A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies


reader comments: acupuncture

23 Feb 2010
I hurt my back lifting a suitcase. My doctor suggested acupuncture which I tried once and then cancelled the remaining 5 appointments. While lying face down a tired and bored looking young "acupuncture" person stuck 5 needles in me, 2 in my lower back which did not hurt. Then she stuck 1 needle in the back of my knee which hurt, then 1 needle in the side of my Achilles tendon near my ankle bone. To complete the job she stuck 1 needle in my other ankle. My left Achilles heel hurt and still hurts 2 weeks later. Also, I did not feel any use of alcohol on my skin before sticking needles in me. Also, my back doesn't feel any better. So that's my story. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely, Tom

reply: Thanks for your story, Tom. There are probably millions of similar stories out there. Of course, there are also millions of contrary stories out there as well. That's the problem with using stories to try to prove anything. Anecdotal evidence is of no value in proving or disproving the effectiveness of acupuncture (or of science-based medicine, for that matter). Most people, however, find stories more important than scientific studies, if only because most people are completely ignorant of those studies. Very few of us have come to our beliefs about medical treatments on the basis of actually reading scientific studies. We assume our doctors have read the studies and we trust our doctors until they fail us, but most of our beliefs about effective medicine comes from personal experience. Unfortunately, personal experience is often a bad guide.

Typically, we reason that if we got better after a treatment, the treatment caused us to get better. We're often wrong in this assumption. Just because one thing happens after another doesn't mean the one caused the other. Many people think grandma's chicken soup cures the common cold because two weeks of the treatment and the cold always goes away. Of course, the cold would have run its course in two weeks if we'd done nothing, but we conveniently ignore that fact.

It's a pretty safe bet that a treatment is ineffective if you don't improve or get worse after the treatment, though some treatments might have a temporary negative effect followed by a permanent positive effect. The rabies shot may be painful but the long-term effect is worth it.

This might be a good place to point out the difference between an example and anecdotal evidence. The example of the rabies shot is not intended to support the claim that rabies shots are effective. That's already known. The example is given to illustrate the point that sometimes a painful treatment is followed by a positive result. If a story about a painful acupuncture treatment is given to demonstrate that acupuncture is bogus, then the story is more than an illustration of what can sometimes happen in acupuncture: it's offered as evidence. If it's the only evidence one has to offer to support the claim that acupuncture is bogus, then it is insufficient evidence and you've drawn a hasty conclusion. The fact that one is absolutely sure the acupuncture did them no good and caused them some harm is of little importance in establishing the effectiveness of acupuncture. Not only is a single case insufficient evidence, but there are other possibilities that you might consider. Perhaps you went to an incompetent acupuncturist, for example.

In any case, the most obvious reason anecdotes are rather pointless in trying to prove that something like acupuncture is effective or not is that for every positive story there is a negative one that cancels it out. Even so, since most people don't read scientific studies, stories are more effective in influencing people's beliefs. Given the powerful effects on belief of compelling stories and personal experiences, and given the fact that stories are weak evidence and personal experiences are often misinterpreted and misunderstood, it is a wonder that any of us end up with correct beliefs about anything. In fact, many people end up with false beliefs shared by millions of others. The few who do the science, or read the scientific papers, or study the writings of scientists about the scientific research have a very difficult time convincing those who rely on anecdotes and personal experience that they're wrong. In fact, many people build elaborate defenses of their erroneous beliefs rather than submit to the scientific evidence. Some think this is largely driven by a response to cognitive dissonance. I don't. I've written several articles that try to explain why people believe things they should know aren't true, so I won't repeat myself here.

further reading

Belief Armor

Defending Falsehoods

Evaluating Personal Experience

Why Do People Believe in the Palpably Untrue?

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