Without evidence of benefit, an intervention should not be presumed to be beneficial or safe.

- Rogue Medic

Is Alternative Medicine Really ‘Medicine’? – Part I


A few weeks ago Science Friday interviewed Dr. Paul Offit about his new book, Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. Unfortunately there is the false balance of including a proponent of invalid medicine alternative medicine as if there is some validity to using treatments that do not work.

All proceeds from the sale of Do You Believe in Magic? will be donated to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.[1]



Dr. Offit mentions that the basis of acupuncture is the division of the body into 365 parts, because there are 365 days of the year. He did not mention whether leap years result in leap parts – parts that only exist in one out of every four years or perhaps only one quarter of a part. If we are going to be logically consistent, we need to update our approach when the basis of that approach is required to be updated.

There are also 12 meridians (places to put acupuncture needles) because there are twelve great rivers in China. Does that mean that practicing acupuncture in other countries would involve different numbers of meridians due to the different numbers of major rivers in other countries?

If you believe that human anatomy has nothing to do with rivers in China, or days of the year, they were making it up.[2]


Do you believe that human anatomy has anything to do with days of the year? Would someone lose body parts if living above the Arctic Circle, when the Sun does not set/rise for extended weeks? If not, why not?

Do you believe that human anatomy has anything to do with the major rivers in China?

Does the Three Gorges Dam[3] mean that human anatomy is now dammed up in that meridian?

What were the borders of China at the time? Did changes in the political boundaries of China result in anatomic changes?

Is acupuncture based on ancient wisdom?

Is ancient wisdom just another term for superstition?

Research that compares sham acupuncture with normal acupuncture and with expert acupuncture make it clear that the sham acupuncture is just as good as the expert acupuncture.[4],[5],[6]

Sham acupuncture is placebo acupuncture.

Why doesn’t normal acupuncture work better than sham acupuncture?

Why doesn’t expert acupuncture work better than normal acupuncture?

Why doesn’t expert acupuncture work better than sham acupuncture?

Anything that does not work better than a placebo is a placebo.

Since the sham acupuncture works just as well as the expert acupuncture, that tells us that even the expert acupuncture is just an elaborate placebo.

Acupuncture is just a placebo.

What about other alternative medicine?

Is Alternative Medicine Really ‘Medicine’? – Part II – 7//2013

Is Alternative Medicine Really ‘Medicine’? – Part III – 7//2013


[1] Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine
Paul A. Offit, MD
Web page with links to site to purchase the book.

[2] Is Alternative Medicine Really ‘Medicine’?
July. 05, 2013
Science Friday

[3] Three Gorges Dam

[4] A randomized trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture, and usual care for chronic low back pain.
Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Avins AL, Erro JH, Ichikawa L, Barlow WE, Delaney K, Hawkes R, Hamilton L, Pressman A, Khalsa PS, Deyo RA.
Arch Intern Med. 2009 May 11;169(9):858-66. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.65.
PMID: 19433697

Free Full Text from PubMed Central

In conclusion, acupuncture-like treatments significantly improved function in persons with chronic low back pain. However, the finding that benefits of real acupuncture needling were no greater than those of non-insertive stimulation raises questions about acupuncture’s purported mechanism of action.


[5] Acupuncture for treatment of persistent arm pain due to repetitive use: a randomized controlled clinical trial.
Goldman RH, Stason WB, Park SK, Kim R, Schnyer RN, Davis RB, Legedza AT, Kaptchuk TJ.
Clin J Pain. 2008 Mar-Apr;24(3):211-8.
PMID: 18287826 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

The sham group improved significantly more than the true acupuncture group during the treatment period, but this advantage was not sustained 1 month after treatment ended. The difference in pain between sham and true acupuncture groups at the end of treatment (0.75 points on 10-point scale), although statistically significant, probably does not represent a clinically discernible difference.


Added 01-10-2019 – In going through some old sources, I have been making a few corrections and occasionally adding updated information, such as this more recent study showing that acupuncture is just a placebo –

[6] Acupuncture for Menopausal Hot Flashes: A Randomized Trial.
Ee C, Xue C, Chondros P, Myers SP, French SD, Teede H, Pirotta M.
Ann Intern Med. 2016 Feb 2;164(3):146-54. doi: 10.7326/M15-1380. Epub 2016 Jan 19.
PMID: 26784863

Free Full Text in PDF format from carolinashealthcare.org

CONCLUSION: Chinese medicine acupuncture was not superior to noninsertive sham acupuncture for women with moderately severe menopausal HFs. (Hot Flashes)




  1. The following contains swearing so might not be safe for work. Dara O’Briain shares his views on Alt. “Medicine”.


  2. I would love to hear some more opinion. How does placebo work differently when I don’t hold a belief in my head? I had asthma when I was younger and found out that albuterol made my attacks worse instead of better. I had spent years believing that albuterol was supposed to help me breathe, and yet it never did. But I can take a homeopathic remedy 3 times over 15 minutes, breathe easy while forgetting I even took the medicine until my mom asked. Also my mom has given homeopathic medicine to multiple animals growing up on a farm. Did my mom somehow will a goat to stop hemmoraging or believe a cat out of bruised ribs, and how? Unless she has some telekenetic power of living things and that sounds far more farfetched.

    • Rachel Hoffman,

      This is an example of why we do not use treatments that are based on anecdotes.

      You can make all sorts of claims about what you think a placebo (homeopathy) did, but unless the same thing can be produced under controlled circumstances, you are giving credit to the wrong thing.

      If homeopathy worked, it would work repeatedly.

      If homeopathy worked, it would work under research conditions.

      When we study homeopathy, homeopathy fails repeatedly.


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