Why Science Can Seem to Support Acupuncture, Even Though It Doesn't

Why Science Can Seem to Support Acupuncture, Even Though It Doesn't
Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP
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Acupuncture, the practice of inserting thin needles into the skin to stimulate vital points of the body, has been employed in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to heal a variety of maladies. Skeptics of the time-tested treatment have long derided it as lacking in evidence, but that's just wrong. Numerous systematic reviews of published trials show acupuncture to be effective at treating low-back pain, headache, and depression. Beyond alleviating these more psychological ailments, acupuncture can also treat physiological problems as well. A meta-analysis published in April showed that acupuncture is more effective than laxative drugs at treating constipation. And a review of 31 studies concluded that acupuncture is an effective treatment for obesity. Skeptics of acupuncture may claim to have evidence on their side, but in fact, the published literature proves them to be the true science deniers.

Now, here's why all of the above is complete crap.

Acupuncture is a pseudoscience, in that it features all the trappings of a legitimate, tested medical treatment without actually being one. Scientists and science aficianados can readily distinguish between science and pseudoscience, but to laypersons, the distinction can be incredibly difficult.

Take the opening paragraph, for example. Everything written has a passing attachment to fact, what Stephen Colbert might call "truthiness," and someone could easily find the linked studies and come to the conclusion that acupuncture really and truly works. Yet it is only when you dig into the meat of the research that you find it to be not all that impressive.

In the same review where researchers wrote that acupuncture is an "effective treatment for obesity," they also wrote "the results are of limited value due to the clinical heterogeneity and poor methodological quality of the included studies which prevent us from drawing a definitive conclusion for the effectiveness of acupuncture." The analysis touting acupuncture as a treatment for constipation reaked of bias and suffered from unmistakable methodological flaws, but you'd never know that from simply reading the study's abstract, which stated "Acupuncture is more effective than drugs in improving chronic constipation and has the least side effects." Lastly, acupuncture may treat nagging pains and slightly reduce the severity of depression, but its iota of success is almost certainly tied to the placebo effect. This makes sense. Most acupuncturists are exceedingly kind, hospitable, and caring, and an acupuncture appointment can be quite relaxing and pleasant. Contrast this with the sometimes cold, mechanical, and impersonal feel to many large clinics and hospitals, and it's easy to see why a needling appointment can leave a patient feeling better, at least in the short term. Any resulting improvement in symptoms is the result of the experience, not the treatment itself. This is why acupuncture can allay more subjective ailments but will never be truly effective at treating physical maladies like obesity, constipation, or cancer.

Nevertheless, true believers publish a bounty of methodologically poor, biased research each year stating that acupuncture amounts to more than a mere "theatrical placebo." Ideologues, convinced of their profession's efficacy, fool themselves into finding support evidence. The masquerade continues. Acupuncture remains a pseudoscience.

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