Recent posts by Drs. Sampson and Hansen and some recent comments have got me to thinking for the umpteenth time about this issue: quackery is quackery, even if it seems harmless and even if some people seek it. This is the first of a series that will discuss it. I’m afraid I will ramble a bit; it may be that not every post will support that premise. Nevertheless, in the aggregate I’ll try to do exactly that.
The posts about Healing Touch sent me on a walk down memory lane, to one of my early forays into “CAM” skepticism. It was there that I discovered just how removed from reality some true believers, even those that project a superficial air of sobriety, can be. Here I’ll recount a brief exchange that I had with one such person, who was undoubtedly well-meaning. My attempts to influence her by the use of reason proved futile.
Shortly after the publication of the famous Emily Rosa article in 1998, I read a report about it in Newsday. It wasn’t all that bad, but my annoyance with mainstream publications giving the slightest credence to “alternative medicine” had been growing, and this moved me to act. I wrote a diatribe to Newsday that was not published (I can’t imagine why):
To the Editor:
“Therapeutic touch” is such obvious humbug that it never should have been taken seriously by anyone with the slightest aquaintance with how things work. Nevertheless, academic careers have been based on it, hundreds of useless papers have been written about it, courses in it have been given and even required of nursing students, grant money has been provided for it (but not used to test it!), and scores of ridiculous magazine and newspaper articles have praised it, apparently to a naive and credulous public. All of this constitutes a huge embarrassment to nurses, a fact that would appear to be lost on their largest professional organization (the ANA).
One of the statements in your article about the JAMA study was incorrect: the practitioners were not able to detect the energy field half of the time. They were able to guess the correct hand half the time, as would be predicted by chance alone. Thus there is no evidence that the “energy field” was detected at all. This is no surprise, because this kind of “energy field” exists only in the fantasies of true believers.
Dolores Krieger’s objection to the study, that the right practitioners were not tested, is disingenuous. She has been asked numerous times, by James Randi and others, to submit to testing of the same sort as described in Rosa’s study (Randi’s foundation has even offered a $1 million reward for anyone who can demonstrate the ability to detect the “energy field”!). Neither she nor any of her trainees or colleagues has come forward, nor has any of them published a single study supporting the efficacy of “therapeutic touch.”
Among the shamelessly fawning, uncritical articles on TT referred to above is one in Newsday by Tina Morales, 7/8/96. Really, now. There are very simple, basic skills useful for evaluating questionable claims. If the writer doesn’t have them the editor certainly should!
Before gentle readers admonish me for the scolding, schoolmarmish tone of that letter, let me assure them that I have long since learned to couch my objections to “woo” in more matter-of-fact, less provocative language. As frustrating as it may be, amiable, well-meaning, intelligent people who haven’t the slightest idea how to evaluate questionable claims vastly outnumber their more savvy counterparts, even in surprising fields: journalism and medicine, for example. Ten years ago I had no intention of becoming more than a temporary, annoying gadfly. I imagined that the “CAM” fad would soon blow over, and that I’d go back to spending my free time watching re-runs of Seinfeld and Law and Order. Alas, ’twas not to be. Patience.
Not long after that minor event, still reeling from the sheer absurdity of it all, I stumbled upon the “Official Response from Healing Touch International…to the April 1, 1998 JAMA article ‘debunking’ Therapeutic Touch.” It had been written by Cynthia Poznanski Hutchison, DNSc, RN, CHTP/I, Research Coordinator for Healing Touch International, Inc., Lakewood, CO. I’m sorry to say that it is no longer available online, but here are a few excerpts (bold type in the original):
The published study does not test any critical variables related to therapeutic touch. The ability to sense the energy field of another is simply not a requirement of a TT practitioner….What you do in your mind and heart far surpasses any kinesthetic experience in your hands….Some practitioners sense a client’s energy intuitively or are able to see, or hear subtle aspects of the energy body (clairvoyance). Each person is unique in her or his abilities as a practitioner.
The study design was not representative of a therapeutic touch session. It was set up more as a parlor game. Therapeutic touch studies using people with health problems would most likely demonstrate positive effects. The critical variables of practitioner compassion and holding the intentionality for the highest good of the recipient was not part of the study. In the study setting, no healing was sought.
