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Acupuncturist’s Unconvincing Attempt at Damage Control

Acupuncture has been in the news recently. A former President of South Korea had to undergo major surgery to remove an acupuncture needle that had somehow lodged in his lung.  A recent study in Pain compiled a list of 95 published reports of serious complications of acupuncture including 5 deaths. Meanwhile, acupuncturists continue to insist that their procedures are “safe.”

Edzard Ernst et al.’s article Acupuncture: Does it alleviate pain and are there serious risks? A review of reviews was published in the journal Pain in April 2011. It had two parts: (1) it was a systematic review of 57 systematic reviews showing that there was “little truly convincing evidence that acupuncture is effective in reducing pain,” and (2) it tabulated published reports of 5 deaths and 90 other serious complications of acupuncture treatments. I wrote an accompanying commentary, “Acupuncture’s claims punctured: Not proven effective for pain, not harmless.”

William Morris chastised me for not declaring a conflict of interest (!?) in my commentary. Now, in Acupuncture Today, he has criticized the Ernst et al. study itself.
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Blatant pro-alternative medicine propaganda in The Atlantic

Some of my fellow Science-Based Medicine (SBM) bloggers and I have been wondering lately what’s up with The Atlantic. It used to be one of my favorite magazines, so much so that I subscribed to it for roughly 25 years (and before that I used to read my mother’s copy). In general I enjoyed its mix of politics, culture, science, and other topics. Unfortunately, my opinion changed back in the fall of 2009, when, on the rising crest of the H1N1 pandemic, The Atlantic published what can only be described as an terrible bit of journalism lionizing the “brave maverick doctor” Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration. The article, written by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, argued, in essence, that vaccinating against H1N1 at the time was a horrendous waste of time and effort because the vaccine didn’t work. So bad was the cherry picking of data and framing of the issue as a narrative that consisted primarily of the classic lazy journalistic device of a “lone maverick” against the entire medical establishment that it earned the lovely sarcasm of our very own Mark Crislip, who wrote a complete annotated rebuttal, while I referred to the methodology presented in the article as “methodolatry.” Even public health epidemiologist Revere (who is, alas, no longer blogging but in his day provided a very balanced, science-based perspective on vaccination for influenza, complete with its shortcomings) was most definitely not pleased.

I let my subscription to The Atlantic lapse and have not to this day renewed it.

Be that as it may, last year The Atlantic published an article that wasn’t nearly as bad as the H1N1 piece but was nonetheless pretty darned annoying to us at SBM. Entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, by David Freedman, it was an article lionizing John Ioannidis (whom I, too, greatly admire) while largely missing the point of his work, turning it into an argument for why we shouldn’t believe most medical science. Now, Freedman’s back again, this time with a much, much, much worse story in The Atlantic in the July/August 2011 issue under the heading “Ideas” and entitled The Triumph of New Age Medicine, complete with a picture of a doctor in a lab coat in the lotus position. It appears to be the logical follow up to Freedman’s article about Ioannidis in that Freedman apparently seems to think that, if we can’t trust medical science, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t embrace medical pseudoscience.

Basically, the whole idea behind the article appears to be that, even if most of alternative medicine is quackery (which it is, by the way, as we’ve documented ad nauseam on this very blog), it’s making patients better because of placebo effects and because its practitioners take the time to talk to patients and doctors do not. In other words, Freedman’s thesis appears to be a massive “What’s the harm?” argument coupled with a false dichotomy; that is, if real doctors don’t have the time to listen to patients and provide the human touch, then let’s let the quacks do it. Tacked on to that bad idea is a massive argumentum ad populum portraying alternative medicine as the wave of the future, in contrast to what Freedman calls the “failure” of conventional medicine.

Let’s dig in, shall we? I’ll start with the article itself, after which I’ll examine a few of the responses. I’ll also note that our very own Steve Novella, who was interviewed for Freedman’s article, has written a response to Freedman’s article that is very much worth reading as well.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Nutrition, Science and the Media

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Exorcism and Sorcery as Health Benefits?!

Luis Fernando Verissimo, a Brazilian writer, once proposed “voodoopuncture”. Instead of going to the acupuncturist, you would be treated without leaving home. The voodoopuncturist would stick acupuncture needles in the voodoo dolls of you! I add that voodoopuncture could be outsourced to Haiti and/or China. It is a win-win-win situation!

– Leonardo Monasteri, Brazilian economist

As unbelievable as this might sound, “voodoopuncture” is no fiction at all.

