Improperly Performed Acupuncture Linked to Spontaneous Human Combustion

Experts in traditional Chinese medicine are warning patients to avoid unlicensed acupuncture practitioners after an apparent case of spontaneous human combustion.

Baton Rouge, LA-When investigators climbed from out of the smoldering debris that was the home of Hank Thomas, the looks on their faces told the gathering crowd what these hardened veterans of the Baton Rouge Fire Department couldn’t put into words. Thomas, a yoga instructor and avid fisherman who had lived in Baton Rouge his entire life, had exploded. And as the grisly details slowly emerge, people are asking questions about what might be to blame and how they can prevent being the next Baton Rougian to erupt into a massive fireball of body parts and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.

Some local medical professionals have proposed a controversial theory. Based on reports that Thomas has undergone acupuncture treatments for sciatica several times in the weeks preceding his untimely fulmination, a group of local experts are speaking out. They are warning the community to beware of discount acupuncture clinics.

“We aren’t saying that every incidence of spontaneous human combustion is linked to the incorrect placement of acupuncture needles,” Kuang Zhu LAC, Chief of Pragmatic Acupuncture in the Health and Wellness division of Vic’s Day Spa and Pet Grooming Center, explained during a recent press conference. “But in some cases, there is a relationship that is hard to explain otherwise.”

Zhu, a legally licensed acupuncturist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for over thirty years and founder of the “Know Your Needler!” campaign, is reaching out to the Baton Rouge community because of concerns that there are patients seeking care from unlicensed and poorly trained practitioners that don’t charge as much per session. “These rogue needle-wielding impersonators don’t fully grasp the power of acupuncture, acupressure, sonopuncture, electroacupuncture, cold laser therapy, or any of the other ancient techniques of stimulating specific acupoints. With great ability to heal, comes an equal ability to harm.”

Acupuncture, a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine developed sometime in the past 5,000 years, involves the insertion of small needles into specific points on the body in order to improve the flow of life energy or Qi. These points are found along meridians, major pathways in the body through which our life energy courses that are different from blood vessels, nerves and lymphatics in that Western science has been unable to locate them during anatomical investigation or with modern imaging techniques. When Qi is obstructed, it becomes stagnant and illness develops. Properly placed needles relieve this obstruction and improve our health in a number of ways. Needles placed haphazardly can, according to Zhu, lead to further obstruction, a worsening of one’s health, and perhaps even a fiery death.

Zhu states that the phenomenon of injury by inappropriate acupuncture is not new. He has seen countless milder cases over his three decades of practice in the United States. But the worst occurred during his childhood in China. “Neighborhood gangs and even local police forces would use purposefully incorrect acupuncture as punishment or as an interrogation enhancer,” Zhu revealed. “Once I saw a body with the hao zhen needles still inserted in acupoints I did not even know existed. Oh, the disharmony! My childhood ended that day. I’ve heard that the American military is even using acupuncture on the battlefield now.”

But not every local acupuncturist supports Zhu’s theory that excessive and erroneous needle placement is to blame for unexplained explosions of American citizens. Frank Grimes, a Baton Rouge chiropractor who incorporates acupuncture into his armamentarium of healing modalities, reminds us that correlation doesn’t always equal causation. “Yes, some of the remaining body parts have been found with needles still in them,” He admits. “But my concern is that linking acupuncture to spontaneous human combustion is akin to the claim that chiropractic manipulation of the neck causes strokes. Perhaps people who are already about to explode seek out acupuncture for symptomatic relief.”

At the heart of this issue for Zhu and his colleagues is the health of their community. He admits that acupuncture-induced detonation is likely rare despite the recent occurrence, and that most people who receive acupuncture from improperly trained practitioners will at most only experience mild stagnation of Qi. “Thankfully most of these victims of acupuncture fraud do not suffer from serious conditions and will improve with the passage of time. My main concern is that the people who do have dangerous imbalances in their yin or yang might delay seeking out proper care just to save a few bucks.”

Zhu also expressed concern for subjects of clinical trials testing the effectiveness of acupuncture. “I worry that study participants exposed to phony acupuncture may be at risk for continued imbalances or worse.” In addition to raising awareness of the dangers of improperly performed acupuncture, the Know Your Needler! campaign is also calling for the immediate end of all placebo-controlled trials that incorporate sham acupuncture.

Okay, I made this up. It’s clearly satire, but if you were fooled please follow this link and start reading. It may be a joke but this phony news piece does have a point, and it wasn’t just to poke some fun at acupuncture adherents and their claims, or science reporting these days. I did enjoy doing that tremendously, however.

To my knowledge, there has yet to be discovered a medical treatment that works by altering the structure or physiology of the body that is completely risk free. Whether pharmaceutical or “natural”, Eastern or Western, homeopathic or allopathic, if there is both a specific and measurable therapeutic benefit there is always the potential for negative side effects. Sure, the range of side effects vary from the extremely mild and annoying to deadly, but they are always there.

Some legitimate therapies are extremely safe when used or dosed appropriately but as the old saying goes, the poison is often in the dose. Even dihydrogen oxide is dangerous when a large enough amount is ingested, leading to water intoxication, hyponatremia, seizures and eventually death. But most interventions will carry varying degrees of risk at recommended doses as well as when overdone. Even minor surgical procedures, such as the simple incision and drainage of a small abscess that can be performed in most physicians’ offices, can lead to unanticipated complications. Again the risk can be quite small, or even negligible, and the benefits almost always outweigh these risks, but there is no such thing as a free lunch in the world of medicine.

Many of the proposed health benefits of alternative medical therapies, an arbitrary and often nonsensical collection of treatments and approaches to health care, are decidedly non-specific. They rely on subjective placebo effects elicited by bias and altered perception without measurable objective improvement. Claims of benefits related to their use tend to involve such nebulous entities as boosting of the immune system (but never which component), reducing stress, improving mood, vague references to organ health (splenic fatigue?) and the enhancement of male.

Claims of this type, of which there are a seemingly endless supply, are very effective at what they were designed to do. Thanks in large part to comical governmental regulation, the also seemingly endless supply of people willing to be separated from their money are enticed by statements which are never subjected to the nuisance of providing supporting evidence outside of the occasional testimonial. Acupuncture in particular thrives on placebo effects and vague claims, and does not deserve its place at the top of the heap in regards to public and physician perception of legitimacy.

Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. When proponents of irregular medicine make specific claims, such as ginkgo biloba preventing the onset of dementia in the elderly, or chiropractic adjustments being effective in treating asthma, the results of the few properly designed studies range from equivocal to negative. Despite the reality that thus far no alternative therapy has been shown to be effective for any specific condition, practitioners of even the most ludicrous of modalities forge ahead unfazed.

So if acupuncture has a specific effect on the physiology of the body, by altering the release of neurotransmitters or increasing the secretion of endogenous hormones, or whatever proposed biological mechanism you prefer, and it is capable of impacting specific diseases, then there must be the potential for unwanted side effects. And I don’t mean just the obvious infectious issues associated with the use of unclean needles/hands or the potential for traumatic injury when needles are shoved through the linings of the heart or lungs. And, of course, I also don’t truly believe that there must be catastrophic side effects equivalent to spontaneously bursting into flames.

If acupuncture works for the host of conditions its proponents claim it to, conditions as disparate as Parkinson’s disease and polycystic ovarian disease, then there has to be a downside. Whatever alterations in the physiology of the body to improve fertility, relieve migraines and lower cholesterol, they can’t be risk free. I take the extreme difficulty in finding discussion of any such acupuncture side effects by proponents as evidence for the lack of any effect at all. To me, the absurdity of such an extreme side effect as exploding due to pent up Qi is equally matched by the ridiculous claim that shoving tiny needles into a patient’s skin results in an effect beyond that of placebo.

Posted in: Acupuncture, Humor

Leave a Comment (121) ↓

121 thoughts on “Improperly Performed Acupuncture Linked to Spontaneous Human Combustion

  1. windriven says:

    I always look forward to the alternate Fridays when Mark Crislip treats us to science leavened with a gobbet o’ laughs. I had to double check the byline this morning. Three guffaws for Dr. Jones.

    For those readers unfamiliar with the gustatory oddities of south Louisiana, Tony Chachere’s (pronounced SASH-er-ays) is a dry seasoning purchased in a green can – much like Kraft artificial imitation parmesan-like product – and is used ubiquitously in Cajun cooking. It is mostly salt and capsaicin peppers but has, I think, garlic powder and some other stuff. Cajun magic probably.

