Pseudoscience

The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich and Orgone Energy Theory

What do Sigmund Freud, English space rock group Hawkwind, and metal filaments encased in resin pyramids have in common?

They’re all connected to Wilhelm Reich and his pet theory of Orgone Energy.

I first became fascinated with Orgone energy when I was sitting at my laptop looking for websites which made false claims about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation, and came across somebody who was selling interesting looking coloured translucent pyramids and stones which were speckled with metallic filaments, called orgonites. They looked like gemstones or polished crystals of some sort, and I thought that perhaps they’d make amusing paperweights.

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… shiny? Orgonite pyramid made by etsy seller VioletFlameOrgoneLA.

Unfortunately, when I looked into orgonites a little further, I was disappointed to find that they’re made of resin and not at all heavy enough to make effective paperweights. I continued to read, and fell down a rabbit hole of strangeness… of orgone energy and the man who devised its existence, Wilhelm Reich.

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Wilhelm Reich in his mid-twenties. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1897 and graduating in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1922, Wilhelm Reich rose to prominence as an influential second wave psychoanalyst with some rather radical ideas.

As an undergraduate, he met Sigmund Freud and the two became close, with Freud being so impressed with Reich that he allowed him to see patients while still an undergraduate. Unfortunately, this confidence was misplaced – Reich began an affair with a nineteen year old patient, a habit he continued throughout his career.

Freud and Reich did not see eye to eye for long – while Freud was concerned with what a patient said, Reich became much more focused on inflection, body language and facial expression, and reportedly subjected his patients to harrowing sessions to break down what he percieved as being their resistance and inhibition.

One of the ideas that Reich developed was that of “body armour”, or “Charakterpanzer” in which he contended that a there was a strong link between the character, emotional blocks and tension in the body. He suggested that repression of memories and emotion was the cause of physical illness, this being a theory which pops up with alarming regularity in the world of alternative therapies even today.

In 1930, Reich moved beyond psychoanalytic technique, onto touch therapy, sometimes painful, aimed to retrieve a repressed memory from his patients’ childhood. His goal became to trigger a whole body response with this touching, free from repression and inhibition, which he referred to as “orgasm reflex” – a full body convulsion, distinct from regular climax.

That said, Reich was a great proponent of regular climax also. His promotion of underage sex, emphasis on the importance of orgasm, and his sexual involvement with his patients saw the International Psychoanalytical Association request his resignation, to which Reich responded by camping in a tent outside their conference, while wearing a large knife on his belt.

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Sometimes a large knife on your belt is just a large knife on your belt. Photo via Wilhelm Reich Trust.

From there on, his ideas became even more unorthodox – he became convinced that there must be an additional element beyond the physiological which contributes to human orgasm… and this is where orgone energy was born – orgone taking its name from the word ‘orgasm’.

Orgone energy, Reich felt, was everywhere – a biological and cosmic energy which was linked to libido and potency, cancer, frogs, the aurora borealis. He began building contraptions to harness orgone energy… faraday cages made with plywood lined with rock wool and sheet iron, which he referred to as orgone accumulators. He believed that different materials – organic and inorganic, concentrated and reflected orgone energy, and that his orgone accumulators concentrated orgone energy to levels which could be used to treat cancer, experimenting with animals, then using them to treat humans.

Living in the US by this time, in 1940, Reich wrote to Albert Einstein, explaining the hope he had for his orgone accumulators in curing disease and outlining a claim that he could use his accumulators to raise temperature without a heat source. Amazingly, Einstein spent ten days examining an orgone accumulator for evidence of its temperature raising capacity, before dismissing it as the result of ambient temperature gradients. Demonstrating increasing paranoia over the years, Reich believed that Einstein’s dismissal was part of a conspiracy against him.

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Woman demonstrating Orgone Accumulator. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Reich continued his persual of orgone theory, applying it further in his therapy, creating more machines – notably, the ‘cloudbuster’ – a series of metal pipes grounded in water and pointed at the sky, which he believed could unblock orgone energy in the atmosphere and cause rain.