The practice is called “Tong Ren healing,” and involves needling or hammering an acupuncture mannequin, as if it were a voodoo doll. The main Tong Ren “Master” in the US is an acupuncturist in the Boston area by the name of Tom Tam. He treats groups of terminally ill and debilitated patients in a deliverance ceremony that is noting but a revamped Taoist exorcism — only the clay or straw doll is replaced by a plastic mannequin:

Unfortunately, Tom Tam is not the only licensed healthcare provider who is treating patients with hocus pocus and crackpottery. There are over 30,000 other adepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the US who practice medicine based on notions of health and disease that are rooted in paranormal and magical beliefs. Some of these practitioners take their delusions to the outer limits of absurdity: consider, for instance, “acutonics” and “colorpuncture” as described in these videos:

In anthropology of religion, the principles that underline the above practices are called “imitation” (e.g. using a doll to affect a person), and “correspondence” (e.g. using a sound to affect an object). They are the hallmarks of what is called “sympathetic magic,” meaning the belief that a person, or a thing, can be affected through something that represents it, or that has similar attributes.1 The principle of magical correspondence in TCM is called wu xing (五行) in Chinese, and is known as the Five Phases/Elements Theory in English. It can be summarized as follows:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Pragmatic Studies and Cinderella Medicine

Explanatory studies are done under controlled conditions to determine whether a treatment has any efficacy compared to a placebo. Pragmatic studies are designed to assess how the intervention performs in everyday real world practice. Pragmatic studies measure practical success but don’t determine actual efficacy: that requires a proper randomized controlled trial (RCT) with an appropriate control. Pragmatic studies have their place, but they can sometimes make an ineffective treatment look good: a phenomenon I have christened Cinderella Medicine.

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Dr. Oz on alternative medicine: Bread and circuses

NOTE: Dr. Novella has written up a detailed description of his experiences on The Dr. Oz Show. Please read it. Also note that the online video for Dr. Novella’s appearance is now available:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

When I first learned that our fearless leader and partner in crime for this blog, Dr. Steve Novella, Yale neurologist, blogger, and host of the popular skeptical podcast the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe was going to be on The Dr. Oz Show, I was concerned. After all, this is the same physician who had in essence given up science-based medicine in favor of media stardom based on the promotion of alternative medicine. Of late Dr. Oz has been getting worse, too, promoting pseudoscience and what can only be described, in my opinion, as quackery. The snake oil that Dr. Oz has promoted over the last several months includes Dr. Joe Mercola, one of the biggest promoters of “alternative” health, whom Dr. Oz first had on his show about a year ago and then defiantly defended in a return appearance in early 2011, to be followed by a rapid one-two punch in which Dr. Oz had an ayurvedic yogi named Cameron Alborzian, who promoted highly dubious medicine, including “tongue diagnosis,” to be followed a few days later by something I would never, even in my most cynical assessment of Dr. Oz, expected, namely the appearance of faith healer Issam Nemeh on his show. ext Dr. Oz endorsed a diet that he once eschewed as quackery and then, to top it all off, invited psychic John Edward onto his show, asking Is talking to the dead a new kind of therapy? All of these offenses contributed to the reasons why in 2011 the James Randi Educational Foundation awarded him the The Media Pigasus Award for the second year in a row.

So right from the start I wasn’t very optimistic about how this whole thing would turn out. Fortunately, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Steve managed to hold his own in a completely hostile environment with only minor stumbles, while Dr. Oz peppered him with “Have you stopped beating your wife?”-style questions. At one point, Steve even managed to hand Dr. Oz his posterior. Alas, I doubt it will make any difference to Dr. Oz’s viewers, but we can always hope to change a few minds. I also realize that, however a big deal being on Dr. Oz’s show was to Steve and many members of the skeptical movement (especially supporters of SBM), to Dr. Oz it was just one segment in one episode of one season of a daily talk show made up of 150 episodes, each containing four or so segments. Not to detract from Steve’s achievement at all (it’s truly amazing that he managed to get on the show and do as well as he did, given how badly the deck was stacked against him), but to us this is big; to Dr. Oz it’s just another segment of another episode. It’s entertainment. As giddy and anxious as we at SBM have been the last two weeks, we have to keep things in perspective.

So what happened?
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

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A Skeptic In Oz

UPDATE 4/27/2011: Here’s the online video of Dr. Novella’s appearance on The Dr. Oz Show:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

I must say I was a bit shocked two weeks ago when I was contacted by a producer for The Dr. Oz Show inviting me on to discuss alternative medicine. We have been quite critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz over his promotion of dubious medical treatments and practitioners, and I wondered if they were aware of the extent of our criticism (they were, it turns out).

Despite the many cautions I received from friends and colleagues (along with support as well) – I am always willing to engage those with whom I disagree. I knew it was a risk going into a forum completely controlled by someone who does not appear to look kindly upon my point of view, but a risk worth taking. I could only hope I was given the opportunity to make my case (and that it would survive the editing process).