    As an aside, real Cajuns (as opposed to Perlis Cajuns*) are known locally as coon-asses because it is said that they enjoy eating every part of the masked mammal including its rectum.

    As to the notion of spontaneous human combustion, any Louisianan knows that the last real case of that in Baton Rouge was when Cletus Thibodeaux squirted gasoline on a charcoal grill that wasn’t starting real good. The only needling involved was Cletus’ brother poking the remains with a stick and saying, “you see, I told you not to use premium. Regular unleaded is all you need.”

    *Perlis is an upscale menswear company whose logo is a crawfish. Perlis Cajuns are those who drive 6 Series Beemers and live on St. Charles Avenue but want you to think they’re just one of the boys.

    1. “…much like Kraft artificial imitation parmesan-like product.”

      I’m so glad you didn’t call it CHEESE! :-)

      Thanks for a great addendum to a great post :-))

      1. a friend of mine called the Kraft stuff “shake-shake cheese”

        1. windriven says:

          The stuff looks like dandruff but doesn’t taste as good.

    2. Calli Arcale says:

      My grandmother was a real Cajun, and I suspect she would have laughed uproariously at your description. ;-)

  2. thefacelessman says:

    I have to admit I was fooled, just not in the sense that I would believe that acupuncture can cause spontaneous combustion (i know qi and spontaneous combustion don`t exist). But I believe that some local newspaper or suchlike is easily capable of producing a story like this.

    1. Clay Jones says:

      That is part of what I parody with these.

    2. Stephen H says:

      It had me convinced right up to the “With great ability to heal, comes an equal ability to harm”. I figured it should be “With great ability to bullshit, comes an enormous ability to harm”.

  3. Carl says:

    Confucius say, “acupuncture patient like virgin balloon…” No, that’s not it. Crud, I was sure I knew a joke for that.

  4. Clay Jones says:

    To be completely honest, Baton Rouge is a frog’s hair more cajun than Boston. You could argue that they know better what to do with crayfish…damn, crawfish. I’ve been here a few weeks and already becoming one of them.

    1. windriven says:

      It might interest you to know that some restaurants in China prepare crawfish that are nearly indistinguishable from those you might find in Breaux Bridge, LA. Cooked (but not overcooked as Louisianans are wont to do) in a similarly spicy broth. No corn, mushrooms or sausage though. And Tsing Tao isn’t the ideal accompaniment.

  5. Clay Jones says:

    Poe effect in action:

    1. nevirdniw says:

      This is an attempt to login with a different name without using a service in an attempt to evade the moderation police. They’ll never take me alive.

      1. Sorry, busted. Nice try.

        1. nevirdniw says:

          Crap. For my next trick I’ll spoof my IP address to a location in Ulan Bator.

        2. Why does clicking on the generic avatar by my screen name take me to Facebook when I’m not signed in with WordPress? Arghhhhhh!

  6. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Is it just me, or did the commenting windows and boxes just change? Looks more like the old version.

    1. windriven says:

      I wondered the same thing William. Something has changed. Chrome always worked flawlessly but my rambling comment this morning required me to tab to find the submit. Strange. Also, unless I’m hallucinating, the submit button has switched sides.

  7. daedalus2u says:

    I disagree that there is necessarily the potential for adverse effects accompanying medical treatments with possible beneficial effects.

    In a sedentary patient, in otherwise good health, what are the potential adverse effects of moderate exercise?

    What are the potential adverse effects of going from a poor diet to a nutritious diet?

    What are the potential adverse effects of sufficient sleep?

    A poor diet could be masking something else, but that something else is already present. If there isn’t something else going on, then the risk associated with going to a nutritious diet are likely to be zero. What constitutes a nutritious diet may be idiosyncratic and difficult to evaluate, but the idea that there must be risk along with all potential benefits is (I am pretty sure), not correct.

    1. Vicki says:

      “In otherwise good health” rules out a significant part of the population, and some of the possible risks of exercise (e.g. yoga triggering a migraine in a person who has migraines despite taking anti-migraine drugs). I suspect that almost any intervention is lower-risk if the patient is otherwise in good health–for example, that reduces potential drug interactions.

      More seriously, “a nutritious diet” is assuming what you want to prove. Yes, there are broad guidelines, but no diet is nutritious for everyone, because allergies and sensitivities are all over the place. I know someone who is seriously allergic to celery (which rules out almost all commercial soups and broths, in restaurants or in packages at the supermarket, because celery is such a common ingredient).

      1. It should be possible to have a completely nutritious diet without celery–although it would be difficult to eat at restaurants–especially soups and sauces.

        Mostly, “nutritious” is a vague word. The body needs nutrients (a pretty clear bit of science), but people eat “food”–which can be nearly anything and may or may not contain sufficient nutrients for survival, let alone optimal health. Most food allergies (especially beyond childhood) are to one or two things. Sensitivities (real, imagined or mistakenly correlated) confuse the issue. The other issue is the huge amount of magical thinking associated with food/nutrition, of course.

  8. Yodeladyhoo says:

    Wonderfully funny. Let’s help the story go viral! Thanks for a good laugh. :)

  9. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Exercise – muscle strains, sprains, tendon avulsion, impalement by broken equipment.

    Diet – substantial gas (one reason many people stop eating vegetables after their first try, they assume the gas will continue when really it just takes a couple glorious* days for your gut bacteria to adjust)

    Sleep – late for work, in a rush, hit by a bus, get fired.

    Comments are back to being inconvenient :(

    *Farting is awesome as long as they’re your own.

    1. WLU – is this a poem?…sort of Ginsberg meets SBM?
      (sorry, that was obtuse, mostly I’m checking if my new ID is working and if it may allow me to skip the moderation lag)

      1. nope – IDs still go into moderation.

    2. daedalus2u says:

      I said moderate exercise.

      If a diet causes excess gas, it is *by definition* not nutritious, and gas from a new diet is within the class of adverse things being masked by a poor diet.

      I think it is not useful to say that “anything” that can be helpful can also be harmful. It is a generalization that is so overbroad as to be misleading and harmful. Sort of like “everything is poisonous”, even water.

      1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

        Yeah, I was being douchey there, sorry. Couldn’t resist.

      2. Clay Jones says:

        It is a rather silly point to belabor. Those interventions are solid evidence based recommendations but not necessarily owned by physicians. My claim was that anything that significantly alters physiology or structure has risk. Whether you consider your exceptions to that rule as reasonable or not ill leave up to individual readers. Regardless, I stand by my point regarding acupuncture.

        1. daedalus2u says:

          I agree that those are solid evidence and science based interventions that are not “owned” only by physicians.

          As a heuristic, the idea that any non-physiological intervention that can generate positive changes to physiology also has the potential to generate negative changes is pretty good. But it is not immutable. There are interventions that can generate positive changes that don’t have the potential to generate negative change. Pretending that there are no such interventions is trying to apply a false balance.

          Acupuncture is a non-physiological intervention that does have the potential to generate negative changes. There was an example of a woman who had her lung collapsed by acupuncture.

          A nutritious diet is not a non-physiological intervention. Our problem is that we don’t know what the default “physiological” environment is or should be. Treatments that restore a more normal “physiological” status should not have adverse side effects.

          Restoring a more normal physiological state could have good health restoring effects, provided the physiological state was abnormal to start with. An example is fecal transplants. If you have C. diff, then your gut is in an abnormal state. Restoring the normal gut flora that suppress C. diff should restore a more normal gut state. In looking at how the FDA is trying to regulate fecal transplants, they at first wanted investigational new drug applications and vastly more testing than patients or researchers could possibly afford. When the FDA announced that, it brought all fecal transplant work to a complete stop.

          C. diff infections cause more than 10,000 deaths per year. In essentially all of these deaths, the gut flora has been perturbed by antibiotics. Restoring a sufficiently normal gut flora population would very likely prevent many of these deaths. There are no known adverse health effects from having “normal gut flora”. The problem is that we don’t know what “normal gut flora” is, and to some extent it is very likely to be idiosyncratic (not knowable on an individual basis). Fortunately there is a lot of self-regulation of the gut flora, so if you can get close, it will likely self-modify to be good enough.