His claims about curing cancer were investigated by the FDA, who put an injunction on his literature and orgone machines, which reportedly triggered a further deterioration in his mental health. By the mid 1950s, he was convinced that UFOs were attacking earth with deadly orgone radiation, and would spend nights scanning the skies with binoculars, convinced he was fighting an interplanetary battle, shooting down UFOs with his cloudbusters.

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Reich with Cloudbuster. Photo via “New Illuminati“, a fine example of writing by modern Reich believers.

In 1956, an FDA inspector posing as a customer requested an orgone accumulator part be sent over state lines. The part was sent and Reich and an associate were charged with contempt of court. Reich was sentenced to two years imprisonment, his literature ordered to be burnt, and his machines destroyed. Psychiatric assessments were unfavourable, but he served eight months in prison, where he experienced sudden heart failure and died. He was sixty years of age.

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Wilhelm Reich, 1897 – 1957. Image via versobooks.

Orgone theory has made its way into popular culture over the years… or at least, popular counterculture. William S Burroughs was convinced that a home built orgone accumulator box greatly assisted him during times of withdrawal from heroin.

If you’ve seen the video to Kate Bush’s 1985 song Cloudbusting, you may remember Donald Sutherland playing a character who created a large metal vaguely steampunky machine with four long tubes, which he wheeled up onto a hill to point at the sky and create rain. Donald Sutherland was portraying Wilhelm Reich, and Kate Bush his son, the song based on a view of Wilhelm Reich through the eyes of his son Peter.

Then there’s American New Wave band Devo’s Energy Domes – the iconic terraced round ziggeraut style plastic hats worn by band members! One of the stories that has been told about the origin of the energy dome.. and there are several… is that the energy domes recycle the wasted orgone energy lost from the top of the head.

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Are they not men to be taken seriously? Photo: Jay Spencer

Space Rock group Hawkwind wrote a ten minute long song titled “Orgone Accumulator”, Dr Durand Durand in Barbarella was loosely based on Wilhelm Reich, orgone energy was mentioned in the BBC comedy Peep Show when Jez and Super Hans joined a cult, the orgone accumulator box was parodied in the Woody Allen film Sleeper… but what is the relevance of orgone theory today?


(I dare you to listen to the whole thing)

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Doctor Durand Durand’s Excessive Machine

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Close enough, automatic subtitles. Video here.

Well, there are still the true believers out there, who pen missives defending Wilhelm Reich, claim he was assassinated as part of a grand conspiracy to suppress the truth… and there are also people selling products based on orgone theory. In 2000, a couple in America who had been studying Reich’s work, decided that layering metal filaments and quartz crystal in catalyzed organic fiberglass resin created an item which harnessed the power of orgone energy, much the way Reich’s accumulators were meant to, with their layers of plywood, rock wool and sheet iron.

Orgonites are quite the cottage industry.

Orgonites: quite the cottage industry.

At the last Mind, Body, Wallet Festival we went to, I came across two seperate groups selling orgone related paraphenalia – and one was selling a variety of orgonites! They weren’t directly referring to Reich’s theories, but were going down the electromagnetic radiation fearmongering path, claiming that their orgonites could protect against damaging negative energies.

With a pang of regret as I handed money over to a Mind, Body, Wallet vendor who wasn’t located in the cafeteria area, I bought myself a souvenir.

Protected from weird energy!

Protected from weird energy!

Online, there are also many orgonite selling businesses, including those who’ve gone further and sell cloudbusting machines, which would make perfectly serviceable but expensive trellises for growing beans on, if you’re into that kind of thing. There are orgonites made specifically for using to protect against energy emitted by computers, phones, and mobile phone towers, against nuclear energy, against bad vibes from neighbours.

It’s a little strange though – that the people I’ve encountered selling items based on orgone energy don’t tend to mention Wilhelm Reich and the kinda sexy roots of his theory. I haven’t quite had the audacity to ask an orgonite salesperson where orgone energy theory came from, but perhaps one day.

