Subtle Science and the Magic of Your Mind

I read two articles in the newspaper that resonated for me, and hopefully I can make them resonate for you. They were in the April 1 edition but enough time has passed that I am pretty sure they weren't hoaxes.

The first article was about a study Emily Rosa conducted a couple years ago for her school science fair. The results were shown on the PBS show "Scientific American Frontiers" and then published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. I have not seen the science fair project or the TV show or the journal article so all this information is straight from the story in the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

What people claim Emily did is debunk the value of therapeutic touch, a technique where trained practitioners supposedly massage or modify a sick person's energy field without the actual laying on of hands. Emily took a small group (21) and tested their ability to sense the field emanating from her own hands. They only correctly chose 44% of the time which may indicate pure guesswork or that Emily has a weak personal field.

The article in JAMA summarizes that "no well-designed study demonstrates any health benefit from therapeutic touch." I think that's a big leap of judgment. To me, the study shows at most that the explanation of how therapeutic touch works is pure hooey, much like the explanation of a luminiferous ether to pass radio and light waves that was disproved by the Michelson-Morley experiments. The fact that the ether didn't exist didn't mean radio waves couldn't move. The fact that humans don't have significant electromagnetism in their auras doesn't mean therapeutic touch doesn't work. Many cured people know better.

When I was a child, I had warts. Doctors burned them off twice in a painful yet ultimately unsuccessful procedure. The third time, my baby-sitter said she knew a lady up the street who could hex the warts away. The old woman in a dark, dank kitchen rubbed an apple half over the wart, said an incantation, and told me to bury the apple in a secret place. As the apple rotted, so would my wart. It disappeared in a couple weeks and I've never had any since. Years later, I read a study in Scientific American showing the wart virus can be directly affected by mental beliefs. That's a solid scientific explanation for "real magic" that doesn't necessarily nullify the need for nonmedical solutions. If someone can't bring themselves to believe in the efficacy of doctors or the power of positive thinking, then perhaps voodoo, Navajo healing ceremonies, or therapeutic touch is the best course of treatment. Surgery and drugs eradicate problems without regard to internal beliefs, but they don't cure everything and may not be best for those who interpret reality through different belief filters.

The other article was about the Supreme Court saying lie detector evidence can be banned from trials. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the ban on polygraphs advances "the legitimate interest in barring unreliable evidence." That's also hooey. Lie detectors aren't perfect, but compared to the validity of eye witness testimony, polygraphs are far more reliable. Yet courts prefer to rely on their traditional belief system instead of science.

Science is an excellent way of analyzing physical reality, but it must be used precisely. Yet there are other realities science has failed at so far: the mental reality we have of the world, the spiritual reality of our innate capabilities, and the political reality that tradition, both legal and medical, often overrides the proof found in physical experiments or personal experience.