          There is likely to be very low risk to “restoring normal gut flora” (the risk may actually be zero, or negative (i.e. only positive effects)). Our problem is that we don’t know what “restoring normal gut flora” consists of. There are several ways to approach trying to understand what this risk is and minimize it. One could treat a fecal transplant as a drug and require NDAs and research treating each fecal transplant as a drug that requires animal trials multi-phase human trials. Unfortunately there are no mechanisms for that expensive process to be paid for, so it isn’t going to happen quickly. That also doesn’t get you the “safest” intervention, it gets you an intervention that is “safe and effective”, compared to what the alternative is; doing nothing and more than 10,000 deaths per year from C. diff.

      3. “If a diet causes excess gas, it is *by definition* not nutritious, and gas from a new diet is within the class of adverse things being masked by a poor diet”.

        Define “excess” gas!

        I eat a LOT of fiber and experience some gas (usually from exceeding very modest portions). Some people don’t process fiber well and will have more gas than others, but as far as I know, this is no reason to not consume otherwise nutritious foods.

  10. mousethatroared says:

    Very Nice, although I’m not sure where the Clay Jones Poe begins and the tiny linked Poe ends…or if there’s anything real in it…still very well done, love the chiropractor part.

    Although, strangely enough, I now have the urge* to go get accupunture and eat crawfish (I’ve never heard of eating crayfish, I thought those were just for racing) as a sort of cajun/creole experience.

    *It’s an urge I will resist, although a few ibuprofen and a massage are under consideration.

    1. windriven says:


      Crawfish boils are the first rite of spring down in the swampland. They start to appear at market size in March and run into the very early part of summer. Crawfish are sold in, as I recall, about 30 pound sacks – mesh bags such as the ones in which you might buy whole oysters or clams. The crawfish are boiled in a highly spiced broth that usually also includes garlic, small potatoes, corn on the cob and sometimes sausage and mushrooms. Many Cajuns cook this far too long for my taste; the meat can sometimes become a little mealy. Real masters dump bags of ice into the boil when the crawfish are done. This arrests the cooking and seems to ‘set’ the spice in the tails.

      The tops of picnic tables are covered with newspaper and the drained crawhish and other goodies are dumped in a heap in the centers of the tables. Accompaniments are butter for the potatoes and corn (usually squeeze bottle margarine in practice) and lots of cold beer. French bread is optional.

      The crawfish head is grasped in the dependent hand and the tail is twisted off with the dominant hand. A deft move allows the experienced eater to peel off the first two segments of the tail shell and, with a slight squeeze at the base of the tail the meat pops into one’s mouth. This is called pinching the tail. The open end of the head where the tail was attached then goes in the mouth and suction applied which removes the highly spiced yellow fat. This is called sucking heads. Not all crawfish eaters suck heads. But those who do will judge you harshly if you don’t. All of this pinching and sucking is lubricated generously with swigs of ice cold beer, preferably Abita Amber or Abita TurboDog.

      I will admit that it all sounds a bit appalling to the uninitiated but I assure you that it is a brilliant way to pass a warm spring afternoon. Don’t wear good clothes; they won’t be when you’re done.

      Aaayyy-EEEE, that’s some good stuff cher, I guarantee!

      1. Alia says:

        What a coincidence! Just this week I was translating a description of a party in Lafayette, which also included sucking heads. Now I get the picture of what it really looks like (there was just a short mention in the text, something along the lines that each Louisiana kid learns to eat crawfish at a very early age).

        1. windriven says:

          The fat in the heads is really tasty, Alia. But I kept it to just a few at each boil I attended. The crawfish are bottom feeders and I worried about the amounts of who knows what that the little scavengers were accumulating in their fat stores. Louisiana does lots of heavy gauge chemical processing.

      2. Windriven, sounds delicious. I love to eat most crusteaceans. I have heard of crawfish boils, although last time I was in New Orleans, about twenty some years ago, there was none available…I think the wrong season, maybe. When I was growing up (here in Michigan) we used to catch crayfish (we usually called them that) in the creek with our hands, take them home in a bucket and have races with them. The local crayfish seemed generally considered to be not edible. Not sure if there is a difference between Michigan creek crayfish and Baton Rouge crawfish –

        Apparently, now in Michigan, people do catch and eat crayfish, but they are one variety (Rusty Crayfish) that is an invasive species (learned this on Google, most the folks I know tend toward the bass, trout and salmon when fishing for food, not crawfish).

        sorry, tangent.

        1. windriven says:

          I grew up outside Cleveland, mouse. We never ate crawfish there either but I remember them looking just like the ones that are eaten in Louisiana.

          I’d love to hear from someone with expertise in the field just what the dangers of eating the little nasties is. As I mentioned above, the corridor along the Mississippi is loaded with processors of chemical primaries and intermediates.

        2. Clay Jones says:

          Y’all are alright with me as long as you don’t wear rubber gloves while peeling them. This is just wrong:

        3. @Mouse/Windriven

          As a kid in Seattle, we caught, boiled, and ate CRAYfish all the time at the beach–mostly at Alki, Windriven (not sure you’re in Seattle proper, but maybe you’ve heard of Alki Beach.

          Mouse, I just spend a short holiday in U.P.–white water rafting on the Menominee (Class IV rapids, no less!) and am in love with the country up there. Wish I’d looked for some cray(w)fish.

          1. goodnightirene -Just found your comment… I admit, I’ve never been to that area. I visited Marquette and the surrounding area a few times years ago…when my sister attended Northern Michigan, but it’s a very long drive and I admit, I like a bit more civilization than parts of the UP offers*. I’m very fond of Lake Michigan, Platte River, Leelanau Peninsula area, but you won’t find the waterfalls, rapids, rocks and mountains there that you find in the UP.

            I generally keep an eye out for crayfish when I’m around a river, but I can’t say I see them that much around here. The Shiawassee River, near were I grew up, still seems to host more crayfish than those in South East Mi, where I am now.

            But if you google Michigan and crayfish, you’ll find tons of links on fishing and crayfish, so they must be around…sneaky little devils.

            *Coffee houses, do they have a good latte in the UP? Cause the last time I was there I couldn’t find one for the life of me and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

  11. Clay Jones says:

    The true stuff starts at my admission of making it all up. The link in my comment is a real wizard who thought my post was for reals.

    1. Oh dear, (chuckling) I thought the wizard was a skeptic/magician who was being facetious – that’s the problem with a poe, after reading one, every credulous article you see sounds like irony.

      1. So, that means the whole piece is yours…fantastic work.

        1. Clay Jones says:

          Yes, all mine including the bad prose.

      2. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

        I read the wizard’s comment, which lead to another blog post, which discussed qigong masters who were capable of generating infrasonic waves, which to my tremendous disappointment, I was unable to find the original article of :(

  12. Al Likkel says:

    You are quite ignorant. It’s unfortunate that someone with you’re lack of knowledge is allowed to publish articles like this garbage!

    1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

      Aw, c’mon, The prose could definitely be improved, but it’s not that bad! Cut Dr. Jones a break.

      Does anybody else hear this every time Dr. Jones posts?

      1. windriven says:

        “Does anybody else hear this every time Dr. Jones posts?”

        If I did I’d suck start a 12 gauge. Somebody thought that was good enough to record?????

        1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

          I have a soft spot for terrible, terrible pop music. My favourite artist right now is Ke$ha. And I am not ashamed in the least.

          I understand if that totally changes your impression of me. Just keep in mind that the people we agree with must always be flawed in myriad ways, one must simply accept the flaws as the payment necessary for the traits we appreciate. Just like Hitler painted roses, so does Richard Dawkins come across as a bit of a sexist douchebag at times. One can’t ask perfection of anyone, for good or evil.

          1. windriven says:

            “My favourite artist right now is Ke$ha.”

            Dude… (we need an emoticon for a slowly shaking head)

          2. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

            I know, right? Just goes to show, there are clearly different types of intelligence.

            Dude… (we need an emoticon for a slowly shaking head)

            May I suggest *facepalm*?

          3. nybgrus says:

            If it makes you feel any better, those artists give me cognitive dissonance. I can’t stand them on an intellectual level yet I still viscerally enjoy the songs. Given enough ethanol lubcrication the dissonance fades and I merely hope there aren’t cameras around to record…

          4. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

            I concede 100% that my taste in music is decidedly fast-food.

          5. mousethatroared says:

            WLU “I have a soft spot for terrible, terrible pop music. My favourite artist right now is Ke$ha. And I am not ashamed in the least.”

            Ha, at least it’s not Teen Beach Movie…I’ve heard that soundtrack, like fifty times in the last week. Talk about adverse effects. I think I might be getting holes in the musical taste part of my brain…it’s like mad cow’s disease, only it’s transmitted via Roku.

