the-ghosts-of-woo-part-two

Read The Intro
Read Part One

We now find ourselves in Part Two, where Craig comes face to face to face with the Ghost of Woo Research, a brutal tag team that addresses the issues with serious research on a less than serious topic. You’d be better off writing a peer-reviewed journal article on where Penn and Teller get the damn potato from in their cup and ball trick (look it up!).

This is a whopper of a comic, and I’m pleased with how it turned out. I wanted it to take place in a huge library, but settled for walls of text instead (ha!). The giant glasses and “Facepalm on a Stick” are probably my favorite thing ever. Though now I’m realizing how difficult it can be to distill a complex topic into a readable comic. I respect Darryl Cunninham (his comic on evolution is sublime) more than ever now. Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the key talking points of today’s comic:

  • If it works just as well as a placebo, is it doing anything at all?
  • Is it still acupuncture if you are no longer puncturing or using electric shocks (which actually have a physiologic effect)
  • Is your result even a result?
  • Wait, you can’t skip the part where medical science shows the mechanism for your woo doesn’t exist.
Since the start of this series, I’ve had a lot of people send me links to their favorite acupuncture studies. The laser one has to be the best, because you know, we fucking love lasers here. Also, because they fail to tell us if a laser pointed elsewhere has a different effect. Or did they just concentrate on the spot that supported their findings? I’m going to guess that, sure, lasers might have some effect on the human nervous system (being photons and all). It’s not acupuncture though. Similarly, somebody referenced a study where tai chi was shown to improve the rehabilitation of stroke victims. They didn’t provide any sort of citation, but I’m going to guess that the headline should realistically be, “physical activity has been shown to improve the rehabilitation of stroke victims.” You know, like physical therapy and all that*. I might write more here later, but the comic kind of tuckered me out.
In the meantime, neurologist Steven Novella‘s blog, Neurologica, does an excellent job of tackling some of the research surrounding acupuncture:
Addendum: Commenter Mystify brings up a good point:
I have one  objection to your objections. You are ridiculing doing further research into it because the proposed mechanism doesn’t exist. While that is not a good sign for the validity of the technique, it does not rule it out. Lets look at alchemy. The theories underpinning it where nonsense, and with our current knowledge are laughable. Yet, alchemists still had lists of recipes that produced results. They may not have been able to correctly explain why the reactions worked, but the reactions were sound.
Similarly, it would be feasible for some ancient Chinese guy to discover that poking people with needles had some benefit, and then mapped out what places worked. Then, in an attempt to explain it, drew the chi flow diagram under it, as a theory to fit his data. This scenario would leave you with working acupuncture with a bunk theory explaining why it works. Those studies show that this is not the case, but you can’t ridicule the study being performed based on that. If anything, rejecting the theory without testing it would be unscientific.
I agree, since it is often these unknown flukes that lead to bigger discoveries. The problem is that while nobody has proved the meridian system, they insist on using it in all the studies. If they admitted that since they can’t prove meridians exist , they should just poke anywhere (which works just the same), I’d feel a little better about it. But they insist on clinging to the ancient road map despite not being able to prove the streets even exist. The other thing I ridicule is that the results don’t exist either. I agree that if they tried something, got results, and later found the actual mechanism behind it, that’d be pretty cool. But at this point, they have nothing conclusive, and are now just fishing for results by introducing lasers, electrodes, and even sonic waves into it. That’s really stretching it.
This post was brought to you by Steven Novella and Science Based Medicine, because really, they’ve been smacking this garbage down for years.
*[This just in] An actual article passed along has the study saying it worked better than PT. Which is fantastic. It’s a martial art, not a form of wizardry. I’m against TCM, not Kung Fu.