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Pseudoscience Experiment: Testing Therapeutic Touch

At the age of 9 Emily Rosa became a superstar in the scientific community for her science fair project. She deserved it too, because it was such an amazing project that it ended up published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Even more amazing than that, Emily became the youngest person ever to publish in a scientific journal, a record that still stands to this day, according to the Guiness Book of World Records.

For her project Emily tested a common medical practice in the 80s: therapeutic touch. Therapeutic touch, sometimes called “healing touch,” was given to patients in hospitals to help them heal faster. The therapist would move their hands over the person, about three to five inches above them, and feel the person’s “energy field.” They never touched the person. They simply waved hands over them and “exchanged energies.” While many adults were convinced that this was an effective medical intervention, Emily, with the bright clear eyes of a child, saw it for what it was: BS.

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Emily came up with a way to test the BS. She started with a cardboard screen, the kind of trifold used in science projects everywhere. Then she cut two openings at the bottom for the therapeutic touch therapists to put their hands through. Emily sat on one side of the screen and a therapist sat on the other. The therapist put their hands through the holes and Emily hovered her hands over one of the therapist’s hands. The therapist simply had to say which hand felt Emily’s energy field hovering over it. Emily randomized which hand she hovered over by flipping a coin.

If the therapists could really feel an energy field then they should pick the correct hand more than 50% of the time. Emily set a passing score at 80%, which was more than fair given how confident many of the therapists were in their ability to feel auras. When the results were calculated it turned out that the therapists picked the correct hand less than 50% of the time! Worse than chance. After that, therapeutic touch disappeared from hospitals, but you can still find it at New Age fairs and alternative medicine clinics.

Want to try Emily’s experiment for yourself? Here’s how:

What you’ll need: A cardboard screen (a trifold works best, but you can use a large cardboard box), scissors, a towel, a coin, paper and pencil

First use the scissors to cut two openings at the bottom of the cardboard screen, just large enough for a person to fit their hands through.

Second, have the person sit on one side of the screen while sit on the other. Have them place their hands through the holes in the screen.

Once their hands are through the screen, cover their wrists and the remaining opening around their wrist with the towel. This will keep them from peeking!

Now decide which hand is “heads” on the coin and which is “tails.” Be sure to keep it secret!

Flip the coin and hover your hand four to six inches above the other person’s hand. They must guess which hand you are hovering over.

Write down how many correct and incorrect guesses they got.

With a grownup’s help, calculate the percentage correct. Was it more than 80%?

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