As most scientists learn the hard way, not all research studies are equal. It is not always easy, however, for members of the public to discern between a well-crafted study and a flawed one, especially when reading the sensationalized Cliff Notes appearing on the news.
Dr. Steven Novella, neurologist and host of the fantastic weekly podcast The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, takes a recent study to court (and its associated New York Times headline which states that “Acupuncture, Real or Not, Eases Side Effects of Cancer Drugs”) and shows how logical fallacies can be harnessed to sell a lie.
In the small trial, both the acupuncture arm and the placebo arm were associated with improvement. Dr. Novella writes,
“While accurate, it is misleading, which gets back to the core fallacy of recent acupuncture promotion. When the treatment and control groups, in a blinded comparison, show no difference, the only conclusion to draw from that is that the treatment had no measurable effect in that study (in plain terms, the treatment did not work).”
Another common fallacy used by proponents of traditional interventions such as acupuncture is the “argument from antiquity”. Here, Dr. Novella both unveils the fallacy and shows that acupuncture itself is not even as old as we often think it is:
“This is propaganda, not science. Acupuncture, as it is practiced today, is a fairly recent invention of the early 20th century. What was practiced for thousands of years bears more of a resemblance to bloodletting than modern acupuncture. In any case, this is nothing but the argument from antiquity logical fallacy. Culture and mechanisms of deception can propagate ineffective treatments for thousands of years.”
The article is written with the scientist in mind, but I would encourage anyone interested in acupuncture and curious about how to properly evaluate scientific data to have a look at it and bookmark Dr. Novella’s blog.
The whole article can be accessed here.