I enjoy reading Simon Singh’s books. It was love at first read when I encountered “Fermat’s Last Theorem” – a book about a mathematical riddle that drove some of the world’s greatest minds mad for 350 years. Later, other books came out, such as: “The Code Book” and “Big Bang.” I would highly recommend all the books in the order that they were published.
That said, I’d like to speak about Singh’s latest book: “Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial.” The book investigates various alternative medicinal treatments such as homeopathy, chiropractic medicine, herbal remedies, and acupuncture with the goal of testing each approach clinically as is done with conventional medical treatments. I’m sure you’re all asking yourselves how this is connected to the blog. The answer comes in the next two sections, but first, two basic ideas.
Acupuncture – A Chinese practice more than 2,000 years old based on the idea that health is connected to the flow of life force (Chi) through pathways in the body. Practitioners insert small gauge needles in very particular spots along these pathways in order to remove blockages and encourage a balanced flow of the life force. Acupuncture started to draw serious attention in 1949 after the communist revolution and, in fact, was politically motivated. Mao Zedong looked to restore national pride by means of a return to traditional roots such as acupuncture. Moreover he promised to provide accessible medical treatment in both cities and rural areas under the condition that it was through traditional medicinal methods.
Clinically Controlled Experiment - Participants are divided randomly into two groups. One group, the control group, receives a dummy drug which is inactive (the placebo), while the second group, the experimental group, receives the treatment being examined. Each group has a large enough number of participants to be valid and both groups have the exact same conditions with the exception of the treatment being tested. Furthermore, the experimenters are double-blind – meaning that neither the subjects nor the testers are aware of which group is the control and which is the experimental group. The main goal of the experiment is to test whether the treatment is effective in itself or whether subjects feel better as a result of knowing they are being treated (placebo effect). In testing the effectiveness of acupuncture special telescopic needles were used and inserted to a depth that was insufficient to reach the pathways of life force flow, in other words, the placebo. As you can imagine, consensus was that acupuncture is capable of aiding a large number of sick people and the hypothesis was supported by the first clinically controlled experiment. The results from China were very supportive of acupuncture treatment though other countries were suspicious of the findings.
After thorough statistical analysis investigators revealed that Chinese doctors had distorted the results. Chinese doctors had been concerned about releasing something contradicting the consensus opinion and Chinese tradition. Therefore the scientists had subconsciously distorted the results because they genuinely believed in the ancient Chinese traditional treatment. In fact, upon receiving negative results, i.e. that the treatment wasn’t effective, the scientists were sure they had made a mistake and dismissed the results. In spite of this fact, when the scientists received positive results that the treatment was effective, supporting their worldview, the scientists rushed to publish the results. Additional clinical trials showed that the results of acupuncture treatment are no stronger than the placebo.
The fact that we’ve never seen a sick hedgehog doesn’t mean that acupuncture is effective. This is a great example of Chinese culture and the highest importance assigned to traditions. Throughout my work with the Chinese I’ve encountered the phenomenon of “revised” reports a few times since Chinese engineers are in a similar situation to the Chinese researcher asked to check the effectiveness of acupuncture. Except that in the later situation the engineer is caught between a rock, the customer, and a hard place, the engineer’s supervisors.