People have been doing magic for thousands of years. It’s never worked.
A bold and sweeping claim, perhaps, but no-one who knows me would deny either that I am bold or that I sweep. So I stand by it. Ideally, waving your hands and casting spells is the sort of idea that people grow out of a good while before they’re allowed to drive. (Or at least they’ll learn to understand fantasy as distinct from reality by the time they’re old enough to cause any significant damage to the world around them.)
Something like therapeutic touch has been around for millennia. The basic premise really does still amount to just touching someone, or waving your hands near them, and healing them with magic. And not just while in character as a level 8 cleric tending to your party’s injured wizard. Some people really think they can manipulate human physiology on exactly such a basic level.
The specific method of therapeutic touch was first devised in the 1970s, and still doesn’t seem to have gone away yet, despite being the same old ineffective nonsense as ever. They do some magic, and supposedly it makes things better. They use terms like qi and bio-energetic fields instead of magic, but it’s no more scientific (or less vague and indefinable) than just going “Ta-da!” and expecting things to happen. No physicist or chemist can tell you what this supposed energy field is, how it interacts with the rest of the world, how it fits in with the Standard Model of particle physics, or what consistent measurable effect it has.
An effort is sometimes made to make it sound scientific, but any claim involving the magic word “quantum” in conjunction with words like “natural” or “holistic” (as they so often do) should be examined with great suspicion, particularly when made by someone trying to sell you something. Quantum theory is a model of the behaviour of matter on an atomic scale, and encompasses the indeterminate nature of the existence of particles when their attributes are measured. Things on a quantum scale behave weirdly, and very unlike they normally do in the real world (i.e. on the much larger scale that we’re used to living in).
It does not mean that reality can be rearranged anyway you choose simply by wanting it hard enough, or that the nature of matter can be manipulated in any meaningful way. It does not imply the existence of any sort of mystical energy field which can be accessed, influenced, or understood, by something as macroscopic, unquantum, and irrelevant as the human mind. There is nothing like this in the entirety of physics. Leave the quantum alone. Seriously, put it down, it’s clear you don’t know how to handle it safely. Have some Fuzzy Felt.
The point about measurable effects may be the most important, however. Not fitting in with our current theories needn’t be an absolute barrier. There was a time when we didn’t have a clue what a neutrino was, but they were still out there doing their thing all the while, and eventually we noticed them. And because we kept noticing them, and they always cropped up in the same circumstances and behaved in the same way, we couldn’t ignore them. And if there’s some qi flowing through everyone which has any rules to its existence at all, we should be able to notice it. If it’s there.
This is really just basic scientific competence. If we can’t notice the stuff in some way, then believing that it exists is pointless. And if we can notice it, then we should be able to make sure it is where we think it is. If we back it into a corner, it won’t vanish into the aether, like the aether did.
However, in practice, the bio-energetic field that TT practitioners claim to work with has an annoying habit of completely disappearing whenever we try and look at it close up.
The most famous example of this came about after a nine-year-old girl had an idea for a school science project.
Emily Rosa invited twenty-one experienced TT practitioners to come and test out their skills, and to see if this human energy field really could be so easily detected by those who claimed to be experts. She sat each of them in turn at a table, and had them reach their hands through two holes in a partition. Rosa herself was on the opposite side, holding her own hand over one of the practitioner’s hands, either the left or the right. For each of ten “trials”, she would flip a coin to choose which of their hands to pick, hold her hand slightly over that hand, and ask them to tell her which of their hands she’d chosen.
According to all the standard claims of TT, this should have been easy. They should have been able to feel the energy from her body radiating outwards, if it was really present and “tactile as taffy“, as these things apparently usually are. But when they didn’t know what they were supposed to be feeling, the effect vanished. In this blinded experiment, the group of practitioners made 123 correct predictions out of 280 attempts between them. That’s slightly crappier than the most likely result of pure guesswork.
In 1998, Rosa’s results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There have been some criticisms about the testing, and doubts about the validity of the results, but Larry Sarner has already addressed these in ample detail over at Quackwatch. Even if Rosa was biased against TT, there was no real opportunity for that to affect the results; the ability that she was testing (to physically feel a human energy field) was exactly in line with what practitioners say they can do; and so forth.
But even if there were ways in which her methodology could have been tightened up, why has that not been done? Why have the people complaining about the poor quality of her research not done higher-quality studies and produced some successful results? If Rosa’s study is so flawed, it should be a single inconclusive anomaly, among a plethora of better controlled and more scientifically rigorous published papers. If that were the case, then we could acknowledge that the nine-year-old girl may not have thought of everything, and had mistakenly set things up in a way which didn’t recognise the genuine effects of this phenomenon. But all the evidence would imply that she pretty much nailed it. All the positive data we have on therapeutic touch comes from anecdotes and personal accounts, which aren’t enough to prove anything. All they can do is prompt us to wonder whether there might be something interesting going on here, and come up with some scientific tests to find out.
And we know what happened when we did that.
It’s not just science fair evidence against it, though. The Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking also tested a TT practitioner in 1996, in conjunction with the good ol’ JREF. That didn’t go well for therapeutic touch either. The participant, Nancy Woods, mentioned one factor which people used to criticise Emily Rosa’s study – she said that when the body is normal and healthy, there’s nothing for her to detect, but being close to an injured or painful body part is what provides a noticeable sensation. (Remember, though, that the practitioners Rosa tested were confident in their ability to detect energy fields in her perfectly healthy hands.)
So, the testers enlisted someone with chronic wrist pain and some nasty-sounding medical conditions with Latin names, and Woods agreed that she’d be able to tell this lady’s wrist apart from a healthy equivalent in another person. And indeed, in the preliminary “open” test, her magic powers seemed to be working fine. Ten times in a row, she tried using TT to detect the energy field from the injured wrist, and she got it dead on the money every time. Pretty impressive… but not really. The open test meant that she could see whether she was waving her hands over the woman with the wrist problem or the healthy chap. Under those circumstances, yes, therapeutic touch seems to work amazingly well.
But when you change that one tiny detail, and simply don’t tell her the answer beforehand, those energy fields suddenly become a lot less reliable. Their effect – and with it, any evidence that they actually exist – completely vanishes.
When Woods only had her TT sense of the energy fields to rely on, her success rate dropped to 11 out of 20. When you have to pick one of two options, being right about half the time doesn’t really require particularly impressive magical powers. It was working flawlessly mere moments before. Whatever can have happened?
There has been no study since which has shown significantly different results, and demonstrated anyone’s ability to consistently achieve the claims of TT in a true blinded test, let alone actually curing anyone. (If you think I’m wrong, send me a link to where it’s happened.) And until we have some similar, legitimate evidence that the proposed mechanisms of therapeutic touch are the most likely cause of what’s going on – ruling out all the usual bad reasons why people buy into alternative medicine, on the basis of multiple anecdotes or personal experience and so on – there’s simply no reason it should be believed.