This post is an adapted version of a report I gave on The Skeptic Zone Live Show, episode #355 {permalink}.

Slapping Therapy – Hongchi Xiao’s ‘Paida and Lajin self-healing’

The media has been reporting that a very sad and rather distressing event has taken place in Sydney this week, in which a seven year old boy whose parents brought him to the seminar of a visiting practitioner of alternative medicine has died the evening following his attendance of a ‘Paida and Lanjing self-healing’ workshop.

The boy, who it is understood had diabetes, attended a workshop run by practitioner Hongchi Xiao, who advocates some rather worrying methods for the treatment of medical conditions.

Hongchi Xiao in Australia in 2013. Photo: Facebook

Hongchi Xiao in Australia in 2013. Photo: Facebook

Hongchi Xiao developed what he refers to as ‘Paida and Lajin self-healing’, which can be used for almost all diseases, in which slapping and patting the body, and stretching tendons, is claimed to promote healing. Xiao claims that repeatedly slapping one part of the body “builds heat, causing blood vessels to expand, and ‘chi’ to flow strongly. Yang rises, yin melts and long-held toxins and blocks are released”.

Video testemonials from Xiao’s website show people slapping themselves until they are bruised – there are reports of people vomiting and falling unconscious. Testimonials also include mention of parents using the slapping technique on their children.

Xiao, who is from China, has been touring Australia and presenting workshops on his method – reportedly the week long Sydney workshop cost $1800 to attend. He is believed to have left Australia after being questioned by police regarding the death of the seven year old boy.

Obviously, we’re not in a position to say precisely what happened to the boy, beyond reports that he and his parents attended the workshop, that he was very unwell afterward, and that he passed away in an ambulance that evening.

For any details beyond that, and before we go forming any certain conclusions on this specific case, I think that we must await the coroner’s investigation and subsequent report.

Based on the news reports though, it’s very difficult not to have an emotional response to this story – I certainly have. The Telegraph have reported that the boy was made to fast for days before the workshop, it is possible that his insulin was
withdrawn as part of Paida and Lajin protocol, and the notion of repeatedly hitting a young child is frankly incredibly sickening to me.

I’ll check in again on this case after the coroner has performed an investigation and their report has been made public. Until then, a note for our overseas listeners… Hongchi Xiao is scheduled to conduct workshops in Salshausen, Germany
later this month, in Hong Kong in June, in Bandung in Indonesia in June and July, then in Seattle in the USA in August.

Should his tours still go ahead, please keep an eye on him – unfortunately he slipped under the radar for us here in Australia, but perhaps if he’s scheduled to visit where you live – if you’re in Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia or the United
States, you’d be able to let people know what Xiao’s methods involve and their potentially dangerous outcomes.

This post is a transcript of Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone Podcast, episode #341 {Permalink}.

Reading Signs Skeptically – The Toxic Talc Myth

There’s an inner city suburb in Sydney called Newtown, which is a fantastic place to spend a few hours, wandering up and down the main street, looking at shops and stopping for a coffee or a snack.

Newtown is around four kilometers south-west of the Sydney CBD. In the 1960s and 70s, affordable share-housing and the suburb’s close proximity to the city and universities drew in a large student population and Newtown became something of a bohemian centre, with a thriving cafe and live entertainment culture. Currently, Enmore Road and King Street host over 600 shopfronts… and some of the retailers who have set up in the area make some rather questionable claims.

Recently, The Skeptic Zone took a walk down King Street, Newtown, and in the window of a natural cosmetics shop, noticed this sign:

toxictalcsign

“TALC is closely related to ASBESTOS.
talc particles have been shown to cause tumors in the ovaries + lungs of cancer victims…
TALCUM is often the No. 1 ingredient in cosmetics. Its cost is ⩷ $50 PER METRIC TONNE! $ $ $ $ DO THE MATHS!!

