Before I came to work for the James Randi Educational Foundation, and even before I became a writer/author, I was a registered nurse. I became an R.N. back at a time when men in the profession (and I struggle to call it a profession) were an insignificant minority. In the 20+ years since I was in school this ratio has changed, but one thing that hasn’t seemingly changed is the intense amount of ‘woo’ that seeps into nursing curriculum. In terms of specifics, I can only refer back to my personal experience at a major teaching hospital in a major city in Canada, but it would seem that my experiences are not unique.
Before I entered nursing school I was at university taking microbiology and biochemistry; and while I was not a motivated student I was learning enough to have an idea of what the scientific method is and how it is applied in science, life, and medicine. So imagine my surprise when the teaching staff spent time teaching us about the ‘healing properties of touch’ and the ‘power of the mind to heal’. I might have been more open to these concepts if my instructors hadn’t already destroyed all their credibility by describing Legionnaire’s Disease as a ‘virus’ (it’s caused by a bacterial infection).
My personal experience in nursing school was that the instructors were mostly reading out of textbooks, had little understanding of the science behind what they were teaching, and tended to stray into the land of ‘woo-woo’ all too often. More than once I got into arguments with instructors about homeopathy, with the instructors insisting that homeopathy was valid because ‘real drugs come from plants’. This is the sort of thing I was up against, and it is actually still accurate in my personal experience. Many nurses have such a weak education in the actual science of disease and pharmacology that they have very simple ideas about what alternative medicine is, and they are all too often open to ideas that just a pinch of critical thinking would crush.
Probably the most disturbing ‘woo-woo’ that permeates nursing and nursing education is the concept of Therapeutic Touch (TT). TT was developed in the 1970s by Dolores Krieger and Dora Kunz, and is reportedly taught in nearly 100 nursing colleges and Universities across North America. Certainly in Canada TT has gained a foothold in the nursing community with organizations like the Therapeutic Touch Network of Ontario.
Barbara Schuster, in the “What is Therapeutic Touch?” portion of the TTNO website states:
“One of the underlying working assumptions of Therapeutic Touch is that human beings are open energy fields. We may think of our own energy fields surrounding our bodies, or go even further along the lines of Quantum Physics and the Theory of Relativity, and consider ourselves consisting of pure energy, as matter is considered to be energy. This is just a question of degree or interpretation. In either case, any physical illness can be viewed as an imbalance in this energy field - as some form disorder.”
Whenever something defies explanation we get folks playing the old ‘quantum physics’ and ‘Einstein’ cards. My experience with my fellow nurses was that they struggled with simple ratio and proportion problems for figuring out medication doses, so it’s not surprising that floating the term ‘quantum physics’ as a catch-all explanation for an energy field therapy is common.
In what has become one of the most famous examples of solid basic science and critical thinking debunking an alternative medical claim, a 9-year-old girl, Emily Rosa presented a science fair project in 1997 that tested 21 TT practitioners in an attempt to see if the practitioners could sense the Human Energy Field without being able to see if the subject’s hand was there or not. Not surprisingly these practitioners performed no better than chance and Emily Rosa went on to be the youngest published author in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The JREF itself put up nearly three quarters of a million dollars in 1996 and challenged over 60 nursing organizations and TT practitioners, including Dolores Krieger, to prove their ability to detect these energy fields. Not surprisingly the one TT practitioner that participated failed to achieve a success rate greater than chance.
Why is nursing so prone to blatantly non-scientific pseudoscience such as Therapeutic Touch, Homeopathy and Reiki? In my opinion the answer is two-pronged. First, nursing educators have long pushed nursing education to focus on the patient, their feelings and emotions, and have ignored the hard science necessary to look after sick patients and understand the disease process. The second reason is that this sort of thinking (non-critical ‘thinking’ thinking) is entrenched at the institutional level and it’s quite simply too difficult to wash away all those years of woo-woo. Let’s hope that over time the attitudes will change and nursing can move to be a more respected field of work.