Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Chinese fooled about acupuncture

Statistics professor Andrew Gelman writes:
The scientific consensus appears to be that, to the extent that acupuncture makes people feel better, it is through relaxing the patient, also the acupuncturist might help in other ways, encouraging the patient to focus on his or her lifestyle.

A friend recommended an acupuncturist to me awhile ago and I told her the above line, to which she replied: No, I don’t feel at all relaxed when I go to the acupuncturist. Those needles really hurt!

I don’t know anything about this, but one thing I do know is that whenever I discuss the topic with a Chinese friend, they assure me that acupuncture is real. Real real. Not “yeah, it works by calming people” real or “patients respond to a doctor who actually cares about them” real. Real real. The needles, the special places to put the needles, the whole thing. I haven’t had a long discussion on this, but my impression is that Chinese people think of acupuncture as working in the same way that we think of TV’s or cars or refrigerators: even if we don’t know the details, we trust the basic idea.

Anyway, I don’t know what to make of this. The scientific studies finding no effect of acupuncture needles are plausible to me–but if they’re so plausible, how come none of my Chinese friends seem to be convinced?
Yes, a billion people can be wrong.

He drew some nonsensical defenses of acupuncture, such as this:
I am a licensed Acupuncturist. ... Acupuncture will be very difficult to “prove” scientifically if by scientifically we mean measurement by physiological studies. Acupuncture involves more than the physical body. ... I would suggest this “scientific” experiment: find a good, experienced acupuncturist and receive a reasonable number of treatments – say 12 in as many weeks. As yourself if they were helpful. ...

Newtonian Physics is true but so are the Physics of Quantum Mechanics, they are just describing different dimensions of the world in which we exist. This commentary reminds me of a quote I once heard: Someone asked the Physics professor at Oxford what he thought of the ideas that a mister Einstein had about Physics? His response was, “I don’t know much about that man or his theories, but what I can tell you for certain is that if his ideas contradict Newton – he’s wrong.”
No, this is anti-science. If it were possible for you to determine by your own experiment whether acupuncture is helpful, then it would be much easier and accurate to do a scientific study on whether it is helpful. Millions of people take vitamins and cannot tell whether the pills are helpful or not.

The Einstein story is apocryphal. Einstein became famous before anyone talked about him contradicting Newton, so the quote is unlikely. I guess the quote is intended to show that you should not believe scientists when they say that something is wrong, but it does not show anything of the kind. Newton's theory is not wrong is the sense that acupuncture is wrong. Relativity only corrected Newton's celestial mechanics by adding one extra orbit to Mercury every million years, and the effect was just barely observable. Acupuncture is a big scam that does no good at all.

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