Junior Skeptic KO's Therapeutic Touch

by D. Trull
Enigma Editor

When fourth-grader Emily Rosa had to come up with a science project idea in 1996, her first thought was to attempt a demonstration of color separation in the spectrum using M&Ms. Her mother, a registered nurse, encouraged her to consider tackling a more "serious" topic. Emily's second choice ended up being published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, debunking one of the most widely-accepted pseudosciences of modern times: "therapeutic touch" therapy.

Emily had taken note of a television program on the controversial treatment, in which "therapists" lay their hands over the bodies of patients with various illnesses and injuries, believing that the manipulation of "energy fields" will promote healing. Therapeutic touch (TT) rarely involves actual physical contact, since it is thought that the energies can intermingle effectively even when the therapist's hands are kept a few inches above the patient's body. The odd spectacle of TT being administered has been likened to "a mime applying suntan lotion."

Emily, who was 9 years old at the time, decided to do a science project investigating whether this "healing hands" treatment could really work. It so happens that her mother has more than a passing familiarity with the subject: Linda Rosa is a member of the Questionable Nurse Practices Task Force of the National Council Against Health Fraud Inc., of Loma Linda, California, and therapeutic touch is high on the group's hit list.

Despite its profound lack of proven scientific value, TT is currently practiced in about 80 hospitals in North America and taught in over 100 colleges and universities in 75 countries. In 1994, the Pentagon granted $355,225 to study therapeutic touch at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A growing number of scientists and health-care professionals are speaking out against the mainstreaming of TT, and Linda Rosa is one of them. But she insists that she did not pressure her daughter into choosing the topic for her science project. "She asked me if she could do her test on that," Rosa said. "It kind of bowled me over."

Emily enlisted the aid of 21 professional TT practitioners in her science project, whose goal was to determine whether the "healers" could detect the energy field that supposedly emanates from the human body. She devised a test in which the therapists placed their hands through openings in a cardboard partition. Emily sat on the other side of the screen, placing one of her hands above the outstretched palms of the therapist. Over a series of trials, each therapist was asked to determine whether Emily's hand was over their right hand or left hand, by "sensing" the proximity of her energy field.

The therapists didn't score very well. Their overall accuracy at telling the correct location of Emily's hand was only 44 percent, falling short of even the 50/50 probability that should be expected through blind guessing.

"Since they felt my energy field less than half of the time... I don't think they have a special ability," Emily said.

Emily's science project was well-received when she first presented it in 1996, but it didn't seem destined for any extraordinary distinction. She won no special award from her grade school in Loveland, Colorado, except for the blue ribbon given equally to all science fair entrants. But the news of her TT-debunking experiment gradually reached national attention, being featured in a 1996 issue of Skeptic magazine and on the PBS program Scientific American Frontiers.

The story intrigued Dr. Stephen Barrett, who belongs to Quackwatch Inc., an anti-psuedoscience group in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Barrett contacted Emily's parents and suggested that they submit the findings of Emily's experiment to one of the nation's most respected scientific journals: the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The report, co-authored by Emily, her parents and Dr. Barrett, was accepted and published in the April 1, 1998, edition of JAMA, and is available in its entirety on the JAMA web site.

"To our knowledge, no other objective, quantitative study involving more than a few therapeutic touch practitioners has been published, and no well-designed study demonstrates any health benefit from therapeutic touch," the report indicated. "These facts, together with our experimental findings, suggest that therapeutic touch claims are groundless and that further use of therapeutic touch by health professionals is unjustified."

Predictably, proponents of TT have objected to being discredited by an elementary school student, and criticized JAMA for publishing the report. Dolores Krieger, a professor of nursing science who was a co-founder of the therapeutic touch movement at New York University in 1972, denounced Emily's study as being "poor in terms of design and methodology." Krieger said the pool of 21 test subjects was too small to give an accurate representation, and protested that the test was designed and conducted by the same person, which is considered bad experimental protocol. (But at the same time, of course, the "do-it-yourself" approach is pretty much the whole point of a school science project.)

Cynthia Hutchison, research coordinator for Healing Touch International, raised a somewhat more fundamental objection to Emily's science project. She noted the study assumes that a touch therapist must "sense" the energy fields in order to be effective at healing. Hutchison argued that this is not necessarily the case. She also said that TT hinges on the therapist's desire to ease the patient's pain and illness -- a crucial part of the equation that is missing from the test's exercise of detecting an unseen (and perfectly healthy) hand.

Dr. George Lundberg, who has served for 16 years as the editor of JAMA, defended the scientific merit of Emily's report. "I do not believe age should be a bar on anything, either young or old," he said. "It's the quality of the science that matters."

According to the published report, more than 100,000 people worldwide have learned therapeutic touch techniques, including at least 43,000 health-care professionals. There are also numerous documented cases of patients who claim that TT has dramatically helped them to recover from illness. It is too early to tell how much of an effect scientific tests like Emily's project will have on the proliferation of this controversial procedure.

But at least one observer has already been convinced. When an interviewer asked Emily how she personally would feel about having an illness treated with therapeutic touch, the junior scientist said, "I'd probably scream if I was in that deep of trouble... Therapeutic touch might be a substitute for something that's been proven to work."

Wise words. And a little child shall lead them.

Sources: JAMA web site; CNN web site; Associated Press; Skeptic magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1996.

© Copyright 1998 ParaScope, Inc.