Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

The absent-minded acupuncturist

Continuing on the theme for today, I can’t resist posting this little news report from Seattle that came up in my newsfeed:

It kind of ruins the placebo effect to be left lying around after hours with a bunch of needles sticking in your back, doesn’t it?

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

23 replies on “The absent-minded acupuncturist”

So, how are things handled like this in the “licensed acupuncturist” world? Do they lose their license? Do they go before a panel of other licensed acupuncturists for review?

The acupuncturist they interviewed (not the one involved) rather annoyed me. They just keep coming up with new unsubstantiated explanations, don’t they?

“Acupuncture works by increasing circulation in the area.”

And calling the situation just “unfortunate”, then implying it was just as bad for the practitioner as the patient – ridiculous. Unequivocal condemnation would have been be more appropriate.

I tried acupuncture once, (it was the seventies). It didn’t hurt, also didn’t help. Didn’t bother going back, although it was covered by insurance. Waste of time.

Lets assume for a minute that acupuncture works well through the placebo effect. Now, lets say you have a certain pain throughout your shoulders that limits your range of motion and comfort. One day you try acupuncture and it works, it helps ease the pain and over time you begin to gain back the range of motion.

Then you learn that the entire thing is in the mind, the pain slowly returns and the range of motion is reduced.

Is it better to be ignorant and happy or is it better to be aware and educated?

@JayK #6

Is it better to be ignorant and happy or is it better to be aware and educated?

Aware and educated; no question. Ignorance might be bliss, but it leads down a very slippery slope.

DaveH, do you think this can explain the vitriolic arguments that anti-SBM people put up? Anecdotal evidence that wellness can be achieved without waiting for SBM to work up a cure or a treatment?

Could it be better for some to continue to believe in woo, in order for them to lead more productive and happier (possibly longer) lives without trying to educate them when the issues are limited to individual in reach?

I’m all for my own education, and I like laughing at people for their ignorance, but sometimes I wonder if this self-awareness and skepticism is a bitter pill.

It is a bitter pill for many to swallow. Giving up fervently held beliefs is very difficult for people to do. People get vitriolic and vicious, and it can be a very unpleasant experience for both sides. You see the same thing when people are forced to give up cherished beliefs about religion, politics, friends, etc. If I told you that your significant other was being unfaithful to you it would likely be a very bitter pill to swallow, and one you would probably try to avoid by whatever means possible, but in the end you would want to know.

Not everyone will agree with my analogy, but I will stand by it. The harm that could be done by people ignoring the evidence, and depending on anecdotes, unconfirmed hypotheses, et al. is immense and potentially irreparable.

After the unavoidable ad for the Jeep Grand Cherokee, I get “Unfortunately this video is no longer available.”

Just one more reason why I haven’t watched TV for over 6 years and have no faith in US major media.

Please don’t post links that you are not assured will be available for at least a full 24 hours.

chezjake @#11: You’re in no position to issue orders, worm. Furthermore, how is anyone supposed to know? It’s the Internet, where pretty much everything is likely to disappear. Don’t like it? Read a book, they won’t let you down (or so my error screens in Firefox tell me).

I tried acupuncture a few times and it didn’t cause a great deal of long term benefit. I went to him with back pain caused by too much time set at a desk and I had about 4 or 5 sessions before I gave up. The acupuncture hurt and I’d be sore immediately after the session, but a day or so later I’d feel great. A week later though, the pain would be back and I’d go and see him again. Eventually I realised I was no better off with it than without it, so I stopped going. Complete time and money waster.

Then you learn that the entire thing is in the mind, the pain slowly returns and the range of motion is reduced.

Is it better to be ignorant and happy or is it better to be aware and educated?

The pain returns because the problem has not been cured, not because the patient no longer has the woo to rely on. That the woo doesn’t work is the problem, not the patient’s mental state.

Educated people know to either a) seek an actual cure, or b) put up with the problem if there is none.

