By Edvard A. Hemmingsen
The April 1, 1998, issue of the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association had an article which debunked "therapeutic touch", an alternative treatment dispensed by thousands of medical care givers in this country. Therapeutic touch is supposed to modify the patient's "energy fields" that have been disrupted by illness. The method is to move the hands of the "healer" a few inches above the body.
The striking thing about the article was that it is based on research conducted by a fourth grade student as a Science Fair project!
The student was lucky to enlist 21 practitioners of therapeutic touch for her project. She subjected them to some very simple, but correctly designed scientific tests. None of the practitioners could do better than random guessing in detecting the child's "energy field."
A number of other questionable or apparently fraudulent alternative therapeutic procedures have gained increased popularity in recent years, and in some cases are paid for by third-parties from insurance funds and taxes provided by you and me. Unfortunately, objective testing of the effectiveness of these procedures has been made almost impossible by the refusal of the practioners to subject their idea/therapies/procedures to rigorous testing. Like psychics, mystics, and metaphysical proponents, therapeutic touch practitioners do not wish to have their procedures or their "special abilities" tested, especially not by skeptics. For example, the James Randi Educational Foundation has a standing offer of more than $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate an ability to detect the "human energy field" under simple controlled scientific conditions. Although this offer has been well publicized, only one person so far has tried to demonstrate such ability. She failed.
Like therapeutic touch, other so-called alternative therapeutic procedures, psychic abilities and the like are amenable to testing by the scientific method, even at the level of Science Fair projects. My wife Barbara and I for several years have been involved with the Science Olympiad for Middle and High School students, and to a lesser extent, with the Science Fair. We have done this to encourage rational thinking and interest in science among young people. In the tests that we develop for the Science Olympiad competitions, we often include problems that require the students to design a simple scientific experiment to test the claim, for example, that pyramids can preserve hamburger at room temperature for long periods of time. We are often impressed by the students' creative and crisp responses, and their understanding of the scientific method. The same is true of the many excellent Science Fair Projects that we have seen over the years. Perhaps SDARI should, as a group, explore this venue for furthering the efforts to encourage rational thinking in the young. One way would be to offer a cash prize for the Science Fair student who produced the best study of a paranormal, psychic, alternative medicine, or some other idea from this general area. It is possible that the success of the therapeutic touch study will encourage similar studies by other young people, who seem to have an advantage over adults in obtaining the cooperation of the practitioners of these dubious activities.
Barbara and I volunteer to explore if such a Science Fair award is feasible. But in order to do so, we must have some input from our members as to what specifically the award should be directed at. "The Skeptics Award" will not do it. Please give us your suggestions and other comments about this proposal.
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