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Stick It In Your Ear! How Not To Do Science

Ear acupuncture claims to relieve sore throats. A new study seeming to support that idea is so poorly done that it provides a textbook example of how to distinguish between good and bad science.

Have a sore throat? No worries! No need for lozenges, medicines, or home remedies. All you need to do is let someone stick needles in your ear! According to a recent study, ear acupuncture relieves sore throats. Do you believe that? I don’t. That’s one of those extraordinary claims that would require extraordinary evidence, but the researchers didn’t even provide ordinary evidence. The study is a great example of how not to do science.

Acupuncture theory is based on a prescientific vitalistic concept: an unmeasurable, undetectable energy called “qi” supposedly flows through meridians and can be accessed at acupoints, where needle stimulation is supposed to somehow unblock the flow of qi, which is somehow supposed to relieve pain and improve health. Qi, meridians, and acupoints are imaginary, but that doesn’t necessarily mean acupuncture can’t possibly work. It’s not implausible that sticking needles into the skin might have some physiologic effects, so it is reasonable to do scientific studies—and thousands of studies have been done, some better than others. The results have been disappointing. It is not reasonable to conclude from the existing published studies that acupuncture works.

Some people believe acupuncture is an effective way to relieve pain, but the evidence from scientific studies and systematic reviews is mixed. Any positive effects can be attributed to sugges tion and the surrounding rituals, and the effects are too small in magnitude to have any clinical importance. The most rigorous studies have shown that sham acupuncture works just as well as “real” acupuncture. It doesn’t matter where you put the needles, and in fact it doesn’t matter whether you use needles at all. In one study, simply touching the skin surface with a toothpick worked just as well as penetrating the skin with a needle (Cherkin et al. 2009). There was even a study where subjects were given a “phantom limb” illusion that a rubber hand was their own hand, and they got similar results from acupuncturing the rubber hand! (Chae et al. 2015). The main thing that seems to matter is whether the patients believe acupuncture will work. If they get a sham procedure but think they got the real thing, they will think it worked. If they get the real thing but think they got a sham procedure, they will think it didn’t work. It has been pretty well established that acupuncture is nothing more than a theatrical placebo (Colquhoun and Novella 2013).

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About Skeptical Inquirer

Creators of the Paranormal: A handful of twentieth-century figures “created” the modern concept of the paranormal and its leading topics, transporting fantasy, myth, or speculation into a kind of believable “reality.” Most proved to be a chimera. CRISPR-Cas9: Not Just Another Scientific Revolution Dissociation and Paranormal Beliefs Scientific Reasoning at the USAF Academy: An Examination into Titanium-Treated Necklaces Stick It In Your Ear! How Not To Do Science A Testament of Belief Masquerading as Science and much more...
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