Eleven-Year-Old Debunks Therapeutic Touch: The Case of Emily Rosa

An "alternative" therapy is put to the test.

Posted Sep 30, 2011

In Chapter 8 of my recently released trade book, The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature, I discuss various peddlers of hope that cater to our innate Darwinian-based insecurities. These include religious narratives, self-help gurus, and medical quackeries. An otherwise intractable problem (e.g., mortality, terminal disease) is "resolved" by believing in some hopeful message, as dispensed by one of the latter sources. In the words of none other than Superman (Christopher Reeve), "Once you choose hope, anything's possible."

In today's post, I'd like to briefly discuss the case of Emily Rosa, who in 1998, as a precocious 11-year old coauthored a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, where she debunked therapeutic touch (TT), one of many forms of "alternative" medical therapies (see also here). She devised a very simple scientific test to gauge the efficacy of TT. Practitioners of TT are supposedly capable of curing specific ailments (e.g., pain) via the transference (or manipulation) of human energy fields (?) from their hands to a patient's afflicted body part. Rosa's experiment consisted of having TT healers slip their hands through a partition that would not permit them to see the other side of the partition. She would then place her hand above either their right or left hands, and ask them to state the location of her hand. Twenty-one TT healers of differing levels of experience (one to twenty-seven years) took part in the study. Two hundred and eighty trials were conducted in total. The healers achieved a success rate of 44%, namely their performance was worse than what one might expect via random guessing!

Of course, proponents of TT were hardly impressed, and they quickly offered a wide range of reasons to explain away the otherwise fatal findings. My two favorite "rebuttals" for this type of debunking are: (1) the experimental setting interferes with the human energy fields (or other supposed phenomenon); (2) the phenomenon only works on those who believe. To the extent that Rosa was agnostic regarding TT, this might confuse the human energy readings. Nice!

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this story is the democratic nature of the scientific method. A young child was able to devise an experiment that allowed her to test a given claim. This is precisely why any belief system that does not permit for such objective scrutiny should be viewed with much suspicion if not derision.

Interested readers might wish to check out my earlier posts on related topics including within the religion realm (see here, here, and here), the Q-ray bracelet (see here), and tasseography (predicting your future by reading coffee stains; see here). The capacity of the human mind to suspend reason is truly breathtaking.