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Robert Todd Carroll

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therapeutic touch

Therapeutic touch (TT) is soon to be offered in a hospital near you, if it is not already on their menu of "complementary" medicines. My sources tell me that the practice is the rage among Canadian nurses and it is becoming more popular in the United States, where alternative medicine is seen as a penumbral right emanating from the rights to free speech and miracles. I have no objection to a consenting adult taking any kind of medicine or treatment he or she wants. If a rational adult wants to fart at the sun at high noon to dissolve his tumors, let him. If he wants to pay some shaman from another planet to do the farting and howling, that's his business. But when he wants to use our tax dollars or insurance dollars to pay for it, then it becomes our business, too.

Your government has given the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Burn Center over $350,000 to study therapeutic touch on burn victims. Actually, the Pentagon is spending our money on this project under the aegis of a wonderful sounding institution: the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS). And, actually the therapeutic touch shamans aren't going to touch the burn victims;these "alternative health practitioners" will wave their hands over them and act "as a human energy support system until the person's own immunological system is robust enough to take over." Those words are from the grant proposal. If you want to read about this "scientific" study, pick up a copy of the July/August 1996 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer or read the on-line documents.

Of course, the skeptic faces a dilemma whenever confronted with a metaphysical and/or pseudoscientific theory which is to be scientifically tested. If we criticize the methods, protocols, standards or results of the study, we are accused of having an a priori bias against anything that doesn't fit with traditional science. Furthermore, in the case of New Age spiritual healing methods, we are up against a growing segment of the public who are armed with anecdotes as proof that the healing works. If anyone has an a priori bias in these matters, it is the advocates of the alternative therapies. They set out to prove what they already "know" from experience is true. They do not begin with the null hypothesis, attempting to disprove a causal connection between TT and some specific healing or cure.

Skeptics do not oppose, a priori, empirical studies, but we are opposed to spending tax dollars on allegedly "scientific" tests of metaphysical notions. We do not support spending tax money to test claims which are based upon metaphysical assumptions that contradict fundamental scientific facts and theories. Finally, we do not support spending tax dollars on proposals written up by people whose grant proposals exhibit an egregiously distorted misunderstanding of basic scientific facts, theories and testing protocols. If a private party wants to spend an entire fortune trying to build a perpetual motion machine or get a rabbit to give birth to a human, let them. It's their money and they can spend it as wisely or as foolishly as they wish. But when someone wants to spend tax dollars on a study, I expect that what is being tested is an empirical matter and that it is based upon accepted scientific theories, facts and protocols. I do not want my money being spent on so-called scientific tests of non-empirical matters. It is logically impossible to do an empirical test of a non-empirical claim. It is possible, for example, to test whether sticking a needle in a person's ear can be a significant causal factor in quitting smoking. But it is not possible to test the claim that sticking a needle in person's tongue can unblock his chi, his spiritual energy which runs in a parallel universe to the bodily universe, and put his yin and yang in balance. In short, if a phenomenon cannot be observed except subjectively by "feeling", then we cannot do a scientific study of the phenomenon.

Furthermore, skeptics do not want our tax dollars spent on tests of ideas which are based on theories which either contradict current scientific knowledge or are based on an egregious misunderstanding of such knowledge. I maintain that TT is based on both non-empirical beliefs and a bizarre interpretation of quantum physics. On the one hand, I would hope that the Pentagon has scientists deciding who gets grants to study scientific matters, but if they do, then they must be madder than Alice's hatter. On the other hand, I hope the Pentagon does not have scientists who give grants to study things such as TT, for at least then we can say that the military's USUHS is simply as misguided as some of their missiles.

What do the people who practice and advocate TT have to say about it? Here is what the UAB grant claims:

TT "is based on the assumption of a human energy field which extends beyond the skin. The idea behind TT is that the human energy field is abundant and flows in balanced patterns in health but is depleted and/or unbalanced in illness or injury....

Central to the practice is the assumption of a human energy field and an environment filled with 'life energy' which is also present in all living organisms...."

Hmm. Are the "human energy field" and the "life energy" the same thing? Are they measurable by some sort of instruments or they pseudoscientific terms to replace the admittedly occult notion of auras? What is the nature of this energy? Is it electromagnetic? Or is it unobservable, something metaphysical and mysterious like chi? According to the grant writers:

"Support for this view is based entirely on a field world view....Quantum theory states that all of reality is made up of energy fields and that over 99% of the universe is simply space....Our present technology does not allow the measurement of the human energy field, but to a trained sense, primarily touch, the human energy field can be perceived and assessed."

On the one hand, we are supposed to believe that TT is grounded in quantum physics, an accepted set of scientific theories and facts. On the other hand, we are supposed to believe that the "human energy field" TT is based on can't be measured by current technology. Furthermore, we are supposed to believe that there are some people who can be trained to "feel" these energy fields. Not only can they "feel" the field; they can measure it, too. They can "assess" what they "feel." Well, I guess I am just the dumb one here for not seeing the empirical and scientific nature of these concepts. But it seems to me a bit dangerous to rely on the feelings of someone who thinks what they are feeling is due to their ability to measure energy fields no scientist has ever heard of and who thinks these energy fields are the ones of interest to quantum physics. Would you let such people work on your cars, much less your body? I wouldn't even let them near my garage.

But perhaps I am too hasty in my evaluation of the energy field theory which is the basis of TT. Rebecca Witmer has written an article for Healing Arts magazine titled Hands that Heal: The Art of Therapeutic Touch. Ms. Witmer is an administrator for a large insurance company with an interest in self-care and alternative health.

Derived from several ancient healing practices, including the laying on of hands, TT is a consciously-directed process of energy exchange during which the practitioner uses the hands as a focus to stimulate and enhance the patient's own natural healing ability. In its contemporary form, Therapeutic Touch was developed by Dolores Krieger, Ph.D., R.N., (Professor Emerita of New York University) and her mentor, Dora Kunz, in the early nineteen seventies. TT is now practiced by thousands of health care professionals and laypeople worldwide. Popular among nurses in many Canadian hospitals and nursing homes, TT is taught at over 80 universities and hospitals and has been incorporated into the College of Nurses of Ontario 1990 Implementation Standards of Practice. TT has been the subject of numerous doctoral dissertations and masters theses, and in early 1994, the U.S. National Institute of Health awarded a research grant to study TT. For a fledgling alternative health practice, TT has garnered immeasurable respect and interest.

But does TT deserve this immeasurable respect and interest? Is it really immeasurable? If so, then it is much like like the energy fields the TTers are supposedly channeling. What is the empirical basis of TT? According to Ms. Witmer

The underlying principles upon which this technique is based include acceptance of the Einstein paradigm of a complex, energetic field-like universe (i.e., the existence of a Life energy flowing through and around all of us). Further, if life is characterized by an interchange of various qualities of energy, it can be assumed that any form of obstruction -- either within the organism or between the organism and the environment -- is contrary to Nature's tendencies and therefore unhealthy. In practicing Therapeutic Touch, one attempts to influence this energy imbalance towards health to restore the integrity of this field. In this way the TT practitioner does not so much "heal" the patient as facilitate the patient's own healing processes, by gently manipulating the body's energy flow and adjusting it as a whole. With the achievement of balance in mind, body and spirit, we have a truly holistic approach.

Now let's carefully examine these claims and the inferences drawn from them. Einstein, as far as I know, did not have a paradigm, much less a model or a theory, which included the notion of "a Life energy flowing through and around all of us." He may have written of interchanges of quantities of energy and many physicists have written of such things as transforming mechanical energy into electrical energy, for example, but as far as I know neither Einstein nor any other notable physicist ever wrote of life being characterized as an interchange of qualities of energy. I wonder if Einstein would even understand the expression "life is an interchange of qualities of energy"? I know I don't and I wish Ms. Witmer would explain the notion, for she must understand it. After all, she knows what may be logically inferred from this notion: any form of obstruction within the organism or between the organism and the environment is contrary to Nature's tendencies and therefore unhealthy. How she knows this, I have no idea. I don't think she even knows how she knows this, for she says that "if life is characterized by an interchange of various qualities of energy, it can be assumed that any form of obstruction -- either within the organism or between the organism and the environment -- is contrary to Nature's tendencies and therefore unhealthy."

