A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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reader comments: acupuncture

20 Aug 2006

Firstly, let me express my appreciation to you for "debunking" the various types of bogus medicine practiced in the world. Many practices need to be exposed for what they aren't.

Several years ago I injured my left arm and shoulder when jumping from a piece of farm equipment. This injury restricted the movement of my arm where it was impossible to lift my elbow above my shoulder. Over the next five years, I made numerous trips to M.D.s to seek alleviation of the pain and loss of strength in that arm. In all cases, I was told I would have to live with the pain and weakness or obtain neurosurgery in which the doctors would not guarantee any relief of pain nor return of strength.

As a resort to surgery, I went against my beliefs and sought treatment from an acupuncturist. Being pessimistic by even Midwestern standards, I expected absolutely no results from the treatment. I was totally dumbfounded.

With the insertion of the first needle into my shoulder, I experienced what felt to be a jolt of electricity shoot down my arm and out my fingertips. Several other needles placed into the area around my shoulder produced less intense but similar sensations. The practitioner explained the sensation as the release of "chi" or energy from stagnated points. Whatever.

When the treatment was completed, I was amazed to find that I could lift my arm to its full extension above my head, something that I had not been able to do for several years. After very few treatments, I had recovered total strength, flexibility and use of my arm. Since then, I have used acupuncture for ailments such as headaches, back pain, sinus problems and flu and colds with immediate or quick relief.

My acupuncturist's qualifications represent nearly 3000 hours of classroom and clinical study plus a tour of study in China. This does not include the three years of formal education required for admission into the school where she obtained her degree as a Diplomat in Chinese Medicine, as many if not more hours than required to become a M.D. Her theory is that Oriental Medicine and Western Medicine should complement each other and does not hesitate to refer patients to an M.D. for the good of the patient. She is however, thoroughly distraught about the fact that M.D.s and chiropractors can complete a 100-200 hour course, deeming them as "qualified" acupuncturists. In fact, she admits that the majority of patients she treats who have had "bad" experiences with Oriental Medicine have been those treated by M.D.s and Chiropractors who play with acupuncture.

As for me, I don't understand how or why it works, but, I am a believer and will continue to use acupuncture as long as it works!

S. Webster

reply: First, let me say that I am glad you have found relief. I have never claimed that people who go to acupuncturists (or to homeopaths, naturopaths, chiropractors, applied kinesiologists, and the like) will never find relief. Obviously, no "alternative" treatment would be popular for hundreds or thousands of years if there were not many satisfied customers. But having satisfied customers does not imply that the causal explanations provided by the practitioners are cogent, any more than the fact that there are many unsatisfied customers of medical doctors implies that scientific medicine should be shunned in favor of "alternatives."

You don't seem too enthusiastic about the "release of chi" explanation and rightly so. Unlike your ability to move your arm to heights you could not move it to before treatment, we cannot test whether chi is moved. The reaction you describe makes it sound like your acupuncturist struck a nerve, literally, not to put too fine a point on it. The puncture wounds may well have triggered the release of endorphins or other natural opiates. In the end, you are telling us your story because after these treatments, you have improved. Did these treatments cause your improvement? They may well have, but we can't conclude they did simply from the fact that one thing happened after the other. Other possibilities besides the release of chi or the direct causal efficacy of acupuncture treatments are discussed in the entries on the placebo effect, the regressive fallacy, magical thinking, and the pragmatic fallacy.

We know that people often seek "alternatives" or complementary medicine (which really means "unscientific or antiscientific" therapies) when they are at their rope's end. Natural regression will account for the fact that many people find relief after their treatment and operant conditioning along with poor logic (post hoc reasoning) will lead them to conclude a causal connection between the treatment and the relief when there may be none.

We know that many "healers" put their patients at ease and relieve a great deal of the stress that has caused much anxiety and also aggravated a physical condition such as pain in the back, knee, stomach, or shoulder. We know that relieving stress has beneficial physiological effects. The "healer" may be an important link in a causal chain but not because of a needle stick or some inert potion, but because of the hope and comfort the "healer" provides. This effect is true of medical doctors on their patients as much as it is true of "alternative" folks, by the way. The power of suggestion is not unlimited but it can be effective in many healing situations. Thus, what might appear to many as "miraculous" or as defying the laws of nature, might best be studied by psychology or sociology to understand the cognitive and perceptual biases that lead us to attribute causal efficacy incorrectly when evaluating healing procedures. ( I highly recommend you read "Social and judgmental biases that make inert treatments seem to work" by Barry L. Beyerstein (1999).)

There is also the problem of selective thinking. There are many people who did not write to me to tell me that they went to an acupuncturist to get relief from some sort of pain but went away unsatisfied. One of the reasons scientists do double-blind, randomized, controlled experiments is to make it more difficult to deceive themselves into thinking they have found a causal connection between some treatment and a positive outcome when there is none.