    2. windriven says:

      Hey Al-
      Ignorance is apparent in someone who cannot differentiate between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’. You’re supposed to learn your spelling in grade school.

      It is unfortunate that someone with your lack of knowledge is allowed access to a computer.

  13. Carl says:

    I read it as a more general statement that anything with the potential for good can be used incorrectly or at an inappropriate time.

    Your examples include premises which are actually stating your conclusion (e.g., calling them sedentary is directly stating that they are lacking moderate exercise).

    Addressing food as a general concept, even a “nutritious” meal could be harmful if the patient already ate a nutritious meal 10 minutes ago.

    1. windriven says:


      “Your examples include premises which are actually stating your conclusion”

      deadalus sometimes gets tied up in curious knots about things. I once had a long debate with him in which he insisted that a kilogram was the artifact at the BIPM in France. I never seemed able to get the point across that the artifact is our best approximation of the kilogram, not the kilogram itself.

      1. nybgrus says:

        Actually, to my knowledge D2u is correct. As it currently stands the definition of the kilogram is the object manufactured and kept under triple bell jars. However, the mass of the object is changing which means that, by definition, the mass of a kilogram is changing. Which is why they are working on a different definition of a kg that will be invariant and not reliant on a physical object – namely a perfectly machined sphere contiaing a specific number of silicon atoms:

        cool informational video link

        1. windriven says:


          {facepalm} Not you too!!!!!

          Here is a thought experiment: Martians swoop down on Paris and abscond with the “international prototype kilogram”. Is the value of 1 kilogram now unknown?

          If we come up with a new international prototype will we need to, for example, redefine Avogadro’s number?

          A gram or kilogram is a concept, the artifact in Paris is perhaps our best instantiation of it.

          1. windriven says:

            I should have said: perhaps our best – but by no means perfect – instantiation of it.

          2. windriven says:

            Calling my reasoning circular is a tautology. By definition we can define any term in an equation by the other terms: F=ma, a=F/m, m=F/a.

            I am reminded of the question supposedly once posed to Charles Babbage, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?”

            Mass defined by an artifact which is not even consistent with itself over time is the physical equivalent of GIGO. While it may be good enough for the butcher mentioned above to sell the meat she cuts it is not good enough to serve as a fundamental unit. A unit of mass based on an specific finite quantity of a specific isotope will be the same today, tomorrow and 12 millenia hence.

            The current effort to craft a spherical silicon sphere as a new 1kg standard is an approximate instantiation of this principle.

            1. Maybe I really am very confused here but it seems to me you are entirely missing the point of the silicon sphere.

              Yes, the IPK is GIGO. But that IS our current standard. It is recognized as GIGO which is why we are changing the standard.

              And yes, basing it on an immutable physical property is the best way to go. But as D2u said, we haven’t had the technological sophistication to actually DO that yet.

              You love to cite the mole, but the problem is that it IS a tautology. You can express FORMULAS in different ways, but the problem is you are looking to define the kg as a number of moles of carbon (or whatever element). The problem is that the gram is defined based on the number of moles. So yes, while in a hypothetical sense it works because we do know what we are talking about we have no actual empirical way to calibrate a machine based on that definition.

              In other words, I accept that 1 mole of C12 should weigh 12 grams. But how do you actually USE that information? I have a very, very precise balance that needs calibration. How can I calibrate it? You would attempt to hand me 1 mole of C12 and tell me that I should use that to calibrate my balance to 12 grams. But how, exactly, did you know the amount of C21 you handed me was precisely 1 mole of C12? Because you used a very, very precise balance to weigh out 12 grams of it! And THAT is the tautology. Unless you have some OTHER way of determining 1 mole of any element or compound?

              So the silicon sphere is NOT just another more refined instantiation of the IPK. It IS precisely what you are asking for – to define the kg based on an immutable physical constant – a specific number of atoms. The reason for the silicon rather than another element is that we can (only just now) manufacture silicon of 100% purity with a perfectly uniform and absolutely known crystal structure. That way we can be certain that a given VOLUME of the sphere will contain a specific NUMBER of atoms. And we can measure that volume to extreme precision using lasers. Then we set the definition of a kg as a specific number of those silicon atoms. The sphere itself can then actually be used to calibrate my very, very precise balance. But, and here is the key, if the sphere is destroyed we can make ANOTHER one in EXACTLY the same way. If the IPK is destroyed then we have no means to create another one PRECISELY like it.

          3. windriven says:

            This discussion has become tiresome so I’m going to simply link to a paper in Metrologia that pretty well lays out the case, perhaps more articulately than I have managed.


            It looks as if the community is settling in on the watt balance which will, in effect, define the kg in terms of Planck’s constant. I was pulling for Avogadro. But it doesn’t matter. The kg – perhaps in 2014 – will finally be defined in terms of fundamental constants.

            Bye bye lumpen artifact :-) Hello 21st century.

            1. So I just don’t get why we haven’t been getting each other. The paper is essentially exactly what I have been saying – I stressed that the “number of silicon atoms” idea was just one idea of defining the kg in terms of fundamental principles. I actually like the Planck length idea better, myself. The only thing I have really been trying to say is that there is no definition of the kg that is currently sufficient and that it is currently the IPK and thus needs to be changed.

        2. windriven says:

          Great video, Andrey. But it doesn’t change my position. The laws of nature do not bend themselves to an artifact in Paris. As the video demonstrated we can improve the precision of the artifact but the artifact itself matters not at all as is evidenced by the shifting construct of the artifact over time.

          1. Andrey Pavlov says:

            Oh, I realize that a “kilogram” doesn’t just vanish as a concept.

            But here is the key – what happens if you are doing some experiments that require incredibly precise measurements of mass and I try and replicate it on a different machine. We have a discrepancy and my data disproves your assertions. You repeat the experiment and get the same results – and they are robust. I do the same and get equally robust but different results. We agree that it could be an error in the how the machines we use to weigh the samples are calibrated.

            How do we resolve our difference? How do we determine which machine is properly and most accurately calibrated?

            If the question was an experiment where time was the interesting variable that becomes relatively trivial – we have a set and invariant definition of the length of one second based on the periodicity of a Cesium-133 atom. Or if it were distance it would be based on the amount of distance light travels in a certain fraction of a second. In other words there is an invariant definition that all observers could agree upon as the calibration standard for our experiments.

            But not the same for the kilogram. How would you be able to convince me that your machine is calibrated to exactly 1kg? What frame of reference are you using? By definition the SI unit of a kg is defined as those artifacts in Paris. If our Nobel prizes were at stake, we would be forced to determine the mass of those artifacts to prove that our machines are accurate.

            I mean really – why else would they be spending so much money to define the kg so precisely and invariably? A kg is not a law of nature – it is a unit of mass defined by humans. And the silicon artifact is not about improving the precision of it – it is about defining the kg in a fundamentally different manner – one in which the laws of nature would have to bend in order for the mass of a kg to change. They are trying to define it as a specific number of silicon atoms, all of one isotope, in a specific crystal matrix such that if at any time we do have a question the answer becomes invariable and the laws of nature would have to bend for the mass of a kg to change.

            As it stands right now, that is not the case. And for most practical purposes it is a fine enough point not to matter, but for extremely precise measures it certainly can.

            Unless you would like to tell me what the actual definition of a kg is such that it is based on an invariable law of nature?

          2. windriven says:

            “We agree that it could be an error in the how the machines we use to weigh the samples are calibrated.”

            Yes, Precisely! Even the artifact in Paris ‘drifts’ to say nothing of its supposedly equal brethren. But we can all agree, for instance, that one mole of C12 has a mass of .012kg no matter where we might be in the universe.

            The fact that a kilogram is ordinarily defined by the artifact in Paris may hold meaning for butchers and tobacco merchants but not so much for scientists. The artifact lacks the requisite precision.

            1. Andrey Pavlov says:

              So this is where my confusion is – it isn’t just for butchers that the kg is defined in this way, but for everyone. As I said – what would you use to demonstrate your machine is calibrated correctly and mine is not?

              You are correct that one mole of C12 should has a mass of 0.012kg, but how can we actually determine one mole of C12 in order to empirically verify our machines? That is why in the video they are using silicon to do exactly what you propose with the C12 – give us that immutable and unchanging definition. Because as it stands right now, it is defined as the weight of the International Prototype Kilgoram (IPK). The definition of a mole of C12 doesn’t help us since the definition of a mole has been changed to be “‘the mole is such that the Avagadro constant is exactly 6.0221415 x 1023 per mole” so we can’t actually use that as an invariant way to derive the mass of a kilogram either. Which is why the international metrology committee has been discussing what the best way to define the kg in an invariant way actually is. The silicon artifact is only one proposed way – the benefit of it is that the definition becomes a number of silicon atoms which can then actually be empirically created and verified.

              I think it is reasonably non-controversial that the kg does not have an invariant definition despite the fact that constants of nature don’t change willy nilly on us. The two ideas are not at opposition to each other.



          3. daedalus2u says:

            The kg defined using silicon won’t be a definition based on an “artifact”, but rather based on a measurement of something. The mass of a certain number of atoms of silicon.

            Right now, the kg is based on an artifact. If that artifact was destroyed, they would have to come up with a new artifact, and they would. Maybe they would take the average of the “best” secondary kg replicas, or pick the best one.

            Right now there isn’t any other way to define the kg with sufficient precision. Trying to do something else would result in a circular definition. Sort of like trying to define the unit of length by the distance light travels in a certain time and the unit of time how long it takes light to travel the unit distance.

            It is like how the temperature scale is defined. There are a number of “fixed points”, and then prescribed methods for interpolating physical properties between those points and that is defined to be “temperature”. It is pretty close to the thermodynamic ideal that is used in all of the equations.

          4. windriven says:

            “So this is where my confusion is – it isn’t just for butchers that the kg is defined in this way, but for everyone. As I said – what would you use to demonstrate your machine is calibrated correctly and mine is not?”

            Andrey, what would you use? This is precisely my point. The artifact is not itself repeatable. We continue to try to refine the artifact to match the concept. First a liter of water at 4C, now the platinum bar, soon the silicon sphere. Each of these is a superior instantiation to its predecessor. The instantiations change. The kilogram does not. The instantiations approach the ideal, the ideal does not approach the instantiation.

            1. Andrey Pavlov says:

              Wait, what?

              Firstly, the silicon sphere is – as I have pointed out – an attempt to make it an unchanging value. A specific number of silicon atoms (just like the second is a specific number of oscillations of a Cs-133 atom).

              The previous instantiations are not “refining the artifact to meet the ideal kg” they are the definition of the kilogram! If you and I got into a Nobel prize fight, I could point at the IPK and say “My machine is calibrated precisely to that object” and that would be it – you would have no recourse in the scientific community to tell me that my measurements are inaccurate because I just used the most accurate definition of a kilogram.

              So let me rephrase the question – according to you, what is the definition of “the ideal kilogram?”

          5. windriven says:

            We are down to arguing over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. My definition (and the definition, I think, commonly held by fellow physicists of my acquaintance) is 1/12 of 1000 moles of C12. But C12 needn’t be the element, it could be done with silicon or platinum or whatever.

            The point is that whatever artifact we choose can get very close to our ideal but the ideal and the artifact will not be the same – or at least will not be the same indefinitely. That was the point of my snark about the artifact serving butchers but not scientists. Theoretical physicists tend to think in terms of underlying concepts rather than the inevitably flawed artifacts with which we instantiate them.

            Now shifting gears as I think we have probably exhausted this subject, if you find the time and have the interest, ponder the implications of the speed of light changing over astronomical time. We tend to think of the speed of light as an immutable constant. But is it? What if, for instance, the need for ‘dark matter’ is simply an illusion caused by a change in the speed of light over the last 14 billion or so years?

          6. daedalus2u says:

            The problem with your “definition” of the gram in terms of the mole is that the mole is already defined in terms of the gram.


            so your definition is circular.

            Usual practice in changing definitions is to wait until there is a technique that gives a new value that is within the margin of error of the old value. The most recent definition of the meter was chosen so as to give a value that was within the margin of error of the earlier definition but was defined in terms of physical quantities (light and time) and not in terms of a specific artifact.

            The people taking care of these things are completely aware of the problems in using an artifact as the definition of the kg, the problem is that there is no technology that allows something better yet.

            1. Thanks daedalus. I knew that was the issue with it and why it doesn’t work to merely accept that definition, but I was busy on rounds today and managing 10,000 other things so I couldn’t come up with that.

              But yes, that is the problem, and yes there are solutions.

          7. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

            The reality is a kilogram is an arbitrary human construct that can’t be defined empirically without some degree of imprecision. This isn’t like a general universal principle such as the speed of light (though itself defined in arbitrary units, it is an actual objective fact) or strength of gravity (ditto). The kilogram is the weight triple-sealed in Paris, until our best instruments tell us that they disagree with it in reliable ways. Such disagreement has arisen, and like a country riven by civil war there is strife and disagreement over what the new normal will be.

            Part of the fun of being human!

        3. windriven says:

          “So I just don’t get why we haven’t been getting each other. The paper is essentially exactly what I have been saying – I stressed that the “number of silicon atoms” idea was just one idea of defining the kg in terms of fundamental principles. I actually like the Planck length idea better, myself. The only thing I have really been trying to say is that there is no definition of the kg that is currently sufficient and that it is currently the IPK and thus needs to be changed.”

          Andrey, the issue seems to be slightly differing positions on what constitutes a meaningful kilogram. The kg as you know is the only SI measure that is not tied back to physical constants. The meter wasn’t tied to constants either until, as I recall, the early ’80s.. The artifact in Paris, as I snarkily noted, is fine for selling meat but less useful for scientists because it is not tied to physical constants. We physicists tend to look at the world mathematically where terms can be replaced with mathematical equivalents. That doesn’t work with a lump of platinum.

          The use of an unstable simulacrum creates unsolvable problems for experimentalists as well. Again, we are not talking about measurements at 10^-6 but measurements probing the deep truths about nature. The IPK standard, as you know, drifts. So how do we calibrate against a drifting reality? It is only meaningful to calibrate against fundamental constants. We may not – probably will not – achieve perfect calibration against that ideal, but at least we can express our uncertainty accurately.

          My position is that there is a fundamental difference between a kilogram and an Ampere because the former is unmoored to physical constants. I look at the IPK and see a (talented) sculptor’s representation of a kilogram but not the kilogram itself. You, as I understand your position, look at IPK and see the kilogram, at least as it exists today.

          1. Maybe I am finally getting it – you seem to think that I am advocating for the IPK to be the kg. I don’t – I absolutely agree it should be tied to physical constants. All I am saying is that currently, it is not. And that currently, THE definition IS the IPK. Which is a problem! One we should fix. However, as it stands currently if we were competing for a Nobel prize that depended on such precision of the measure of mass, how could we settle it? We can’t because we, as of yet, haven’t tied the definition of the kg to something tied to physical constants. And I would have the upper hand if I based my measurements on the IPK since that IS the definition of the kg at the moment. So while you are arguing that the IPK is not the kilogram itself… it actually is! There is no other, better, definition currently in play. And that IS the problem. One we are attempting to fix.

            So while indeed the IPK is the kg, I agree that in principle it shouldn’t be. You seem to be arguing that it ISN’T the IPK, yet there is no other definition which you can offer that would be THE kg or the idea of the kg.

            Once we tie it to physical constants this will no longer be an issue.

      2. windriven says:

        I’m suffering total cognitive dissonance here Andrey. You and I seem to be saying very similar things; I’m trying to figure out where the disconnect happens.

        The silicon sphere is a much better approximation than the current IPK. It is not, however, a perfect instantiation of the kilogram. I’m sure the next will be closer. I suppose that we could use an STM to painstakingly assemble a given quantity of some atomic element. Perhaps the next effort will be along those lines.

        But all of this technical minutiae obscures rather than illuminates my point. The kilogram and the current instantiation of it are not at all the same thing.

        This is true of the meter as well. Ultimately we abandoned using an artifact in the “official” definition in favor of a definition that is immediately reproducible regardless of one’s location or velocity and that will yield exactly the same kg used by another observer at some distant location.

        The same, from the position of theoretical physics at least, is true of the kg. An artifact is convenient for calibrating balances but that artifact is not a kilogram, only a close approximation of a kilogram.

      3. windriven says:

        I repeat (and I apologize that this got out of sync with this thread):

        Calling my reasoning circular is a tautology. By definition we can define any term in an equation by the other terms: F=ma, a=F/m, m=F/a.

        Andrey – so which is it, the IPK or the silicon sphere when we get into our Nobel fight? Do you understand that the IPK is not even consistent with itself? Its mass has drifted for reasons that are not well understood.

