I know that Americans are big on believing that foreign things are somehow mystical, magical things, but my Japanese colleague showed the opposite stereotype when she bought some alternative medicine during a trip to America. When she came back, she asked me to check what it does and how it works. It is a liquid in a small vial, administered by taking a drop of the substance and putting it on your tongue. Being Japanese, she admitted that she couldn’t fully read the information on their English website, but thought that at the very least, the product couldn’t be harmful. The brand is “Yarrow Environmental Solution” (YES), and I decided to use the opportunity to highlight the kinds of things alternative medicine purveyors do to pussy-foot around the fact that their products are not supported by science. This is a brief analysis of the red flags for the “flower essence” product that is prospering.
The most obvious, and most common thing you see (or don’t) is the absence of scientific papers to support them. The YES website links to FlowerSociety.org, which describes a study conducted on 24 people. I could fill an entire article about why this research isn’t scientific, but it’s fast enough to point out that this was not peer-reviewed research. Peer-review is a system that weeds out research with problems, so that it does not detrimentally enter the scientific domain. It’s not perfect (in fact, I have some strong opinions against it), but it’s better than nothing. In this case, the research truly amounts to nothing, as it has not been accepted to any reputable science journal – the only journal that accepted them was “Calix: International Journal of Flower Essence Therapy.” I wonder why.
I don’t want to spend this entire article picking the research apart, but let’s start at the top anyways. The research apparently conducted is entitled “Flower essences reduce stress reaction to intense environmental stimulus.” What’s that intense environmental stimulus? “Fluorescent lights and their accompanying electromagnetic fields (EMF).” You know, those oh-so-stressful bulbs that are replacing incandescent light bulbs because they’re good for the environment.
The methodology of the research, as well as its presentation, is meant to confuse the reader. Things that sound scientific are great for these sites – especially the ones that you can Google and find results for, but end up more confused than before you started. This is similar a technique used by people who peddle things like “quantum healing,” a mess of new-age therapy with scientific-sounding words sprinkled all over it. In fact, I dare say that no one truly understands quantum physics, and the suggestion that someone does understand it is in fact a red flag all on its own, though of course some scientists understand it to a much greater extent than laypeople. And note that when I say a red flag, I mean that it’s probably rubbish – it would be unscientific of me to say that it’s definitely rubbish. Regardless, the notion that you need a complex brain or muscle-scanning device to measure someone’s stress just begs the question: why? This is exactly the type of research that could involve simple self-reports on stress with a rudimentary Likert-type scale… but I guess hooking up all those participants up to scanners is why they had only 24 of them (such a study should have hundreds, at least).
A second study mentioned on the Flower Society website is even more impressive.
“Those taking either [of the two treatment groups, as opposed to the placebo group] showed far less reactivity to the lights as measured by the beta wave brain activity at nine sites clustered around the frontal lobes, and by muscle activity in the heart chakra area.”
Wow. Did you get all that? So what anatomy class do I have to take to learn about the “heart chakra area?” Chakra, the Sanskrit word for “circle” (as in “circular reasoning“) is basically the Hindu/Buddhist equivalent to “energy,” or “ki,” which I wrote about here. The problem with these things is that they cannot be measured, and therefore cannot be disproved or verified, rendering them useless. In fact, anything that cannot be measured is such a colossal red flag that you may as well give up on it based on that alone. But even the word “energy,” “chi,” “chakra,” “ki,” etc., is a red flag.
However, there is the occasional definition of “energy” that ends up being measurable, but those ones are never anything mystical or magical.
So they say…
The YES website says “Yarrow Environmental Solution (formerly known as Yarrow Special Formula) is now the most popular remedy in Japan.” I think the company markets intently to Japan, with great help from “Mitose Komura, a flower essence therapy practitioner, [who] has been a distributor of FES [Flower Essence Society] products in Japan since 1997.” However, they don’t give any indication as to how they made that conclusion, so I’m not sure if it’s true. I especially doubt it considering they don’t define the word “remedy.” I’m sure they don’t mean just “any medicine” though… or else Japanese people wouldn’t have the longest life expectancy in the world. But my colleague heard of it in Japan, before she went to America, so they must have been (marketing-wise) doing something right.
Testimonials are the biggest ones. On every alternative health website, there are always – ALWAYS – a place for testimonials (usually in a very prominent place). The unfortunate thing is that, while this is a red flag, only conspiracy theorists would suggest that by merely having testimonials, it makes someone more credible. The problem therefore lies in the fact that alternative medicine practitioners use testimonials instead of evidence – because that’s all they have. Unfortunately, the placebo effect can account for the positive effects of such pseudoscience, which means clients/patients are getting ripped off when they pay money, just like the homeopathy remedies I previously described. In fact, YES also includes homeopathy in their selection.