Having said that, I realize that people are going to be more convinced by a good story like yours than by dozens of scientific papers that indicate by complex statistical analyses that a treatment is bogus. I also realize that nothing I write is likely to persuade you that there is no evidence that acupuncture can cure the flu or the common cold. Even though we should follow the rule that one good scientific study trumps a thousand anecdotes, the fact is that we are emotional creatures driven by operant conditioning and thus our natural tendency is to follow a different rule: one good story trumps a thousand scientific studies.

In the end, it's your body and your money and if you want to spend it on acupuncture, that's your business. I wish you continued good health and wish only to say that while I do not doubt your story or many stories similar to yours, they are not enough to convince me to seek the services of an acupuncturist (or chiropractor, applied kinesiologist, naturopath, or homeopath) the next time something ails me.

Medical doctors are not perfect. They are fallible and they make mistakes. However, providing me with a list of errors made by medical doctors will not persuade me that scientific medicine is bogus and should be avoided at all costs. Nor will a long list of stories about people who improved after some alternative treatment convince me that I, too, should seek such treatments.

12 Feb 2006
to whom it may concern,

i am a senior psychology major (neuroscience) at an elite liberal arts college.

reply: I usually don't start replying until the reader has seen some content, but I wanted to note that I have not edited the following letter out of respect for graduates of elite liberal arts colleges. And, unless this writer is using someone else's e-mail address, he attends a fine school in Canada.

i stumbled upon your website only a few moments ago and, after reading most of the things you've written, i've come to the conclusion that you are heavily biased and that your views are warped by conservative, western philosphy [sic].

reply: They must teach speed reading at your school if it only took you a few moments to read about half a million words. Anyway, I could have saved you a lot of trouble and told you I'm heavy and biased. I would have to add that I've been warped by liberal Western philosophy, as well.

this, however, is not the problem; we're all biased (i'm assuming you grew up in america).

reply: So, why bring it up, then? Did you just want to get a dig in at conservatives or heavy people?

i've read your FAQ but it doesn't seem to me that you are even aware of how selective your arguments are, although you do admit that you may be incorrect about some things--but you do seem confident that you are the bringer-of-truth.

reply: While speeding through most of what I've written you must have bypassed the Introduction. There you will find an explanation as to why I have been selective in the arguments I present.

in fact, much of your rantings [sic] seem [sic] to be based on an incredibly limited pool of knowledge and out-dated sources ( i'd like to refer to a couple listings in your alternative medicine section). for example:

you try to expose acupuncture as a pseudoscience lacking any merit. at the same time, however, you avoid the recent scientific studies that have shown the correlates between needlpoints [sic] and cerebral blood flow. how can you ignorantly propose that acupuncture does not work, while your own western science community has shown that by even moving the needle a centimeter off from the precise acupoint, the fMRI images completely change?

reply: I guess you must skip a lot of classes at your elite liberal arts college. Otherwise, you should know by now that correlating fMRI images or cerebral blood flow with needle insertions is irrelevant to whether acupuncture "works." You can find correlations between fMRI images and cerebral blood flow when you eat chili peppers, too. So what? You should know that acupuncture developed, as Bob Park once noted, a few thousand years before it was known that blood circulates or that germs cause disease. It was discovered by people who had never so much as dissected a frog and who claimed that yin and yang could be balanced by inserting needles into the right points among the hundreds of points strung along 12 meridians. At my non-elite community college, appealing to ancient superstitions is considered a conservative bias. Appealing to superstition while claiming it is shown to be true by bogus science has another name, but I won't mention it here.

i'd also like to mention, for your own knowledge, that physicians in the united states are absolutely not properly trained in the details and complexities of acupuncture.

reply: That's reassuring. But this may be changing. See http://www.aapress.com/Archive/2006/webfeb10/h-medical.htm

most (western) studies showing the ineffectiveness of acupuncture involve acupuncturists who do not deserve their qualification. you don't seem to mention this at all.

reply: No. And I won't mention it until I see strong evidence that it's true. What do you base this claim on?

instead, you purport acupuncture as false merely because western science has, over the past couple decades, engineered extremely poor studies that fail to take the acupuncturists' true qualifications into consideration.

reply: Nonsense. I don't claim it is "false." I claim that all these scientific tests that involve sticking needles into people and finding it releases endorphins or headaches are relieved, etc. are not and cannot be tests of acupuncture because acupuncture involves a claim that imbalance of yin and yang causes chi to be blocked and inserting needles at specific points unblocks chi. Yin, yang, and chi are metaphysical concepts (as I'm sure they've taught you at your elite college) and are not subject to empirical testing. You can neither prove nor disprove their existence.

If you really had read even the acupuncture article carefully, you would know that I don't claim that sticking needles in people can't relieve pain, change EEGs, alter blood pressure, or bring about any other physical effect. One thing the elite schools might work on is teaching people to read things carefully before launching into a full-scale attack. We have enough agenda hawks as it is. (An agenda hawk is someone who is always on the lookout for a chance to promote his or her agenda by finding someone, somewhere saying something they can use to promote their agenda by reacting to it, regardless of whether their reaction is appropriate.)

And I'm not surprised when I read a headline that says: Fake acupuncture 'aids migraines'

the same problem occurs with your writings about ayurveda medicine.

reply: What now? Modern medicine has just figured out what our ancestors stumbled on 5,000 years ago? Don't get me wrong. People who lived in the forests probably found a lot of roots and herbs that cure all kinds of ills. But Ayurveda is another collection of superstitions and metaphysical beliefs that are best understood by psychology, the power of suggestion, the placebo effect, and the like.

but, do you bother to acknowledge that people who are terminally ill and have been rejected (as hopeless loses [sic]) by western medicine have been healed by these "bogus" ancient techniques? you don't seem to even care that ayurveda has successfully cured people with rheumatoid arthritis, while western doctors have just given up. you cannot heal rheumatoid arthritis with a placebo, in case you were wondering....

reply: If some mixture of Ayurvedic herbs cured rheumatoid arthritis, Western doctors would be prescribing it to their patients. Who has been feeding you this nonsense? I hope your teachers aren't trying to convince you that Western medicine is hiding cures that our ancient ancestors knew about. Who have you been reading, Kevin Trudeau?

i would appreciate it if you would keep your controversial information at least up to date. every month there is new (scientific) information released that shatters several of your topics in the skepdic. i, too, believe in representing the truth and dispersing accurate knowledge. but, holding back the american public, who may view your website and believe everything you write, by providing your personal opinions based on out-dated sources should be a crime.

reply: No, the crime is ignorant young elitists who get a few ideas in their heads and pop off as if they know what they're talking about. You say you are a senior majoring in neuroscience and yet you defend ancient superstitions in the name of science and are unable to properly evaluate scientific information. Please don't tell me that you are graduating at the top of your class.

i do, however, appreciate your attempt to dispell [sic] silly myths and superstitions like those involved with the full moon. had you stuck with these types of topics, i would not have been offended by your work. but when you begin diving into realms that nobody--not even you--completely understands, it is entirely inappropriate for you to make strong, persuading claims that may limit the progress of humankind (for example, by persuading people to discredit quantum physics and how all matter is actually energetic vibrations; the maturation of this theory would make things like acupuncture suddenly valid through western eyes...).

reply: Now I know you're talking through your hat. You won't find anything on my site that tries to persuade people to discredit quantum physics. What nonsense. And please don't tell me that you believe that quantum physics validates acupuncture. If you believe that, why bother studying psychology or neuroscience? You can go right into alternative physics and make up your own universe full of whatever vibrations you feel like inserting wherever you feel like inserting them. Bon voyage!

i'd be happy to send you appropriate sources for acupuncture, if you'd like to rewrite your chapter in alternative medicine.

reply: No thanks. I don't trust your judgment to know an appropriate from an inappropriate source on this subject.

the skepdic is not omniscient; you're not the expert.

reply: At least you got one thing right.


o. f.

Use your brain to figure this one out: why does fake acupuncture outdo the sugar pill in a contest of the placebos?

And since you are a speed reader, try this website. It should take you only a few seconds to slash the Skeptico site to shreds with your razor sharp wit and elite acumen.

o.f. replies:

you're right, i read very quickly and uncarefully. i was just appalled to see how one-sided some of these arguments were. unfortunately, my emotional reaction overcame me rather instantly and for that i apologize. i found it upsetting that you don't choose to reference the many "scientific" studies that DO have merit concerning the topics you discuss.

chili peppers and needles both have effects on the brain, but if you had known about and read that acupuncture study, i doubt you would have replied to my serious comment with the light-hearted chili pepper reference. the use of fMRI in well-controlled experiments provides invaluable information.

reply: My reference to chili peppers affecting an fMRI was not meant to be taken lightheartedly. I was hoping you would see that finding that sticking needles in people sends signals to the brain and these effects can be observed has no bearing on whether acupuncture is of any value.

my "elite" institution did not tell me that ayurveda cured a man suffering from rheumatoid arthritis; Dr. Joshi, one of the top ayurvedic practitioners in India, did. perhaps he's just a liar, though. i bet i could get the phone number of the man who was cured....

reply: Dr. Joshi may not be a liar. He may really believe that Ayurvedic medicine cured someone's rheumatoid arthritis and he may really have a patient who believes his arthritis was cured by Dr. Joshi's herbs. Anecdotes are not adequate for science. A senior in psychology should have learned this by now.

i don't consider myself to be good at arguing, nor do i enjoy it, despite what you have read from my fingers. when i discovered your site, i should have read more thoroughly and taken several deep breaths before attacking you and your writings in the manner in which i did. again, my apologies. i'm tempted to say that your harsh, sarcastic tone was well-deserved, but i am not entirely sure.

reply: I don't like to respond to e-mail the way I responded to yours, but if you want a respectful reply you must learn to state your objections in a respectful manner.

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