A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Perhaps in no other area has the seduction of ideomotor action created as much mischief as it has in medical settings....Under a variety of circumstances, our muscles will behave unconsciously in accordance with an implanted expectation. --Ray Hyman

...radionics or radiesthesia depends very largely upon the dowsing faculty. ---Peter Morrell

Radionics is a form of energy medicine created by Dr. Albert Abrams (1863-1924), the "dean of twentieth century charlatans."* Abrams claimed that he was able to detect distinct energies or vibrations (radiation) being emitted from healthy and diseased tissue in all living things. He invented devices that allegedly could measure this energy (vibration, radiation) and he created a system for evaluating vibrations as signs of health or disease. Here is a description of a demonstration of his discovery:

He laid a healthy man facing west and thumping his upper abdomen told a student to listen carefully the changes of reverberation.

Then, he let a doctor hold a sample of cancer cells near the subject's forehead.

He asked the doctor to touch the man's forehead with the cancer cells in intervals of several seconds.

When a sample of the cancer cells touched the man's forehead, the percussion sound changed from resonant sound to a dull sound.

He concluded that the vibration of a diseased cell sample was received by the human body and affected the human cells.

Abrams published an account of his theory in New Concepts in Diagnosis and Treatment (1922). He also wrote Human Energy (1919) in which he gives his account of how all thing emanate energy. He even invented a device that, he said, could transmit healthy vibrations to sick tissue or organs, thereby restoring them to a healthy state. His first device was the dynamizer:

... a small hollow fiber hose about five inches in diameter [that contained] two electrodes which were connected to a ground wire. The top of the Dynamizer is an ordinary condenser consisting of two aluminum discs, an intervening piece of cardboard and a top made of bakelite. An aluminum wire ran from the top of the Dynamizer to an Amplifier, which is constructed on the principle of the Magnavox used on radio receiving sets. From the Amplifier the wire passes through two rheostats, called Reflexophones, both of which are equipped with numbered dials and indicators. One of the rheostats is used for measuring the rate and the other the potentiality of the electronic vibration from the blood specimen in the Dynamizer. From the rheostats the energy is carried through a wire to an electrode which is fastened to the forehead of a reagent, sometimes called the subject. This reagent or subject is not the patient, although the patient is sometimes used in that capacity. The reagent may be anybody, either male or female, the healthier the better, whose nervous system completes the electric circuit. In other words, the reagent is merely part of the apparatus, and a most important part at that.

By noting the reactions on the nerves of the reagent as the rheostat is shifted from number to number, the physician is able to detect what disease vibrations are in the blood specimen in the Dynamizer. (Hudgings 1923)

That was the theory, anyway. Put a drop of blood in his oscilloclast, he said, and he could then see what, if anything, was ailing the donor by comparing the radiation of the blood sample to the blood of a healthy person.

The oscilloclast came to be known as "the black box" (Williams 2000: 2). Abrams's treatment consisted of sending good energy to the diseased area to counteract the bad energy. He called his treatment "electronics" or "Radio Therapy," and his system ERA (Electronic Reactions of Abrams). In the early 1920s, the president of the Watchtower Society became enamored of ERA and for the next twenty years ERA was advocated by the Jehovah's Witnesses.* One even invented his own version of the black box, the Electronic Radio Biola. Another Jehovah's Witness, however, considered ERA "demonism."

A few years after Abram's death, Ruth Drown (1891-1965) took the baton from Abrams and created her own therapy and black box. While Abrams was a San Francisco physician who had studied medicine in Europe, Ruth Drown was a naturopath and osteopath. She called her work Drown Radio Therapy. Her black box was said to be tuned to the patient and capable of transmitting healing energy across vast distances. She claimed to be able to take "radio photographs" of internal organs from a drop of blood and transmit radiation to stop bleeding (Williams: 89). Drown's black box was tested at the University of Chicago but it failed to work as promised. "Researchers who have put Drown and other radionics advocates to the test have been unable to verify their diagnostic claims" (Williams: 2). Contemporary practitioners like Linda Lancaster claim to have "successfully treated" thousands of customers with radionics and a medicine bag full of similar energy cures.

Abrams diagnosed patients both in person and at a distance. In person, he would hook up his machine (with a drop of the patient's blood in it) by a wire to the patient. By tapping on the stomach of the patient, claimed Abrams, a vibration would be sent through the patient's spine that he could measure and then translate into medical diagnosis. At a distance, he'd use the procedure mentioned above where he would compare the energy of the blood of a healthy person with that of the patient. The American Medical Association (AMA) sent Abrams the blood of a healthy guinea pig for analysis, which Abrams diagnosed as coming from someone with cancer, a streptococcus infection, and sinus problems (Williams: 37). The AMA had one of the black boxes opened and examined. They found "an ohmmeter, a rheostat, a condenser, and a magnetic interrupter" but found nothing in the machine that could either read or send energy waves as Abrams had been claiming.

