Therapeutic Touch Redux: Twenty Years After the "Emily Event," Energy Therapies Live on Through Bad Science

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Authors: April Bleske-Rechek, Katie Paulich and Keith Jorgensen
Date: Spring 2019
From: Skeptic (Altadena, CA)(Vol. 24, Issue 2)
Publisher: Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,844 words

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IN 1998, 11-YEAR OLD EMILY ROSA CAUSED A NATIONAL sensation when she published the results of her 4th grade science experiment in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (1) She had generated a simple but clever experiment to test the claim that the so-called "human energy field" (2) (HEF: "aura") can be detected, and she had compiled convincing evidence that individuals--specifically, Therapeutic Touch (TT) practitioners who claim to manipulate others' energy fields for healing purposes--could not reliably detect that energy field. (You can watch Emily test her subjects in this special on her experiment featured on ABC's 20/20 with John Stossel: As summarized by Larry Sarner, who recounted the events for SKEPTIC magazine in 1998, energy therapies are based on the fundamental claim that "the hands can be used to manifest a TT practitioner's intention to heal by detecting and eliminating differences in the HEF of a patient, thereby either returning the patient directly to health or removing impediments to the healing processes of the patient's own body." (3) Because Emily Rosa showed that self-proclaimed Therapeutic Touch practitioners could not reliably detect a human energy field, her results led to the direct conclusion that claims about Therapeutic Touch practitioners' ability to modify human energy fields to promote healing were questionable at best and, more likely, completely mistaken.

In fact, no one has yet demonstrated the existence or reliable detection of a human energy field. When Sarner wrote about the Emily Event in 1998, he expressed hope that TT would fade out of nursing schools' curricula and that research on TT would be "relegated to the 'research' back rooms of nursing academia." (3) In this essay, we consider whether those hopes have been realized. Do nursing schools continue to offer courses on energy (biofield) therapy, including TT and its sister therapy, Healing Touch (HT)? Do practitioners and scholars continue to make claims about the healing powers of energy therapy, and on what standards of evidence do they rely? The data we have to offer regarding these questions is not promising. In fact, energy therapies appear to be thriving.

The Spark

Our interest in energy therapy began several years ago, when one of us (let's call her "The Skeptic") was asked to provide research design consultation for a colleague (we'll call her "The Believer") from the School of Nursing. The nursing scholar was preparing a grant proposal for her research on cancer patients. She felt that undergoing an MRI is uncomfortable and inappropriate for cancer patients, and she wanted to test the hypothesis that undergoing an MRI disrupts cancer patients' energy balance. The Skeptic was perplexed. Putting aside her curiosity about the various (presumably legitimate) medical reasons for undergoing an MRI as a cancer patient, she focused on the concept of energy balance, which she had not encountered previously. The conversation went something like this:

The Skeptic: How is "energy" measured? The Believer: By trained Therapeutic Touch practitioners. (She hovered her hands a couple of inches away from the Skeptic's...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Bleske-Rechek, April, et al. "Therapeutic Touch Redux: Twenty Years After the 'Emily Event,' Energy Therapies Live on Through Bad Science." Skeptic [Altadena, CA], vol. 24, no. 2, spring 2019, pp. 24+. Accessed 1 Oct. 2023.

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