Anti-Quackery 19 Jan 2008 05:34 pm
Or did it?
A while back I wrote an article entitled, Why We Fall for Alternative Medicine that among other things used acupuncture as a typical example. This of course was applauded by some and readily dismissed by others, namely, those who believe that acupuncture is a valid medical procedure.
One of these days I’m going to do an article on how we as humans form our belief systems, but for now suffice it to say that by-and-large we believe in what we want to believe in. Facts, evidence, truth, logic, reasoning… all have an uphill battle competing for our hearts and minds if we truly want to believe otherwise. It’s just human nature.
On that note, here’s what one commenter had to say about her experience with acupuncture…
There is a time and place for everything.
20 years ago I had debilitating RSI symptoms, and eventually I had a ganglion in my left wrist (like a hard pea under the surface). They are usually removed with surgery.
3 sessions at an acupuncturist got rid of it.
3 months ago, I got a ganglion in my right wrist. It was very hard and the local acupuncturist was hesitant to treat it as he says it can be quite painful, and he asked if I have ever had one before. I said yes, 20 years ago. I also let him know that how I handled childbirth labour and a few other life experiences has taught me I have a pretty good pain threshold, so I am willing for him to have a go. He said it was a very hard one. After 2 sessions it was gone.
Now, on the surface, this would seem to be a compelling testimonial for the power of acupuncture. Taken at face value, one could easily conclude that here is an example of how alternative medicine succeeded where western medicine supposedly failed.
That is until we consult the orthodox medical literature where we learn…
Ganglion cysts arise from the capsule of a joint or the sheath of a tendon. They can be found at different places on the wrist. A ganglion cyst that grows on the top of the wrist is called a dorsal ganglion. Others are found on the underside of the wrist between the thumb and your pulse point, at the end joint of a finger, or at the base of a finger. Most of the time, these are harmless and will often disappear in time.
So we see – as is often the case – alternative medicine is brilliant at achieving miraculous cures for conditions that tend to disappear on their own.
If you read the entire AAOS article, you will learn that these cysts are not “usually removed with surgery” as the commenter mistakenly believed. Rather, ganglion cysts seldom require surgery because the doctors know they will most likely disappear if you just give them time.
Now I don’t know where my commenter got her information or how she arrived at her conclusions, but her take on the story is obviously not in keeping with the facts. I suspect that she allowed her disdain for conventional medicine – coupled with her predilection for exotic alternatives — to cloud her judgment.
In other words, she let her casual observations trick her into believing what she wanted to believe. And the sad part is she is now going about spreading the word of how acupuncture performed a miraculous cure when she no doubt would have achieved the same results had she done nothing at all.
One can only wonder how many people will be misled by her faulty conclusions and her heartfelt testimonial.
Do I think writing articles exposing the fallacies of alternative medicine will somehow convince these people that they’re wrong? Do I think I can persuade the acupuncture proponents they’re making a mistake? No, I have no such delusions. I fully expect them to cling to their beliefs regardless of the facts. I expect them to continue on as before, because that’s what people do. As I said at the beginning of this post, that’s just human nature.
They will continue to believe in acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy and other forms of so-called alternative medicine because it’s what they want to believe. Facts and evidence will not persuade them to the contrary.
Update: Upon reviewing the above post, I realized that I edited out one key point for the sake of brevity. I originally meant to point out that I am not dismissing acupuncture altogether. I find it to be interesting and worthy of further investigation. The purpose of this post is not to knock acupuncture, but to merely point out how easily we can fool ourselves if we don’t examine things in a scientific manner. I will have more on this in future posts, which I intend to group into a section specifically about alternative medicine.
Anti-Quackery 01 Aug 2007 02:37 pm
I received a very interesting email from an acupuncturist a while back.
She related the usual anecdotal stories (including the one about major surgery being performed with only one needle in the ear for anesthesia) and then offered the following as the main point she wanted to get across:
“… having practiced acupuncture for 20 years … I know without a shred of doubt that acupuncture most certainly releases endorphins to relieve pain.”
All of which made for interesting reading, but unfortunately, did not even come close to changing my opinion about alternative medicine.
The reason her letter didn’t change my opinion is not because I’m just stubborn… or arrogant… or biased… or ignoring the facts… or (and this is my personal favorite) because I have “an unhealthy hatred for alternative medicine.”
No, all of those little gems are so silly… they’re not even worth addressing.
The simple fact is the reason I did not accept her argument is that it just wasn’t good enough. All she had managed to do was tell me that she’d fallen for the hook.
Every Hit Song Has to Have a Hook
It’s a well-known fact in the music industry that for a song to be popular, it has to have what we musicians refer to as “a hook.”
The hook is that memorable line from the chorus that keeps repeating over and over again in your head. It’s what makes the song instantly recognizable and tugs at your heart when you hear it on the radio.
- It’s Tammy Wynette singing, “Stand by your man…”
- It’s Paul McCartney singing, “Yesterday… ”
- It’s Roy Orbison singing, “Pretty woman…”
Clever songwriters know it’s the hook that makes you remember the song and gets you to buy the CD.
Without a hook, the song will not make a lasting impression on your mind. You will not be impressed and… you’ll not only forget it quickly… you probably won’t even like it in the first place.
How Does This Apply to Alternative Medicine?
I’ve also noticed that the really successful alternative therapies also have a hook. In this case, it’s that one thing they can point to and say, “See… it works!”
The hook is usually a memorable sensation or amazing result that just sticks in your mind and makes you think, “Hey, it did something!”
You’re not really sure what… but it definitely did something… and that something is where the deception gets a hold of you. It’s what gets you to come back and buy the song-and-dance.
If the treatment didn’t do anything, there would be no basis to support the illusion. Without the hook, the therapy would never get off the ground. It would die out before it ever got started.
Some Example Hooks
Snake oil I’m told, was quite often just grain alcohol (Moonshine) or some other form of opiate.
With chiropractic, the hook is usually that satisfying popping sound and the brief pleasant sensation, which I’ve discussed in my articles on that subject.
With acupuncture that “something” is endorphins.
Now there is very little question that science has been able to observe an increase of endorphins in patients being treated with acupuncture. How this is accomplished (whether physically or psychologically) has not been clearly established. 
It’s worthwhile to note that the same results are obtainable with electrical stimulation, heat and even just pressure. 
This does not mean that acupuncture is a legitimate medical profession. It just means it does something… and that something appears to help relieve pain for some people.
Endorphins Don’t Cure Disease
Just because acupuncture can stimulate endorphins does not mean it can cure disease, heal an injury, or bring about world peace. It just means it does something.
Endorphins are natural chemicals produced in the brain that affect how you feel.
The fact that acupuncture causes an increase in these chemicals does not throw open the doors or grant permission to make wild exaggerated claims of miracle cures.
Endorphins can’t correct an underlying physical problem. There is no evidence that they can cure any known disease or have any effect on things like germs or viral infections.
Treating everything with endorphins would be tantamount to a medical doctor treating every patient with Valium. That would not be proper medical care… that would just be plain irresponsible.
It’s what a sane person would call quackery.
The Danger of Jumping to Conclusions
The problem with virtually all of the so-called alternative medical professions is that they ignore sound scientific principles. They base their conclusions on personal observations and assumptions about what those observations mean. In scientific terms… they rely entirely on anecdotal evidence.
In my vernacular, they’ve simply fallen for the hook.
The problem with acupuncture, chiropractic and any other alternative isn’t that it doesn’t do something. The problems begin when they start to translate that “something” into miracle cures for every known disease from cancer to whooping cough to HIV.
The problems are compounded when they try to build an entire medical profession around just one trick. And the real danger begins when people get so caught up in believing the hook that they turn to it instead of effective medical intervention.
This simply delays the patient from receiving proper medical care… and in some cases… has been known to result in death.
Don’t Let the Hook Trick You into Believing Nonsense
“Hey, I feel great… everything they say must be true!”
Wrong. The one does not equal the other. Just because they’ve discovered a clever trick that seems to do something… does not mean that everything they say is true.
For example, it has been observed that acupuncturists generally tend to diagnose everyone with the same unscientific maladies. These typically include such things as energy stagnation, qi stagnation… and my personal favorite… blood stagnation. 
Now I don’t have any formal medical training (and you doctors can correct me if I’m wrong) but I believe if you had blood stagnation… you would be dead.
So be wary when these practitioners start using nice sounding but obscure concepts for which no clear medical definition really exists.
When they start talking about such things as yin and yang, harmony, balance and energy fields that only they can detect… you can sit and listen if you like… but I’m gonna be late for the door.
Learn to Spot the Hooks
Hooks can be very seductive.
There’s no question that the right hook can turn a mediocre song into a hit single.
The same can be said for the hooks in alternative medicine.
Hooks make wonderful placebos. So wonderful, in fact, that even the practitioners are fooled by the results.
1. A Different Way To Heal – Scientific American Frontiers w/ Allan Alda
2. Be Wary of Acupuncture, Qigong, and “Chinese Medicine” – Stephen Barrett, M.D.
3. Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work – Barry L. Beyerstein, Ph.D.
Anti-Quackery 03 May 2007 04:39 pm
In my previous post I mentioned an observation made by Orac in relation to a story about real doctors consulting chiropractors. It was part of a much larger post entitled, Missionaries of Woo on the Respectful Insolence blog that deserves mention in it’s own right:
GruntDoc’s anecdote got me thinking about another case of wildly inappropriate use of alternative medicine. It’s a case that came up on a mailing list that I subscribe to, and it caused a fair amount of discussion. In essence, I’m talking about an organization called Natural Doctors International. It is, in essence, Doctors Without Borders, except with woo. This is what they do:
Natural Doctors International provides free healthcare
services to underserved communities by offering volunteer medical rotations for licensed naturopathic physicians and other Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practitioners worldwide.
Natural Doctors International
- Offers long-term volunteer rotations for naturopathic physicians.
- Provides donations of medicine, medical supplies, and equipment.
- Establishes and develops community projects that improve health.
- Organizes short term medical brigades for ND’s, DO’s, DC’s, MD’s NP’s, herbalists, acupuncturists, and Lac’s that deliver free health care.
Yep, it’s just what developing nations need: More non-evidence-based medicine.
Orac goes on to discuss the situation in depth and then writes:
Certainly, they should be applauded for their desire to help. However,
there’s help, and then there’s effective help. This sort of “help” could well be worse than no help at all. What these impoverished regions need is not more woo, but more scientific medicine.
He concludes with the following:
Finally, what is one really huge cause of morbidity and mortality
among infants in such countries? It’s something that we in developed
countries hardly even think about because it is not a problem. I’m
talking about infectious diarrhea, which claims 1.5 million children a
year worldwide. You may also remember that I discussed a clinical trial
examining the effect of homeopathy on infectious diarrhea and
questioned the ethics of using woo in Third World nations. At least the
clinical trial was done with some supervision by physicians; letting
loose naturopaths would guarantee no oversight.
It’s an old cliche that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Here I see good intentions and a dirt road…
I think we should look on the bright side.
This may be the perfect opportunity for those fake doctors
to learn just how ineffective their nonsense is when faced with real sickness
and disease. I mean can you imagine some chiropractor actually attempting to
treat malaria or AIDS? One commenter summed up my feelings exactly:
My understanding is that in the U.S. most so-called alternative
medicine practitioners usually treat the “worried well,” folks with
problems which tend to heal themselves, or people with chronic
conditions which fluctuate over time. Something tells me that this is
not the sort of thing that’s going to be coming into third world
For some Natural Healers, it could be a rather rude awakening. How
many acupuncturists, homeopaths, and Reiki Masters in the local
“Wellness Clinic” at the strip mall have had their patients regularly
die on them?
Couldn’t have said it better myself.