Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science

Guide Index

Big Picture

Water, Water Everywhere...

Aliens Have Landed

New Energy Age

Paper Personality

Healing Touch

Viewer Challenge
in the classroom

BEYOND SCIENCE?: Healing Touch

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

Curriculum Links
Activity 1: The Scientific Method
Activity 2: Magnetic Personality
A Science Project on Frontiers



scientific method




experimental methods,
placebo effect


  1. OBSERVE -- Realize that there is an idea that deserves study.
  2. HYPOTHESIZE -- Develop a theory to explain what you observe.
  3. PREDICT -- Make predictions that can be tested.
  4. TEST -- Design an experiment to collect information to prove or disprove predictions
  5. MODIFY -- Refine the theory based on what you have learned.
  6. REPEAT -- Test refined theory by making new predictions and testing again.
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.


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 above.

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 are not."

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."

  1. Is it important to choose something that interests you in order to study it?

  2. Why is it important to be able to test a theory rather than accepting claims on faith?

  3. How would you design a way to test your predictions?

  4. Why is it important for your experiment to be repeated by others?

  5. 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 factors?

  6. Find examples of the ways researchers use the scientific method on Frontiers.

  7. 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 therapy.


Design an experiment to uncover the truth behind these claims:
  • Magnets help athletes' sore legs recover faster.
  • Magnets help people sleep better.
  • Magnets help bruises heal faster.
  • Magnets reduce wrinkles.
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.

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 gauss.

  1. What is a double-blind study and how will it help in experimental design?

  2. What is the placebo effect and how might it affect the results of some experiments?

  3. How could you improve experimental design by first searching for information on magnet therapy in your library or on the Internet?
  1. 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 therapy.

  2. Apply the concepts of the scientific method to investigating claims about other "alternative" products or practices.

  3. You'll find dozens of online resources for investigating pseudoscience at

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!"

Linda Rosa, R.N., Emily Rosa's mother, is corresponding secretary for an organization of health professionals investigating the claims of therapeutic touch, the National Therapeutic Touch Study Group (NTTSG). You can read about NTTSG and other topics, including graphology and UFOs, at the Web site for REALL (Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land), an educational organization dedicated to applying the scientific method to claims of paranormal and fringe-science,


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.