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A study recently published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine is titled “Inter-Rater Agreement of Biofield Tuning: Testing a Novel Health Assessment Procedure“. It is a prime example of what I call Tooth Fairy Science, defined in the Skeptic’s Dictionary as “doing research on a phenomenon before establishing that the phenomenon exists.” It was so silly it made me laugh, and maybe you will laugh too. Amidst all the distressing news about COVID-19, a little laughter is welcome.

The study explains, “Practitioners of Biofield Tuning assess health status of their clients by detecting off-the-body biofield perturbations using tuning fork (TF) vibrations. This study tested inter-rater agreement (IRA) on location of these perturbations.”

Yes, you read that right: tuning forks.

The authors were four PhDs, one ND, and an MA. The study was funded by the Biofield Tuning Institute (Burlington, VT), an organization founded by the lead author.

What they did

Ten subjects were tested by three Biofield Tuning practitioners in randomized order. They struck a 174 Hz tuning fork on a handheld hockey puck and “combed” four sites on the left and right sides of the base of the spine and the heart.

At each site, the audibly vibrating TF is first moved slowly from about six feet away toward the client, supine on a treatment table, to detect the edge of the client’s biofield. The edge is identified by the perception of resistance, tonal change, or a stronger vibration of the fork. The practitioner then moves the resonating TF slowly through the field toward the body, with the aim of detecting perturbations, “turbulence,” or significant tonal changes. When these areas are encountered, the practitioner pauses to allow the sound to break up stuck energy and provide the body with a coherent signal around which to better organize itself. After a perturbation has been resolved, the practitioner resumes moving the activated TF toward the body until the next area of turbulence is detected.

They reported 6.3 perturbations per combed site. There was no control group. Not surprisingly, inter-rater agreement was low. They noted potential weaknesses of their study. They said that the methods of the study may not reflect the complexities of clinical practice and worried that two untested assumptions might have influenced their results: (1) that the process of TF detection does not alter the properties of a perturbation for subsequent detection, and (2) that inter-practitioner variability of their own biofields may contribute to the low IRA.

Their conclusion:

while our research team of biofield practitioners and researchers found the process of collaborative protocol development a valuable endeavor, the agreed upon design may have been suboptimal for testing IRA of Biofield Tuning in a clinically relevant manner. Finally, it is important to note that the present study did not set out to test the existence of a biofield, only to evaluate IRA of an intervention whose explanatory model states that health-related information can be detected at off-the-body sites.

Conclusion: A useless, meaningless study

Their last sentence reveals that this was Tooth Fairy science. They did not set out to test the existence of a biofield. Shouldn’t that have been the first step? If the biofield doesn’t exist, these practitioners were fooling themselves, just as Emily Rosa’s therapeutic touch practitioners fooled themselves. If the biofield were real, this wouldn’t be Tooth Fairy science, but it would still be appallingly bad science. The flaws start with the small size and lack of a control group, but there are many more obvious flaws.

This monumentally silly study could be labeled “For entertainment purposes only”. It may be good for laughs, but it’s not science.

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Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.