        William, you said:

        “[The kilogram] isn’t like a general universal principle such as the speed of light (though itself defined in arbitrary units, it is an actual objective fact)”

        Actually it is. But you confuse the property with the unit. Mass is not an artificial construct any more than the speed of light. We choose, for example, kilometers per second as units to measure the speed of light and we choose grams or kilograms as units to measure mass. Those are artificial constructs. The underlying physical properties are not.

    2. “…even a “nutritious” meal could be harmful if the patient already ate a nutritious meal 10 minutes ago.”

      A great point!–And one I try in vain to make. It’s no use eating too much of ANYTHING.

  14. Carl says:

    I think my reply might be failing to attach to daedalus2u as it should have.

    Also, if everyone can now see the scroll bar for the container which surrounds the entire set of comment entry objects (text content, user info, notification options, and submit button), notice that the container will not resize to accommodate changes in the size of the comment text box. This was always there in the new website version, but the style sheet was hiding it and we didn’t even get to scroll manually.

    1. daedalus2u says:

      I put a longer reply up thread which I hope answers people’s complaints. Yes, it is easy to generate hypothetical “treatments” where the “treatment” consists of stopping doing something bad. Sort of like the patient who tells his doctor, “doctor, my head hurts when I hit it with a hammer”. Doctor: “Stop doing that”. The treatment “stop doing that” is likely to have no adverse effects.

      The problem is that we don’t know what the default heuristics for healthy living actually are until we have examined them with science, which means experiments.

      I prefer non-nested threads. It is easy to lose a misplaced comment.

      1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

        Hi Daedalus,

        I’d like to offer you an apology. My earlier comment to you was ball-busting nonsense in reply to what was a reasonable and intelligent comment.

        I’ll agree that interventions exist in which little to no possibility of harm exist but they are generally a tiny minority. This group is expanded if you include “returning to normal” as an intervention. But I think you run into problems in defining “normal” (to the point that it may not be possible to ever have a “normal” for anything but a statistical average). Not only do people vary, but humans as a species are easily capable of existing in an “envelope” of environments with a diversity of diets and I don’t think there’ll ever be an “ideal” for either people or environments.

        1. daedalus2u says:

          “Normal” isn’t something that you can define. You have to determine it experimentally.

          Because physiology is so complicated and has myriad levels of feedback, self-regulation, repair and resource allocation, the idea of a “normal outcome” is not realizable unless all the inputs are “normal” also. You can have a typical outcome, which is the most common outcome, but just because it is most common doesn’t mean that it is considered “normal”.

          To me, the only kind of “normal” that makes sense is “normal as process”, were all the ongoing processes that convert the input into output are in their “normal range”.

          The problem is that you can get quite atypical outcomes from purely “normal” inputs. An example I like to use is Abigail and Brittany Hensel.

          From all information I am aware of, they appear to have no genetic abnormalities, that is their genome appears to be perfectly “normal”. Their phenotype has derived only from “normal” processes, and so should only be described as “normal”, even though it is atypical.

          My understanding is that what happened during their very early development were slightly different levels of adhesion between cells. If there had been slightly less adhesion, they would have ended up as MZ twins. If there was slightly more adhesion they would have ended up as a single individual.

          If slightly more of something and slightly less of the same things results in a “normal” outcome, why isn’t the outcome of the intermediate level “normal” also?

          A lot of the problems with medicine are due to the presumption of abnormality without understanding what is really going on.

  15. windriven says:

    “I think my reply might be failing to attach to daedalus2u as it should have.”

    Yeah, there still seems to be some trouble with threads linking properly. But the enumeration and indentation are terrific. I’d even argue for deeper indentation. There’s plenty of white space.

    As an aside, I love your ‘cracker on a cross’ avatar. I’m trying to find a sail or sailboat against which I can overlay a pentagram or maybe Dawkins’ A.

    1. Carl says:


      This isn’t quite avatar-suitable, but you might like them:

  16. weing says:

    I only like Tick Tock by Ke$ha

  17. Marion says:

    Now, if only we could spread a rumor that chiropracty causes spontaneous human combustion, it might persuade millions to stop wasting money on these cracks, I mean, quacks.

    1. Clay Jones says:

      It’s a shame that a real risk from chiropractic like dissection of the vertebral arteries isn’t enough.

  18. Andrey Pavlov says:

    The problem is that YOUR definition is not THE definition. It is not the definition accepted by the international society of metrology. It is not the way in which machines have been calibrated before or currently. Yes, we are talking nuance but that is where discussions become fun (IMO). And in the same vein that neither of us would accept the personal definition of “CAM” or “acupuncture” or “subluxation” that a quack offers us, I wouldn’t accept YOUR personal definition of what a kg is. I would agree it makes sense, I would agree the principle is sound, and I would agree that is what is SHOULD be. And that is exactly what the metrologists are working towards and defining. But it currently ISN’T that. That’s been my only point.

    As for the changing of the speed of light, that is something that is much more complex and much more outside my depth. From my understanding the current standard model of physics along with general relativity demonstrate the immutable speed of light. The implications that has in regards to dark matter is something I am just not qualified to prognosticate on. I could, if I had the time, but sadly I don’t. I signed up for an online class in quantum mechanics but could not find the time to actually go through with it… sadly not for a lack of interest.

    However if you have some good sources for me to peruse or your own thoughts on the matter, I certainly am interested, though I doubt that I would be able to defend the points as well as I can those in the squishy sciences.

  19. windriven says:

    Andrey, I will happily admit that my definition is not THE definition. I gave my definition because you asked for it. But I would also point out that the ISM definition is not universally accepted either. That, I guess is the whole point. We are forever honing our understanding and our artifacts to approach the truth.

    As to the constancy of, say, the speed of light, or the Planck constant or any of the other physical constants, I am not arguing that they are in fact variable. But serious theoretical physicists do argue the possibility. Physics D for instance (Physical Review D, vol 69, p121701) has a paper by Lamareaux that purports to show subtle changes in the fine structure constant and that further implies variability in c. Personally, I remain agnostic. But intrigued. If you have access to Physics D at your med school you can find lots of argument back and forth on the issue.

    The standard model is looking shaky – in part because of our inability to produce a satisfactory unification. But we’ll see. Maybe a tweak here and a twiddle there. Or maybe the string theorists (ugh) will overthrow the model and replace it with a better model. The next few decades in physics promise to be interesting.

  20. jon says:

    Wow! That’s it?!! Just a screed against a therapy that has been around for thousands of years. Not much there. I was hoping for more. I have received acupuncture treatments. For some stuff, it seemed to have been beneficial(how can you possibly nail down the source of the cure when you are eating stuff and doing stuff and breathing stuff…impossible. And it’s the same for modern medicine, too, as the body is prone to heal itself irregardless of the treatments received by medical practitioners, though they often receive the accolades, totally stupid). We have NO idea how the body or mind operates but we pretend as if modern medicine actually knows, total folly. But they make money from all this…cha ching!! In any event, I will continue to try alternative methods of therapy, only because modern medicine does some stuff well, but most of it is just trying the latest theory. And we all know that sooner or later, it will be debunked and replaced by another money-making therapy of some sort.

    1. Chris says:

      “therapy that has been around for thousands of years.”

      Appeal to antiquity. Should we also accept blood letting?

      “We have NO idea how the body or mind operates but we pretend as if modern medicine actually knows, total folly.”

      Actually if we did know everything science would stop. Humans are very complicated, but unlike alternative “medicine” real medicine proponents will admit their mistakes.

      “But they make money from all this…cha ching!!”

      So you get acupuncture for free! Wow!

    2. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

      An effective treatment that has been around for thousands of years should be just as easy to demonstrate efficacy for as a novel one. In that thousands of years (and really it’s more like decades, see here, previous versions of acupuncture were really a kind of bloodletting, the tools were lancets and bodkins, not the fine needles used today) it was never tested. In the past decades, it has been tested thousands of times, and generally failed to do much but relieve pain and nausea, two symptoms extremely liable to the placebo effect – which is enhanced by drama, exoticness, modality (needles are better placebos than pills), a caring practitioner and the simple volume of the placebo (more = better placebo effect). Given these factors, you can see how acupuncture would be an extremely effective placebo.

