We Should Be Insulted PDF Print E-mail
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Written by James Randi   

The "complimentary and alternative medicine" business brings in some $34 billion a year in direct out-of-pocket spending from American consumers.  The budget of the US National Institutes of Health - a major Federal agency - is not available to the average person, it seems.  Looking in on the Internet for a simple dollar figure produces no results that I can find.  A direct search for a "$" sign reports no hits...

My attention has been brought to this strange situation since I recently came into possession of a 62-page full-color booklet produced and distributed by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. This comprehensive publication - in its "Words To Know" glossary, begins with a definition of what is possibly the only form of quackery that outranks homeopathy for idiocy: acupuncture. It reads:

Acupuncture (AK-yoo-PUNK-cher): The technique of inserting thin needles through the skin at specific points on the body to control nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms.

Other literature issued by the NCI runs on and on about how ancient this idea is, that it is used in China, and how it's administered. Does it work? Well, the agency doesn't quite say. Their entry under "Nausea and Vomiting" in connection with chemotherapy refers to pharmaceuticals which are known to work, and ends with:

Acupuncture may also help... You may also ask your doctor or nurse about acupuncture, which can relieve nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatment.

Note the "may" and "can" provisional language.  That's not what I want from the US National Institutes of Health. I want the best, latest, dependable, professional findings, not vapid guesses and "feel good" statements. From the "Quackwatch" site of Dr. Stephen Barrett, M.D., at www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/acu.html I give you this - typical - finding from expert medical observers who have looked into this subject scientifically:

A study published in 2001 illustrates the absurdity of TCM practices. A 40-year-old woman with chronic back pain who visited seven acupuncturists during a two-week period was diagnosed with "Qi stagnation" by six of them, "blood stagnation" by five, "kidney Qi deficiency" by two, "yin deficiency" by one, and "liver Qi deficiency" by one. The proposed treatments varied even more. Among the six who recorded their recommendations, the practitioners planned to use between 7 and 26 needles inserted into 4 to 16 specific "acupuncture points" in the back, leg, hand, and foot. Of 28 acupuncture points selected, only 4 (14%) were prescribed by two or more acupuncturists. The study appears to have been designed to make the results as consistent as possible. All of the acupuncturists had been trained at a school of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Six other volunteers were excluded because they "used highly atypical practices," and three were excluded because they had been in practice for less than three years. Whereas science-based methods are thoroughly studied to ensure that they are reliable, this appears to be the first published study that examines the consistency of TCM diagnosis or treatment. I would expect larger studies to show that TCM diagnoses are meaningless and have little or nothing to do with the patient's health status. The study's authors state that the diagnostic findings showed "considerable consistency" because nearly all of the practitioners found Qi or blood stagnation. However, the most likely explanation is that these are diagnosed in nearly everyone. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if a healthy person were to be examined by multiple acupuncturists.

Acupuncture is only a notion, a colorful way of looking at the human condition, a mystical and primitive concept of how the human body works and survives. It has no basis in fact or in observation. It is a dangerous myth. For the US National Institutes of Health to support it - though in an uncertain, luke-warm fashion - is farcical. The JREF has consistently offered its million-dollar prize to any and all acupuncturists, but in the more than 667 recorded applications we've received, and tests we've done - as seen at this Excel file - none are from acupuncturists.  Note: this does not prove that the notion doesn't work, but from the tens of thousands of practitioners, common sense would suggest that at least one would step forward...

Offering mythology and false hope to the American public is not a proper function of the US National Institutes of Health.  I object strongly to official pandering to ignorance and encouraging it.