Posted by: Ticktock | June 4, 2009

Skeptic Dad Speaks About Acupuncture

The Free Inquiry Group of Cincinnati have asked me to share my enthusiasm for skepticism at one of their meetings this month. I’ll be discussing alternative medicine, specifically the variety that involves needles, chakras and herbs. Here’s a brief explanation of the presentation that I’ll give on Sunday, June 28th at a location to be determined…

An invisible force that can neither be detected nor measured flowing through invisible conduits mapped across our body – this is the outdated Chinese magic known as “chi”. It’s an ancient wisdom of unknown origin that seems to work for some people, even though it’s claims are biological impossibilities that have yet to be proven by science.

It’s perfectly justifiable to say that there is no difference in a belief in chi and a belief in a deity, and yet there are some atheists who lay down their weapons of science and reasoning in deference to this elaborate antiquated placebo.

They say that chi is a mystical force that regulates our general health, but they can’t prove their claims under blind placebo-controlled studies. They say that needles placed in specific spots will stimulate a hidden energy, though they don’t say how or why. They say humans have channels called meridians that are associated with certain organs, but they don’t say who discovered these meridians or how anyone knows they exist. Patients of Traditional Chinese Medicine are expected to take these claims on faith. Who are “they” and why should we believe them?

My wife took two years of classes in alternative medicine and acupuncture before she had to drop out due to an unplanned pregnancy. At the time, I had reservations and doubts about the efficacy of needling, but I supported my wife in her endeavors. As time passed, I became immersed in the subculture of skepticism, which is a tool for examining claims by using a combination of science and reasoning. Using the skeptic’s tools that I’ve picked up over the years, I’m now able to see the majority of Complementary and Alternative Medicine for what it is – implausible and ineffective. Needless to say, that’s made my marriage quite interesting, but we’ve been able to come to terms with our differences of opinion, to the point that she is letting me pick her brain and borrow her tools of the trade for my presentation.

I will focus on the history of acupuncture, the claims of how it’s supposed to work, the misleading science reporting about it, and why it’s “success” can be chalked up to the placebo effect. I hope you enjoy my talk, and that it stimulates your brain – not your chi.



  1. Colin, great topic. Might take a look at several posts on Science-based medicine and respectful insolencse (mid-May) regarding a recent acupuncture article.

  2. I wouldn’t call CAM “innocent quackery”. There are many people who forgo proven treatments in favor for CAM to their detriment. Not only that, many CAM practitioners try to convince patients to avoid life-saving drugs and take their “safer, more natural” treatments instead. Check out for more info.

  3. Most in the CAM industry are innocent because they are not purposefully committing fraud by treating people with medicine they know to be useless. My loose definition of a quack is someone who is selling snake oil maliciously. That’s why I included the term “innocent”.

    I would never call my wife a quack, and I know that her fellow students were just as naive about the facts.

    • I’m sorry if I sounded tactless. I’m quite congested and have a headache, so my ‘filters’ aren’t in place. I looked around your website a bit and did see that you are well aware of the “whats the harm” website.

      Having said that, I feel that there is a real danger when we call CAM innocent. In my mind it’s like lighting firecrackers in your hand and throwing them. Most of time, it’s perfectly fine. But sometimes, the firecracker goes off and takes away a couple of fingers.

      If we started telling more people that lighting firecrackers in their hands was OK, because most of the time nothing went wrong, more and more people would be harmed.

      I believe that almost all CAM practitioners feel that CAM works and that it is not a fraud. But that doesn’t mean that harm is not coming from CAM. Jenny McCarthy feels that vaccines cause autism and she honestly believes that the whole world should go unvaccinated. That doesn’t make her innocent, however. It just makes her wrong with a strong possibility of causing great harm.

      Anyway, these are my views, so take them with a grain of salt. Obviously, if your wife is making her living via CAM, it would be hard for you to be too against it. That would definitely lead to some good fights and cold nights.

  4. Thanks for a great acticle, I will pass this on to my patients…

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