Being Needled by Acupuncturists

April 16, 2018

The Buffalo News (Feb. 16, 2018) reported on the prestigious local Roswell Park Cancer Center’s having embraced so-called “alternative” therapies. My letter to the editor (Feb. 28) stated, in part: “Calling therapies like Reiki, healing touch, and acupuncture ‘unconventional’ or ‘integrative’ or ‘complementary’ does not make them any less pseudoscientific.”

I cited CFI fellows: Oncology professor David Gorski warned of Roswell’s “Diluting their science with pseudoscience”; Yale neurologist Steven Novella called acupuncture a “theatrical placebo”; and physician and medical investigator Harriet Hall pointed out that acupuncture is not harmless, citing infection and scores of documented deaths.

I concluded: “Roswell’s catering to its patients’ magical thinking will have a most unfortunate side effect. Medical pretenders and other charlatans will find a prestigious cancer treatment center’s prescription for quackery to be their almost unimaginable good luck, and they will begin to do an even more brisk business everywhere—without a real doctor in sight.”

Not surprisingly, there were negative responses to my letter. Citing studies that allegedly support acupuncture in some way, Lisa Benson, a Fellow of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture, accused me—and “Western medicine”—of being “stuck on placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies as the only form of ‘proof’ that a treatment of drug is effective.” Yes, but she should really say, “science-based medicine.”

Another physician-acupuncturist stated—with astonishing illogic: “Acupuncture has been practiced for over 5,000 years. Its longevity would not be possible if it did not help or was merely a placebo.” This is, of course, the logical fallacy known as appeal to tradition (argumentum ad antiquitatis). No doubt the placebo effect is even older than acupuncture, and is still helping to promote fallacious thinking!

Quackery that relies on the placebo effect (recall the snake oil of old) is typically dependent upon testimonials as to its efficacy. Just such a testimonial came from a woman whose late husband had received “peace of mind” (as he said) from acupuncture, helping him with the side effects of chemotherapy. She wrote that she, too, began receiving acupuncture, which helped her give support to her husband. She asked, what was the harm in this? That is, what is the harm in benefitting from the power of suggestion?

The short answer is, perhaps not too much in her case. But testimonials are infectious. Soon—no, already, grandiose claims are being made for acupuncture and acupressure and therapeutic touch and prayer therapy and—it does not stop. We are being enticed back to an era of quackery that science has been leading us from. It is the same call to magical thinking that we hear from all purveyors of mysticism: spirit hucksters, “psychics,” miracle mongers, and the rest. They challenge science, yet cannot hold a candle to it.