REALLity Check Special Report - Acupuncture

by David Bloomberg

You may have heard the news recently that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a statement saying that acupuncture had been found to be an effective treatment for certain kinds of pain, among other claims.

Unfortunately, that’s about all that most news outlets reported, leaving the average reader impressed with this new admission by medical experts that an ancient Chinese method actually works! As you might have expected, there is more to this story.

First, what most media failed to report was that this panel of so-called experts was put together by the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) within the NIH. In many ways, it seems the OAM does not consider itself bound by the same standards of scientific study that "Western" medicine must use (see "REALLity Check," Vol. 4, No. 11, November 1996 for some info on the director of the OAM, who is a promoter of homeopathy, among other things).

The report was put out after a 3-day meeting with presentations by a number of acupuncture proponents. Last time I checked, science was not determined by 3-day meetings, but by repeated scientific testing and verification. As an example of what type of meeting this was, the Washington Post (11/6) noted that "much of the panel’s public deliberations were as much a critique of conventional medicine and Western science as they were an assessment of acupuncture. The audience frequently cheered as experts noted that many Western medical practices are as lacking in proof of efficacy as is acupuncture." This is science? No. In science, if something is unproven, then we should look at it more closely. We shouldn’t say this is unproven so we can therefore accept that other thing which is also unproven. Of course, there is also the problem that whatever other "Western medical practices" they are talking about are not based on mysticism, as is acupuncture (based on the idea that there is a mysterious human energy field that is manipulated by the acupuncture needles).

The article went on to say, "Many also were pleased to hear panelists voice criticisms of randomized controlled clinical trials." Again, this was supposed to be a scientific panel?! Of course alternative medicine proponents don’t like scientific tests -- they keep showing that the stuff doesn’t work! But that’s the way science works, and it is more than a little disturbing that this panel was so quick to throw away science.

And what about this panel? According to Dr. Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch Exit, the conclusions "reflected the bias of the panelists who were selected by a planning committee dominated by acupuncture proponents."

Frankly, the whole thing disgusts me. When the OAM was formed, I hoped it would sort out the lousy claims from whatever good ones might exist. Instead, the first director quit over pressures to "push" alternative medicine and the new one is a homeopath. So instead of seeing the good scientific work we’ve come to expect from the NIH, we’re seeing the same old garbage we’ve come to expect from alternative medicine proponents -- except now it has the government’s stamp of approval on it! This was a p.r. coup for proponents of acupuncture and other alternative medicine methods, and a serious blow to good science.

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