Denis was a founder member of New Zealand Skeptics, back in 1984 when it was known as the NZ Committee for Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal. For many years he was the face of organised scepticism in New Zealand, fronting up to the media …Continue reading
Acupuncture is one area of alternative treatment which has apparently gained widespread support, but questions remain about whether it actually does any good.
Acupuncture evolved from primitive bloodletting rituals to the insertion of needles into points alleged to lie on lines called meridians. Acupuncture needles can be twirled or electrically stimulated and, in addition, a burning herb can be applied to the acupuncture point (moxibustion). Acupuncture points can also be stimulated with laser light. It is even claimed that the ear contains an inverted foetus pattern (homunculus) which can be used for treating disease in distant organs.
There is no anatomical or physiological basis for the existence of either acupuncture points or meridians. The concept of the auricular homunculus is a scientific absurdity.
There have been extravagant claims made for the success of acupuncture treatment. A common finding is that the most extreme claims of success are made on behalf of the most poorly designed trials. Because acupuncture involves needling of the body, it has been difficult to perform adequate double-blind placebo controlled trials. Nevertheless, careful studies have contradicted many of the claims made by the proponents of acupuncture.
One controlled study showed that electroacupuncture of the ear to treat chronic pain was no more effective than just lightly touching the ear, despite claims of effective treatment for such.
Some have argued that acupuncture analgesia can be explained by suggestion in the same manner as hypnosis. He found no discernible difference in the behaviour of patients whether operated on under acupuncture anaesthesia or hypnosis. This suggests that needles are unnecessary and would also explain the apparent success of laser stimulation of acupuncture points.
Following its evolution from blood-letting, acupuncture points numbered around 365, but the number has increased to over 2,000. Many published charts of the points and meridians do not agree with each other and this lack of specificity would explain the success of random needling. Despite thousands of years of use in China, the Emperor removed acupuncture from the curriculum of the Imperial Medical College because he viewed it as a barrier to the progress of Western medicine.
Since its introduction to the West, acupuncture has undergone many revivals, complete with extravagant claims of disease treatment. In 1822 the editor of a medical journal wrote,
“A little while ago, the town rang with acupuncture, everybody was curing incurable diseases with it; but now not a syllable is said upon the subject.”
The latest revival of acupuncture followed Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. He and his entourage were treated to dramatically staged examples of operations under acupuncture anaesthesia. Reports of these operations were grossly exaggerated and took no account of the published historical evidence of surgery being done in the West without any anaesthetic at all. Professors Geng Xichen and his colleague Tao Naihuang denounced surgical acupuncture as a myth and a hoax.
Acupuncture anaesthesia is not as commonly used for surgery in China as is often claimed. It is not applied to emergency surgery and, when used on carefully screened patients, is often used in conjunction with local anaesthesia or narcotics.
In New Zealand, approximately 14% of doctors practice acupuncture on the basis that 3,500 years of clinical observations by the Chinese are reliable evidence of its efficacy — the same could be said of astrology or the belief in a flat Earth.
Acupuncture has been introduced in such a way that unproven assumptions were made about its effectiveness. Instead of being experimentally evaluated it has become widely used for an absurd range of clinical indications.
A huge scientific literature has arisen in support of acupuncture, such as studies purported to show improvement in asthma symptoms following acupuncture treatment. However, when the studies were repeated by asthma specialists, the claimed improvement could not be duplicated. The acupuncture literature is an example of how people will always find support for what they believe in.
Parsimony refers to the philosophical process of checking whether some new effect or phenomenon can be explained by current knowledge. Acupuncture analgesia can be explained within the paradigm of contemporary conditioning theory. Other theories suggest acupuncture stimulates the production of endorphins, reducing pain. However, this sort of pain relief can be produced by many other types of hyperstimulation, without using needles or requiring meridian points or flows of “chi” vital life force.
When acupuncture is administered by someone who believes in it to someone of a like mind, it is hardly surprising that there is a huge placebo response. One trial claimed dramatic improvements in pain reduction for patients with rheumatoid arthritis when acupuncture points were stimulated by laser. The same improvements were found with the laser switched off!
It has been claimed that the successful treatment of animals with acupuncture proves that acupuncture is not a placebo therapy. The same arguments have been advanced by vets in support of homeopathic treatment. All this demonstrates is that animals, like humans, are subject to spontaneous and unexpected recovery.
Many acupuncture claims are pure fantasy. One paper claimed that a patient with 96% burns, mostly 3rd degree, made an uneventful recovery following treatment with acupuncture. Publication bias means that only positive trials tend to get reported and published. Since the better-designed acupuncture trials consistently report negative findings (i.e. fail to show any benefit from acupuncture) they tend to be under-reported.
Safety is important and acupuncture treatment can cause serious complications such as collapsed lung and various infections, as well as nerve and spinal cord damage. A survey of almost 200 acupuncturists revealed 132 cases of fainting, 26 cases of increased pain, 8 cases of pneumothorax (punctured lung) and 45 other adverse results amongst their patients. A further concern is that non-medically trained acupuncturists are likely to misdiagnose or fail to diagnose serious conditions.
There is little or no evidence to justify the current widespread use of acupuncture. It should not be funded by the health system. Acupuncture needs to be confined to an experimental setting in order to prove its efficacy and indications.
Channelling claims that spirit entities can speak by using the body of a person, the channeller. Some channelled spirits are said to be those of dead loved ones, others are more exotic folk such as Nepalese lamas, Native American shamans, Altantean priests or even Cro-magnon warriors!
Spirits of the dead
People channelling the spirits of the dead are simply a new version of the 18th-century spiritualist medium. In some cases, channellers have been discovered to have extensively researched people to be able to produce seemingly inexplicable details about them, allegedly provided by a recently departed loved one. In other cases, the channellers are practicing what stage magicians everywhere recognise as “cold reading”.
James van Praagh and John Edward both rely on rapid-fire delivery of generalised questions and statements which are typically used to “home in” on someone in a large audience. Thus throwing a line out such as “does anyone know a John?” is likely to elicit a response from someone (from most people in fact!). Using ambiguous statements such as “do you understand that?” or “does this have meaning for you?” helps provide a spurious sense of accuracy or detail. And people will invariably provide feedback, verbally or nonverbally, which is then built into the patter. There are many books available on “cold reading” which teach how to do this, and it can be very, very compelling and mystifying to those who don’t know the basic techniques involved.
Modern ancient spirits
An easier version of channelling which doesn’t rely on trying to elicit personal details, is where an allegedly ancient spirit – sometimes one from a different planet – provides pearls of wisdom to an audience seeking enlightenment.
Modern channelling made its first major appearance in 1972 with the publication of Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts and Robert Butts, which detailed the wisdom of Seth, an “unseen entity”. But the really big boost came in 1987, with the ABC mini-series based on actress Shirley MacLaine’s book Out on a Limb. This depicted her conversing with spirits through channeller Kevin Ryerson, who claimed to channel “John”, a contemporary of Jesus. Like many channelled entities, “John” was not able to speak the language of his own era, but instead sounded like a B-grade Elizabethan. And, like many channelled entities, John made outrageous, but affirming statements (he told MacLaine that she is co-creator of the world with God!).
