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An Inquiry

Adapted from
Scientific American Frontiers
Teaching Guide:
A Different Way to Heal?
A Biased View

Nature of Science:

Social Context:


We now have a textbook for students on the nature of science. It's intended to replace, or supplement, the inadequate first chapter of your text. It's designed to coordinate and help sequence several of the nature of science (NOS) lessons on the ENSI site. It is targeted to students in any science class, grades 7-10 (or beyond). It helps to satisfy virtually all the new NOS standards in NGSS and Common Core. If you've used any of ENSI's NOS lessons, you already know how powerful they are. This new book addresses most of the common misconceptions about NOS. It also provides information about the differences between good science, poor science, and pseudoscience. It offers clues for recognizing those differences, and opportunities to practice using those clues. "What's this magic book I've been waiting for all my life?" It's called Science Surprises: Exploring the Nature of Science. "Tell me more - like where can I see this book?" Say no more. It's available as an eBook, published with Smashwords. Click Here to get more information and a link to sample (and purchase) the new eBook Science Surprises.


Students experience bias by testing the idea that we have an "aura" by which others can sense our presence. This is done by holding a hand about 15 cm (6 in.) above one or the other of another person's outstretched hands (randomly selected), and that person reports if there is any sensation experienced in that hand. This is done 15 times with the subject's eyes open, then 15 times with the subject blindfolded. By comparing and discussing results, students come to recognize the placebo effect (a kind of confirmation bias), and the value of of a "blind" experiment to test this effect. They also see how the "Therapeutic Touch" idea is an example of a pseudoscience.


  1. Understanding science enables one to differentiate it from pseudoscience and non-science.
  2. Science is essentially a process of critical and skeptical thinking.


  1. Confirmation bias can influence observations.
  2. The placebo effect is a type of confirmation bias.
  3. Therapeutic Touch is an example of a pseudoscience.


   Students will....

  1. Students will recognize when personal judgment can influence observations.
  2. Given a description of an experiment or planned observation, students will recognize if judgment is involved in obtaining the results.
  3. Students will recognize when bias has possibly played a role in the observations made.


Clean blindfold
Tissue (like Kleenex), fresh for each subject
Journal (to record data)
Coin to flip easily, OR a die to roll in a box or tray

Before starting the study, students set up a data table in their journals, to record results of 15 trials with subject's eyes open, then 15 trials with subject blindfolded.


Data gathered outside of class, results shared and discussed in class. 1 class period.
STUDENT HANDOUT Therapeutic Touch (Background, Materials, Procedure and Questions): 2 pages back to back.


In any of the discussions expected with the class, select a few key items (important concepts) that lend themselves to interpretation, and introduce class to the Think-Pair-Share (TPS) routine dealing with those items. This is how "Active Learning" is done.

1. This lesson was developed for grades 5-8. It is intended for individual students to do the study with family and/or friends (who are not in the class), but you may want them to form teams of 2-5, where at least 2-3 students do the study, then discuss results (and questions) with team mates. Team consensus can then be discussed in teacher-guided class discussion with other teams.

2. The placebo effect is a variation on confirmation bias, where one's expectations and beliefs influence the experimental results. This is especially true when the results are subjective, or involve some judgment or opinion. This lesson provides a vivid experience with this kind of bias.

3. You may want to show the 5' 30" video segment called Stossel: Testing Therapeutic Touch
It shows some practitioners, and then a 9 year old girl (Emily Rosa) who's research on TT was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in April of 1998. You probably should do this before handing out the assignment. An interesting variation would be to show the video after they have done the experiment and discussed it in class. OR, show to half of your classes before they do the study, and the rest after they do the study (to see if conceptual bias played a role in their studies).

4. Read "Therapeutic Touch" (Student Handout). If you have enough dice, you might find there is less commotion (due to dropped coins rolling on the floor) if you have students roll a die into a box (or shake in a padded dice-shaker tube with a lid). With the die, odd numbers (1,3,5) would mean "left hand" and even numbers (2,4,6) would mean "right hand."