T.C.K. IS A NANO-FREE ZONE

nano particles are the ticking time bomb of this generation – along with G.M.O
these particles cross the brain/blood barrier.
A BILLION NANO PARTICLES FIT ON THE HEAD OF A PIN!
The Rave of ‘invisible sunscreens is not so glamorous!
WE DON’T USE “Z-COAT ZINC” IN ANY FOUNDATIONS!!! OR PRODUCTS!!!

* KNOWLEDGE; IF NOT APPLIED, BECOMES A BURDEN…

xx”

So that’s a rather scary claim, that talc causes cancer… and I’m very happy reassure you that it is a myth. It’s an interesting one though, as it did originally have some basis in fact.

The shop window sign claims that talc is closely related to asbestos. This sounds rather alarming, given that most Australians are quite familiar with asbestos fibre inhalation related illnesses, including malignant lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, and the controversy surrounding and closing down of the asbestos mining and manufacturing industries.

As far as mineral composition goes, talc it fairly closely related to asbestos – talc is hydrated magnesium silicate, asbestos constitutes a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. However, this does not suggest that talc is a danger. A parallel claim would be to suggest that water, H2O, is dangerous because it has a similar chemical composition to hydrogen peroxide, H2O2. Unlike water, hydrogen peroxide is an oxidant, corrosive and creates localised capillary embolism on contact with human skin. That one extra oxygen molecule resulting in an unstable peroxide bond makes a heck of a lot of difference.

So where’s the fact?

Because of their similar composition, talc deposits are often found close to asbestos deposits. As such, talc deposits can be contaminated with asbestos. While the talc itself is very much innocuous, talc products produced prior to 1973 were sometimes contaminated with asbestos. In 1973, regulation of talc products was introduced, resulting in prior risks associated with contaminated talcum powder being abolished.

Modern talc refining processes are stringently monitored and there is no risk of lung disease associated with modern talcum powder or talc products.

The ovarian cancer claims are based on studies which found an increased ovarian cancer risk associated with the use of talcum powder, but relied on self-reports over a large time period and as such, were unable to measure either the purity of the talc used by participants, nor the frequency and dose at which it was applied. As such, no causal link has been drawn between talc and ovarian cancer, and studies have been deemed inconclusive.

Now… nanoparticles! There is no known health risk associated with products containing nanoparticles applied to the skin. In 2013, the Therapeutic Goods Administration published a review of relevant studies, which concluded that nanoparticles do not penetrate the skin beyond the outermost layer. Systemic absorption of nanoparticles is unlikely. Zinc oxide nanoparticles in particular have been studied; when exposed in vivo to human immune cells, the immune cells absorbed the nanoparticles and broke them down.

Claims regarding the dangers of nanoparticles in skin products are not based on any credible evidence… nor, for that matter, is the other suggestion slipped in on the sign that GMOs pose a health risk to humans, (despite the public successes of anti-GMO campaigners).

You know… I get the impression that the people who run the natural cosmetics store very likely believe that they are doing good. I could be cynical and come to the conclusion that they’re knowingly using bnon-evidence based fear tactics to sell their products, but that’s something I rarely come across when encountering people who manufacture products based around naturalistic fallacy and false dangers.

I think that it’s far more likely that perhaps at some point the store owners came across misinformation on the dangers of talc and nanoparticles, took it as fact, and built a business around something that they felt was going to be good for people. Likewise, the vast majority of alternative medicine practitioners, crystal sellers and other assorted woo-peddlers strike me as genuinely wanting to and believing that they are doing good.

Does this excuse the fact that their practices are not based on solid scientific evidence? Not at all – I feel that everybody has a responsibility not to spread misinformation and pseudoscience, particularly when such can cause people to forego evidence based medical assistance or advice, be seriously out of pocket buying magic beans, or place faith in myths rather than facts.

