Leaving the Land of Woo

A rational, sceptical look at the ideas of alternative medicine, food, religion, and the paranormal

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Acupuncture trial - a travesty of science

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It is very common for alternative medicine to come up with trials which claim to provide evidence of efficacy but which do nothing of the kind.  They typically assume the existence of some mechanism and then go hunting for suitable supportive evidence, the complete reverse of how science works.  They will organise small sample trials without controls, forgetting the most basics of organising any type of objective experiment, and will jump to fanciful conclusions not supported by their own data.  That's why it is so very difficult for them to get their papers accepted into reputable scientific and medical journals.

Acupuncture has always been regarded as one of those alt-med therapies where there might be some evidence of efficacy, not least because so many papers are published claiming it to be true.  Some of those papers come from China where some remarkable scams have been unearthed, including an open-heart operation supposedly done under acupuncture - they were actually chemically anaesthetised throughout.

So anyone seeing a paper claiming to investigate acupuncture should be forewarned.  But another lamentable study has just been published which serves as a lesson for anyone interested in clinical research methodology.  Not, alas because it is a good trial, but because it neglects almost everything that is important in establishing objectivity.

The venerable Orac has published a detailed critique of the paper here and readers will enjoy his discussion of it.

The trial chose some points on the body that it claimed represented some acupuncture points, then stimulated these points with a laser burst, apparently mimicking acupuncture.  Then they scanned the brains of the subjects using fMRI and noticed that those areas in the brain which responded, were different depending on which area of the body was stimulated.  They further noted that they themselves had used these acupuncture points in the treatment of depression.  From that they concluded that acupuncture could be used in the treatment of depression...

This is a staggering lapse of logic and critical thinking.  Not only did they prove nothing except that stimulating different parts of the body with a laser is reflected in different loci of brain activity, something a school student could have told them, but they are blatantly trying to dress their assumptions in the clothes of a conclusion from a scientific study.  They had no real trial, no real evidence, no double-blinding, no credible control, no credible conclusions, and yet they wrote the paper and got it published.  It would embarrass a school student.

The intention may have been simply to get a paper published, regardless of how lamentable is the work, so that they can use it as a reference in further publications.  Any reputable journal would surely have rejected it outright.  Unfortunately, the PLoS, the Public Library of Science, is dropping it's standards and allowing this sort of nonsense to be published.   Until now we have listed the PLoS as a reputable site worth looking at, but if this is the standard of science being published, it is no better than the very poor alternative medicine marketing journals that masquerade as science.  Both provide a cover for quoting papers claiming some academic authenticity when the science just isn't there.

We might have to remove the recommendation for PLoS from our site if their publishing standards continue to fall.

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Last Updated on Friday, 10 September 2010 14:17