The child conducting the study was not neutral about therapeutic touch, and therefore could have affected the results….Emily has grown up in a household where she couldn’t possibly be neutral about the existence of energy fields. Her parents have been activists in trying to debunk TT. Her thoughts may have blocked her own energy field from being perceived based on her belief that the practitioners could not be successful. Practitioners are keenly aware of people’s ability to block or close down their energy fields with their thoughts. Healing Touch instructors usually demonstrate this phenomena [sic] in introductory energy classes.
…Theirs is one study which looked at one variable of the 5 steps of therapeutic touch, and it is the least critical of all variables/steps. Dissecting therapeutic touch and claiming to disprove it by looking at a piece of it is like studying a horse by only looking at its legs…
…Studies since the early 1970s have progressively supported the use of therapeutic touch in the clinical setting. Interestingly, the authors did not mention Wirth’s (1992) TT study titled “The Effect of Non-Contact Therapeutic Touch on the Healting Rate of Full Thickness Dermal Wounds.”
A final point is one of acknowledgment that there are many unanswered questions about energetic therapy!! Practitioners know this and practice anyway because their experience has shown them phenomenal results. (Many practitioners also initially started out as strong skeptics.)…We don’t have all the answers yet, and may never figure out every piece of the puzzle. However, while striving to understand energetic therapy from a scientific view, practitioners also “embrace the mystery” and let go of “the need to understand” during sessions. This is part of the beauty, awe, and humility that is experienced by many practitioners and patients.
Newton’s theory in the 1600s described the human being as a divine type of mechanism or machine, with fixed parts, predictability, and alive within a closed system. But quantum physics of today describes us as fields within fields, as vibrating waves and particles, as equal to about 2 grains of sand in solid matter were we to be totally compressed. Modern physics supports the use of energetic therapy, most notably in the sentences: “Thought precedes form. Thought is a form of energy. Attention (presence) changes the object being observed.” …Spirituality and science have been kept separate since the scientific era, but more and more we are seeing the holism of all creation, the connectedness of everyone and everything, and the re-emergence of science and spirituality as different perspectives of the same thing.
Studies on the existence of energy fields and the effects of energetic therapy have been published regularly since the 1960s….The question is why so many mainstream medical practitioners have ignored, downplayed, or attacked a promising form of therapy to assist humanity in its suffering, healing, and dying?…Read Vibrational Medicine by Richard Gerber, MD, or some of Deepak Chopra’s books…experience a short series of therapeutic touch…Be skeptical if you like, but be open! (Since your thoughts are a part of you and your energy system, you can use them to block any positive effects.)
We encourage solid research to study all aspects of energetic healing in order to understand how it can best serve humanity. We invite healthy skepticism of all types of health care offered to society, mainstream and complementary…
Ayayayayay! Dr. Sampson has correctly observed that “there have been pages” written about the Rosa experiment, and it is not my intention to merely restate those. Some of the best pages, by the way, are by Steve Novella here on SBM and by Larry Sarner, co-author of the Rosa report. My intention here is to do something slightly different, although it necessarily covers some of the same material: to offer a bit of insight into the mind of a True Believer. After reading Ms. Hutchison’s Official Response, I couldn’t help myself:
Dear Ms. Hutchison,
Your response to Emily Rosa’s study is easily rebutted on many grounds, and I imagine that you’ve already received several letters pointing those out. Therefore I’d like to limit my remarks to the notion that “modern physics supports the notion of energetic therapy,” which it most certainly does not. The quotation that followed your claim, which was unattributed, may be most charitably described as an example of poetic license, but in no way is supported by quantum theory. For a discussion of the misuse of quantum theory, see http://www.csicop.org/si/9701/quantum-quackery.html What modern physics does have to say about the sort of “energy field” that is the basis for TT and other “alternative therapies” is that until it can be measured in any reproducible way, there is no reason to believe that it exists.
The Rosa experiment is important precisely for this reason: TT advocates have claimed for years that although unmeasurable, TT practitioners can “feel” the “energy field.” If that could be shown, it would constitute a heretofore unknown force in the universe, comparable to the discovery and characterization of electricity and magnetism. In the scientific world this would be HUGE, with equally huge repercussions for technological applications. Rosa’s experiment failed to show it, but the door has been opened for years for anyone else to demonstrate it. If you are so convinced of your objections to the study, why don’t you repeat it with practitioners who are convinced of their ability to sense the field and a subject who believes in TT? Science would welcome the results, whether pro or con.
