Thursday, January 25, 2007

Acupuncture and TCM

The Ontario government is now taking steps to "regulate" the practises of "Traditional Chinese Medicine" and "Acupuncture". I can't say I'm overjoyed. If there were any kind of evidence that these practises were in some way functional, we would have studies showing such. As it is, all of the studies I can find on Acupuncture clearly demonstrate that a "real" acupuncturist poking you with needles is no better than a placebo consisting of a convincing charlatan poking you with needles.

The defenders of "TCM" and Acupuncture are more than willing to regale you with stories of people who were miraculously cured of various aches and pains by needle poking and herbs. What they aren't willing to tell you is how many people have tried acupuncture and failed to get any satisfactory result. They won't tell you that because they can't. They have no idea. The pro-acupuncture crowd simply repeats the stories of the people who had their pain reduced. What about the people whose pain would have gone away all by itself? What about the people who ended dying of the actual disease that was causing the pain?

Just because B happened after A doesn't mean that B was caused by A. We have scientific methods involving rigorous application of statistics that will tell us if there really is a correlation. One-off stories are irrelevant.

There's also the argument that TCM and Acupuncture have been around for "5000 years" and therefore there must be something to them. Let's think of some other ideas that have been around for 5000 years: tree worship; flat earth; earth-centred universe; dragons; unicorns; women as chattel. "5000 years" isn't an argument, it's a rationalization. If your belief has merit, then that merit can certainly be shown in a properly conducted study. You shouldn't have to reach for "lots of people think so" or "people have thought so for a long time."

The real danger is that people with serious problems will take those problems to these practitioners. Those people will be deluded in to thinking that their very real problems have gone away while they actually get worse. Then the scientifically based medical system will have to deal with the problem much later ... perhaps much too late.

A last, and most regrettable argument, is that a treatment is effective as long as it makes the patient feel better. Sadly, no. While this may apply to stomach aches or minor headaches, it doesn't apply to real problems. You expanding tumour, metastasising cancer and your kidney stone will kill you just as dead, regardless to your sunny disposition.

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