Reader Jake alerted me to last Thursday’s ABC Primetime Live on Adam the DreamHealer – a 19 year old from Canada who claims special healing powers. I decided to watch it to see what this guy was claiming and how ABC dealt with it. The program wasn’t as bad as it might have been. And one part was so (unintentionally) funny it had me howling with laughter. (More of that near the end.) Ultimately though, it was rather sad.
Adam’s story begins around the age of 15, where he claimed he began to experience telekinetic events such as pencils flying into his hands, although apparently no one but Adam actually witnessed these events. More importantly, it is claimed he cured his Mother of MS. That clearly convinced his family, and his parents now work full time on Adam’s business of lectures, tapes, books etc. (He couldn’t cure his sister’s acne though - “I wasn’t about to waste any energy on a little pimple”. Don’t bother this guy with trivial stuff.) But his fame grew after he cured musician Ronnie Hawkins of “inoperable pancreatic cancer”. He achieved this through a series of long distance treatments (ie he stared at a picture of Hawkins), over eight months, after which, Hawkins’ tumor had gone. Powerful stuff. As further proof we were introduced to a teacher called Linda, who had been suggested to ABC by Adam’s family as a typical success story. Linda had (also) been diagnosed as having “inoperable pancreatic cancer”, and it was claimed her tumors had also “gone”.
The heart of the ABC program was to follow four people who hoped to be healed by Adam. The four were: 14-year-old Lucy, whose knees constantly dislocate to excruciating pain; 22 year old Christina who had a tumor on her lung; Dawn, a champion ballroom dancer with MS; and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who had suffered a horrible blow to the back of his head with an axe, apparently leaving him unable to move or speak. I’ll return to these four at the end.
We were shown Adam in action at one of his seminars. With infra-red cameras, we could see Adam supposedly manipulating the auras or “quantum holograms” as he calls them of the people in the room. His actions were compared to Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report, who moved images in this way. To me he looked more like a kid pretending to do some kind of Kung Fu or Jujitsu moves he’d seen on TV. I’m not surprised he wanted the lights out – I don’t think I’d want anyone to see me doing anything as daft as that either. Still, Adam claims to be able to see auras, detect what is wrong with a person and manipulate brainwaves with these techniques:
“As a kid, hide ‘n’ seek was not a game that I enjoyed . . .. I just couldn’t figure out the point of the game. Someone might be hiding behind an object such as a tree, but they would still be visible to me. Their aura would show beyond the tree’s outline. It was as ludicrous as a large man trying to hide behind a broomstick,”
“I look at someone’s picture. Exactly what happens, I really don’t know — I think it’s just something I was born with. All of a sudden, I totally disconnect from everything around me in the room, and I see these images of the person in front of me. And then, from there, I can see what’s wrong with the person. When I change around these images in front of me, it influences the person’s health,”
(Source – my bold)
And according to Adam’s own webpage, there have been scientific studies with EEG:
A total of 4 EEG brain maping (sic) studies were recently carried out on 4 different patients. These are all certified scientific methods of measuring brain wave activity. All 4 showed sigificant (sic) brain wave activity once Adam connected as if doing a healing.
I’m sure any one of those three skills would qualify for a certain conjuror’s Million Dollar Prize, but for this program we had to make do with ABC’s John Quiñones. He wasn’t that bad in the job. First, Adam was filmed “visualizing” what was wrong with a couple of people. We saw him diagnosing one woman as having back and shoulder problems. The woman said Adam was “right on the shoulder” problem (she didn’t mention anything wrong with her back), but had missed her lung and breast cancer. Quite a big thing to miss, you’d have thought. Adam had the
explanation rationalization ready – what he sees isn’t what the person thinks is most important. Funny, I’d have thought it important that “I can see what’s wrong with the person” would include cancer if it were there, but one out of three counts, apparently. Next, Quiñones was asked to pick someone at random for Adam to diagnose. Quiñones did so, and Adam watched this woman walk from her seat in the room, up the aisle, up the stairs and across the stage – and correctly diagnosed she had problems with her knee. Luckily she didn’t have cancer as well!
Adam attempted to replicate his EEG successes, this time with Quiñones as the subject. Quiñones was fitted up with 19 electrodes to his head, while Adam attempted to change Quiñones’ brainwaves. The result, unlike the successes claimed on Adam’s website, was "inconclusive". (Translation – it didn’t work.) Again, Adam had the explanation – the other people had had something wrong with them that Adam was trying to fix. (Note: that’s not what it says on his website – see my bold in the cite above.) Well, of course. I’m sure it couldn’t possibly have been due to the “independent EEG expert neurologist” hired by ABC, or what appeared to be some kind of blinding (it looked like Quiñones didn’t know when Adam was doing his pretend Jujitsu moves in the next room).
Whatever the reason, it looks like Randi’s million could be safe for a while longer.
