientific nonsense such as the man in this video who uses it with homeopathy and healing Crystals:
All of these are practices are completely unsupported by evidence. Indeed, I found other videos by individuals who decided to forgo using vials and actual medical samples, but instead used pictures of the people they wished to cure, and simply wrote down the names of the ailments they wished to treat. There is no reason why something like this would work; it violates everything we know about physics and biology.
More information can be found online at the Skeptics Dictionary.