Is Therapeutic Touch the Most Ridiculous Pseudoscience?

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Last month, I told you about homeopathy, which I called the second most ridiculous pseudoscience. I’ll be honest, I don’t actually have a definitive ordered list of which pseudoscience is more or less ridiculous. I said it was the second most ridiculous because I thought that was funnier than just saying “ridiculous.” But I noticed in the comments there was a spirited discussion over whether my joke ranking was correct, with several people arguing that homeopathy is definitely dumber than my purported number one, therapeutic touch. Several other people were curious why I think therapeutic touch is so stupid, and so to answer all your questions, today I will be telling you all about the zany belief that is therapeutic touch.

This quackery began in 1972 as the brainchild of Dolores Krieger, a nurse who had just received her phD, and Dora Kunz, a professed psychic who was born and raised in an occultist religion based in part on the idea that the world is run by a secret society of men with superpowers, like the ability to project their souls anywhere they want, and the ability to live for a really long time. Kunz claimed to be in contact with magical beings, and said that Central Park in New York City used to be chock full of fairies but pollution made it harder to find them by the late ‘70s.

Those two founders should give you a really good idea of what therapeutic touch is: what if a competent medical professional did something completely bonkers?

Their invention was based on the concept of a “Human Energy Field,” a concept you’re probably already familiar with because we’ve all heard of supernatural ideas like “auras” before. Humans, the proponents claim, emit a field of energy from our bodies that is invisible and in fact undetectable by all current scientific instruments, via a method that is unknown to current scientific knowledge. But practitioners trained in the ancient – er, 50-year old – art of therapeutic touch possess the ability to manipulate that field, which allows them to unscrunch it here and ripple it around there in order to treat all kinds of diseases and disorders, from depression to cancer.

This may remind you of reiki, a very similar concept invented by a Japanese man in the 19th century. Reiki is also based on the idea of manipulating a magical energy (usually known in this case as qi), but those practitioners perform that manipulation by touching the patient’s body. During therapeutic touch, despite the name, the practitioner usually doesn’t actually touch the body at all. The standard method is to hold the hands about six inches from the body, since that’s where the Human Energy Field is located. Despite that, adherents say that both the practitioner and the patient can feel something happening, usually describing it as a change in temperature or a tingling sensation.

For that reason, if I WERE to rank pseudoscience based upon ridiculousness, therapeutic touch would definitely rank as more ridiculous than reiki, because, well, at least reiki comes with basic physical interaction.

Despite the absurdity of the idea, therapeutic touch REALLY caught on, especially in its cofounder’s field: fairy hunting. Wait, no, sorry, the other cofounder: nursing. Nurses went absolutely gaga for therapeutic touch, subjecting patients to it as though it were a real intervention, and publishing papers in nursing journals lauding the success they were finding. Patients, they said, LOVED it. Sure, systemic reviews would eventually reveal that every study showing any positive result was deeply flawed and completely biased, but nothing seemed to slow the popularity of the treatment amongst nurses the world ‘round.

That is, until April Fools’ Day of 1998. That’s the day that a very real study was published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, in which 21 therapeutic touch practitioners were tested under blinded conditions to see if they could detect an investigator’s energy field. They all failed miserably, leading to the conclusion that “the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.”

While the study got some attention for being in such a big journal, the real star that led to media exposure around the world was that one of the four authors of the study was Emily Rosa, who was nine years old when the study began and eleven when the paper was published, making her the youngest scientist to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. The project began as her fourth grade science fair project, and then grew in scope to the study that was finally published, with her parents as co-authors along with Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch.

Rosa designed a test in which the therapeutic touch practitioners stuck both of their hands through an opaque divider, at which point Rosa would hover her hand 8 to 10 centimeters above one of the hands (determined by a coin flip). The practitioner would then sense the energy field and say which hand was chosen. At the end of the experiment, the practitioners guessed correctly 44% of the time, which is statistically no different from chance, which would be 50%. Therefore, no evidence could be found for the existence of or the ability to detect any such Human Energy Field.

Case closed, right? Well, not exactly. While this was a great experiment for a fourth grade science experiment, and honestly it’s about as much effort that a ridiculous concept like therapeutic touch deserves, it was not actually good science, per se. For instance, it was blinded in that the practitioners couldn’t see which hand had been chosen, but it wasn’t double-blinded, meaning that Rosa obviously COULD see. Also, there was no control group. You might think, well, you don’t need a control group because it’s obvious that a random person would have a 50% chance of guessing which hand was chosen, and let me tell you, the fact that you thought that is why magicians still have jobs. Because we do NOT in fact know that a random person wouldn’t have a better than 50% chance of knowing which hand has another hand hovering above it, for several reasons, including one related to the lack of double blinding.

