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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 24.2 > Therapeutic Touch Redux

Therapeutic Touch Redux

Twenty Years After the “Emily Event,” Energy Therapies Live on Through Bad Science

IN 1998, 11-YEAR OLD EMILY ROSA CAUSED A NATIONAL sensation when she published the results of her 4th grade science experiment in the Journal of the American Medical Association.1 She had generated a simple but clever experiment to test the claim that the socalled “human energy field”2 (HEF: “aura”) can be detected, and she had compiled convincing evidence that individuals—specifically, Therapeutic Touch (TT) practitioners who claim to manipulate others’ energy fields for healing purposes—could not reliably detect that energy field. (You can watch Emily test her subjects in this special on her experiment featured on ABC’s 20/20 with John Stossel: As summarized by Larry Sarner, who recounted the events for Skeptic magazine in 1998, energy therapies are based on the fundamental claim that “the hands can be used to manifest a TT practitioner’s intention to heal by detecting and eliminating differences in the HEF of a patient, thereby either returning the patient directly to health or removing impediments to the healing processes of the patient’s own body.”3 Because Emily Rosa showed that self-proclaimed Therapeutic Touch practitioners could not reliably detect a human energy field, her results led to the direct conclusion that claims about Therapeutic Touch practitioners’ ability to modify human energy fields to promote healing were questionable at best and, more likely, completely mistaken.

In fact, no one has yet demonstrated the existence or reliable detection of a human energy field.

When Sarner wrote about the Emily Event in 1998, he expressed hope that TT would fade out of nursing schools’ curricula and that research on TT would be “relegated to the ‘research’ back rooms of nursing academia.” 3 In this essay, we consider whether those hopes have been realized. Do nursing schools continue to offer courses on energy (biofield) therapy, including TT and its sister therapy, Healing Touch (HT)? Do practitioners and scholars continue to make claims about the healing powers of energy therapy, and on what standards of evidence do they rely? The data we have to offer regarding these questions is not promising. In fact, energy therapies appear to be thriving.

The Spark

Our interest in energy therapy began several years ago, when one of us (let’s call her “The Skeptic”) was asked to provide research design consultation for a colleague (we’ll call her “The Believer”) from the School of Nursing. The nursing scholar was preparing a grant proposal for her research on cancer patients.

She felt that undergoing an MRI is uncomfortable and inappropriate for cancer patients, and she wanted to test the hypothesis that undergoing an MRI disrupts cancer patients’ energy balance. The Skeptic was perplexed. Putting aside her curiosity about the various (presumably legitimate) medical reasons for undergoing an MRI as a cancer patient, she focused on the concept of energy balance, which she had not encountered previously. The conversation went something like this: The Skeptic: How is “energy” measured? The Believer: By trained Therapeutic Touch practitioners. (She hovered her hands a couple of inches away from the Skeptic’s scalp in demonstration.) They know a disrupted energy field when they feel it.

The Skeptic: What does a disrupted energy field feel like? The Believer: Well, some energy fields are calm and smooth, and some can be cold and sticky, and some can feel hot and electric—just like when you rub an inflated balloon against your head and set your hair afloat.

The Skeptic was perplexed. She considered the nursing scholar’s plan to show that energy fields are disrupted by undergoing an MRI. She made a suggestion:

The Skeptic: It would be useful to include a measurement of each patient’s energy field both before and after the MRI, and perhaps you could have two practitioners—who don’t know whether the patient is heading into the MRI or coming out of the MRI—make independent evaluations of the patient’s energy field. That way, you would be able to check on inter-rater agreement under researcher-blind conditions.

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About Skeptic

THE EXISTENCE OF EVIL AND GOD COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Laser Therapy: Hope or Hype and Hokum?, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: The Sisyphean Challenges of Skepticism or, Start by Disbelieving, by Carol Tavris ARTICLES Pterosaur Thunderbird: The Origin of a Fake Native American Legend with an Anti- Evolution Agenda • Conversations with My Dead Mother: Why We See Signs and Omens in Everyday Events • Is Cousin Marriage Dangerous? • Therapeutic Touch Redux Twenty Years After the “Emily Event”: Energy Therapies Live on Through Bad Science • What Can Science Learn from Religion? Steven Pinker on Religious Beliefs and Rituals • Becoming Fantastic: Why People Embellish Already Accomplished Lives with Incredible Tales of UFOs and Other Phenomena • 1984 in 2019: The New Privacy Threat from China’s Social Credit Surveillance System SPECIAL DEBATE SECTION Michael Shermer v. Brian Huffling: Is the Reality of Evil Good Evidence Against the Christian God? REVIEW Graham Hancock’s “America Before: The Key to Earth’s Lost Civilization” reviewed by Jason Colavito JUNIOR SKEPTIC The Colossal Case of the Cardiff Giant: One of America’s Greatest Hoaxes