No program like this would be complete without the obligatory reference to Quantum Mechanics as an explanation for all the magic woo we have been seeing. Fortunately we were treated to Bob Park telling us “physicists shudder when they hear this”, along with some other gems. I’m sure that wouldn’t have convinced the woos watching, but it was good to hear anyway. Park was pretty good in his two or three brief appearances.
But the truly hilarious piece was the explanation of where Adam got all his scientific knowledge. If you didn’t see the program, I promise you that I did not make up what you are about to read. Asked how Adam is so sure what he does is real, he recounted how, when he was 16 he had a dream telling him to go to an island to meet a large black bird. Apparently this dream impressed his parents so much that the next day they went with him to the island named in the dream. (What understanding parents!) There, on what appeared to be acres of forest or wild land, Adam found (drum roll) – A BIRD. Amazing! What are the odds? It gets better. Adam’s parents were so impressed with this bird they took a picture of it (get this):
“as it locked eyes with Adam and … imparted to him complex scientific information about the universe”.
Note, not just any kind of information – “scientific” information. And not the regular stuff - “complex” scientific information if you please. Who knew a random blackbird would be an expert in Quantum Physics?
Don’t believe it? Don’t have to – here’s the picture they took of the bird to prove it:
I have to admit, it took me fully a couple of minutes after that before I could stop laughing enough to hear what followed.
The conclusion was less mirthful though. We revisited our four hopefuls. The 14 year old with the terribly painful knee problem had to have emergency surgery to repair the bone that had not healed properly after an earlier surgery. Her final comment, “Adam healing didn’t help the pain at all” was heartbreaking.
The MS sufferer was shown doing a (slow) dance routine, and appeared to be doing well. But MS:
…is cyclical and unpredictable […] Spontaneous recovery from symptoms can occur and last for months or years.
The 22 year old with the tumor on her lung discovered that the “tumors barely grew at all”, which presumably means they had grown a bit. They hadn’t gone anyway, and it wasn’t clear what other medications she was taking that might have helped.
The army vet was the sorriest case. He was clearly much sicker than Adam was used to seeing and I actually felt embarrassed for him as he went through his Kung Fu moves in front of the sad immobile man in the wheelchair. Adam asked if he could feel anything – “most people feel tingling in their head” he suggested helpfully – but there was no response. Adam seemed to blame skeptical people in the room (read “doctors”, “nurses”), for this failure. At the very end of the program we were told the vet had been able to say one word (this was some time later, presumably), and his wife (I presume she was) was convinced Adam had something to do with this. Of course, it is impossible to know what would be the situation if he had never seen Adam, but the likelihood is things would not have been much different.
It gets worse. Remember the teacher we met at the beginning whose cancer had vanished? Well, at the end of the show we learned her cancer was back and the woman had started radiation treatment. And remember Ronnie Hawkins? Well apparently he might never have had cancer in the first place. It was revealed he had had three biopsies but all had been “inconclusive”.
People most likely think Adam’s healing methods work for the same reasons people usually think woo therapies work, namely:
- The cyclical nature of the illness (gets worse/gets better/gets worse/gets better…)
- Incorrect diagnosis to start with
- Temporary mood improvements due to the personal nature of the treatment
- Psychological investment of the patient in the success of the therapy
- Other medicines the patient is taking
- The illness just goes away by itself.
We saw most of those in this program.
Of course, if Adam really could see auras, diagnose illness by looking at pictures, alter brainwaves – this could easily be demonstrated in scientific tests. It will be interesting to see if this is ever done by independent testers. I predict now that it never will be, and this is a pity, because if Adam really had the abilities he claims, they should be studied. I also predict he will never apply for Randi’s million dollar challenge, although someone with these skills would ace it. However, do I predict there will be reports of further successes in scientific tests on Adam’s DreamHealer web page. Such results, not independently verified or replicated, will unfortunately be worthless.
I anticipate the objections to my comments. What’s the harm? Perhaps the power of positive thought Adam instills might bring a cure. Well, I’m not convinced that the power of positive thought can make much difference in serious illnesses such as cancer. For example, this summary of 26 studies finds no such link. That said, I accept that there might be some benefit with some illnesses. But you have to set that against the false hope and ultimate disappointment given to people such as 14 year old Lucy. Does their ultimate let down and despair counter any alleged benefits received by others? And what about those, like 22 year old Christina, who decided not to proceed with surgery at least partly based on her faith in Adam? What if she gets worse, but the surgery she refused could have saved her life? And what about the damage done in general to the ability of people to think critically, when they are taught it’s OK to believe in fairy tales? In my opinion, magic therapies such as this do more harm than good, for the above reasons. I recognize this is just an opinion though, and some may disagree. I certainly wouldn’t want to tell the brave and hopeful wife of the Afghan war vet that she believes in fairy tales - let her keep her faith if it gives her some comfort. But I can’t help thinking she will ultimately feel let down.