Wikipedia vs. the "lunatic charlatans" of Energy Psychology

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The Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP) recently launched this petition on

Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia: Create and enforce new policies that allow for true scientific discourse about holistic approaches to healing.

...people who are interested in the benefits of Energy Medicine, Energy Psychology, and specific approaches such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, Thought Field Therapy and the Tapas Acupressure Technique, turn to your pages, trust what they read, and do not pursue getting help from these approaches which research has, in fact, proven to be of great benefit to many. ...

...the Wikipedia pages for Energy Psychology, Energy Medicine, acupuncture, and other forms of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) ... are currently skewed to a negative, unscientific view of these approaches despite numerous rigorous studies in recent years demonstrating their effectiveness. These pages are controlled by a few self-appointed “skeptics” who serve as de facto censors for Wikipedia. ...

Jimmy Wales posted this rather blunt reply:

No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful.

Wikipedia's policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals - that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately.

What we won't do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of "true scientific discourse". It isn't.

The counter-response has been, basically, "We did get them published in respectable scientific journals!" So let's check that out.

ACEP has conveniently provided this page, "EP Research Hierarchy of Evidence", which lists a large number of articles organized in a hierarchy starting with the least scientifically rigorous:

  • Anecdotal Report
  • Systematic Observational Report
  • Case Study
  • Uncontrolled Outcome Study
  • Randomized Controlled Study with Limited Generalizability
  • Randomized Controlled Study with Potentially Strong Generalizability
  • Theoretical and Review Articles

The last category (Theoretical and Review Articles) is not the "highest" level -- it's just overviews based on other research. What we're looking for is the second-last bunch (Randomized Controlled Study with Potentially Strong Generalizability), which ACEP describes as:

A formal study using established pre- and post-intervention assessments with multiple clients, including randomization, follow-up, and at least one control/comparison group with means for "blinding" those assessing the outcomes from knowledge of which subjects were in which group. These studies are well designed and administered so that the effects of each treatment condition can be reliably compared, and generalizations to specified populations can be anticipated with reasonable confidence.

In other words, a study which meets the bare minimum of what is considered "real science" in modern times. ACEP lists 24 articles in this category.

Now, how do we determine whether any of these articles were published in "respectable scientific journals"? This is tricky for people who aren't scientists working in the field. But as laymen, we can get a few clues from the journal titles.

For starters, one of the papers was merely presented at an ACEP conference. That's a lot different than being published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal.

Another six were published in Energy Psychology, which can hardly be considered an unbiased source. (In fact, two of ACEP's Board of Directors, including its President-Elect, are also on the Editorial Board of Energy Psychology.)

That leaves 17 papers published in 14 journals. Now what? How does the layman find out whether these are widely-respected journals, or just pretty names that publish anything submitted to them?

There are several techniques to rank the importance and influence of scientific journals. I'm going to use the Eigenfactor score, which ranks 12,286 publications. Here are the 14 journals with their Eigenfactor percentile ranking (where 100 indicates the top 1% of journals ranked by importance to the scientific community, and 1 indicates the bottom 1%):

Anesthesia and Analgesia96
Behaviour Change16
Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing (2 papers)29
Fidelity: Journal for the National Council of Psychotherapy(not ranked)
Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal(not ranked)
International Journal of Emergency Mental Health(not ranked)
International Journal of Healing and Caring(not ranked)
ISRN Psychiatry(not ranked)
Journal of Clinical Psychology78
Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine(not ranked)
Journal of Depression Research and Treatment(not ranked)
Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease (3 papers)82
The Open Sports Sciences Journal(not ranked)
Traumatology(not ranked)

So where do we draw the line here? Nine of the 14 journals don't even make the Eigenfactor list, and two more rank down in the bottom one-third. Let's look at the three remaining journals, which are all in the top one-quarter of Eigenfactor rankings. Here are the five papers that appear in these journals:

