BEYOND SCIENCE?: Healing
Could balancing a patient's "energy patterns" cure
cancer? Or heart disease? Therapeutic touch -- a holistic, alternative form
of therapy introduced in the 1970s -- makes claims about healing that are
not based on any scientific foundation. Frontiers shows how difficult it is
to conduct experiments about medical treatments. Then we meet a Colorado
student whose science fair project is one of the first attempts to subject
therapeutic touch to a scientific study.
Activity 1: The Scientific Method
Activity 2: Magnetic Personality
A Science Project on Frontiers
ACTIVITY 1: THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
Claims for alternative healing, like those made for therapeutic touch, need
to be supported by rigorous study. The scientific method is the best way we
have to get at the truth behind exceptional claims.
- OBSERVE -- Realize there is an idea that deserves study.
- HYPOTHESIZE -- Develop a theory to explain what you observe.
- PREDICT -- Make predictions that can be tested.
- TEST -- Design an experiment to collect information to prove or
- MODIFY -- Refine the theory based on what you have learned.
- REPEAT -- Test refined theory by making new predictions and
Practice using the scientific method.
In its simplest form, the scientific method is a way to help scientists
collect information to support their observations. The steps are pictured
Practice the first steps in the scientific method by building a
"Proposal for Study" form. Divide a paper into three parts
lengthwise and label the sections: Observe, Hypothesize and Predict.
Complete the form as follows:
Observe: Choose a topic that interests you; for example, basketball or
music. Next, write a one-sentence observation about some aspect of your
topic that deserves further study. For basketball, you might note: "I
want to know why some players are good at making free throws while others
Hypothesize: Write down a theory that helps explain your observation.
Following the basketball example, you might hypothesize: "Anyone who
is good at free throws must practice a lot," or, "A player who is
good at free throws must be tall."
Predict: Make predictions that will support your hypothesis. For example:
"I predict that if I interview every player on the basketball team,
the best free throw shooters will practice free throws for about the same
amount of time," and "The players who are bad at free throws will
probably not practice much at all."
ACTIVITY 2: MAGNETIC PERSONALITY
- Is it important to choose something that interests you in order to
- Why is it important to be able to test a theory rather than accepting
claims on faith?
- How would you design a way to test your predictions?
- Why is it important for your experiment to be repeated by others?
- What are some of the variables and biases experimenters must deal with
in their studies? For example, how much does natural ability or height
affect one's free-throwing ability? How could you test for these
- Find examples of the ways researchers use the scientific method on
- How does the student's science fair project seen on Frontiers
demonstrate scientific method?
Practitioners of therapeutic touch believe that by moving their hands over
a patient's body to enhance "energy flow," healing can be
achieved. Another popular therapy is the use of biomedical magnets. Claims
have been made for magnets used to treat everything from back injuries to
insomnia. As one example, Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu plays baseball with
tiny magnets taped to various parts of his body.
Conduct your own research into the "power of magnets" by
designing a scientific test.
Design a science project to study some of the claims of biomagnetic
Design an experiment to uncover the truth behind these claims:
Before you design your experiment, make predictions based on these
statements. Remember, your experiment must collect data that test these
predictions. Review the scientific method and make sure you minimize the
variables you are testing and have a control for comparison.
- Magnets help athletes' sore legs recover faster.
- Magnets help people sleep better.
- Magnets help bruises heal faster.
- Magnets reduce wrinkles.
NOTE: If you do not have access to medical magnets, you can design an
experiment, but not conduct it. Medical magnets that are used in
biomagnetic therapy aren't like the magnets on your refrigerator. Medical
magnets range from 800 to 4,000 gauss, but small ones measure around four
- What is a double-blind study and how will it help in experimental
- What is the placebo effect and how might it affect the results of some
- How could you improve experimental design by first searching for
information on magnet therapy in your library or on the Internet?
A SCIENCE PROJECT ON FRONTIERS
- Bring in examples from tabloid reports or popular magazines on healing
by magnets or crystals and explain how they differ from reports in
scientific journals. Contrast the science and pseudoscience of bio-magnetic
- Apply the concepts of the scientific method to investigating claims
about other "alternative" products or practices.
- You'll find dozens of online resources for investigating pseudoscience
Although the practice of therapeutic touch has been around since 1972, when
it was invented by a nurse, and although many hospitals perform this
alternative therapy along with traditional medicine, the technique had not
been scientifically tested until recently.
Enter nine-year-old Emily Rosa, whose science project put therapeutic touch
to the test - a scientific test. Emily's mother, Linda Rosa, is a nurse
investigating therapeutic touch. Watching a videotape of the practice with
her mother, Emily came up with a way to test one of the claims -- namely,
that practitioners could sense "energy fields."
Emily, now 10, was a student in Thom Noell's fourth grade class at
Rivendell School in Fort Collins, Colorado, when she set up the experiment
that you see on this episode of Scientific American Frontiers.
Emily's therapeutic touch study has also been submitted to a journal for
consideration. When the editors found out who conducted the study, they
expressed disbelief that a young student ran the experiment. Said Emily,
"It was easy!"
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