The Process

Of course, everyone was extremely friendly throughout the entire process, including Dr. Oz himself (of that I never had any doubt). The taping itself went reasonably well. I was given what seemed a good opportunity to make my points. However, Dr. Oz did reserve for himself the privilege of getting in the last word—including a rather long finale, to which I had no opportunity to respond. Fine—it’s his show, and I knew what I was getting into. It would have been classy for him to give an adversarial guest the last word, or at least an opportunity to respond, but I can’t say I expected it.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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Without Borders

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch CAM and woo Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

The White Man’s burden, a bit of racism from the 19th century:

The term “the white man’s burden” has been interpreted as racist, or taken as a metaphor for a condescending view of non-Western national culture and economic traditions, identified as a sense of European ascendancy which has been called “cultural imperialism.” An alternative interpretation is the philanthropic view, common in Kipling’s formative years, that the rich have a moral duty and obligation to help “the poor” “better” themselves whether the poor want the help or not. The term “the white man’s burden” has been interpreted as racist, or taken as a metaphor for a condescending view of non-Western national culture and economic traditions, identified as a sense of European ascendancy which has been called “cultural imperialism.” An alternative interpretation is the philanthropic view, common in Kipling’s formative years, that the rich have a moral duty and obligation to help “the poor” “better” themselves whether the poor want the help or not.

I will let the commentators debate the meaning of the poem. There are places in the world so devastated by poverty, disease and political corruption that it may be beyond the capacity of the local populations to overcome. They need outside help. Certainly, the impulse to help those less fortunate than yourselves is a noble tradition. Haiti, Central America and Uganda are parts of the world that need assistance in overcoming an incredible number of problems to reach even a basic level of material support for its population.
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The Forefather of Acupuncture Energetics, a Charlatan?

Not only his name and his titles of nobility were forged, but parts of the teachings of the man who introduced acupuncture to Europe were also invented. Even today, treatments are provided based on his fantasies.

– Hanjo Lehmann1

Decades before President Nixon’s visit to communist China, and before the articles in the Western popular press on the use of acupuncture in surgery, a Frenchman by the name of George Soulié de Morant (1878-1955), published a series of colorful accounts of the use of acupuncture in early 20th-century China. His work led to the creation of a school of thought known as “French energetics,” which has become the theoretical foundation for many proponents of acupuncture in the West, including Joseph Helms, MD, the founder and former director of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (AAMA), and the founder of the acupuncture certification course for physicians.

But just as the medical community gradually learned that the reports of the use of acupuncture in surgery in communist China were inaccurate, exaggerated, or even fraudulent, we are now learning that the reports on the use and efficacy of acupuncture by Soulié de Morant were also fabricated.

According to a 2010 article published in Germany by Hanjo Lehmann in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt (a short version was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung), there is no real evidence that the Frenchman who is considered the father of Western acupuncture ever stuck a needle in anyone in China, and he probably never witnessed a needling.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud

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The World Has Moved On

I do a lot of driving as part of my job.  I am the sole Infectious Disease doctor at three hospitals and I can spend an hour or two a day in the car, depending on traffic.  What prevents me from going crazy sitting in traffic is listening to podcasts and audible books.    I especially like reading (and yes, audio books is reading, pedant) multivolume epics.   Currently I am reading Steven King’s Dark Tower series, which occurs in a universe “where the world has moved on.”  In Mid-world there was once a world with science and beauty and art, but something changed, what I do not know yet (I am only on the third volume; no spoilers in the comments), and the world moved on, leaving behind some artifacts of science and technology, but it appears to be an increasingly primitive world.  Being fantasy, there is, unlike the world I live in, magic as well.

I like that phrase: “the world has moved on.” (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Science and the Media

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The Hazards of “CAM”-Pandering

Steven Salzberg, a friend of this blog and Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland, is on the editorial boards of three of the many journals published by BioMed Central (BMC), an important source of open-access, peer-reviewed biomedical reports. He is disturbed by the presence of two other journals under the BMC umbrella: Chinese Medicine and BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. A couple of days ago, on his Forbes science blog, Dr. Salzberg explained why. Here are some excerpts:

The Chinese Medicine journal promotes, according to its own mission statement, studies of “acupuncture, Tui-na, Qi-qong, Tai Chi Quan, energy research,” and other nonsense. Tui na, for example, supposedly “affects the flow of energy by holding and pressing the body at acupressure points.”

Right. What is this doing in a scientific journal?… I support BMC…But their corporate leaders seem to care more about expanding their stable than about maintaining the integrity of science. Chinese Medicine simply does not belong in the company of respectable scientific journals.

Forming a scientific journal whose goal is to validate antiquated, unproven superstitions is simply not science, whatever the editors of Chinese Medicine claim.

BMC should be embarrassed to be publishing journals that promote anti-scientific theories and otherwise muddy the literature. By supporting these journals, they undermine the credibility of many excellent BMC journals. They should cut these journals loose.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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