The idea that the right practitioners were not tested, by the way, is disingenuous. Dolores Krieger and her disciples have been asked numerous times, by James Randi and others, to submit to testing of the same sort as described in Rosa’s study (Randi’s foundation has even offered a $million reward for anyone who can demonstrate the ability to detect the “energy field”!). Neither she nor any of her trainees or colleagues has come forward. Here’s your chance to make a real contribution.
I didn’t really expect a reply, but one came a mere day or two later.
Thanks for writing to share your viewpoint. Yes, someone who is neutral is planning to replicate the study in way that is reflective of the true process of TT.
(We’re still waiting.)
And no, no one has written to me with your point of view, yet. Yes, we all want to understand this work and how it can be a help to humankind. Also, you wrote to me “The idea that the right practitioners were not tested, by the way, is disingenuous.” I don’t know why you shared that with me as I never heard a statement about the practitioners nor made a statement about them. I saw no obvious problem with the practitioners.
(But TT co-inventor Dolores Krieger, according to Newsday, did: ” ‘It’s poor in terms of design and methodology,’ she said, adding that the designer of the study – Emily – should not have been the one to conduct it, and the 21 subjects were too few and unrepresentative“(emphasis added).)
When I read research, including work published in JAMA, the conclusion section usually is a place where the author speaks to recomendations for further study and what can reasonably be concluded on the single piece of research. Most researchers emphasize the need to replicate the study and include a critique of their own work.
(Well, OK, but why haven’t advocates replicated it?)
They remind readers that one piece of research does not prove anything, and urge others to not jump to conclusions, whether results are perceived as positive or negative. The AMA press release did none of these, but stated instead “Their failure to substantiate therapeutic touch’s most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of therapeutic touch are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.”
Sensing the energy field isn’t even a requirement to practice TT. [Huh?] This statement is reflective of unprofessionalism, lack of objectivity, ill will, and is void of scientific credibility. [Huh?] Please remember that everyone thought the “germ” theory was ridiculous until they could be seen under a microscope!
And what about the fact that there is no anatomical proof of the existence of the S-A node in the heart which has long been recognized by the mainstream medical community to be the electrical source of heart activity? [here. Second, Wirth is a scoundrel who just spent the past few years in federal prison after being found guilty of numerous charges of fraud, not long after he had co-authored the infamous Columbia U. “Miracle” Prayer study. She didn’t know that at the time, of course, but is it really a surprise?)
Let me share a small piece of personal information. I’m married to a skeptical scientist who questions this work also. But what makes this marriage work is that we have love and respect for each other, and we support each other’s growth and paths in life. We even tease each other about this. Neither of us are arrogant enough to say we as individuals have the truth. We both know that the world has enough mysteries to keep humanity doing research for at least a few thousand more years. We keep respect and humor in our relationship, and quite frankly, I’d like to see more of that with the Skeptics Groups.
You and I both know that there are alot of quacks in the world (I’ve met quite a few!) and it takes inner discernment and healthy skepticism to make decisions that involve our lives and health. I have met some energetic therapists who I would personally like to see stop doing what they are doing. Then again, I’ve seen quite a few mainstream physicians that I would like to see out of practice also. The same goes for lawyers, politicians, religious leaders, bankers, salespersons, and Mr. and Mrs. Anybody. No organization, profession, or group is free of a dark side. If you have had a negative experience with energetic therapy, that is very unfortunate, but an unavoidable fact of life which one must reckon with.
My question to your organization is “what is the source of your negativity?” [What "organization"?] The strength of your attacks only points a red flag to a strong emotional and/or political response, not an objective question. Many mainstream physicians feel very threatened by a practice which they perceive as challenging their power and economic viability. Is your quest to debunk TT based on patient dissatisfaction, lawsuits against practitioners, or moral misbehavior?
(That’s easy: “moral misbehavior.” Quackery is immoral; TT is quackery. What also disturbs me is the profound anti-intellectual tone of that paragraph: the “strength of [my] attacks…points to a strong emotional and/or political response…” Actually, the strength of my argument (“attack” is in the mind of the beholder) is in its reasoning. Apparently, a reasoned rejection of TT demonstrates that reason itself is “the source of my negativity.” That’s literally true, of course, but by “negativity” she probably meant meanness, not merely a reasoned, “negative” conclusion. So if reason leads to rejection, we can’t allow it. It’s just too mean-spirited.)
Can you even find a group of dissatisfied patients who would be willing to to exert the amount of energy you have, to rid society of energetic therapy?
(In 1800 it probably would have been difficult to find a group of dissatisfied patients willing to exert energy to rid the world of bloodletting, purging, and scalding. So what? Determining safety and efficacy isn’t a popularity contest.)
TT is at best, a natural, non-invasive, economical, humanistic form of therapy, and; at worst, a benign, well-intended, caring action which makes people feel more at peace.
No, at worst, and in all likelihood, it’s an expensive hoax that gives false hope to desperate patients and further confuses a scientifically illiterate public, as does every other form of quackery. Consider the claims of efficacy for TT (from Rosa et al):
Back to Ms. Hutchison:
Time will tell. Energetic therapy is not (to my knowledge) an evangelical, preaching group of therapists trying to force this work down anyone’s throat.
The usual course of events is that people hear about it and pursue receiving the work or studying it. Yet the work is growing rapidly (without expensive ads in medical journals like the pharmacology companies) and with professionalism and the sense of the scientific. I am willing to be further engaged in a personal conversation with you, one person to another, if you have a mindset of openness and respect. Otherwise, I suggest that we agree to disagree. We are not enemies Kimball, we just see things differently and have different experiences. I understand how you feel because I’ve been there myself, trained as a left-brain scientist who wanted proof for everything. Although I’ve figured out a few things, I still see myself as terribly ignorant in so many ways.
Thanks for taking the time to write and listen. I hope you’re enjoying the spring.
Whew! I thought about replying to this in detail, discussing everything from the irrelevancy of ad hominem remarks to a reiteration of the physics issue, but I decided there was no point. She was so far from being grounded in rational thinking that it seemed hopeless. This was confirmed by an e-mail from her that followed closely on the heels of the previous one:
Subject: Fwd: THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
Dear Kimball, I thought you might be interested in this.
This came through the Healing Touch email and we thought you might be interested in participating:
Hello Friends! Don’t know if you’ve seen the following notice, but it looks like a fascinating opportunity to take part in a very large international project on the power of focused prayers for peace. You can do it wherever you are… or, if you would like to join us on April 23, please call 657-8837 and leave a message. We’ll be holding a small gathering at our house. All the best… and we’ll be in touch soon about some other matters.
Eric & Pearl
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
Here’s the Question: Can millions of people, focusing their minds on inner and world peace, heal the world in an instant? Can we, through scientific and quantifiable means, prove that we are indeed the creators of the world we perceive, and that by changing our perception, the world itself changes? This is “The Great Experiment.” It’s time we prove scientifically what the saints and sages have always told us that we are powerful spiritual beings with the ability to create a world based on the laws of love, instead of the rules of fear. With the help of scientists, we are about to put an end to doubt forever.
Two months ago, James Twyman, author of the bestselling book, “Emissary of Light,” was invited by the government of Iraq to perform his “Peace concert” in Baghdad. The situation seemed desperate war seemed almost inevitable and diplomatic efforts seemed to have failed. “I was being used by the Iraqi government,” Twyman said. “But we had the same goal: to avoid this terrible war. I was given permission to sing the Muslim prayer for peace to Saddam Hussein and I wanted the world to join us in this prayer. Hundreds of thousands of people over the world participated, and when it was complete, I felt a profound shift in the energy of that whole region. Three days later, a peace agreement was signing, something which seemed impossible before the prayer vigil began.”
But The Story continues . . . “A week later, I was invited by the government of Northern Ireland to sing at Stormont Castle in Belfast – the building where the peace talks were being held. For days, bombs were exploding all around that area. Many people were trying to interrupt the peace process and it seemed like the talks might fall apart. Once again, thousands around the world joined us in prayer, and three days later there was a breakthrough in the talks. A peace agreement in May now seems inevitable.”
The evidence is there – we do have the power within us to change the world. Princeton scientist, Dr. Roger Nelson, has measured the statistically significant effect that focused meditations and events have upon the earth’s energy field. Dr. Nelson has measured these effects during the Gaia Mind Meditation and during Princess Diana’s funeral. His studies show that the greatest effects occur when groups synchronize their focus. During “The Great Experiment,” we will meditate upon specific affirmations in unison to achieve the power of a singular group focus.
NOW IT IS TIME TO PUT INTO PRACTICE WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW TO BE TRUE: “If enough people join their minds and hearts for peace, we can heal the world.” “The Great Experiment” will take place on April 23rd at 6:30 PM Eastern Time (This would be 10:30 PM GMT). Please mark your calendars now, and tell everyone that you know to join with us. James Twyman has been invited to sing the peace prayers from the twelve major religions at the United Nations building in New York on April 23rd. This presents an unparalleled opportunity for us all. Dr. Doreen Virtue, best-selling author of The Lightworker’s Way, and Gregg Braden, geologist and author of Awaken to Zero Point, join James in conducting this incredible experiment. Authors, entertainers, and other celebrities, will participate by sharing their vision of “a world transformed by love.”
Here’s how you can participate:
- Tell everyone you know. Share this with everyone on your mailing list so that everyone can participate. Feel free to print this out and make copies. The goal is to get as many people focused on this meditation.
- Begin preparing your spirit and mind for the event by spending a few moments in silence everyday. This will help build the energy.
- Join at least one other person for the vigil on April 23rd. This is an experience to share. “Where two or more are gathered.”
The Format of the Meditation: We are asking everyone to follow this simple format during the meditation. As scientific studies at Princeton University show, the more focused a group meditation or event is, the stronger the effect.
- Opening: Begin with this affirmation, said with great power and commitment: I am an Emissary of Light. I extend this Light to all beings, in compassion and love, knowing that they are one within me. this moment the world is healed – and I along with it. I will it – and it is so.
- Then spend five minutes creating a sound (such as “Aum”) to carry the spiritual energy and vibration. This can be done with a single tone or by singing a song such as “Amazing Grace.”
- Spend five minutes in silence allowing your spirit to receive the light and love which you yourself extended to the world.
- End with this prayer: “It is done! I am one with all – and all is healed. Let love reign where fear once was. I accept this for myself and for the world. I am an Emissary of Light now and always. Amen” Then, with reverence, bow your head and thank God for this grand opportunity. The universe gives thanks to you for being part of this great experiment.
If you have any questions regarding this Great Experiment, please write: TheGreatExperiment@PeaceSeeds.com Healing Touch Canada, Inc. 75 The Donway West, Suite 1102, North York, ON M3C 2E9 416-449-3199 416-449-1962
Wow. At some point over the next few weeks I emailed Bela Scheiber of the Rocky Mountain Skeptics. I told him of my correspondence with Ms. Hutchison, and we decided that I would offer to her the possibility of collaborating with his group on a Rosa-like experiment. I did that; I’ve lost my email to her, but I still have her reply:
To Kimball Atwood, regarding our exchange on skepticism and the JAMA study.
I thank you for writing back to me. You have been on my mind since you wrote your first letter weeks ago. As HT research coordinator, I have been living and breathing this JAMA thing since right before the story broke. It led to lots of interviews with reporters, phone calls, emails, TV spots, etc. (Although I enjoyed my interviews with reporters, I was amazed at how often my words were misquoted or wrong information given…It gave me a whole new understanding on how media can fuel the fire of conflict!!) It was exciting for awhile, but part of me wants to tuck it away and put it to sleep, because I’m so far behind on all my other work, family life, and life in general. However, I am very grateful, very grateful, for some of the things it has brought to my life, including some wonderful new friends, conversations, interesting sharing, great humor, networking, planning, and growth. A part of me is very grateful to the Rosa’s b/c whenever this kind of thing happens, once we get through the chaos and emotion, the process leads to growth, inner and outer.
I personally am interested in some sort of collegial study and have been in conversation with some researchers about this. I have initiated a network of scientists regarding studies which would support our work and we are all in conversation right now. I will share your letter with them. This could take a fair amount of coordinating as everyones lives are so full, but it is an effort worth spending, I believe. I received a short, personal note from George Lundberg, editor of JAMA, who I believe was expressing an interest in a collegial effort also. I wrote back for clarification of what he was interested in, so perhaps he might like to be a part of this. I’ll get back to you as things arise. I may also be sending you some forwarded emails FYI. Thanks again for writing.
PS I’d love to know where you live and what you do for a living…and any other background you’d like to share. Thanks.
I don’t know if she ever communicated with the Rocky Mountain Skeptics or if she was involved in any plans to repeat the Rosa experiment. I do know that there has been no such report. My memory fades after this, but I don’t believe that I responded to her last email or that she emailed me again. I don’t think I had the heart to keep it up. She seemed so ingenuous, so wrapped up in a magical fantasy, and so clueless; I’m convinced that the most I could have done was to hurt her feelings, if that. Regarding this HT Research Coordinator’s curious approach to how nature works, I guess I decided to embrace the mystery and let go of the need to understand.