More than 80 U.S. colleges and universities, mostly nursing, teach therapeutic touch. Proponents claim that more than 100,000 nurses in 70 countries have received training. Therapeutic touch is so popular that even Dr. Oz promotes it on his popular TV show. During his weekly hospital heart surgeries a Buddhist reiki master is present. The master can “detect human energy fields and manipulate them to heal the sick.” The American Cancer Society has concluded: "Available scientific evidence does not support any claims that TT can cure cancer or other diseases."
In 1999, nine year-old Emily Rosa of Fort Collins, Colorado, had a great idea for her fourth-grade science fair project. She obtained the cooperation of 21 therapeutic touch healers to test the authenticity of their extra-sensory abilities. She asked each one to sit behind a partition that blocked any view between Emily and the healer. There were two hand-sized holes where the healer could place their palms. Rosa flipped a coin and then put her own palm just above each healer’s right or left palm. She then asked each healer which palm she had chosen. Surprisingly, the healers didn’t even reach the probable odds of 50%. The healers were correct only 44% of the time!
Emily Rosa concluded: “Their failure to substantiate therapeutic touch’s most fundamental claim is un-refuted evidence that (their beliefs) are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.” Her mother, a nurse, helped to write up her findings as a scientific paper. She submitted her paper to the Journal of the American Medical Association and it got published! She is the youngest person to publish a paper in a medical or scientific journal. Emily’s project received recognition from the media – The New York Times, People, Time, the Associated Press, PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and the BBC.
However, before all the notoriety, Emily didn’t win the science fair and no classmates or teachers were impressed with her project. Emily’s mother would later recount: “Some of the teachers were getting therapeutic touch during the noon hour. They didn’t recommend (Emily’s project) for the district science fair. It just wasn’t well received at school.”
In his book examining dubious medical claims, Timothy Caulfield summarizes the connection between facts and beliefs: “People see, select, and interpret information about health (and many other topics) through an individual and largely self-constructed lens of preconceived beliefs, values, and fears. We all, including many researchers, typically behave like cognitive contortionists in order to find ways to keep believing what we’re predisposed to believe. And, of course, the facts themselves are often either disputed or twisted beyond recognition.”
ABC News report on Emily Rosa and the power of the placebo effect
Paul A. Offit, M.D. Do you Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, Harper Collins, 2013
Timothy Caulfield, The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness, and Happiness, Viking Press, 2012
Comprehensive study of therapeutic touch: