Do you ever notice how alternative medicine proponents like to quote science when it supports of their brand of woo, but hope you won’t notice the science doesn’t support the woo explanation? I wrote about equivocation before – how woos get you to accept a reasonable story or explanation for something, as a Trojan horse to bring in the woo explanation. I was reminded of this today when a friend sent me this link to Oprah’s introduction to acupuncture:
Dr. Oz explains the science behind acupuncture. Everyone knows that acupuncture involves sticking needles into your skin, but how might that cure what ails you? Dr. Oz says the needles stimulate endorphins and serotonin in your brain—natural chemicals that regulate pleasure and mood.
I’ll ignore the fact that this is really speculation – I don’t think stimulation of endorphins has actually been shown conclusively, but I accept it might be true. It’s not that extraordinary a claim to say that that sticking needles in someone might stimulate the body’s own pain moderation system. But the obvious fact is that stimulating endorphins is not what acupuncture claims to do. Acupuncture is supposed to stimulate the flow of “qi”:
When Chi flows freely through the meridians, the body is balanced and healthy, but if the energy becomes blocked, stagnated or weakened, it can result in physical, mental or emotional ill health. [Snip]
To restore the balance, the acupuncturist stimulates the acupuncture points that will counteract that imbalance. So, if you have stagnant Chi, he will choose specific points to stimulate it. If the Chi is too cold, he will choose points to warm it. If it is too weak, he will strengthen it. If it is blocked, he will unblock it, and so on. In this way, acupuncture can effectively rebalance the energy system and restore health or prevent the development of disease.
Dr. Oz seemingly admits that the “science” shows acupuncture merely stimulates endorphins. But note that, now he has mentioned science, and used scientific terms (endorphins, etc), he morphs seamlessly to include the woo explanation with the scientific one, hoping you won’t notice the next bit has nothing to do with science:
Alternative medicines, Dr. Oz says, deal with the body's energy—something that traditional Western medicine generally does not. "We're beginning now to understand things that we know in our hearts are true but we could never measure," he says. "As we get better at understanding how little we know about the body, we begin to realize that the next big frontier … in medicine is energy medicine. It's not the mechanistic part of the joints moving. It's not the chemistry of our body. It's understanding for the first time how energy influences how we feel."
If we “could never measure” this, how did the ancient Chinese ever figure it out? And how do we know it is true now? Of course, he can’t explain that, because we have now moved away from science. And remember how endorphins “regulate pleasure and mood” (and pain)? Look at the range of things acupuncture can supposedly treat:
"Acupuncture treats any condition from allergies to, obviously, pain to gastrointestinal issues—a wide range of chronic diseases," Daniel says.
Acupuncture treats any condition. Any condition! Apart from the mind-blowingly bold claim, isn’t it funny how virtually all the “evidence” that acupuncture works seems to refer only to pain reduction. If it cures any condition, why are we always shown only pain reduction successes (including in this Oprah segment)?
But here’s the bit that really caught my eye:
Oprah doesn't suffer from those particular ailments, so Daniel recommends a wellness acupuncture treatment, which will help boost Oprah's immune system.
First, where’s the evidence acupuncture will boost the immune system? Secondly, surely, the immune system is part of “the chemistry of our body” – ie the mechanistic parts that “energy medicine” is supposedly above? Does acupuncture “boost the [chemical] immune system”, or does it release “energy” or “qi”? And how do we know?
But the thing that really struck me about the above is that these people are apparently recommending acupuncture treatment for people who have nothing at all wrong with them. Considering acupuncture probably doesn’t do very much, perhaps that’s not too bad a thing. But isn’t it a little unethical to treat people (and presumably charge them) unnecessarily? They’re giving acupuncture to someone who has none of “those particular ailments” that acupuncture is supposed to cure. And they claim that modern medicine is all about making money (as if that were a bad thing, or as if it showed the therapies were no good), but what is the purpose of a therapy for someone who is not sick? Aren’t they just making money?
You had me at endorphins
The trouble with the woo “energy” explanations, is that this covers any alternative therapy you like the sound of, including Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Chakra Tuning and the like. Once you accept the truth of something without evidence, then you are in freefall – you have no basis to reject anything so you will accept anything. You might as well send off for your copy of What The Bleep and The Secret. And I know a gentleman in Nigeria who wants to send you millions of dollars – you just need to front him a few thousand for costs. If you’re interested, I have his email address.