One of the most famous channellers was J.Z. Knight, who succeeded in taking legal steps to lay claim to her 35,000-year-old Cro-magnon spirit “Ramtha”, preventing other channellers from tapping into this lucrative market. She has been able to charge patrons US$1,000 a seminar to receive such wisdom as “[we must] open our minds to new frontiers of potential”, and has sold tapes, books and accessories as part of the business. Ramtha, too, has a liking for Elizabethan-accented platitudes, despite having apparently lived in Lemuria and Atlantis. However, “he” fared badly in predicting a series of natural disasters that didn’t happen (California and Florida did not fall into the ocean, and acid rain did not poison New England’s water supply). Followers who had shifted house to be safe were not happy with him. Then Knight was served an injunction. She had been telling followers that Ramtha recommended they buy her Arabian horses, at up to US$250,000 each. Knight was discovered practicing Ramtha voices, and then Ramtha began making homophobic comments. Small wonder that Ramtha’s popularity has waned in recent years.
An example of how easy it is to fool people was the infamous 1988 Australian tour of “Carlos”, a 2,000-year-old spirit allegedly channelled by artist José Oliver. The tour was a hoax intended to demonstrate how easy it is to fool people and show how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when covering paranormal or supernatural topics. José was trained by his friend, master magician James “The Amazing” Randi, to perform as a channeller. Carlos developed a large following and, even when the hoax was revealed, many continued to believe in him.
As James Randi noted in an interview with Australia’s ABC:
“All [José] had to do was look at videotapes of other people speaking in strange voices, and he picked it up right away, and eventually we got it into the Sydney Opera House with a fair audience there, all handling crystals and beads and whatnot, and with charmed looks on their faces, attracted and enthralled by this man out on stage, José Oliver doing the Spirit of Carlos that was 35,000 years old.
“He felt like an awful fool doing it, especially since all of the material that we produced was spurious. In the press releases we invented magazines, we invented towns and cities and radio stations and TV channels and whatnot, that didn’t exist. And one phone call by the media back to the United States would have revealed the whole thing as a hoax.”
Cases like “Carlos” show how easy it can be to fool thousands of people, but are the “real” channellers perpetuating a similar kind of hoax? At face value, it’s hard to tell. There are always at least three basic hypotheses to explain any paranormal claim:
- the alleged phenomenon is genuine
- the claimant is perpetrating a deliberate deception
- the claimant is sincere but self-deceived
Skeptics concentrate on looking for evidence which will allow the first hypothesis to be rejected or accepted. Channellers have consistently failed to provide any evidence that can’t be more simply explained by mundane methods, such as cold reading. Their wise pronouncements are banal and commonplace. They have no knowledge that isn’t available to the person involved (i.e. no inexplicable language skills or answers to arcane questions). Some of their pronouncements are blatantly wrong.
Many channellers have made a good living out of their alleged abilities; some have become very wealthy indeed. For others, the attraction may be the sense of power inherent in gaining a devout following. Just whether deception is involved – intentional or self-deluding – is for you to decide, but it’s what the evidence points to…
Echinacea is one of the top selling herbal products in the USA, with sales worth more $US300 million dollars annually. A member of the daisy family, it is claimed to treat abscesses, burns, eczema, liver cancer, urinary tract infections, varicose leg ulcers, boils, and gingivitis, but mostly it is used to treat upper respiratory infections. It is:
- sold as capsules, pills, tinctures, teas, creams for topical use, and toothpaste, or in combination with other compounds
- marketed to children as fizzy tablets also containing vitamin C
- purported to support and promote the natural powers of resistance of the body, especially in infections of the nose and throat
- unproven in many clinical trials to prevent or ameliorate the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections
- unproven in its claimed immune-enhancing effects
- a known cause of asthma and anaphylaxis in allergic patients
Echinacea was used by American Indians to treat snake bite and relieve fever, and was incorporated into a 19th century wonder cure called Meyer’s Blood Purifier. With the advent of sulfa antibiotics, echinacea lost its popularity as an anti-infective agent. Most recent research has been carried out in Germany, where echinacea extracts are injected, a procedure not pursued in the US or elsewhere.
