(Charlie Goldsmith, miracle healer, was interviewed on primetime TV show “Interview” in May 2018 — this is an article published in Australian Skeptics Magazine)
The interview format shares a robust history with science. From Darwinism to the Galileo affair, some of the boldest claims in physics and biology have been interrogated ruthlessly. In this way, Andrew Denton’s choice of subject for his new series “Interview” was fitting, as his guest Charlie Goldsmith has made scientific claims as audacious as any.
The claim to heal people with “Energy Medicine” is a big one. Without making physical contact, the therapist can apparently change the physiology of their patients in miraculous ways — in Charlie’s case, even over webcam. If it’s true, Charlie has subverted centuries of scientific knowledge. While that is vanishingly improbable, what he certainly has subverted is our expectations of a miracle healer.
The archetype of saffron clad yogis, or crystal laden fifty-somethings with Om tattoos are tropes that are so familiar, that they’re easier to dismiss than believe. Charlie’s style however is refreshing — young, charming, effulgent, and fashioned in the soft, denim pastels that typify the wellness movement’s modern aesthetics.
But it’s not all about the superficial packaging, he’s also genuine — not in his abilities, but his belief in them. He is sincere, cautious about his claims, and is humbly open to scientific testing.
He does however wish his critics were as open-minded as him. He believes his right place is in hospitals, and is happy to be scientifically tested just as any pill would be. Readily admitting that the only published trial on his abilities has massive shortcomings, he actively pursues a blinded, controlled, randomised trial. In his own words, he thinks of himself as a medication, and wants to be applied in that way.
Suppose we extend him this courtesy. Imagine for a moment a medication, packaged not within a well-intentioned, charismatic therapist, but a cheap plastic bottle with a paper label, and size seven font.
Imagine you are told that the only research supporting this medication was a tiny study published in one of the lowest ranking scientific journals in the world, with methodology so weak it’d make scientists balk. Imagine the biggest boast the manufacturers of this medicine could make, was that proper scientific trials are yet to be published, or even commence.
Imagine the skepticism that would generate, and rightly so. Patients, doctors and governments would rightly demand some proof before it’s promotion.
And that’s the assymetry at play here, because we don’t apply such rules to alternative therapies such as Goldsmith’s. When the packaging is boring, we’re willing to be skeptical. When the packaging is attractive, we want to believe.
I’m genuinely buoyed that Charlie Goldsmith is engaging with sturdier scientific trials. There is little doubt about the truths they will reveal. But when the results are published years from now, it will be nothing but a belated shutting of the barn door, because the horse has well and truly bolted.
Before a shred of credible scientific evidence has come to light, Charlie has a TV show, a sizeable social media following, and now a primetime television spot with Australia’s most illustrious interviewer. Promotion has preceded proof.
Denton probed sharply by asking Goldsmith if he would reject the idea that his treatment is an instance of the placebo effect. To this he retorted “If it’s a placebo, so what?” explaining that if conventional treatments are failing, and placebo treatments improve symptoms, it is a worthwhile pursuit.
This logic is undeniable and frequently invoked by proponents of alternative medicines. But it conceals a hypocrisy: to even begin a discussion about the ethical use of placebo treatments demands a concession they’re unwilling to make — that their therapies are indeed no better than placebos.
Moreover, the great irony of touting the “power of placebo” is that placebos don’t work particularly well — not in the way people believe. The largest part of the effect is not due to some mystical mind-body connection, but a rather a layered, complex interplay: the natural regression of patients’ symptoms back to the baseline average, researcher bias, reporting bias, and the subject’s expectancy. Although there are some fascinating neurochemical impacts of placebos in the management of pain, the real-world benefits are modest, and fortunately an automatic component of conventional treatments. Much of the reputation placebos is exaggerated and misattributed.
As far as Charlie Goldsmith is concerned, time will tell, as he submits his apparent powers to scientific trials. Yet the inevitability of results is overshadowed only by the banality of the situation — this would be another one of thousands such supernatural claims shown ultimately to be a false hope.
Meanwhile, there is another trial occurring — it’s not just Charlie who’s being tested, it’s us. What’s on trial is the credulity of society in 2018. In a time of space stations, and chemotherapy, what ancient ideas we are willing to give a platform to, put faith in, and tacitly amplify?