However, I still try to remain somewhat charitable in dealing with the people who make these claims… they’re rarely made with malicious intent. Likewise, I hope that people are able to understand that when we question their claims and ask for evidence, we’re not doing so to be malicious, smug or dogmatic.

Anyhow – I think that it’s worth keeping an eye out when you’re passing by shop windows or public notice boards, particularly in areas with higher concentrations of alternative lifestylers, alternative practitioners and the like. It can make for a good opportunity to keep on top of the sorts of claims being made, and prompt some interesting fact-finding and discussion!

This post is an excerpt from Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone #335 {Permalink}. Also included in the podcast report, are Richard Saunders and Ian Bryce discussing another sign spotted in Newtown, which made claims regarding “crystal bed” therapy, which was in a new age shop window.

Further reading:
American Cancer Council Fact Sheet on Talcum Powder and Cancer
Cancer Council Western Australia: Cancer myth: Talcum powder and cancer
Cancer Council Australia: Nanoparticles and Sunscreen

Crank Magnetism

Much to the delight of his unashamedly geeky parents, my son Oscar is rather enthusiastic about science. While at five years of age he’s fairly certain that he’s settled on a career in paleontology, he hasn’t yet ruled out other sciences – so we’re more than happy to give him access to microscopes, telescopes, do kitchen based chemistry experiments and physics at bath time (alongside the occasional trip to hunt for fossils or visit a natural history museum).

Geeky parenting is an absolute joy – indulging the kids’ curiosity about the world around them, seeing what hypotheses they come up with to explain their experiences, suggesting ways that they can find out information. In addition to plenty of hands-on exploring and experimenting, we view YouTube videos, do image searches (SafeSearch ON!) and look through books for information and ideas.

His girlfriend is Charlene the Human Skull Model, they sing lovely duets.

“Magnet Science” with our lovely model, Scott the Visible Australian Soap Star

 

So for Christmas, alongside Lego and Minecraft toys, Oscar received a few books – a couple of them science-related. One, “Magnet Science”, seemed rather nifty and engaging. It contained a selection of magnets, a (mercifully sealed) container of iron filings, and a series of experiments to perform, reminiscent of the sorts of projects I grew up with on The Curiosity Show. “Make a fishing game”, “make a compass”, “construct an electromagnet (under parental supervision)” – all with brief explanations of the science behind what was occurring. Fantastic.

Until I spotted the last page, titled “Facts and Feats”.

Click to Embiggen

Click to Embiggen

Magnet Medicine

Magnetic therapy is an alternative medicine practice using magnetic fields. No one knows for definite how it works, but supporters of the therapy believe it helps to restore health by improving circulation, as the magnets attract the iron in the blood, increasing the supply of oxygen to the source of the pain. Others say the magnets reduce the ‘negative energy’ in the body.

Oh boy.

“No one knows for definite how it works?”

Nobody has proven that it works, nor shown a mechanism by which it can work, other than the placebo effect.

The supporters of the therapy who believe that magnets attract the iron in the blood? They’re wrong. Iron bound to haemoglobin is no longer ferromagnetic. Which is a good thing, else we’d be hemorrhaging frequently as we walked around our homes and we would literally explode when undergoing an MRI scan.

As for others saying that magnets reduce the negative energy in the body… you can’t get much more meaningless than that. ‘Negative energy’ is a vague concept, supported by the anecdotal ‘others say’. These are empty words.

Why is this in my child’s book on science? This is not scientific at all – the claim is pseudoscientific and its presentation is incredibly uncritical. Furthermore, merely Googling “Magnet therapy” returns several pages explaining that magnet therapy is a pseudoscience. I am utterly dumbfounded as to how on earth an author who did so well designing and explaining experiments over the previous forty seven pages of this book – and they managed to write about electromagnetism in a manner appropriate for children – could get it so very wrong on the last page.

And it isn’t as though there is a short supply of legitimate “Facts and Feats” relating to magnets. The second paragraph on the page is an excellent example, it discusses the speeds reached by a Maglev train. Fascinating – and real!