  • Church, D., Hawk, C, Brooks, A., Toukolehto, O., Wren, M., Dinter, I., Stein, P. (2013). Psychological trauma symptom improvement in veterans using EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques): A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 201(2),153-160.
    • from the abstract: This study examined the effect of Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), a brief exposure therapy combining cognitive and somatic elements, on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychological distress symptoms in veterans receiving mental health services. ... The EFT subjects had significantly reduced psychological distress (p < 0.0012) and PTSD symptom levels (p < 0.0001) after the test. In addition, 90% of the EFT group no longer met PTSD clinical criteria, compared with 4% in the [control] group. ...
  • Church, D., Yount, G. & Brooks, A. (2011). The effect of Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) on stress biochemistry: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200(10), 891-896.
    • from the abstract: This study examined the changes in cortisol levels and psychological distress symptoms of 83 nonclinical subjects receiving a single hourlong intervention. ... The EFT group showed statistically significant improvements in anxiety (-58.34%, p < 0.05), depression (-49.33%, p < 0.002), the overall severity of symptoms (-50.5%, p < 0.001), and symptom breadth (-41.93%, p < 0.001). The EFT group experienced a significant decrease in cortisol level (-24.39%; SE, 2.62) compared with the [control groups]...
  • Karatzias, T., Power, K., Brown, K., McGoldrick, T., Begum, M., Young, J., Loughran, P., Chouliara, Z., Adams, S. (2011). A controlled comparison of the effectiveness and efficiency of two psychological therapies for posttraumatic stress disorder: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing vs. Emotional Freedom Techniques. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 199, 372-378.
    • from the abstract: The present study reports on the first ever controlled comparison between eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and emotional freedom techniques (EFT) for posttraumatic stress disorder. ... Overall, the results indicated that both interventions produced significant therapeutic gains at posttreatment and follow-up in an equal number of sessions. ...
  • Kober A., Scheck, T., Greher, M., Lieba, F., Fleischhackl, R., Fleischhackl, S., Randunsky, F., Hoerauf, K. (2002). Pre-hospital analgesia with acupressure in victims of minor trauma: A prospective, randomized, double-blinded trial. Anesthesia and Analgesia, 95(3), 723-727.
    • from the abstract: ...we tested the hypothesis that effective pain therapy is possible by paramedics who are trained in acupressure. In a double-blinded trial we included 60 trauma patients. We randomly assigned them into three groups (“true points,” “sham-points,” and “no acupressure”). ...we found significantly less pain, anxiety, and heart rate and a greater satisfaction in the “true points” groups (P < 0.01). ...
  • Wells, S., Polglase, K., Andrews, H. B., Carrington, P. & Baker, A. H. (2003). Evaluation of a meridian-based intervention, emotional freedom techniques (EFT), for reducing specific phobias of small animals. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 59(9) 943-966.
    • from the abstract: This study explored whether a meridian-based procedure, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), can reduce specific phobias of small animals under laboratory-controlled conditions. Randomly assigned participants were treated individually for 30 min with EFT (n = 18) or a comparison condition, diaphragmatic breathing (DB) (n = 17). ANOVAS revealed that EFT produced significantly greater improvement than did DB behaviorally and on three self-report measures, but not on pulse rate. ...

There. Are we ready to pass judgment on Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia yet?

Well, we have four research papers on Emotional Freedom Techniques and one on acupressure that meet the standard of "real science" published in "respectable scientific journals". That's something, but it's not a lot. All five studies were conducted on rather small groups of patients. This is a common problem with many scientific studies, but to me, it means the results are intriguing but not conclusive. Were the experiments ever successfully replicated by independent researchers? Are there additional studies that might confirm or contradict what was found? I don't know, and as a layman it's quite difficult for me to find out.

In addition, even if Emotional Freedom Techniques are a useful treatment for PTSD and phobias, that doesn't prove that the Energy Psychology theories are correct. The techniques might work for reasons that have nothing to do with "disturbed bio-energetic patterns within the mind-body system" (to use a phrase from ACEP's website).

I remain skeptical -- but that doesn't answer the question of what Wikipedia should do about this. As an encyclopedia, they have (I believe) an obligation to censor themselves. No scientific theory is ever completely proven true, but some have gone a lot farther along the truth road than others, and are more deserving of inclusion.

But inevitably, drawing the line is going to cause fights. Wikipedia has received a lot of criticism in recent years from contributors who are fed up with petty tyrants who "own" particular pages or embark on edit wars with other would-be tyrants. It should be possible to write something like:

Although the theoretical basis of Emotional Freedom Techniques remains unproven, several studies have shown promising results in treating PTSD and phobias.

...with links to the above high-quality journal articles. That would be informative and truthful, without being an endorsement of "lunatic charlatans".