      As for how you nail down the cure – you use a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Randomization ensures the groups are more-or-less identical, blinding reduces practitioner bias, and by using a control group you can determine which factors cause which effect. It turns out that when you test the factors individually, it doesn’t matter where you put the needle, it does not matter if you penetrate the skin, it does not matter if you use toothpicks instead of needles, but it does matter if the practitioner is enthusiastic or not (there’s a study somewhere, I can never find it). This is how modern medicine has been identifying whether patients recover on their own, or whether they get better due to medication, physical therapy, surgery or whatever other intervention you want to test. We don’t need to know exactly how the body heals itself to know whether the body heals itself, just like we don’t need to know exactly how gravity exerts its effects to test whether it is stronger around mountains or lakes, or to use it as a slingshot to accelerate an interstellar probe around a planet. Knowing how something works allows refinements and leaps in knowledge, but is definitely the first step in figuring out whether to investigate something.

      Keep in mind, when you try alternative medicine, you are are also “just trying the latest theory” (or even an extremely old theory that has never been proven to work). If the alternative treatment worked, then it would be adopted and used. You have seen this with the odd herbal treatment (i.e. St. John’s Wort for depression) and physiotherapists are starting to adopt the chiropractic spinal manipulation techniques for mechanical problems of the back (but not neck!). Alternative medicine is inherently medicine that hasn’t been tested, or has been tested and failed.

      Also note that while you rarely must pay to be enrolled in clinical trials involving real medicine, it is quite common to have to shell out for the untested alternative treatments you seem enamored of, in particular that despicable quack Stanislaw Burzynski but also any homeopathy or acupuncturist with an open practice.

      What you are asking for is a double-standard for alternative medicine. I think that’s a bad way to treat sick people.

  21. Andrey Pavlov says:

    I agree that we must be talking past each other and I am undoubtedly missing something.

    I absolutely understand that ANY artifact is our best approximation of what a kg actually is. And I agree that ALL measurements should be based on some sort of immutable (to the best of our knowledge) physical property of the universe which could (at least hypothetically) be replicated by anyone and any time under any condition and have the same result.

    The problem is that this does not exist for the kg. As you noted previous it was defined at the mass of 1cc of water at 0 degrees C and then 4 degrees C. The IPK is based off of this definition. But it was discovered that this had a large amount of variability – too much for precision work, but for your average butcher would still be just fine. So the definition was changed to actually be the IPK because it was thought that its mass was invariant. But it is not.

    So now, they are looking to find an appropriate way to fix the mass of a kg to something fundamental in physics – like the second and the meter have been. The problem with saying that it is based on the mole is that the mole is already defined as being based off the kilogram. So we COULD define the kg to be based off the mole, but then we would have to find a different way to define the mole and we’d have the same problem for a different metric.

    So the artifact of silicon is indeed the best approximation, but it is based on a fixed number of atoms. That number is the (proposed) definition – not the artifact itself. It COULD be carbon or another other element, it is just that in our current state of technology the silicon crystal is the easiest one to be the most accurate with.

    I’m not sure how I can be any more clear than that – the kg is a human construct, arbitrarily defined. There is no such thing as a kg without us. Since we define it, unless we fix it to something that IS an immutable non-human construct (like the speed of light or the oscillations of a cesium-133 atom) then the definition – and hence our ability to actually measure the metric in question – changes. The speed of light is fixed regardless of what we think. We then assign an arbitrary value to it. We just need to decide on how to do the same for the kg because we haven’t actually done that yet.

    And I mean, really – would it be reasonable for scientists to be debating this very idea back and forth and spending millions of dollars to build an artifact to demonstrate the feasibility of one particular idea if the notion of the kg was as nonchalantly fixed and pointless as it seems to me you are making it?

  22. Andrey Pavlov says:

    Yes, I get that windriven.

    The unit is arbitrary, the physical property we are trying to measure is not. The IPK is no more “a kilogram” than the silicon sphere is. But you continually seem to miss the point – the SPHERE is not what I am talking about – what it REPRESENTS is.

    Because right now the IPK IS the kilogram. And yes, the mass is changing! That is the problem with how we are defining the kg – an arbitrary term for a physical property should not allow for that physical property to change. So we need a BETTER definition. The proposed definition is a fixed number of atoms. (There are other potential proposals as well). The question is, which atoms? The silicon sphere is arguably our best opportunity to actually instantiate a fixed number of atoms.

    Because I can say “a kg is 27,378,902,765,129 atoms of yttrium 89″ and we can all agree and hug each other in celebration. But unless someone can devise a mass that is actually that many yttrium 89 atoms it is a useless concept because we need something by which to say our measurements are calibrated. Otherwise it is just a useless floating concept and when you and I argue over our Nobel prize we will have no empirical way of ACTUALLY settling it.

    So you can call a kg 0.012 moles of C12. But that becomes a useless construct because nobody can actually produce that for us to accurately settle our Nobel prizes. And furthermore, the mole is already defined based on the kg. It is not just rearranging a formula like F=ma. It is saying Kg=m and then when I ask you “what is a kg?” you say “m” and when I say, “well, what is m?” you respond “Kg.” THAT is why it is a tautology.

    F=ma and I ask “what is F?” you say “the product of mass and acceleration”; “what is mass?”; “mass is kg”; “what is kg?” “kg is 2.055×10^18 atoms of silicon” and now we have an answer. Otherwise we go into the tautology and you tell me it is moles and then you have to tell me moles is kg’s and so on.

    So when you say:

    [The kilogram] isn’t like a general universal principle such as the speed of light (though itself defined in arbitrary units, it is an actual objective fact)”

    Actually it is.

    You are actually wrong. The kilogram IS NOT a general universal principle. MASS is the general universal principle. The kilogram is the ARBITRARY measure we have used to describe that universal principle. And we have not defined it in an immutable and reproducible manner.

    1. Marion says:

      I am replying to no one in particular. Just can’t stand seeing this thread go on and on without introducing some fundamental terminology.

      At the beginning of every math class I have ever taught, no matter what level, I absolutely insist on talking about dimensional analysis, so that my students & I & the rest of the world are all in agreement about the very things in the physical world that we model with mathematics. (In higher more abstract math, we model mathematical objects and concepts themselves with math, and so on.)

      these are all examples of (FUNDAMENTAL) DIMENSIONS.

      FORCE, ACCELERATION, ENTROPY, VISCOSITY are derived dimensions, because they are derived from the fundamental dimensions. (Actually, temperature really is not a fundamental dimension, since it can be derived from the average velocity of particles in a system. But let’s pretend it is.)

      UNITS are the things you measure these dimensions in, such as
      kilogram, the slug (anyone remember that?) for mass
      meter, inch for length
      ampere for electrical current

      So, the dimensions DO exist “out there”, objectively, in the universe,
      even if we did not exist to think about them.
      Units – someone on this thread is right – is a human construct.

      1. Chris says:

        Two silly made up units that:



        The differential equations I used at work start with mass*acceleration. Mass is calculated by taking the weight and dividing by gravity in inches per sec squared, to get slinches instead of slugs.

        The latter I encountered when I was loaned to help with a project from a European company because I had spent a third of my youth outside of the USA, and am familiar with the sensible system of measurement. Though this company had decided against Newtons, but instead used a “kilogram-force.” It was thirty years ago, and I can’t remember if gravity was stated in meters or centimeters. My German lead engineer also thought it was hilariously weird.

        The best thing I did in my college career was switching from the mechanical engineering depart to the aero/astro department. Not only was it smaller and more mathematically rigorous (it is not a coincidence the applied math department is in the same building), I never had to deal with the idiotic “gravity constant” again. Just divide the weight by the acceleration of gravity with consistent units!

      2. windriven says:

        A very useful comment! And it goes to the very heart of my argument.

        Mass, as an example, is a fact of nature regardless of whether or not an intelligence is aware of it;

        SOME units are entirely arbitrary, SI units which tie back to physical constants are not.

        But the scale of any unit IS entirely arbitrary as fits our convenience or convention.

        As an example we could choose 1 particular rock and agree to call it a kilogram and that kilogram would be useful for many everyday tasks. I would like .5 rocks of ground meat please.

        But our rock is only a relative measure of mass. To be useful in understanding the fundamental relationships of nature it must tie back to some physical constant. We could keep that same rock and still call it a kilogram. But it only has absolute meaning when it is scaled to the physical constant to which it has been tied. At that point and at that point only does it become fully useful in exploring nature.

  23. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    The kilogram was originally defined as the mass of a cube of water of 0,1 meter cubed (one decimeter cubed). Water was a universally available substance. The meter was tied to what was considered a unchanging reliable distance that could be checked by anybody 1/10,000,000 of the distance from pole to equator, just like the second was tied to the earth’s rotation.

