Acupuncture and confirmation bias

Here’s another excerpt from The decline effect and the scientific method that I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

Between 1966 and 1995, there were forty-seven studies of acupuncture in China, Taiwan, and Japan, and every single trial concluded that acupuncture was an effective treatment. During the same period, there were ninety-four clinical trials of acupuncture in the United States, Sweden, and the U.K., and only fifty-six per cent of these studies found any therapeutic benefits.

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10 thoughts on “Acupuncture and confirmation bias

  1. My favourite was the study comparing treatments for injury. 25% got better with no treatment, 53% got better with acupuncture and 54% got better getting pinned by someone who didn’t know what they were doing. Apparently random holes work best!

  2. I start from an assumption of confirmation bias rather than fraud, following Hanlon’s razor. Though scientific fraud is not unheard of.

    But who said the Asian studies are wrong? That’s the simplest explanation, but maybe there’s an anti-acupuncture confirmation bias in the West. Or maybe both: perhaps Asian and Western scientists are each confirming their cultural expectations. In any case, it’s extremely suspicious that the trial results differ so much by continent.

    Someone told me that he thought the Western studies were placebo controlled (sticking needles at places other than the traditional acupuncture locations) while the Asian studies were not. I do not know whether this is the case.

  3. I start from an assumption of confirmation bias rather than fraud, following Hanlon’s razor. Though scientific fraud is not unheard of.

    I think in this particular case widespread fraud is the more likely explanation, given the political context of TCM. Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst have written about this in Trick or Treatment: basically, the revival of TCM and acupuncture in particular was pushed by the communist party in total ignorance of science, as an alternative to “capitalist” Western medicine. Simply put, the revival of TCM is the Chinese version of Lysenkoism. It spilled over to the USA after the communist party staged fake operations to (successfully) impress western politicians and their delegations.

  4. I suspect it’s simply the act of sticking something into the skin. The body responds by heating up. It’s some form of energy transfer. And a great placebo for those who meditate during the procedure.

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