Woo-believers waste time and money (often a lot of both) looking for something that isn’t there. They cannot be described as “ignorant and happy”. Many furiously seek one cure after another.

In some cases (say Autism) the woo crowd are made more and more twisted as the “cures” never seem to work, whereas parents who accept Autism seem much more relaxed.

Why is the State Department of Health investigating this? They (ought to) have nothing to do with acupuncture. The BBB should be on the case as this is comparable to a woman being locked in a Target.

Faith in something (a deity, karma, a treatment’s effectiveness, etc) can definitely help get you through your life. It can help you put up with truly miserable circumstances, so that you survive them long enough to be productive afterward. This is probably why we evolved to have faith in the first place.

And even if you’re an atheist, you surely do use faith at some point in your life. It’s how we deal with the fact that we must make decisions and live with them even when we have inadequate information. It saves you from being paralyzed by indecision when (as frequently happens) you have inadequate information to make the decision in a strictly rational sense. Oh, you’ll be able to rationalize it, but in the sort of world we live in, things often come down to judgment calls. If nothing else, you have to have faith in your own judgment or you’re going to have a rather neurotic existence.

That’s the upside of faith.

It has a downside too, and that’s that since it allows us to be confident about something when we don’t really know the truth, it can prevent us from realizing that we don’t really know the truth. And the very same power that allows a person in a concentration camp to keep on going despite thousands dropping dead all around them, and potentially survive it, is strong enough to allow us to dismiss contrary evidence. In a place like the concentration camps the Japanese used for holding captured POWs, it allows you to ignore the overwhelming evidence that you will most certainly die, probably in considerable agony, while working on a project to aid someone who holds you in total contempt. (The Japanese were cruel to POWs in large part because they considered surrender deeply dishonorable.) That’s a pretty big reality to ignore, especially after you’ve seen hundreds of your friends die of starvation. If faith can help you disregard that reality, how much easier is it to disregard the fact that the treatment you spent a bunch of money on is not, in fact, doing much of anything? Heck, even disregarding the entire body of research into evolutionary biology is easy compared to that.

So faith strengthens us, but it also misleads us. That’s where skepticism comes in. You can have faith and be skeptical; it’s a good way to help make sure you aren’t being misled. But it goes against the grain for everybody, not just religious wackos.

It is better to be educated than ignorant, because false faith isn’t really helpful. It may appear to be, but it isn’t. The placebo effect doesn’t really make people better; it just helps them keep going, and there are surely better ways to do that than by deliberately misleading them.

The same idea has been used before, of course. See Chris Morris’s Jam:

“We do have difficulty getting some of them to leave under their own … steam. We just have to put them out the back. They’ve normally gone in the morning. Yeah.”

Carter — the Better Business Bureau wouldn’t have anything to do with someone being locked up in a Target by accident, except in the sense of registering a complaint after the fact. Police could be involved, if the person wants to make a complaint of false imprisonment, or the civil court system.

It does make sense for the department of health to be involved. They are involved in regulating not just acupuncturists and legitimate medical clinics but also things like tattoo parlors, restaurants, hotels, theaters, warehouses, and so forth. If a client has been forgotten about, they may be concerned that other problems are also occurring — something as egregious as forgetting that you were sticking needles into a person’s back does tend to suggest a somewhat lax attitude, after all.

@ Calli Arcale, re msg #17 – Great statement about the up and down sides of faith and placebos. I’m sure good karma awaits you. 😉

Why is the State Department of Health investigating this?

I find it amazing that acupuncturists are so casual about blood-borne pathogens. The tattooing industry suffered some pretty serious casualties from HIV and HepC and now you’ll only see “traditional Japanese tattoists” working without gloves or disposable needles. If acupuncturists are buying their needles pre-sterilized in bulk they probably aren’t putting the victims at much risk, but they’re exposing themselves to all kinds of nastiness. They’re both idiots and con artists.

Comments are closed.


Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading