Reportage in a Chinese medicine practice in Lyon, France Acupuncture session. (Photo by: ... [+] BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Sometimes I'm not sure whether the best response to pseudoscience is to ignore it, or to patiently try to explain why it's wrong, or to get mad.
This week I'm mad.
My anger and frustration was triggered bya tweetfrom Memorial Sloan-Kettering's Integrative Medicine account, shown here:
Image captured by the author
For those who don't know,Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centeris one of the world's leading cancer centers, both for treatment and research. If you are diagnosed with cancer, MSK is one of the best places to go.
But not everything at MSK is world class. Unfortunately, they have an"integrative medicine"center that offers a mixture of therapies ranging from helpful to benign to useless. One of their biggest activities is acupuncture, which they claim offers a wide range of benefits to cancer patients.
The MSK tweet shown here was boasting abouta new, $3.7 million studyfunded by NIH to study the effect of acupuncture on pain that cancer patients experience from chemotherapy and bone-marrow transplants.
Here's why I'm mad: cancer patients are extremely vulnerable, often suffering the most frightening and difficult experience of their lives. They are completely dependent on medical experts to help them. When a place like MSK suggests a treatment, patients take it very seriouslyas they should. But they really have no choice: a cancer patient cannot easily look for a second opinion, or switch hospitals or doctors. Even if they have the money (and cancer treatment is extremely expensive), switching hospitals might involve a long interruption with no treatment, during which they could die, and it might also involve traveling far from their home.
Offering these patients ineffective treatments based on pseudoscienceand make no mistake, that's what acupuncture isis immoral. Now, I strongly suspect that the MSK's "integrative medicine" doctors sincerely believe that acupuncture works. Their director, Jun Mao, is clearly a true believer, as explained inthis profile of himon the MSK website. But that doesn't make it okay.
I've written about acupuncture many times before (here,here,here, andhere, for example), but let me explain afresh why it is nonsense.
Acupuncture is based on a pre-scientific notion, invented long before humans understood physiology, chemistry, neurology, or even basic physics, which posits that a mysterious life force, called "qi," flows through the body on energy lines called meridians. As explainedin this article by MSK's Jun Mao:
"According to traditional Chinese medicine ... interruption or obstruction of qi was believed to make one vulnerable to illness. The insertion of needles at specific meridian acupoints was thought to regulate the flow of qi, thus producing therapeutic benefit."
Today we know that none of this exists. There is no qi, and there are no meridians. In that same article, Jun Mao continued by admitting that
"the ideas of qi and meridians are inconsistent with the modern understanding of human anatomy and physiology."
And yet this is what they offer to patients at MSK.
Just to be certain, I readone of the latest studies from MSK, published early this year, which claims to show that acupuncture relieves nausea, drowsiness, and lack of appetite in multiple myeloma patients who were going through stem cell transplants.
It's a mess: totally unconvincing, and a textbook case of p-hacking (ordata dredging). The paper describes a very small study, with just 60 patients total, in which they measured literally dozens of possible outcomes: overall symptom score at 3 different time points, a different score at 3 time points, each of 13 symptoms individually, and more. I counted 24 different p-values, most of them not even close to significant, but they fixated on the 3 that reached statistical significance. The two groups of 30 patients weren't properly balanced: the sham acupuncture group started out with more severe symptoms according to their own scoring metric, andFigure 2in the paper makes it pretty clear that there was no genuine difference in the effects of real versus sham acupuncture.
But they got it published (in a mediocre journal), so now they point to it as "proof" that acupuncture works for cancer patients. This study, bad as it is, appears to be the basis of the $3.7 million NIH grant that they're now going to use, they say, in "a larger study in 300 patients to confirm these previous findings."
And there you go: the goal of the new study,according to the scientists themselves, is not to see if the treatment works, but to confirm their pre-existing belief that acupuncture works. Or, asone scientist remarked on Twitter, "they already have a result in mind, the whole wording of this suggests that they EXPECT a positive outcome. How did this get funded exactly?"
So I'm mad. I'm mad that NIH is spending millions of dollars on yet another study of a quack treatment (acupuncture) that should have been abandoned decades ago, but that persists because people make money off it. (And, as others have explained in detail, acupuncture is actually a huge scam that former Chinese dictator Mao Zedong foisted on his own people, because he couldn't afford to offer them real medicine. For a good expos of Chairman Mao's scam,see this 2013 Slate piece.)
But I'm even more upset that doctors at one of the world's leading cancer centers are telling desperately ill patients, who trust them with their lives, that sticking needles into their bodies at bogus "acupuncture points" will relieve the pain and nausea of chemotherapy, or help them with other symptoms of cancer. I'm willing to bet that most MSK doctors don't believe any of this, but they don't want to invest the time or energy to try to stop it.
(I am somewhat reassured by the fact that MSK'sTwitter accounthas nearly 75,000 followers, while it's integrative medicine Twitter account has just 110.)
Or perhaps they are "shruggies": doctors who don't believe in nonsense, but figure it's probably harmless so they don't really object. To them I suggest this:read Dr. Val Jones's accountof how she too was a shruggie, until she realized that pseudoscience causes real harm.
And finally, let me point tothis study inJAMA Oncologyfrom last year,by doctors from Yale, which looked at the use of so-called complementary therapies among cancer patients. They found that
"Patients who received complementary medicine were more likely to refuse other conventional cancer treatment, and had a higher risk of death than no complementary medicine."
And also seethis 2017 studyfrom the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, which found that patients who used alternative medicine were 2.5 times more likely to die than patients who stuck to modern medical treatments.
That's right,Memorial Sloan-Kettering: patients who use non-traditional therapies are twice as likely to die. Thats why Im mad. This is not okay.
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