In England, a civil engineer got on the radionics bandwagon by inventing his own version of the black box. George De La Warr (1905-1969) was introduced to Drown's "Homo Vibra Ray Instrument" during WWII. He thought it was useful in treating pneumonia.* After the war, he invented his own device. He put a rubber pad on top of his black box and claimed that by stroking the pad with his fingers "the needle on the ohmmeter would tend to stick at various points indicative of diseased conditions" (Williams: 37).

His boxes had a number of dials which were to be twisted until the stroking of the rubber pad seemed to change in character. The setting of the dials then gave the operator a number. Each box was accompanied by the Guide to Clinical Condition, a list of numbers that could be consulted to determine the medical condition of the subject. For example, 901 would mean “toxins” and 907 would be “fracture.” A “bruise” was indicated by 80799, and 60404 meant a “secretion imbalance.” (Randi 1995).

The reasoning behind Abrams's theories are given by an admirer:

In view of the electronic structure of matter and its general property of radioactivity, Dr. Abrams conceived the idea that in order to uproot a disease in the organism it is essential to go beyond the cellular tissues and really get at the electronic structures of the atoms. It seemed reasonable to his mind that disease is capable of producing certain changes in the rate or manner of rotation of the electrons in the affected atoms, and that so long as the electrons are not vibrating normally the entire organism will be out of balance. All this sounds logical, but how to correct the abnormality of the electronic vibrations is the great problem. It is manifest that the planetary electrons of atomic systems are capable of many different motions at once, even as planets of a solar system undergo several simultaneous motions in their orbital journeys. It appeared to Abrams, therefore, that each disease may have its characteristic vibratory rate, or rather the power to affect the motion of the electrons in a characteristic way, without destroying the vibratory motions which the electrons previously possessed, if this be so, an electronic analysis of the blood or tissues should reveal the existence of whatever diseases may be present therein, provided a means could be devised to do this. Being of an inventive turn of mind, Dr. Abrams set upon the task of developing an apparatus that would sort out these hypothetical vibratory rates and record them separately. . . .*

The users of the black boxes may be able to produce measurable readings on ohmmeters or rheostats, but there is no justification for assuming that the measure of electrical resistance has anything to do with healthy or diseased vibrations of electrons or energies. However, advocates do not necessarily identify energy or vibrations with radiation or electromagnetic fields, as Abrams did. They are as likely to identify the energy with auras, chi, or orgone as with anything physical. For example:

... one of Abrams's many imitators was Royal Raymond Rife (1888-1971), an American who claimed that cancer was caused by bacteria. During the 1920s, he claimed to have developed a powerful microscope that could detect living microbes by the color of auras emitted by their vibratory rates. His Rife Frequency Generator allegedly generates radio waves with precisely the same frequency, causing the offending bacteria to shatter in the same manner as a crystal glass breaks in response to the voice of an opera singer. The American Cancer Society has pointed out that although sound waves can produce vibrations that break glass, radio waves at the power level emitted by a Rife generator do not have sufficient energy to destroy bacteria.*

Roy RifeRife's work lives on in the practice of Diane Spindler, Renewal Enterprises, Hulda Clark, and many others.

When all tests fail to find either that the black boxes work as they are supposed to work or that they are simply measuring electrical resistance, proponents assert that there is a paranormal element that is "integral to radionics, noting that the radiations being measured are similar to those felt by a dowser"  and the person operating the machine must have some paranormal powers (Williams 37).

Practitioners point to their many satisfied customers as the only evidence needed to support their claims about the wonders of radionics. Of course, dead customers don't leave testimonials.* It is true that Abrams and De La Warr rented out black boxes and made formidable fortunes doing so. Drown sold her black boxes and also made a healthy profit. To this day, there are many "energy healers" still using electronic boxes of some sort which they apply to plants, animals, humans, soil, or whatever strikes their fancy.* These healers claim to know which vibrations or frequencies are good and which are bad. They claim to know how to detect these energies or produce them. Thus, they can both diagnose and treat, usually with the same magical black box. One contemporary advocate describes radionics this way:

Radionics is a methodology for the detection and manipulation of subtle energies linked to physical matter: animal, vegetable or mineral. It is generally known as a system of vibrational healing wherein curiously configured "black boxes" are used to detect and treat disease conditions of a living body, be it animal or vegetable, anywhere in the universe.*

Another advocate adds this curious bit of information:

