5X5 Episode 30

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5X5 Episode 30
Therapeutic touch on bone cells in culture
29th July 2008

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5X5 29 5X5 31
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Mike Lacelle
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Evaluation of a UCONN study of therapeutic touch on bone cells in culture[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about therapeutic touch and a new study conducted at the University of Connecticut medical center. This was done by Gloria Gronowicz who does research into osteoblasts which is bone cells and the growth and formation of such cells. And recently she has she has been involved in studying the effects of therapeutic touch on the growth of both normal bone cells in Petri dishes as well as osteosarcoma-derived cells, which is a form of bone cancer. And in her latest research, which has just been published, she claims that therapeutic touch significantly increased the growth of normal bone cells but not cancerous bone cells.

R: (sarcastic) That's convenient.

E: And how did she come to that stunning conclusion?

R: Well she apparently had some therapeutic touch practitioners come into the lab twice a week and for 10 minutes at a time they held their hands a few inches from lab dishes and she claims that she saw growth in the dishes with the therapeutic touch applied. There are also dishes that had sham therapy applied meaning somebody, some student or assistant just came in and held their hand over it without sending their good vibrations, I guess. And another set of controls were just sitting there with no mojo.

J: Yeah, but it seems like she only did one round of testing on a limited number of Petri dishes. She didn't duplicate the experiment, no one else has duplicated the experiment. You know, it's such a small amount of data that it's definitely at this point untrustworthy.

E: And this is over the course of three years that this twice a week therapeutic touch regiment was conducted. I mean it seems like unless you have some really tight controls in place, Petri dishes are going to get handled and touched, certainly, you know, by other people over the course of three years. And who's to say there isn't some source of contamination going on here that's more likely the cause of whatever growth that's been occurring.

R: We should probably just clarify quickly that in therapeutic touch you don't actually touch anything. You just hold your hands somewhere near whatever needs to be healed.

S: Yeah, I've some theoretical problems with this study. Therapeutic touch practitioners are supposed to manipulate a human energy field that they can sense. They're supposed to have an intention of healing a person. And that's supposed to be critical to their techniques. And, in fact, previous negative studies like the Emily Rosa study where she demonstrated that therapeutic touch practitioners couldn't even sense the presence of such a field, proponents have criticized such negative studies by saying that it was too artificial and there wasn't a relationship therapeutically between the practitioner and somebody that they wanted to heal. So how does that at all jive with this type of study? Could a bunch of cells in a Petri dish have a human energy field? And the practitioners had the intention of healing these cells? So that doesn't really jive with their prior excuses for negative studies.

Now, of course, the human energy field doesn't exist to science; there's no way to test it, there's no way to detect it. No one can demonstrate reliably that they are able to detect it's presence. It doesn't have any properties that anyone can demonstrate. It's completely unnecessary to our understanding of biology and health and disease. Essentially, it is a pre-scientific, superstitious, magical belief. Therapeutic touch itself was invented by Dolores Krieger and others in the 70s, it's actually a very recent practice. And there is really no credible evidence that it does anything or that it even exists. So if we take the position of the prior probability, the plausibility, the prior probability that therapeutic touch is real, it approaches zero. This study, this data, barely touches that probability. You can't look at this data in isolation. You have to look at it in the context of the plausibility and prior probability.

So, and Jay you're correct, although she did collect some, you know, data over several years. This data is meaningless unless it could be replicated at will. Unless other labs with other researchers can replicate it. Otherwise, this is currently in the same boat that the homeopathy research of Jacques Benveniste was in. When he was doing research, allegedly, on cells in Petri dishes and test tubes, the data was stunning. Turns out it was all fraudulent. And it couldn't be replicated by other labs. So until this gets replicated we can't rule out some methodological flaw, a statistical fluke, or fraud. The fraud doesn't necessarily have to be on the part of Gloria Gronowicz. It's like with Jacques Benveniste it was a lab assistant who was doing the fraud not the researcher himself. So I'm not accusing anybody of anything, the point is that we can't know all of this from one isolated lab doing, which is on completely theoretical grounds, dubious research. Certainly this doesn't come anywhere close to establishing that therapeutic touch is real or that a human energy field exists.

M: I wonder what her criteria were for legitimate therapeutic touch practitioners. I mean, are they trained? And by who? And, you know, for how long? Where? And do they have successes? Or anything like that?

S: Unfortunately there is formal training in therapeutic touch within the nursing profession. And you can get certificates and complete actual approved and accredited training programs. Unfortunately. It's all internally regulated so there's no external validity to this whatsoever. A degree in nonsense, you know, essentially is worthless. But that's the criteria that are used.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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