Read The Intro
In Part One of our tale, Craig is visited by the Ghost of Woo Reasoning, namely Bertrand Russell’s Teapot. Makes sense. After all, both are unfalsifiable, imaginary things. The Ghost of Woo Reasoning was almost Ferdinand’s Booger, from the short-lived series I did on anecdotal vs. experimental evidence a while back.
Acupuncture falls under more than a few pseudoscientific red flags—as pointed out in the intro—but it mainly preys on the human tendency to make correlation/causation mistakes. Combine this with regression towards the mean, and you have a pretty potent one-two punch that can fool the best and brightest of us. Here’s how it works:
Believe it or not, your body does a pretty damn good job of healing itself*. Medicine can facilitate the process with proper wound dressing, sutures, or medication, but there isn’t anything out there that’s going to speed up plain old cell division (Well, there is, but we call the result cancer). If you hurt yourself, chances are you will get better; your body will repair the damage. Though at some point in the healing process you might say to yourself, “Enough is enough, I have to do something.” So in desperation, you see a chiropractor or go get acupuncture. Now, you’ve set yourself up for the one-two punch. Probability already stated that you were bound to feel better eventually, as injuries that become aggravated and grow worse over time are much rarer so long as you take precautions. Hence why you don’t hear too many stories of people going to a chiropractor for neck pain and then dying later. Though it has happened for various reasons. Similarly, you never hear about people going to get acupuncture and finding it did nothing at all. These average experiences just get shrugged off as a non-event. Think of it like a fortune telling. If you get a good fortune, it’s great. But if you get a bad fortune: “Who believes in that stuff, anyway?”
Now enter Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, “after this, therefore because of this”. You’ve gotten better and your brain is looking for the source of the relief-causing event. Your brain is very good at this sort of thing, and smart pattern recognition has served us well. But it also leads us astray. In this case, it connects relief with some past occurrence, which in our case is acupuncture. Without fail, upon posting the intro to this series, the comments and stories began coming in. It’s hard to tell people that what they’ve experienced might be wrong. It’s even harder to think that two events you’ve connected may not be connected at all. But it’s easier to consider that there may be a variable you haven’t considered—perhaps even be unable to consider. This is what tightly controlled, double blind trials are for. But because of the nature of acupuncture (stabbing) it’s near impossible to form a completely double-blind trial, and it’s here where proponents of acupuncture try to get their jabs in.
But we’ll see where that leads next week, when we all get back from our guilt-ridden, binge eating holiday. Enjoy!
*Another addition to the Red Flags will probably be “Helps the body’s healing process” in other words, “We do nothing.” I once met a Osteopathic “doctor” who said this to my face. I nearly bit my tongue clean off.
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