Actually I should say we DID not know a random person’s chances of guessing, because shortly after Emily’s experiment was published, a better and more interesting study was done by an investigator named Rebecca Long.

Long pointed out that in previous tests, including Rosa’s, the environment wasn’t properly controlled for. There are many subtle ways in which the practitioners could be tipped off without the existence of a Human Energy Field, and also ways that they might be misled into choosing the wrong hand. During pilot testing, Long found that air conditioning blowing on the subject’s hands would lead to the researcher’s hand blocking the airflow on one hand; rustling clothing would point to one direction or the other; an elbow on the table would point in one direction or the other; and the investigator would often look at one hand or the other when speaking, indicating a direction. These would either cue or miscue the subject, meaning that depending on which factors were present, they might increase or decrease the number of correct guesses that a control group might make.

So for the actual test, Long controlled for all of those factors: the tests all occurred in the same space where there was no air conditioning or heating on. The experimenter wore clothing that wouldn’t make any noise when moving, and the experimenter was never to speak, instead using LED lights to indicate when their hand was in place and ready for a guess. No elbows could touch the table, and she even mandated the exact movement of the hand being placed over the practitioner’s hand to remove the likelihood that the practitioner would feel a rush of air from the hand moving into place. Finally, an investigator oversaw the entire process to be sure all these rules were followed.

The results? With all of these controls in place, Long tested 26 subjects ten times each with the experimenter’s hand three inches over the practitioner’s, and found that the subjects guessed correctly 76% of the time, a statistically significant result that proved they were better than chance. One subject guessed correctly 100% of the time, and was further tested 30 more times and identified the correct hand every single time.

There we go, a well-designed study that offers strong evidence in favor of the ability of Therapeutic Touch practitioners to detect the Human Energy Field. 

Or, it would be, I guess, if Long had been testing Therapeutic Touch practitioners. That’s right, I tricked you. I’m sorry. Here’s the twist: all 26 test subjects had never performed or received therapeutic touch treatments in their lives. Long’s actual hypothesis was that Therapeutic Touch practitioners and patients are fooling themselves thanks to simple body heat radiating from body to body, so she went on to test her subjects’ ability to detect the correct hand at four and six inches away, finding that their success rate fell with distance.

“Ah,” you’re thinking, “but that is because the Human Energy Field also dissipates at that rate!” Maybe! So she decided to retest subjects at 3 inches again, but this time she put a pane of clear glass between the experimenter’s hand and the subject’s hand. At that point, the success rate dropped to 52%: within a coinflip’s chance of guessing correctly.

As a fun bonus, she conducted a final trial in which she had the investigator miscue: instead of using the LED lights, they spoke the word “ready” while looking at the incorrect hand, and while resting their elbow in front of the incorrect hand. The success rate dropped to 39%.

So, did THAT study disprove the existence of a Human Energy Field? No. It failed to find any evidence for it, and it nicely presented evidence for why people think it exists. It’s up to Therapeutic Touch proponents to PROVE the existence of a Human Energy Field as well as their ability to manipulate it AND that this manipulation can treat diseases like cancer or heart disease. They’ve done none of this, ever. Study after study fails to show any evidence for any of their claims.

Why then does the practice continue? Well, here’s my hypothesis: in many places, and especially here in the United States, people aren’t allowed to form good relationships with their healthcare professionals. We see our doctors for maybe 15 minutes every year or so, and we rarely feel heard and understood. Like reiki, and acupuncture, and other pseudosciences, Therapeutic Touch requires a practitioner to spend time with a patient, and that alone is valuable.

Meanwhile, nursing has always been a field dominated by women, and nurses haven’t always enjoyed a positive relationship with the male-dominated physicians they work with. They’ve been seen as less than, they’ve been bullied, and hell, back in the 1970s they were still required to wear those little white dresses and hats and stand whenever a doctor entered the room. Is it any surprise that they’d gravitate toward a treatment that they could perform, that they were uniquely suited for, that made patients like and respect them?

So yeah, Therapeutic Touch is a completely ridiculous pseudoscience with no evidence that any part of it is true other than giving some patients some relaxation. But I guess after going over all of this I would actually rank it as slightly less ridiculous than homeopathy. What do you think? Honestly I’ve been enjoying these deep dives that exist blissfully disconnected from any current events, so also let me know if there’s some other pseudoscientific topic you’d like me to cover. Colon cleansing? Orgone? Vaginal steaming? Some other alternative treatment that is not related to your sexy bits? Let me know in the comments!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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