The publication of eleven-year-old Emily Rosa's therapeutic touch experiment in the Journal of the American Medical Association drew the attention of the media. For once it was the skeptics who got main billing. In one day, March 31, I caught a report on National Public Radio and news items on both ABC and Fox. Doubtless there are many I missed.
Emily, who was then nine, carried out her experiment for a science fair project and has now had it published in a prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal. She tested 21 TT practitioners to see whether they could indeed detect the "human energy field" which, they maintain, lies behind the curative power of TT. Their attempts to detect the field gave chance results, "That's what you would expect from somebody just guessing," said Emily.
NPR's "All Things Considered" gave the fullest report, quoting Emily and her mother, nurse Linda Rosa. NPR played a recording of a TT practitioner at work, persuading a patient that his headache had gone. This practitioner claims that Emily's test is invalid because she, Emily, was not diseased and so TT wouldn't be expected to work since, "A balanced field feels smooth and flowing." What a pity those being tested didn't think of that at the time.
Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic, was quoted as saying, "It's ludicrous." He hopes Emily's study will convince medical practitioners, if not TT practitioners. "That's what science does, it answers questions in the cold truth of objective fact." Emily's conclusion was that her test must be replicated because that is "good science." Good for her. I predict that mighty few TT practitioners will cooperate next time around.
ABC's evening news showed TT in action in the operating theater. Their poll showed that 91% of the 13 million people who have had TT applied thought it made a difference. Emily and her paper were introduced and a recreation of the experiment was shown. As Dr George Lunberg, the Editor of JAMA, said, what mattered was the science, not the age of the person doing it. He quoted his toughest statistical examiner as saying, "This is pure gold. A beautiful clean design carried out in a beautiful way with absolutely stunning statistics." On TT, Dr Lunberg said, "It's basically humbug."
The second half of ABC's report showed a contrary view from a cardiac surgeon at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. He thinks TT is subtle but that there is a little bit of evidence for it. He is trying to prove TT works since he wants to follow every lead which might help patients. Fair enough, if he knows when to give up.
On Fox's evening news their Dr Brian McDonough was quite scathing about TT. Linda Rosa was the chief spokesperson for the con side while a Dr Marshall Sager defended TT in these terms, "It's a matter of energy circuitry. The physicists have known for years that E = mc squared. Energy and mass have been related. You need the energy for the functioning of the system. It's just been recently that the Western physician realizes that that's a part of the whole metabolism and functioning of the human body." (What this technobabble has to do with a hypothetical field extending six inches from the human body totally escapes this physicist.)
As Linda Rosa said, "The nursing profession needs to realize that therapeutic touch is a naked emperor. We need to withdraw it from nursing practice and to only offer our patients practices which have proven therapeutic value." And, as Brian McDonough concluded, "It's hard to see its true value."
Whether the outspoken paper by Bob Glickman and Ed Gracely, which describes PhACT's 1996 TT experiment in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, will have the same media impact remains to be seen. However, for therapeutic touch, the time to put up or shut up may finally be here.