What she seems to be saying is that since we have made one assumption, we may as well make another. Or maybe she is saying that since we claimed Einstein as the source for our first idea, we can assume anything we want after that! Who could fault such logic? In any case, let's examine these new notions, for whether they are assumptions or inferences from the false Einsteinian notion, they are either absolutely true or utter gibberish or absolutely false. It might be true that an obstruction within an organism is contrary to Nature's tendencies if by that we mean such things as blockage of an air passage is unhealthy or blocked arteries are unhealthy. Still, if I have either one of those problems I want a surgeon to unblock the passageway, not a mystic to wave her hands over me to move my energy field.

On the other hand, it seems clearly false to claim that it is contrary to Nature's tendencies for there to be an obstruction between an organism and its environment. If anything is more natural than obstructions between organisms and their environment, I don't know what it is. For most organisms, their environment is mostly obstructions. Whether this is healthy or unhealthy, I can't say, but it seems obviously true nonetheless.

Finally, what does it mean to say that it is unhealthy to go contrary to Nature's tendencies? Are the hurricane, the tornado, the volcano, the flood, the lightning bolt and the earthquake contrary to Nature's tendencies? How could they be, since they are part of Nature as we know it. If we could prevent these natural forces from destroying life and the environment, would that be "unhealthy"?

The "theory" of TT appears to be little more than a hodgepodge of ancient beliefs about life forces and a butchered version of quantum physics. I would hope any scientific committee in its right mind when approached by anyone wanting money to test this theory would be shown the back door. It is a metaphysical theory masquerading as one grounded in science. In short, it is a paradigm of a pseudoscience: a theory claiming to be scientific when it is not. Yet, over $350,000 tax dollars are being spent to "test" this theory! The "test" is a howler, by the way. One group of patients will get "real" TT and what is being called the control group will get "fake" TT. I have no doubt that the Pentagon will get their money's worth or at least what they deserve.

Now, one might wonder why a group of otherwise intelligent, highly trained professionals such as nurses would be attracted to something like TT. Ms. Witmer might have the answer. She writes

Those who practice Therapeutic Touch often report reaping benefits for themselves. For example, the ability of TT to reduce burnout in health care professionals has been well-documented.

I can understand the benefits. You have powers physicians don't have. Secret, mystical powers which only you can measure. No one can prove you are wrong. You become the shaman and you find that people believe in you. You like that. You get a lot of positive feedback. You network and those in your network feed off of each other's enthusiasm. You feel revitalized, empowered.

Furthermore, you may actually be on to something. You find that patients aren't necessarily turned off by your weird notions. In fact, you find that patients are willing to try anything to help them get better. They begin asking for TT. Soon they'll be demanding it. You have found that you can even placate skeptics by saying things like "what harm can it do?"

Try this bit of visualization, if you will. In the future, hospitals will be packed inside and out with people praying, vibrating, waving colored sticks, chanting, burning incense, sending out good vibes, etc. Doctors and nurses won't be able to find a parking space because they'll all be used by New Age spiritual healers who are helping out. Or, more realistically, visualize this: hospitals offer more and more untested and untestable New Age spiritual healing "modalities" as part of their comprehensive "complementary medicine" plan. Gibberish becomes a marketing strategy. The patients want these New Age treatments. What harm will it do to offer them along with the traditional offerings. The competition's going to do it. And, who knows, maybe some day the government will require you to offer every alternative health care technique known on this or any other planet under its new "fairness" guidelines.

