Published Wednesday, April 1, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News
11-year-old's study debunks touch therapy

Journal prints her data from science-fair project

By Gina Kolata
New York Times

Two years ago, Emily Rosa of Loveland, Colo., designed and carried out an experiment that challenges a leading treatment in alternative medicine. Her study, reported today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has thrown the field into tumult.

Emily is 11. She did the experiment for her fourth-grade science fair.

The technique she challenges is therapeutic touch, in which healers manipulate what they call the "human energy field" by passing their hands over a patient's body without actually touching the patient. The method is practiced in healing centers and medical centers throughout the world, and is taught at prominent universities and schools of nursing.

Tens of thousands of people have been trained to treat patients through the use of therapeutic touch. Its practitioners insist that the human energy field is real and that anyone can be trained to feel it.

But Emily asked a sort of "emperor's new clothes" type of question. Could therapeutic-touch practitioners actually detect a human energy field? Her method was devilishly simple.

It was a question critics of alternative medicine had asked before. But only one practitioner agreed to submit to a test, said James Randi, a magician and anti-pseudoscience crusader who conducted the test.

Emily, however, was able to recruit 21 practitioners. Her mother, Linda Rosa, a nurse who is among the critics of therapeutic touch, said she believed Emily succeeded because practitioners did not feel threatened by a 9-year-old girl.

Emily's inspiration

Linda Rosa said Emily originally was designing a science-fair experiment involving M&M's. Then she glanced at the television screen in her home where her mother was watching a videotape about therapeutic touch. Suddenly, Emily piped up, saying she had a way to test the premise of therapeutic touch, her mother said.

Emily designed an experiment in which she and the healer were separated by a screen. Then Emily decided, by flipping a coin, whether to put her hand over the healer's left hand or the right hand. The healer was asked to decide where Emily's hand was hovering. If the healer could detect Emily's human energy field, he or she should be able to discern where Emily's hand was.

In 280 tests involving the 21 practitioners, the healers did no better than chance. They identified the correct location of Emily's hand just 44 percent of the time; if they guessed at random, they would have been right about half the time.

"I think of me as a kid who did a simple science experiment," said Emily, an avid Spice Girls fan and budding flamenco dancer who lives with her mother, a registered nurse, and father, a mathematician-inventor, in Loveland, a semi-rural town north of Denver.

There were no winners in the science fair. Emily got a blue ribbon like everyone else.

Emily wrote her study with her mother, a member of the National Therapeutic Touch Study Group, an organization based in Loveland that questions the method. The study's authors included Larry Sarner of the Therapeutic Touch Study Group and Dr. Stephen Barrett, board chairman of Quackwatch in Allentown, Pa., a non-profit group that is putting information about questionable medical practices on the Internet.

The research was never intended to be published, Emily's mother said. But word spread, and the PBS show "Scientific American Frontiers" featured Emily's tests on Nov. 19. Barrett of Quackwatch suggested submitting the findings to JAMA.

The report on the study is accompanied by a note from Dr. George Lundberg, the journal's editor. In it, Lundberg says that "practitioners should disclose these results to patients, third-party payers should question whether they should pay for this procedure, and patients should save their money unless or until additional honest experimentation demonstrates an actual effect."

Lundberg said the journal's statisticians thought the study was well-done. "They were amazed by its simplicity and by the clarity of its results," he said.

Study criticized

Practitioners hardly agree. "I do hope it's an April Fools' joke," said Dr. Dolores Krieger, an emeritus professor of nursing at New York University who is a developer of therapeutic touch.

Krieger and other therapeutic-touch practitioners insist that they and anyone else who is trained can easily feel human energy fields.

Another practitioner of therapeutic touch, Marilee Tolin, who teaches the method at colleges and universities throughout the country and treats patients at the Healing Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., said Emily's study was poorly conceived. Practitioners, Tolin said, rely on more than just touch to sense the human energy field. They also use "the sense of intuition and even a sense of sight," she said.

But other researchers say there is no reliable evidence that practitioners of therapeutic touch can heal patients.

Dr. Donal O'Mathuna, a professor of bioethics and chemistry at the Mount Carmel School of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio, said he had reviewed more than 100 papers and doctoral dissertations on therapeutic touch but found no convincing data that the method worked.

As for Emily, she is on a roll. She recently got a letter from the Guinness Book of Records, saying she may be the youngest person to publish a paper in a major scientific journal. She is planning her next experiments to test assumptions of alternative medicine. "I'm going to do one on Scientology and one on magnets," she said.


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