    So neither meter nor kilogram were as arbitrary as rocks. Well kind of rock: the third rock from the sun to be precise. Moreover the whole idea was that one has a coherent system for distances, areas, forces, volumes and masses.

    It was discovered later that these units were not really that easy reproducible. That’s why other standards were chosen that were even more reliably and accurately reproducible.

    The earth’s rotation was once the basis for the second. It’s gone (as basis). The earth’s circumference as basis for the meter, was replaced by a bar with two scatches in it, and now tied to the second through the speed of light. Soon the kilogram in Paris will be replaced by something else that is even more stable and reproducible. (Maybe a silicon sphere, but if electromagnetics forces can be measured accurately, the unit of force may be even better). Of course the new standards will approximate the old ones. A cubic centimeter of water still is about 1 gram, and only when you are dealing with measurements that have to have 6 decimals (or more) correct, it makes a difference.

    And the decimal metric system and all its easy power of ten relations stays intact. We Europeans aren’t bothered at all by our lack of inches, feet, gallons, acres, miles, quarts, pounds, troy ounces, fluid ounces and all this antiquated and incoherent junk fit for a museum (and basically still in use in only three countries: Liberia, Myanmar and one other country).

    I give you two examples.
    1. A piece of land of 100 acres is covered with water 100 inches deep. What is the total weight of the water in avoirdupois pounds? You are not allowed to look up any constants or use a calculator. You have 10 seconds.

    2. A piece of land of one square kilometer is covered with water 1 meter deep. What is the total weight of water in kilograms? Easy. 1 cubic meter water is 1000 kilogram, so the answer is 10^3 times 10^3 times 1 times 1000 so 10^9 kilograms. No horrible conversion factors (1 acre = 160 square rods etc…).

  24. windriven says:

    Yes, a kg was once tied to a cube of water. But the density of water varies with temperature. The deeper we probe the fundamental relationships that define reality the more unsatisfactory the cube of water and the bar of platinum became. All of the fundamental SI units now tie to (presumed) physical constants save the kg. that is soon to change. The kg will then have absolute rather than relative meaning.

    I’m not sure of your point about metric versus imperial measures. Almost no one uses imperial measurements for science or engineering anymore, even in the US.

    1. nybgrus says:

      Sadly, engineers still do. At least in aerospace. My fiance is an aerospace engineer and they deal exclusively in imperial measures. It’s rather funny because I speak in SI and we can’t understand each other when we are comparing units. She recognizes SI is vastly superior, but imperial is so entrenched in their field that it is simply too difficult to change.

  25. windriven says:

    Yipes! Who knew? I have a couple of small companies and we’ve used SI from the start. But we do find ourselves using a fair number of imperial components that we scale to mm for or drawings and documentation. I would have thought aerospace to have converted decades ago.

    1. Sadly, no. The problem, as I understand it, is that all of the infrastructure for testing engines was done in imperial and all the old guard still thinks in imperial so imperial stays. In fact, when she first started her job she was explicitly told to never even think in SI and drill imperial into her head. LOL.

    2. Chris says:

      There is lots of old guard legacy, and of course lots of tooling. Also there are lots of similarities to the automotive industries, especially with computing tools and system engineering. There is a reason the CEO of Ford started at Boeing. Plus many on the “astronautic” side of aerospace are military programs, which would probably never change.

      Though, my alma mater now has a Lamborghini research program that I hope uses SI.

      Of course, it was to my advantage to be comfortable with both.

  26. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    “drill imperial into her head”

    almost sounds like an acupuncture course, where one has to memorize the names of all points, the ‘meridians’ they are on and the ‘diseases’ that can best be cured by drilling the needle there, e.g. the running piglet syndrome and PT29.

  27. It probably doesn’t matter where you stick the needles. Sticking a needle anywhere in the body is going to have an effect on a nerve, which is connected to the central nervous system, thus producing a whole body effect.

    Researchers have shown that dry needling produces measurable physiological effects on comatose people, so this effectively rules out the placebo effect.

    “Coma is a serious condition that can hardly be cured by acupuncture alone, but in a comparative study of two groups of patients with similar levels of coma, a significantly greater number of patients in the acupuncture group had a 50% or greater neurological recovery than those in the control group. This suggests that it is reasonable to incorporate acupuncture along with other therapeutic and supportive measures in the treatment of the comatose patient (108).”

    1. Chris says:

      So poking people with punctures can help them wake up?

      What if you forget about them:

  28. Andrey Pavlov says:

    Sorry, but that is from a study done in 1976 in The American Journal of Acupuncture. One that I can’t seem to pull up the original text on, but that I can predict the flaws of. It will be underpowered and small and the definitions and methodology defining neurological recovery will be poor (the former because it is a CAM journal the latter because it was 1976 and we were not very well versed in neuroscience and neurology back then, at least not as compared to now).

    Plus, more recent and well done studies do not in any way support this claim. This is hardly evidence of any effect of acupuncture, let alone on comatose patients.

  29. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Researchers have shown that dry needling produces measurable physiological effects on comatose people, so this effectively rules out the placebo effect.

    Does it produce a measurable clinical effect? Is it better than, say, applying methanol or capsicum to their skin, or shaking them, or yelling in their ears, or leaving the TV on? Does their lack of mobility cause acupuncture to present extra risks? Did they wake up, or just show more EEG changes, which is hardly responsible when you consider you’re sticking needles in them. “Getting poked with needles changes EEG” is far less interesting than “comatose patients wake up when poked with needes”. The former is along the lines of showing that an fMRI shows changes when needled. Well duh.

    1. “Sympathetic nervous system implicated in acupuncture analgesia”

      “…these findings indicate that the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) is activated in response to acupuncture, and that the increase is mediated systemically rather than locally, Shay and co-authors write.”

      1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

        So…what you’re saying is…when you penetrate the skin, you get inflammation, sweating and blood vessels constrict? Why, it’s almost like it evokes a fight-or-flight response!

        I can’t tell, since you linked to a press release rather than the actual article, whether they picked “acupuncture points” or “meridians” or not. If not, then how is this acupuncture? The real title is “penetrating the skin causes local vascular changes”. About as revolutionary as “penetrating the skin causes changes in fMRI”. Unless SNS responses are mediated through spinal reflexes, of course they are mediated centrally.

        1. I don’t actively promote acupuncture. I just think it’s interesting what the medical literature has to say on the subject. If it works as a placebo for some people, and that makes them happy, then why interfere with it if it is not harmful?

          Acupuncture anaesthesia for open heart surgery

          1. Here’s an interesting question. Give the risks of both anesthetic and acupuncture as anesthetic, if you were over 65, which would you choose?

            A recent article published in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt, the German Medical Association’s official international science journal, shows that after decades of decline, the worldwide death rate during full anesthesia is back on the rise, to about seven patients in every million. And the number of deaths within a year after a general anesthesia is frighteningly high: one in 20. In the over-65 age group, it’s one in 10.


          2. Harriet Hall says:

            Acupuncture anesthesia? You offer a description of a postage stamp??? Please read this: Acupuncture anesthesia is largely a myth.

            As for using acupuncture as a placebo, see If a placebo makes people subjectively feel better without any objective improvement, it could be fatal.

          3. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

            Considering even in China, where there is the greatest reason to have an enhanced placebo effect, it was only used in certain circumstances, with certain people who are both unusually easily hypnotized and highly dedicated to the rhetoric of the communist party, not to mention all the reasons to discount that particular example given by Dr. Hall, I would go for the anesthesia.

            It certainly is interesting, but merely as a demonstration of how complex the placebo effect is. What the medical literature says is mostly wrong about its history, misguided about its causes and effects, and hysterically wrong about how it’s alleged to work. I would rather have the real medicine, thanks very much.

  30. weing says:

    Having had a root canal done without any anesthesia, and several with, anesthesia wins. So the choice is between opening up your chest without anesthesia or with, I would definitely choose with or choose to go without the surgery. People who have surgery are not healthy, so they have an increased risk of dying compared to those that don’t. A second factor is age. The older you are, the more likely you are to die within a year after surgery. I have nightmares of insurance companies or the government getting a wind of this and start covering only for acupuncture and not anesthesia. This would definitely decrease the number of surgeries done on the elderly. Except the rich and powerful, like Cheney.

  31. Thanks for the links on acupuncture anaesthesic Harriet. I stand corrected.

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