How A 9 Year Old Debunked Therapeutic Touch — Unearned Wisdom

Emily was a 9-year-old working on an idea for her fourth-grade science fair project. She was just 11 years old when her research was published, making her the youngest person ever to have research published in the prestigious medical journal and perhaps the youngest in any major, peer-reviewed scientific journal.

How to Measure Anything, Douglas Hubbard

One day in 1995, Emily walked in on her mother, Linda, watching a video about “therapeutic touch” — a bullshit way of healing patients by manipulating their energy fields. The way it worked was simple — a patient would lay still before a therapist waved their hands around the patient’s body to extract the bad energy.

Linda was a nurse and a long-time member of the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF), but it was Emily who suggested that she should do an experiment to test the claim.

With the advice of her mother, Emily recruited 21 therapists for her science fair experiment. The test had Emily face the therapist as they both sat on opposite sides of a table, with a cardboard screen in between them. The screen had holes cut out at the bottom, which allowed the therapist to place her hands, palms up and out of sight.

Emily would flip a coin and, based on the result, place her hand four to five inches over the therapist’s left or right hand. (This distance was marked on the screen so that Emily’s hand would be a consistent distance from the therapist’s hand.) The therapists, unable to see Emily, would have to determine whether she was holding her hand over their left or right hand by feeling for her energy field.

How to Measure Anything, Douglas Hubbard

Emily reported her results at the science fair and got a blue ribbon, like everyone else. Linda mentioned the experiment to Dr. Stephen Barrett, who worked at the NCAHF. Barrett liked the simplicity of the method and mentioned it to the producers of the TV show Scientific American Frontiers.

In 1997, the producers shot an episode on Emily’s experimental method. Emily convinced 7 of the 21 therapists to take the experiment again for the show. She now had a total of 28 separate tests, each with 10 opportunities for the therapists to guess the correct hand.

In total, there were 280 individual attempts made by 21 different therapists. They correctly identified Emily’s energy field just 44 percent of the time. They would have done better had they flipped a coin.

Emily’s experiment was published in JAMA, and that earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person to have research published in a major scientific journal, and she received a thousand dollars from the James Randi Educational Foundation.

James Randi, a retired magician, set up the foundation for investigating paranormal claims scientifically.

Randi created the $1 million “Randi Prize” for anyone who can scientifically prove extrasensory perception (ESP), clairvoyance, dowsing, and the like. Randi dislikes labeling his efforts as “debunking” paranormal claims since he just assesses the claim with scientific objectivity. but since hundreds of applicants have been unable to claim the prize by passing simple scientific tests of their paranormal claims, debunking has been the net effect.

How to Measure Anything, Douglas Hubbard

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