Echinacea is a member of the Asteraceae [Compositae] family, which includes sunflowers, daisies and the potent allergen, ragweed. Three species are used medicinally — E. angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea, the latter being the most commonly used in New Zealand. These ‘coneflowers’ are perennial herbs, and production involves drying the roots or juicing the stems, flowers and roots, or ethanolic extraction of various compounds. The method of manufacture, the time of harvest and the part of the plant harvested are all variables that need to be taken into account when attributing clinical efficacy to echinacea. The root is said to contain the highest levels of active components and the stem to be less desirable. Claimed potency is said to depend on how long the herb is stored before use and how finely it is powdered and processed.
Studies show that there are indeed many potentially pharmacologically active compounds in echinacea, but whether there is sufficient present in crude extracts to be effective is debatable. Echinacoside is claimed to be a natural antibiotic comparable to penicillin, but its concentration is not likely to be sufficient to have any significant effect. Polysaccharides, such as heteroxylan and arabinoglycan, are touted as having major pharmacologic effects on the immune system, though these are likely to be digestively destroyed when taken orally. Echinacea has a pungent smell and taste caused by echinacein, an isobutylamide that is responsible for a tingling sensation if fresh stems are chewed. Echinacein is said to counteract the invasion of tissues by bacteria. This may be so if injected, but orally administered preparations are not so likely to function. Clinical trials are hampered by the fact that many of these products lack appropriate quality control and cannot be standardised because the active ingredient(s) has not been defined.
In a recent study of 40 healthy male volunteers who were administered the freshly expressed juice of E. purpurea or placebo, echinacea did not enhance the immune system as measured by the phagocytic activity of white blood cells and the production of cytokines. Researchers were surprised to find that echinacea decreased the levels of serum ferritin, as that had not been predicted. They concluded that the ‘immune stimulation’ does not result from oral intake. Pharmacies and health food shops in Wellington were found to recommend echinacea most commonly as a treatment for a patient presenting with obvious symptoms of asthma following a chest infection.
Lack of efficacy in preventing upper respiratory infection was reported in a trial of 302 volunteers in Germany. They received oral ethanolic extracts of echinacea roots, or placebo, for 12 weeks. The number of volunteers who became infected and the length of time until they became ill did not differ significantly between the two groups. Even if there is a relative risk reduction attributable to taking echinacea, there are dangers in taking it for any length of time. The recommended treatment period is less than 8 weeks because of the risk of liver poisoning. In fact, people who use other hepatotoxic drugs, such as anabolic steroids, methotrexate or ketoconazole, are warned not to take echinacea.
Several other trials back up these results, including one where 117 volunteers were treated with echinacea and then challenged with a rhinovirus. Similar numbers of people caught colds whether they took echinacea or placebo and the severity of symptoms did not differ.
A 2002 Australian study of adverse drug reactions found that 51 cases including examples of anaphylaxis, acute asthma and skin rashes were attributable to echinacea ingestion. Several patients required hospitalisation. Americans with known sensitivity to ragweed are warned not to take echinacea. Patients with immune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis or AIDs are likely to suffer adverse reactions to echinacea, though there are no warnings on containers available in supermarkets, pharmacies and health food shops.
Healey B, Burgess C, Siebers R, Beasley R, Weatherall M, Holt S. Do natural health food stores require regulation? NZMJ 13 September 2002;115 (1161)
Melchart D, Walther E, Linde K, Brandmaier R, Lersch C. Echinacea root extracts for upper respiratory infections. Arch Fam Med 1998;7(6):541-5
Mullins RJ, Heddle R. Adverse reactions associated with Echinacea: the Australian experience. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2002;88(1):42-51
Schwartz E, Metzler J, Diedrich JP, Freudenstein J, Bode C, Bode JC. Oral stimulation of freshly expressed juice of Echinacea purpurea herbs fail to stimulate the non-specific immune response in healthy young men: results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study.
J Immunother 2002;25(5):413-20 Turner RB, Riker DK, Gangemi JD. Ineffectiveness of Echinacea for prevention of experimental rhinovirus colds. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 2002;44(6):1708-9