By the way, my coworker said that the liquid tasted absolutely revolting – basically disgusting alcohol mixed in with whatever this apparent “flower essence” is. In other words, alcohol. Apparently it may have been brandy. They explained it this way on their FAQ:
“Flower essences contain only minute traces of actual physical substance; they are primarily vibrational in nature, as are homeopathic remedies. This means that they are non-toxic and one cannot overdose on them, unless one were to drink a huge quantity of them and be effected by the alcohol which is used as a preservative.”
In effect, the entire FAQ is a lesson in critical thinking. For example, one question asks “How will I know if [the products] are working?” The answer basically says “You might just know!” but then offers some more specific advice: “You may wish to keep a journal, discuss your issues regularly with a friend or counselor, or take note of your dreams and other inner events. Often it is the comments of others close to us which first alerts us to changes taking place.” This is certainly sometimes true, and it’s advice that I too would give if someone asked (except about the dreams and whatever “other inner events” is supposed to mean). But after you go through therapy or talk with your friends or family… what are you really measuring? The product? Or the therapeutic benefits of social support? Of course, they also have an explanation for the fact that we may not be able to detect whether or not it’s working.
“Modern physics has known for nearly a century that matter and consciousness are intertwined. However, medical science still generally works with a nineteenth century model of the human being as a mechanism in a world of machines.”
This poetic and flowery talk betrays them, because it ends up conveying their ignorance. To deny the progress of medical science is to forget the fact that people live long enough to see their grandchildren now – not an easy feat in the 19th century. If you still think YES may be scientific, listen to the answer to the question “How do you know that flower essences have the effects that are claimed for them?”
“Flower essence properties are first developed through a thorough study of the plants from which essences are made. This study includes the plant’s structure and form, growth pattern, color, relationship to the environment, chemical properties, herbal uses, as well as energetic properties which are perceived in the plant. These qualities are then correlated with specific human emotional patterns. These preliminary indications are then tested in clinical settings by health practitioners. Through their reports our knowledge of the properties of the essences can be revised, expanded, or verified.”
So colours, growth patterns, and “energetic properties which are perceived in the plant” are correlated to “human emotional patterns.” This means nothing, and merely serves to distract the potential customer from the inevitable reality that they would be wasting their money if they spent it on this. Such gobbledygook is another red flag that you often see, and it turns out that the people who know so little about this stuff – and about science – are the ones who use it.
Where it starts to look bad
One ethical red flag that really boils my blood is when they start talking about curing serious illnesses. Luckily, YES is one more pseudoscience provider who doesn’t cross that line. “If you have a serious mental or emotional condition,” they say, “or a known physical medical problem, you should seek the care or advice of a qualified health practitioner.” Though they do throw in the expected plug afterwards. “Many health practitioners now include the flower essences in their health programs, or work with other practitioners who do.”
One last thing really caught my attention. “In 1986, after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Europe, we received numerous requests for a remedy that could help counteract the devitalizing effects of the radiation.” This is sounding like the homeopathy rubbish I wrote about on the James Randi Education Foundation blog. “We prepared Yarrow Special Formula for practitioners working near Chernobyl and other affected European countries, with many favorable results.” The homeopathy group was worse, saying that they could prevent radiation poisoning. YES, rather, just advertises the “devitalizing effects.” If you don’t know what that means, that’s the point. If you can’t tell what something means, or if it’s ambiguous, then just remember that it is their way of protecting themselves from lawsuits and scrutiny. Who knows what “devitalizing effects” are, unless they explain them clearly? We can’t prove them wrong if we don’t know what they’re claiming, which is why this “win-win” for them is a red flag.
Websites like these are meant to give the impression that they know what they’re talking about, and that every consumer is satisfied. The science-sounding sugar-coding is layered on thick, and testimonials make up for the lack of scientific substantiation. A few red flags is generally expected for every treatment (i.e., what doctor wouldn’t want to mention legitimate testimonials?) but I am confident – though not 100% certain – based on the information from the website, that YES is not worth the price of admission.
The biggest issue regarding these bogus treatments is not so much that it harms you physically, but buying, using, and believing in this harms you psychologically. The moment you reinforce the memetic idea that pseudoscience of any kind works, you have just made the world a slightly more chaotic place. Buying magic pills, fairy dust, and ancient potions funds the people who are trying to replace the science that has doubled our life expectancies within the last hundred years. The more pseudoscience there is being spread throughout the world, the more likely it is that a respected doctor with credentials will end up peddling the nonsense as well. Then, when it comes to giving you the treatment you need for whatever illness you came in for, the question remains: What treatment will be administered to you? Scientifically validated medicine? Or the “alternative” or “complimentary” placebo-based faith-medicine that costs a lot and does nothing?