5. Demonstrations: If your students need this instruction, you may want to show them how to prepare the table for recording the results of 15 trials with eyes open and 15 trials with eyes blindfolded. Also, demonstrate how the subject can hold a pad of tissue over each closed eye, while the experimenter places a blindfold over the tissues, and ties it behind the subject's head. Each subject must use fresh tissues (for hygienic reasons). Students can use a neckerchief or thin towel for a blindfold.

OTHER RESOURCES and STANDARDS met by this lesson: See below.

TEACHER GUIDE: PDF copy of this web page, plus answers to questions.


See Procedures on Student Handout


See Assessable Objectives for focus of assessment.


Possible Alternative or Supplemental Articles:
1) Confirmation Bias in Science (click on title to see it).
Here is an interesting article that describes two examples of confirmation bias: N-Rays, and Water Memories (homeopathic remedies). This is written by a practicing scientist (physicist), who also touches on the importance of double-blind experiments where judgment and opinions are involved in the results.

The author also shares his own experience with a new scientific idea, how he (and his team) built a theoretical model of the process, spending most of their time trying to destroy that idea (testing it), and how it was presented to other scientists. Even so, other scientists resisted and critiqued the idea. As a result, his idea became stronger. This is an excellent example of how science is done (as told by a scientist).

This process of critical and skeptical thinking (science) is applied to the claims of climate-change deniers. But once those claims are clearly shown to be false, scientists move on, while the deniers choose to ignore those findings.

If you use this article, have your students answer and discuss the Discussion Questions that go with it. If you want the key to those 24 questions, contact the webmaster using your school email address.

2) Women's Brains article: This, too, deals with bias in research of measuring human brain volume. The reading level is a little higher, could be challenging. Click on that title to see complete lesson on this site.

Other Aspects of Therapeutic Touch: Public Be Aware: Are there any dangers associated with the practice of Therapeutic Touch? If so, what might they be? Are there benefits to using it? If so, what are they? Compare and contrast a belief in TT to a belief in expectations associated with prayer (be tactful here, or avoid altogether). How are they different? How are they the same? Students could just discuss this (teams, then teacher-guided discussion with entire class).

Another Pseudoscience: Magnetic Therapy: Have you ever seen print articles or television commercials about the healing and pain-reducing properties of magnets? These claims are not new. Since magnets were first discovered, they have attracted much attention from those seeking paranormal properties. What have you heard about magnets and healing? Compose a paragraph that describes all you currently know about magnetic therapy. Then check out the following Web page maintained by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal - http://www.csicop.org/si/show/
Based on the information presented in this article and information mined from other Web and print resources, write a five minute radio program that presents an unbiased view of magnetic therapy.


Nurse Healers - Professional Associates International
The official Web site for Therapeutic Touch.

Skeptical Information Sources
Quack Watch
: http://www.quackwatch.com/05Links/skepticsites.html
This site offers links to various agencies that provide accurate and practical information concerning a wide range of paranormal claims.

The Skeptic's Dictionary: Therapeutic Touch
http://www.skepdic.com/tt.html An introduction to control group study, double-blind and random tests.

American Cancer Society

Why Therapeutic Touch Should be Considered Quackery

Video: Stossel Testing Therapeutic Touch
Includes practitioners, and 9 year old girl (Emily Rosa) who,Äôs research on TT was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1989.

What alternative health practitioners might not tell you

Science as Inquiry, Content Standard A:
Students will establish whether or not a cause and effect relationship exists based on critical thinking and observation.
History and Science, Content Standard G:
Students will learn that the newest areas of scientific research many times lack experimental evidence and understanding.
Students will understand that disagreement does exist in the scientific community.


Some of the ideas in this lesson may have been adapted from earlier, unacknowledged sources without our knowledge. If the reader believes this to be the case, please let us know, and appropriate corrections will be made. Thanks.

1. Original Source: Lesson is adapted from the Scientific American Frontiers lesson at: http://www.pbs.org/saf/1210/teaching/menu.htm
Select Activity: "A Biased View," click on the PDF icon there for the print version

2. Adapted for ENSI site by Larry Flammer, November 23, 2012.


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