But enough of this negativity! I have made a resolution to look for a silver lining in every cloud and so I offer this possibility as the good that has come and will come from TT and other New Age modalities. It brings patient and health care practitioner together as person to person. It is very soothing and contrasts greatly with the often cold and impersonal way we are treated by our physicians and in hospitals. Maybe it will lead to a change in the way many physicians treat their patients. Maybe more physicians will begin treating their patients as human beings with feelings, hopes, desires and anxieties, as well as a body with parts that might be broken or malfunctioning. Maybe traditional medicine will become a bit more humane. If so, maybe fewer people will feel a need for TT and its sisters.

Some might say that I have ignored the anecdotes. Well, it is true that I don't put much weight on testimonials. Nevertheless, I'll mention just one. Someone has posted a story on the WWW called cancer treatment by TT. It is the story of the author's uncle who was told by his doctor that he had cancer, that the two months of radiation therapy he had been getting had done no good and he had 2 months to live. Let's assume the doctor was an oncologist and he made such a specific prediction. The author claims that his uncle was told this some nine months ago but he is now "alive and well" because a spiritual healer treated his cancer with TT. Here is how it works

The healer directs his energy to the patient's body without touching it wave by wave. In our case he would place his hands over my uncle's chest and then move them in a slow motion around his lungs for about 30 minutes.

It is possible the doctor was wrong in his prediction of how long his patient had to live. Maybe this error will teach the doctor not to be so cocksure in his predictions in the future. Or maybe the uncle and his nephew misunderstood the doctor, who may have stated his prediction in a qualified way, such as, "my best guess is..." or "based on similar cases I have had, I would estimate...." It is also possible that the doctor was wrong about the effectiveness of the radiation therapy. It is possible that the cancer went into spontaneous remission. It is possible that his uncle was misdiagnosed and mistreated and he is alive only because his doctors had given him up for dead. It is possible the author is lying. It is also possible that TT worked in this case. But what seems more probable?

Let's just assume for a minute that there are people out there who can move electrons with laser powers in their fingers, for that seems to be what they should be able to do if they are altering the energy fields quantum physics talks about. How do these people make it through the day? Wouldn't anything they get near be in danger of having its molecular structure changed? Wouldn't atomic explosions follow them along their mystical paths as they release all that pent up energy in the subatomic world? Wouldn't objects all around them be constantly transforming due to their energy displacements? Shouldn't they be able to walk through walls? In short, shouldn't we be able to identify those with these powers very easily? If the powers allegedly utilized by the practitioners of TT are as real as they say they are, would we really have to spend any money to test them?

On the other hand, maybe there is another explanation for the power of Bob Gibson's fastball. He didn't throw the ball by the batter; he threw it through their bats! The miracle was that he was able to halt his special power in the instant between the ball's going through the bat and arriving in the catcher's mitt. I always thought there was something supernatural about his fastball. Maybe there was.

In conclusion, we should note that 9-year old Emily Rosa tested 21 TT practitioners to see if they could even feel energy when they could not see its source. The test was very simple and seems to clearly indicate that the subjects could not detect the energy of the little girl's hands when placed near theirs. If they can't detect the energy, what are they detecting? It seems that TT is another in a long list of cases of self-deception based on wishful and confirmation bias.

See related entries on acupuncture and alternative health practices.


further reading

reader comments

Clark, Philip E. and Mary Jo Clark, "Therapeutic touch: Is There a Scientific Basis for the Practice?" Nursing Research, 33 , Jan/Feb 1984.

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn't' So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1993) $12.76

Hover-Kramer, Dorothea . Healing touch : a resource for health care professionals with contributing authors, Janet Mentgen, Sharon Scandrett-Hibdon (New York : Delmar Publishers, 1996).

Selby, Carla and Bela Scheiber. "Science or Pseudoscience? Pentagon Grant Funds Alternative Health Study, " in the Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 1996.

Williams, Susan M. "Holistic Nursing," in Examining Holistic Medicine (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1989).  

ęcopyright 1998
Robert Todd Carroll

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