... as Radionic treatment takes place at a non-physical level, it cannot harm any living tissue or produce any unnatural side effects. Radionics is concerned with healing of the whole man, with the health pattern or entelechy of the individual. The health pattern is a singular, unitary force within the structures of man that ensures adequate and optimum functioning of the systems of his body.*

The reader may wonder how something that does not take place at the physical level can have any effect on the health or disease of the body. You may wonder how it is possible to heal the whole without affecting the parts. You may wonder why any of this stuff is called radionics. Frankly, I have no idea. The reader may also wonder if the practitioners of radionics are frauds. Some may be, but many are well-meaning but deluded individuals. They are unaware that they are being unconsciously directed to have their fingers or rods "stick" at certain points and give them certain readings. To them, the black boxes are sensitive to energies, not their own subconscious expectations. Their metaphysical biases and beliefs regarding vibrations, frequencies, and the like are confirmed each time the machine works as expected and each time a patient is deemed to be satisfied. On the other hand, if you are looking for objective evidence that any of these devices work as claimed, you will be disappointed. They are rarely tested under properly controlled conditions, but when they are, they always fail.

Quackery involving machines that supposedly detect and cure illnesses by picking up "frequencies" or "vibrations" is rampant. (For a sampling click here, here, here, here, and here.) The appeal is two-fold: the patient avoids surgery and drugs; and the patient gets treated by a non-invasive magical device that science-based medicine doesn't want anyone to know about. Of course, if these machines worked, scientific medicine would be the first to use them.

Some of the quacks claim they can diagnose allergies by using biofeedback (galvanic skin response, just like the polygraph!). They claim to read the digital frequencies of allergens. Allergens don't have digital frequencies and if they did, a galvanic skin response meter wouldn't help since all it measures is the resistance of the skin to a small electrical current. One outfit, AllergiCare Relief Centers, not only uses the bogus biofeedback machine, it uses a laser light to stimulate imaginary "biomeridian" points (à la acupuncture), which allegedly strengthens organs so they don't react to the allergens in the future. Another device, the PAP-IMI, promises the patient can avoid chemotherapy. U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee called for a congressional investigation into "energy medicine" machines after a 5-month-old boy died following a useless treatment with the PAP-IMI machine.*

In the early 1980s, the Toftness Radiation Detector and similar devices were banned. This hand-held device used by some chiropractors allegedly focuses low-level radiation emitted from the body that the chiropractor could detect while rubbing his fingers on a detection plate. The rubbing creates "crackling" sounds that supposedly identify areas of "nerve interference" (subluxations) treatable by very-low-force spinal "adjustments." The device was invented by Irwing N. Toftness, D.C. Despite the ban, his nephew, David Ray Toftness, D.C., continued to sell the device. In 2013, the FDA successfully prosecuted David and the Toftness Post-Graduate School in Wisconsin for illegally distributing unapproved diagnostic devices.

Other devices promise to use quantum physics to diagnose and cure you by machines such as the EPFX, invented by federal fugitive William Nelson. Nelson is not alone, unfortunately, in offering quantum energy healing.

See also e-meter, ideomotor effect, natural cancer cures, pathological science, placebo effect, and vibrational medicine.

reader comments

further reading


Bausell, R. Barker. (2007). Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine Oxford. (review)

McCoy, Bob. (2000). Quack!: Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.

Randi, James. (1995). An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural.

Williams, William F. (2000). Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (Facts-on-File.

Zusne,  Leonard and Warren Jones. (1989). Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking, 2nd edition.

online articles and websites

Quack "Electrodiagnostic" Devices by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Dubious Diagnostic Tests by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Questionable Cancer Therapies by Stephen Barrett, M.D. and Victor Herbert, M.D., J.D.

Tumorex, by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

The Bizarre Claims of Hulda Clark by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work by Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D.

Radionics, Good for Everything! by Harry Edwards. The Skeptic, Vol 13 No 1

Biofeedback and Laser for Allergies by Harriet Hall, M.D.

Dr. Abrahms' Electron Theory by William Hudgings

How People Are Fooled by Ideomotor Action by Ray Hyman, Ph.D.

Quack Cures and Radionic Ouija Boards by Ken Raines (1966, updated 1999)

The Energy Fields of Life by Victor J. Stenger

radionic homeopaths

Royal Rife on Radionics

news stories

Rife Device Marketer Sentenced to Prison by Stephen Barrett, M.D. "In February 2009, a jury found James Folsom guilty of 26 felony counts relating to his sale of unapproved medical devices....Folsom was ordered to pay a $250,000 fine and was sentenced to 59 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised release. The judge also ordered the destruction of more than 450 devices that the government had seized during the execution of a search warrant at a self-storage unit used by Folsom."

Cancer sufferers have died after putting their faith in a device with electrical parts worth just $15

Rife Machine Operator Sued

Last updated 28-Sep-2015

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