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It’s ‘science fair’ time of year again & I’ve volunteered to be a judge at the local fair. I’ve always enjoyed science fairs, starting from way back when my siblings & I regularly entered in the Hawkes Bay event. It’s great meeting a whole bunch of up-&-coming young scientists, & they do some wonderful projects. Some of which, like Emily Rosa’s examination of ‘therapeutic touch’, go a very long way indeed.

When she was nine years old, Emily Rosa was casting around for a science fair project when she saw a video about ‘therapeutic touch’ (a practice which seems to be rather widespread in the US public health system if Orac’s posts are anything to go by). The basic assertion of therapeutic touch (TT) is that everyone has an ‘energy field’ that extends beyond the body, and that TT practitioners can detect this field and influence it in a healing way when they move their hands in that field without actually touching the skin. This apparently removes ‘blockages’ in the energy flow, removes pain residues in cells, all sorts of stuff. (Given that sensations of pain are due to electrical activity in nerve cells, it’s hard to see how there can be any left-overs elsewhere. It’s thus rather difficult to see how a modern US hospital could make such statements on its website.) Emily came up with a simple, elegant way to test the claim that such a field existed and could be detected by a practitioner’s hands. Her initial results were presented in her science fair project & caught the interest of a scientist who suggested a further round of tests – the result was a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published 2 years after Emily did her original project. Not bad for someone still in primary school!

Emily contacted 15 therapeutic touch practitioners & explained that she was hoping they’d help with her school science fair project; they all agreed. Her protocol was very simple: she used a screen with holes through which her subjects extended their hands – they couldn’t see what Emily was doing on the other side of the screen. Using a flip of a coin, she randomly decided which of the subject’s hands she would hold her own hand over, and then asked each subject to state which of their hands detected her ‘energy field’. Each person had 10 attempts at this – but failed to do better than would be expected on the basis of chance.

Subsequently, it was suggested that Emily might like to do a second round of sampling with an eye to writing her results up in a scientific paper (helped in this by her parents & a medical doctor). She approached 13 TT practitioners (including 7 who’d taken part in the earlier project) and asked if they’d participate, making it clear that this was for a research paper & that the proceedings would be videotaped for this purpose, so there’s no question (as has been suggested by some critics) that they were fooled into thinking it was ‘just’ a kid’s sci-fair project.

Again the practitioners failed to fire – taking all Emily’s data together, the success rate was only 44%. Tellingly, she asked some practitioners to hold her hands before the tests to determine which hand had the higher ‘energy field’, & then used that hand only – it made no difference to the outcome. Yet you’d expect at least 50% for chance alone – if TT worked the % success should be much higher. As the paper notes: The statistical power of this experiment was sufficient to conclude that if TT practitioners could reliably detect a human energy field, the study would have demonstrated this (Rosa et al. 1998).

And the JAMA paper concludes:

Twenty-one experienced TT practitioners were unable to detect the investigator’s “energy field.” Their failure to substantiate TT’s most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.

In the PBS archives there’s a rather fascinating Q&A session that Emily did with (mainly) other students; definitely worth a read & it shows her to be a mature young woman with a strong scientific bent. You might also like to listen to Brian Dunning’s take on the whole therapeutic touch thing, over on Skeptoid.com.

It just goes to show, age doesn’t matter if you’re doing good science.

L.Rosa, E.Rosa, L.Sarner & S.Barrett (1998) A close look at therapeutic touch. JAMA 279: 1005-1010