If a new 



fails to get

results in a



it should 

be shelved.



Therapeutic Touch
Finally, a Skeptical Book on Therapeutic Touch

Edited by Béla Scheiber and Carla Selby, 2000. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. 360 pp. Cloth $26.00.
 Book Review by David Bloomberg 
As readers of this newsletter are certainly aware, there are many modes of alternative medicine that have been making headway into the public consciousness in recent years. While all of these are called “alternative” because they do not have the backing of the medical profession, some are more alternative than others. These are the ones that make claims not just relating to biology, but also relating to spirits and “energy fields” and other areas for which scientific evidence does not exist. Strange though it may seem, some of these have even gotten backing within certain branches of the medical field.

     Therapeutic touch (TT) falls into this area. While it is completely misnamed (there is no touching involved), it is also founded on the ideas of a “human energy field” and the ability of a practitioner to manipulate this field to speed healing and remove pain. Unlike similar practices, though, therapeutic touch has the backing of many in the nursing field, and some states have allowed continuing education credits for courses in this practice.

     This has spawned a great deal of controversy throughout the country, with skeptics and scientists squaring off against defenders and believers. Over a decade of inquiry has led two of the investigators, Béla Scheiber and Carla Selby, to put together the first book taking a critical look at this practice, simply named, Therapeutic Touch.

     TT made big news across the country when young Emily Rosa had her grade school science project turned into an article for the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998. Her basic test showed that therapeutic touch practitioners couldn’t even detect the alleged human energy field under simple experimental conditions. Further, more refined tests have come up with similar results. This raises the question of how practitioners could use the field to cure when they couldn’t even find it?

     Scheiber and Selby brought together a number of investigators familiar with TT (themselves included) and combined the essays into a comprehensive look at this phenomenon. The discussions include historical overviews, ethical issues, whether it should be used and taught, attempts to test its claims, and, of course, whether TT actually works. As a whole, the book serves as a good example of solid investigation, including voluminous references. It even includes several key papers by therapeutic touch proponents, showing some of their best evidence. These are further examined by others later in the book, showing how that best evidence has major flaws.

     Scheiber and Selby became involved in the saga of TT through the Colorado local skeptics group. That group, with these two leading the charge, tried to get the Colorado Board of Nursing and others to explain why continuing education credit was being granted for courses in this area, and to provide evidence to back the claims for TT. Through that fight, Scheiber and Selby became experts in the field. Other chapters are written by those who have similarly become knowledgeable in this area.

     One interesting chapter discusses the attempts of the local Philadelphia skeptics group, along with magician and investigator James Randi, to find a TT practitioner who could pass some simple tests to show how therapeutic touch works. This search was buoyed by Randi’s standing offer of a large monetary reward to anybody who can demonstrate a paranormal event under test conditions; at the time, this amount was over $700,000. Yet only one person came forward to be tested, and he did no better than simple guessing would have done. It seems strange that if so many people think they have this ability, only one came forward to even try to get such a large sum of money.

     Several of the chapters point out that this is not just a case of an individual choosing to go to an alternative practitioner because he or she believes in them. Government funding has been given to TT proponents. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave a $200,000 grant to a New York nursing center “to treat patients and train students in” TT. The Department of Defense gave a $355,000 grant to nurse researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, for a study of the effects of TT on burn patients.

     It may seem odd that TT is still so widely accepted in certain circles, with all of the evidence that has mounted against its veracity. However, some of this is explained in a chapter discussing how TT proponents deal with science. The author says their attitude is “inconsistent if not self-contradictory.” He further notes that supporters give the impression that they have scientific research to bolster their claims. But when flaws are pointed out or an experiment fails to produce the results they wanted, “they quickly proclaim that science is irrelevant or is not necessary or that the mysterious physics of quantum mechanics surely has answers that confirm the legitimacy of TT.”

     This is not the way science and medicine are supposed to work. If a new approach consistently fails to get results in a proper experiment, it should be shelved. Certainly if a new method postulates magical energy fields that cannot be detected and makes miraculous claims that cannot be backed up, such a technique has no place in the medical field.

     Scheiber and Selby, along with all of their co-authors, show that therapeutic touch falls into this area.

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© 2001 Oregonians for Rationality