Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Young Scientist Debunks Some Bunk

A Young Scientist Debunks Some Bunk

Therapeutic Touch is a form of therapy where a therapist moves his or her hands along a patient’s “energy field,” directing the flow of positive bodily energy to the injured or diseased area of the body. This practice should really be called Non-Touch Therapy since the therapist never actually touches the patient’s body. The practice of therapeutic touch is said to provide healing by the movement of these “energies.”

According to one account, therapeutic touch is available in over seventy hospitals in the US for patients who request it. But one young scientist had her doubts about therapeutic touch and decided to test whether these therapists can really sense people’s “energy fields,” as they frequently claim they can. This young scientist, Emily Rosa, was a nine-year-old schoolgirl who asked twenty-one touch therapists if they would participate in her experiment for her fourth-grade science fair project. It’s hard to turn down such a request from a charming nine-year-old girl, so the touch therapists agreed to the experiment.

Emily would sit across a table from a touch therapist with the table divided down the middle with a screen that prevented both parties from seeing each other. Two holes were cut in the screen through which a therapist would extend his or her arms, palms facing down. Emily would then place her hand under one of the therapist’s hands without touching it, and the therapist would then state whether Emily’s hand was under the therapist’s right or left hand. Emily flipped a coin to randomly determine whether she would choose the right or left hand of the therapist.

Many of the therapist were convinced that they could make their determination with 100% accuracy. After 280 trials the therapists were accurate 44% of the time, just about what you would from chance (flipping a coin, or guessing). The certainty expressed by the therapists in detecting these “energy fields” quickly vanished once their powers were put to the test.

With a bit of help from her mother and a statistician, the results of Emily Rosa’s experiment were written up and submitted to the highly respected Journal of the American Medical Association. When her piece was published two years later, in 1998, she became the youngest scientist to have a paper published in a prestigious medical journal. Emily’s story appeared on the national news, and she won the “Skeptic of the Year Award” from the Skeptics Society, and a $1000 grant from the James Randi Educational Foundation. And she won a blue ribbon at the science fair.


Material for this blog gleaned mostly from: Park, Robert L. (2000). Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 208-210.

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