Ethics in Medicine

Research Casting Doubt on Acupuncture

Kristen Sparrow • July 30, 2016

Through some web searching, I was able to find a copy of this paper that’s not behind a subscription firewall.

These kinds of papers have been coming out for decades.  It’s a safe bet as a journalist to criticize acupuncture, it’s a kiss up kick down, comforting the comfortable gambit. There are no heavy hitters who are going to blast you for your stance.  This piece has the hallmarks of  fluff journalism citing $73 million given for acupuncture research but no context or comparison with amounts given to other fields of study.  How much has been thrown at other techniques or lines of health inquiry?  We don’t know, except this sounds like really a lot and out of proportion.


Research is an iffy proposition.  By nature you end up with a lot of blind alleys,  and the fact that the acupuncture research community has made as much headway as it has given the paltry funding and persistent barrage of skepticism even from their own ranks, speaks to the quality and dedication of the scientists.

In this piece, she focuses on one small area of acupuncture research, the role of adenosine in pain relief.    From this she draws broad conclusions, as quoted at the end of the piece (see below.) She ends the adenosine discussion by saying that drug companies are now looking into finding ways to use it for a pharmaceutical solution.  This implies that the real solution, of course, will come in the form of a pill because that’s the REAL thing, none of this self healing nonsense.  Go out and pay for a pill like all  rational people do, because what could possibly go wrong?

Instead of applauding the plucky acupuncture researchers for finding this interesting insight, she tells them to run along and let the big pharma people get back to taking care of sick people.  I quote her here,

“It may well be that the reams of research scientists have done on acupuncture have lit the path toward improved understanding of—and eventually better treatments for—intractable pain. But it may also be time to take whatever bread crumbs have been laid out by that work and move on.”

She exposes her truly appalling lack of understanding how science works.  Breadcrumbs are usually all we are seeking.  Small bits of understanding that we follow and follow and follow to try to see the bigger picture, gain insights, and lead to the next question.  Sometimes there is a quantum leap of understanding, but more often it is this tedious, and often discouraging work of encountering dead end after dead end that will lead to something new and remarkable.