Apr 09 2019

Quantum Acupuncture

In 2017 Chinese scientists published a paper in the journal Chinese Acupuncture & Moxibustion titled, “Discussion on quantum entanglement theory and acupuncture.” There are several layers to the erosion of science that this paper represents. Fortunately the paper was recently retracted, for reasons the editors do not make clear. I suspect they were just embarrassed.

The first layer I would like to peal away is the use of quantum mechanics to essentially explain magic. The authors write (originally in Chinese – this is the bad translation):

After learning the quantum entanglement, the authors have found that many characteristics of quantum are reflected in TCM, acupuncture theory and clinical practice. For example, the quantum entanglement phenomenon is mutually verified with the holism, yinyang doctrine, the theory of primary, secondary, root and knot in TCM, etc. It can be applied to interpret the clinical situations which is difficult to be explained in clinical practice, such as the instant effect of acupuncture, multi-point stimulation in one disorder and the points with specific effects.

Let me parse that a bit for you. What they are essentially admitting is that there are several aspects to acupuncture that cannot be explained with actual science, by appealing to evidence, logic, or what has been established about how the human body actually works. One of those aspects is the “instant effect” that acupuncture often seems to have on patient.

In real life, it takes time for the body to respond to any intervention. There are some drugs that, when given intravenously, can have a very rapid effect. Otherwise it takes time for substances to get absorbed, be distributed to their targets, for cells to respond, to make proteins, to begin healing, etc. Depending on the effect and the mechanism of the intervention, an almost instant response to treatment may be physiologically impossible.

Therefore – when we do observe an impossibly rapid effect from an intervention, the conventional wisdom is that the effect is psychological. It’s a placebo effect. I remember one patient who had a dramatic improvement in her symptoms (which we suspected were psychological) even before the medication had worked its way through the IV tube and into her arm. The “instant effect” is a well-established red flag for a placebo response.

But now Dr. Wang et al have apparently figured out that with acupuncture, the instant effect does not mean it’s all a theatrical placebo, because quantum.

They also appeal vaguely to their misunderstanding of quantum mechanics to explain the other massive logical hole in acupuncture theory – why do acupuncture points exist at all, what determines their specificity, and why does there appear to be so much variation? It’s almost as if the entire concept is not real and was just made up, based on cultural superstition. Just wave the magic wand of quantum mechanics, and all these apparent problems vanish.

The core claim of the paper comes when they extend this logic to the clinical observation that children may benefit from sticking needles in their parent. I suspect this does work just as well as regular acupuncture, meaning not at all. Again, this is an observation that screams “placebo.” It is a transparently magical claim. But don’t worry – quantum mechanisms is here for the rescue.

You see, you don’t need to treat children at all, or bother them by sticking them with needles. Just stick the needles in the parents, and the quantum entanglement that exists between parent and child will do the rest.

This reminds me of phantom acupuncture. This is actually a thing in research – where researchers stick needles into a rubber arm or otherwise create the visual and psychological context of doing acupuncture, without actually sticking needles into the patient. Guess what – same response as “real” acupuncture, even in fMRI scans. This is consistent with the interpretation that acupuncture is mostly, if not all, a theatrical placebo without any actual physiological effect. Well – perhaps the rubber arm is quantum entangled with the patient’s arm…or something.

Of course, quantum mechanics does not explain ESP or acupuncture or any other apparently magical effects like this. There is something called decoherence – entanglement goes away the more particles interact with other particles and the environment. By the time you get to macroscopic objects, entanglement is non-existent. Entanglement is fragile. The idea that quantum entanglement can exist for entire people, over years, is nothing short of absurd. There is also not reason to suspect that a child in entangled with its mother in the first place. Quantum entanglement doesn’t work that way.

The journal editors should have been embarrassed to publish this utter dreck. But this is just a symptom of a far deeper problem. The entire world of not just acupuncture but so-called alternative medicine is pseudoscience, in its purest form. Pseudoscience has the appearance of real science, but lacks its true methods. Publishing an observational study in a peer-reviewed journal while referring to scientific terms like quantum mechanics is a clear attempt to cover acupuncture with the patina of real science.

What’s missing, however, are the things that make science work in the first place. These include a host of generic intellectual virtues, plus some specific scientific methodology. For example, you have to define terms specifically, not just use them in a vague sense. You need to honestly consider all alternative explanations, and let Occam’s Razor be your guide.

The problem gets worse with experimental studies looking at blatantly magical theories. This becomes an exercise in what we call methodolotry – superficially using scientific-looking methods, but the outcome is assured. Science is a way to determine IF something is real, not a way of proving that it is real. But that latter is what pseudoscientists do. Researchers can easily p-hack their was to something that looks statistically significant, and then backfill scientific justification for their beliefs. You can even do this to justify a purely cultural superstitious belief, which is exactly what was done here.

What’s amazing is that Chinese TCM practitioners have exported their cultural pseudoscience. It has been accepted largely gullibly in the West because it seems foreign and exotic. When problems are pointed out, too many people who should know better simply assume the problem is their lack of understanding of the foreign concept (and are often encouraged to think this). Therefore they defer to the “experts” who unfortunately are the very pseudoscientists who are promoting it in the first place.

Sometimes the pseudoscience gets so brazen, like claiming you can treat children by sticking needles in their parents, that the promoters step over some invisible line. The claims are ridiculous enough to give the mainstream shruggies pause, and then the promoters have to walk back those claims. Too far too fast – that will have to wait for the next generation. But slowly we see the degradation of science, the warping of its methods to prove what some want to be true, rather than rigidly and honestly asking if something is true. The entire scientific enterprise can be compromised in this way.

Institutions erode in this fashion, whether it is science or democracy or capitalism. They are only as good as the people who comprise them, the culture of honesty and transparency, and the preservation of dedication to the foundational principles. We should not sell scientific principles so easily to accommodate a cultural fad like acupuncture.

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