The third paragraph, though…

Human magnet

Aurel Raileanu from Romania set the world record for being the strongest human magnet. Magnetic objects, including televisions, spoons and irons stick to his skin! He doesn’t know how he does it, but says he focuses his mind and releases the feeling of magnetic attraction, which makes even the heaviest objects stick to him.

… Human Magnets!

Have you ever seen a child stick a spoon to their nose? It’s a cute little parlour trick, utilising the angle of the nose, the hairlessness and smoothness of the skin and some moisture from breath or a little naturally occurring sebum to reduce friction, to make it appear that the spoon is stuck to the nose.

People practicing Human Magnetism – oftentimes claimed to be a mystical or mysterious power – are very likely using the same tricks as the child with a spoon on their nose to balance objects on their faces and bodies. Objects – always with a smooth surface – are often placed against the upper chest, upper arms, upper back, at the top of a slightly protruding belly or on the face; all body surfaces which are not quite perpendicular to the ground. Human Magnets tend to have hairless smooth skin, which, combined with everyday skin secretions, create a surface which is non-slippery. Skin elasticity also plays a part; our skin tends to conform somewhat to surfaces against which it is pressed, particularly when force is applied.

Out of vanity I’m hesitant to describe the ideal skin for Human Magnetism tricks as being ‘oily’, but I do seem to be able to attach more pieces of cutlery to myself when I haven’t showered for a few hours.

Jojo the Human Magnet is available for your next function at competitive rates!

Every skeptic needs a spoon trick!

There are some simple tests to check whether magnetism – rather than balance, smoothness and skin secretions – is causing objects to apparently stick to somebody who claims to be a Human Magnet. Suggested by our friend James Randi: a sprinkling of talcum powder over the skin. This reduces the friction and stickiness of skin, generally causing items to slip. Benjamin Radford suggests a light coat of oil. Thin clothing or a thin layer of plastic should also show that magnetism isn’t the cause of the objects sticking, as surely magnetic force ought to be able to penetrate these materials.

No human magnet has ever been tested and shown to emit a magnetic field which has produced significant readings from a gaussmeter, nor has the more simple test involving holding a compass near a Human Magnet shown evidence of a magnetic field. Given that some Human Magnets claim to also be able to attract glass and ceramic objects (with smooth surfaces, unsurprisingly), it is possible that the claimed ‘magnetism’ is some force of attraction other than the magnetism we’re familiar with – in which case, ‘magnetism’ as a term is rendered as vague as the word ‘energy’ used in similar circumstances and the story of Aurel Răileanu has even less reason to appear in the Magnet Science book.

And yet, despite how simple it is to debunk their claims, Human Magnets still make the news every few years – a boy covered in spoons, a woman with coins stuck to her face, and Aurel Răileanu – purported world record holder, with his irons and television. I can only guess that the media who report on Human Magnets feel that a fantastic sounding story is more interesting than the simple trick that’s being performed. They may well be right.

I’m quite a fan of parlour tricks, stage magic and illusions; they’re a fun way to encourage critical thought. I love the combination of awe, delight, laughs and wonder that they can evoke. If I don’t know how a trick is performed, I have a rather enjoyable puzzle to try and work out. When I do, I can enjoy the skill of the performer – be it their sleight of hand, their take on presentation or whatever twist they’ve put on an old trick to make it their own.

What I don’t enjoy, however, is when a trick is presented as the truth.  Especially when it’s in a kids’ book purporting to be educational and scientific.

As for telling kids that magnetic therapy is anything but pseudoscience… I can only hope that people who buy sciencey books for children also have an inclination to introduce them to and encourage critical thought and skepticism.

Incidentally, the phrase from which the title for this post is derived is a slightly different phenomena. “Crank Magnetism” is a phrase to describe the tendency of people who are invested in one form of pseudoscience or conspiracy to be rather likely to also subscribe to others. The folk over at RationalWiki have put together a comprehensive explainer over here, which may come in handy in your travels.